REVIEW: The Second Mother

20 09 2015

The Second MotherAnna Muylaert got more than a great performance by casting Regina Casé as Val, the old-fashioned house maid to a wealthy Sāo Paolo family, in her drama “The Second Mother.”  She subverted an entire media personality as Casé holds a position in Brazilian culture similar to that of Oprah Winfrey in America.  But even for those international audiences unaware of the iconography Casé carries, the film still works marvelously.

Muylaert’s film functions as an insightful, incisive look at modern class dynamics on the strength of its script and the characters who populate it.  While countless film relegates household workers like Val to background characters, “The Second Mother” grants her protagonist status and a rich, complicated interior life.

After decades of care for her upper-class family – and essentially serving as the surrogate mother for their teenage son Fabinho – Val has grown quite comfortable in her role.  She has internalized the rules and divisions that govern the household, accepting the arrangements as practically natural.

That all changes, however, with the arrival of Val’s biological daughter, Jéssica (Camila Márdilao).  After years being raised by relatives, Jéssica seeks a stable place to live while she applies to college and ultimately decides the best option is to move in with her estranged mother.  The family matriarch Barbara insists Jéssica will be welcome in the house, even going out of her way to make sure the newest arrival feels welcome and comfortable.

But everyone gets a little more than they bargained for with Jéssica, who pushes the boundaries of acceptable behavior for the household help.  She resists acquiescing to the second-class citizen position to which Val resigns herself, acting as if she deserves equal access to the house in the same way as Fabinho.  To Val’s surprise, the family scarcely kicks up a fuss!

As Jéssica tramples the usual separations between classes and generations, “The Second Mother” exposes the divisions in society.  In doing so, Muylaert asks if they have any place in a system that supposedly fosters meritocracy and upward mobility.  Her exploration is both gripping to watch in the moment and fascinating to ponder after the film finishes.  B+3stars

REVIEW: Prisoners

19 09 2015

Denis Villeneuve’s “Prisoners” possesses a remarkable precision in nearly every aspect of its execution.  It is palpable in the mood, the performances, the script from Aaron Guzikowski, and especially the photography by Roger Deakins.  As the abduction of two children forces a father (Hugh Jackman) to extreme measures of extracting vengeance, the film patiently and methodically follows his descent into an inhumanity on par with his daughter’s abductor.

At times, Villeneuve’s realization of this unraveling feels so airtight that it comes across almost as stifling and constrictive.  Somehow, the film feels like it needs to breathe.  Yet on further inspection, that is not the case.  Villeneuve knows exactly how much oxygen “Prisoners” needs to survive and refuses to dole out any more of it than is necessary to give each scene a pulse.  This makes his film burn not only slowly but also consistently, illuminating the depravity of cruelty to children with its steadfast flame.

His exactitude directly counters the nature of the narrative, a complicated ethical story with neither an easy outlet for sympathy nor a character that lends his or herself to identification.  The closest figure offered for a connection is Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki, whose adherence to rationality and order makes him the most level-headed presence in “Prisoners.”  He retains a rather detached perspective on the case of the missing girls rather than allowing himself to succumb to the levels of hysteria from the grieving families.  If everyone else in the film yells, Loki speaks in a whisper.

In a way, that soft-spoken approach makes for the only major flaw of “Prisoners” that I could find.  The film’s audio mix is all over the board; the sound goes in and out, then up and down.  I watched it twice at home on two different television sets, but the problem persisted.  I often had to rewind and jack up the volume to catch a line of dialogue muttered under someone’s breath.  This sotto voce technique makes the film chillingly clinical – so make sure you can hear it in all of its complexities.  B+ / 3stars

REVIEW: Peace Officer

18 09 2015

Peace OfficerIf you noticed your screening of “Straight Outta Compton” erupted in nervous laughter at the sight of a military-grade tank rolling down the streets of Los Angeles like it were Baghdad, then you need to add “Peace Officer” to your watchlist immediately.  Brad Barber and Scott Christopherson’s documentary tackles the troubling trend towards aggression in the American police state, surveying the human cost of their violence.

For an initial briefing for how this state of affairs came to be the norm, preface the film with John Oliver’s superb segment on police militarization.  But unlike Ferguson, an area that is majority minority, the rural Davis County, Utah, in “Peace Officer” appears primarily white.  Separated from racial rhetoric, the issue of police brutality comes into an even starker light as its own problem in need of instant remedy.

Officers should serve and protect a people, not occupy or terrorize them.  This simple distinction is the message of the film’s subject, Dub Lawrence.  He founded his county’s SWAT Team but now stops at nothing to see the unit held accountable for taking the life of his son-in-law, among others.  The case of that family members makes up the backbone of “Peace Officer,” but Barber and Christopherson make sure to include countless other stories of families brutalized by the police and forced to comply with whatever force they mete out.  Oh, and they also intercut with the tone-deaf responses given in interviews by local officials, who of course find it ludicrous to say the police has come to resemble the military.

Lawrence identifies the larger issue at play here as one of civil rights.  How can we have an equal society when the law’s permissiveness essentially allows one group can act essentially without risk of repercussion?  The question is one every American needs to ponder because the next victim could be someone you know – or you.

“Peace Officer” is hopefully the closest thing the United States could ever produce to an equivalent of “The Act of Killing,” Joshua Oppenheimer’s frightening documentary exposé on the effects of impunity in Indonesian society.  But if we continue on our current course, future films will make it look tame by comparison.  B+3stars

F.I.L.M. of the Week (September 17, 2015)

17 09 2015

The Edge of HeavenFatih Akin had a bit of a rough go with the film festival circuit the last time around with his Armenian genocide drama “The Cut,” which received nearly unanimous pans out of Venice.  To my surprise, the film managed to secure U.S. distribution (I had all but given up hope of ever seeing it).

So in honor of throwback Thursday, I’ll take the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” column back to a time when Akin had much more success appealing to the festival crowds.  In 2007, his nation-hopping drama “The Edge of Heaven” took two prizes at the Cannes Film Festival and established Akin as a major name in European cinema. The film has the scope of a Soderbergh or Iñárritu multinational drama but does not aim for a grand global statement.

Instead, “The Edge of Heaven” resonates on a human scale.  Though the film jumps from Turkey to Germany and then back, the thematic focus is not on the borders that divide people.  Rather, Akin looks at the forces that unite and bind us together against the odds.  For these characters, those would be an odd combination of coincidence, missed opportunities, bad timing, and – ultimately – grief.

In its multiple segments, connected to each other by a character who appeared in another episode, “The Edge of Heaven” portrays numerous tragedies and calamities that befall people both good and bad.  There’s the tragic story of the prostitute Yeter (Nursel Köse), who just wants to help her estranged daughter Ayten (Nurgül Yeşilçay) back in her native Turkey.  But little does she know that Ayten fled Istanbul as a political dissident and seeks a country to grant her asylum.  Her quest to find a safe space ultimately draws in Ayten’s good-hearted German girlfriend Lotte (Patrycia Ziolkovska) as well as another German, Alisan (Baki Davrak), who seeks to help her as a service to Yeter.

If the web of interlocked narratives seems confusing in my verbose plot summary, it will not feel that way experiencing the nuances of story and emotion built into Akin’s script.  His is the rare film among the so-called “hyperlink cinema” trend that is more concerned with developing characters than finding ways for their paths to cross.

REVIEW: Everest

16 09 2015

EverestTowards the end of the lengthy expository section of “Everest,” journalist Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly) asks the question on everyone’s mind: “Why Everest?”  The film recounts a harrowing climb under the tutelage of mountain guide Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), who leads a group that does not necessarily look a typical band of sport climbers.  Knowing what exactly motivates them to reach the planet’s highest peak is a reasonable thing for an audience to wonder.

In this one moment perfectly set up for characters to bare their souls – the writer makes for a reasonable excuse to pose such an inquiry – “Everest” pretty much whiffs.  When accomplished scripters William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy cannot deliver on an obvious occasion to answer what deeper meaning this mountain has, it cannot help but disappoint.

So, in the absence of a satisfactory answer to Krakauer’s question, I would like to pose it myself – albeit with slightly different punctuation and inflection.  Why, “Everest?”

Why, “Everest,” must you include a maudlin, manipulative score that tells us exactly how to feel when we should feel it?  Granted, at least they got Dario Marianelli, so it sounds pretty.  But as I watched the film, my mind often drifted to thinking about how much more intense and visceral the experience would be with the score for “Gravity.”  Such impressionistic sounds and frightening dissonances could make the environment seem dauntingly alien.  The music meant to represent climbing the world’s tallest mountain should not resemble the score for any old drama.

Why, “Everest,” must you stubbornly insist on just portraying things that happen to people?  As Hall’s group summits, they face treacherous weather conditions that put their lives in peril.  But the snowstorm is just a snowstorm.  The film lacks any sort of overarching structure of conflict, like man vs. nature or man vs. man, to imbue the challenges with deeper meaning in the mold of “127 Hours.”  The struggles remain in the realm of the personal, not tapping some greater sense of collective fear.  It’s danger without any sense of dread for the audience.
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REVIEW: Black Mass

15 09 2015

A movie like “Black Mass” is essentially the cinematic calendar whispering, “Winter is coming.”  It’s a gentle reminder that we are inching ever closer to a glut of prestige dramas filling screens across the country but that the best is still yet to come.  (Of course, if you read this in 2016, the last paragraph probably means nothing.)

Director Scott Cooper’s film works fine as a tiding over of sorts.  Most 2015 films so far that have provided this level of drama were low budget indies, and anything with this amount of violent bloodshed must have been a giant franchise flick.  “Black Mass,” made from a well-structured script by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, boasts a thrilling experience packaged in some remarkable production values.  It all just feels so Scorsese lite.

And for the most part, that made for an entirely satisfactory evening at the movies.  I got a film that was perfectly good.  It just never approached greatness.

The marketing of “Black Mass” makes the film look like The Johnny Depp Show, and to a certain extent, it is.  Anyone who slithers around a film with such amphibian-like eyes and a Donald Trump combover just naturally draws attention, even when not playing a notorious gangster like James “Whitey” Bulger.  But, at heart, Bulger is just a boy from South Boston (“Southie”) trying to rule its biggest business – organized crime – by any means necessary.

That involves cutting a strange deal with a former childhood acquaintance, FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton).  According to Connolly, Southie is the only place where kids go from playing cops and robbers in the schoolyards to playing it on the streets, and he gets into Bulger’s racket just like some sort of game.  As a part of their deal, Bulger goes on the Bureau’s books as an informant yet essentially gets carte blanche to take out his competition.

Depp might get the more ostensibly interesting character to play, and he certainly plays up just how intimidating and downright creepy a figure Bulger truly was.  But its Edgerton who steals the show, essentially playing a Beantown rendition of Bradley Cooper’s Richie DiMaso from “American Hustle.”  Connolly is the inside man who gets played like a harp by a key asset meant to bring him professional glory.  What motivates him to continue helping Bulger even when the jig seems up proves the heaviest and most complex part of “Black Mass,” and it certainly kept weighing on me after the film ended.  B2halfstars

REVIEW: Heaven Knows What

14 09 2015

Heaven Knows WhatJosh and Benny Safdie often draw comparisons to filmmakers like John Cassavetes for their sluggishly paced realism.  In their 2010 film “Daddy Longlegs,” I found this stylistic choice little more than a conceit.  Slow, ambling scenes tied together by little more than the whims of life were simply a method of communicating the frequent failures of a single father.

But in the Safdie brother’s latest work, “Heaven Knows What,” that meandering quality feels integral to the experience.  The film follows Arielle Holmes as Harley, a fictionalized version of herself, as she experiences various challenges related to homelessness and drug addiction.  To have a conventional plot driven by goals and forward motion would feel disingenuous for a world populated by characters whose compulsions have them running in circles.

The movie pulses along as Harley does, from score to score, motivated by nothing little more than getting to the next high.  It makes for a unique window into a world rarely seen on screen with any sense of veracity.  “Heaven Knows What” allows us not only to stare the depravity of heroin addiction in the face on screen but also to experience the listlessness and danger that comes along with it.

Stripped of sensationalism, the Safdies endow the material with a scrappy, grimy tenacity.  Holmes’ story proves a natural match for their aesthetic sensibilities.  Hopefully they continue in this vein and reinvigorate the “social problem” drama for the better.  B+3stars


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