REVIEW: Venus in Fur

20 06 2014

Venus in FurCannes Film Festival – Official Competition, 2013

We’re now witnessing the late films of Roman Polanski, whether we like it or not.  The director gave us one of the all-time great horror films (“Rosemary’s Baby“), neo-noirs (“Chinatown”), and Holocaust films (“The Pianist”).  Yet now, he seems content to draw his legacy to a close with a sort of artistic retreat into filmed theater.

His latest film, “Venus in Fur,” has more than a few similarities with Polanski’s previous directorial effort, 2011’s meekly received “Carnage.”  They are both adaptations of a stage play with a small set of characters locked in a continuous scene restricted to a single space.  And Polanski, who proved to be quite the consummate visual filmmaker in decades past, seems content to just yell “action!” and have the actors do their work.

He controls the chaos a lot better in “Venus in Fur,” although that could be due in part to the cast of only two – one of which is his wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, who he’s presumably on the same wavelength with to begin.  She plays Vanda, an aging actress who invites herself to audition for the director, Thomas (Mathieu Amalric).  He’s adapting the novel “Venus in Furs,” which is notable for introducing the phrase sadomasochism into the world brain.

Over the course of an hour and a half, Vanda and Thomas play a game of verbal chess over sexual politics and gender identity.  They arrive at more than a few interesting conclusions as their power dynamics and roles begin to shift.  Seigner and Amalric’s acting keeps “Venus in Fur” interesting whenever the location starts to feel boring or the whole enterprise just feels a little bit stalled.

“Venus in Fur” feels like many things, none of which is a Polanski film.  Although I have to give credit to a director who, at 80, is making us reconsider what exactly his movies are.  B-2stars

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REVIEW: Nebraska

25 01 2014

Cannes Film Festival – Official Competition

It’s tempting to analyze frequent writer/directors like Alexander Payne, Jason Reitman, and Noah Baumbach as if both their contributions to a film are co-dependent upon each other. Especially for someone like me, who values the power of the written word, it’s easy to think that a good script might just direct itself.

Nebraska,” a film directed but not written by Alexander Payne, offered a unique chance to observe his helming prowess independent of his writing. As it turns out, maybe I’m a bigger fan of Payne’s writing than I am of his directing. Payne’s critical stance towards his native Midwest almost seems to be working against the gentle tenderness of Bob Nelson’s script.

Payne’s previous scripts have all had a certain kind of bite to them. Perhaps that comes with the territory, though, as they mostly explore people going through crises – midlife, old age, the death of a spouse. “Nebraska” is remarkably simple, a tale of a grown son indulging his demented father in a road trip to claim a million dollar Publisher’s Clearinghouse prize.

For such a quaint tale, it’s refreshing to see a cast so free of pre-existing iconography assembled for “Nebraska.”  Perennial character actor Bruce Dern stars as Woody Grant, a patriarch of no particular distinction other than his unrecognized charity.  He’s calculatedly remote, both out of learned habit and elderly retreat.  Woody is often absent, but Dern is always present, making his character most alive in those dead moments.  It’s fascinating to watch the way he slowly reveals what Woody has mostly kept silent for years to a son with whom he’s not particularly close.

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REVIEW: Young & Beautiful

14 08 2013

Jeune & JolieCannes Film Festival – Official Competition

After both years I’ve gone to Cannes, I have suffered painful withdrawals from the world’s best curated art cinema.  I find myself wanting to revisit these fascinating movies I’ve just seen but am forced to wait months on end before they see Stateside release.  (I’m still waiting to get a second helping of “The Hunt,” my favorite film of the 2012 festival.)

Strangely enough, the movie from Cannes 2013 I’ve been most anxious to see again was not my favorite film of the festival, James Gray’s immaculate “The Immigrant.”  I find myself thinking quite often about Francois Ozon’s odd “Young & Beautiful,” flaws and all.  It’s a film I can’t wait to see again because it’s so unconventional and refreshingly different.

From the moment I left the orchestra of the Lumiere Theater on that rainy Thursday afternoon, I have been trying to figure out how Francois Ozon made the peculiar concoction that is “Young & Beautiful” work at all.  I am even more perplexed as to how it managed to entrance and beguile me so fully.  Because, quite frankly, it walks a rather fine line between being provocative and being offensive.

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REVIEW: Only God Forgives

20 07 2013

Only God ForgivesCannes Film Festival – Official Competition

Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive” was mediocre genre revisionism.  His latest film, “Only God Forgives,” is an attempt at surrealist action that borders on the experimental.  On principle, I’d like to say I preferred the latter since it was at least ambitious.

However, after a second watch from the comforts of my own bed (the first, a late-night screening in Cannes, put me to sleep for large chunks), I really cannot bring myself to endorse “Only God Forgives.”  It aims for David Lynch or Alexander Jodorowsky, the great surrealist filmmaker to whom the film is dedicated, but falls far short of the mark.  Teasing at a dreamlike experience is not enough – the film must deliver, and it cannot execute on its promise.

Refn’s film lacks any internal logic, bizarrely floating through non-related scenes of a sadistic Thai police officer and Ryan Gosling’s stoically mute Julian.  All great actors run the risk of turning themselves into a cliché (see: Johnny Depp), and I’m sorry to report that we may have reached a tipping point with Gosling.  He’s so frustratingly not a presence in the film that it does not play as tough anymore; it’s just plain obnoxious.

Thankfully, the film does deploy Kristin Scott Thomas to talk enough for the both of them.  As a psychotic mother, perhaps a physical embodiment of Oedipal desire, she’s a firecracker who adds a jolt of energy every time she comes on screen.  Sadly, that’s only a few scenes.

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REVIEW: Fruitvale Station

19 07 2013

Fruitvale StationCannes Film Festival – Un Certain Regard

Fruitvale Station” makes no attempts to hide its bleak ending; before anything else, writer/director Ryan Coogler shows us the real-life death of the protagonist, Oscar Grant, as caught by a grainy cell phone camera.  Then we rewind the clock a day, and Michael B. Jordan assumes the role of Grant, a man with nobility and flaws just like any of us.

For an hour, Coogler walks us through the last day in his life.  It’s a poignant and well observed slice-of-life punctuated by Jordan’s great moments of humanity.  Yet without the knowledge that we’re witnessing a series of last moments in Grant’s life, the drama is essentially inconsequential.

Essentially dependent on dramatic irony for propulsion, the majority of “Fruitvale Station” feels like an average movie able to get away with not aiming for much.  But then, the inevitable conclusion arrives, and we’re faced with an incident of horrifying police brutality that claims Grant’s life (it’s hardly a spoiler, so get over it).  The emotionally charged moment is gripping and tense, enough to feel twice as long as the rest of the film.

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REVIEW: The Great Gatsby

15 06 2013

Cannes Film Festival – Out of Competition (Opening Film)

I found F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great American novel “The Great Gatsby” completely captivating and relevant in 11th grade English.  However, I acknowledge that plenty of people may have had the Jazz Age classic spoiled by poor instruction or a general classroom environment.

For all those people who think classic literature has to be boring and stuffy, let me introduce you to Baz Luhrmann, the world’s coolest English teacher.  He takes antiquated texts like Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” and reinterprets them for a modern audience, breathing new life into them in the process.  Though some scoff at the idea of combining Fitzgerald and Fergie or jazz and Jay-Z,  it’s that kind of madness that makes Luhrmann’s adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” such a delightfully fresh take on an old favorite.

It’s Luhrmann on all cylinders firing, which is the source of the film’s vibrant strengths.  On the other hand, it’s also the root of the film’s biggest flaws.  Though “The Great Gatsby” is brilliantly refashioned in the image of “Moulin Rouge,” it’s sometimes a little too pumped up for its own good.  Putting Fitzgerald on steroids comes with some loss of subtlety, particularly in the form of his recurring motifs: the green light and Dr. T.J. Ecklenburg’s eyes.  Rather than letting them sneak up on you, Luhrmann hits you over the head with them like a sledgehammer as if to say, “PAY ATTENTION! THESE ARE REALLY IMPORTANT!”

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REVIEW: Blue Is the Warmest Color

15 06 2013

Blue is the Warmest ColorCannes Film Festival – Official Competition

Producers of the upcoming film adaptation of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” I have found your director.  Thank me later.

In the past three weeks since I’ve seen Abdellatif Kechiche’s “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” I have gone back and forth on whether I deem it to be pornography.  What I can say without a doubt, however, is that it features the most graphic depictions of sexuality between any two people that I have ever seen on film.  It takes that honor away from Steve McQueen’s 2011 masterpiece “Shame,” which used pornographic aesthetics to ironically point out just how little pleasure was present in the carnality occurring before our eyes.

Kechiche’s camera, whether voyeuristic or artistic, captures human sexuality between the timid young Adele (newcomer Adele Exarchopolous) and the nubile Emma (Lea Seydoux) at an extremely intimate level.  On the one hand, it seems almost animalistic as we feel their every body movement, see the saliva drip, and hear their every moan.  Yet at the same time, it’s also highly erotic.  Kechiche seems more focused on capturing the act from every angle and less on the experience that Adele and Emma are having.

The story just stops as we are left to gaze at Adele and Emma entangling in a frenzied sexual embrace.  Acting halts as well since the camera just cares about Exarchopolous and Seydoux’s extremities, not their faces.  In addition, Kechiche’s segues into sensuality are so abrupt and unexpected that once the first scene occurs, it’s impossible not to be constantly wondering if the next edit will lead into intertwining limbs or passionate moans.

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