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We witnessed the kinetic energy of the Oscar-winning Birdman about an
aging actor making a comeback on the Broadway stage. Now with the
expert and engaging Clouds of Sils Maria we witness a middle-aged
actress, Maria (Juliette Binoche), contend with both her 20-year return
to the same play but as the older character and the energy of a
personal assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart), that reminds Maria of
time's passage and the changes in her profession.
Writer/director Olivier Assayas delights us with stunning camera work in an early sequence on the train;Hitchcock would love the camera and editing if you remember Strangers on a Train. Assayas also features the Alps with such loving cinematography you'll be booking a trip. Credit Yorick Le Saux for the editing and Marion Monnier for cinematography.
The heart of an excellent drama such as this is its words, the best way to convey the complex emotions each actress must display. Besides Binoche's up-close glamour, Kristin Stewart's sassy, dark beauty is there to remind us that youth rules.
The screenplay offers advice about the changing nature of dynamic dialogue: "The text is like an object. It's gonna change perspective based on where you're standing." (Valentine). In the case of Maria and Valentine, the sometimes screwball-comedy-like repartee reveals layers of perception and emotion heightened by the fact that we are witnessing the deconstruction of the acting experience: Maria holds to classical interpretation while Valentine's thesis is that spontaneity and electricity are the key components.
The plot of Maria's accepting a stage role for a play she acted in 20 years ago as the young lead loosely parallels the scenario of this film (young assistant provoking the older actress) until a climactic moment on the mountain, a moment whose ambiguity will demand you complete the scene for yourself. Regardless, you will know you have seen one of the best films of the year depicting the rigorous working of the art of acting given by two of the best actresses today in film (Stewart won a Cesar for this role, Binoche won an Oscar for English Patient, and a mature Chloe Grace Moretz is sure to be Oscar nominated soon!).
"Don't be afraid, they're just a bunch of dogs." Man at a club.
Well it's not the surrealistic Cujo with its rabid St. Bernard or the benign Benji. White Dog, rather, feels like a realistic horror film, at least till the closing when it does get surreal. Indeed, these mutts are not "just a bunch." They loosely represent the abused and subjugated underclass of the world, and you guessed it, they revolt like apes from that infamous planet or workers from Metropolis.
Until that fantasy ending, where the dogs are let loose to wreak havoc, the story is an effectively scary progression of the dog Max's descent into rabid madness through various masters, the last of whom teaches him how to kill for dog fights. Young Lili (Zsofia Psotta) befriends Max as a stray until she's forced to let him goon to his bloody career. Lili's struggles to keep the dog put her in opposition to her father, Daniel (Sandor Zsoter),and most authoritarian situations like playing in an orchestra under a controlling maestro.
As the drama slowly exposes (think about Hitchcock's measured exposition in The Birds) the constant abuse stray dogs are accustomed to, it parallels Lili's battle with a clueless father and abusive dog catchers, who sometimes resemble Ghostbusters in their uniforms and bungling dog chases. In either case, dog or girl, adults are usually clueless about the suffering they inflict on their dogs and children.
Like the poor French of their Revolution, the downtrodden and dogs will have their day. Today's increasing gap between the rich and poor or the brutality of Mid-Eastern ISIS persecutions can serve as the objects of writer/director Kornal Mundruczo's figurative story. For those not interested in English-major deconstructions, White God (the title may be homage to Sam Fuller's White Dog) is a fine horror story about the voiceless downtrodden rising up against their oppressors.
No matter which side you're on, it's a disturbing tale, bloody and depressing, elevated to artistic worthiness by an uncanny fusion of the real and the surreal.
Egads! I'm reluctant to tell you I enjoyed The Age of Adeline, a
dramatic romance that reeks of Nicholas Sparks except when it doesn't.
Adaline (Blake Lively) is 29 years old forever due to a freak
occurrence of nature. As poets have always predicted, such a blessing
has some regret as the ones she loves pass away and as she dare not
commit to anyone because of her curse.
Much of this fantasy depends on the sentimental lingering of Adaline as she reviews her more than century of life without permanent love. Where I found a core of true humanity without sentimentality is in the latter half of the film as Adaline faces committing to an attractive, intelligent, and charitable philanthropist, Ellis Jones (Michiel Huisman). Once again she faces the urge to leave because of her curse, but he and his family, notably the excellent Harrison Ford as his father, William, make her pause to consider letting go of her agelessness.
And so must we pause to consider how poets like Browning opined that the gods were jealous of mankind because of our ability to love and suffer, at, of course, the cost of our lives. But then Jesus Christ chose the imperfect route to redeem our sins. Not a bad reason yet it still holds the pain of death. This film at least makes us consider whether or not we would wish to live like Adeline, constantly running from reality unable to hold anyone but her aging daughter, Flemming (always excellent Ellen Burstyn), and Adaline's dog. Watch out for Harrison Ford's best performance ever as a father caught in the web of time and a Trivial Pursuit game that shows us all how it should be played.
Realists might better stay home than face the usual romantic absurdities like how the substantial Ellis could so quickly fall in love with Adaline (called Jenny at this time in her life) or how the sentimental ending could have sunk a less intelligent film. Yet, the Twilight Zone could have produced such a fantasy, and I never complained about Rod Serling's manipulations.
While at the end the film gives in to sap of the usual romance kind, it regularly rises above the trite to tackle the eternal puzzle of life, love, and romance. Besides, who doesn't want to consider embracing the joys of aging, wrinkles and death?
"I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson)
Ex Machina is a thoughtful science fiction about Artificial Intelligence, whereby, to no fan's surprise, the current female robot, Ava (Alicia Vikander), has human qualities that cause trouble for inventor, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), and visitor, young Caleb. If you know anything about these stories, you could write the screenplay, but you'd need these actors to make it the impressive sci-fi it is.
Poets and philosophers have been intrigued by just this story about AI gone astray after interacting with humans. The Frankenstein motif is alive and dangerous, and the spirit of Spike Jonze's Her, with the seductive operating system, is very much a part of Ava's approach to Caleb. The destructive force of Nathan's creation is more subtle than in Dr. Frankenstein's creation, but menacing nevertheless: "Isn't it strange, to create something that hates you?" Ava to Nathan
Brainy Nathan has a compound somewhere in an Alaskan refuge as modern as could be with ID cards and glass walls and doors to give the impression of peace and transparency. Caleb is chosen to help Nathan use the Turing Test to judge the quality of the AI-human experience.
As in real life, nothing is as it appears because neither Nathan nor Ava can refrain from lying. Yet, even Caleb is drawn into lies as he gets closer, even romantically, yikes! to Ava. Once again for science fiction, as soon as the robot gets to enjoy being like a human, trouble ensues. However, even if this film seems like a retread, say, of Never Let Me Go, very few filmmakers could match the ultra modern, yet still sexy, set design. And Isaac's character is so mercurial, at once comforting then tyrannical, that the film could be remembered if only for his star turn as the mad but charming scientist.
After all, Ex Machina is as much about a scientist playing God as it is about the bridge between robot and man. Each topic could, and has been, treated on its own. Here it is an exciting return to modern man as god and monster:
"I am God." Nathan
"Sometimes the truth isn't believable. But that doesn't mean that it's
not true." Christian Longo (James Franco)
True Story? Maybe not so, but then what do I know about the secrets of journalists' or murderers' hearts, each beating differently to reality. How do I assess the truth of high-end journalism (Stephen Glass of the New Republic and Janet Cooke of the Washington Post are two recent liars)? Or even low-end: the Rolling Stone's rape story retraction? Vipers out there!
Historically-true Mike Finkel (an excellent Jonah Hill), a disgraced New York Times journalist, meets an alleged family murderer, Longo, who has been using Finkel's name for an alias while Longo was on the lam. However, he'll have aliases no more because he's indicted for murdering his wife and three children yet may be manipulating Finkel about the truth. But then, isn't Finkel massaging him for the story?
As Finkel meets him and begins a book about the murders (In Cold Blood echoes), it is never clear whether Longo is lying: A testimony to Longo's brilliance and to Finkel's disgrace for fudging a lead magazine section for the NYT. Lies are the hotbed for this thrilling, intellectually engaging biopic, whose arguable details have more suspense than most fictional on-screen thrillers.
The real thrill for me is the one-on-one sequences in prison while Finkel questions Longo, with Hill and Franco displaying why they are A-list film actors. Both underplay to great effect since lies are best applied subtly. Both actors will not be recognized at Oscar time because they acted so gently and without the great Nicholson or Pacino flourishes.
The many enthralling close up shots move plot along and deepen characterization without sensational gestures or facial gymnastics. Writer/director Rupert Goold keeps the suspense moving but allows us to linger with the principals to appreciate the challenge of finding the truth amid the charm of expert liars.
From the antiseptic, tomb-white prison to Finkel's woody Colorado retreat, we are led around the truth like asses, while the clues to truth are sprinkled among the seemingly neutral sets.
"Never chase a lie. Let it alone, and it will run itself to death." Lyman Beecher
"Because people forget, you see. And then, of course, there's justice."
Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren)
Keeping true to the memory of Holocaust victims and seeking the rightful return of art stolen are the driving forces of the pleasant Woman in Gold. The titular Klimt painting, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, formerly hanging in the Austrian State Gallery in Vienna, is the object of Maria Altmann's (Mirren) legal case against Austria based on her family's ownership and the Nazi's theft. The film is part low-key thriller and part modest travelogue (Vienna is now firmly on my bucket list), a smarter version of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel franchise, if you will.
As in the recent biopic, Mr. Turner, about the great British landscape artist, this film also gets its energy from a painter's world-class vibe. Whereas the Turner biopic, as interpreted brilliantly by Mike Leigh, gives insight into the painter, Woman in Gold is more interested in the legal work that leads to a visit to the Supreme Court and back to Austria.
Director Simon Curtis relies frequently on emotional music and the cool Maria to give a sense of the grand painting frequently referred to as "the Mona Lisa of Austria." A few expressive lines such as the opener to this essay are far too few given that a world-class painting should inspire many impressions and impassioned descriptions and interpretations. Maria sees mainly her Aunt while the world can see an entire era and country in her Aunt's necklace alone: "People see a masterpiece by one of Austria's finest artists," Maria says of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, "but I see my aunt."
Granted the true-life story as it tumbles from the painting is interesting enough, but the figurative possibilities are never explored. Yet the rewards are still there including Mirren's classy, relatively restrained performance and Ryan Reynolds' nerdy attorney, Randol Schoenberg (Grandson of Arnold). Together they present a formidable team opposing high-priced attorneys and an Austrian museum. Hooray for justice.
"I have to do what I can to keep these memories alive." Maria
If you're wondering where aging yuppies are these days, some of them
are in Noah Baumbach's knowing and biting comedy/drama, While We're
Young. Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are
forty-something's with time on their hands (they don't seem to have
financial worries) to worry about their aging and the biz, namely his
creating a documentary and she producing documentaries for her famous
documentarian father (Charles Grodin). And, oh, yes, they're still
talking about having a baby although she acknowledges her time has
Into their lives come the outsiders, who almost always will be trouble makers in a film. Jamie (Adam Driver) is a wannabe doc maker and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) a swell-looking young partner. Besides the issue of the 18 or so years differences in ages between the couples, a generational divide makes the older couple envy the vigor and life affirming younger couple, while the latter seems to want everything the elders should have such as a vast vinyl library.
The envies make for good drama and thought-provoking issues like what's the best way to enjoy life and is documentary film making an exercise in truth or fiction. These topics help elevate the film from the Judd-Apatow superficiality to more substantial issues regardless of age.
The screen fills with problems of identity, ageism, and technology, initially in favor of the new and young but later on more sobering thoughts about deleterious self-absorption. Along the way is a refreshing performance by Charles Grodin as a mature filmmaker and Cornelia's father, whose liberal acceptance of the old and the new strikes the social balance and documentary ambivalence the film seems to be promoting. The comedic elements evaporate as the film tackles these big issues, and it doesn't take prisoners for either side.
While some cineastes will delight in the reference to Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors, While We're Young has better things to do like reflect the painful uncertainties plaguing all humans going through life's relentless age cycles.
"It is my destiny." Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi)
Kumiko, finding a hidden VHS copy of Fargo (1996), leaves Tokyo to go to N. Dakota to find the film's buried treasure. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, is as fine a fantasy as you will find outside of the Disney Empire, and more insightful. Based upon an urban legend about a Japanese tourist who froze to death seeking the treasure, a bit of the Coen brothers' fabulous story lingers in this equally endearing tale.
Kumiko's a lost 29 year-old soul looking for the end of the rainbow--a little like most of us with dreams or bucket lists just beyond our graspbut we'll still dream of them or actually pursue the dream in the face of insurmountable odds. Kumiko at her job is distanced from her peers and an enigma to her boss, who lets her go with the company credit card because she is depressed, and he needs to fill her "office lady" spot with a younger model.
As she's reminded along her journey, the film Fargo is just fiction, and the town not a pleasant time to be in winter. Yet, Kumiko persists with help from a kindly old lady (Shirley Venard), who would rather take her to The Mall of America, and deputy sheriff (director Zellner), whose motives are pure as the driven snow that covers the land. That snow gradually overcomes every scene with purity and menace, a blank slate upon which her dream can come true and nature, human and otherwise, can send her to oblivion if it wishes.
Looking a little like Red Riding Hood, she's the opposite of realists, who see Kumiko's folly yet cannot stop her drive to get to Fargo and the buried loot.
The film is a Seinfeld variant because nothing happens except the most profoundly simple occurrences strengthening Kumiko's resolve and making us believers in her Quixote-like quest. For the lost Tokyo soul with only a pet bunny rabbit as Panza-like friend, Kumiko seeks to fulfill her fantasy, the naysayers be damned. (She likens herself to a Spanish Conquistador.) She hurts no one, and when at last she smiles, you know her quest is valuable only to her, a symbol of her achieving something in life to set her apart from boring normalcy.
This film works as allegory, applying to all who should hold on to their dreams if only for themselves. Otherwise, it's a delightful tale acted perfectly, a treat to please our fancy and remind us about private dreams that keep us going.
"When a man is wrapped up in himself, he makes a pretty small package."
Two reasons compelled me to see Effie Gray, the 19th century period piece about the failed marriage of famed art critic John Ruskin and his teenage bride, Effie Gray: Emma Thompson wrote it and co-stars; John Ruskin is a hero of mine. Neither reason is satisfied, nor in fact are dynamic people barely present in this boring biopic.
The crux of the conflict is that Ruskin never consummated the marriage; John Everett Millais, the pre-Raphaelite painter plays too little a part in this adaptation; and Effie Gray (Dakota Fanning, looking innocently pre-Raphaelite) is so underwritten as to make me question what such a wit as Thompson was thinking. Or maybe she was too busy miscasting Ruskin played by her husband, Greg Wise.
In real life, Ruskin was 29 years old when he married Effie, and Wise is 49, adding another layer of intergenerational distance not even historically accurate. As depicted here, Ruskin is a mama's boy coddled by both parents, actually shielded from social interaction so he can write unimpeded. While mom takes John immediately to a bath when he arrives with his new bride, the bride is left to pass pleasantries with dad as she is clueless yet about how mom will co-opt her every step of the short marriage.
What's boring about these farcical Freudian touches is that they're not even funny or fleshed out, and Thompson gives Ruskin little chance to show the verbal gifts that shot him to the forefront of Victorian art and architecture critics.
Ruskin best expressed what he didn't do for Effie:
"You cannot hammer a girl into anything. She grows as a flower does, she will wither without sun; she will decay in her sheath as a narcissus will if you do not give her air enough; she might fall and defile her head in dust if you leave her without help at some moments in her life; but you cannot fetter her; she must take her own fair form and way if she take any." Sesames and Lilies
By not giving Effie what he says should be done for a girl, Ruskin becomes his own most devastating critic.
"Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner
and life as you know it ends." Joan Didion
Danny Collins is about the imperfect redemption of an old rock star (think Rod Stewart). The cast carries a light-weight comedy/drama with class, headed by aging Al Pacino, who knows something about the subject as a super-star actor. However some touching scenes help bolster an otherwise weak imitation of Jerry Maguire.
Although Danny is disturbingly high most of the time from constant drinking and drug taking (Welcome home, Cliché), the film adds heft by having Danny try to reconcile with his son, Tom (Bobby Cannavale, terrific partly because he doesn't overplay his usual working-class loudmouth), whom he has never met and his family, including sweet daughter in law, Samantha (Jennifer Garner) and charismatic granddaughter, Hope (Giselle Elsenberg, whom you should watch out for in the futureshe's darn good). Those moments of dramatic worth are few because the film concentrates too much on the popularly accepted tropes about famous stars.
Danny's attempted flirtation with hotel manager Mary (Annette Bening, always classy even as the Columbia Pictures model for their updated torch- holding icon) has the realistic touches. I appreciate the parallel parsing of how difficult Danny's change of life will be.
The catalyst for the dramatic change in Danny is the letter he receives but never reads from John Lennon (based on a letter singer Steve Tilston received in 2005). It encourages Danny to retire from retreading his famous songs to trying new compositions. The result of this daring move is not what you might suspect and a testimony to writer/director Dan Fogelman's willingness to accept the reality of what makes the audience happy, not the performer.
"If your life changes, we can change the world, too." Yoko Ono
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