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Christopher Abbott and Cynthia Nixon have found fine homes on HBO
screens. Abbott is perhaps mostly known for his role on Girls while
Nixon will forever be a Sex in the City girl. Here in James White, they
deliver perhaps their finest performances of their careers thus far.
The film thrives off the compassion in their relationship and the way
it tests James' love for his mother Gail, but unfortunately to the
expense of what lies on the sidelines. There's an endearing affection
between James and his best friend Nick, but it offers little backstory
or arc, simply the type of wishful thinking support considering the
situations. The film also lends an entire chapter to James growing
close with a girl who becomes his girlfriend, but as soon as the film
retreats back home to tend to Gail she's completely tossed aside as
another periphery character.
That is part of the point though, taking care of her is all consuming and it contrasts the conditions of romantic love with the unconditional family love. Despite little dips into history, the film grew on me as it went on with Abbott impressing at every turn, subverting the brutish James to an empathetic son. Nixon does feel like she's trying too hard at first, but once the film submits to her and she succumbs to the worst of her cancer, she's as good as Abbott. Shot by the same cinematography as Son of Saul, New York is no less of a compelling setting than Auschwitz, focusing on intimacy with the characters, but again it's heart by choppy editing. The jump cuts give it a difficult rhythm to crack. It's limited and intense, and I certainly would've like a little more bittersweet hints at a future to really send the film home, but as an acting showcase James White is a powerhouse.
While I was underwhelmed with Denis Villeneuve's Prisoners, I found his
followup Enemy to be a much stronger and focused piece of work. Sicario
may be the best of the trio, though it doesn't have the same intricate
character work, opting to deliberately keep us in the dark. Instead,
it's a fascinating morality study on how the U.S. fights fire with too
much fire in the war against Mexican drug lords and criminals. It's
more effective and thoughtful than the sloppy Zero Dark Thirty with the
way it follows these ethical lines between the U.S. being just as bad
as what they're fighting against. I'm not sure if its ultimate
revelation works as well for me, and it can be a bit on the nose at
times which breaks its expert subtlety, but it's no less thematically
Unlike moments in Prisoners and Enemy, it demonstrates a great level of restraint that keeps a consistent level of tension aided by Johann Johannsson's ominous score and Roger Deakins reliable and crisp cinematography. That unease is often disarmed by Josh Brolin's breezy performance, who tackles this interesting balance between the lines of necessity and cruelty. Emily Blunt is the highlight of the film however, even if the film isn't interested in extensive character development, and gives a committed sense of vulnerability that drives the stakes. It's not all gloom fortunately, as writer Taylor Sheridan gives the ensemble plenty of wit without overdoing it. This is controlled and impressive work from Villeneuve, though it doesn't necessarily soar when it can.
Joel Edgerton seemed to have come out of nowhere when he made my
brother cry with Warrior. He's having a better decade than most, even
if the film's themselves aren't up to scratch, though he has been
around for nearly 20 years including a forgettable role in the
forgettable Star Wars prequels. In his first chance at the helm both
writing and directing a film, The Gift is a promising statement for a
focused creator while The Rover left a couple hints that this would be
the case. Naturally, Edgerton himself is the best part of The Gift,
with his role as the maligned Gordo haunting the film with his
unassuming yet disarming presence. Throughout the film we feel like a
voyeur peering into Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall's lives through his
As a domestic horror, or rather, a psychological thriller, Edgerton makes wise choices in giving The Gift a very understated approach. It's much more straightforward than I expected, while the music occasionally indulges in boiling our senses, it's otherwise held back and effective in its detail and slow unveiling of backstory. While it suffers to overcome solutions it doesn't consider, it instead chooses a much smaller scale to inflict its damage. It does a good job of showing a past coming back to bite the present as well as the influence of a rumour, or in its vengeance's case, persuasion. Bateman delivers one of the best dramatic performances he's given yet but Hall steals the moments in her nuanced unease. This is solid engaging work that leaves its paranoia stinging but a couple questions unanswered.
Paolo Sorrentino impressed in 2013 with his Fellini soaked The Great
Beauty, I didn't think it would win the Oscar, but it did deservedly.
That opened doors for Sorrentino to, apparently, make something in the
a similar vein but with A-list English language actors. That may not
have been the best of choices given potential career paths. While The
Great Beauty is a gorgeous sprawling character study with vibrant
ambition, Youth stops short of that standard. We have a similar
protagonist with Michael Caine, and there's no-one better to sprout off
a life's worth of wisdom like Michael Caine, but the spark is lost. The
ego is still here but it's coming with a self-satisfied smirk with smug
For starters, it absolutely should have done away with the cameos and musicians and actors playing versions of themselves. It's a big mish-mash of short stories that dip in and out, and while their individual arcs are solid and easy, it's a short step where film can otherwise leap. It's not always misguided, but it's often lazy. That's not to rob the aspects the film does right. The musings on memory are interesting, especially coming from Caine and Harvey Keitel, though the metaphors are quite heavy-handed. It's relatable in its its glistening cynicism and that's potent where it could have been swinging for universalities. They are however, hollow revelations due to its lack of character work, but no less valid.
Caine is a reliable lead, though he doesn't have much to do until the final act. However, Keitel is a welcome highlight doing what Keitel does best when he doesn't have a gun in his hand. Rachel Weisz however, is very mishandled and it was very difficult to connect to her character when she's dialled at a volume the film doesn't tune into. Jane Fonda has a solid part as a diva, but it's far too on-the-nose, while Paul Dano blends into the background, besides when he puts on a Hitler costume. Visually it is underwhelming compared to The Great Beauty though some of the smooth tracking shots remain. The soundtrack is ultimately the factor that needed the most work. Youth has its hits and misses but it's generally easy-going enough to get by, if not nearly as profound as it thinks it is.
Since Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch donned the deerstalker
hat in very separate and modern adaptations, there's been a resurgence
of interest in Sherlock Holmes this decade. Mr. Holmes may be hitting
what feels like a trend, but it subverts it enough to be interesting.
Now we have a retired Holmes in his last years as he criticises the
fictional depictions of himself. It manages to bypass something I find
tricky about the Holmes concept - which is how arbitrary each case can
be - by focusing on only the most important one. However, it has such a
slight and friendly approach to this that it can't be as potent as it
could be. Instead, it's better in its ideas than its execution. With
Bill Condon's affable direction, Holmes' penchant for detail doesn't
have enough weight.
Nevertheless, it was wise for Condon to drop his workman chores, such as helming the Twilight franchise a couple years ago, and go back to the elegance working with Ian McKellen offers him. The trio of performances in Mr. Holmes is its greatest delight. McKellen himself brings a sensitivity and wit to Holmes that's thoroughly welcome, while Laura Linney makes the best use of her character who could have otherwise simply blended into the background. Meanwhile, this is the year of great kid actor performances along with Abraham Attah and Jacob Tremblay as Milo Parker deserves a similar level of acclaim. He doesn't have to reach their heights, but he serves the film with wise skill. Paired with a great production, including Carter Burwell's score, Mr. Holmes may fall short of the peaks it could have traversed, but it's still a pleasant stroll.
In one single shot and one single take, Victoria covers a lot of ground
often literally as it takes us on a tour of Berlin, its criminal
underbelly, and the moral ambiguities of people in desperate
situations. The production of the film is a story in itself, though one
that many find detrimental to the fiction. Striving to have the film
take place in real-time and choosing the early hours of the morning,
Victoria does lend itself to little vivid backstory and few moments of
breathing room when the narrative takes baby steps, awaiting the larger
But as the stakes rise for the characters, it also rises for the actors and the crew to not make unsalvageable mistakes. Director Sebastian Schipper only shot Victoria three times, and it was that last attempt that had the dynamics that made the film come alive. While each actor and the cinematographer are clearly confident with their choreography, both in movement and in content, in the final film they blend vivacious spirit with careful efficiency.
On a routine night one, Victoria, a Spaniard living in Germany, bonds with a group of four friends, but is eventually recruited by them as an emergency getaway driver for a bank robbery. They then have to work together to deal with the swift justice of their sloppy escape. While its central robbery is just two minutes of its 140, Victoria does not waste any time thematically. Above all, it's a film about pushing limits. Of course, Schipper is pushing an extreme limit in ambitious film production, one that's only been available this past decade with digital possibilities. Meanwhile, Victoria is constantly pushing small limits herself.
While Victoria simply goes with the flow for the most of the film, drawn to the boys due to a lonely void she wants to fill as well as a desire to be accepted, it's one morally reprehensible act of taking charge of the situation in order to survive where the film comes to a thematic head. Do her actions make her morally corrupted? With the use of the media and witnesses, it studies Victoria from an inside and outside perspective. While the first hour or so of the film can strike impatience as it reveals little hints of the promised plot, the second half of the film is a panic- attack-inducing heart-stopper that more than makes up for the relative idling.
However, that sells short the magic of the first hour. Every performance is commendable the same way a participant in a long distance marathon has earned their medal. Laia Costa keeps her Victoria mostly reserved, playing off what the boys offer her, besides the film's emotional roller-coaster of a third act that's entirely piled on her. She does thoroughly impress in a stunning piano performance half-way into the film which I can only assume was on-camera and a result of Costa's own hidden talent as that would be hard to fake. The sound mixing of the film is its secret hero, as it also was for the clarity of Birdman.
Frederick Lau, Victoria's love interest Sonne, perhaps steals the show. He's one of those characters that at first you take an immediate dislike to due to his obnoxious personality, but as he peels back these human layers of Sonne, revealing a more sincere charm, we come to trust his attachment to Victoria as beyond obvious lust. The film feels out and unroots its emotional core between their romantic pursuit, along with ideas of Victoria's alternate life had she had a more fortunate past. Franz Rogowski as Boxer is the highlight of the supporting cast as he drives the story with unexpected sensitivity without overriding it from Costa and Lau.
Victoria will certainly draw comparisons to one-shot masterpieces Russian Ark and last year's Best Picture winner Birdman, but it that would be wholly unfair to pit them side by side. Birdman, like its content, is like a dynamic play; meticulously rehearsed, detailed, and gorgeously visualised in every frame and transition by Emmanuel Lubezki. Russian Ark is wide, expansive, and ambitious in different ways. Victoria is intimate and rugged, teetering on documentary-esque. The vibrancy of the performances and the meat of the story keep it from feeling amateurish, though they have to submit to the graininess of darker scenes.
However, cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grovlen, aptly credited first and foremost after the cut to black, always manages to find a well composed frame after any adjustment. The film offers something no other film can which is a sense of in the moment real consequences. The actors have to self-edit and let moments of comedy, drama, reaction and revelation flow into the next. In doing so, we get into the character's heads and mindsets, even if they're out of frame, more than if we had the fact that the actors are going home after this scene in the back of our minds. Instead, they have to deal with every moment they give and are given.
Victoria is one of the most pleasantly surprising marriages of style and substance, of which are both endearingly unpolished instead of overworked, that I've seen in a long time. It could be argued that it's simply a gimmick, though to its credit, it was conceived and shot before Birdman was released, but it's a film worth looking deeper at what it does in each of its moments. Despite having its collection of images within a single shot, it's an unforgettable experience where the intricate character details carved by the actors and Schipper are the moments that shine brightest. Exhilarating and tender in equal measures, Victoria is close to a masterwork and an experiment well worth uncovering.
Lewis Grassic Gibbon's 1932 novel Sunset Song is considered a classic
of Scottish literature, and English director Terence Davies has spent
15 years bringing it to the screen. It's with a heavy heart that
perhaps the sprawling and archaic epic may not translate to
contemporary cinema. It's the story of Chris Guthrie in the early 20th
century, a teenage girl (here played by Agyness Deyn) who suffers the
changing rota of her family as they pass on or exit, ultimately leaving
the farm to her tending. At first, it seems it's operating on a
compelling contradiction that's rarely explored. While not only is a
young woman's perspective in this time hardly considered on film, but
it puts her in command, independent of a man's world while they were
drafted to war. Unfortunately, it doesn't sing from that hymn sheet.
The biggest problem is that it seems to lack thematic consistency, or at least develop them with interesting contrasts. Its strongest idea is initially the passage of womanhood, but instead it's interested in vicious cycles. The first third of Sunset Song is a series of examples of pure misery as Chris suffers with little relief. Peter Mullan stars as her abusive father, clearly channelling Pete Postlewaite in Distant Voices, but without the dimensions. Mullan is perfectly capable of dominating the film like he's offered here, but Davies needed to give him more layers. As sources of misery are picked off, the second third is, delightfully, pure joy. Despite some obstacles, Chris thrives on the farm and begins a seemingly happy marriage with her brother's gentle friend Ewan. However, it's void of irony of what came before and what's to come.
The war comes. It whisks Ewan away despite his initial reluctance then his branding as a coward. With little prior hints, the film turns into a bleak anti-war film in how it destroys the fabric of families in spite of earlier strengths. Chris' brilliant triumphs as an independent woman do not overcome. A compassionate film would have left veins of bittersweetness within its rays of hope and despair, but instead it's simply flat, void of the expressionistic nostalgia that Davies has utilised before. Distant Voices, Still Lives one of the finest British films I've ever seen and The Long Day Closes, which I was less impressed with, both have exquisite photography, creating an ethereal atmosphere. The photography here is misjudged, being far too wide for an intimate film while its modern crispness makes it feel like actors playing dress- up in theatre. At least the locations lend themselves to the beauty when the camera is outside.
Not to rob the film of its brightest shining attribute though. Agyness Deyn as Chris Guthrie is absolutely incredible, carrying the film squarely on her shoulders. She's raw, committed and deeply expressive. While her character certainly needed more work, she's never dragged down by the film's shortcomings and elevates the film where it falls. The supporting cast doesn't quite have the same potency, but that's mostly due to Davies' overly simple handling of the material. Kevin Guthrie as Ewan has two interesting sides to his character to explore, as he starts kind but transforms into a man like Chris' father, but they're put beside each other. Those facets are finally blended, but by that point it was too late to redeem. Perhaps it was more powerful when the book was written in the 30s at the dawn of another war. In Davies' direction, the film is often either conventional in its domestic dramas or its a meagre attempt at those conventions.
Sunset Song does occasionally have ambitions beyond the grand struggles of the Scottish people in the early century. With Deyn's narration, it occasionally dips into profound ideas of her insignificance in the grand scheme of time. If delivered quicker, it could have made more of an impact. It also dips into the ideas of the relationship between people and the land as the land stays resilient while war takes people away. It contrasts Chris' own battered endurance with the land's bruises. As the film plays one note at a time, it's difficult to take anything pure away from it, but at least attempts are made and lifts it up from mediocrity. Perhaps this just wasn't the right source material for a film just over 2 hours long as it even suffers from its slow pacing. Davies has always focused on the past rather than the present, but perhaps his perspective is too ancient for cinema now.
It's an inevitability that Carol will face categorisation as an LGBT
film, but that's not the limits of how it should be considered. It's
simply a heartfelt and deeply human love story where the principle
couple confronts insurmountable odds. In Carol's case, these obstacles
are the prejudices of the time and culture they live in. The film
frames this discrimination in a tangible and legal way, as the titular
Carol is accused of a morally indecent lifestyle by her ex-husband in
order to win custody of their daughter. The film isn't interested in
being a courtroom drama though, instead focusing on the blossoming
relationship between Rooney Mara's Therese and Cate Blanchett's Carol.
Todd Haynes is known for his heightened style that evokes the melodrama of Douglas Sirk, for instance. His 2002 film Far From Heaven feels plucked from the cinema of the 1950s. However, Carol is a film that feels plucked from the New York streets of the 1950s as the aesthetic here is surprisingly naturalistic. It doesn't quite breach a documentary-esque style with Edward Lachman's understated and pleasantly grainy cinematography, but it all comes organically and authentically with the elegant fashion of production and costume design and the atmosphere that its cold Christmas setting provides. It's a very restrained film as there are only two particularly intimate scenes but the film carries an air of sexual and romantic tension throughout.
As Carol, Cate Blanchett challenges her polar opposite and equally excellent work with Haynes as a Bob Dylan incarnation in I'm Not There here. By nature of the film's structure, the first half is in the perspective of Therese and the second focuses on the perspective of Carol. There's an interesting inaccessibility about Blanchett in the first half that draws you into Therese's infatuation. Mara, one of the most promising actresses of this decade since her small memorable part in The Social Network, uses her own reserved detachness something she's been frequently criticised for to her own advantage. To watch someone like Therese open up after being so repressed is thoroughly cathartic.
However, Blanchett whips the film from under her feet in the second half. She litters the first half of the film with nuanced hints and clues to her past desires, also communicating so much with very little. She's elusive, but Mara is a key source of intrigue at that point due to the honesty in her performance and unexpected dry wit. Once Carol is struggling to deal with her own internal conflicts, Blanchett is on fire and burns the house down with her ultimate rebuttal of the accusations against her. Kyle Chandler, her suffering husband soon to be ex-husband, shows such painful anguish in his brief outbursts. It's a measured performance that anchors the film and the stakes of the relationships. Every performance of the ensemble from extras to bit parts are delivering among their finest work.
It's an all-rounder in terms of Oscar-contention, with Haynes perhaps being a more likely bet for Best Director than the film is for Best Picture. Blanchett has won too recently but if Weinstein works his magic, Mara would be a strong contender in either leading or supporting. Phyllis Nagy will certainly duel with Aaron Sorkin in Best Adapted Screenplay, even if her work is more patient, while the production and costume design ought to destroy competition. A sure bet should be Carter Burwell for his beautiful score that sunk my chest with its few powerful notes. It's an achingly tender film that will be timeless, even if it doesn't resonate with everyone with such specificity. Carol shouldn't just be a statement for our time and a condemnation for past mistakes, it's a demonstration that love is a part of the human condition regardless of sexuality.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul had been on my radar after the elusive
critical praise for his earlier work that seem fit only for lists like
They Shoot Pictures. He doesn't seem to satisfy general audiences in
the same way, despite winning at Cannes for Uncle Boonmee. Ostensibly
his most personal film, Cemetery of Splendour seemed like a good start.
It was certainly an introduction to his ambiguity which Splendour
indulges in at every opportunity. It's very rich with its themes,
though you have to go with the flow on its spirituality, belief in past
lives and superstition, but those themes don't necessarily feel like
they string together. More knowledge on Thai politics, history and
culture would certainly help to arrive at a concise interpretation, but
it does have enough universalities.
There is, however, a fascinating way it contrasts past and present simultaneously. That's its best ambiguous angle. Each shot can be its own individual thought rather than giving myself headaches trying to piece it together. Weerasethakul at least has a wonderful sense of poetic composition and juxtaposition, his choice of a rainbow light aiding him in many senses. But besides the calm and often profound nature of the film, what makes it strike a nerve is the deeply resonating performance from his lead Jenjira Pongpas. She balances humour with empathetic emotion with nuanced ease and anchors the film in her relateability despite her unique situation with her tumurous leg. Cemetery certainly gives a lot to chew on.
Besides the notable cast, Jeremy Saulnier's Green Room is most likely
closer to his 2007 horror comedy Murder Party than his sleeper 2014
thriller Blue Ruin. One of the most pleasant surprises of last year, it
was very nice to see that Saulnier managed to gather up a follow-up in
a relatively quick time the gap from festival run to general release
date notwithstanding. Green Room continues the vein of comically inept
people in violent situations, but it's too crowded and lacks the
subversiveness that made Blue Ruin so riveting. More characters means
more bloodshed, but it uses that a crutch to get easy thrills rather
than spending time getting us invested. Nevertheless, on concept alone
it's destined for cult status, but lets hope Saulnier has a better idea
up his sleeve next.
Set in a day or two on the frugal tour of a punk band they appear to be entirely fueled on stealing gas from other cars including Anton Yelchin, Alia Shawkat, Callum Turner and Joe Coe, they're very young, semi-talented, with a modest following but very little prospects. They're just in it for the thrill of the moment onstage. From a tip of a journalist after a gig is cancelled, they play a show at a neo-nazi venue just to get by. They tease the crowd with anti- white-supremacist lyrics, but they're in no real danger until one of the band members accidentally stumbles upon a murder in the bar's green room. They're held hostage, helped by a friend of the deceased played by Imogen Poots, until it becomes clear that the supremacist's only option lead by Patrick Stewart is to leave no witnesses and frame the band for everything. Cue a relentless bloodbath and a grudging cleanup.
While the first gore scene is certainly stomach churning, the film regrettably relies on a palpable sense of dread over taunt tension. Its ultimate payoffs just have shock value rather than anything more gratifying, thereby drowning out its small comic elements. This is a very familiar brand of storytelling, and Saulnier definitely raises it from feeling pedestrian but it doesn't go much further than that. For one, I really wish he had shot it himself. While Blue Ruin has much more patience, Saulnier's own photography in his hands boasted more cinematic shots than the most expensive and lavish blockbusters. It was vivid and atmospheric. Instead of atmosphere, we get noise in Green Room. He trades the camera to Sean Porter, who did an otherwise great job with this year's Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, but it lacks the contrasts and focus to make it as effective despite the abundance of opportunities.
The film makes a wise choice to give every character a hint of humanity, including the supremacists, as this could have otherwise been a very unsympathetic batch of characters to follow. However, muddy motivations make it difficult to latch onto anybody when a few odd decisions are made. Their mutual efforts to outwit aren't too witty. The dialogue needed a lot of work, since it wasn't interested in getting deep under the character's skin, or mostly shredded to give the actors more breathing room. It's still an engaging film at least. Blue Ruin's lead Macon Blair is an understated highlight, while Patrick Stewart clearly channels Heisenberg without forcing it. Anton Yelchin and Alia Shawkat are the least likely punk rockers, but the latter makes it work by being the entrepreneurial boss while Yelchin's vulnerability makes him a natural underdog. Imogen Poots is usually irritating, but is only mildly irritating here. Unfortunately, Green Room runs thin the further it goes along, and severely lacks the potency that made Blue Ruin a treat. It's an average thriller, but an above average horror film.
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