F.I.L.M. of the Week (April 13, 2017)

13 04 2017

At some point while working on a profile of Robert Pattinson, I realized I couldn’t write honestly or insightfully about the actor if I only considered his post-“Twilight” work, which I generally considered to. I’m not sure at what point I decided I needed to watch everything in his filmography, but one film I did not particularly anticipate sitting through was “Bel Ami.” Costume dramas, especially ones set in 19th-century Europe, tend to function as something akin to the bane of my existence.

But to my very pleasant surprise, “Bel Ami” stands out as a delicious experience in a primarily dreary and stuffy genre. To be fair, I’m not sure how much I would have enjoyed the film had I watched it upon release in 2012. Pattinson was still, reluctantly, in the thrall of “Twilight” mania. The specious read of the film is to see his character, Georges Duroy, as an emotionless man who somehow manages to function as an effortless womanizer. (There is admittedly some jealousy in play, I’ll be up front.)

Indeed, there are some similarities to Edward Cullen at the surface level of “Bel Ami.” Yet with some distance, the film looks more like a reaction against his famous role. Georges makes plenty of sexual conquests in the film, but he achieves them not out of confidence or swagger. He’s deeply insecure about his station in the Parisian social strata, nervously approaching formality. In his first high society appearance, Georges musses with his appearance several times in the mirror before entering the room.

He’s at a distinct advantage in the elite ecosystem since he does not come from money and only gets a seat at the table when a former comrade from war lifts him up. To hold this tenuous position, Georges needs an ace in the hole, and he finds it through gaming undersexed and undervalued wives. Wooing them works to his benefit for a while, but eventually he learns that appealing to them goes only so far in a male-dominated world. This narrative acts as something of a meta commentary on Pattinson’s participation in the “Twilight” franchise, and his desperation and frustration is the secret sauce that raises “Bel Ami” out of standard period piece drudgery and into the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” territory.





F.I.L.M. of the Week (March 5, 2015)

5 03 2015

In the HouseFrançois Ozon made a big splash in 2003 with his film “Swimming Pool,” which follows the exploits of a novelist pulling generously from real life to write her next book.  A decade later, he circles back to the same themes with his adaptation of “In the House.”  It hardly feels like a rerun, however.

Ozon, here, concerns himself with the ethical position of the observer watching actuality being warped into literary fantasy.  This thrilling, dramatic work earns my nod for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” because of the way it raises fascinating questions about the challenges and conundrums faced by all who write fictional tales.  While Ozon stops short of making the voyeuristic audience feel that moral weight, “In the House” nonetheless excites and enchants with its intellectual interrogations.

The film plays out as a serialized drama refracted through the experience of a teenage boy, the inquisitive student Claude (Ernest Umhauer).  His incisive description of the inner workings and desires of the real, banal middle-class home belonging to his socially awkward classmate Rapha Artole proves tantalizing to Claude’s teacher, washed-up writer Germain Germain (Fabrice Luchini).  Germain wants to develop and hone his pupil’s writing skills, so he begins to tutor him privately in order to discuss his compositions.

But Germain also pushes him to take surprising actions in his dealings with the Artoles to make Claude’s writing more daring in tone and content.  Thus, the always teetering fulcrum between art reflecting life and life reflecting art begins to fluctuate so rapidly that any distinction between the directionality become inpossible to discern.  Germain essentially turns Claude into a narrative Rumpelstiltskin, exploiting the beauty of the mundane for textual gold and personal gain.

“In the House” excellently illuminates the problems of narrativizing life as it plays out as well as how the writing of life ex post facto clouds and ruins the living of it.  Ozon’s smart plotting and direction makes these quandaries not only intriguing to mull over but also truly riveting to watch in action.





REVIEW: The Invisible Woman

28 01 2014

The Invisible WomanLondon Film Festival

I generally try to avoid Victorian-era costume dramas as I usually find them quite stuffy and more attentive to the threads of the clothes than the threads of the story.  I didn’t need a reminder of their mediocrity, but Ralph Fiennes’ “The Invisible Woman” provided one for me anyways.  For nearly two hours, I endured the screen as a runway for the fashions of two-centuries past while a story played out in the background.

Abi Morgan, writer of films as brilliant as “Shame” and as dull as “The Iron Lady,” veers closer to the latter with her script for “The Invisible Woman.”  The movie tells the story of Charles Dickens’ mistress, Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones).  She’s supposedly the true love of his life and an inspiration to his work, but it’s hard to feel any affection for Ternan from Jones’ performance.

Jones is as inaccessible here as she was in the brutal ultra-indie “Like Crazy.”  Ternan shows little emotion throughout the film save a scene where she walks alone on an expansive beach.  Though her silence does reflect the Victorian social norms, it makes for a tough watch with such a distant protagonist.

Fiennes’ Dickens becomes infatuated with Ternan while she is little more than an attractive wallflower in the background of a theatrical production.  They carry out an extended affair in the shadows, as both must protect their reputations, him as a public figure and her as a lady.  I felt as if  “The Invisible Woman” was pulling me to pull for Ternan, but I ultimately sympathized most with Dickens’ matronly wife Catherine.

I guess maybe you ought to call me a Victorian with that set of morals pulling for the married couple over what might be classified as love.  If I admit it, can I stop watching movies set in that era though?  C+2stars





REVIEW: Love Crime

31 07 2013

Love CrimeAlain Corneau’s “Love Crime” is one of those rare slow-burn thrillers that delivers in the end.  (Perhaps I need to start watching more French movies, because American ones that try this seem to fail more often than succeed.)  The film is rather understated, never succumbing to easy sensationalism – although that didn’t stop me from thinking it was lurking around every corner.

“Love Crime” is particularly intriguing to watch unfold because its main character, Ludivine Sagnier’s Isabelle, is so enigmatic.  Her actions are puzzling because she seems to be setting herself up for an unnecessarily tough short game in order to win in the long game.  Saviginier clues us into the fact that Isabelle has a very sneaky master plan up her sleeves, but we’re left guessing as her introversion gives us little to work with.

Her boss Christine, played by Kristin Scott Thomas in a hint of what was to come in “Only God Forgives,” sets Isabelle up for madness and retaliation by exploiting her work at the ad agency.  Their relationship, while clearly hostile and imbalanced, could have been explored a little bit more to really make “Love Crime” a steamier and more intense thriller.  Even as is, however, Corneau’s final film is one worth watching because its conclusion delivers when it needs to.  B2halfstars





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: Nowhere Boy

19 06 2013

Layout 1Everyone loves the Beatles, right?  Well, just because you love the Beatles does not mean you will automatically love director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s “Nowhere Boy,” a chronicle of John Lennon’s formative years.

Maybe my view was tainted because I’m not a Lennon or Beatles obsessive.  I know the basics, your “Imagine” from his solo career and chart-toppers like “Hey Jude” and “All You Need Is Love.”  But I really haven’t invested much time in learning their history or going beyond the Beatles songs that everyone knows before they are aware that they know it.

So perhaps a Beatles neophyte fan such as myself missed some of the Easter Egg-style references.  I caught a few of the blatant ones, but I still felt like I was missing something watching the movie.

I will tell you what I did not miss in “Nowhere Boy.”  I definitely caught the lackluster performance of Aaron Johnson as Lennon, who has a way of sucking the life out of every movie he’s in, be it “Savages” or “Anna Karenina.”  I absolutely noticed the lack of compelling drama, be it between his aunt who raised him (a nonetheless good Kristin Scott Thomas) and his biological mother (Anne-Marie Duff).  I did, however, also hear some good music that kept my ears happy while the same could not be said for my eyes and my mind.  C2stars





REVIEW: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

11 12 2012

Salmon FishingI could pound out reviews for movies I love or movies I hate like rapid fire.  I know what works and what doesn’t in those films – the only challenge is figuring out the frame.

For movies like “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” a pleasant but unremarkable little rom-com, writing a review is quite a bit tougher.  I just feel nothing but ambivalent towards the film, and I don’t feel the need to take a hard positive or negative approach.  In fact, it’s easiest to inch towards 400 words or so just dawdling and musing about the craft of reviewing film.

“Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” exists – I can’t say that I would recommend it, but then again, I don’t hate it by any means.  None of it is bad, unless you consider not being very good to be a bad thing.  Lasse Hallstrom is content to make a movie totally by the books, not reaching for anything more or anything less.  There’s no disappointment that way, but there’s also no potential for greatness.

I suppose the romance between Ewan McGregor’s brilliant savant Fred Jones and Emily Blunt’s Harriet, a finance expert for a Sheikh in Yemen, is nice and pleasant.  No sparks fly, but it’s not as painful as Channing Tatum and Rachel McAdams in “The Vow” or anything like that.

As they work together to achieve a bizarre fantasy, making it possible to fish for salmon in the scorching country of Yemen, I suppose there is a slight feeling of uplift and happiness.  But it doesn’t have the buoyancy of Hallstrom’s “The Cider House Rules,” and it doesn’t even come close to the transcendency of screenwriter Simon Beaufoy’s “Slumdog Millionaire.”

In other words, if you had to watch “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” there could be far worse things.  But you will forget it almost immediately.  In 10 years, if we still look at IMDb, I can imagine people will go, “OH! I remember that movie now,” when they look at the filmography of almost anyone involved with the film.  B-2stars