Fresh Off The Boat

 The Immigrant towers over inane summer schlock

by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

movie-immigrantThe Immigrant
Opens Friday 1
Studio 7
3.5 out of 5

In at least one way, director James Gray (We Own the Night, Little Odessa) is today’s Jerry Lewis: unappreciated at home, beloved in France. In a more important way he’s nothing like the classic goofball comedian — Gray’s movies are uniformly melancholic affairs, veritable treatises on the futility of fighting destiny.

The French like Gray so much they financed his newest effort: a difficult, unapologetic period drama about the fallacy of the American Dream. Of course it bombed in the U.S. That’s not a market that likes critical self-examination.

The Immigrant takes place in the early 1920s, a time in which thousands of impoverished Europeans reeling from the First World War fled to America hoping for a new beginning (or at least a paying job). Among these refugees is Ewa (Marion Cotillard), a Polish beauty travelling with her sick sister. Because of a mysterious incident on the ship she was on, the newcomer is marked for deportation. All seems lost until Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), a supposedly charitable soul, takes pity on Ewa at her most vulnerable and gets her out of Ellis Island using his connections.

The Good Samaritan is, in fact, a pimp and a master manipulator. With the assuredness of a man who has driven dozens of girls down the same route, the hustler manoeuvres Ewa into vaudeville acts and, later, prostitution. Oddly, Bruno develops romantic feelings for the girl but reciprocity is out of the question given the predatory origin of their relationship. The appearance of another suitor (Jeremy Renner) becomes the catalyst for this love and resentment to take violent shape.

Its nuanced depiction of human complexities elevates The Immigrant from standard melodrama to bruising experience. While initially a victim, eventually Ewa copes with her situation matter-of-factly and gains a degree of control (while making the once-sympathetic audience a bit uneasy). A fantastic sequence sees Bruno overhearing Ewa at confession and confronting her perception of him. While by all accounts the villain of the piece, his devastation is palpable.

Performances are superb across the board. While not the most likeable guy, Phoenix has been batting 1.000 for a while now (The Master, Her) and has another Paul Thomas Anderson movie — an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 crime thriller Inherent Vice —  in the pipeline. Cotillard’s track record is a bit more spotty (wasted in The Dark Knight Rises and Contagion) but she’s at her best here. Renner is too much of a contemporary figure to blend seamlessly into the setting, but his work is miles ahead of his performance in stinkers like Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.

In spite of a paltry (for Hollywood standards) budget of $16 million, James Gray oversees a flawless reconstruction of New York during the Roaring Twenties. The Immigrant is a bit colder than it should be. Yet the stunning simplicity and beauty of the final shot is cinema at its purest.


 

movie-supermenschSupermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon
Opens Friday 25, Studio 7
3 out of 5

Following the terrible Love Guru and yet another underwhelming chapter of the Shrek saga, Mike Myers was adrift (and reportedly depressed) until he found shelter at the estate of Shep Gordon. Music producer, impromptu publicist and representative extraordinaire, Gordon introduced the world to Alice Cooper, Anne Murray and Teddy Pendergrass, and created the concept of the celebrity chef.

He also became the go-to guy for stars in distress, like the man better known as Austin Powers.

Myers was sufficiently impressed with Gordon to turn his story into a documentary. Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon is a bit too obsequious towards its subject, but there’s no denying Shep has some remarkable war stories. The entire building of the Alice Cooper persona — headless chickens included — is fascinating (“If the parents hate you, the children will love you”), as is his approach to party planning (make sure there’s one empty chair per table so the main guest mingles with everyone).

In his first directorial effort, Myers flirts with the subtext of Gordon’s story — a gregarious, much-loved guy who fails time and time again to raise a family and is fundamentally alone — but he mostly shies away from the issue, instead filling the screen with anecdotes. Myers doesn’t really have the grit of a true documentarian, and his visual sense (or lack thereof) leaves a lot to be desired.

Still, it’s a fascinating story about a guy to whom a whole bunch of superstars owe a whole helluva lot.

2014-07-24