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 (September 10, 2015)

10 09 2015

A ProphetThe Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) gets underway today, and plenty of films vying for Oscar glory will be seen for the first time.  Other holdovers from Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, and Venice will also get a moment in the sun, a reintroduction for North American audiences.

One film of the latter variety is Jacques Audiard’s “Dheepan,” the controversial Palme D’Or winner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.  Many people chalked up the film’s unexpected victory to its director simply being due for the prize after coming up short numerous times.  One such missed opportunity was back in 2009 when Audiard debuted “A Prophet.”

I first watched the film after it received a nomination for the Best Foreign Language Film award at the Oscars back in 2010 … and found myself quite underwhelmed.  For whatever reason, I just could not connect with it.  But once “Dheepan” took the big prize in Cannes, I felt obliged to give it another go.  The second time around, I was actually quite taken by the film.  I still think “Fish Tank” deserved the Palme D’Or, but “A Prophet” is certainly worth of my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

Audiard’s film is a patiently paced prison drama that goes for slow, longitudinal change rather than explosive incidents.  Think “The Shawshank Redemption,” but as an art film instead of something so commercial.  “A Prophet” follows Tahar Rahim’s Malik, a most curious double agent, as he games both sides of a Corsican/Muslim prison gang tussle.  He wants to make a big move one day in the future – even though that forces him to assume a subservient position for the ruthless, spineless Corsican ringleader (Niels Arestrup).

Audiard was smart to cast Rahim, a novice actor when he filmed “A Prophet.”  A well-versed thespian might have tried to slip hints towards a greater intellect humming beneath the surface of Malik.  Rahim, however, plays him as a rather ordinary man of no particular intelligence, just sort of making it up as he goes.  He’s playing the long game, not necessarily because he focuses on the ends but mostly because he cannot sufficiently navigate the present.

Malik’s rise to power, when watched in the right state of mind, makes for truly riveting cinema.  While it might not always be pulse-pounding action, the novel-like breadth of its narrative provides a rich experience for serious-minded movie lovers.

REVIEW: War Horse

11 01 2012

One of the best compliments I can give “War Horse” is that it feels like Robert Zemeckis’ “Forrest Gump,” just following a smart horse instead of a dumb man.  Both films are among the best cinematic examples of cinematic historical fiction, showing the way things were through unique perspectives that make us rethink how we ourselves see them.  They extoll the power of one good, pure-hearted soul to intertwine us all into a common destiny – and then throw in beautiful landscapes, gorgeous sunsets, and a poignant score by maestro John Williams.

By now, you’ve probably heard all the main talking points on this movie.  Detractors decry it for being all schmaltz and sentimentality, as if they were so far below Spielberg.  Fans love it for its warmth and touching narrative, as if Spielberg had lost his mojo since “Schindler’s List.”  Basically, they just found different ways to react to same thing: this is a movie designed to tug on your heartstrings in thinly-veiled manipulation using old-time technique and sensibility.

You can choose to either judge this movie on principle or on execution; I choose the latter as the movie is unapologetically and unabashedly what it is, and that’s totally fine with me.  Where it becomes an issue, though, is when it falls just short of the lofty expectations it sets for itself.  Granted, it’s a little unfair to judge Steven Spielberg against his own work, which contains many of the modern masterpieces of our time, but it lacks both the visceral and the emotional intensity of his previous films that “War Horse” can’t help but harken back to.

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