REVIEW: Gloria

14 09 2014

GloriaIn a recent article published through Variety, David S. Cohen recounts a story told to him by a film editor.  He was frustrated with the dailies, lamenting that the leading actress wasn’t giving him much of a performance.  In the end, however, she won the Oscar for the part.

Speculate away on who that might be, but the anecdote highlights a truth that many movie lovers often ignore.  In film, we tend to give all the credit to the actors in crafting their role as if they were on the stage.  Yet in this medium, an editor is every bit as crucial in getting their character across to an audience.

If you have any doubts about this, I recommend you check out “Gloria” and see how film editors can create the most memorable moments of a movie by the shot of an actor they choose, where they position it in the story, and how long they choose to hold it.  The inserts of leading lady Paulina García are more interesting than any acting she ever does or any storytelling that writer/director Sebastián Lelio ever attempts.

I’ll give Lelio credit for trying to explore a subject that isn’t particularly commercial, that of a 58-year-old woman’s love life.  (As Tina Fey quipped at the Golden Globes, “Meryl Streep, so brilliant in ‘August: Osage County,’ proving that there are still great parts in Hollywood for Meryl Streeps over 60.”)  Furthermore, he does it with all the candor towards sexuality and nudity that makes Lena Dunham’s “Girls” such a lightning rod for controversy.

Unfortunately, García’s Gloria just isn’t a very interesting or complex character to follow.  The film is further hampered by an unclear and vague romantic conflict at its core.  Though Lelio gives the film a fun ending, the journey there is rather dreary and insipid.  García’s performance isn’t much to impress on the way, either.

Save, of course, the occasional shot of her hungover head in a purse or lying back on a couch in anguish.  But saying that’s great acting is a stretch.  Your kid can scribble lines on a page, but you wouldn’t hang it next to Jackson Pollock, would you?  Intent separates artists from average joes, and editors can manufacture that in place of an actor if need be.  C2stars

REVIEW: Child’s Pose

13 09 2014

Child's PoseMother-son conflicts have been a consistent source of compelling drama in storytelling.  Be it Oedipus the King, Hamlet, or “Psycho,” the primal tensions never seem to stop inspiring writers and entertaining audiences.

Add another to the pile with “Child’s Pose,” a Romanian film by Calin Peter Netzer that explores rather familiar territory, but put it far away from the aforementioned classics.  It recalls the 2009 drama “Mother,” by Korean director Bong Joon-Ho, in particular as both follow cryptic mothers determined to keep a beloved son from facing judicial consequences for committing a crime.  (Here, it’s vehicular manslaughter.)

Luminita Gheorghiu’s matriarch Cornelia is part Eleanor Iselin from “The Manchurian Candidate” and part Claire Underwood from “House of Cards,” an interesting combination that makes her character worth following down this strange path.  It’s clear from the outset that she’s doing this largely for self-preservation, although her character does have some nice complexity.

The film drags on for nearly two hours towards a very predictable end, largely gliding by on the strength of Cornelia alone.  “Child’s Pose” falters mainly because the tensions with her son, Barbu,  never really reach a satisfying boil.  That might have to do with the fact that Barbu is so pathetic that we never quite understand why he’s worth protecting.

This “slice of crisis” piece is very much in line with the tenets of the Romanian New Wave, though if you’re seeking to learn about the country’s emerging cinematic presence, don’t start here.  Go to something like “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days,” where you’ll get all the stylistic elements of “Child’s Pose” but with the addition of a compelling narrative.  C+2stars

F.I.L.M. of the Week (September 12, 2014)

12 09 2014

True Adolescents

Though the world of a great movie may feel hermetically sealed while you watch it, all sorts of factors outside of it have decided the manner in which you get to experience it.  I’ve made the argument before that the 2008 financial collapse has infiltrated the content of films, yet it probably exerted an even greater influence by limiting our access to a whole world of independently created cinema.

Back in 2009, a small dramedy by Craig Johnson called “True Adolescents” played the SXSW Film Festival.  It was well-received and went on to play some smaller local festivals, but it sat around for three years waiting for theatrical distribution.  Before the economic malaise (or even now in our platform-agnostic present day), this is the kind of film that would be a no-brainer for a company like Fox Searchlight to pick up.  Due to the unfortunate timing of its release, however, it wound up getting a minuscule release thanks to Cinedigm.

Perhaps with “The Skeleton Twins,” Johnson’s second feature which is getting a much wider rollout courtesy of Roadside Attractions, people will begin to discover the joy of which they were robbed years ago.  While the production is small-scale, the film pays off big with its richly observed script and properly defined characters.

The man-child is getting a little tired thanks to brute repetition by Seth Rogen and friends, but it feels good as new in “True Adolescents” thanks to a very authentic incarnation by Mark Duplass.  His Sam has clearly blown past the twentysomething mark and is well into his thirties, hapless and essentially hopeless.

Hoping for some easy sympathy, he goes to crash with his aunt (played by a pre-Oscar win Melissa Leo) and winds up being forced to work for her charity.  Sam gets the distinct pleasure of taking his teenage cousin Oliver and his friend Jake on a camping trip.  I’m not too far removed from that adolescent mindset to know that it takes a special kind of person to handle boys of that age; suffice to say, Sam lacks the requisite saintliness.

As with any narrative centering around a journey in the great outdoors, an inner journey takes place in the characters.  But that’s pretty much where “True Adolescents” stops falling in line with what you expect it to do.  Writer/director Craig Johnson provides a surprising amount of depth within the familiar framework, opting to explore deeper into the complex characters at every turn where melodrama or clichés would be easier.  It’s a real treat to watch him embrace the true in the title of his film rather than the latter word.


11 09 2014

JoeDavid Gordon Green’s “Joe” gets off to a slow start, prompting me to initially wonder if it was going to be a complete non-starter like his prior directing effort “Prince Avalanche.”  He takes his time giving us the lay of the land and introducing us to the characters, a lax unraveling that teeters close to tedious.

It also doesn’t help that the premise feel quite similar to that of Green’s film school buddy Jeff Nichols’ recent success “Mud.”   A troubled man played by an actor looking to show off a more serious facet of his talent befriending a rough-hewn yet good-hearted teenager played by Tye Sheridan?  “Joe” feels like the younger brother of “Mud,” although perhaps only little due to the order in which it was released.

By all accounts, though, “Joe” is the better realized film.  It’s more emotionally charged and features more dynamic, complex characters.  Once Green kicked the film into gear around the 40-minute mark, I couldn’t take my eyes off the action.

After winning an Oscar, Nicolas Cage shouldn’t technically have to prove anything, so perhaps it’s best to say he reminds us that he is so much more than a meme.  As the eponymous ex-con Joe, he bares the bruises of his past with startling vulnerability.  While some might chuckle at the possibility of the same actor from the infamous “The Wicker Man” screaming video conveying a convincing paternal aura, Cage embodies and exudes a worn-down wisdom that feels completely authentic.

And Tye Sheridan as teenaged Gary, desperately in need of someone to look up to instead of his abusive alcoholic father, forges an entirely believable connection with Cage’s Joe.  Once again, Sheridan completely nails all the frustrations of adolescence.  He’s always remarkably in the moment on screen, which comes in handy when Green needs to communicate the urgency of the story.

We really feel the dire need for Gary to save his family before his father ruins it for good (credit the late Gary Poulter in an unhinged performance as the frighteningly destructive Wade).  Moreover, we see the need for Joe, flaws and all, to save the day.  It might take some time to reach that point, but “Joe” is worth watching for its gripping back half that leads up to an extremely intense conclusion.  B2halfstars

REVIEW: Borgman

10 09 2014

BorgmanIn Alex van Warmerdam’s “Borgman,” a mysterious figure rises from underground to perniciously infiltrate the home of an upper-class Dutch family.  His name is Camiel Borgman, and he’s played by Jan Bijovet (looking like a bearded Christoph Waltz) with a sort of pleasant warmth that intoxicates yet harms.  And over the course of nearly two hours, he completely turns the tables on his marks.

We see that he insidiously disrupts the dynamics, but what we don’t get is quite how … or more importantly, we never really get a hint as to why he does this.  Perhaps there’s something culturally assumed in the Netherlands that I am simply losing in translation.  The film feels like a regional parable about the chickens coming home to roost for the ignorant wealthy, yet it’s lacking a certain punch to really drive home a message.

There seems to be an almost supernatural power that Borgman possesses, and I’ll give van Warmerdam credit for keeping this strange effect a rather understated facet of the character.  But without any sort of explanation or tip-off, “Borgman” feels a rather tedious and frustrating watch.

Furthermore, we’re never clued into the film’s internal logic.  It’s as if all the scenes that make the parts of “Borgman” cohere were removed in the editing room, leaving behind a movie that’s just smugly enigmatic.  van Warmerdam’s emotionally detached filmmaking style means that we’re not entering the film emotionally through the charaters.  We’re just observers, watching a steady simmer of a movie that never feels like it’s going to reach a boil.

“Borgman” has its fair share of memorable images (heads in buckets of cement, anyone?) as well a sizable enough body count to keep our curiosity.  But once it ends, we’re left with precious little to hold onto.  I’m not quite sure what I was supposed to take away from the film other than Alex van Warmerdam wanting me to think he’s Michael Haneke and this is his “Funny Games.”  He’s a cold, calculating filmmaker, but what exactly he wanted the parts of “Borgman” to add up to is beyond me.  C2stars


9 09 2014

IdaRiverRun International Film Festival

Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Ida” is most certainly going to be one of the most gorgeously shot films of the year when all is said and done in 2014.  Each black-and-white frame is composed with a striking incredible attention to detail that they feel worthy of commemorating in a textbook.

His choice of imagery, though, is rather one-note.  Pawlikowski loves placing the characters in the bottom third of the frame, their heads dwarfed and engulfed by their surroundings.  It’s often as if the characters are shot in proportion to their importance.  At some points in “Ida,” this fixation gets to the point where the subtitles have to be placed at the top of the screen instead of their customary resting place at the bottom.

Once we get the hang of the film’s visual language, it feels like we’ve taken cinema’s equivalent of an Ambien.  “Ida” is but 80 minutes, but I wondered if I would be 80 years old by the time it concluded.  (For those who don’t know, I’m 21.  Hopefully that metaphor makes a little more sense now.)  The cinematography is stunning, but it eventually is not enough to carry the snail-paced story of the film.

The characters lack the development to sustain the film as well.  The titular character, Ida, begins the film as a Polish nun in the 1960s who goes by Anna.  She was removed from her Jewish roots at an age too young to remember them but receives a rude awakening when her biological aunt Wanda reveals this hidden past.

Ida is too painfully stoic – think more stone-faced than Ryan Gosling in “Only God Forgives” – and Wanda is not nearly colorful enough to make the journey worth investing in.  Pawlikowski doesn’t initially make the purpose of their voyage evident, leading to frustration right out of the gate.  Everything’s in its right place in “Ida,” except maybe some storytelling fundamentals.  B- 2stars

REVIEW: The Imitation Game

8 09 2014

Telluride Film Festival

As if the subject of “The Imitation Game” – a tender British soul misunderstood as an incompetent and bumbling fool – weren’t enough to draw comparisons to “The King’s Speech,” the film seemingly invites the parallel in its opening credits.  It’s only faintly discernible, but audio from none other than King George’s climactic speech at the dawn of World War II plays diegetically in the background.

To those who might recognize the snippet, it serves as a perfect barometer for the ambitions of “The Imitation Game.”  With maybe a dash of brash mathematical genius of “A Beautiful Mind,” Morten Tyldum’s film is very much this year’s “The King’s Speech.”  For those unaware of the construed meaning of 2010’s Academy Award winner for Best Picture, that means the film is an engaging and entertaining biopic made with high production values all around yet does not aspire to anything groundbreaking.

Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game

Maybe I can only give such an unabashed endorsement of the film from my privileged subject position of being one of the first audiences to see the film or because I saw it before the glut of prestige films later in the fall.  Indeed, I can already see myself holding truly great movies against “The Imitation Game” and wondering how on earth anyone could think so highly of it.  At least for the moment, however, I choose to see the film as it is: a quality piece of cinema that is not trying to reinvent the wheel.  It’s simply trying to turn some wheels in my head, and I thoroughly enjoyed it on those terms.

Certainly a film has some merit if it can collapse a two-hour act of viewing into feeling like an experience lasting half that duration.  “The Imitation Game” flew by, largely because of how engrossed in the story and the characters I became.  Benedict Cumberbatch turns in inspired work bringing the film’s subject, Alan Turing, to life.  His performance alone is worth the price of admission.

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