The week in film: ‘Third Person,’ ‘Jersey Boys’ and more

June 18, 2014

3rd person

Paul Haggis’ “Third Person” may be the year’s most misunderstood film. It’s also one of the most intriguing.

A jigsaw puzzle of characters and plots, it might remind some at first of “Crash,” Haggis’ Oscar-winning multiple-character drama. But “Third Person” has a different agenda.

Initially, we see three different storylines: Liam Neeson is a writer in a Paris hotel, struggling with a new novel while receiving a visit from his lover (Olivia Wilde). Adrien Brody is a corporate spy in the fashion industry, in Rome to get new designs to send back to be knocked off. Mila Kunis is a struggling young woman in New York, undisciplined and careless, now fighting to get custody of her young son from her controlling ex-husband (James Franco), working with a lawyer (Maria Bello) who seems to have problems of her own.

Gradually, Haggis reveals layers of each story, dealing with issues of trust, selfishness, creativity and life’s random reminders that we sometimes have no control over our fate or that of those we love. Slowly, however, the viewer will begin to wonder: How much of this is actually happening in this movie – as opposed to being spawned from the mind of the novelist? Are these people part of his life – or part of the interior world he is creating in his novel?

When I saw this film at the Toronto Film Festival last fall, I wrote, “Not all of these threads weave together neatly; nor do many of them build to happy conclusions. But they are never less than compelling and Haggis is a skilled enough storyteller to string you along until his final reveal – which itself may be another layer to be pulled back and examined. It’s a complex film for people who enjoy being compelled to pay close attention to what they’re seeing.”

“Third Person” is an ambitious, sometimes perplexing, but never less than involving film. It has the same mysterious quality of the European films of the 1960s that had the greatest impact on American films in the 1970s. It’s a leap that you should definitely take.

jerseyboys

I took enjoyment from Clint Eastwood’s “Jersey Boys” and think that a certain segment of the audience will, too. Having never seen the stage version of the jukebox musical on which it was based (in its 10th year on Broadway), I still felt that I was getting a representative feel for that show, as filtered through Eastwood’s flinty consciousness. But that doesn’t make it a good movie.

The film is the story of the Four Seasons, an incredibly popular pop group of the 1960s (I hesitate to refer to them as rock’n’roll) whose harmonies, choreography and energetically teen-angst-ridden singles all rode the keening falsetto of lead singer Frankie Valli. Fifty years later, it’s hard to believe that this group was as huge as the Beach Boys, one of the most popular groups around until the Beatles came on the scene (they continued to have hits into the late 1960s).

The script – by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, based on their Broadway libretto – is a standard “Behind the Music” tale of a group of youngsters whose involvement with organized crime both helped launch them and bring them down (thanks to one member’s shifty financial dealings). What Brickman and Elice add is the shifting perspective of the group’s members, who occasionally step out of the scene to address the audience directly. It’s a technique that feels fresh at first and then begins to wear.

The four actors who play the core members of the band don’t look a lot like them, but they have the musical tools to recreate the group’s sound. The focus starts on the group – over-active teens with fame and girls on their mind – but eventually shifts to Valli and his personal struggles. Personally, I found the characters of songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), flamboyant producer Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle) and the semi-sleazy Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) more interesting than Valli, but even they seem watered down.

As much fun as it is (and as revelatory – or quaint – as it may be to young audiences) to see the recreations of the Four Seasons’ stage show, “Jersey Boys” begins to drag about the same time as the band’s career starts to fade. At 134 minutes, it’s too long. It’s competent but unremarkable, an entertainment that evaporates from the mind the minute the credits roll.

venusfur

Briefer looks at three films by foreign masters:

“Venus in Fur”: It’s a little mind-boggling to realize that it’s been 50 years since Roman Polanski burst on to the scene with “Knife in the Water.” In the last dozen years alone, he’s won an Oscar (for “The Pianist”) and made such tautly compelling films as “The Ghost Writer” and “Carnage.” Like “Carnage,” “Venus in Fur” is based on a recent Broadway hit. But where Polanski, now 80, recreated the Brooklyn apartment for the single-set “Carnage,” he transfers the two-handed “Venus” from a New York rehearsal hall to an empty Paris theater, maintaining its theatrical milieu while expanding on writer David Ives’ play. The cat-mouse plot – about a playwright auditioning an actress who seems surprisingly perfect for a role involving masochism and domination – is intact, given a fresh jolt through Polanski’s fluid camera (Pawel Edelman is the cinematographer). Most surprisingly, the female role, Vanda, still works, despite Polanski casting his wife, Emmanuelle Seigner. I’ve always regarded Seigner as a minimally talented actress whose career was the product of nepotism. But she surprised me here, more than holding her own – and then some – opposite the subtly expressive Mathieu Amalric. She gives him a psychological drubbing that is as surprising, in its own way, as the one administered by the marvelous Nina Arianda when she played the role on Broadway. It’s tricky, tasty and tense.

sentence

“The Last Sentence”: I’ve been a fan of director Jan Troell since I saw his quietly powerful “The Emigrants” (1971) and its sequel, “The New Land” (1972). The release of his films in the U.S. has been spotty over the years, but every time I find one, it’s a winner, including 2005’s “Everlasting Moments.” “The Last Sentence” is the 82-year-old director’s most recent, a black-and-white meditation on the strength, courage and selfishness of one of Sweden’s great journalists, Torgny Segerstedt (Jesper Christensen). Starting in the early 1930s and following Segerstedt (and Swedish history) to the end of World War II (in which Sweden remained neutral), it’s an examination of a man who fearlessly denounced Hitler and fascism from the earliest days of the Third Reich – despite the threat that his outspoken editorials presented for his country. As played by Christensen, Segerstedt is prickly and imperious, flaunting his affair with his partner’s wife both to his own wife and to his partner (both of whom seemingly accept that as the cost for being part of the great man’s life). Some will no doubt find this film tedious, episodic and even pretentious, but I was riveted, thanks to Christensen’s fearlessly etched performance and Troell’s spare story-telling style.

summer

“A Summer’s Tale”: This 1996 Erich Rohmer film, part of his “Tales of Four Seasons” cycle, has never had an American theatrical release. (Rohmer died in 2010.) There are those who would rather watch paint dry than sit through one of Rohmer’s articulate, thoughtful films, which sometimes feel like discursive novels played live on the screen. But give it a try. This one centers on Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud), on a holiday in seaside French town of Bretagne after college graduation before starting a job. Ostensibly, he’s waiting for Lena (Aurelia Nolin), a girl he’s been chasing (unsuccessfully), who said she’d be in the same town. But she isn’t – at least initially. As he spends his days moping at the beach and in his room writing songs, he meets a waitress (Amanda Langlet), who has a boyfriend but is happy to hang with him and be his sounding board. She tells him to have a fling and introduces him to a willing friend (Gwenaelle Simon), who is demanding in her own way. Eventually, he finds himself entangled with all three in ways he can’t quite make work to his benefit. Not a lot happens, yet Rohmer’s film is an emotionally rich tale with lots of tasty talk about the way men and women deal with each other, knowingly or otherwise.

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