Thursday, December 25, 2014

Review: "Winter Sleep"

Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Runtime: 196 minutes

Of the two films released this month that channel Bergman (the other being Miss Julie), Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Winter Sleep is easily the more cinematic of the two. Unfortunately, that label shouldn't be taken as a glowing endorsement. Ceylan's drama, set in Turkey's Anatolia region, features lovely scenery and effective performances, but gets too caught up in its own intellectual windbaggery. After a string of excellent Palme D'Or winners out of Cannes, 2014's victor comes as a bit of a middling let down. 

When Ceylan and cinematographer Gokhan Tiryaki capture the characters against Anatolia's wintery vistas, the film momentarily opens up. Yet, too often, Winter Sleep retreats into narrative hibernation. Ceylan cloisters his actors away in living rooms and parlors. It's not an inherently flawed approach. Films are allowed to be dialogue-driven exercises that forego obvious, "cinematic" techniques. Intimacy is key in films like Winter Sleep

The problem is that Ceylan's intimacy quickly shifts from bracing to insufferable. Protagonist Aydin (Haluk Bilgener), a failed actor currently working as a magazine editor, spends most of Winter Sleep going off on tangents. He fights for dominance against his young wife Nihal (Melisa Sozen) and his recently-divorced sister Necla (Demet Akbag), doing his best to salvage his aged, withered ego. How Nihal or Necla put up with him is a mystery. After making it through Winter Sleep, clocking in at 196 minutes, I was more than ready to bid Aydin 'goodbye,' and never see him again. 

Aydin's off-putting personality obviously isn't a mark against the film, but Ceylan's neutral-to-supportive writing and directing don't help. Ceylan is not a sentimental filmmaker, but the distance he keeps from his characters (emotionally, not visually) leaves the film's message somewhat empty. The subject matter of the discussions in the film is of the sort that other filmmakers have successfully executed. The difference is that when someone like Richard Linklater handles these types of debates, he puts them in a context where they complement the story's structure and themes. Winter Sleep's lengthy discussions are mostly languid and inconsequential, despite the occasional zinger.  

To its credit, Winter Sleep is appropriately convincing as a heady and austere drama. Tiryaki does an expectedly beautiful job of photographing the Anatolian landscapes when the film actually ventures outside. And when Ceylan allows the camera to actually move, Winter Sleep oh-so-briefly breaks through its stagnant, stagey framing and hum drum editing.Yet all of the mature, thoughtful craftsmanship in the world can't prop up the screenplay's lumbering, protracted dialogues. At its worst, Winter Sleep is dramatic masturbation that presents itself as atmospheric, contemplative filmmaking, despite offering nothing more than conversations that can be overheard in the stuffiest halls of nose-in-the-air academia. 

Grade: C-

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Review: "Selma"

Director: Ava DuVernay
Runtime: 104 minutes

It seems unthinkable that a figure like Martin Luther King Jr. hasn't been the center of a major film until this year. If Hollywood can greenlight a movie about the woman who invented Tupperware, surely they can make room for one of the most iconic activists in history. After much needless back and forth (because apparently vast sections of the industry see Martin Luther friggin' King as a subject with slim appeal), King has finally be granted his moment in the cinematic sunlight. Yet unlike so many historical biopics, Ava DuVernay's Selma opts for a limited focus, which only magnifies its emotional and intellectual power. In confining her film to a period of six months, Selma achieves what decades-spanning historical dramas wish they could do.

DuVernay's previous two features, including 2012's excellent Middle of Nowhere, have always been intimate, so it's no surprise to see her avoid a purposefully epic scope. And yet what she has pulled off with Selma is thrillingly expansive as it unpacks the myriad angles of the later stages of the Civil Rights Movement. Selma only covers the run up and duration of King's march from Selma to Montgomery, but the film still feels like a comprehensive drama without turning into a history lecture.

The most obvious comparison that springs to mind is Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, a film that also deconstructed an iconic figure. Selma, like Lincoln (which went behind the scenes of the 13th Amendment's passage), opts for humanity rather than hagiography. Dr. King (David Oyelowo) gives his share of rousing speeches, but DuVernay is more interested in picking apart the reasons behind King's speeches and his leadership. Co-written by Paul Webb (DuVernay did a second draft but was, sadly, not able to earn her own credit as a writer), Selma is at its finest when it portrays King as a shrewd, media-savvy tactician. King is met with hesitation by Pres. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), and must take matters into his own hands to keep the Civil Rights Movement in the limelight. Having already delivered the "I Have a Dream" speech and won the Nobel Peace Prize, King sees that it's going to take more to grab the attention of the public and the White House to make meaningful change across the country.

Selma opening scenes feel a bit stale, and they represent the most traditional aspects of the story. But once King's movement relocates to Selma, Alabama for the next stage of their fight, DuVernay's direction blossoms. In one of King's speeches, he remarks that there are intersections of history and injustice where action is the only option for the oppressed and the marginalized. This would be an important point in any year, but the timing of the film's release causes this sentiment to register two-fold. The march to Montgomery was the action of the moment, and Selma has proven to be the film of the moment. DuVernay's staging and shooting of the police brutality against the march is plenty harrowing as a historical dramatization, but it also acts as a solemn reminder of how slowly things have progressed in the decades since.

Though King is undoubtedly the story's anchor, Webb and DuVernay cover an impressive amount of territory without contriving unnecessary subplots. The scenes at the White House lend a complexity to Pres. Johnson and his mixed feelings about how to help King despite the "101 issues" he's also dealing with. Wilkinson starts off a bit cartoonish, but over the course of the narrative he emerges as a fully-formed character. Also quite removed from the central plot is Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), but the script never forgets her. The film only touches on King's infidelities once, but the scene is a masterclass of dramatic tension and subtlety centered on Ejogo and Oyelowo's powerhouse performances. Even one-off scenes, like Malcolm X's (Nigel Thatch) encounter with Coretta, are inserted with intelligence and restraint that bolsters, rather than distracts from, King's development.

The film wouldn't be complete, however, without a solid leading man. Oyelowo is more than up to the task of capturing King and making him a multifaceted, flawed leader. Even when he speaks, often with great force, to his followers, Oyelowo's performance never devolves into hollow theatrics. Recent events lend an added context to Selma, but King's speeches (DuVernay doesn't have the rights to the originals, and had to create her own) are tremendously powerful and inspiring. 

With such sensitive subject matter, Selma could have easily become manipulative in its historical recreations. Yet the most moving moments in the story come from characters we barely know, like a young protester (Short Term 12's Keith Stanfield) viciously targeted after standing up to Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston). The specific tragedies that befall members of the Civil Rights Movement are just as impactful as King's actions, and lend an even greater emotional weight to Selma's narrative. 

Ironically, the only times when Selma stumbles are when DuVernay tries to shoe-horn in more "modern" filmmaking techniques. In one instance, as protester Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) is slammed to the ground by police, the film cuts to a shot where it looks as though the camera has been mounted on top of the character, following her movements with an off-putting stillness that undercuts the chaos of the scenario. In another scene, slow motion is used to capture the death of a minor character hitting the ground with a thud, and it looks like something out of a boxing movie. There's a distracting artifice to these brief snippets that seems at odd with the rest of Selma's naturalistic, deep-in-the-trenches visual approach.

Ultimately, these are minor quibbles in an otherwise gripping and insightful drama. DuVernay has said that she doesn't usually care for historical dramas, but she sure as hell proves that she knows how to make a good one. Selma is topical and noteworthy for a whole host of reasons, but none of these should get in the way for praising the film's legitimate artistic merits. Selma's skillful integration of scenes beyond its setting have a way of opening the story and magnifying its impact without straining to be something more. With her third feature, DuVernay has not only made a powerful and socially-conscious drama that registers far beyond its limited scope as it caps off a dynamic year for films written and directed by black artists (and, notably, black women). In striving for intimacy, she has created an unintentional epic that, like King's legacy, is about more than simply having a dream.

Grade: B+/A-

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Review: "Big Eyes"

Director: Tim Burton
Runtime: 104 minutes

Self-conscious weirdness is in short supply in Big Eyes, which turns out to be for the best for director Tim Burton. After several unwieldy, big-budget extravagazas that cheapened the director's visual quirks, Burton has found his way back to his roots with this telling of the story of artist Margaret Keane. Reunited with Ed Wood writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, Burton's latest is a beautiful and (relatively) restrained effort that's also a much-needed return to form, albeit in a minor key.

The story of Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) and her grandstanding husband Walter (Christoph Waltz, at his Christoph Waltz-iest) is perfect fodder for writing duo Alexander and Karaszewski. The pair have made a career of investigating the odd lives of artistic outliers, including Z-grade director Ed Wood and pornographer Larry Flynt (The People vs. Larry Flynt). Margaret Keane isn't nearly as dynamic or eccentric a figure, but her story is one that lines up perfectly with the two writers' interests. In the early 60s, after fleeing an abusive first marriage, Margaret moves to San Francisco to try and make her way as a painter. Her signature is that she paints children with massive eyes. She catches the eye of Walter, a fellow artist, who quickly marries her to prevent Margaret's ex-husband from getting custody of her daughter.

Though Margaret's friend Dee Ann (Krysten Ritter) has her doubts about Walter, Margaret sees him as a blessing. That is, until her paintings start to sell and Walter takes sole credit for them. At first, Margaret can't really complain that much. The paintings sell increasingly well, to the point where celebrities like Joan Crawford and Natalie Wood begin to own them. Walter doesn't just sell the paintings. He sells pictures and posters and postcards of the paintings, creating one of the first kitsch empires of the 20th century art world. Old guard art critics, like The New York Times' John Canaday (Terrence Stamp), treat the paintings with contempt, but money continues to pour in for the Keanes.

Shut away in her studio and churning out paintings for Walter to take credit for, Adams' Margaret has an odd kinship with fellow Burton protagonist Edward Scissorhands. Though her life is far more comfortable, she still lives in a state of isolation, her true identity hidden from everyone except her husband, who convinces her that their entire empire will collapse if she ever takes the credit she deserves (according to Walter, people don't buy "lady art").

Regardless of the critical reception that greeted Keane's work, Burton and the writers have made sure to treat Margaret's story with sincerity. Kitsch craze or not, the big-eyed paintings were a crucial part of Margaret's life, and the film avoids turning her work into a punchline. Big Eyes has been directed with a light touch, but that doesn't mean that Burton is treating the material as disposable. 

Burton's work behind the camera is quite dynamic, which compensates for the spotty aspects of Alexander and Karaszewski's writing. Big Eyes doesn't showcase the director or the writers at their finest, but the flaws entirely stem from the screenplay. Alexander and Karaszewski researched Keane's life extensively, but they have missed getting into the heart of her as an artist and a mother. Margaret repeatedly mentions that the big eyed paintings are a part of her, but her reason for focusing so intensely on the eyes is glossed over in a single line of dialogue. Unfortunately, Walter's fake reason for the paintings (they're the faces of children ravaged by WW2!) is more convincing that Margaret's exclamations that the art is part of her very being. Several flashes of real people with distorted eyes do little to get further into Margaret's head. Instead, they feel like superfluous, "weird" moments that exist to remind you that yes, this is a Tim Burton movie.

As a viewing experience, however, Big Eyes is the easiest Burton film to watch in years. Shot and decorated with super-saturated colors, the whole film is arrestingly beautiful in a way that captures early 60s pop art without shoving the style down the viewer's throat. Burton's films have always included lush visuals, but unlike the garish designs of his Alice in Wonderland, Big Eyes' beauty comes across as genuine and purposeful. The director's spritely pacing keeps the story afloat and prevents the story from dragging. Even in Burton's best work, pacing has not been his strong suit. Refreshingly, Big Eyes hops and skips through its story, never wallowing in Margaret's ethical dilemma.

Of the cast, Adams proves to be the most ideal fit for Burton's vision. While this is not a performance of extraordinary depth, it captures Keane's loneliness, confusion, and fear with great sensitivity. The characters in Big Eyes are as cartoony as Keane's paintings, but Adams grounds the story with a palpable humanity. Waltz, meanwhile, is on the opposite end of the spectrum. His increasingly unhinged Walter runs amok throughout the movie, most notably in the climactic courtroom scene where Walter and Margaret battle for credit of the paintings. Had the film striven for a toned down, intimate approach, Waltz's work would have been horribly mis-judged. Instead, he's a nice counterweight to Adams' emotional modesty. Meanwhile, the supporting players, including Stamp, Krysten Ritter, and Jason Schwartzman, are sadly underused. 

When we think of artists who deserve biopics, we think of the masters. December will also see the opening of Mike Leigh's Mr. Turner, about an artist held in far higher esteem than Margaret Keane ever will be. In a sense, Keane's work would seem unworthy of a film were it not for the incredible story revolving around the battle for authorship. Schwartzman's gallery owner, at one point, is baffled that anyone would even want credit for the big eye paintings. Yet one of Walter's points in the movie, despite the context, rings true. Who cares about the disdainful comments from the highbrow art community. The paintings are popular because, kitsch craze or not, they've made an impact on people, no matter how shallow. Even the most mass-produced art started somewhere personal, and has a story to be told. 

Grade: B-

Friday, December 12, 2014

Review: "Top Five"

Director: Chris Rock
Runtime: 102 minutes

Chris Rock has had trouble branching outside of standup in the past, watering down his comedic persona in unsatisfying and off-putting ways. That all changes with Top Five, the writer/director's third feature. Fast, funny, and surprisingly human, Rock's honest look at fame and artistic integrity announces him as an exciting new voice in filmmaking. With Top Five, the comedian has made a topical comedy that brilliantly applies Rock's style to standard narrative proceedings.

Set entirely over the course of one day (albeit with several flashbacks), Top Five opens with its protagonist at his high point professionally and his lowest point artistically. Andre Allen (Rock) started off as an acclaimed comedian, only to get scooped up by Hollywood and put in a series of idiotic, hugely successful blockbusters. Now, he's set to take premiere a drama about a slave rebellion to prove that he can be more than a catch phrase. He's also gearing up to wed reality star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union, who appears to have found the fountain of youth), the woman he claims saved him from his alcoholism. While the early part of Andre's day is filled with featherweight interviews, things take a turn when New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) arrives. Her goal is to shadow Andre and craft a lengthy profile piece for the Times, a publication that regularly savages the comedian's film work. 

Though the ensemble is vibrant, Top Five is at its finest when it zeroes in on Andre and Chelsea making their way across Manhattan. Some scenes recall Richard Linklater's Before series, with one man and one woman merely walking and engaging in spirited conversation. Rock's characters avoid simple stereotypes (even Erica emerges as a real person by the end), but it's in Andre and Chelsea's relationship truly finds its footing. The comedian sometimes retreats into schticky, manic, bug-eyed behavior, but the role still allows him to prove his worth as a solid screen presence. And that bug-eyed intensity comes in handy during some of the film's more outrageous sequences. Dawson, on the other hand, is nothing short of a delight to watch. She brings an cutting intelligence to Chelsea without turning her into an accidental villain. Instead, the character becomes a well-rounded foil for Andre. Rock is the film's star, its director, and its writer, but Dawson is the one who really holds your attention when things start to get serious.

But before things get too heavy, Top Five knows how to bring in the laughs. Without turning into a barrage of jokes, Rock's script allows for humor to naturally find its way into every day conversation. The discussions cover all sorts of topics, including race, yet the writing avoids forcing punchlines for the sake of a tidy joke. Top Five is at its funniest when it simply lets a scene roll along like a high-intensity improv session. One highlight is an extended sequence where Andre visits family and friends from his old neighborhood, and voices trample over each other throwing out insults, jokes, and more. Even when the film dips into cruder territory, as in a flashback detailing a disastrous incident in Houston, Rock manages to find the outrageous hilarity of the brief cringe-inducing moments.

Top Five is also majorly successful when it comes to pacing. At just over 100 minutes, the film's energy never flags, even when Andre and Chelsea's professional relationship really hits the skids. Rock has crafted a story that bounces from scene-to-scene without giving any angle the short end of the stick. The briskness of the pacing keeps the film's comedic energy consistently up, ensuring that the more dramatic scenes don't disrupt the story's flow. The flashbacks, which could have easily been a distraction, end up being invaluable pieces that flesh out Andre's background. 

It can be difficult to craft an accessible comedy without resorting to easy jokes and bottom-of-the-barrel gags. Thankfully, Top Five balances several types of humor all while naturally working it into the DNA of an incisive character study. Top Five is much more than a showcase for its leading man. It's a demonstration that not only is Chris Rock's comedic sensibility capable of being transferred to film, but that he's a genuinely effective storyteller who can do more than deliver a killer joke. 

Grade: B+

Review: "Inherent Vice"

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Runtime: 145 minutes

Finding the right writer/director to adapt a distinctive novel is no easy task. When directors apply too much of their own vision, the original text gets lost in the shuffle (though The Shining is still an example of how such an approach can work). And if the director is too safe, the source material ends up being worshipped as gospel, often resulting in sluggish, line-by-line adaptations that fail to leap from the page to the screen. Perfect marriages of director and source material, those that complement each other rather than engage in a stylistic tug of war, are rare, but not impossible. The Coen brothers' No Country For Old Men set a high standard seven years ago, and in October David Fincher's Gone Girl joined its ranks. The latest adaptation to work so well, even if it's not quite great, is Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice

It's understandable that it's taken so long for a Pynchon adaptation to reach cinemas. The reclusive author's works are characterized by dense, head-spinning prose wrapped around byzantine plots. Inherent Vice, as a novel, isn't as overwhelming as something like "Gravity's Rainbow," however, which makes it a smarter pick for a silver screen debut. In Anderson, Pynchon's novel has found an artist perfectly adapting to its pot-smoke flooded atmosphere and shaggy dog storytelling. 

Set right at the end of the 60s, Inherent Vice, like the novel, wastes no time in getting started. The instant drug-fueled detective Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) wakes up, he's confronted by his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston), who's come to beg for help in the dead of night. Shasta's new boyfriend, land development millionaire Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) is in danger of being thrown in a psych ward so that his wife and her lover can claim his fortune. It's a classic noir opening, albeit dressed up in 60s threads and surrounded by LA surf culture and neon lights instead of venetian blinds.

But it's not long after this encounter that Doc finds himself in way over his head and the plot starts to snowball into a web of alliances, double crosses, and conspiracies. People show up out of the blue with cryptic warnings, and somehow everyone he meets, no matter how different, is somehow connected. Everyone, good, bad, or in between, has an agenda except for Doc, who wanders through the story like a confused extra rather than a true protagonist. If you come into Inherent Vice expecting answers to all of your questions, you're out of luck. Doc barely understands everything going on, and Anderson keeps the film rooted in his perspective. There are so many angles in Vice's story that it can be dizzying to keep them all together. 

Even so, Anderson's ability to capture the tone of Pynchon's overall story as well as his prose is commendable. Clocking in at two and a half hours, it's quite the long trip down the marijuana-scented rabbit hole, but the contact high Inherent Vice provides is often a pleasurable one. Though often quite funny, there's a pointed commentary on display about how those in power co-opt counterculture movements that gives the film just enough of a point to justify its narrative ramblings.

Though Phoenix is the story's only true main character (everyone else drifts in and out of the story at a moment's notice), it's the massive supporting cast that really owns Vice. Josh Brolin is an early standout as Lt. "Bigfoot" Bjornsen, a straight-laced cop who enjoys nothing more than making Doc's "hippie bullshit" life hell. His interactions with Doc bring out the film's off-kilter humor in both dialogue exchanges and weird visual gags. Waterston is an effectively alluring and conflicted surfer femme fatale, and makes her relationship with the considerably older Mr. Phoenix believable. Though underused, Benicio Del Toro is spot on as Doc's lawyer, while Owen Wilson and Jena Malone turn in memorable work as a missing musician and his wife, respectively. A somewhat unrecognizable Eric Roberts is also quite good as the missing Mickey Wolfmann, once the character finally surfaces.

Despite the characters who pop up across the entire film, the most memorable performance comes from one of the story's one-off characters. As a corrupt, drug-addled dentist, Martin Short delivers an arrestingly gonzo performance that marks Inherent Vice's comedic high point. To see his character leave the story so quickly is a bit of a disappointment. Other characters have plenty of spark to contrast with Doc's mellow attitude, but the dynamism Short brings to the film is often missed during other key scenes.

Perplexingly, the cast member who is least consistent is Phoenix. Though his look and mannerisms are spot on, the actor's delivery is wildly inconsistent. Even when his face is glazed over, there's a sharpness to Phoenix's eyes and features that never quite sinks into Doc's mindset. Similarly to his work in The Immigrant, Phoenix sometimes just feels too tightly wound and modern to fully immerse himself in Doc, who's the epitomization of a very specific subculture and time period. Phoenix certainly has his moments in the role, but just when he appears to have fully clicked with the character, some piece of dialogue or interaction comes along and rings false. 

Phoenix may be inconsistent, but at least the storytelling and tone are set on the right path. Anderson holds keeps the pieces of the story together, at times just barely, ensuring that enough of it makes sense while leaving plenty of connections skimmed over to the point where the film practically demands a second viewing. Anderson's longtime cinematographer Robert Elswit allows certain images to look grainy or rough, further drawing one into the story's representation late 60's Los Angeles. Composer Jonny Greenwood  contributes a moody, accessible score that nicely contrasts with the purposefully eerie themes written for Anderson's previous two films (There Will Be Blood & The Master). Other production details are excellent across the board, though special mention should be given to the hair and makeup team for putting so much personality in each character's coiffure.

Though Inherent Vice's longwinded structure can lead to sporadic lulls in pacing, it's still an engaging trip through the mind of one of the most important writers of the 20th and 21st centuries. Vice is not regarded as one of Pynchon's greatest works, and the film isn't one of Anderson's finest, but both work as engrossing pieces of entertainment that finely straddle the lines between high and low culture. It's proof that one can create a perfectly successful and satisfying adaptation of a novel without straining to find a hidden greatness that was probably never there in the first place. And even if it was, it would probably just go up in smoke anyway.

Grade: B

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Review: "The Imitation Game"

Director: Morten Tyldum
Runtime: 114 minutes

British mathematician Alan Turing completed a Herculean task at the height of World War II as multiple opposing forces closed in on him. Time was of the essence when it came to breaking the Nazi Enigma encoding device. At one point, MI6 operative Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong) tells Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) that in the time they've had to introduce themselves, three British soldiers have been killed thanks to messages sent using Enigma's seemingly impossible encryption codes. 

And yet despite the massive looming threat of the Third Reich in the background, the story of Turing's crowning achievement has surprisingly little urgency. Director Morten Tyldum and writer Graham Moore rely on too many weary storytelling tropes and framing devices. The Imitation Game is solid, quietly rousing entertainment, but it lacks the sort of polarizing intellectual dynamism that made its subject such a visionary in his field.

Hopping from 1951 (the year of Turing's arrest for homosexual acts) to the early 40s, and even back to Turing's school days, The Imitation Game has quite a bit to juggle in under two hours. To their credit, Tyldum and Moore tell their story smoothly, ensuring that one never gets lost amid the jumps in time. Tyldum's direction is polished, and opens up the scenes so as to keep the film from looking either stagey or like a generic TV movie. Moore's screenplay, adapted from Andrew Hodges' book, has its share of witty exchanges and carefully timed emotional outbursts. To an extent, the Norwegian Mr. Tyldum deserves credit for directing the most downright British movie of the year, with its restrained emotions and real-life-period-piece narrative. 

Everything in The Imitation Game, for better or for worse, has been calibrated to make the film both important and widely accessible. While there's nothing inherently wrong with this approach, the execution here - however pleasurable - is what gets in the way of the film leaving a lasting mark. The scenes set at boarding school and in 1951 each have their own internal arcs, yet by stringing them along with the WW2 story, their impact is muted. They feel like optional subplots even though both (especially the latter) have direct connections to the middle timeline. Rather than work in harmony, the subplots leech off of the WW2 story to the detriment of the entire film. The danger of the war and the possibility that Turing's sexuality may be exposed never feel like terribly pressing matters. There is only one sequence, in which Turing and his team must decide whether to warn a British ship about a U-boat attack, where the required urgency actually materializes. Breaking the Enigma code was not a tidy solution, but the film barely gives one a taste of this crucial and fascinating angle.

The cast is the real draw here, and even the actors with underwritten roles are at least fully engaged with the material. Cumberbatch is an ideal fit for Turing's isolated, anti-social genius mindset. Though there are similarities with his character on Sherlock, the actor's work here is characterized by an understated wit and a less abrasive frankness in his dealings with co-workers. When Turing tells his commanding office that his teammates will only slow him down, it comes from a place of cold objectivity, rather than malice or derision. Cumberbatch's cast members, though often relegated to playing simple types, turn in solid work, with Matthew Goode doing some fine work as Turing's confrontational adversary. Breaking up the boys' club is Keira Knightley as fellow decoder Joan Clarke, who forms the most in depth bond with Turing. Clarke is the one person who sees and understands who Turing is beyond his brilliant mind, and Knightley's scenes with Cumberbatch are easily among the film's best, even if her character doesn't really have her own arc. 

Behind the scenes contributions are all quite strong without overwhelming the story or the actors. Production designer Maria Djurkovic (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) varies the decor of the film's many interiors to lend the imagery subtle, unobtrusive distinctions. The film looks simple, yet elegant, and Alexandre Desplat's understated score gives the story an extra boost of energy. Costumes, meanwhile, communicate the time period without being distracting.

There's no doubt that everything in The Imitation Game looks and sounds right. The underlying problems with structure certainly don't hold the film back as an accessible crowd-pleaser. Instead, the frustration with The Imitation Game isn't that it does something horribly wrong, but that it - like a few other recent films - takes its real life story and turns it into something so by-the-numbers. Tyldum and Moore may have told Turing's story, but in their approach they have failed to capture his spirit.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Review: "Wild"

Director: Jean-Marc Vallee
Runtime: 120 minutes

By the time Cheryl Strayed reaches the end of her 1100 mile journey in Wild, she has undergone a radical transformation. The experience is full of hardship, exhaustion, and pain, as it forces Strayed to combat not only nature, but her own traumatic past. Wild, based on Strayed's memoir about her journey up the Pacific Crest Trail, is a story of accepting the past and pushing onwards into the uncharted future. Yet by the time Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club) has finished telling Strayed's story, very little of the subject's emotional journey actually registers. 

Wild arrives in theaters only three months after Tracks, another story of a woman coping with trauma by setting out onto miles of unforgiving terrain. Yet where John Curran's film found a slow-burning, poetic grace in its story, Wild's conclusions are purely prosaic. The most. Nature is rarely a generous scene partner, but when properly utilized it can accentuate (and even mirror) the internal evolution of a character. Vallee never fully taps into the rugged beauty of his surroundings so that one feels how they wear away at Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) over time, despite the blisters and cuts and bloodied toe nails. 

One of the most interesting aspects of Wild, its editing, may also be the thing that's holding it back. Vallee, working with Martin Pensa, moves seamlessly strings together moments of Strayed's hike, her recent past, and her childhood as if to create a cinematic mosaic. Unfortunately, once all of the pieces of glass have been set down and one steps back, the end result isn't terribly convincing or satisfying. Wild's flashbacks and dreams cover quite a bit of ground - most notably time with Strayed's mother Bobbi (Laura Dern) - and nothing really has time to stick. Though this structure neutralizes the threat of goopy sentimentality, it goes too far in the opposite direction. Wild is not a cold film, but it does feel like it lacks passion, despite the efforts of its protagonist.

Performances built around an actor interacting with nature can be hit or miss, but at least Witherspoon is enough to keep one invested as Vallee goes through the motions. In tiny moments where the script actually allows its several layers to fuse together, Witherspoon shows us glimpses of the heart-wrenching performance that almost was. Yet, too often, she's tasked with bland voice over and wading through shots that require nothing more than looking around and squinting. Wild is about Strayed coming to terms with her past, but Witherspoon doesn't have many opportunities to work that struggle into Strayed's actual travels. Instead, Vallee is content to piece together her psyche through visual juxtapositions that make sense on a symbolic level yet never connect emotionally.

Despite running just under two hours, Wild is often too efficient for its own good. Strayed finally has her eureka moment, only for the film to jump into a final bit of rambling voice over. The film's would-be moment of tremendous catharsis is unceremoniously discarded before it even has the chance to sink in. Wild's biggest sin isn't that it butchers Strayed's epic personal odyssey, but that it reduces it to something so ordinary. It's telling that the most insightful thoughts the film offers come from authors like Dickinson and Whitman, instead of Strayed's own head. Strayed's journey must have been quite something to go through, but Vallee has transformed it into something totally tame. 

Grade: C+ 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Review: "Miss Julie"

Director: Liv Ullmann
Runtime: 129 minutes

During one of the climactic scenes of Miss Julie, the titular character implores her valet to stay by her side because he understands her. She may very well be right about her assessment, considering the tumultuous evening and morning spent with her servant over the course of the film. But even if the valet does understand Miss Julie, that same understanding of character appears to elude writer and director Liv Ullmann in her adaptation of August Strindberg's play. Powerful (though sporadically overheated) performances from the three main actors are the only real draw in this uneven and often stagey production.

Tensions between the sexes have appeared in numerous recent releases, but Miss Julie has the advantage of working in a discussion of class. Over the course of a midsummer night in 1890s Ireland, wealthy Miss Julie (Jessica Chastain) will do her best to coerce her valet John (Colin Farrell) into seducing her while his fiancee Kathleen (Samantha Morton) watches. With Julie's father, a baron, gone to a party and the rest of the servants at their own celebration, it doesn't take long for tensions to rise. The baron's estate is quite spacious, even encompassing a wide stretch of lush forrest, but the characters are increasingly trapped by their surroundings, with only each other as company.

The first 15 minutes or so don't bode terribly well, and may be enough to convince some that spending time with these three isn't worth it. The opening passages of the story are written and performed in a halting, stiff manner that seems like the work of a nervous theater troupe on opening night. When Miss Julie charges into the kitchen to start toying with her two servants, scenes are cut together with amateurish abruptness. Revealing a character's motivations over time is hardly new, but Miss Julie's initial, erratic behavior rings false because there's nothing to latch onto. A brief prologue with Julie as a child adds nothing until the film is almost over. It creates a series of rushed histrionics, rather than a clear arc for the character. Chastain does the best she can, but the character is too unformed at the start for anyone to really make sense of.

This isn't helped by the structure of the first half of the film, which positions Julie as a listener and observer instead of an active participant. The writing is so enraptured with John's past that at times one wonders why the story was named after Miss Julie at all. Pitting two characters against each other for long periods of time can be powerful stuff, but it tends to work better if both sides are engaged at the same time, rather than standing idly by as if they're in a formal debate.

The subject and setting, with its isolated characters confronting their own demons and each other, certainly seems like an ideal fit for Ullmann. As the longtime partner of Ingmar Bergman, she's had her fair share of experience with stories like Miss Julie, albeit in front of the camera. Yet even Bergman's smallest, simplest stories with captured with a visual dimensionality that transcended the limitations of the stage. Miss Julie, by contrast, is often quite flat. The subject matter doesn't demand any flashy tricks, but at times Ullmann's framing is so mundane that you might as well be watching the actors on a stage. More curious is how the staginess of the direction has seeped into the performances. The cast appears to have been directed to over-emphasize every huff and puff and gesture (good god, the hand gestures) as though they're trying to make sure people in the nosebleed seats can hear them. They're playing to the rafters, when there's a perfectly good camera and sound team only a few feet away from them.

Yet even though the performances boil over, they remain compelling. The longer Miss Julie goes on, the more consistent all aspects of the filmmaking become. The first half belongs to Farrell, who delivers some of the best acting moments of his career as the lowly valet turned unwilling seducer. There's an earnestness and vulnerability to the performance that shows a different side of the actor after his strong work in a few dark comedies. It's through John that Strindberg's ideas about class and equality first appear, and Farrell makes the most of his early monologues. 

And after a rocky start, Chastain really takes hold of the titular role. The character gains considerable dramatic breathing room as the film progresses, which benefits the actress considerably. As Miss Julie starts to lose control of herself and come unraveled, Chastain goes in the opposite direction and begins to dominate the movie. She captures Julie's mix of haughty superiority and deeply buried fragility with powerful results. When Julie is pushed to her breaking point, she explodes with a volcanic fury that Chastain turns into what might be the most harrowing piece of acting she's done yet. The calm that follows Julie's storm is equally wrenching, finally adding some uncomfortable emotional heft to the stodgy storytelling.

Samantha Morton, meanwhile, is less fortunate. The character is an important wrench in John and Julie's bleak little duel, but Morton has even less room for nuance than her co-stars. With more to do, Morton's Kathleen could have been an invaluable supporting player. Instead, she's a distraction from the appetizing possibilities of John and Julie's emotional sparring. Thankfully, Morton's final appearances are worthwhile, adding a religious perspective to Miss Julie's notions of power, wealth, and servitude.

From a technical standpoint, Ullmann's film looks and sounds adequate, never getting in the way of the performances. With its limited time frame, Miss Julie doesn't have lots of opportunity for change, so costumes and sets are kept to a bare minimum. The lone noteworthy behind the scenes contributor is cinematographer Michail Krichman, who has at least lit and shot everything quite nicely. Several key shots involve harsh white light falling on the sides of the actors' faces, and they lend a stark beauty to images with limited visual possibility.

Miss Julie certainly ends much stronger than it begins, but the ideas of Strindberg's play still lack elegance. Somewhere in the original text is the potential for a well-rounded examination of the author's themes, but this version isn't quite up to the task. It hits its points in fits and starts, and saves too much of most powerful material for the end, leaving the early stretches quite malnourished.

Grade: C+

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Review: "Still Alice"

Director(s): Wash Westmoreland & Richard Glatzer
Runtime: 101 minutes

The cruel irony of Still Alice, a sensitive and efficient drama about Alzheimer's, is that it's largely forgettable. This fourth collaboration between directors Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer benefits from a handful of beautiful performances and a restrained approach to the subject matter. However, by the time it's over, Still Alice has barely had a chance to address the dynamics of the story that could have distinguished the film from similar narratives. 

The most interesting part of Still Alice comes quite early, when linguistics professor Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) learns that she has Alzheimer's. The diagnosis is frightening on its own, but there's more: Alice's Alzheimer's is a rare type that is passed down genetically, thus putting her three children at risk. This angle is skillfully introduced, especially in the scene where Alice and her husband John (Alec Baldwin) break the news to the kids. But it doesn't take long for this side of the story to evaporate. Westmoreland and Glatzer seemingly stumble upon a land mine of an issue (the guilt and grief of passing down something that's out of your control) and then run away from it. 

Whether it's Alzheimer's or cancer, illness narratives always walk a fine line when it comes to how they deal with the situation. To their credit, the directors avoid cheap sentimentality or emotional manipulation. Unfortunately, they do this by acting timid, rather than economical. Still Alice is a tasteful movie, but that refinement isn't enough to mask the weaknesses of the writing.

The actual portrayal of the disease is far better, in no small part thanks to Moore's lovely work. The script carefully introduces and accelerates Alice's failing memory, giving the aggressive disease a natural progression rather than confining it to dramatically convenient bursts. Moore does her best to add extra heft to a screenplay that is often too safe for its own good. She is often heartbreaking in the role without begging for one's sympathy. Really, the only reason this isn't one of her absolute best performances is due to the limitations of the writing, which relies more on basic details than identifiable character traits to earn sympathy (she has Alzheimer's...doesn't that suck?).

Even though the writing leaves quite a bit to be desired, Still Alice avoids falling flat on its face. The performances are all quite good, with Kristen Stewart turning in the best work of the supporting cast as Lydia, Alice's daughter and a struggling actress. The pacing is quite taut, never leaving one in a fog the way Alice often wanders through the movie. 

Unfortunately, nothing captures Still Alice better than its final scene. The moment is quite moving, but then the film simply ends. Still Alice appears to exist in a cinematic vacuum which doesn't serve it well from any angle. As a study of Alzheimer's, it brings nothing new to its story, and as a character piece it never pushes beyond the fundamentals required to make us feel sad for a little bit. In telling the story of a woman losing touch with her life, Westmoreland and Glatzer have forgotten to give Still Alice any personality or greater point. It's impossible to have an identity crisis when there's no identity to begin with.

Grade: C+

Review: "The Babadook"

Director: Jennifer Kent
Runtime: 89 minutes

Of all childhood memories, being read to sleep at night is among the most cherished and sentimental. It's a unification of parent and child, in which the former guides the latter on a journey - simple or complex - that induces a sense of wonder. No matter how dark things get, the parent's role as narrator serves as a gentle cloak of protection. Unless you live in the world of The Babadook, Aussie director Jennifer Kent's simultaneously creepy and touching ghost story about a children's book with a dark side.

Tales of the supernatural often confine themselves to one of two questions: is it real? If so, how do we get rid of it? The Babadook plays with both inquiries, entwining the answers to create a much richer horror story than one usually finds at the movies. The titular creature, a figure in a black hat with long arms and knife-like fingers, isn't just some random spirit out to terrorize some poor saps. Kent has given her monster (whether it's real or not) a motivation that connects it to her two protagonists. A ghost or demon is bad enough, but things only get worse if said creature is after you and only you.

There has long been a link in stories between ghosts and those who have endured a tragic loss. For single mom Amelia (Essie Davis), her brush with tragedy is chained to what should have been one of the happiest days of her life. On the way to the hospital to give birth to her son Sam (Noah Wiseman), Amelia's husband is killed in a car accident. Six years later, the young boy is a trouble maker obsessed with crafting weapons and traps. This doesn't make things too easy on Amelia, who has given up her career as a writer to take a dreary nursing job to make ends meet. Regardless of how bad things can get, at least mother and child can bond at bedtime by reading a simple story. 

That is, until Sam forces Amelia to read a book neither of them realized was in the house, about a certain Mr. Babadook. The images are creepy, and the story ends with a death threat (in rhyme, no less), which gives Amelia the creeps. Even after Amelia hides the book from Sam, the boy won't stop talking about Mr. Babadook, insisting that he's trying to get into their house. Mom, obviously, requires more convincing than an admittedly eerie picture book.

Though The Babadook is quite brief (less than 90 minutes sans credits), Kent takes a gradual, restrained approach to the supernatural theatrics. While it's clear that something is amiss, the screenplay avoids the usual cheap jump scares. No birds fly into windows, and no glasses or plates suddenly smash to the floor. The only cliche that Kent uses are flickering lights, and even these are kept to a minimum. The director tightens the film's grip carefully, setting up Amelia and Sam's relationship properly before delving into what's going bump in the night. It's an approach that more modern horror films, even good ones, could learn from.

For there is a fundamental difference between horror and terror, especially when it comes to narrative. To put it simply, one flees in terror, but watches in horror (horror is often linked to awe in 18th century British philosophy). Ms. Kent's understanding of this difference is part of what enables The Babadook to hold one's gaze without cheap tricks. The Babadook is more often tense than it is actually scary, which is hardly a bad thing. In demanding that we stay focused on the screen, rather than prepare to flinch at any given moment, Kent draws us deeper into the supernatural and ordinary conflicts that she has so delicately juxtaposed.

As annoying as Sam can be, his relationship with his mother is the true driving force of the story. Sam struggles with being an outcast, while Amelia is forced to cope with the catastrophic ways in which her life has been derailed. The family's house is not a comforting or place. It's merely a gloomy wall between the oppressive, condescending outside world and Amelia and Sam's inner turmoil. Wiseman is solid, and instills just the right amount of panic when required. 

The real discovery of The Babadook, besides Kent of course, is Ms. Davis. The actress has plenty of films under her belt, but this is one of those rare horror films that is also a fine showcase for a performer. It's easy to write horror victims as panicky screamers, but Davis' Amelia has much more humanity. She is lonely, worn down, and often at wit's end as she tries to raise her son. Throw in Mr. Babadook, and it's enough to push her to the edge. Whether scolding her son or eerily taking on some of the Babadook's qualities, Davis is excellent in the role, giving 21st century horror a worthy heir to Mia Farrow's Rosemary Woodhouse. 

Horror films that play with the idea of unseen intruders often lose something once the supernatural aggressor takes center stage. Clearly working on a modest budget, Kent and her technical collaborators have done a fantastic job of teasing the Babadook without putting it on screen for too long and diminishing the impact. The Babadook is largely kept to the shadows, enabling the creature to retain a menacing sense of mystery even after the film flashes us a few full glimpses. In keeping the creature's goal tied to Amelia and Sam's story, Kent has created a cinematic hybrid that demands to be taken seriously as a tale of supernatural invasion and a look at how people cope with loss. Few things are more unsettling than those threats that only have eyes for us.

Grade: B+

Saturday, November 15, 2014

AFI Fest 2014: "Mr. Turner"

Director: Mike Leigh
Runtime: 150 minutes

Like the paintings of J.M.W. Turner, Mr. Turner works best when examined from afar. Mike Leigh has crafted a beautiful looking film that's often high enjoyable. Yet Britain's keenest observer of the human condition has perhaps done a little too much, well, observing with his latest effort. Turner's personality and his actions are clearly shown, but Leigh stays too far back and never gets to the heart of Turner's motivations outside of the most obvious interpretations. Timothy Spall, who picked up Best Actor at Cannes this year, does his best in the title role, but he's often reduced to playing up the same ticks long after they wear out their welcome. The real Turner painted with intense brushstrokes and head-turning amounts of detail at the smallest level. Mr. Turner, by contrast, barely completes a charcoal sketch by the time its two and a half hours come to a close.

Following the last 25 years of Turner's life, Mr. Turner's pacing is far from rushed. The artist paints, has meetings with potential patrons, and interacts with London's high society, among whom he is universally revered. By starting the film with Turner at the highpoint of his career, Leigh never has to rush through the early stretches of the film to reach any critical moment in his subject's life for the sake of drama. 

Leigh has built a reputation on allowing heavy amounts of improvisation from his actors, but Mr. Turner finds him working with far more pre-constructed material (or at least it feels that way). The film's runtime seems daunting, but Leigh's relatively tighter pacing of his scenes keeps the story from dragging. Even without much of a conventional narrative, Mr. Turner is filled with enough humor and beautiful craftsmanship to ensure that it's never less than pleasurable to experience. Leigh's longtime cinematographer Dick Pope has done of beautiful job of lighting the film like one of Turner's signature paintings, highlighting the exemplary work of the costume and set designers. Turner was known as a master of light, and Pope proves that's he's one as well, despite working in a radically different medium.

But all of that meticulously appointed beauty can't make up for the lack of insight given to Turner himself. Spall is clearly immersed in the role, but that immersion doesn't mean as much when it's not dealing with incisive writing. At times, Turner comes off as porcine cartoon of a man who grunts his way through scenes and then pinches his face in an unintentional Robert De Niro impression. The most compelling and empathetic character in Mr. Turner, shockingly, is Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey), a widow who becomes Turner's last romantic partner. When Booth describes the loss of her first husband, some semblance of grounded human emotion starts to break through all of the handsome visuals. Sadly, moments like Mrs. Booth's recounting of her loss are few in number. Bailey has an affable screen presence that contrasts nicely with Spall's brusque eccentricity, and she stealthily becomes the heart of the story. If only the screenplay was willing to recognize this.

Instead, Turner's behavior, which at times is lecherous, is presented so plainly that one wonders if Leigh even has a point of view about the man's character. A point of view can be presented without manipulating the audience, but Mr. Turner prefers to stay too many steps back. Only when Leigh lets the viewer see the intensity of Turner's painting techniques does the character's genius come to light. But technique can only take a film or a performance so far. Mr. Turner shows Leigh and Spall working so thoroughly on their technique while forgetting to get into the intentions behind those techniques. Once the last brushstroke dries, there's little more to do than shake one's head in muted admiration before moving on to the next section of the gallery.

Grade: B- 

AFi Fest 2014: "Leviathan"

Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Runtime: 140 minutes

In 1962, the marketing campaign for Kubrick's Lolita asked, "How on earth did they ever make a movie of Lolita?" After seeing Andrey Zvayagintsev's Leviathan, a similar question is raised: How on earth did the director get state funding to make a film like Leviathan. A scathing satire of modern Russian bureaucracy, Zvyagintsev's fourth film pulls no punches with its criticisms. Taking a page from Paddy Chayefsky's Network, Leviathan is gripping and exhausting proof that sometimes an eloquent scream is better than quiet subversion.

Loosely influenced by the Book of Job and Thomas Hobbes' famous political tract, Zvyagintsev drops the viewer off in the story some time after the seeds of disaster have been sewn. Aging father Koyla (Aleksey Serebryakov) lives a modest life in a rural, town on the Kola Peninsula near the Barent Sea. His humble surroundings, however, are being threatened by the local mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov), a greedy politician willing to bend the law as he sees fit. For reasons not entirely clear at the start, Vadim wishes to seize Koyla's property for a vaguely defined construction project. Koyla, his second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova), and his son don't know enough to properly take on Vadim's thuggish regime, so they enlist the help of Dima (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), a successful lawyer from Moscow. 

The actual back and forth struggle of Leviathan is constructed as a set of dominos; once a few key decisions are made, there's no turning back, and no redemption or salvation from on high. Zvyagintsev has that rare ability to turn mordant humor into straight laced drama without becoming po-faced. Leviathan's first hour or so can be laugh out loud funny, and its irreverence towards the country's political elite is like a blast of wind off of the Arctic Circle. This pointed sense of humor eases the viewer into the film's increasingly pessimistic view of Russia's power structures. The writer/director's first three films didn't quite indicate that he was capable of creating such a rich work with such far-reaching implications. Russia's metropolises are never glimpsed in Leviathan, but that's clearly the bull's eye Zvyagintsev is striving to hit. The short answer is that, yes, he does.

In critiquing something as big as, well, the establishment, Zvyagintsev's screenplay is adept at creating genuine drama and well-rounded characters. Vadim, the obvious villain of the piece, isn't necessarily given a "fair" portrayal, but Madyanov thankfully creates an authentically reprehensible figure. And even though there's no questioning of the villain's motives, Zvyagintsev's protagonists are never deified so that the audience can easily root for them. Koyla, for instance, has a habit of flying off the handle when he doesn't get his way, and then copes by swilling too much vodka. Lilya has a mind of her own, but too often remains silent. Therefore, she acts out in secret, and her choices ave traumatizing consequences. As for Dima, his reasoning for taking Koyla's case without charge is left a mystery. He bonds with Koyla and affectionately calls him "bro," but he's not without a capacity for underhanded tactics. His main angle to get the court back in Koyla's favor is simply to blackmail Vadim. As much as we want to see the protagonists emerge victorious, it has more to do with their side of the argument, rather than who they are as people.

As much as Leviathan is a demonstration of Zvyagintsev's screenplay and his work with his cast, its visuals are often arresting. The film is bookended by landscape shots set to the surging sounds of Philip Glass' Akhnaten prelude, which allows Zvyagintsev to grab some truly beautiful wide shots. But the visual accomplishments don't stop with the handful of grandiose images. Cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, with some help from the far north location of the setting, films Leviathan's weather-beaten homes and rolling hills with a blue-hued, wintery polish. At times, one expects to see frost materialize at the edge of the frame.

Leviathan's only real failing is that it's ultimately too much of a great thing. Though the film has no bad or distracting scenes, the final act loses a bit of control of the pacing. Zvyagintsev takes a bit too long to catch his characters up on what the audience already knows, and then throws in one too many scenes of the aftermath. The pieces all end up in the right place at the end, but Leviathan has a few narrative shortcuts that are left neglected. However, of the potential ending scenes, the true ending (before the closing book end), is excellent and uncomfortably cements the film's linking of political and religious abuses of power. Zvyagintsev makes his points with Leviathan land powerfully, even as he occasionally gets a bit longwinded in the delivery. For better and for worse, that's what can happen when you're mad as hell and you're not gonna take it anymore.

Grade: A-

AFI Fest 2014: "The Tribe"

Director: Miroslav Slaboshpitsky
Runtime: 130 minutes

Entirely in sign language without any subtitles or translation, Miroslav Slaboshpitsky's The Tribe is a marvel of universal communication. Entirely populated by a cast of young deaf actors, this study of teenage cruelty in a small Ukrainian town takes its time to build up its characters and their world, but its chilling finale makes it hard to shake. Though it has no name actors to draw in audiences, Slaboshpitsky's ambitious drama deserves to find an audience that will hopefully only grow with strong word of mouth.

When a new, unnamed student arrives at a rural school for the deaf, he's quickly roped into the surprisingly nasty student hierarchy. Without a single word spoken, Slaboshpitsky's ensemble comes into focus and his main set-up becomes so natural that it avoids gimmicky shock tactics. Aside from one early scene in a classroom, most of The Tribe takes place outside of the restrictions of the classroom. Adults are rarely seen in The Tribe, and when they appear, they're usually taking advantage of or collaborating with the school's vicious, mob-like elite.

Filled with complex camera work that emphasizes the cast over a single protagonist, the community at the school is instantly recognizable in its routine handling of social strata and the cruelty that follows. The more depraved the students act, the more The Tribe pulls one in to its spiral of bad behavior and the disturbing consequences. It's rare that only one student occupies the frame, but Slaboshpitsky's and his talented cast find ways of distinguishing the various students. There are no names ever given or indicated, but the personalities say more than enough through volatile facial expressions and hand gestures.

The character who comes closest to a protagonist often gets lost in the fray, but the film's eventual return to his struggle pays off well once the story moves past the point of no return. A strong subplot involving a pregnant student also works quite well, and features the film's second most harrowing scene. 

The most harrowing, the one that will leave people talking once they pick their jaws up off of the floor, is the finale. Spoiling it would, obviously, ruin the surprise, but even in retrospect it's one hell of a climax. The bluntness at the end could have easily been a last ditch attempt at provocation, but in the context of the rest of the story it couldn't feel more appropriate in its extremity. So much of the cruelty in The Tribe is presented as just above normal, but that constant bullying can lead to devastating consequences. The longer The Tribe goes on, the violence only becomes more uncomfortable until it arrives at the breaking point and leaves a mark that no fraternal bonding can ever repair.

Grade: B+

AFI Fest 2014: "Clouds of Sils Maria"

Director: Olivier Assayas
Runtime: 124 minutes

The political revolutionaries at the center of Olivier Assayas' last film, the excellent Something in the Air, would probably hate to watch their creator's follow-up. Moving from social and political upheaval to the world of show business, Assayas' latest is a flashier exercise filled with star power and picturesque imagery. It's also one of the director's most purely enjoyable films, even though it outstays its welcome by treading through too much familiar ground. Snappy writing, sleek camera work, and strong lead performances will be enough for some, while others will look at the subject matter and themes and wonder why they spent two hours with testy celebrities. Or, who knows, you might even find yourself somewhere in the middle, as I did walking out of the Egyptian theater last night.

Films that poke at the behind the scenes activities of the entertainment world are often in a precarious position when it comes to the background details. Throw in too many references to real actors and celebrities, and you risk becoming glib and going after easy targets. Throw out too few, and the world of stardom, no matter how far removed from Hollywood, and the story seems too removed from reality to be fully convincing. On this level, Assayas has thankfully hit the bull's eye. The name-dropping is carefully placed, some of it timed for the film's bursts of humor.

Without replacing the actual development, those references go a long way in informing the mindset of Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche). A big star who's won over both Hollywood and the international scene, Maria is busy trying to find her next project, hopefully one that won't involve her hanging from wires in front of a green screen. On her way to a tribute in Zurich - to Wilhelm Melchior who gave her career its start 20 years ago - Maria and her sarcastic assistant Val (Kristen Stewart) learn that Wilhelm has died. Though distraught, Maria, with Val's coaching, makes it to the tribute, dressed to the nines and receiving thunderous applause.

Maria is all set to get out of Switzerland when she's approached by rising director Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger), who has an ambitious proposition in mind. He wants to restage Melchior's play Maloja Snake, in which Maria originally played the dangerous young ingenue, but with Maria in the role of the older woman. Though Maria eventually agrees, digging into the role of the desperate Helena, seduced and destroyed by young Sigrid, proves far more difficult than anticipated. Secluded in Melchior's mountain home at the behest of his widow, Maria and Val run lines and debate interpretations of the play in the run up to meeting the future Sigrid: Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz), a classically trained actress with Hollywood bad girl tendencies.

Sils Maria's first two parts are never less than a blast to sit through. Part one, which ends with Maria and Val preparing to head into the mountains, is lusciously shot, accentuating the high fashion, fancy galas, and luxury cars. Several dynamic, overhead camera shots make Maria's travels feel like the arrival at the red carpet of the Oscars. Assayas can be a fluid and engaging storyteller - Something in the Air had its share of thrilling photography - but here he's clearly having quite a bit of fun dipping his toes in the lives of the rich and famous. Though not as showy, the film's second part, confined to the mountains, is just as visually arresting.

That same sense of liberated style also applies to Binoche's just-shy-of-fading star. An expert at playing charming, sensitive characters, it's great fun to see the actress tear into such a haughty, self-involved role. Her face, which grows exponentially more expressive with each passing year, is a joy to watch as Maria's fear, disdain, and spite burrow into her eyes and the lines around her eyes and mouth. Even when Maria sheds the fancy gowns and chops off most of her beautiful black hair to prepare for rehearsals, she remains as nervy and high maintenance, a cactus draped in Chanel. For longtime followers of the Church of Binoche (converting was one of the best decisions I've ever made), her success with the role likely won't be a surprise. Just as Assayas' world knows what Maria Enders is capable of, international audiences have long been aware of Binoche's talents.

So even though it's fun to see Binoche play such a different role, the film's understated surprise is none other than Stewart. An easy target after the Twilight series, the actress has made the leap to "respectable" world cinema without stumbling. If anything, she's proven that she's much better suited to material like what Assayas has given her than blockbuster extravaganzas. Stewart, low-key, sarcastic, and determined, is an inspired foil for Binoche's high-pitched hysterics. Initially just a sounding board with two phones, Val inches out of her shell once the film moves to the mountains. Never at full-on odds with Maria, Val's relationship with her jet-setting boss is what keeps some of the film's repetitive rehearsal scenes afloat. Maria and Val's opposing interpretations of the play nicely run alongside the film's ideas about aging and clinging onto youth in the face of middle age.

And even though some of Assayas' writing is rather on-the-nose, he keeps Sils Maria buoyant with a boisterous sense of humor. Without leaning too heavily on his Hollywood references, Assayas' script gets great mileage out of its characters' reactions to their compromised situations and idealogical confrontations. Even with the beautiful landscape photography, there's nothing more striking in Sils Maria than the small moments when Maria and Val go toe-to-toe, either at each other's throats or in laughing in each other's faces.

With Maria and Val's dynamic being such an integral part of the film's energy, it's no surprise that Stewart's exit from the story lets a lot of wind out of the story's sails. Even though the third segment of the film is labeled as the epilogue, it's far too long and touches on too many of the same ideas as before. The finale, set during a dress rehearsal, has a great moment between Binoche and Moretz, but just about everything leading up to that point could be left on the cutting room floor without any losses. Assayas touches on Jo-Ann's status as a paparazzi target early on with some hilarious footage of her bad behavior, so the reintroduction of the paparazzi at the end is redundant. Jo-Ann's scenes before the epilogue are more than sufficient, and the reprisal of the paparazzi angle detracts from the better established issue of aging and faded glory. For a film so confidently assembled, the epilogue is an odd misstep that gets in the way of Sils Maria keeping up its streak of winning dramatic and comedic moments.

Grade: B