Monday, December 30, 2013

Review: "The Past"

Director: Asghar Farhadi
Runtime: 130 minutes

Iranian director Asghar Farhadi knows how to create compelling, naturalistic scenarios - as evidenced by 2011's A Separation - but his latest film leaves quite a lot to be desired. In A Separation, Farhadi crafted an electric look at a couple struggling to move forward in their lives. With The Past, Farhadi shifts his focus to the way past events, recent and distant, come up to haunt the present. Yet Farhadi's look at the past proves far less compelling than his previous film's portrait of the struggle to move forward. 

The solid performances and confident directing are stuck trying to sort out a script (also by Farhadi) that remains frustratingly unfocused. Though the opening scenes seem effective, albeit much quieter than A Separation's fiery arguments, they quickly give way to mundane padding. When Marie (Berenice Bejo, who picked up the Best Actress prize at Cannes back in May) picks up her ex-husband Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) at the airport, the film seems headed in the right direction. The two actors have a comfortable, lived-in chemistry that Farhadi never mishandles or over emphasizes. It may not be as attention-grabbing as Separation's opening scene, but it sets the stage nicely and avoids coming off as though Farhadi is repeating himself.

Yet once Ali settles in (he's in Paris to finalize his and Marie's divorce), The Past starts to wander off. The film runs for 130 minutes, yet the most notable stretch after the opening scene doesn't arrive until 80 minutes have elapsed. Barely anything in between begs to be examined or probed for greater depth. There are no actively bad scenes in The Past, but there are a large number of them that are barely more than functional. The writing creates occasional sparks, but nothing substantial enough to start a real fire. 

More troubling is Farhadi's meandering focus. The Past begins as Ali and Marie's story, and gradually becomes more about Ali. That is, until it no longer needs him, and jumps over to Marie and her new boyfriend Samir (A Prophet's Tahar Rahim). Later on, Marie drops off as well, leaving the film's final scraps at Samir's feet. Shifting focus across protagonists isn't inherently wrong or misguided, but The Past certainly doesn't stand as a strong example. None of the main characters feel properly anchored or fleshed out, even after several delicate secrets come to light. 

By the time the (admittedly poignant) final scene arrives, one is left wondering what on earth the point was. For a film that spends so much time attempting to build up its characters, they rarely feel whole, as though they know their time as the film's central focus is about to expire. The Past starts off promisingly enough, with a set-up filled with ideas about past and present relationships colliding with each other. But beyond that set-up, there's hardly anything worth talking about when it comes to the execution, other than the head-scratching lack of focus. 

Farhadi proved his talents as a writer with A Separation, yet his script this time around is the film's Achilles Heel, rather than its best asset. And even though The Past is never truly bad, the directing and the performances aren't enough to significantly offset the deficiencies in the writing. It's the epitome of a respectable, yet totally unremarkable middle-of-the-road drama from a writer/director who is capable of so much more.

Grade: C+

Friday, December 27, 2013

Review: "The Wolf of Wall Street"

Director: Martin Scorsese
Runtime: 180 minutes

Though billed as a raucous dark comedy, it would be more accurate to describe The Wolf of Wall Street as a big, loud, three hour parade of horrors. This chronicle of real-life stock broker Jordan Belfort's rise and fall is a slice of excess that is, itself, excessive in execution. Despite stunningly committed work from Leonardo DiCaprio, and some very entertaining debauchery, The Wolf of Wall Street still feels too big for its own good, and this is after a hour of material has already hit the cutting room floor. 

Set amid the coke-fueled heyday of the late 80s and early 90s, Belfort's story begins when, at 22, he walked off of the bus at Wall Street hoping to make a name for himself. And, of course, he did, albeit in all of the wrong ways. As was the case with American Hustle, Wolf isn't terribly concerned about giving the actual plot developments the spotlight. Instead, it's content to allow the plot to momentarily pop up from its gopher hole, while it spends most of its time reveling in the big and insanely loud lives of the characters. 

And even though Scorsese is much better at balancing free-wheeling character scenes and overall plot than David O. Russell, the scales are still tipped way too far in favor of the insanity. Yet to call Wolf a 'party movie' doesn't really sit right. There are drug-fueled blowouts and orgies a plenty, but their purpose is to repulse rather than to seduce. Belfort and his stock broker friends and associates lived large in the emptiest, most debased way imaginable. At the end of La Dolce Vita, Marcello Mastroianni laments the hollowness of his party-driven lifestyle, but he'd go sprinting back to any of those celebrations if he caught a glimpse of Belfort's exploits. 

Despite the film's considerable excesses, it's almost worth all three hours just to witness the gob-smacking amount of effort DiCaprio gives the role in every frame. Some of his previous collaborations with Scorsese have been held back by stiffness or self-consciousness. Here, however, the actor has truly gotten lost in the part. It's mostly sound and fury theatrics, but DiCaprio's every move is perfectly in sync with Scorsese's tone and vision: in your face, exhilarating, repulsive, and ultimately exhausting. Though it won't go down as his most nuanced performance, there's something impressive with how well DiCaprio simply lets go. A long, but worthwhile, scene involving quaaludes and co-worker Donny Azoff (Jonah Hill) includes some of the most impressive physical acting to hit the screen in the past decade. 

So, despite the expansive supporting cast (including Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Joanna Lumley, Kyle Chandler, and Jean Dujardin), the entire three hours truly rests on DiCaprio's shoulders. He certainly carries the whole thing pretty damn effortlessly, which is why it's a shame that Scorsese couldn't have simply given him less to carry. With essentially no change in Belfort's character over the course of the runtime, the nonstop hijinks become exhausting in all of the wrong ways. Scorsese's film is always watchable, but some additional reigning in would have been appreciated. There's simply not enough room for the plot to breathe properly. Had the chaos built to a clearer point, this complaint wouldn't be such a big deal. But the point of the whole thing is something that one can ascertain after the first hour or so. Everything else, however compelling, is merely indulgent to a fault. 

Grade: B-

Monday, December 23, 2013

Review: "Saving Mr. Banks"

Director: John Lee Hancock
Runtime: 125 minutes

Saving Mr. Banks begins and ends with shots of the clouds, which is just as well, seeing as the film seems to have been written and created with its head up among them. A sugar-coated, albeit never treacly, slice of Disney history, the film goes down easy, though it can't help but leave a sour taste in light of how events actually panned out. Emma Thompson is as effective and effortlessly watchable as ever as the film's lead, but even her work isn't enough to raise the material above (largely harmless) mediocrity.

Right off of the bat, it's clear that writer P.L. Travers (Thompson) isn't terribly enthusiastic about Walt Disney's (Tom Hanks) desire to turn her beloved Mary Poppins novels into a film. The stories, Travers insists, don't lend themselves to a feature film, especially if said film is to include musical numbers and, even worse, animated sequences. From the moment Travers sets foot on her flight from London to LA, she's standoffish with everyone from flight attendants to hotel bell boys. Her cheery hired Disney driver (Paul Giamatti) tells her that the sun has come out to greet her. Travers responds by remarking that the City of Angels smells like chlorine and sweat.

Travers' mood doesn't improve after meeting Disney, or the team of writers and songwriters who have been tasked with the adaptation (Bradley Whitford, B.J. Novak, and Jason Schwartzman). Hardly a line in the script goes by without a correction or objection from the protective author, who shoots down everything from set designs to the eventually famous lyric "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious." If there are parts of Saving Mr. Banks that are legitimately entertaining and informative, it's the early butting of heads between the Disney creatives and the author. Thompson's no nonsense, almost school marm-ish delivery is a highlight, and lends some contentious spark to an otherwise adequate film. 

Less sure are the flashbacks detailing Travers' childhood in Australia, the experiences of which inspired the Poppins books. When Thompson is on screen, there's a level of restraint in both the writing and in Hancock's direction. With Thompson gone, however, the flashbacks often come off as a touch hoakey, despite events that lend a darker shading to the narrative. Instead of being anchored around Thompson, the trips into the past are shouldered on Colin Farrell as Travers' troubled, alcoholic father. Farrell has proven himself a talented actor, especially in dark comedies, but he seems miscast here. The overeager image he projects - in general or around his young children - tends to ring false. Moments between father and daughter that should charm are, instead, bland and hammy. More effective is Ruth Wilson as Travers' troubled mother, despite her performance largely consisting of reactions to her husband's actions. 

Oddly, the most effective secondary thread has nothing to do with Mr. Disney or the Travers family's Outback melodrama. Though their scenes rarely build outside of a few quips, Thompson and Giamatti's slow-building friendship leads to a lovely conclusion that feels more in line with who Travers was, and what she stood for. The movie eventually has her won over by the 1964 Julie Andrews/Dick Van Dyke film, which undercuts the author's resilience and regret over the enterprise. On the other hand, Travers' relationship with her happy-go-lucky driver, however embellished or invented, have a mark of truth to them that transcends the otherwise pedestrian material, albeit only by a hair's breadth. 

The rest of the film is a handsome, though uninspired, technical package, nicely capturing the period without doing anything to truly stand out. From the costumes to the generic Thomas Newman score, it all looks and sounds right, even though none of the techs leave an impression. In many ways, Saving Mr. Banks resembles last year's Hitchcock, another film about creative battles behind iconic Hollywood products. It gets the job done and provides a few moments of enjoyment, but it's ultimately little more than a sanitized take on a story that has thornier complexities  that deserved to be unpacked and explored. 

Grade: C+

Monday, December 16, 2013

Review: "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug"

Director: Peter Jackson
Runtime: 161 minutes

Many argue that The Two Towers, the second of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, is the strongest film in an outstanding cinematic trio. Middle installments come burdened with moving pieces and are unable to finish with a bang. At least, they're not allowed to finish with as big of a bang as the final entry, which gets the benefit of wrapping it all up. The Two Towers, however, overcame that by creating its own epic ending, yet still making it clear the obstacles that lay ahead in The Return of the King. It was a spectacle having its cake and eating it too, in the very best way. That same success, sadly, is nowhere to be found in The Desolation of Smaug, Peter Jackson's middle chapter of this three-part adaptation of Tolkien's The Hobbit. Instead, it's the film that many likely feared Jackson's original trilogy would be: bloated, emotionally hollow, and suffocated by visual effects

Whatever flaws one can find with last year's An Unexpected Journey (and there are many), that at least had a proper beginning. Desolation kicks off with an unnecessary flashback to dole out catch-up details, and then hits the ground running. Unfortunately, the film's feet are made of glass. The mix of hand-crafted and computer-generated sets and models is even more glaringly obvious than in Part I, which breaks the spell immediately. While certain VFX shots in the original trilogy no doubt look a tad dated by now, they at least still have a lived-in, tactile feel. By contrast, the blend of CGI and reality is amateurish at best, with the lighting for the green screens casting a hazy glow over an unfortunate number of scenes. The vaseline on the lens look has been put to great use before (Casablanca is still stunning), but here it just looks cheap, and even unfinished.

More disappointing is how much Jackson's storytelling skills have dropped in quality. The plotting is agonizingly drawn-out, yet what little character exists is often rushed. Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage, handsome even underneath the make up), is a compelling figure, yet this time around he only has one note to play. The supporting band of dwarves, meanwhile, often feel interchangeable. Like excessive characters in a horror movie, they exist merely to fill the frame when the action kicks in. And while Jackson and his co-writers deserve credit for creating a badass female elf warrior (Evangeline Lilly's Tauriel), they also stick her in a totally bloodless pseudo-love triangle that drags things down even further. Even Bilbo (Martin Freeman), our supposed guide and protagonist, feels like an afterthought until the finale. 

Thankfully, after all of the build up, Jackson does hit a home run when he reaches the super-sized climax. The villainous dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), is stunning. Both the visual effects and Cumberbatch's performance are excellent, and together they create the single best thing about an otherwise misguided pair of adaptations. Even the story's several cutaways to other matters (the elves, the townsfolk near Smaug's mountain lair, Gandalf - remember him?) can't throw off the thrill once the dragon takes center stage. The varied set pieces Jackson wrings out of the encounter are excellent. Smaug is rendered so well that even the lackluster work on the backdrops finally stops being a bother. 

But then the "ending" comes crashing in and ruins the fun of it all. We still have another full length film to wrap this all up (one that originally wasn't supposed to exist). Jackson and company more than deliver with the titular dragon (and there is a lot of material with him), yet the final cut to black is a rude reminder of just how much this adaptation has been dragged out. It's the worst sort of fan service, trying to give every moment of the (quite slim) novel its due, and then throwing in a bunch of other nonsense to fill in the gaps. You're better off buying a ticket and then finding something to do for an hour and a half. That way, you'll skip nearly all of the narrative fat, and only enjoy the good stuff. Best to sully your cinematic memories of Middle Earth as little as possible. 

Grade: C-

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Review: "Out of the Furnace"

Director: Scott Cooper
Runtime: 116 minutes

Grim and brutal with absolutely nowhere to go, Out of the Furnace is a revenge drama lacking depth and purpose. Director Scott Cooper's follow up to 2009's Crazy Heart has some admirable performances, especially from leading man Christian Bale, but it has absolutely nothing to say. There may be important issues present, but they're delved into superficially at best.  

Set in the Rust Belt, Out of the Furnace at least looks right for the part. The mix of handheld camera work and grimy visuals are well suited to the failing steel-mill town where the action takes place. But right from the get go, Cooper's story, co-written with Brad Inglesby, feels like a rough sketch of a plot or a rough draft. This story of brothers Russell (Christian Bale) and Rodney Baze (Casey Affleck) seems desperate to say something about the hard times ailing places like the Rust Belt (in this case, Braddock, Pennsylvania). Early on, Russell sips a beer in a dimly lit bar, while the 2008 Democratic National Convention airs on TV, promising hope and change to an audience that already seems destined to be forgotten. 

Then there's the matter of Rodney, who's struggling to find work when he's on leave from the Army. Despite a stint in prison, Russell is the "good" brother of the two, always taking care of the house and dutifully going to his job at the steel mill. Rodney, meanwhile, falls in with the wrong crowd when gets roped into illegal fights run by the likes of John Petty (a burnt orange Willem Dafoe) and drug dealer Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). Given DeGroat's fiery temper and violent urges, it's hardly a surprise when things go south, and the film switches from would-be character study to a revenge drama. 

Yet Cooper and Inglesby appear to be under the impression that the choice of setting is enough to inform the characters beyond their basic archetypes. They are wrong. Rather than get in the heads of the characters, Out of the Furnace moves dutifully through the motions, just like Bale's Russell. It does what it needs to do to get from point A to point B, and then it's simple done, with no deeper meaning or gravitas to create a sense of purpose. 

The stacked ensemble, unfortunately, isn't able to do much with the painfully basic material. Bale is an effortlessly compelling leading man, and the first half of the film gives him a few chances to really shine. But in the larger picture, none of it adds up to a substantial sum. Affleck is angry, Zoe Saldana cries, Dafoe wears a heinous turtle neck sweater, and Harrelson is foul and creepy, but there's nothing else going on. The supporting ensemble mostly feel like wasted effort, an even bigger shame considering the talent involved on camera. 

To his credit, Bale holds the whole enterprise together as the protagonist, but any sense of intrigue or mystery to his quest for vengeance is dealt away with from the start. We know everything he can possibly learn in his journey, which makes Out of the Furnace a bit of a slog to sit through. There's nothing hugely objectionable about the film, but there's simply nothing there underneath the grimy photography and hardened faces to justify the film's existence. In a way, it's almost hard to call Out of the Furnace "bad," as its biggest crime is simply that it has absolutely nothing going on outside of its most basic components, all of which have been used to better effect in dozens of other films.

Grade: C/C-

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Review: "American Hustle"

Director: David O. Russell
Runtime: 128 minutes

About halfway through David O. Russell's American Hustle, I suddenly realized why it all felt so vaguely familiar. Sure, the beginning had a bit of Goodfellas vibe with the tone of its voice-overs and flashbacks, but there was a second ingredient that evaded my grasp. And then it hit me: Ocean's 11. Like Soderbergh's film, Russell's latest feels like an excuse for a bunch of familiar players to get together and make a fun movie with a bunch of heinous, period-appropriate hairdos. Sure, the film is talked about as a possibly big Oscar contender, but it's really more of a laid back heist movie that just happens to have a diamond-studded ensemble. Combine the two aforementioned films and you have a rough approximation of what it's like to watch American Hustle. That is, without any of old-fashioned skill of Scorcese's mafia classic, or the effortless crowd-pleasing of Steven Soderbergh's caper remake. 

A fictionalized take on the FBI's ABSCAM sting operation in the late 70s, American Hustle opens with an attempt at cheekiness: a title card reading, "A lot of this probably happened." The film isn't out to take itself too seriously. Instead, it's content to pack a blandly appealing, toothless sense of humor in a stab at broad accessibility. That said, the title card is hardly an unforgivable sin. That's where the voice over comes in. Covering not one, not two, but three different characters, American Hustle's voice over is some of the most ill-conceived since the opening of The Descendants. The saving grace of the latter film is that after the first 15 minutes, George Clooney shut up. The three-pronged vocal assault here - from Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Bradley Cooper - may not be constant, but it does pop up across the entire film, which spans a little more than two hours. 

Suffice it to say that the film's first quarter is easily its weakest. There's a lot of ground to cover, with everything from childhoods to personal motivations blasted through, all at the expense of a proper anchoring in the characters. We've got schlubby con man Irving Rosenfeld (Bale), his mistress Sydney Prosser (Adams), and Richie DiMaso (Cooper), the FBI agent who eventually manipulates the pair, all competing for our attention, which gets the film off to a jumbled start. Aside from an amusing opening bit with Irving arranging his labyrinthine combover, there's little to latch on to, seeing as so much information is simply being thrown our way.

But while we're on the subject of hair, it's worth noting that American Hustle does have a great deal of fun with with its characters' coiffures. Adams and Jennifer Lawrence (as Irving's alcoholic shut-in of a wife) are largely spared, save for when the former goes to a party with Janice Soprano hair, being the victims of follicular atrocities. The men are less fortunate. In addition to Bale's combover, there's also Cooper's hilariously tiny and tight set of curls, a nice externalizing of his finicky  tightly wound persona, and Jeremy Renner's bouffant, which may possess its own gravitational pull. 

Like some vicious bit of aesthetic justice, the men's looks are made to suffer, even as the women remain dressed up and lightly objectified (every other one of Adams' outfits bares quite a bit of skin). When Sydney compliments Richie on his perm, the moment comes across like a bit of meta commentary. She seems to find it attractive, but when she references the amount of effort he puts into such a 'do, it's difficult not to laugh.

It's the sort of humor that Russell has retained and broadened over the course of his last few films (including The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook). There are dramatic scenes here (the best of which belong to Adams, in wildly different scenarios), but American Hustle isn't out to plumb the depths of its characters and their morally grey world. It's all a bunch of star-powered razzle dazzle that only momentarily catches fire. It's a film caught between giving its actors room to play off of each other, while also trying to keep its plot moving forward, only without the level of detail that might have made for a more compelling narrative. 

So, as fun as it is to see these stars play dress up and spout moderately amusing dialogue, the film as a whole can't help but feel lacking. As a drama, it never has stakes necessary to generate tension (save for one last minute, and very fun, twist). As a caper-comedy, it's too removed from the specifics of its plot to feel like there's much of anything really going on. And, as a character study, it's far too thin. The hairstyles are, frankly, often more fun to pay attention to. And as much as Russell throws in dolly zooms on his actors' faces, American Hustle never truly takes flight the way his last two films did. The closest that American Hustle comes to capturing the fire of The Fighter or Silver Linings is in a brief bit of physical comedy involving Lawrence drunkenly singing along to the Bond theme "Live and Let Die." Unfortunately, like the movie as a whole, the moment is only superficially engaging, and ultimately superfluous, despite its best intentions.

Grade: C+

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Review: "Oldboy"

Director: Spike Lee
Runtime: 104 minutes

There's nothing inherently wrong with an American remake of an acclaimed foreign film. Though there's hardly a notable catalog of successful Hollywood remakes, successes aren't impossible. Just two years ago, David Fincher delivered his take on Sweden's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Despite sharing similar problems with the original (which stem from the novel), Fincher's version was a vastly superior work of pure craft. Go back a few years more, and there's Martin Scorsese's The Departed (based on the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs), which took home Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. So what's the verdict on Spike Lee's Oldboy, a remake of Park Chan-wook's acclaimed South Korean thriller? 

The short answer is that no, Lee's version doesn't hold a candle to the original. But to dismiss it for that reason alone would be foolish. And, in fairness, Lee's version does have its merits, even though they feel superfluous in the shadow of the Korean version. Even when Lee and writer Mark Protosevich deliver, the results are but a shadow of the previous iteration. 

It doesn't help matters that Oldboy gets off to a jarringly sloppy start. From the frenetic editing to the rushed line delivery, the film's establishing scenes, in which Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) drinks, fights with his ex-wife, and drinks some more, are hacky and amateurish. Joe's starting point in the film makes sense on paper, but Brolin's first moments feel like bad rehearsals. Things get a little better once Joe is captured and imprisoned in a mysterious, window-less room, but the filmmaking and acting remain disconcertingly subpar. Watching Park Chan-wook and the great Min Sik-choi chronicle the maddening years of imprisonment was visceral and unsettling cinema. Lee and Brolin's take quickly slides into tedium. Even as Joe learns, via his cell's TV, that he's been framed for rape and murder, the psychological component remains out of the film's grasp.

Only when Joe is mysteriously thrown back into the world does Lee's film start to improve, and even then the improvements seem like a lackluster reward for one's patience. Joe, understandably, struggles to put together the scraps of his former life (20 years is a long time to be kept in confinement). Old friends barely recognize him, but one (Michael Imperioli, whose character only exists within his bar and apartment) finally takes pity on him. Joe also befriends a young nurse named Marie (Elizabeth Olsen), who becomes determined to help him because the plot requires it. A version of Olsen's character exists in the original, but she was introduced in a way that felt in line with the narrative. Olsen, sadly, is brought in through a clunky intro that revolves around her position as a nurse. Even in the details that Oldboy keeps the same, it still fumbles with the moment-to-moment execution.

If it seems like Lee's film has nothing to offer, that's not quite the case. One of Park's film's best known scenes is its brutal hallway fight, in which the protagonist fights off dozens of henchman in a single crowded, brutal shot. Lee changes the scene's setup to the point where it almost feels like a video game, but it works. With this breathless, stylized crescendo of assault and battery, the director starts attacking the material with conviction. Everything afterwards is far from perfect, but there is, thankfully, a consistent increase in overall quality from here on out. 

Where Lee and company really make an impression is in the last half hour. In a pair of smartly-executed flashbacks, Lee elegantly overlays images of the past on the present. Even more striking is the director's handling of the story's shocking and disturbing climactic twist, doled out largely in a single, knockout camera movement. Everything - the directing, the writing, the imagery - finally coalesce into the movie that this remake should have been. 

But even for the uninitiated, it may not be enough. There will be, not surprisingly, those who find themselves too repulsed to enjoy to twisted nature of the conclusion. Yet even those who find it riveting will still have to contend with the mixed bag that precedes the final act. It's hard to find anything consistent or noteworthy for so much of Oldboy, that it threatens to completely sever one's engagement with the story and the characters. 

Even District 9 star Sharlto Copley, as Joe's shadowy tormenter, isn't enough to hold it all together. As much as Copley digs into his outrageously stylized character, he feels like he belongs in a 1950s Bond movie. Despite his muscular build, Copley's sneering Adrian is the sort of sinisterly effeminate type that Hollywood used to love parading in front of audiences with a wink and a nod.

So as much as Oldboy deserves credit for ending with its best foot forward, it's a hard movie to endorse with much enthusiasm. When Lee's sensibilities actually click with the material, there are tantalizing hints at the great, American-ized remake that could have been. Unfortunately, those moments make up too little of this middling, yet competent, retread of a film that's already something of a cult classic. As is often the case, you're better off simply watching the original, especially since Netflix finally uploaded the original South Korean version with English subtitles. 

Grade: C+

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Review: "Inside Llewyn Davis"

Director(s): Joel and Ethan Coen
Runtime: 105 minutes

Though undoubtedly a small movie, it would be a mistake to dismiss Inside Llewyn Davis, Joel and Ethan Coen's folk music character study, as a forgettable or minor work in their careers. Firmly anchored by Oscar Isaac's lead performance, this melancholy story is filled with typical Coen quirks, yet ventures into a level of sincerity the brothers rarely tackle. Bound to deepen upon reflection and/or repeated viewings, this deceptively small movie makes its mark thanks to its gently played undercurrent of resilience in the face of sadness.

The titular Llewyn Davis (Isaac) likely won't go down as one of the Coen's more likable protagonists. Though certainly no villain, Llewyn is a great deal less sympathetic than the brother's last lead, True Grit's Mattie Ross. Though he's far from old, Llewyn carries himself like a man who's already been pushed to wit's end (this is nicely complimented by Bruno Delbonnel's blue-hued, wintery images). When we first meet him, Llewyn is singing his heart out into a microphone, and for a while it looks like he's performing in a vacuum as he pours out his soul. As the scene pulls back, however, we see that all of Llewyn's passion is being put forth in a dingy bar, with an audience that is appreciative and engaged, but not exactly enraptured. Llewyn's doing his best to communicate the only way he really knows how, but the gulf between artist and audience is quite a large one.

If Llewyn's interaction with his audience is lacking, his ability to interact with friends and family is even more dire. There are friends like Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Mitch (Ethan Phillips), but they seem like distance acquaintances at best (although not too distant that Llewyn won't abuse their hospitality). Then there are people like Jim's wife Jean (Carey Mulligan), who rightfully has nothing but contempt for Llewyn or anything he stands for. Through a series of tautly written, intelligently acted scenes, the Coens establish a whole host of relationships from Llewyn's POV, thus firmly planting him in his head. We spend time viewing events from his perspective, even as the direction is wise enough to avoid siding with Llewyn's thoughts and actions.

The surprisingly fleet pacing, with conversations often ending with hard cuts to a new shot, is what gives Inside Llewyn Davis a defiant lack of heaviness. The Coens aren't interested in misery porn or yanking at heart strings. Though the story's setting and music make it ripe for noxious sentimentality, the directors never betray their own level of emotional restraint, even as they branch into more sincere territory. Rather than blast emotions at the viewer, the film mostly underplays things - events, backstories, details - thus allowing them room to reverberate with the viewer throughout (and after) the whole film. 

For all that there is to say about the writing and directing, it would be foolish as well to say that the film isn't an actors' piece of sorts. Isaac, in his first real leading role, is nothing short of outstanding, whether he's singing, arguing, or merely observing and laying low. Isaac's turn is so key to the film, that whether or not you respond to it will likely come down to how to connect (or don't) to the actor's approach to him, as well as the film's. 

Supporting roles, meanwhile, often feel like hazily sketched satellites orbiting Llewyn's life. This is true of some (Jim and Mitch, Mitch's wife), but in characters like Jean the film is able to communicate so much with so little. In large part, that's due to what Mulligan pulls off, starting with bigger, noisier scenes before quieting down and hinting at a fuller, more authentic personality. Even F. Murray Abraham, who only appears in one scene, gives a performance that feels lived in. It's just not his life that we as a viewer are oriented around. 

The most valuable supporting player, however, is the music. Though little (if any) is original, music supervisor T. Bone Burnett (along with Isaac) has done a beautiful job of compiling a series of songs that work perfectly in sync with the story. It's hard to imagine swapping any songs in terms of order, given how carefully they've been positioned throughout the film. Details like this emphasize what makes Inside Llewyn Davis so special, despite its narrative and emotional modesty. 

The level of care present in every scene and shot may not always be immediately apparent, but the film moves in ways that have a confident sense of purpose. Llewyn hops from place to place, and the film hops from scene to scene, yet no excursion is without purpose. Inside Llewyn Davis is undoubtedly a small film, but it's anything but minor. It's an understated dark comedy handled with unparalleled restraint, which is precisely why it's so deeply felt. 

Grade: A-

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Review: "Labor Day"

Director: Jason Reitman
Runtime: 111 minutes

While Jason Reitman deserves credit for branching out with his latest film, he's hardly deserving of praise for the final product this time around. A mishmash of poor decisions and shoddy story telling, Labor Day comes across more as a polished Lifetime movie, rather than the latest work from an exciting young director. In venturing outside of his comfort zone, Reitman has made the mistake of indulging in all of the worst tendencies of his new chosen genre. The result is awkward, boring, and fatally unconvincing.

Set over Labor Day weekend in 1987, Reitman's adaptation of Joyce Maynard's novel centers on Henry (Gattlin Griffith) and Adele Wheeler (Kate Winslet). The latter is a shut in of a single mom, unable to rebound from her divorce to Henry's father (Clark Gregg). On her monthly sojourn to the local convenience store, however, Adele's life changes with the introduction of Frank (Josh Brolin), an escaped convict who inserts himself into Adele and Henry's life. 

Right off of the bat, the set up is unconvincing. The level of contrivance present, which rests upon Henry's gullibility and naiveté, isn't the sort of flaw the film is able to make up for over time. Instead, it undermines everything that follows. The psychological tension inherent to the set up never materializes, which leaves Labor Day as a goopy slog of a romantic drama. 

Reitman approaches the material by throwing every trick in the book at it, and it's rather depressing to watch. Voice over pervades the entire film, spelling out even the most obvious details. Meanwhile, Rofle Kent's score, though fine on its own, is overused to the point of self-parody. Rather than compliment the footage, Kent's music strains the create an atmosphere that the writing and direction are laughably incapably of conjuring. Reitman also tries, unsuccessfully, to build Frank and Adele's backstories through laughably "arty" flashback sequences that do little to truly get under the skin. If anything, they only make the whole project seem even more worthless.   

Even the two stars seem unable to fully connect with their characters. Though Winslet and Brolin are perfectly suited to their respective roles, the material they're given is so thoroughly lacking that its no wonder their performances suffer. Winslet, in the more emotive role, is particularly disappointing as the damaged Adele. All of the nervousness and wariness Winslet communicates feels halfhearted at best. Though it's hard to pinpoint whether the fault lies more with the writing and directing or the actress can be difficult. Either way, it's sorely lacking work from an actress who is capable of so much more. Brolin, meanwhile, is effective enough without having to really do anything that requires true effort. His character almost never seems to be in any true danger, which leaves the actor with little to work with, given that his main conflict revolves around whether or not he'll be captured by the authorities. 

The biggest disappointment in the whole mess, though, is Reitman's direction. The director made a name for himself with sharply observant comedies like Juno, Up in the Air, and Young Adult. His transition to full blown drama, however lacks any of the success of his previous work. His indulgence in tired techniques (heavy-handed music, voice over) feels desperate. There's no intelligence behind any of it, and it all grows old far too quickly. His adaptation surrenders to the dramatic contrivances of its source material, rendering it all painfully trite. Labor Day isn't an intriguing new direction for a rising filmmaker. It's a numbingly bad misfire that ought to be stricken from the resumes of everyone involved. 

Grade: D+

Friday, November 15, 2013

AFI Fest 2013: "Heli"

Director: Amat Escalante
Runtime: 105 minutes

At the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, Mexican director Carlos Reygadas took home the Best Director prize. This year, his countryman Amat Escalante did so, for a film which Reygadas helped produce. Reygadas' touch is felt throughout Escalante's drug war drama, from the simple yet formal camera work to the aversion to trained performers. Unfortunately, none of Reygadas' influence, or Escalante's own vision, works particularly well. The execution is technically competent, but ultimately provokes little more than a shrug once its final shot fades to white. 

Drug trade violence is an always-topical subject matter, though most audiences are used to seeing it from a white perspective (whether in the likes of The Counselor or on TV's Breaking Bad). In that sense, it's nice to see a film that examines drug-related violence for an entirely Mexican point of view. If only the quality of the writing was there to give Heli greater justification for its existence. 

Heli aims for modern Greek tragedy, but it fails thanks to Escalante's indifferent attitude towards his characters, and the horrific events that befall them. The downward spiral is set in motion by a move of passion between two children, yet the real sense of tragedy is missing. The context of the setting - a world where people are forced to grow up far too fast - is compelling in its own right, but Escalante write and directs his story in a manner that never truly connects. It's telling that Heli's most effective moments are those involving anonymous violence, as in the initially vague opening sequence. 

The problem is that Escalante mistakes socio-political context for actual drama. As a window into Mexico, Heli actually does a solid job. What's missing is some greater reason or statement to make it worth the investment. Character arcs are non-existant, and the story's entire purpose seems to be that "hey, that drug violence south of the border really is unpleasant business, isn't it?" Escalante pulls off some nicely textured visual moments, but there's absolutely nothing underneath. The film received attention at Cannes for a violent sequence involving flaming body parts. However, in the full context, the bit barely registers, even as it gives painful new meaning to the song "Great Balls of Fire." 

Not helping matters are the performances, which are nothing more than functional. Only Armando Espitia as the titular protagonist achieves anything resembling a rounded performance, but his efforts are in vain. Escalante isn't interested in his characters. He cares about how he can use them to make a point. A pity that he forgot to even make much of a point to begin with.

Grade: C-

AFI Fest 2013: "The Great Beauty"

Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Runtime: 142 minutes

The spirit of Federico Fellini lives on in Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty, a big, bloated, beautiful swoon of a movie. Italy's official entry for the upcoming Foreign Language Film Oscar may not quite reach the heights of its obvious forerunner - Fellini's La Dolce Vita - but it's still an engaging watch from its dazzling opening to its contemplative final passages. Sorrentino's kaleidoscopic look at Berlusconi-era Rome can be something of a mess, but it's all practically bursting at the seams with life. 

Like the aforementioned Fellini classic, the center of The Great Beauty is a journalist, albeit one significantly older than the one embodied by Marcello Mastroianni all those years ago. Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo, excellent here and in Sorrentino's Il Divo) is an aging journalist who conquered Rome's high life at an early age. He's introduced to us during an elaborate party sequence, turning around and grinning with a cigarette hanging from his mouth. Yet all of those years a living the sweet life have left a bit of a sour taste in Jep's mouth, even as he continues to indulge. 

Rather than gradually push Jep to a breaking point, however, The Great Beauty is content to wash over the viewer in a series of episodes that often touch on the same themes and ideas. When it works - which it does a great deal of the time - it's grandiose entertainment powered by Sorrentino's full throttle maximalism. The results can sometimes be a bit manic (the camera is in almost constant motion), but they capture the mix of the beautiful and the profane inherent in both Jep's life and Rome itself. 

Though The Great Beauty is a lot of pure movie to take in one sitting, it's never less than pleasurable. Sorrentino captures moments of biting satire and honest, understated emotion with a mix of bombast and restraint. It shouldn't work, but alas, it does. Sorrentino and cinematographer Luca Bigazzi capture it all with relentless enthusiasm. A few bits and pieces here and there break the overall flow, but there's hardly a moment in this sprawling party that begs to be removed or trimmed down. 

Even with the indulgences, it's hard to deny Sorrentino's energetic dedication to his own vast, overwhelming feast for the senses. Despite all of the artistic flourishes, the script is no slouch. If La Dolce Vita showed the hollowness of high society in its heyday, The Great Beauty catches it in its decline. Jep and his associates aren't pretty young things anymore. They have a lifetime of mistakes and regrets behind them, and they're bearing witness to the offspring of their own indulgences. In a particularly humorous aside, Jep watches a group of people visit an outrageously expensive, yet frighteningly efficient, cosmetic surgeon, doing his best to puff and plump Rome's crumbling, sagging glitterati of yesteryear. Later, Jep and a new lady friend walk through a dark empty building filled with statues, gazing upon the immortal works of their ancestors. It's big juxtapositions like this that give The Great Beauty some sense of heft amid its shameless stylization. 

And even though his emotional journey can, at times, feel a touch repetitive, Toni Servillo remains an ideal match for Sorrentino's larger than life aesthetic. The swooping, gliding camera impresses, and the soundtrack choices are divine, but Servillo lends the film its cigar smoke-stained soul. In some ways, Jep is the singular manifestation of his era, despite the group of contemporaries who fill out the ensemble as his friends and lovers. Jep is capable of recognizing the beauty of simple pleasures, but unlike some of his friends, the pull of Rome's high life is too much for him to resist, even as it gets in the way of his more intellectual pursuits. Sensation is key in this thrillingly alive spectacle, but nothing is as truly captivating as a glimpse at the soul. With The Great Beauty, Sorrentino has found a way to stimulate our senses while also providing a successful character study. It's not the sweet life. It's the complete life.  

Grade: A-

AFI Fest 2013: "Her"

Director: Spike Jonze
Runtime: 120 minutes

The future is a sleek, dark, sterile world. At least, that's what your average near-future dystopia would tell you. This being the case, director Spike Jonze deserves a lot of credit for his simple, ultimately warm look at where our society is headed, with his new romance Her. He also deserves credit for, in his first outing as a writer, delivering such a funny, heartfelt, and empathetic look at love and human relationships in our increasingly tech-obsessed world. 

Despite lonely protagonist Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), Jonze approaches Her by doing a complete 180 from his previous film, 2009's Where the Wild Things Are. That film took a children's book and infused it into a tale filled with poignant, soulful mourning. By contrast, this tale of adults and their romantic lives is mostly a light comedy. 

Rather than opt for a future filled with nihilistic heaviness, Jonze and his collaborators have dreamed up a world filled with warmth. Rather than oppressive grays, Her is shot and designed to incorporate a wide range of soft, vibrant pastels. Some of Hoyt van Hoytema's shot compositions showcase the towering skyscrapers of Los Angeles, but the film is ultimately concerned with intimacy. 

For Theodore, that intimacy comes not from another person, but from a futuristic new operating system. Once activated, the program develops a personality, that grows as its spends more time with the given customer. Theodore's OS, for example, gives herself the name Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), and quickly becomes her own strong-willed personality. In line with the film's notions of simplicity, the artificial intelligence in Her takes no physical form. There are Blade Runner-esque androids. There's only the voice.

While Jonze gets to craft scenes and images, and Phoenix has room to visibly express himself, Johansson is left with only her voice. She's Her's make it or break it element, and thankfully, she succeeds with flying colors. Though she came to prominence in roles that emphasized emotional minimalism (Girl with a Pearl Earring, Lost in Translation), Johansson proves she's capable of creating a richly textured character without even appearing on screen. Jonze's script only helps the performance. He gives Samantha room to be her own person. Though she's technically there to be a voice for Theodore's computer, Her's progression makes her every bit as well rounded as her "owner," even though she comes into the movie with no background or baggage. 

Likewise, Amy Adams' Amy is also given room to have her own life. For a movie ostensibly about a man falling in love with his computer, Her's women are refreshingly independent. Though they have moments to comfort Theodore, Jonze writes them as full-bodied beings with more to do than act as emotional sounding boards for a man. Even Rooney Mara, as Theodore's ex-wife Catherine,  is never simplified or demonized. Though most of Catherine's scenes are silent flashbacks, Jonze never robs her of a voice. The reason for her split from Theodore is given a fair shake, with both parties shown enduring some form of emotional struggle. 

As valuable as the women are, however, Her is built on both Theodore and Samantha. And for a couple who never visibly share the screen, Phoenix and Johansson work wonders together. Phoenix throws himself into the goofy, aloof Theodore with the same force he gave to the tormented and animalistic Freddie Quell in last year's The Master. Despite being known largely for playing men riddled with demons, Phoenix makes for a surprising comedic and romantic lead. 

The performances and direction only heighten as the film dips into deeper territory. Her is, somewhat contrary to the marketing, a comedy, but Jonze never forgets to push beneath the surface charm. Yet rather than become fully dramatic in the later portions, it's perhaps more accurate to say that the film becomes empathetic. Jonze wrings some beautifully romantic and heartfelt moments out of his sci-fi laced scenario, yet there's never an emotional heaviness behind it. In fact, the film's few uncomfortable moments come when seemingly dramatic scenes are suddenly punctuated with obviously intentional comedy. You enjoy the comedy, but simultaneously can't help but wish that a serious beat had simply been allowed to settle and take root. 

Her isn't so much a searing study of human relationships as it is a gently comforting, though ultimately lighthearted romance. It's easy enough to dismiss Jonze's tone as nothing but frivolity. The film's lightness is underscored by moments of deep feeling that speak for themselves though restrained direction and beautiful performances. Her is a gorgeous technical package (with van Hoytema's cinematography taking best in show honors) ,but it would be nothing without committed performances lending some real soul to its deceptive lightness. In Phoenix and Johansson, however, Jonze has found a perfect pair around which to build his singular vision of our rapidly deepening relationship with technology. 

So many films have tried tackling society's progression with heavy-handed seriousness. Her, on the other hand, sees fit to view the future with guarded optimism and a lovely sense of hope, despite the inevitable complexities that arise along the way. The journey into the future is uncertain, but for Spike Jonze, it's humanity's constant needs that are the real driving force behind society's developments. As it turns out, those are more impressive than any grandiose advancements in technology or special effects. 

Grade: B+/A-

Thursday, November 14, 2013

AFI Fest 2013: "The Congress"

Director: Ari Folman
Runtime: 122 minutes

Five years after the masterful animated doc Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman returns with The Congress, an overly ambitious odd duck that gets just enough right to avoid being a failure. Blending sections of live action and animation, Folman's foray into fiction filmmaking once again features dazzling visuals, even as them come trembling under the weight of unwieldy concepts and themes. Robin Wright's central turn is compelling in both physical and animated forms, and has great fun casting the actress as a version of herself.

For all of the bright, downright trippy animation that fills the second half of The Congress, the film's outlook on modern desires and priorities isn't exactly a happy one. Opening in the not too distant future, the film's first shot is a worn down looking Robin Wright listening to a demeaning lecture from her agent Al (Harvey Keitel). There are references to everything from bad career choices to bad choices in men (Wright was once married to Sean Penn), and it feels all too plausible, despite the undercurrent of humor. One wonders, in a system still filled with such an unfortunate amount of sexism and double standards, how many similar conversations have taken place behind closed doors. 

Things for Robin don't exactly improve when she meets with executive Jeff Green (Danny Huston, laying the sleaze on thick) offers her a troubling opportunity. The aging actress will have the chance to receive a steady flow of income if she takes part in a new process that will allow the studio to scan her entire being (mind, body, and soul), thus allowing them to manipulate and control her every move on screen. The other part of the agreement, however, is that the actual Robin Wright, the one not contained on a computer chip, can never act again in any capacity. 

Folman's set up is, despite some iffy acting moments from Keitel and others, quite effective. Though it's none too subtle about the message, there's enough winking humor to offset the heavy-handedness. Even with Wright loosely playing herself, there's a general avoidance of in-jokes about her career, thus allowing this Robin Wright to exist as her own character. 

Only when we first enter the animated section of the film does The Congress fail to fully gel. Folman has a great deal of fun with the visual style, but his handling of the rules of the animated world are fuzzy-headed at best. Robin's presence in the animated zone (an actual, separate place from the live action world) never feels convincing. The character is left to wander around (and occasionally hallucinate), but she lacks true conflict or motivation. The introduction of the mysterious Dylan (Jon Hamm), sadly, fails to ignite much interest as well. All hell breaks loose in the animated zone, yet it's difficult to feel any sense of tension because the zone still feels so overwhelming and vague as a place. 

Thankfully, Folman eventually remembers to give his protagonist a goal, which gives the animated portion a long overdue sense of narrative momentum. The animated zone's dream logic still frustrates, but the amusing imagery finally comes coupled with the sense of a world with a sense of purpose. Despite Wright's valiant efforts, however, The Congress is more of a director's (and animator's) film than an actor's piece. The actress' voice work in the animated section is vulnerable and human, but Robin Wright the character is ultimately not given enough for Robin Wright the actress to work with. 

On the other hand, when Folman's direction clicks, he delivers some truly arresting moments. For all of the uneven execution throughout, Folman does at least deliver when it comes to the ending. Aided by Max Richter's simple, atmospheric score, and a gut-punch of a visual transition, The Congress ends on a sobering, inexplicably emotional note. Even with all of the hazily drawn characters, concepts, and themes, enough of it sticks along the way that the last 15 minutes dazzle in their own quiet way. The Congress may not be the grand slam follow-up to Waltz With Bashir that it could have been, but there's certainly enough going on that makes it worth going way down the rabbit hole into Folman's relentless vision.

Grade: B-

AFI Fest 2013: "Borgman"

Director: Alex van Warmerdam
Runtime: 113 minutes

A head-turner at this year's Cannes Film Festival, Dutch thriller Borgman is as hard to pin down and understand as the titular character. Shaman? Demon? Alien? All seem like potentially valid interpretations in Alex van Warmerdam's briskly paced domestic invasion (infection?) tale. There have been comparisons to Haneke's Funny Games, but the more appropriate reference point is Yorgos Lanthimos' Dogtooth, which was equal parts sinister and bizarrely funny. 

When we first meet Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet), he's fleeing from a hunting party led by a gun-toting priest. Upon making his escape, he finds his way into the home of an upper class family, walled off from the world in their fortress-like modern home. Though Richard (Jeroen Perceval) brutally rejects Borgman's pleas for shelter, his wife Marina (Hadewych Minis) takes pity. Without Richard's knowledge, she takes Borgman in, hiding him away in the small shack on the outskirts of their sprawling backyard. The one condition, of course, is that Borgman never enters the house or interacts with Richard and Marina's three children.

What happens next is where Borgman starts to defy description. Strange incident after strange incident piles up, and van Warmerdam's slick storytelling keeps the episodes light, weird, and frequently hilarious. At every opportunity to answer a question, van Warmerdam simply throws five more out to the audience. You know nothing about Borgman or his motivations, but it doesn't take long before you wish you knew everything.

Yet as good as van Warmerdam is at raising questions, he's less successful at coming up with satisfactory answers, or even hints at answers. Carried by the direction and strong performances, Borgman goes down easy, despite its self-conscious weirdness. Yet once the ending arrives and the screen goes dark, it doesn't take long before you stop caring about the dozens of questions that you had in the moment. For a film that has such fun poking and prodding the audience (as well as the characters), there's a curious lack of thematic bite when it comes to the finale. 

The moments leading up to said underwhelming finale are still more than enough to make the film worth a look. With its swift story telling (doled out with simple, yet effective camera work) and lack of heaviness, Borgman is an unexpectedly accessible variation on the home invasion (home encroachment?) sub-genre, despite its myriad oddities. Watching Bijvoet and Hadewych play off of each other (as well as the rest of the ensemble) is a great deal of fun, with the actors' collective commitment to van Warmerdam's vision being a huge boon to the overall project. If there's any part of Borgman that will stay with you over time, it's the unfussy, unpretentious dedication to spinning a deliciously strange journey that matters far more than the ultimately hollow destination.

Grade: B/B-

AFI Fest 2013: "Tom at the Farm"

Director: Xavier Dolan
Runtime: 105 minutes

A tightly wound story of lust, desire, and control, Xavier Dolan's Tom at the Farm is the young Quebecois director's most accomplished film to date. Abandoning most of the film student tendencies of his previous features, the prolific artist's latest is a dive off the deep end into florid modern noir. Though Dolan still has plenty of room to grow, and it shows, his latest is a gay-themed, Hitchcockian psychosexual thriller that holds some truly magnificent pieces of acting and atmospheric tension.

As the film opens, Tom (Dolan) is bidding farewell to his boyfriend Guillaume, who has passed away in a tragic accident. Yet soon afterwards he's forced to conceal his feelings. Tom journeys to Guillaume's family's farm for the funeral. The family - mother Agathe (Lise Roy) and brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal) - remain unaware of Guillaume's sexual orientation. Under pressure from the vaguely menacing Francis, Tom continues to prop up the lie, and finds himself slowly sucked into life at the farm. 

Dolan's first steps here are his clumsiest. Despite the moody photography, early scenes come front-loaded with Gabriel Yared's lush, bombastic score. As Tom meanders around the empty farm for the first time and Yared's strings flood the screen, it's tempting to write the whole thing off. Moments like these show Dolan struggling to acclimate to the genre trappings he so clearly wants to engage with (and indulge in).

Yet once the perfunctory first conversations are out of the way, Tom at the Farm starts to come alive with a Polanski-like attention to atmosphere. The style and content stop clashing, and come together to paint a fog-shrouded portrait of intimate, character-driven suspense and sexual tension. Yared's score, such an obnoxious distraction at the start, suddenly becomes wholly engrossing, even as it occaisionally threatens to recklessly upstage the drama. 

Beneath Dolan's typical attention to style, however, he's also put together a tight ensemble of strong performances. The writer/director/star likely won't win new converts with his acting style (his biggest change is that he's decked out with a heinous hairdo), yet his technique lends itself well to the story and character. That said, none of it would work half as well without the stellar turns from Roy and Cardinal, especially the latter. 

Roy's Agathe starts as a doddering and oblivious old lady, but through Dolan's script, the actress is able to peel back the layers and reveal surprising and unsettling facets. Best in show honors easily go to Cardinal as the hulking, gruff and controlling Francis. Whether simply hovering over Tom or trapping him in sinister emotional games, the actor is a force to be reckoned with. Both of these roles could have been frustratingly one-note, and it's exhilarating to watch Dolan and his cast pay such attention to them. Even though Dolan's atmosphere is purposefully over the top, the cast keep enough buried so that their emotional explosions never slide into hysteria. 

But after so much excellent material throughout the majority of the film, Dolan's ending come off as a bit of a whiff. There's hints at a payoff of sorts, but nothing truly materializes. It's enough make the whole film seem like less than the sum of its parts, and it leaves you wanting more in the wrong ways. Tom at the Farm's beginning and ending are the albatross around its metaphorical neck. After recovering so beautifully from its clumsy opening, having the finale arrive with so little impact, as though Dolan's hyperactive mind needed to wrap things on to move onto his next project (he's currently writing his fifth film). Yet even if, upon reflection, the film isn't quite the success it could have been, the excellence that defines the bulk of the duration is too good to ignore.

Grade: B/B+

AFI Fest 2013: "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom"

Director: Justin Chadwick
Runtime: 146 minutes

Despite its soaring shots of South Africa and a narrative that spans decades, the "epic" biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom feels like it belongs on a small screen in a classroom. Specifically, one presided over by a teacher suffering through a hangover, and too tired to deal with teaching those damn kids. Despite handsome production values and Important subject matter, this sporadically compelling portrait of Nelson and Winnie Mandela is ultimately a history lesson disguised as a genuinely compelling prestige drama. 

As biopics go, Justin Chadwick's film is appropriately titled. Nelson Mandela's journey was a long one, and Long Walk to Freedom is a long movie. Unfortunately, the two and a half hour runtime is exhausting, rather than exhilarating. Nelson Mandela's story is incredible, but as written by William Nicholson, it plays more like a history lesson that only momentarily comes alive as a drama. Stars Idris Elba and Naomie Harris are committed to their roles, but  their roles mostly leave them with little to do other than emote bombastically.

To the film's credit, however, it does effectively communicate the level of violence faced by blacks under apartheid without becoming exploitative. Following depictions of the Civil Rights Movement (The Butler) and the horrors of slavery (12 Years a Slave), Mandela is the next in a line of films that actually take on issues relating to black people, which is certainly commendable. It's too bad, then, that unlike those other films (or the present-day Fruitvale Station), that Chadwick's film feels didactic, rather than wholly dramatic. Though arguably less episodic than The Butler, William Nicholson's screenplay lacks the necessary character examination needed to sustain a film for two and a half hours.

With Mandela's childhood glossed over in bad Terrence Malick-lite montages, we're dropped into the story with him as a young man in college. It's one of the few times the film actually skips over a significant portion of Mandela's life, although in this case more omissions would have been welcome. Mandela is swept up in the anti-apartheid movement so swiftly that his motivation (aside from the obvious desire for equality) as a character feels empty. We know he's going to join the struggle, and the film doesn't try to delve any deeper into the man's decision to risk being such an outspoken activist.

At least the side of the film focusing on Winnie Mandela gives a look at the source of her more militaristic mode of activism (albeit superficially). Yet as Mandela's complicated and equally galvanizing wife, Harris sometimes overreaches with her performance. A painfully tight close up of her face in a jail cell is made worse by the actress' tear-soaked mugging.  

There's so much important, fascinating history covered in Mandela, but in this particular package it's difficult to get caught up in much of it. As a portrait of turbulent recent history it has some value, but as drama it only grabs you for only a few moments in its lumbering runtime. Like so many decades-spanning biopic films, less would have resulted in so much more.

Grade: C