REVIEW: Things to Come

28 11 2016

Things to Come

“I’ve found my freedom,” Isabelle Huppert’s Nathalie flatly states about halfway through Mia Hansen-Løve’s “Things to Come.” This declaration comes about in the wake of fundamental alterations in her relationships with husband, mother and children. The phrase has never sounded so depressing.

Since older audiences are among the last reliable demographic blocs to still attend movies in theaters, we’ve seen a veritable cottage industry of AARP-approved films that celebrate the freedom that comes with advanced years. Most, such as “Hello, My Name Is Doris” or “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” carry a fun, uplifting tune about these new realities. Hansen-Løve certainly does not rule out such a fate for her protagonist in “Things to Come,” but one gets the sense that such fancy-free contentment will only come after a great internal tussle.

Nathalie begins the film assuming her biggest battle will be proving her continued commitment to the political causes which define her life and teaching. She began her adulthood as a hardcore leftist and resents accusations from striking students that she has sold out her ideals to contribute to the ruling system. They see compromise; she claims pragmatism.

Turns out, the intricacies of Rousseau, Foucault and Adorno prove the least of Nathalie’s worries after a series of small tragedies accelerates her break from the routines she so nimbly mastered. She comes to long not for harmonizing and synthesizing the philosophy she already knows; rather, Nathalie looks for God or some system of thought that can provide order to her universe once again. To find oneself in a new stage of life, one must be set adrift. Hansen-Løve lingers in the moments of uncertainty, the painful longing that occurs while wayfaring between stations. Patriotism isn’t the only context in which the phrase “freedom doesn’t come free” can apply, turns out.

Huppert settles into the rhythm of the film marvelously, emphasizing neither the journey nor the destination for her character. Natalie is such a thinker that her terrain of action is in the mind. The biggest changes take place there as she internalizes her new set of circumstances and begins to formulate plans to proceed. Huppert’s virtuosity shows in her ability to turn an intellectual proposition into an emotional voyage for the audience. With her mental process so clear, we are able to contemplate not what Nathalie registers in any given moment but rather how such a development might resonate in our own lives. A-3halfstars


22 11 2016

elleFantastic Fest

Both the film “Elle” and its protagonist, Isabelle Huppert’s Michèle, resist common tropes related to sexual assault (one of which occurs in the opening scene). Chiefly, neither dwells in victimhood or the battle wounds of a survivor. It does not galvanize the righteous anger of the audience back against the perpetrator through the vicarious thrill of revenge.

But here’s the thing: “Elle” is defined more by what it doesn’t do and not by what it does. Director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter David Birke dwell in the murky gray areas of Michèle’s twisted psychology as she herself remains unclear as to how to proceed. She knows that she does not want to call the police, as she believes her position as the daughter of a serial killer would not lead to any semblance of justice. She does not want to make a fuss about the incident or let it overpower her thoughts and routines. But what does she do?

Huppert brings steely gumption to her character, a backbone necessary to even establish the most elementary semblance of realism in “Elle.” Her performance, and the film writ large, seem to lack a consistent, coherent internal logic. With her mental state intentionally obfuscated from us, we must interpolate from her actions. And Michèle’s behavior fluctuates vastly from scene to scene. She may seem alarmed by a prank video game scene depicting her rape to the point of conducting a secret witch hunt … only to turn around and engage in a sexual cat-and-mouse game with her own assailant.

No film is forced to answer to the demands of its viewers for answers and resolution. But when lack of clarity feels like an externality of the film rather than an essential narrative feature, the rules change a bit. The instability and unpredictability of “Elle” become its guiding light and driving force. With scant character detail and no real dialogue with issues, the film can only end in emptiness. Refusing a mode of thought is easy. Proposing a new one creates a much greater challenge, one that Verhoeven, Birke and Huppert do not seem up to fully meeting. B2halfstars

REVIEW: Valley of Love

14 06 2016

Valley of LoveTrying to find an angle from which to critique Guillaume Nicloux’s “Valley of Love” proves quite frustrating. It’s neither particularly good nor egregiously bad. It features well-calibrated but not quite stunning performances from its two leads, Isabelle Huppert and Gerard Depardieu. Cinematography, editing and directorial choices are present, interesting but nothing to add much flavor to the bland proceedings.

The film finds its characters, exes Isabelle and Gerard, as they convene in Death Valley following the instructions of their estranged son’s suicide note. His cryptic message indicates that he will, somehow, resurface. The setup sounds interesting, but Nicloux never really does much to take it beyond a “Waiting for Godot”-lite exercise of futility for the former lovers. The movie is content to let them mill about in their present misery, making lateral movements rather than directional ones.

Without giving away the ending itself, “Valley of Love” concludes with a back-and-forth of close-ups between Isabelle and Gerard. I can imagine a version of this film where such faces could be laden with such intense meaning, loaded with such passion or informed by the iconography of these two stars. Instead, the end just plays like the kind of thing made by someone who watched one too many cinephile video essays. With so many intriguing pieces at hand, the final arrangement fails to impress. C+ / 2stars

F.I.L.M. of the Week (May 26, 2016)

26 05 2016

White MaterialMore movies than you’d like to know are reviewed in a daze, particularly out of festivals. Seeing and listening to Cannes coverage from the past week reminds me of this sad fact. Just think – if you were a filmmaker with your reputation on the line, would you want sleep-deprived critic to write about your movie? Worse yet, in a festival environment, it’s practically impossible to go back and revisit a film once the credits roll.

I watched “White Material” from my room with a deadline, albeit one set by the Houston Public Library for lending me the DVD. (It was two days overdue and starting to accrue fines – oops.) Claire Denis’ film struck me immediately with its defiant protagonist, Isabelle Huppert’s Maria Vial, a French woman maintaining a coffee plantation in a crumbling African nation. She’s the very embodiment of the country’s lingering colonial presence on that continent in all her stubbornness and impracticality.

The events of the film pay testament to her whacked-out priorities; Maria runs around town taking care of petty items while radio bulletins in the background narrate a tale of rapid national decay and impending military takeover. In fact, she seems far more concerned with the power struggle for her own land than the one for the country around it. Maria’s husband (Christophe Lambert’s André) seeks to take advantage of the crisis to take the plantation out from underneath her. This might as well be the end of the world for her, but as for the looming political crisis, she cannot understand why native workers refuse to come labor for her. The myopia is nothing short of stunning.

I quickly latched onto the main themes of “White Material” and fell into a rhythm with it. Then, the lateness of the hour caught up with me, and I began to drift in and out of sleep. Sorry. It happens. With about 30 minutes left, I began zoning out for small patches of the film. I could still sense the major plot developments and could see big changes reflected in the characters, though things did not quite add up.

Thankfully, before hitting the hay for good, I decided to check the film’s Wikipedia page to fill in the gaps of my knowledge. And WOW, had I missed some big stuff. Once I realized that, I quickly plopped the disc back in the player and rewatched the last act of “White Material.” What I saw completely transformed my view of “White Material” now that I realized the film was simmering towards a brutal boil at the close.

This gruesome climax depicted extremely violent acts in silent, oblique and reserved fashion. Denis takes acts we have all seen countless times and finds a way to render them shocking and impactful once again. Taking this into account, I can declare that “White Material” easily makes the cut for a “F.I.L.M. of the Week;” I sure am glad I gave that ending a second go with my full mental capacity.


REVIEW: Louder Than Bombs

8 05 2016

Louder than Bombs

It feels quite fitting that Joachim Trier’s “Louder Than Bombs” features voiceover narration comes from all different characters. The writer/director frequently harbors novelistic ambitions in his work, and this feels like a stab at the ambitious multi-tongued narrations of Faulkner. Yet in trying to swing for the fences, Trier really just demonstrates how thin a grasp he has on the differences between literature and cinema.

Granted, this device is partly excused by the fact that the story has no real protagonist. Because “Louder Than Bombs” is a story about loss, it’s somewhat fitting that the center of the film is a departed character. The narrative is one of absence, not about presence. Such a choice comes with a cost, however. Trier’s film feels largely empty. Where one would normally find a heart, there is little more than stale air.

As the family of acclaimed war photographer Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert) picks up the shards left by her sudden departure, Trier seems to consciously avoid the clichés of similar movies. The widowed father (Gabriel Byrne) resists becoming emotionally absent; the eldest son (Jesse Eisenberg) remains cooly distant; the younger son (Devin Druid) feigns normalcy. Yet avoiding banality does not guarantee quality. It is not enough to merely remove the bad if it is not replaced with something else good. And Trier has little of substance to offer.

“Louder Than Bombs” plays like the kind of film made by someone who has seen movies and read books about grief but has never really experienced it – or at the very least, has never really come to terms with it. Be it in the performances, the tone or the content, every moment feels motivated by the art being imposed onto the events rather than the emotion that ought to flow from them. People grieve singularly, to be sure, and it is not for anyone to say how it should or should not be done. But Trier’s choice to stand so far outside the messy, complicated reality of mourning and rebuilding provides scant insight into the very thing he seeks to depict. C+ / 2stars

F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 20, 2015)

20 08 2015

Lily Tomlin won the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year, yet she somehow still feels underappreciated. Or maybe that’s just because she kept a low profile after the peak of her stardom in the 1970s and was known mostly to members of my generation as the voice of Ms. Frizzle on “The Magic School Bus.” But thanks to perfectly tailored roles in Netflix’s “Grace & Frankie” and the new film “Grandma,” Tomlin definitely seems poised for a major moment once again.

But Tomlin’s career is not necessarily being “rescued.”  In fact, some of her best work has come from the slow and steady decades between her peaks of public interest.  Case in point: “I Heart Huckabees,” the film that landed David O. Russell in director jail after he went for Tomlin’s jugular on set.  In spite of that tension, the movie still turned out alright – even if I did not immediately recognize it on first viewing five years ago.

Russell has gained a reputation for stylish, quirky films with his so-called “reinvention” trilogy that began with 2010’s “The Fighter.”  But that idiosyncratic spirit certainly existed before then, and “I Heart Huckabees” might mark its most vibrant display.  Working with co-writer Jeff Baena, Russell crafts a so-called “existential comedy” that mines philosophy and ontology for laughs that might make Woody Allen green with envy.  As such, it merits my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

Beneath all the hilarious intellectual banter lies a very simple story about a man, Jason Schwartzman’s Albert Markovski, an environmental activist who just wants to know what it’s all about.  “It,” of course, is the very meaning of life itself.  After a series of odd coincidences, he turns to a pair of existential detectives, Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin’s husband and wife team Bernard and Vivian Jaffe.  This duo claims that they can – with enough field research – determine how everything in Albert’s life connects.  They set out to find his place in the grand plan of the universe, optimistically sure that such a thing exists.

But after a while, Albert falls prey to the Jaffe’s nemesis and ideological counterpart, Isabelle Huppert’s Caterine Vauban. She offers similar services but with the nihilistic assertion that nothing relates to anything.  The longer Bernard and Vivian take to complete their assessment of Albert’s life, the more appealing Caterine’s services look.

Albert’s quest for self-knowledge gets complicated by others who seek out the detectives’ services, such as Mark Wahlberg’s Tommy Corn, a firefighter who can chew anyone’s ear off with his views on the harmfulness of petroleum.  Russell has utilized Wahlberg in three films now, and this is certainly his most ingenious performance among the trio.  While the actor is notorious for his authentic off-screen anger and street cred, Russell funnels those traits into a hilariously exaggerated character professing a hyper-verbal righteous indignation.  For Wahlberg, often more likely to rely on the swagger of his body than the power of his words, the performance feels revelatory (and perhaps indicative of even more untapped potential).

The quirky crew does not end there, with Jude Law also in the mix as Brad Stand, a corporate executive at the company Huckabees determined to take Albert down by figuring out the meaning of his own life.  Naomi Watts’ Dawn Campbell, Brad’s girlfriend and the star of Huckabees’ ad campaign, gets thrown in for good measure too.  Both are slightly minor players but still players nonetheless.

Russell throws some really dense, cerebral concepts out there in “I Heart Huckabees” – and at the lightning-fast speed of his dialogue, no less.  But so long as you can keep up, the film proves a rewarding, stimulating experience with something to say about the equilibrium between pragmatism and pessimism that we need to get through the day.

REVIEW: The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

29 12 2014

Eleanor RigbyThe basic premise of writer/director Ned Benson’s “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby,” to be clear, is nothing particularly special.  James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain star as Connor Ludlow and Eleanor Rigby, respectively, a married couple in New York City hitting a devastating rough patch after a miscarriage.  Each deals with the tragedy in their own way, and Benson gives each story a feature’s length to develop.

Meant for consumption as one, “Him” follows Connor as he attempts to shake off the funk by throwing himself into his work for external validation while “Her” takes Eleanor’s point of view as she searches for greater meaning through introspection and education.  By isolating rather than integrating Connor and Eleanor’s journey, Benson makes perspective and subjectivity the prime focus of “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby.”

(Note: I did not bother to watch the streamlined edit that intercuts their stories, subtitled “Them,” because it seemed to defeat the purpose of the unconventional style.)

Students of narrative will relish this schismatic storytelling, analyzing what can be gleaned from one section that cannot be discerned in another.  Scenes shared by the former couple lend themselves to entirely different interpretations depending on the amount of information at hand on approach.  Integral figures in one person’s life are entirely irrelevant or nonexistent in that of the other.  Benson inquisitively asks how much can anyone know about others when trapped to see the world only through their own eyes, a question with strongly felt reverberations.

By all accounts, “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” serves as a reminder that everyone has their own narrative.  Even the entrance (or exit) of a spouse does not create a shared story.  As important as that person is, they are merely another character in a grander arc.  Benson’s shedding of illusions surrounding coupling allows for a rich, nuanced portrayal of individual identity reclaimed and reasserted.

As such, “Him” and “Her” are both successful features as independent entities, not merely as half of a whole or only as an object for juxtaposition.  McAvoy commands his section by seizing the day and rallying to action to keep himself afloat; he is also bolstered by a strong dramatic turn from Bill Hader as a coworker and companion.  Meanwhile, Jessica Chastain proves irresistibly compelling as she mines the deepest recesses of her psyche for any kind of redemptive discovery.  In their contrast, Benson finds a beautifully dissonant harmony.  B+3stars