Thursday, April 25, 2013

Review: "Mud"

Director: Jeff Nichols
Runtime: 130 minutes

*This review is an updated version of my original review from May 2012 during the Cannes Film Festival.

Jeff Nichols' Southern-fried coming-of-age tale Mud first premiered at last year's Cannes Film Festival. Shockingly, it wasn't immediately snatched up for American distribution, despite being both accessible and generally well-received. It's been nearly a year, but those eagerly following Nichols' career (which should be any movie enthusiast) can finally experience the writer/director's third film. Though Mud feels decidedly broader and more commercial than the incredible Take Shelter (2011), it's a touching and effective story that should open the talented director up to a wider art house audience. It could even open Nichols up to the mainstream in future endeavors (much like Rian Johnson). Regardless of where Nichols' career goes, I hope that Mud becomes a gateway film for those not acquainted with his films, rather than an indicator of where his career is headed. 

Set in Mississippi, two young friends, Ellis (Tye Sheridan of The Tree of Life) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), discover a fugitive named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) living in their favorite secret hangout. The hangout in question is a small boat that has, somehow, wound up lodged in a tree, and the image brings to mind the whimsy of films like Tim Burton's Big Fish, as well as classic stories like "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." This is a film predominantly focused on one boy's experiences with love and betrayal, and all of the right ingredients are there on paper.

 What Mud is lacking, however, is a sense of surprise. Nichols feels comfortable with the material, but it doesn't feel like he's really pushing himself. It's good to know he can write this sort of indie crowd pleaser, but also disappointing in terms of how unremarkable (and occasionally repetitive) the plotting is. At 130 minutes, the film certainly isn't dull, but there are times when the nature of the story keeps it from being as taut or compelling as it could be. 

This is largely present in the middle of the story. Where Take Shelter's middle occasionally bordered on meandering, Nichols managed to hold it all together. With Mud, however, he seems to have become a little too relaxed with the plotting, and the pacing of the midsection suffers as a result. Some moments feel like padding, even as they seem relevant (and even necessary). Part of the blame probably has to do with the split between scenes focusing on Ellis' internal and external journeys. The attempt to split the two is admirable, yet it causes the film to feel unfocused, rather than well-rounded. Then there's the climax, which, though handled well on its own, begins so abruptly that it feels like a deus ex machina of sorts.

That doesn't mean that there isn't a lot to like about Mud. From the opening shots, including some lovely images of the Mississippi River, the nostalgic (but never sappy) tone comes through beautifully, thanks to Adam Stone's richly textured cinematography and David Wingo's lush, ambient score. And, just like in Take Shelter, Nichols has managed to bring out strong work from his main actors. McConaughey turns in his best performance in quite some time, devoid of his usual acting tics. He brings the sort of charming (but not smug) quality to Mud that makes you understand why people would be drawn to him, even if he might have ulterior motives. The timing of Mud's release couldn't be any more perfect for the actor, as it reenergizes the actor's stellar comeback that began last year. Reese Witherspoon is solid as well in a small role as the love interest Mud is hoping to reconnect with. Even smaller players like Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson, as Ellis' parents, deliver effective work, even though some of their material is among the weakest (one big fight scene turns uncomfortably on the nose). 

The standout, however, is young Mr. Sheridan, who carries the film with his presence. He's an inherently watchable, likable screen presence, and Nichols extracts a performance from him that doesn't feel overly mannered or coached. When he finally gets his big moment, an outburst at Mud, he knocks it out of the park, and cements himself as a tiny powerhouse. He captures Ellis' journey through romantic and idealistic disappointment with such naturalism, that I think it must be one of the best child performances to grace the screen in some time. For all its imperfections that keep it from greatness, Sheridan is excellent and, above all else, the best reason to stick with Mud all the way through its predictable, yet still touching finale.

Grade: B/B-

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Review: "The Company You Keep"

Director: Robert Redford
Runtime: 121 minutes

When a film comes front-loaded with stars, red flags start to go up. While it's impressive to see films that can string together stacked ensembles, there are always some immediate questions that arise. The big one is whether the film will give each member of the cast moments to shine, or if some of the stars have been cast in thankless roles strictly for their name value. While Robert Redford's The Company You Keep may not exactly be a great film, it can pride itself on being the rare example that manages to juggle a large, first-rate ensemble without dropping too many balls along the way.

Adapted from Neil Gordon's novel, Redford's latest directorial effort opens with the arrest of Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) in upstate New York. A former member of the Weathermen (specifically, its radical militant arm), she's arrested for a crime that took place 30 years prior. Solarz doesn't resist, and goes along with as if it's exactly what she wanted. Yet Solarz's willingness to be caught creates a domino effect that starts to affect the lives of her former comrades. Local journalist Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf), who catches on to the story, eventually outs former Weathermen member Nick Sloan (Redford), who has been living under the alias of Jim Grant for decades. Sloan realizes that, with the FBI now putting extra effort into finding other members of the Weathermen, he'll need to abandon his life to set an old mistake right, and clear his name. 

And once the chase begins (both Shepard and the FBI), The Company You Keep starts to trot out its cavalcade of stars with smart efficiency. Sloan's contacts across the film are all more than plot devices. Each one manages to bring up a different facet of the Weathermen's lost ideologies, as well as Sloan's relationship to those ideologies, without becoming episodic. These scenes are nicely broken up with jumps to Shepard's parallel investigation, as well as a handful of looks at the FBI team trying to catch Sloan and his contacts. 

Though earlier detours are simpler (those involving Nick Nolte and Chris Cooper are closest to being strictly plot-oriented), the later encounters deepen the humanity of the chase. Richard Jenkins and Julie Christie (especially the latter) deliver poignant work as two very different kinds of former radicals. Jenkins' Jed is now a college professor, while Christie's Mimi is still boiling with radical fervor under the surface. Sarandon is also compelling in her fleeting screen time. As the woman who helps set off the plot, she's tasked with communicating years of confusion, regret, and broken idealism, and she does so marvelously.

For much of the story, Redford is more of sounding board onto which the ensemble reminisces. Thankfully, his work behind the camera more than compensates for his largely bland role in front.  We may be watching a man run from a 30 year old crime, but Redford's direction captures the cat-and-mouse game as if his crime had taken place in the first scene. The suspense is never overbearing, and is allowed to play out with a mature naturalism that helps define the film. 

Yet if the film is a strong showcase for its older cast members, the younger cast members get less satisfying material. Like Redford, LaBeouf doesn't have too much to work with, although his character traits are established much sooner and with greater clarity. Anna Kendrick, perhaps the ensemble's only truly wasted member, has even less as Shepard's FBI contact. The script tries to throw in a half-baked aside about the pair's former relationship, but it feels more like filler. Rising star Brit Marling fares better, and injects some spark into a similarly bland role, yet she's ultimately saddled with a subplot that is more intriguing on paper than in execution.

Though The Company You Keep handles its plot threads and the majority of its characters with skill, it comes across as a rather shallow piece. The engagement with the characters' ideas feels simplistic, even though the actors handle their dialogue well. While it marks a big step in the right direction for Redford from 2007's atrocious Lions for Lambs, the film is more concerned with being a thriller than a study of ideas, actions, and their implications. This makes it entertaining, but it also saps it of some dramatic power along the way. After moving along so smoothly for most of its runtime, the script shoe-horns in a little speech from Sloan meant to condense a bunch of ideas about journalistic integrity and personal growth into less than a minute. It has all of the subtlety of a hammer to the face. 

Though The Company You Keep never fully sinks, it is weighed down by its surface-oriented screenplay and a shrug-inducing ending. Overall, it's an engaging, well-made piece of entertainment, yet it also thinks that by merely touching on important ideas and history, it suddenly becomes weighty and meaningful. The real result is that the film just feels overly confident, without the goods to back up that confidence.

Grade: C+

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Review: "The Hunt"

Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Runtime: 115 minutes

Sometimes it's the smallest lies that carry the biggest repercussions, for both individuals and their communities. That's certainly the case with The Hunt, Thomas Vinterberg's drama about multitude of ways that an innocent mistake can result in emotional devastation. Winner of the Best Actor prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival, The Hunt is a sturdy cautionary tale, bolstered by effective performances and level-headed direction. Yet it's also a largely plain film. What ends up being more noticeable is the reserved treatment of the raw subject matter, rather than the characters and their somewhat meandering story.

Set in a small Danish town, The Hunt begins with scenes of life in harmony. Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), is a teacher at the local school. And while Mikkelsen's snake-like features are often used to unnerve viewers, the actor is able to create a believable portrait of a man loved by his community and his students (most of whom are very young). In addition to being popular at his job, Lucas is also part of a group of men in the town who go on annual hunts in the nearby forrest. With the exception of some troubles involving his ex-wife and the custody of his son Marcus, Lucas' life is in a great place. Unfortunately, seeing as that wouldn't make for an interesting story, one of Lucas' young students (Annika Wedderkopp) accuses Lucas of sexual abuse. Despite the girl's oft-mentioned colorful imagination, repeated conversations lead officials at the school to believe that her story is legitimate. 

The intro and first accusations take up roughly 40 minutes of the story, yet Vinterberg is in no hurry to get the ball rolling. This proves to be both good and bad. On one hand, it gives The Hunt room to explore the ways in which the town ostracizes Lucas. At first it starts with a temporary suspension and the (admittedly understandable) anger from the student's parents. Yet as they investigation is dragged on, things escalate, and soon Lucas is banned from the local grocery shop. Even when Marcus comes to stay with Lucas for Christmas, Lucas' life continues its downward slide. On one level, it's frustrating to never get a better sense of the investigation, which ads up to barely more than two scenes after the accusation. Yet what this offers the film is a chance to examine the way different parties in town react, acting on an accusation that has no evidence behind it. Though Lucas is the center of the story, other members of the town are never painted in broad strokes (on the other hand, they aren't terribly detailed either).

The downside, however, is that there are stretches in the main stretch of The Hunt that lack true focus. Many individual scenes are strong, and none betray the overall tone. The problem is that Vinterberg and co-writer Tobias Lindholm haven't quite struck the right balance. The film occasionally darts off to other characters as if to suggest that the script intends to examine the town as a whole, rather than just Lucas. Yet it never really follows through on either promise. Mikkelsen, to his credit, is quite strong (as is the whole ensemble), and holds the film together. The character may be something of a victim, but neither Mikkelsen nor Vinterberg go for easy, saintlike characterization. A scene set in the town church, which could have proved overbearing in its thematic importance, is riveting because of its gradual build and lack of false histrionics. 

Yet even as individual scenes (and Mikkelsen) impress, The Hunt is ultimately less than the sum of its parts. The basic premise and subject matter are rich with potential, yet Vinterberg takes a safe (albeit mature) approach. As a result, the film can drag at times, which isn't helped by the narrative structure (split over several months, and then jumping to a year later). There's nothing that sticks out as bad, yet as a whole The Hunt never comes together in a way that makes it stand out (aside from some truly stunning shots of the forests . Though the film ends on a high note with a chilling final scene (one that brings the thematic arc full-circle), there's not enough that precedes it to make the whole thing any more than competent and ordinary.

Grade: C+

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Review: "In the House"

Director: Francois Ozon
Runtime: 105 minutes

Despite functioning as a domestic thriller, there's something refreshing about the relative lightness of Francois Ozon's In the House. Recent acclaimed foreign imports have tended towards the heavier side. This February, Michael Haneke's Amour won the Foreign Language Film Oscar, and was preceded by Asghar Farhadi's A Separation. Both are excellent films, but they also take painfully honest looks at heavy subject matter. By contrast, In the House stands as a fun reminder that foreign imports need not all be emotionally exhausting in their excellence. 

Opening at the start of the school year at a French high school, In the House quickly introduces us to bored literature professor Germain (Fabrice Luchini). As his colleagues cheer an initiative to introduce uniforms to the school, Germain can only look on with reserved disdain. His sophomore class does little to inspire him either, regaling him with writing assignments detailing weekend events like eating pizza and losing a cell phone. Yet as Germain reads some of his papers aloud to his art curator wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas), he stumbles upon the work of Claude Garcia (Ernst Umhauer). Not only does Claude's story show actual effort, but it ends with a teasing "to be continued..." His interest piqued, Germain decides to help the quiet young man as he continues his observations, even as the lines between fiction and reality begin to blur.

Claude's observations center on his classmate Rapha Artole (Bastien Ughetto), and his parents Rapha Sr. (Denis Menochet) and Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner). Though he refers to them as "the perfect family," Claude's journals are quick to either gently mock the Artoles, or snidely point out the cracks in their facade. Rapha Sr. is struggling with problems at work, while Esther feels trapped as a housewife, constantly musing about everything from a grander home to abandoned career aspirations. Nearly all of this is relayed through extensive sequences that show us Claude's interactions with the Artoles, while Germain's dry voice over gives us the specifics of Claude's writing. 

And as much as In the House relies on simultaneously showing and telling its audience information, Ozon's screenplay never becomes bogged down with exposition. Loosely adapted from Juan Mayorga's play, Ozon's writing is infused with smart efficiency and an understated sense of black humor. For all of the film's satirical examinations of middle class life (Rapha's family and Germain's home alike), Ozon resists the temptation to become smug with his observations. Many similarly themed films sink themselves by trying too hard to be clever, both in plotting and in dialogue. In the House, under Ozon's assured direction, never has to strain to accomplish its goals, and glides along with ease. 

Just as assured is the work from the ensemble, which is filled with both returning Ozon players and new talent. At the head of the story is Luchini, who infuses all of his scenes with a quiet mix of sarcasm and desperation. It creates the feeling that, at any given moment, In the House could snap from satire to tragedy, and vice versa. Though Germain is ultimately the observer in the story, Luchini never allows the role to become purely passive. His obsession with guiding Claude's writing is the driving force behind the narrative, much to the film's benefit. Then there's newcomer Umhauer, who has the film's trickiest role, yet never creates a false moment. Umhauer's sly, even lustful, gazes could have been over-the-top, yet the young actor never turns Claude into a caricatured devil child. This is most evident in the film's last act, when Claude's control over Germain is broken, and the consequences of his actions emerge.

Backing the leading duo up are a string of solid turns, namely Scott Thomas' increasingly flustered Jeanne. Like several of the roles in In the House, Jeanne could have been turned into an over-the-top cartoon. Thankfully, Ozon and Scott Thomas stay comfortably in line with the film's tone, and turn Jeanne into an engaging foil for Germain. At times, you almost wish that the film would focus entirely on their relationship. And, though their characters are practically pawns for Claude, Seigner, Menochet, and Ughetto infuse the Artoles with a humanity that makes them more than the butt of Claude's writing. 

At the head of it all is Mr. Ozon, whose direction has a controlled and refined maturity that has clearly been the result of his last few films. Though still playful, the director has come a long way since lighter delights like the murder-mystery musical 8 Women. The characters here are more rounded, and treated more seriously. Even though the script doesn't directly engage with some of the characters' underlying conflicts (Claude's injured father, Germain's failed writing career), the interactions efficiently establish these people as more than pawns for Ozon to toy with. In the House does not aim for full-blown Greek tragedy in its later and darker scenes, but the (slightly rushed) last act does have genuine emotion coursing through its veins. Ozon may handle the emotions with a deft, light touch, but that doesn't mean that he doesn't take them seriously. 

Likewise, the film's musings on storytelling, specifically the relationship between creator and spectator, are handled briskly. In addition to his marvelous writing and control of tone, Ozon deserves to commended for his energetic (yet never frenetic) and tight pacing. Credit should also go to the simple-but-natural cinematography and energetic score for propelling the story along so beautifully. There's little to no rush, and certainly no drag. Rather than wallow in Germain's boredom (only found in the opening scene or so), In the House establishes its protagonist's state of mind, and then plunges the viewer into its carefully escalating tale. 

There's a seamlessness to the writing and directing that constantly keeps one on edge, without going overboard. The Ozon from a decade ago might have gone over-the-top in teasing the audience with the reality vs. fiction aspect of the story. Yet the new, more mature Ozon lets the story simply go along, uninterrupted by any sort of need to show off. Rather than display arrogance, the director has opted for a welcome slice of restrained confidence, both in himself and in his audience. That confidence is felt from the mundane opening, to the masterful final shot, one that cements In the House as one of 2013's best films, as well as one of the year's best surprises. 

Grade: A-

Friday, April 19, 2013

Review: "Oblivion"

Director: Joseph Kosinski
Runtime: 126 minutes

Rather than try to prove his critics wrong with his second film, director Joseph Kosinski seems perfectly content with delivering more of the same. Just like 2010's TRON: Legacy, Kosinski's Oblivion delivers some entertaining moments and stunning visuals, yet is hindered by a disappointingly thin screenplay. Despite its problems, it's difficult to suggest seeing Oblivion anywhere outside of the theater, where Kosinski's visuals do the best job of distracting one from the flawed writing. 

Set some 60 years into the future, mankind is recovering from a devastating attack that occurred in 2017. Most of humanity has been evacuated to one of the moons of Saturn. Left behind are Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough). They're part of a crew designed to repair drones that protect energy-gathering machines from the scattered remnants of the alien horde. As Harper informs us in the opening voice over, humanity won the war against the alien attack, yet lost Earth in the process. The pair are guided by Sally (Melissa Leo, appearing strictly on fuzzy video monitors), the head honcho of the ship that will eventually take Jack and Victoria off to join the rest of humanity. 

However, the situation becomes complicated when a craft crashes on Earth containing human passengers. The lone survivor is Julia (Olga Kurylenko), who eerily resembles a woman from Jack's strange dreams of the pre-invasion Earth. Julia's introduction to the plot is, at first, one of Oblivion's high points. Yet it doesn't take long for Kosinski and co-writer Karl Gadjusdek to begin stumbling through the remainder of the plot. 

Where the film starts to come apart is in the script's desire to tackle so many different story ideas that audiences have seen before in science fiction. Once Kosinski and Gadjusdek start piling on the twists and revelations, Oblivion's narrative becomes fractured, and the pacing is thrown off (the second hour feels far too long in comparison to the first). Rather than carefully select a few tropes to tackle, Oblivion tries to throw so many ideas together that the narrative becomes jumbled as it charges into what should be a heart-pounding conclusion. Certain developments lack weight because Kosinski's storytelling simply goes through the motions. This is most evident when, just before a major moment in the story, Kosinski decides to try and create the world's shortest love triangle, rather than just stick to the character relationships that have already been established (empty as they are). 

Compounding the narrative problems is that the role of Jack Harper is too thinly written, and Cruise doesn't bring any sort of spark in his performance to make up for it. It's the sort of role he's played far too many times, and as a result his work here isn't terribly engaging. There's no real sense of who Harper is outside of his job, and Cruise's performance doesn't inject the role with any personality. Thankfully, the supporting cast put in some effort with their roles, albeit with varying degrees of success. Melissa Leo proves that she can be enjoyable even when she's never even seen in person, while Kurylenko is solid as the woman responsible for Jack's disillusionment with his mission. However, the standout, if there is such a thing here, is Andrea Riseborough. More than any member of the cast, she's able to take even the most functional lines and imbue them with a liveliness that suggest that she should have been the film's hero. Though she has just as little to work with as anyone else, Riseborough is the only member of the cast who fully sells her material. 

Yet other than Riseborough's solid work, the only other standouts of the film are technical. And, to be fair, there's a lot to be said for Oblivion's technical accomplishments. As with TRON: Legacy, the settings and landscapes are gorgeously rendered, giving the film an incredibly polished look. Sets are also nicely rendered, balancing the sleek modernism of Harper's outpost with the cluttered remains of Earth.  The film is also carried along by first-rate sound work, and a knockout score from French electronic group M83, which helps keep the film from becoming totally stagnant, even with the flow of events is disrupted. 

Unfortunately, these technical achievements aren't enough to rescue Oblivion from being more than a workman-like mishmash of different concepts. The material is simply too flat to begin with. While Kosinski has conceived some fantastic visuals, he has delivered them without any sort of flair so as to really make them pop. Whatever flaws there are, Oblivion could have been a stronger experience overall if it had been able to create at least a few genuinely rewarding cinematic moments. While there are scenes that are exciting or intriguing, there's nothing about the execution to make them stand out. Kosinski has crafted impeccable visuals, yet seems to have stopped there, content to let them speak for themselves. As it turns out, they have precious little to say. 

Grade: C

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Review: "Upstream Color"

Director: Shane Carruth
Runtime: 96 minutes

Just as great performances and direction can elevate average material, bad performances and direction sink promising material. A film like Joe Wright's Hanna is a great example of the former. The film's screenplay is littered with flaws, but Wright and his cast smooth out the bumps through their strong work. Shane Carruth's Sundance sensation Upstream Color is, unfortunately, a disastrous example of the latter. Though its concept and ideas are rich with potential, Carruth's sophomore effort suffers from flat direction, poor writing, and awful performances at every turn, with only one exception.

That exception is Amy Seimetz as Kris, the story's female lead. One night at a club, Kris is given a strange drug (actually a small worm), and suddenly becomes a weak-willed slave to the man who drugged her (Thiago Martins). In the early stages of her captivity, Upstream Color comes closest to achieving the atmosphere it strives for. Watching Kris perform a series of bizarre tasks and rituals is hypnotic, in part because there's nothing overtly menacing about what her captor is asking her to do. Seimetz brings a quiet sensitivity to the role. Over the course of the film, she endures the bulk of the psychological suffering as she tries to put her life back together. There are false moments here and there, but on the whole, the actress comes off rather well. Her face has a delicate expressiveness to it that is critical to making the character work. 

Unfortunately, her captor is less compelling. Martins' manipulator avoids any over-the-top theatrics, although part of this is due to the fact that he barely seems to act at all. Martins sounds like a bored teenager forced to do a school play, and his control over Kris feels laughable the longer the film goes on. Yet Martins' role in the grand scheme of things is small. More important is Kris' bond with fellow recovering victim Jeff (Carruth). Carruth brings effort to his work behind the camera, but he appears to have forgotten to try in front of it. His work opposite Seimetz is so bafflingly in its laziness that you wish Keanu Reeves would appear to liven things up a little. It's one thing to have disposable side characters give flat performances, but to have the film's worst turn come from one of its leads is disastrous. 

With abstract work like Upstream Color, solid performances (or at least an effective presence) can help ground viewers in whatever is passing for a narrative. Just yesterday I saw To the Wonder, which has a lovely turn from Olga Kurylenko at its core that holds the film together. And even the other actors, though not given much to work with, bring a professional level of presence to their roles. That's sadly not the case with Upstream Color, which plays more like a pretentious student film that somehow managed to steal a bunch of grant money. 

What's most frustrating here is that Upstream Color has potential buried amid all of the pretense. Carruth's dedication to abstract story telling is admirable, and the basic elements of his plot could have blossomed into a marvelous portrait of emotional turmoil and paranoia. It's a shame that he wasn't able to execute his vision with more substance to back it all up. Only the cinematography and score remain consistent throughout, elevating the film above its obviously small budget. Yet they're ultimately left trying to create the atmosphere, rather than enhance or compliment it. This is most evident with the score, which is impressive in its own right, yet is tasked with propping up a bunch of empty artsy navel gazing. There's no real sense of pacing either, leaving the film feeling far longer than its 96 minute duration. In short, it's a nauseatingly pretentious bore, that is compelling only in fleeting moments. The only thing more puzzling than Carruth's performance, is that Upstream Color has garnered such acclaim to begin with. 

Grade: D

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Review: "To the Wonder"

Director: Terrence Malick
Runtime: 112 minutes

One of the most surprising things about To the Wonder, the sixth film from secretive director Terrence Malick, is that it opens with grainy digital footage from a camera phone. Anyone with even cursory knowledge of the man's work knows that, even to detractors, his films are regarded as some of the most beautiful ever made. Yet the times they are a changin', as the opening seconds quietly let us know. Not only is To the Wonder Malick's first film shot with digital cameras, it is also his first film to take place in the present. It seems like a logical progression, as Malick becomes less and less concerned with concrete narratives. Yet if 2011's The Tree of Life was the director's most ambitious abstract feature, To the Wonder is easily his most intimate. As such, it's likely to baffle and delight, bore and exhilarate depending on how well you connect with Malick's stylistic progression over the years. 

Allegedly semi-autobiographical, Wonder's plot can be thought of as Malick's take on Blue Valentine, as it chronicles the various ups and downs of a relationship. We're first introduced to Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko), in the early stages of a whirlwind romance that culminates with a trip to Mont St. Michel. It's an elegant and symbolically rich method of showing the (perhaps naive) innocence of their relationship. Marina, the more free-spirited of the two, dances through the incoming tide as Neil watches. Moments later, they embrace in one of the medieval stone courtyards of the famed castle. Their love is at its simplest, unencumbered by the distractions of the modern world. When they touch, it occurs with complete receptiveness. 

Marina and her young daughter move with Neil to Oklahoma. Though surrounded by trappings of the middle class, Marina is able to flourish in America, dancing in the wheat fields that are as vast as the blue sky above them. But, as sometimes happens, the harmony of Neil and Marina's relationship is ruptured by forces that are only barely hinted at. It's here that To the Wonder will most likely start to frustrate certain audience members. One never goes into a Malick movie expecting to be spoon-fed exposition. However, the motivations for the emotional developments (more so in the first half) can, at times, feel too distant and vague. As such, the earlier portions of romantic discord can feel more frustrating than engaging. In part, this stems from the fact that the problem seems to originate with Neil, yet the film is - despite a side venture featuring Rachel McAdams - more oriented around Marina. 

In the film's second half, Marina's voice over tells us that the weak-willed never have the courage to finish things. It's a valuable statement, one that taps into the seemingly out of the blue dissolutions between Neil and Marina, and then Neil and McAdams' Jane. Yet it comes so late that it's hard not to feel as though Malick has missed an opportunity to inject this insight earlier, and give Neil's actions a clearer through-line. Malick's characters rarely pop-out of the frame; they're simply woven into the greater tapestry of the film around them. But in To the Wonder, one can't help but feel the need for just a little more to work with when it comes to figuring these people out. The vision and scope here are so much smaller, despite the constant swooping shots of the sky and the horizon, but there are times when the film feels divided as to whether it wants to be intimate or epic. 

The strain to become an epic is felt most in the scenes involving local priest Fr. Quintana (Javier Bardem). Though he interacts with both Neil and Marina on different occasions,  Malick also strives to give this man of God his own emotional and spiritual journey. Neil and Marina struggle with the emotional repercussions of their faltering romantic love, an area in which Fr. Quintana's spiritual advice can only go so far. Instead, his greater struggle is reconciling his uncertainty with his position, and his struggle to feel God's love, the love that reaches out without judgement or jealousy at all times. It's a journey that certainly has its moments, yet the balance between the two can't help but feel off-kilter. Whenever Quintana appears on screen, it's difficult not to wish that the momentum of the Neil and Marina story arc had been left undisturbed. Malick's goals with this side of the film are noble, yet they cry out to be explored as part of another film (either as the center or as a subplot). The thematic links make sense on paper, but in execution, they aren't quite as convincing.

Thankfully, To the Wonder is anchored in Neil and Marina's story, especially Marina's. In the film's second half, Marina comes further into the foreground, and the various aspects of the film's look at love - platonic, romantic, and spiritual - suddenly coalesce. Kurylenko is a true surprise here, and delivers a performance that ranks among the best in Malick's filmography. There are remnants of Jessica Chastain's gentle mother from The Tree of Life, yet Marina is very much her own modern woman. After so many disposable roles following her breakout turn in Quantum of Solace, it's refreshing to see her bring such sensitivity to the role. Marina is free-spirited  and at times childlike in her innocence and connection with nature, yet she is never distractingly childish. She's torn between her Catholic upbringing, and the almost primal sense of connection she feels to nature and its laws. It's a performance that is both subdued and radiant, effortlessly portrayed and captured. For a film that allegedly contained no true script during shooting, Marina feels like one of Malick's most structured characters. 

That same structure carries over into the film's later stretches, and helps To the Wonder stay true to its convictions. The film's last act has the potential to feel dragged-out and repetitive, yet instead it builds on everything that came before. To the Wonder may not touch The Tree of Life for overall quality, but its final half hour is certainly much more stirring at first glance. Despite the character-based issues earlier in the film, the conclusion here actually delivers on the ideas and themes that have been running underneath the beautiful images the entire time. Malick may take too long to let those ideas surface, but once he does, his film's intimacy finally starts to fit together. The voice over work feels most meaningful, as do the (typically strong) classical pieces that Malick has picked out for the soundtrack. Credit should also go to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki for capturing the whole thing with such naturalistic beauty. There's a rawness to the imagery that, despite its kinship with Lubezki's work on The Tree of Life, has echoes of Malick's Badlands (another film with a romance set against the midwest). Like any of Malick's films, it deserves to be experienced on the big screen, if only to fully appreciate the sheer beauty of it all. 

Ultimately, that beauty will only go so far with many. The gap between The Tree of Life and To the Wonder is the shortest between any two Malick films, and some will likely argue that this acceleration has produced the director's weakest film. Yet for all of its flaws, there's so much to admire here that I find it hard to turn this film away. In the transition from The Tree of Life to To the Wonder, Malick had to descend from truly cosmic heights in order to take a stab at material so deeply rooted in emotional intimacy. And while the director may have stumbled on his way down, he has, to his credit, managed to land with grace. 

Grade: B

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Review: "The Grandmaster"

Director: Kar Wai Wong
Runtime: 130 minutes

Say what you will about director Kar Wai Wong, but the man knows how to craft an elegant,  lush film. This is clearly on display in The Grandmaster (to be released as Grandmasters in the US), Wong's first film in nearly five years. The Grandmaster certainly marks a step in the right direction after 2008's odd My Blueberry Nights (his English language debut). With so many big names from Asian cinema making their English debuts this year, there remains something exciting about Wong returning to his native tongue to explore the martial arts/wuxia genre. Yet even though Wong is technically returning to his comfort zone (language-wise), his long-delayed look at the life of Yip Man is a strangely uneven outing. It's as beautiful as anything the director has put on the silver screen, and it has an elegant flow, yet it suffers from a screenplay that is all over the map. However, the film's polish holds the film together more than one might expect, resulting in something of an elegantly disjointed anomaly.

Though The Grandmaster still boasts Wong's signature dreamy visuals (complete with slow-motion, both blurry and smooth), this film immediately announces itself as a departure from the director's recent work. Barely a minute after the opening credits finish, we're plunged into an expertly choreographed fight in a rainy street. Like some scaled down version of the Neo vs. Mr. Smith scene, Yip Man (Wong regular Tony Leung) takes down a horde of assailants, all while never losing control of the fight (or his hat). 

Yet even though the opening is a highly energized work of visual prowess, what follows is more reliant on exposition. Early on, Yip's voice over is nicely laid over some establishing footage. As time progresses, however, we realize that the opening voice over is virtually all that The Grandmaster considers necessary for character development. Leung has delivered strong work under Wong's guidance before, yet he is poorly served by the screenplay. The bulk of Yip's story is grounded in his quest to master various schools of martial arts, yet Wong never allows this quest to speak to anything deeper. There are lines about the various techniques (and even philosophies) of the different schools, but they alternate between strictly technical and strictly superficial. 

More compelling is the secondary story, revolving around Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), and a quest for revenge against a traitor during the Japanese occupation of China. Wong seems to agree. Once Er enters the story, the film seems more interested in completing her arc, while only periodically checking in on Yip Man's training (as well as his burgeoning reputation). When the film segues into its lovely denouement, only Er's story seems to matter, while Yip might as well be nothing more than a blank audience stand-in. Both stories should have plenty to offer, purely from a narrative stand point. It's this potential that makes The Grandmaster's story structure so frustrating upon reflection. Wong has tried to reach too far, and has created a misshapen film, rather than an expansive and atmospheric epic. This is most evident in a subplot about The Razor Yixiantian (Chen Chang), that is reduced to a standalone sequence which Wong (and his editor) merely leaves hanging in mid-air. 

However, it should be noted that most of The Grandmaster's problems can be somewhat ignored while watching the film. In addition to looking gorgeous, it has the benefit of some outstanding fight sequences masterfully choreographed by Woo-Ping Yuen. Considering that Wong's last few films have been built around solemn romantic longing, it's refreshing to see him tackle his action scenes with such exciting results. Even as he plays with so many different frame rates, the editing often strings them together in such a manner that elevates the action set-pieces, and allows them to work in-sync with Wong's style. Unsurprisingly, the rest of the film looks gorgeous as well, with everything from costumes to sets filled with lush dark colors. The aesthetic is so consistent and convincing that it ensures that The Grandmaster is a pleasurable viewing experience in the moment, faults and all. 

And while Leung is left with little to work with, Zhang is able to elevate her material just enough so that the film isn't left feeling completely empty. Part of this is, of course, due to her story having legitimate stakes. Yip perfects his art in peace, while Er does so on a quest for justice. As such, there's more to connect with in Er's story, even as Wong frustratingly refuses to go more than a centimeter beneath the glossy surface. It's the closest that The Grandmaster comes to having a beating heart beneath all of the lush visuals.   

Often in cases like this, blame would be placed on the stylistic flourishes, but that's not exactly true of The Grandmaster. It comes down to the screenplay (and perhaps some of the months of work in the editing room). Style can often derail a good or solid script, but here the style is actually pulling double duty in order to compensate for the script's shortcomings.  For all of the empty melodrama that fills up The Grandmaster, it packs a mildly affecting resolution. Only at the end does it truly begin to explore the convictions of these fighters, and their relationship with the world around them. The level of depth that it achieves in its final moments, however, is where it should have started, rather than ended. 

Grade: B-/C+

Monday, April 8, 2013

Review: "Welcome to the Punch"

Director: Eran Creevy
Runtime: 99 minutes

Lean and stylish, yet ultimately hindered by mundane writing, Eran Creevy's Welcome to the Punch is the latest in a long line of similarly-themed British crime thrillers. Creevy's sophomore directorial effort has a strong cast and a nice, understated energy. However, it hits far too many familiar beats as it attempts to increase the complexity of its plot. At best, Punch is a showcase for Creevy as a director, even as it makes it painfully clear how much progress Creevy needs to make as a writer.

Opening with a nicely handled chase sequence, we're introduced to hotheaded cop Max Lewinsky (James McAvoy, cast refreshingly against type) as he tries to thwart a massive heist led by Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong). Yet Sternwood escapes, and Lewinsky is badly wounded. Three years later, Sternwood returns from his exile in Iceland after the mysterious death of his son. As Lewinsky seeks revenge on the man who ruined his career, both men find themselves gradually uncovering a deeper conspiracy in the London police force. 

Right off of the bat, Welcome to the Punch moves with an elegant and controlled momentum. Creevy's dialogue in the early stretches is often sparse, but packs a few nice exchanges (mostly between McAvoy and co-star Andrea Riseborough as a fellow cop). On the opposite side of the story, Strong anchors his scenes effortlessly. When the two male leads face off, it's usually Strong who commands the screen, as solid as McAvoy is in such a different role. Supporting roles, namely those played by Riseborough and Peter Mullan, are also well handled, and lend the film a sense of polish that often transcends the limitations of the screenplay. 

Yet, as is typical with narratives of this strain, the film starts to stumble once the plot becomes more complicated. Creevy's navigation through the various and sundry forces on both sides of the law eventually grow muddled and simplistic, and undercut the more tightly-plotted opening reels. By the time the end credits begin, Welcome to the Punch is already starting fade. It has little more to offer than visuals flooded with shades of blue, and some efficient, stylishly-handled shoot-outs. Even the action, however, becomes a bit numbing in the final act. One late-in-the-game sequence, which builds terrifically, ends with so much slow-motion and Inception-esque BRRMs that it borders on self-parody. 

These two sides of the film clash more and more, and prevent Welcome to the Punch from even being a satisfying and straightforward action-thriller. The efforts of the cast and Creevy (as director), are ultimately squandered on material that is too shallow for its own good. Still, the film does mark Creevy as a talent to watch behind the camera. His sense of style is mostly successful here, and he gets solid work out of his cast, even as they're let down by his writing. But there's a difference between potential and execution, and Welcome to the Punch showcases too much of the former, and not enough of the latter, to be worth the time unless you're getting it in the mail from Netflix and have time to kill.

Grade: C+/C

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Review: "Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor"

Director: Tyler Perry
Runtime: 111 minutes

My first experience with the ever-expanding Tyler Perry canon started in 2006. Desperate to bring something home from the nearby Blockbuster (RIP), I grabbed Diary of a Mad Black Woman. Thus began my introduction to both Perry and his most famous creation, Madea. To my surprise, I actually thought Diary was passable. Not really as funny as it wanted to be, but there was something pleasant enough about how thoroughly average it was. However, I have never once made an effort to see any of Perry's other work, as the reviews I read seemed to suggest that they really weren't for me. I thought I would never cross paths with Mr. Perry again. I was wrong. I was so, so wrong. 

In an attempt to rebound from his attempt at screen stardom (2012's Alex Cross), Perry has returned to the big screen only behind the camera. It's too bad, because Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor, could really use some of the lively sass of Perry's signature creation. But never mind the sass. This is more than just Tyler Perry in drama mode. This is Tyler Perry in full-blown sermonizing mode, with everything from a Good Christian Woman (tm), to a character who is basically Satan/temptation incarnate. From the first trailer, the film looked like a laughable mess. It is, but perhaps not enough. The key failing of Perry's film is that it can't even fully succeed at being high-voltage camp, because too much of it is simply boring

Judith (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) works for a Washington D.C.-based dating service that caters to older, wealthy men. There, she must survive her boss Janice (Vanessa Williams and a flimsy French accent), and vapid co-worker Ava (Kim Kardashian). Despite the stresses of her job, Judith still has her husband, Brice (Lance Gross, frequently shirtless), who she has known most of her life. And, as Judith is a Good Christian Woman (tm), Brice is the only man she's ever slept with, and the only man she ever needs to sleep with. Yet temptation (ah, there's that title) arrives in the form of new client Harley (Robbie Jones, also frequently shirtless). Janice enlists Judith to work with the very attractive and wealthy Harley, and it doesn't take long before Harley starts hitting on the resident Good Christian Woman (tm). 

For roughly an hour, that's all that happens. That's your plot summary. Aside from a subplot involving Brice's mysterious new co-worker (Brandy Norwood), nearly 65 minutes pass with little more than painfully dragged out flirtations between Judith and Harley. You can zone out and you won't miss anything. Not even anything unintentionally funny. As Judith spends 65 screen minutes resisting romantic temptation, so the audience must spend those same minutes resisting the temptation to leave the theater. Perry's characters are flat, and his dialogue rarely rises above competent. Yet, for the patient, Temptation has a reward.

Once the Good Christian Woman (tm) bites the apple, Temptation takes off like a North Korean rocket, and lands with even less grace. One minute Judith is enjoying the powdered sugar on a beignet at Cafe du Monde, and the next, she's hitting the cocaine like a pro. Yet to describe it all would ruin the fun. Suffice it to say that Temptation's final 35 minutes contain one ridiculous, overblown development after another, culminating in a resolution that has some of the most bone-headed, backwards moralizing to be projected at 24 fps in quite some time. Perry has never exactly been one for subtlety, although that isn't a bad thing by default. But allow me to transcribe one of the last act's, er, less elegant exchanges:

Judith's Mother: That boy is gonna hurt you somethin' fierce! He's gonna drag you straight to hell!

Judith: Well then, Imma enjoy the riiiiiiiiiiiiiide!

Judith's Mother: *slaps Judith* Where you get a mouth like that!?

Judith: *devious cackling*

Judith's Mother: *fervent praying/sermonizing*

If anything about the above conversation worked for you on any level, then by all means seek out Temptation (though maybe skip the theater). If not, then simply avoid it, because the performers do nothing to elevate the material. The cast is giving the minimum amount of effort (save for Kardashian, whose work doesn't deserve to be called acting) at best. Only Williams and Ella Royce (as Judith's mother) bring a sense of campy fun, and their contributions are minimal at best. As for the production values, well, let's just say that it looks marginally better than a standard outing at the Lifetime Channel. 

Perry's latest is a largely dull and predictable affair, and only achieves the special sort of so-bad-it's-good fun after making you wait for over an hour. But if you have the stamina to survive until act three, then Temptation will prove rewarding if only for how spectacularly its old-fashioned morals and over-the-top execution derail the entire film. Let's hope that Perry's next melodrama starts the derailing process sooner, and gives audiences a longer train wreck to savor.

Grade: D
Entertainment Value [Acts 1+2]: C
Entertainment Value [Act 3]: A-

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Review: "Blancanieves"

Director: Pablo Berger
Runtime: 104 minutes

As evidenced by 2011's Best Picture winner The Artist, there's still a place at the cinema for both silent and black and white feature films. Likewise, the past few years have seen Hollywood attempt big-budget re-imaginings of classic fairy tales, to varying degrees of success. The offspring of both of trends, thankfully a good one, is Pablo Berger's Blancanieves, which sets the classic tale Snow White tale in 1920s Spain.

What makes Berger's film stand out, among other things, is his keen attention to Snow White (actually named Carmen) as a child. Whereas Hollywood's two attempts at Snow White last year jumped too hastily into the heroine's escape from the clutches of the evil stepmother/queen, Blancanieves spends almost half of its duration with Carmen as a young girl (played by Sofia Oria). Not only does it give the character time to build a bond with her father, tragically crippled after a bullfighting accident, but it also builds more tension between Carmen and the wicked Encarna (a deliciously manipulative Maribel Verdu). 

The way the time period and setting influence the film also help lend Berger's film a unique perspective, in everything from sets to wardrobes. Like The Artist, once you adjust to the silent film stylistic trappings, the film as a whole is never less than enjoyable. It's sumptuously photographed and scored as well, which lends the story a nice sense of momentum considering that you'll never hear anything but music. 

Blancanieves is also admirable for the ways in which it ventures into darker territory. Last year's Snow White and the Huntsman declared itself the dark, gritty version of the Snow White tale. This was more true in imagery, as the film's emotional destination hardly deviated from the expected happy ending. Blancanieves, despite the presence of its seven dwarfs (here portrayed as a traveling circus troupe of sorts) and other staples of the fairy tale, actually achieves a much darker vision of the story, without trying too hard to reach overblown, operatic heights. 

Yet as the film moves into its second half, featuring the grown up Carmen (Macarena Garcia), the previously elegant storytelling makes some minor stumbles. A seemingly important incident that highlights Carmen's aversion to eating poultry is dismissed by jumping from the character in distress to a scene of her partying with her dwarf companions. The first time this happens is in the first act, and serves as a way of showcasing Encarna's cruelty towards her step-daughter. The later incident, however, comes right out of the blue and is simply left hanging. Some of Berger's other storytelling choices are similarly less satisfactory, including a subplot that involves one of the dwarfs betraying Carmen. This unnecessary antagonist throws off the film's climax, which comes off as slightly cluttered.

Thankfully Berger's cast remains rock steady through it all. Verdu is far and away the MVP, and is clearly having a blast playing someone so elegant and sinister. The source of her cruelty may not be explored, but the character is still reined in enough to fit with Berger's take on the tale. Charlize Theron and Julia Roberts both took turns playing the Evil Queen role last year, yet it's Verdu's take that truly deserves to be remembered. That she, like the film, succeeds so much more without speaking a single audible word is even more impressive.

Grade: B+