REVIEW: Serena

23 02 2015

SerenaDespite all the negative press churned out by the rumor mill as it sat for years in the editing bay, “Serena” is far from a disaster.  Susanne Bier’s saga of competition and coveting in 1920s North Carolina certainly contains a fair share of riveting moments.  Overall, though, it seems to lack focus.

For instance, is the protagonist of the story George Pemberton, Bradley Cooper’s timber baron intent on protecting his land from government encroachment?  Or is it Serena Pemberton, Jennifer Lawrence’s arrestingly beautiful and tempestuously emotional business and life partner?  The answer is unclear because the movie lacks decisiveness.

The same goes for which of the two storylines in “Serena” – George and Serena’s tumultuous marriage, or their contentious capitalistic ventures – serves as the predominant one.  The film would have undoubtedly benefitted from the demotion of one to the status of a subplot.

With some of these fairly basic issues left unsettled, “Serena” quickly becomes mostly notable as a showcase for its stars.  Had Bier and her editors somehow turned the film around in a few months after shooting in spring 2012, the performances would likely have received no end of acclaim.  But now, three years have passed, in which time Cooper and Lawrence have collected a whopping five Oscar nominations.  Their George and Serena now feel rather penciled-in when measured against Pat Solitano and Tiffany Maxwell.

The 105 minutes necessary to watch “Serena” might be put to better use by rewatching “Silver Linings Playbook,” “American Hustle,” or “American Sniper.”  Those films feature the stars giving more fully fleshed-out performances (with better accents) while also featuring more confident direction.  The fine details available for discovery by digging deeper into those characters far outweighs what can be skimmed from the surface of this middle-of-the-road flick.  C+2stars

REVIEW: In a Better World

6 10 2011

Many times, critics try to write the film history books by declaring movies groundbreaking, innovative, daring, or bold.  We note trends, developments, and overall moods in the field of cinema at large.  We have little power to affect artistic merit, but we have a great deal of power in affecting how much cultural merit a film has.

It’s all too easy to make our ultimate standard of good filmmaking those movies that we can declare relevant.  Sometimes, though, it’s nice to get a reminder like “In a Better World” that these aren’t the only criteria for great movies.  Susanne Bier’s film is a powerful and moving testament to cinema’s ability to engage us through authentic portrayal of primal human emotions.  It’s unlikely to shake the earth with its ingenuity, but it’s almost guaranteed to make your heart shake in your seat.

While the title “In a Better World” conveys a sense of almost utopian optimism, perhaps the original Danish title, which translates to “Revenge,” better conveys the film’s exploration.  Across two continents, Bier weaves a parable about the forces that bring about one of our ugliest, deepest, yet most primordial instinct and how the strength and resilience of the human spirit can resist caving into it.  The story may have been told before, but it’s one of the greatest cinematic feats when someone like Bier can make the narrative just as captivating as if we were experiencing it for the first time.

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