Watch It: Jane Campion’s “Top of the Lake” is a Haunting, Emotional, and Breathtaking Experience

TOP OF THE LAKE

Jane Campion’s “Top of the Lake” left me staggered. I finally finished watching it on Netflix, and as the end credits rolled, I sat, quiet and still.

The series has the scope, breadth, and detail of a great novel, and it demonstrated to me — with clarity — how much stronger and more vital it is than something like, say. “Gone Girl,” the Gillian Flynn novel I just finished. “Gone Girl” is deliriously fun and twisty, but it’s all posturing. “Top of the Lake” feels emotionally vivid, truly haunting, and, more than anything else, alive with emotion.

Jane Campion has never made a dull film, although for me, they have varied in quality (loved “The Piano,” didn’t love “Portrait of a Lady” or the admittedly fascinating “In the Cut”). Her most recent effort, “Bright Star,” was wildly underrated, and except for producing the oddity that was “Sleeping Beauty,” she fell off my radar during the past few years.

In fact, I’m not sure I knew about the breathtaking “Top of the Lake” until I read Amy Taubin’s passionate post-Sundance (it premiered there) piece in Film Comment.

Taubin:

“‘Twin Peaks’ crossed with ‘The Killing’ —and that isn’t the half of it: the seven-episode television series ‘Top of the Lake’ is the toughest, wildest picture Jane Campion has ever made. Campion’s previous foray into television, ‘An Angel at My Table,’ a four-part biopic about the writer Janet Frame, was focused on a single character, and though dramatically and psychologically compelling, it lacked the expressive visual style of Campion’s features. With the emotional intensity of its performances and the urgency of its drama scaled to match its vast, primal setting and six-hour length, ‘Top of the Lake’ is something else again: series television as epic poem, the Trojan Wars recast as the gender war. Three women, each on her own journey, connect and bring the patriarchy to its knees. But that’s too bald a description.”

It is a detective series, to be sure, but its themes are far beyond the typical whodunit series. For one thing, there are the performances. “Mad Men”’s Elisabeth Moss is so good, so strong, so vulnerable and tough, that I barely connected her with Peggy Olsen. It is a performance on the scale of Jodie Foster in “Silence of the Lambs,” and possibly more nuanced.

Holly Hunter is reliably offbeat, David Wenham nicely restrained, and Peter Mullan … Well, Peter Mullan is extraordinary. His Matt is equal parts Noah Cross and Charles Manson, a shaggy, hyper-sexualized outlaw as memorable as any character in the last decade.

Taubin called Mullan’s performance “malign and absurdly attractive,” and she has a point. He is disturbing, mysterious, at times semi-likable, but always mesmerizing. It is one of the finest performances in recent memory, period, and perhaps the most all-encompassing role of the actor’s career.

Taubin also points to the story’s strangeness, and part of that is New Zealand setting. From the first few moments, in which 12-year-old Tui walks into icy water, to the dusty property known as Paradise, it feels as if we are in alien territory. Moss’s Robin Griffin grew up there, but never seems quite at home, and like her, we are quasi-outsiders. The geography only adds to the mystery.

At heart, “Top of the Lake” is a detective story, and its conclusion feels appropriate. It is difficult to end such an epic story in tidy fashion, but Campion (who co-directs with Garth Davis) pulls it off. My only disappointment, in fact, is that I want to see what Robin Griffin is up to next.

The series aired on the Sundance Channel and is streaming on Netflix. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Photo from Film Comment article

Weekend Preview: Squeaky Wheel’s Fab Outdoor Animation Fest Turns 10

squeaky poster

Yes, one of the summer’s last blockbusters opens this weekend, as well as one of the year’s most acclaimed films, but I want to start with a Buffalo treasure: Squeaky Wheel.

This Saturday, July 27, is Squeaky Wheel’s 10th annual Outdoor Animation Festival in Days Park, and it is a perennial summer treat. The free event is a perfect opportunity to watch some great films under the stars; attendees can bring lawn chairs or blankets, and should arrive around 8:30 p.m. to grab a good seat, and have some fun with the Stop Motion Animation Station.

Among others, the festival will showcase two recent animations by local youth artist, Maria Ziaja; you can watch one of her videos here.

And afterwards, an after-party will be held at Allen Street Hardware featuring “exclusive screening that features animations too lewd, too wild and too crazy for the main screen!”

As I put it in a “Hot 5” entry for Buffalo Spree last year, “it is an outdoor event that is visually thrilling and thematically varied … and once again it highlights the work of internationally renowned experimental and underground filmmakers.” Of course, I explained, the animation fest is the tip of the Squeaky iceberg: There are workshops, kids camps, regular screenings, the acclaimed Buffalo Youth Media Institute, and much more. I had the honor of serving as Squeaky board member for several years, and I can say with confidence that every SW event is a blast — especially this one.

Note also that Squeaky will hold an encore presentation of the fest at Canalside on August 21.

After these cool films, this week’s major blockbuster offering, “The Wolverine,” seems a bit ho-hum … But perhaps I’m still wounded from the horrible “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” Reviews have been mixed for this one, but I think X-Men fans are hopeful. Hugh Jackman is hard not to like, and his Wolverine is one of the most indelible onscreen comic book characters of recent years. Plus, setting the film in Japan seems very wise.

But who knows? It is difficult to predict how much the film will snag this weekend, but the buzz seems stronger for this one than, say, “Pacific Rim.” (I haven’t seen “PR” yet, but I’d bet money that it’s a more ambitious, interesting film than “Wolverine.” But buzz is buzz.) Let’s say $60 mill, which I’d call a great success.

Quite frankly, I’m more excited for the weekend’s other two main releases: “Fruitvale Station” and “The To-Do List.”

“Fruitvale Station” was one of the hits of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and lead Michael B. Jordan is being pegged as a breakout star. It’s a film that has drawn praise — and tears — from many, many major critics, and it is expected to be part of the Oscar conversation. I can’t wait to see it, and interestingly, it is opening wide in Buffalo, at the Dipson Amherst Theater, and also at every local Regal (Elmwood, Transit, Walden, Quaker Crossing, and Niagara Falls).

The trailer for “The To-Do List” looks devilishly hilarious, and with the great AubreyPlaza in the lead (“Safety Not Guaranteed,” “Parks and Recreation”), this could be a solid word-of-mouth earner.

“The Godfather” is still showing at The Screening Room — 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday — while Tuesday (July 30) sees 1948’s “Pitfall” and Thursday (August 1) sees the WNY premiere of the acclaimed Sundance 2013 selection “This is Martin Bonner.”

This week’s Bacchus  pick is a slightly odd: the Bradley Cooper-starrer “Limitless.” Meanwhile, the UB North Campus features two wildly different films: “X-Men: First Class” on Friday (July 26), and, thrillingly, “The Place Beyond the Pines” on Tuesday (July 30). The latter is one of my favorite films of 2013. (Big Bradley Cooper week in the Buffalo outdoor film world.) UB South Campus is also showing “Pines,” on Wednesday (July 31). The film is coming to DVD and Blu-ray on August 6, but these are cool opportunities to see it on the big screen.

Coming soon: Woody Allen’s fantastic “Blue Jasmine” should be opening here soon, while August 2 sees two films with the number “2” in the title — the similarities end there: “2 Guns” and “The Smurfs 2.”

Ugh. But do not despair, as the summer still has some offerings that COULD prove wonderful: “Elysium,” “The World’s End,” “The Spectacular Now,” “The Grandmaster,” and “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.”

Poster art courtesy of Squeaky Wheel

“Mad Men” and “Game of Thrones” are Over, So Start Streaming Jane Campion’s “Top of the Lake”

top of the lake

We are in the midst of a television renaissance — just about everyone agrees, including Bernardo Bertolucci. Yet I must admit, I’m not watching very much of it. Believe me, I am dying to watch “Homeland,” “Breaking Bad,” “Sons of Anarchy,” etc., but I am not overflowing with time for all of these, and when I do have time, I try to catch up with some movies.

However, I did watch the recently concluded seasons of “Game of Thrones” and “Mad Men,” and was riveted by both. “Games” remains the most consistently surprising and involving drama on TV, while “Mad Men” did something pretty extraordinary over the last few months. I maintain that the first batch of episodes of the season were among the worst in the show’s history. The last batch? Undoubtedly among the best. I agree with a coworker, who wished the long episode had been the last of the season, instead of the first.

So my two shows are done. What to watch next, TV-wise? Some of the finest options can be screen on Netflix. Here are a few:

“Top of the Lake”: Jane Campion’s miniseries starring “Mad Men”’s Elizabeth Moss was screened at Sundance and aired on the Sundance Channel, but now it is streaming in full on Netflix. It is hard to argue against classifying Campion as hit (“The Piano,” the underrated “Bright Star”) or miss (“The Portrait of a Lady,” “In the Cut”) but even those misses are fascinating. “Top” was acclaimed by most as one of the hits. Film Comment’s Amy Taubin called this story of a pregnant 12-year-old-girl and a detective’s search for the truth “’Twin Peaks’ crossed with ‘The Killing.’”

The seven-episode series Top of the Lake, Taubin says:

“[I]s the toughest, wildest picture Jane Campion has ever made. Campion’s previous foray into television, ‘An Angel at My Table,’ a four-part biopic about the writer Janet Frame, was focused on a single character, and though dramatically and psychologically compelling, it lacked the expressive visual style of Campion’s features. With the emotional intensity of its performances and the urgency of its drama scaled to match its vast, primal setting and six-hour length, ‘Top of the Lake’ is something else again: series television as epic poem, the Trojan Wars recast as the gender war. Three women, each on her own journey, connect and bring the patriarchy to its knees. But that’s too bald a description.”

This sounds like Campion’s most important work in years, and a must-watch.

“Luther”: I can’t say for sure whether this BBC cop drama is more than just another cop show, but I can say its star is Idris Elba, and he is one of the finest we’ve got. Elba is on the verge of a major breakthrough — he appears in the soon-to-be-released “Pacific Rim” and portrays Nelson Mandela in a biopic out later this year — but many know him best from this series. The third season airs this summer.

“The Fall”: Gillian Anderson’s post-“X-Files” career has been quite interesting, especially her turns in Terrence Davies’s “The House of Mirth” and an adaptation of Dickens’s “Bleak House.” In “The Fall,” she plays a detective investigating a series of murders in Ireland, and Anderson plus detective plus murders equals I’ll watch.

“Hemlock Grove”: Eli Roth’s Netflix series received little of the critical love that greeted David Fincher’s “House of Cards,” but that’s alright. The horror series looks like a messy blast, and I like that the second Netflix original series went in such a different direction.

“House of Cards” (BBC): Speaking of “Cards,” the original BBC series is also streaming on Netflix, with Ian Richardson as the lead. It would be fun to compare his performance with Kevin Spacey’s often over-the-top but effective work.

“Arrested Development”: You know about this one. In fact, you’ve probably watched it — perhaps twice. I am working through it slowly, since any show that can show David Cross’s Tobias playing a fetus deserves to be savored.

 

Image from “Top of the Lake” from Indiewire