Thursday, November 22, 2012

Review: "The Deep Blue Sea"

Director: Terence Davies
Runtime: 98 minutes

Terence Davies' The Deep Blue Sea is a subtle and understated film, one that takes some of the subject matter present in Anna Karenina and renders it on a much smaller scale. Yet even though Davies' film earns points for its graceful maturity, it lacks both passion and insight. Though capably led by Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston, Sea is merely an adequate relationship drama that, only on occaision, displays any remarkable feats of film making or acting.

Weisz is Hester Collyer, wife of a prominent judge named William (Simon Russel-Beale) in post-WWII London. She engages in an affair with a troubled RAF pilot named Freddie (Hiddleston), which inevitably sets off a series of struggles. Yet where Davies, who also adapted the screenplay from Terence Rattigan's play hits the nail on the head is in his pacing of the story. Hester and Freddie's affair is discovered quite early, and the film is more about the ramifications that ensue when Hester leaves her husband to live with Freddie. Like the stoic Karenin, William allows his wife to do as she pleases, without giving her the satisfaction of a divorce. Rather than convince her to come back, or act maliciously towards her, he simply bows out, leaving her to think on her alleged sins.

Yet all is not well between the semi-liberated lovers. Hester struggles with her guilt over what she's done to William. At times her love for Freddie sustains her. And other times, as indicated in the elegant opening sequence, it can't. Unfortunately, though Hester's struggle takes center stage, it is often less compelling than the lives of those around her. The subtlety is admirable, yet it gets in the way of the film's establishment of Hester and William's marriage, and why it doesn't provide the love Hester desires. At one point, Hester even confesses that physical love is all that matters to her, which does little to make her more sympathetic. The film never really follows up on this point either, thereby leaving an intriguing angle completely unexplored. 

Hiddleston's Freddie, much like William, gets the short end of the stick when it comes to depth. As such, Freddie's sudden bouts of anger are jarring and unconvincing. Freddie's involvement in the war is hazily sketched out, and the reasons for his inner turmoil barely touched upon. So even though the small moments between Freddie and Hester come off nicely, the film neglects the big picture angles, which eventually catches up with the piece on the whole.

As the film's center, Weisz gives a consistent turn, and thankfully avoids the awkward shifts of her work in The Bourne Legacy. Let at the same time, perhaps due somewhat to the writing, she never quite digs into Hester's issues beyond the obvious. Many moments that could have been subtle and laced with buried emotion instead give the impression that Weisz only got a millimeter beneath the character's skin, and then stopped cold. The performance is often adequate, yet Weisz never turns Hester's mix of emotional turmoil and British reserve into a compelling person to watch and follow. 

All in all, it's a shame, because Davies, at least as a director, deserves quite a bit of credit for his adaptation. The camera work flows elegantly, giving a sense of life to scenes that mostly involve people standing, sitting, and talking. There's also a lovely and delicately executed scene - a single shot - of Hester and William watching a group of singers in a tube station as German planes pound the city with bombs. It's a striking moment, yet unfortunately, it has nothing to support it. Much in the vein of Luca Guadagnino's I am Love, the reasons for the protagonist's affair feel too slight, and too thinly sketched out. Whereas Tilda Swinton's Eva at least had an army of snobby family members supposedly suffocating her, Hester only has William's elitist mother. She's a snob, yes, but the old woman is hardly capable of oppressing anyone, considering that William married Hester without too much trouble. 

Once again, the big picture issues hound the film. Without a truly compelling sense of either Hester or her motives, there's little to latch onto or ponder once the credits roll. The elegance and maturity of the execution is wholly commendable, and at the very least keeps the journey interesting, as Davies refuses to have people spell things out for the audience. Yet all the same, all of the elegant camera work and beautiful music can't cover up the film's omnipresent vagueness, which ultimately does it in. For a film titled The Deep Blue Sea, Davies' latest is sadly lacking in depth, and on multiple fronts.

Grade: C+

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Review: "Anna Karenina"

Director: Joe Wright
Runtime: 130 minutes

Shakespeare's immortal line "All the world's a stage..." has never applied to a film so literally as it does to Joe Wright's Anna Karenina, the latest adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's classic novel. Filmed almost entirely inside of a dilapidated theater, the film's characters walk across stages, climb through rafters, and move seamlessly from place to place as sets transform around them in real-time. It is, as the marketing has billed it, a bold new vision of Tolstoy's work. Yet is there a price to pay for such heavy artifice? The film runs a little over 2 hours, and Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard have obviously omitted or streamlined parts of the 1000 page novel. Yet do these changes, combined with the stylistic conceit, detract from the overall quality and impact? It's hard to say, as Wright's film is the rare sort of classic literary adaptation that is likely to inspire extreme division, between those swept up by the execution, and those turned off by what could be seen as a nuance-free adaptation.

For those not terribly familiar with the story, Anna is set in Imperial Russia in the 1870s, and charts the fall of the distinguished titular character (played by Keira Knightley) in high society after a passionate affair. Yet Anna's infidelity towards her husband (Jude Law) is not the story's first bit of romantic betrayal. We're first introduced to Anna's brother Oblonsky (Matthew MacFadyen), a husband and father who engages in a brief affair of his own. It is in Anna's journey to smooth over the relationship between Oblonsky and his wife Dolly (Kelly MacDonald) that she first meets the dashing Count Vronsky (Aaron Johnson), who inspires actual feelings of attraction in Anna, as opposed to her respectful but love-less marriage to Karenin. 

And now is as good a time as ever to admit that, outside of a few chapters, I have not read Tolstoy's novel. As such, I can't tell you how Anna Karenina "should" be played on screen, and if the character offers room for different interpretations. What I can say is that Ms. Knightley, in her third collaboration with Wright, presents her as a woman forced too early into maturity. Anna can be coy, flirty, or petulant at a moment's notice. As best as she tries to maintain the steely composure of a dignified member of the upper class, the facade cracks often as she struggles to reconcile her choices with the effects they have on her social life. She is, whether by choice or not, beyond being a girl, yet still not quite comfortable as a woman (I promise that this isn't a reference to that Britney Spears song). Where she stacks up against other big screen incarnations of the character, I can't say. However, despite the odd bump or two, Knightley and Wright's interpretation of the character is a success on its own terms, even if she is rendered less complex that she likely was on page. 

Yet even though Anna's troubled romance with Vronsky is the story's focus, it is the supporting cast who dominate the film. That is, when they're given enough to do, and have scenes that allow them to breathe. MacFadyen is particularly lively, with his portly joviality and walrus mustache accompanying his grandiose swaggering. It is thanks to MacFadyen (and Stoppard's script), that the film generates a surprising amount of laughs. Even though these lighter moments are mostly confined to the film's opening (which has fun sending up the performative nature of upper class rules and rituals), they lend Wright's film a liveliness and an energy that is then carefully slowed down as emotions deepen.

If MacFadyen is the comedic king of the supporting cast, it's Law who reigns on the dramatic end of the spectrum. Kept out of sight early on, the actor - severely de-glammed with a horrible hairdo - brings a sophisticated toughness to Karenin that refrains from making him a simple antagonist. Karenin is stern and abides by his moral code, yet he remains understandable, even though his attitude towards Anna can easily be seen as cruel.

But then there are those who move outside of the grand artifice of the theater. Levin (Domnhall Gleeson), a young man seeking Oblonsky's romantic assistance, rejects high society, and takes the story to a series of naturalistic settings. While the others fret about morals and manners, Levin makes his living out in the wheat fields, free from gossip and constricting social identities. As a result, Levin's relationship with young socialite Kitty (Alicia Vikander) feels, appropriately, more honest and heartfelt, whereas other relationships veer toward heightened melodrama. 

This marks, perhaps, the one key drawback to the film's structure and Mr. Stoppard's screenplay. Wright's Anna Karenina has energy, but it can also feel truncated. As well as much of the film flows along, it occasionally lurches forward with emotional developments, particularly when it comes to Anna and Vronsky's affair. And even though Knightley generally holds up her end of the relationship nicely, Johnson's Vronsky comes with a surprisingly lack of allure. The strange blonde dye job is forgivable. The fact that Johnson and Knightley sometimes seem to pretend that they're interacting with someone other than their scene partner? Less so. As such, neither Anna's fall from grace, nor her ultimate fate register as strongly as they could. Though the film descends from its outrageous stylization as it progresses, it can't quite hop off of the pedestal to become fully human. Wright strives for an epic romantic tragedy, yet he doesn't make it all the way there. Consider it a case of landing among the stars after shooting for the moon.

Where the film does fully succeed, to little surprise, is in its visual and sonic departments. The sets, whether realistic or purposefully stagy, are intricate and often create the effect of looking at a series of beautiful moving tableaus. Jacqueline Durran's costumes, with a wide array of colors, head ornaments, veils, and fur-lined garments, constantly top themselves the further the film goes on. Throw in cinematographer Seamus McGarvey to capture it all, and you have a truly sumptuous experience that sweeps your senses off of their feet, even as it sometimes leaves the heart behind. Usual Wright composer Dario Marianelli is also back after skipping out on Hanna, and provides suitably seductive, lush musical accompaniments that transform the story from classic romantic literature to full blown opera. Whatever your thoughts on Wright as a director, there's no doubt the man knows how to create beautiful (and often compelling) images even as he flirts with indulgence. From an aesthetic standpoint, consider Anna Karenina a two hour ride in a Rolls Royce outfitted by Chanel and Swarovski.

How fans of the book will react to this adaptation is, as previously stated, difficult to say. Some may find Wright's streamlined take enthralling. Others may find it to be a garish watering down of one of Russian literatures greatest works. Yet wherever you stand on the film (even if you haven't read the book), it's hard to not be impressed by the daring approach. Many adaptations are sunk by a slavish faithfulness to the source material. At the very least, Wright and his cohorts deserve a degree of admiration for creating such a wholly cinematic vision of a novel that, in its entire complexity, was probably never truly meant for the big screen.

Grade: B/B+

Monday, November 12, 2012

Review: "Skyfall"

Director: Sam Mendes
Runtime: 143 minutes

One of the main complaints against the Daniel Craig 007 films is that, well, they don't really feel like 007 films. Starting in the early/mid 2000s, grittiness has become the defining trait of most action films (especially those involving superheroes). Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy best exemplifies this. The operatic darkness Nolan brought to the world of Bruce Wayne and the Joker made for a satisfying contrast to the campy Batman films of years past. Yet unlike Batman, 007 has always been a character built on charisma and suave sexuality. And yet Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace both turned Bond into a more restrained, Jason Bourne-type action hero. Even the villains were tame, with the most outlandish character trait being a bleeding eye. What makes Skyfall, Craig's third outing as 007, stand out is that it takes still takes the dark and gritty approach to Bond, yet mixes in elements that seem to put the secret agent on path to being something resembling his former self.

Opening with a superbly executed chase in Istanbul, Skyfall is perhaps the most intimate Bond film yet. A secret from M's (Judi Dench) past has come out from hiding, launching a vicious cyber battle against MI6 and its agents. After MI6's headquarters are badly damaged, Bond and his cohorts find themselves using limited means. When Bond first meets Q (Ben Whishaw), he is only given a DNA-encoded gun, and a radio transmitter. Casino Royale may have been the stylistic reboot of the Bond films, but Skyfall truly takes 007 back to basics. Even the locations are scaled down. Bond's globetrotting is all contained in the film's first half, with the only significant trip after Istanbul being Shanghai/Macau. Once back on the British mainland, the film settles in and gets cozier and cozier, eventually leading Bond to the remote Scottish Highlands.

It's an interesting story choice, and it pays off by giving the film a sense of focus, despite its 2 hr 20 min duration. Complimenting this is Sam Mendes' direction. The closest thing to an "art house" director to ever helm a Bond film, the choice pays off in spades. More than any Bond film in recent (or distant) memory, Skyfall is built on a sustained atmosphere, rather than on broad humor and over-the-top action. Aside from the opening and closing battles, the film's action feels relatively contained, save for a bit in the London Underground that is left hanging in thin air. 

In large part, the credit also belongs to cinematographer Roger Deakins, who has created the best looking Bond film ever, by a considerable margin. The master DP's work here, from the foggy Scottish hills to the neon and steel of Shanghai is lush, textured, and varied. A sequence set in a room full of glass doors and panels is a masterwork of playing with light, lines, and reflections. It's a sumptuous film, and the visual pleasures help smooth out the occasional odd or underwhelming moment (a scene involving a hungry Komodo dragon is particularly shrug-inducing). 

The cast are also on their game as well. Craig seems to be having a little more fun as Bond, especially now that his turmoil regarding Vesper Lynd's death has been resolved. Judi Dench, who winds up being the film's true "Bond girl," turns in strong work as well, as she tries to keep up a steely front while her past wreaks havoc on her world. The scene stealer, however, is a lip-smackingly evil Javier Bardem as Silva. His introduction, a lengthy back-and-forth with Bond in a cavernous room, is a nifty mix of Bond villains old and new. Menacing, but also somewhat flirty and campy, Bardem is Skyfall's spark, even if his later material is somewhat generic and prevents him from becoming iconic. By tying the villain's motives directly to major characters of the Bond universe, Silva lends Skyfall an old-fashioned  glossy appeal. Coupled with some references to characters and objects from the previous Bonds, and you have a film that mixes modern gritty action stylings with some good old retro fun.

And even though the film ventures into some dark places, its conclusion gives rise to the hope that emotionally lighter days may be in Bond's future. Though less expansive than some previous films in the franchise, Skyfall's smaller focus is handled in such a way that it still feels epic. The cast is strong, the direction is elegant, and the atmosphere, mostly through the visuals, is all first rate. Even when a particular scene ends on an iffy note, the film immediately recovers with some new intriguing sequence of beautiful visual composition. In a sense, Skyfall is the most complete Bond film to date. It represents a marriage of Bond's past and present, and combines the two to pave the way for more complex, but also more fun, films to come. 

Grade: B/B+

Friday, November 9, 2012

AFI Fest Review: "Lincoln"

Director: Steven Spielberg
Runtime: 150 minutes

Abraham Lincoln is, without a doubt, one of the most revered figures in American history. Considered one of the greatest men to ever sit in the Oval Office, he has, over the years, attained a near-mythic status. His appearance is known from the diminutive face of the penny to his titan-sized statue at the Lincoln Memorial that stares out over Washington D.C. Yet Lincoln the legend and Lincoln the man are bound to not align 100%. That is one of the key successes of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, which has the good sense to show that even our heroes occasionally cave into the temptation to get good things done in less-than-pure ways.

Rather than set itself up as an all-encompassing biopic, Mr. Spielberg's film, from a screenplay by Tony Kushner, focuses on Lincoln's efforts to get the 13th Amendment passed in the House of Representatives before the inevitable end of the dwindling Civil War. Played with wry, steady calm by Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln is good-hearted person, but is also a shrewd politician who understands what it will take in order to get the amendment passed. 

By focusing on a particular stretch of Lincoln's presidency, rather than tackling his entire life or even political career, Kushner's screenplay takes its specific narrative and still paints it against a large backdrop. It is a political epic that crafts an entertaining look at the politics of the day, and emerges as a cohesive work rather than a clumsily overburdened tale. At only two hours, Lincoln accomplishes quite a bit, despite being mostly confined to dark rooms around the nation's capital. Some of the film's most entertaining, and surprisingly lighthearted, moments come from a trio of canvassers (James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson) sent to persuade 13 Democrats in the House to vote for the amendment in order to obtain a necessary majority. 

Lincoln also clashes with his Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), who believes that total freedom for slaves and a quick end to the Civil War are incompatible. There's also Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), a stubborn Republican who takes issue with some of the language used to persuade people to the Amendment's side. There are other characters around Lincoln as well, including his wife Mary (Sally Field), his son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and a bevy of Democrats bent on taking the amendment down (led by Lee Pace and Peter McRobbie). And despite the sprawling cast of characters populating the film, the film finds an excellent balance, bringing people in and out of the story with smart efficiency. 

For Spielberg, Lincoln represents a relatively restrained work, one where the obligatory John Williams score remains absent through much of the film. This leaves more room for Kushner's screenplay to take center stage, which is hardly a bad thing. Despite his theatrical background, and the heavy amounts of dialogue present on screen, Mr. Kushner's work is largely excellent. Dialogue fills almost every scene, and yet Kushner's words are so compelling and elegant that it never feels ripped from the stage. The cast delivering the lengthy dialogue exchanges are uniformly excellent, which helps tremendously. Day-Lewis stays withdrawn for much of the film, keeping up the facade of a pleasant but determined grandfather. Yet as the stress of the War and the amendment weigh on him more and more, and his passion surfaces, the actor turns in moments that hit the same levels of power that were present in every line of his work in There Will be Blood. As much as his work in Lincoln is restrained compared to his performance in Blood, there remains a larger than life quality to the portrayal, even though it only appears in a handful of places. 

Driving the supporting cast (although Lincoln is hardly the standalone lead) are a handful of powerful turns of varying sizes. Strathairn, Jones, and Field all capitalize on their moments and deliver rich dramatic (and some surprisingly comedic) work. Of the three, Jones may fare best, if only because he has a more complete range of material to work with, his dry intonations put to excellent work in scenes big and small, serious and funny. Even the smaller roles, like those filled out by Spader, Hawkes, or Michael Stuhlbarg as an indecisive Congressman, make every moment count. Part of what makes Kushner's balancing act so impressive is that every line for each character seems to count. There are many people and personalities to accomodate, and Kushner accomplishes this by never wasting a line or scene.

Yet while Spielberg's restraint is a boon to the screenplay and the performances, it creates a ripple effect that hinders the film's technical aspects. Art direction and costume design are mostly simple (save for Mrs. Lincoln's gowns), but full of detail. Where the film runs into trouble is in Janusz Kaminski's cinematography. The interior scenes often feature muddy, brownish tones blasted with white light through blown out windows. Though it is Mr. Kushner whose origins are on the stage, it is Kaminski's work that risks turning the film into dingy play. Even the outdoor scenes have a limited, faded look that undercuts the exemplary efforts of everyone else involved. The choice seems to be deliberate, yet it feels questionable.

Yet Lincoln's accomplishments transcend whatever its technical disappointments may be. Not only does the film paint a compelling picture of Lincoln and those around him, but it captures the back-door complexity of politics. On a larger scale, this is a film that neither satirizes nor condemns the political process, even as it points out some of its faults. Spielberg and Kushner have made a film that actually explores the work of those in office, and the compromises and concessions that come with the job. Releasing the film at the end of election week couldn't be more appropriate. Lincoln is a striking look at how much our country's leadership has changed, even as so much of it has, for better or for worse, remained static.

Grade: B+

AFI Fest Review: "Silver Linings Playbook"

Director: David O. Russell
Runtime: 122 minutes

Dissect the whole of David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook, and you'll find a bunch of individual pieces that belong in either an unbearably cheesy romantic comedy or a shoddy Lifetime movie. Put all of these pieces into O. Russell's hands as both writer and director, and thrown in an outstanding cast, and you have one of the year's best surprises. Though Playbook does at times let its rom-com cliches get the better of it, the film maintains a steady course that mixes indie sensibilities with broad emotional appeal. Following 2010's The Fighter, this is yet another more accessible film from the brash writer/director. And, thankfully, O. Russell has hit the sweet spot, even as he veers closer to lightweight territory.

Based on Matthew Quick's novel of the same name, Playbook is the sort of comedy/drama hybrid that knows how to deftly mix the light and the heavy emotional components with ease. Pat (Bradley Cooper), recently on leave from a mental institution after a violent breakdown, is struggling to readjust to life with his parents (Robert DeNiro and Jacki Weaver). Pat is convinced that, assuming he can find a way to prove that he has changed, he can win back his wife Nikki (Brea Bee). Along the way, he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), the sister-in-law of a close friend, who has had similar issues with mental health. Several awkward encounters later, Tiffany and Pat are working together to enter a couples' dance competition, which Pat hopes will prove his supposed newfound sense of discipline and emotional control. 

The buildup to the dance subplot, however, is where O. Russell and his actors succeed most. As in The Fighter, the family and friends that populate this film love each other, but also have their fair share of battle scars and hot tempers. Instead of mundane soap opera hysterics, however, we get scenes that, through turns funny and dramatic, keep the characters on an emotional high wire. So even though the comedy isn't likely to make you double over in hysteria, it comes from such a situational, organic place that the film never feels like it's straining for comedy to break up the drama. And, as loud as the characters can become, with anywhere from four to eight voices shouting over each other, the emotional fireworks have genuine heat to them. Whether Pat is ranting about his disdain for Ernest Hemingway, or awkwardly attempting to converse with Tiffany, O. Russell's sharp eye finds the truth in the characters, never letting them descend into caricatures (even Chris Tucker, which is saying something).

Much of this also comes down to the stellar work from the cast. Mr. Cooper, best known for the two Hangover films as well as Limitless, sheds his typical smug swagger and digs deep into Pat. It's both a leading man turn and a work of striking character detailing that should, hopefully allow Cooper to start unlocking his potential as a performer. Whether he's manic, angry, or blatantly disregarding normal social skills, Pat comes through so clearly as a character that his sharp shifts in mood never feel strained or contrived. The same can be said for Lawrence, who, whether by herself or interacting with Pat, feels so much like a fully-drawn person that she avoids becoming a gritty version of a manic pixie dream girl. Watching the two interact together, both troubled, both overcoming different losses, is the film's highlight. Some developments in the plot may feel a little rushed (the dance training basically consists of one montage), but the two central performances keep everything so wonderfully grounded that it only becomes apparent once the lights go up and the credits roll.

With so much excellent ground work in regards to the characters, the film carries a tremendous energy through, never flagging even as it hits a handful of predictable notes in the final act. So much of Pat and Tiffany's relationship has such an in-the-moment back and forth that the last minute moments of "will they or won't they" tension can't help but feel like a desperate appeal for broad appeal. No such appeal is necessary, as the characters, warts and all, prove so lively and engaging on multiple levels. Yet, perhaps inevitably, the more banal rom-com pieces of the puzzle eventually rear their bland heads. As such, the film ends too neatly. Like The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook moves along with excellent emotional edginess its entire way through, only to conclude on an unitive ending that matches the story in tone, yet still feels out of place. It's as if, in the final minutes, O. Russell forgot to suppress the aspects of the film that rob it of its otherwise distinct status among romantic comedies. 

Grade: B+

Thursday, November 8, 2012

AFI Fest Review: "Tabu"

Director: Miguel Gomes
Runtime: 113 minutes

A quiet sense of enchantment looms over critic-turned-director Miguel Gomes' film Tabu. The style of magical realism, prevalent throughout, has generally been better suited to the page than the screen (hence the middling reviews for the film adaptation of Midnight's Children). And yet, by keeping his ambitions focused and modest, Gomes has crafted a 21st century work of magical realism that casts a spell through only a handful of simply aesthetic choices. 

Split into two parts (Paradise Lost and Paradise), along with a mystical prologue, Gomes' film starts with Pilar (Teresa Madruga) interacting with her elderly neighbor Aurora (Laura Soveral). As Aurora becomes more and more senile, she begins rambling about a pet crocodile and a man named Ventura (Henrique Santo). Pilar finally tracks down Ventura, who recounts his love affair with Aurora in colonial Africa. 

Whereas part one is a more typical story, part two is where Gomes slowly lets loose. Aside from natural sounds (wind, birds, etc...), Tabu almost becomes a silent film in its second hour. Carried strictly by visuals and Ventura's narration, Gomes transforms his film from light character drama/comedy to classic love story. It's a choice that feels seamless, rather than abrupt, despite the abundance of title cards indicating passing days and months. And, as is appropriate, the performances have a broad, old-fashioned panache that is wholly engaging, rather than stiff or dated. In playing with classic storytelling devices and breaking them up in such elegant ways, the director evokes the beauty of storytelling as it passes from one generation to the next, and how the past informs the present, and vice versa. 

Yet aside from the presence of a possibly symbolic crocodile (who might have been my favorite cast member), the magical quality of Tabu stems entirely from its atmosphere, rather than any fanciful plot devices or characters. Gomes luxuriates in the settings of the Paradise segment, yet he never allows the plot to meander in and out of focus. Whereas Paradise Lost is divided by a set of rigid divisions, entire months go by in Paradise in the course of a few minutes, particularly toward the end. 

Gomes also introduces a fair amount of humor throughout the film to lighten the mood. Despite the passionate emotions running through Tabu, the film is always light on its feet, even during the most languid stretches. There is a hard-to-describe quality to the film, which becomes more thematically complex when it jumps back to Africa, that lends its simple tale a sense of something greater. As focused on a group of individuals as the film is, later portions carry an undeniable trace of social commentary on the gradual upheaval of the European powers across their African colonies. Like the best stories, Tabu has many straightforward elements, yet they once assembled they evolve into a much richer work filled with subtle surprises. 

Grade: B+/A-

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

AFI Fest Review: "Pieta"

Director: Kim Ki-Duk
Runtime: 118 minutes

Incest, torture, and cannabilism are all found in Pieta, Kim Ki-Duk's dark drama that captured the Golden Lion at this year's Venice Film Festival. And somehow, despite the subject matter, the film feels tame when compared to the recent slew of dark and violent South Korean thrillers, from Oldboy to I Saw the Devil. Oddly, the lack of truly stomach-churning violence also comes hand-in-hand with a lessened sense of dramatic purpose. Ki-Duk's latest is strongly acted and has compelling stretches, but compared to many of the best works of 21st century South Korean cinema, it can't help but come off as underwhelming. 

As suggested by the title, Pieta is a film about a mother and son. Yet unlike the famous depiction of Mary cradling Christ's mangled body, Pieta's relationship isn't quite as simple and pure. Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin) is a brutal collector for a loan shark, who delights in dishing out awful forms of punishment to clients who fall behind on payments. This usually involves breaking or severing limbs. With his dark, tough-looking jacket and feathery hair, not to mention his taut, sneering face, Kang-do is the embodiment of what I can only describe as a faded punk-rock torturer. The opening stretches are almost episodic, as Kang-do travels from client to client, terrorizing people along the way.

Things change, however, when a woman named Mi-Son (Cho Min-soo) starts following Kang-do, and claims to be the mother who abandoned him as a newborn. Though Kang-do is hardly affectionate to Mi-Son, he slowly develops a strained bond with the woman, who seems content to do whatever she can to satisfy him. Pieta never fully lets up on the dark violence, but it does slow down and allow the central relationship time to breathe. Both performances are aces, capturing the strange, often twisted connection between mother and son.

Yet if parts of the film work (the performances, the ending), some aspects in the broader picture aren't as successful. Some of Ki-Duk's writing and direction feels forced, including any number of scenes involving women shrieking and crying to the point where the actresses sound like they're out of tears. And even though the film's most unpleasant scenes are less extreme than those found in similar films, the restraint almost hinders the impact. And unlike so many Korean films blessed with an offbeat, dark sense of humor, some of the laughs here feel a rather unintentional. Ki-Duk's attempts to develop Mi-Son and Kang-do's relationship feel rather shallow, which isn't helped by the twist that changes the perception of the relationship completely. 

Thankfully Pieta regains steam as it segues into the final act, which contains a twisted and poetic conclusion. The result is more plot-oriented than character-driven, yet it works as a small-scale tour-de-force. On the technical front, the film is surprisingly mediocre, with a mix of decent visuals melded with some shoddy, pixelated imagery, distracting zooms, and bad editing. Pieta has been hailed as a return to form for Kim Ki-Duk, but outside of the excellent work from the actors, it feels more like a merely good work that represents a director struggling to get firmly back on his feet.

Grade: B

Monday, November 5, 2012

AFI Fest Review: "Something in the Air"

Director: Olivier Assayas
Runtime: 122 minutes

"You always watch, but never act," says a young student revolutionary to fellow student Gilles (Clement Metayer). It's a simple, pointed statement, yet the way it echoes across Something in the Air, the latest film by Olivier Assayas (Summer Hours, Carlos) is surprisingly rich. Assayas' new work is not as immediately intimate as Summer Hours nor as epic and intense as Carlos. Instead, it rests in a comfortable middle ground, all while weaving a compellingly crafted, albeit somewhat meandering, tale of self discovery.

Set against the social upheavals of the 1960s, Assayas turns his focus from middle-aged siblings and international terrorists to high school students on the cusp of pseudo-adulthood. In the opening, we're introduced to Metayer's Gilles, as he draws the anarchy symbol in a notebook while his teacher drones through a lecture. Immediately following this simple prologue comes the film's highlight, a stunning riot-turned-chase sequence that showcases Assayas at his best. It's a frank, invigorating piece of directing that, like much of film, boasts some stellar muted visuals and roving camera work.

After the jolt of an opening, the film ebbs and flows through scenes of high and low tension. Gilles' girlfriend Laure (Carole Combes) leaves for the summer. Feeling somewhat aimless, Gilles falls further into the ranks of various anarchist, communist, and socialist groups, dominated particularly by high school and collegiate members. Along with his friends Christine (Lola Creton) and Alain (Felix Armand), Gilles spends his summer traveling across Southern Europe. His journeys take him to Italy, where he meets up with a group of American flower children, including aspiring dancer Leslie (India Menuez). Gilles explores his passion for painting and film, Alain takes up with Leslie, and Christine finds herself working with a group of underground Italian filmmakers. 

For the first half of the two hour runtime, Assayas' writing and directing, along with the technical aspects, help create an excellent, immersive experience. There's nothing quite as intense as the riot scene (save for another early fight/chase sequence), but Assayas captures the atmosphere of the film's world with excellent grace. Gilles and company are protagonists, but Assayas is not necessarily out to lionize everything they say or do. He does not glorify the flower child/hippie aesthetic, even as he allows it to inform the film's themes and character arcs. The camera, often moving in, out, and around particular spaces, maintains a rather objective view that keeps the deeper emotions at a distance, but never out of reach. The one distracting aspect of the camera work and editing is that Assayas inserts a number of jarring fades to black, some of which come right as a character finishes speaking. For a film with such fluid visual movement, these sudden interludes come as a rude and unpleasant disruption.

Only in the second half do Assayas' ambitions start to get the better of him. Somewhere in hour two, the narrative sends Gilles, Alain, and Christine apart from each other, which makes certain stretches meander to the point that the feel like they might run out of steam. The character of Leslie, somewhat stiffly acted by Menuez, is intriguing as the lone significant American presence, yet remove her arc (which involves a trip to Kabul, an abortion, and a return to the United States), and you don't lose much. Similarly distracting on his own is Alain, who eventually acts more as a channel for information. At its heart, this is Gilles' story. As such, the supporting characters who matter most are those he is most intimate with: Christine and Laure. These connections allow the film to break out of its detached shell, without ever going near melodramatic territory.

Gilles' journey, despite all of the traveling, is largely internal. And, despite his relatively static expression, young Mr. Metayer (who looks like a hybrid of Ben Whishaw and Gael Garcia Bernal) carries the role in such a manner that the performance has subtlety, rather than emptiness. No individual performer makes a mark as well as Assayas' direction, but the roles are - some of Menuez's scenes excepted - carried off with a low key effortlessness.

Yet by the time Assayas reaches his conclusion, it's hard to find much more than the surface of Gilles' journey. As Gilles becomes more of the central focus, Something in the Air regains the sense of purpose of its first hour, and builds on that momentum. Yet the developments feel limited more to the physical. Because Gilles' changes are never large, and are mostly internalized, the ending is left flapping its arms aimlessly to stay afloat for some hazy, aloof purpose. As a work of craftsmanship and atmosphere, Something in the Air represents a big step up for Assayas after the irritating and draggy Summer Hours, but its thematic and character-oriented developments leave one with little to mull over other than the surface.

Grade: B+

Saturday, November 3, 2012

AFI Fest Review: "Beyond the Hills"

Director: Cristian Mungiu
Runtime: 155 minutes

At the start of the screening of Beyond the Hills, director Cristian Mungiu informed the audience that his film had been cut down from three hours to two and a half hours since its successful run at Cannes (where it picked up Best Actress and Best Screenplay honors). As one of the major titles I missed at Cannes, I was interested by the large chunk of time Mungiu had cut since the film's first bow. Mungiu's last film, the outstanding 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (which won the Palme at Cannes in 2007) was an absorbing and devastating character portrait that - barring one scene - earned every second of its lengthy running time. Would Beyond the Hills feel shortchanged by Mungiu's edits, or would the cuts help create a similarly absorbing work, I wondered. The answer is neither. While Hills features the same assured, unflinching vision of 4 Months, it needs a few more trips to the editing room. There is certainly a brilliant movie in the footage I saw, but at least another 30 minutes need to be left on the cutting room floor first.

Based somewhat on true events, Mungiu's film is, just like 4 Months, set in his native land of Romania. Yet Mungiu has leapt only a short distance back in time with this film (to 2005), which makes the narrative that much more upsetting. Once again, Mungiu casts his gaze on two women, although the relationship and circumstances couldn't be more different. Opening with a rather long shot (Mungiu is a fan of cutting as little as possible), we see Alina (Cristina Flutur) returning from Germany and reunited with her friend (and possible former lover) Voichita (Cosima Stratan). In the time that Alina has been gone, Voichita has joined the local order of nuns in a creaking monastery set on a hill. The place is overseen by the mother superior (Dana Tapalaga) and a stern, disdainful priest (Valeriu Andriuta). Alina stays with Voichita in her modest quarters, and is initially welcomed. Yet once Alina suffers a bizarre set of fits, things take a series of increasingly unpleasant turns. 

Unlike 4 Months, Hills feels like a much more "active" film. Where the director's 07 film only had a handful of movements and locations, Hills cuts more frequently and has its characters move around quite a bit. Yet Mungiu's work is still strongest when he fixates his camera and doesn't allow any cuts until he's completely done with a particular shot or sequence. Whether in the simple opening moments, or in the stomach-churning climactic moments, its a technique that commands one's attention. And even though the first act or so has the occasional moment that isn't fully gripping, on the whole it works. As Alina's ailments bring out the monastery's religious fervor, Mungiu guides the film on a carefully executed descent into unchecked zealotry. 

And when the screenplay, direction, and acting align, the result is a powerhouse film about the religious extremism, and the harm it can cause. Watching a group of terrified nuns tie down the supposedly "corrupted" Alina is nothing short of horrific. And though Mungiu allows these scenes to linger, his gaze never becomes condescending or mocking. Nor does he allow the film to devolve into cheap sensationalism. There have been any number of idiot films involving demonic possession over the past few years. Beyond the Hills could not be further from the pack. No one's head turns completely around, nor does anyone tells a priest about his mother's allegedly sordid deeds in hell. 

As was the case with 4 Months, Mungiu's work with his actors is also brilliant. Stratan and Flutur (who shared the Best Actress prize at Cannes) turn in a pair of outstanding performances, although the former gets significantly more face time to work with. Once Flutur's Alina falls prey to the "mercy" of the monastery, the camera almost takes over her role as an indictment of a religion stuck woefully in the past. Stratan's evolution, as such, is a little more impressive, as she begins the film as an almost annoyingly simple and sweet-natured woman of faith and ends the film completely shattered by what she's witnessed. It's a transformation that Mungiu never spells out either in imagery or in dialogue, and part of why Voichita's arc is so effective without drawing needless attention to itself. And despite the unwavering stone-faced nature of the monastery's priest, Mungiu refrains from making him a one-note caricature. Whatever deeds are done, this is a film with no traditional villain of any sort, given the motivations involved. 

Yet in spite of all that's good or great about Beyond the Hills, Mungiu still has a little too much of a good thing with this project. Watching the nuns "treat" Alina provides its fair share of harrowing moments. However, the film could do with fewer scenes involving one of the monastery's inhabitants bursting into a room with alarming news about Alina. There comes a point where the story's direction becomes rather clear, yet Mungiu seems reluctant to just get there already, and instead shows us every little development in Alina's life, and the repercussions it has on Voichita. More tiresome, however, is the massively protracted denouement. After a superbly executed set of climaxes, the film drifts on, teasing the possibility of a seque to the ending, before continuing on as if there were still two or three hours of story left. There were even times when I wanted to, in the spirit of Monty Python, yell "Get on with it!" at the screen. Rather than end on a high note, Mungiu takes his film too far once it has run out of gas. 

So, instead of a mostly strong film, Beyond the Hills is more like a film with greatness in it that still needs a lot of flab removed. All of the traits that made 4 Months so outstanding are present here, from the camera work to the writing to the top-tier acting. Yet unlike 4 Months, Mungiu's latest wears out its welcome, despite its alleged cuts. Instead of some flawed masterwork, what we're left with - for now - is an diamond in the rough that is in desperate need of further polishing. 

Grade: B/B+

AFI Fest Review: "Berberian Sound Studio"

Director: Peter Strickland
Runtime: 92 minutes

Though Peter Strickland's Berberian Sound Studio is fascinating in its glimpse into the work of sound engineers, it ultimately wears out its welcome. Despite the potential of the premise, this slow-burning thriller runs out of steam quite quickly, and tries to save itself by jumping head first into the deep end. It doesn't really help matters.

Set in the 70s, Strickland's film quickly introduces us to Gilderoy (Toby Jones), a British sound engineer. Gilderoy has been hired by an eccentric Italian horror director to create and mix the sounds for his latest giallo film. Once in the studio, Gilderoy must contend with fussy co-workers, an egotistical director, and actors who struggle to match the director's vision for his film. 

At its best, Sound Studio shows us the amount of effort that goes in to dubbing in almost an entire film's worth of dialogue and sound effects. Whether it's ripping turnips from their stems to simulate hair pulling, or crushing watermelons to evoke a body landing on a curbside, these instances provide an entertaining look into the world of sound. And yet, at only 92 minutes, Strickland's film wears out this angle rather quickly. It doesn't take long before one starts to wish for something more. At best, we get a subplot involving an actress' affair with a director, which amounts to little more than a setback. Strickland also seems to think that repeatedly emphasizing Gilderoy's lackluster social skills somehow enhances the narrative. Like the sound design scenes, it only works for a brief period of time. 

The result of all of this is that the first two acts of the film feel underdeveloped. Just as Gilderoy finds the repetitive nature of his job tiresome, so do the repetitive scenes of recording session lose their appeal. It's a shame because Jones is trying his best to find something to work with underneath the undercooked execution. Credit should also go to the rich, muted cinematography and, as would be expected considering the story, the sound design. The film is a technical marvel, initially buoyed by intrigue and a surprising amount of low key humor. Unfortunately they feel completely stagnant, as though Strickland wants to make sure that the audience "gets it" before segueing into the final act. 

And what a mess of a final act it is. Perhaps in an attempt to compensate for the repetitive nature of the first two thirds, act three goes into full blown David Lynch nightmare mode. However, it does so without earning an ounce of it. Art starts to imitate life, and the authenticity of the story comes into question. Gilderoy wanders from his bed into a room with a projector, only to have the project show a movie what he just did. Yet because the motivations and circumstances are far too vague, it frustrates much more than it intrigues. The further Strickland tries to pull us down the rabbit hole, the more you wish he would just back off and explain what on earth he's trying to do. For once, a little Christopher Nolan-esque exposition would be a welcome addition. 

What's left is a wasted opportunity. Toby Jones has been looking for another great leading role ever since his excellent turn in the under-seen Infamous (2006). This could have and should have been his next triumph as an indie leading man. But Strickland and his screenplay undercut the talented leading man at every turn. Berberian Sound Studio is full of potential, but it only makes anything of said potential for about half an hour. After that, it's merely frustratingly inert, before becoming hopelessly bizarre in some desperate attempt to be achieve meaning. Yet by the time the film cuts to black, we're left every bit as mystified as Gilderoy, watching himself projected by the unseen force of his nightmares.

Grade: C

Friday, November 2, 2012

AFI Fest Review: "Life of Pi"

Director: Ang Lee
Runtime: 127 minutes

Ang Lee's Life of Pi marks the second big budget adaptation of a supposedly "unfilmable" novel to hit theaters this season. Yet unlike the largely divisive Cloud Atlas, Lee's take on Yann Martel's popular novel comes much closer to being a full fledged success. Gripping and intense, while also deeply human, Life of Pi had to be nothing short of a monumental undertaking. Yet Lee and his collaborators can hold their heads very (very very) high, even though several cliched tropes hold the film back from absolute brilliance.

Whereas Cloud Atlas faced a major challenge in stringing together six story threads, Lee's task was more challenging due to the lack of narrative overload. Once Pi Patel (Surraj Sharma) finds himself stuck on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger in the Pacific Ocean, it's up to the man vs. nature interactions to carry the bulk of the drama. And this is where Mr. Lee's skills as a conjurer of magical, yet authentic visuals come in handy. With the occasional dreamlike touch, Life of Pi explores the vastness of the story's primary setting in ways that speak to the protagonist's state of mind. An increasingly delusional Pi finds himself staring into the ocean, and the camera plunges deeper and deeper, revealing creatures of the deep dark ocean before revealing elements that are clearly the work of a dream.

But perhaps more impressive than the flights of fancy are the more grounded visuals. For a movie set primarily on a lifeboat in the ocean, the setting never becomes repetitive or dull. The ocean becomes as much of a character as Pi or Richard Parker (the tiger), sometimes fighting against Pi by conjuring up storms, and sometimes allowing for smooth passage over its glasslike surface. Then, of course, there's the titular Pi and his furry friend. Sharma, in a debut performance, gives a mostly convincing portrait of exhaustion. Pi is torn in multiple ways (he is a Hindu, a Catholic, and Muslim all at once), yet no matter what name 'god' is given, floating out on the ocean is the biggest challenge to his faith. There's also the ferocious tiger, who challenges Pi on a more physical level. The film tends to go light on Pi's relationship with God/Allah/Vishnu/etc, which leaves the man vs. tiger relationship to do the heavy lifting. It's a direction that pays off on multiple levels.

The danger of adapting a work like Life of Pi is how much of the development comes from within the protagonist. Sharma has plenty of opportunities to narrate in (mercifully concise) voiceover, but it's the physical elements of the character's journey that receive more attention. "Film is a visual medium" is as tired a mantra as they come, yet Mr. Lee has applied it to Martel's novel in ways that give the saying some heft once more. Though the film runs more than two hours, the scenes with Pi and the tiger are so primal and invigorating that they lend the narrative a tremendous energy. It doesn't hurt that the visual effects team has put the film's $100 million budget towards the creation of an immaculately detailed tiger. The digital creation is far from the uncanny valley, and has the vitality of a real jungle cat. As such, the interactions between man and beast carry an authenticity that could have gone missing in less qualified hands. Sharma's interactions with his digital counterpart, some intense, others loving, are more convincing than any number of actor-on-actor pairings; it's quite remarkable.

Pi remains lost at sea for the bulk of the film, but Lee's direction is always filled with purpose, ensuring that scenes never feel redundant or dragged out. Oddly, where Life of Pi stumbles is when its characters are on solid ground. Via a framing device, the early and final sections of the story involve the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan, always a welcome presence) telling his story to a journalist (Rafe Spall, given little more to do than look scruffy and handsome). This is less problematic in the opening, wherein Pi details his childhood, but it holds the film back further when it comes to the middle and end. After such effortless stretches of visual storytelling, Lee breaks Pi's journey in two by jumping back to the present. And once the film returns to Pi's journey, the voiceover of present-day Pi becomes an unwelcome guest, sometimes narrating exactly what Lee is so clearly showing on screen. For a film with such a beautifully assured middle, Life of Pi begins and ends in a rather safe, formulaic manner that undercuts the power at the core of the narrative. 

But oh, what a middle it is. From the white-knuckle intensity of the shipwreck that wipes out Pi's entire life, to the gradual bond between man and tiger, the technical and emotional genius on display is constantly evident. DP Claudio Miranda beautifully captures the imagery (land, sea, et. al), and Mychael Danna's score is rich and stirring without getting in the way of story at hand. Yet the true technical MVP, as should be clear by now, is the visual effects team. Every cent of the film's budget is visible on screen in the best way possible. The environments are gorgeously rendered with such consistency that there is never a second where one feels that some aspect is "fake." Too often, special effects overwhelm a narrative, but Lee and his team have employed them to such beautiful effect on the limited story that they actually save it. Even as Life of Pi closes out in an rather unimpressive fashion, it's impossible to dismiss the tremendous effort that Lee and company put in to bringing Martel's novel to life. It's a major achievement on the narrative and emotional levels, something that most adaptations of "unfilmable" novels rarely get to boast about. Mr. Lee hardly strikes me as the boasting type, but if ever a director earned the right to gloat this year, it's him. 

Grade: B+