REVIEW: By the Sea

28 11 2015

By the SeaAngelina Jolie Pitt’s third film, “By the Sea,” feels like a bloated student thesis project. And, for once, I do not use that term in a completely pejorative manner.

Jolie Pitt’s last directorial outing, “Unbroken,” was such a formulaic piece of studio entertainment that it felt depressingly soulless in its mediocrity. (Her deeply misguided mess of a debut, “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” is best left forgotten.) Here, she seems to be grappling with some fundamentals of cinema: editing, shot choice, shot duration, camera movement. Since Jolie Pitt holds such a position of power in Hollywood that she will likely see many opportunities to step behind the camera again, watching her grow is inarguably a positive thing.

Admittedly, there are far more qualified directors – female or male – deserving of eight-figure budgets to make a personal project. It’s frustrating to think on who lost out on their chance because Jolie Pitt got this one. Still, if she ever wants to take the reins of “Cleopatra” herself, everyone should be thankful she got to make “By the Sea” as a stylistic exercise.

The film is almost pure style, like a sleek perfume or cologne ad drawn out to feature length. Jolie Pitt and her husband, Brad Pitt, play the bitter married couple Vanessa and Roland, estranged practically to the point of their union dissolving. “By the Sea” follows their trip to the luxurious beaches of France from arrival to departure, chronicling their manifold frustrations in languorously broad strokes. Roland galavants off attempting to write his next novel, while Vanessa mostly just lingers around their hotel room smoking cigarettes and throwing shade through her Yves Saint Laurent sunglasses.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 13, 2015)

13 08 2015

A Christmas TaleIt’s hotter than Hades here in Houston, so I ventured into Arnaud Despelchin’s “A Christmas Tale” for some escapism.  (Just kidding, I watched it mostly because the Criterion Collection deemed it worthy of inclusion in their hallowed ground of cinephilia.)  Despite the title, this is a film that should not be dusted off every December to watch ritualistically like “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Rather, “A Christmas Tale” merely uses the holiday as its setting – not its subject.  A large French family needs to gather under the same roof for all this drama to play out, and what better occasion is there for that than Christmas?  Instead of celebration, this day brings bitterness, resentment, and sorrow.

The family’s matriarch, Catherine Deneuve’s regal Junon Vuillard, needs a bone-marrow transplant to treat her fast-progressing cancer.  She needs a match from one of her children or grandchildren, all of which seem to struggle with some sort of serious issue.  (Except the two toddlers, but one can only imagine what kind of misery awaits them when they are old enough.)  To list everyone’s baggage would just consume the word count of a whole other review, not to mention spoil the fun of watching everyone collide and implode.

Though two and a half hours for a family melodrama might seem excessive, “A Christmas Tale” never buckles under the weight of its runtime.  Despelchin’s epic sprawl and familial brawl recalls the ’90s works of Paul Thomas Anderson – a comparison anyone who reads my reviews is high enough praise to earn the distinction of the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”  Here is a movie with a grandiosity to its mood that feels perfectly cinematic, never exaggerated or gauche, anchored in a sharply written script and fine performance by a stellar cast.  What more could one ask for underneath the tree?

REVIEW: Laurence Anyways

18 04 2013

Laurence AnywaysRiverRun International Film Festival

Writing reviews that hinge on an “I like it, but…” are always fun, so here goes my latest.  (And if you want a classic example of this type of review, see my take on Spielberg’s “Lincoln.”)

Though I haven’t seen any of Xavier Dolan’s previous two films, “I Killed My Mother” and “Heartbeats,” I immensely respect this young wunderkind’s talent.  He is a master of cinematic art at 24, and I cannot wait to see how he pushes the form in the future.  Heck, for all we know, he could be the future of film.

But now is not the future, nor is his third film “Laurence Anyways.”  It shows promises of greatness and hints at a bold, brash masterpiece coming down the pipes.  Dolan, however, falls into plenty of typical early-feature shortcomings with this film – namely, unevenness.

I can imagine it would be a bit intimidating trying to tell Dolan to control his ambitions – after all, he only directed, wrote, and edited this film.  (Oh, and he designed the costumes.)  But he toggles between two totally different styles in “Laurence Anyways,” a pared-down reality and a wildly imaginative impressionism.  The two stand in pretty stark contrast to each other, especially when one abruptly transitions to the other.  I am not saying they can’t coexist peacefully, but the way Dolan does it here just feels sloppy and choppy.

The story he tells, that of Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) seeking to become the woman he feels that he is meant to be inside, is certainly interesting and provocative.  Tackling transvestism and transgender issues has been something seldom tackled by filmmakers save perhaps Pedro Almodóvar, and he explores its complications with sensitivity and without a hint of exploitation or disrespect.  At the heart of “Laurence Anyways” is a human story, not an exclusively LGBTQ story, as Laurence struggles with his attractions and repulsions to Fred (Suzanne Clément).  This emphasis on the personal does harm the film a little, however, when it tries to wax political at the close.

I was definitely intimidated by the nearly three hour runtime of “Laurence Anyways” going in, and it wound up being less of an issue than I expected.  I was always caught up in the action of the film; heck, by the end, I felt like I had spent a lifetime with Laurence and Fred.  Their saga spans over a decade, and the film needed to be that long to capture all the micro-level complexities Dolan wanted to portray.

Yet a part of me thinks that for a story of such sprawling breadth, perhaps film was not the correct medium.  The past five years have been an incredible artistic Renaissance for cable television.  Shows like “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” are moving beyond episodic plots and into exploring traditionally filmic narratives with aesthetic integrity.  Many still consider television to be a bastard art compared to film, but there really should be no shame in giving a story the room to breathe in a series or mini-series format.

So while there’s plenty to admire in “Laurence Anyways,” I saw plenty of room for improvement as well.  It’s one of those movies where I just cross my fingers and hope it’s a harbinger of better things to come further down the road, not indicative of an upper limit.  B- / 2stars