Saturday, May 31, 2014

Review: "Maleficent"

Director: Robert Stromberg
Runtime: 97 minutes

I'm sure there are loads of think pieces out there blasting Hollywood for repeatedly giving cinematographers, visual effects supervisors, and the like the director's chair for big budget tentpoles. I'm sure those think pieces make many valid points, and I'm sure they make them quite well. Yet this review only has room to target one such person inexplicably charged with directing ("directing") a major star vehicle. His name is Robert Stromberg, and he deserves to be verbally tarred and feathered for the visually bloated disaster that is Disney's Maleficent.

The latest in a line of live action re-imaginings of classic Disney fairy tales (next up: Brannagh does Cinderella! No, really. It's a thing.), Maleficent easily deserves to go down as the worst of the lot. What should be an enjoyable, even if generic, showcase for a brilliantly cast Angelina Jolie, is a sluggish, ineptly-handled attempt at summer entertainment.

As much as the camera loves Jolie as the iconic Sleeping Beauty villain (now a tragic antihero), even she can't overcome Linda Woolverton's abysmal script and Stromberg's unbearably hack-y directing. Small moments here and there work (Jolie's handling of baby Aurora's christening scene is dynamite), but they're nothing more than drops in the ocean. 

And even though Maleficent is bad, it's shocking how baffling its badness truly is on all fronts. Despite a visual effects supervisor in the director's chair, there are a distracting number of scenes with jarring, shoddy green screen work. Not helping matters are the plastic-y CGI creations, which look like rejects from 2012's Snow White and the Huntsman

Just as bad is the editing, which is somehow the work of two people, and not a single, overeager film student. When the cutting isn't merely getting the job done, it goes of in puzzling, risible ways. There are artificial snap zooms, "dramatic" blurry effects, as well as other trademarks of the "more is better" school of editing. 

Before I become as big of a mess as Maleficent, I must return to Ms. Woolverton and her writing. There are cliches, and there are painful cliches. Maleficent is overflowing with the latter. Worst of all is the painfully forced comic relief, which puts wonderful actresses like Imelda Staunton, Leslie Manville, and Juno Temple in some truly embarrassing situations. I can't remember the last time I felt so, so bad for a group of actors working with bottom-of-the-barrel material. May they all find their way into a Mike Leigh movie as soon as possible. 

Alas, I'm losing focus. Elle Fanning is in this movie too, though her radiant self shows up far too late to undo any of the damage wrought by Stromberg, Woolverton, and their merry band of fools. The only thing done remotely right is the reworking of Sleeping Beauty's waking from true love's kiss. It's a genuinely nice touch (albeit eye-rollingly foreshadowed) that subverts the outdated love-at-first-sight ideology of the animated film. If only it were put to use in a story that was being told with some semblance of intelligence or care (I'd say "and," but I think I'd be setting the bar a bit too high). 

In fact, Maleficent is such a wreck that I don't even want to see it remade by more capable hands. Hollywood had its chance for a Maleficent-centric fairy tale for this generation, and it has failed spectacularly. I have enjoyed all of the film's major actors on multiple occasions (I'll overlook Oldboy, Sharlto Copley), yet there's no room to give any praise that's more than half-hearted. Jolie's devilish grin is nice and all, but even all of her star wattage is suffocated by the excess of visual effects and miserable craftsmanship. 

Jolie and company are lucky that their film opened on the same weekend as Seth MacFarlane's A Million Ways to Die in the West. By being put up against that would-be comedy, they have, by the grace of God, been made to look like the lesser of two evils. Yet the lesser of two evils remains an evil, and not even of the so-bad-it's-good variety. Millions upon millions were spent upon this soul-less mess of a movie. Do your part and make sure that Maleficent struggles to recoup its considerable costs. The actors' careers will remain unscathed, and hopefully Mr. Stromberg's will meet a swift end. 

Grade: D- 

Review: "Night Moves"

Director: Kelly Reichardt
Runtime: 116 minutes

Nothing captures the effect of Night Moves quite like a simple, recurring shot in its most significant sequence. The camera sits at the front of a speed boat as it languidly, uneasily drifts toward a hydroelectric dam in the dark of night. Each return to this shot, intercut with reactions of the film's three main characters, is a masterful example of unbearable tension handled with the utmost restraint. The same is true of the film as whole. Writer/director Kelly Reichardt's seventh full length film, despite its stately pace, is a major accomplishment that delicately balances psychological drama with (relatively) traditional thriller elements. 

In the same way that David Gordon Green's Joe was the movie Jeff Nichols' Mud should have been, Night Moves feels like the more successful version of last year's Brit Marling vehicle The East. Both films revolve around environmental extremism, as well as characters caught between their ideaologies and their emotions. Yet where The East was caught between indie minimalism and marketable broad appeal, Night Moves is distinct in its voice and style. 

Despite the modest scale of her films, Reichardt is no longer a filmmaker who shies away from established names. In Wendy and Lucy, Reichardt worked wonders with actress Michelle Williams in an otherwise bare bones work. Here, she has three times as many name actors anchoring her film, and all of them do so exceptionally. 

Those three actors are, in order of importance/screentime, Jesse EisenbergDakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard. Even as the film gradually pushes Eisenberg to center stage, Night Moves remains committed to its characters. Personalities are naturally established, then quietly subverted, which makes for compelling viewing despite Reichardt's typically slow approach to storytelling. Eisenberg's twitchy, reptilian nerviness is put to excellent use here, allowing his gifts to show without coming off as redundant. Whether lingering in the background or wrestling with his own moral code, Eisenberg once again shows himself to be a stellar, albeit unconventional, leading man. 

Fanning and Sarsgaard effortlessly back up Eisenberg in their wildly different roles as his accomplices. Though Fanning's sardonic aloofness at the outset is initially off-putting, the actress gracefully switches gears as the character's buried insecurities come to the surface. Watching her crumble in front of Eisenberg is not only compelling, but a fulfillment of the promise she showed when she first broke out as a young child. Sarsgaard makes a nice foil for Fanning and Eisenberg, as the trio's oldest (and military-trained) member and would-be mentor. 

Yet Night Moves would amount to little were it not for Reichardt's steady hand behind the scenes. Her work with regular writing partner Jonathan Raymond is rich with psychological drama without overstating point. The extremism on display is neither lionized nor condemned. It's simply the driving force of the story that allows Reichardt and Raymond to tell such a subtly gripping tale of desperate actions, as well as the unsettling aftermath of such actions.

Reichardt's directing takes the strong foundation laid by the script and fluidly translates it to the screen. Working with cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt (and handling editing duties herself), Reichardt makes the most of her meager budget and creates a visual experience that earns its place on the big screen. Jeff Grace's minimal, atmospheric music only enhances the superlative visual storytelling on display. Instead of straining for something epic, Night Moves unfolds with sporadically poetic moments of visual storytelling. These scenes, such as one where the activists drift through a group of bare, decaying trees, speak more elegantly than dialogue ever could in such a setting. 

The potential stumbling block for audiences will simply be whether Eisenberg's repetitive actions in the second half feel effective or indulgent. At just under two hours, Night Moves certainly takes its time reaching its open-ended conclusion, which will prove suitably gripping for some, and tediously protracted for others (count me in the former group). If you get caught up in Night Moves' slow burn, however, you're in for quite the ride. Reichardt's style is an inspired match for this sort of psychological-thriller set-up, and the way she toys with narrative structure pays off beautifully for the film's character-driven side. The director's latest may be drifting along at a leisurely rate, but enough is going on under the glassy surface to ensure that you grip your armrests just a little tighter. 

Grade: B+/A-

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Review: "Filth"

Director: Jon S. Baird
Runtime: 97 minutes

Above all else, Filth is a testament to the range of Scottish actor James McAvoy. He first came to prominence as a sweet little faun in the first Narnia film, and has since played doomed lovers (Atonement) and superheroes (X-Men) with equal skill. Yet none of the actor's previous work will prepare you for what he pulls off in Jon S. Baird's adaptation of Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh's novel about police corruption. While it's (hopefully) far too early to call McAvoy's work the performance of his lifetime, it sure as hell sets the bar quite high. There is, sadly, a tradeoff. In order to see James McAvoy be so brilliant in Filth, you have to actually watch Filth the movie. 

Great performances surrounded by lackluster films are nothing new, to be sure. Just a few years ago, Javier Bardem delivered stunning work in Biutiful, which was otherwise a sluggish, empty drama. Yet maybe the boredom that came with Biutiful wasn't so bad after all. Filth likely won't leave you bored, but that's because it's trying so hard to be edgy and outrageous, when it's mostly just cruel and vile, even though it's not noticeably more graphic than similar films. 

Though not nearly as big in scope, Filth is something like a Scottish answer to last year's The Wolf of Wall Street. This time, however, the corrupt figure at the center is a policeman, rather than an investment banker. That policeman is Bruce Robertson (McAvoy, complete with oily hair and scuzzy ginger beard), who is desperate for a promotion. Said promotion, according to an oddly theatrical intro scene featuring his wife Carole (Shauna Macdonald), will help put the spark back in their marriage. The couple aren't exactly struggling, but they're in the midst of a ritualistic sex game of sorts, with Bruce's work life currently functioning as the playground. All Bruce has to do undermine his co-workers, at any cost, in order to make himself the clear choice for the job. 

Yet just as Bruce's boss spends more time thinking about movies than policework, you'll soon find part of your mind wandering elsewhere. Filth has a little bit of naughty fun with Bruce's inner monologue at the outset (particularly his views on the Scottish people), but it runs out of fun or interesting things to say not much later. This is the sort of cinematic provocation that walks a fine line between vivaciously portraying wicked behavior and actively condoning said behavior. Sophomore director Jon S. Baird generally avoids falling into the trap of supporting Robertson's commentary, which includes homophobia, misogyny, and buckets of crassness. 

Unfortunately, that doesn't mean that Filth gets away with having its dirty little cake and eating too. The plotting weaves murkily between exploring Bruce's vices and his undermining of his coworkers, without much of an arc really emerging. The career stuff really gets the short end of the stick, and what could play out as a set of wicked games is left to laziness (ex: Bruce writes homophobic graffiti in the office, assigns blame to someone else, looks noble...the end). 

The work subplot is ultimately just more fodder for the film to show Bruce's depravity. In fairness, Baird gets that across well enough, especially when he visualizes the inside of the character's head. But, despite a running time only half of The Wolf of Wall Street, Filth starts to flounder as it heads down the tar-black rabbit hole. The brunt of the film's psychology is withheld for the sporadically nightmarish final act, which feels lazy, rather than shocking. The ugly, blue-hued visuals certainly don't add anything to whatever atmosphere Baird and Co. were aiming for.

Literally the only worthwhile part of the enterprise is McAvoy, who is placed front and center throughout all of the muck and grime. Though the material is often frustrating, McAvoy takes the scant initial details and absolutely goes to town with it. Others would have drowned in the ugly quagmire at the film's core, but McAvoy smashes through it, making every naughty grin and sadistic freak out feel effortless. He'd send the rosy-cheeked heroes of Narnia (and maybe even a few of the monsters) fleeing for their bedrooms. Meanwhile, the rest of the talented supporting cast are left with little more to do than act oblivious, or fall prey to Bruce's spell.

Though the final act does introduce some compelling psychology to the bad-boy mayhem, it feels desperate, rather than earned. In the hands of someone like Martin McDonagh (In Bruges), a story like Filth could have been a brilliant, warped, and ultimatelty devastating look at mental illness and unchecked immorality. Instead, the mental illness piece of the puzzle is wielded as a blunt instrument in a last ditch effort to make Filth "about" something, even as it provides the viewer one last faux-edgy kick in the final frames. Inside Bruce Robertson's head is a fascinating, albeit disturbing, character and story waiting to be unlocked. Filth, unfortunately, is little more than Mr. Baird and Co. going through the motions as they intermittently fumble with the keys. A performance as good as the one McAvoy turns in here deserves a far better vehicle. 

Grade: C-/D+  

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Review: "X-Men: Days of Future Past"

Director: Bryan Singer
Runtime: 131 minutes

At once a sequel, prequel, and complete narrative overhaul, Marvel's X-Men: Days of Future Past certainly hasn't been shy about its ambitions. With casts from the original trilogy and 2011's First Class, returning director Bryan Singer, along with a plot involving time travel, Days of Future Past seemed like an unwieldy entity. After leaving the X-Men franchise to direct the leaden Superman Returns and the flat Valkyrie, Singer's return to the director's chair was understandably met with hesitation. Yet he and writer Simon Kinberg (atoning for the mostly awful X-Men: The Last Stand) have avoided running Marvel's prized mutant family into the ground. While the franchises of the various Avengers heroes are clearly Marvel's top priority, Days of Future Past returns the X-Men to their glory days. This is more than a step in the right direction. It's a full-blown resurrection, with plot, spectacle, and drama all skillfully woven together. 

This is most impressive when considering the important of time travel to DOFP's narrative. There are always plot holes that crop up when time travel arrives in a story, so it's important to manage everything else smoothly enough so the stakes get more focus than potential story-telling paradoxes. Singer, clearly reinvigorated by returning to this world, shows that he knows how to handle this world better than those peers that have sat in during his absence. Working off of Kinberg's smooth, straightforward screenplay, Singer and editor/composer John Ottman are able to keep things moving along beautifully, without every leaving key characters in the dust. 

That last bit is of special importance in this film more than any other X-Men adventure. Though we see plenty of mutants across the 131 minute duration, many are just there to fill the screen. Don't expect to learn more about the likes of Warpath (Booboo Stewart) or Fan BingBing's portal-creating Blink. They, along with several others, are just here to fill out the story's framing device which is this (take a deep breath): After Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) kills anti-mutant scientist Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage), the world's governments pour money into Trask's Sentinel Program. The Sentinels are large, adaptable robots that, a la Skynet, eradicate mutants and their genetically mundane allies. With the future now a bleak dystopia, Prof. X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellan) come up with a last ditch plan. With help from Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), they will send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) into the past to reunite the young Xavier and Magneto (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, respectively) to stop Mystique's mission, as well as its increasingly devastating consequences.

Once all of the time-travel mumbo jumbo is hashed out via's Stewart's effortlessly commanding voice, and Wolverine wakes up inhabiting his body as it was in 1973, the film really comes to life. Despite all of the VFX involved, Days of Future Past is never careless when it comes to digital trickery. The story and the quartet of Jackman, McAvoy, Lawrence, and Fassbender are the real draws here, and Kinberg gives each role enough room to breathe. While it's frustrating to see Page's role hollowed out (in the source material, she was the one who leapt back in time), the story's four leads and their various conflicts are still compelling. 

Rather than retread old ground, the first half of the film plays like an inversion of the very first X-Men (2000). Here, Wolverine has to step back and be both mediator and leader, roles he was in no way ready to take on when he first joined the X-Men. Meanwhile, young Charles Xavier is a depressed, alcoholic mess who has lost his way. Beast (Nicholas Hoult) has healed Xavier's legs, but the cost has been his tremendous psionic powers. Even though Wolverine is able to make Xavier believe his outrageous time travel story, the latter hardly feels like reconnecting with his mutant roots.

Though Jackman's Wolverine has always been a central part of the X-Men movies, his role reversal is a smart choice, and he and McAvoy play off of each other quite well. There are still traces of the cynical mutant's past in Jackman's performance, but here they're held back for the sake of urgency. McAvoy, meanwhile improves on his already impressive performance from First Class as the film's mentally shattered version of Xavier. The actor's vulnerability and desperation are given the weight needed to make us care, without digging so deep as to turn the film into a pretentious existential drama. 

Things only get better as Fassbender and Lawrence enter the fray. The former remains perfectly suited as the dogmatic Magneto, while Lawrence brings more genuine spark to Mystique than she did in First Class, where she was occasionally flat. Special mention should go to Evan Peters as the ultra fast Quicksilver, who is given just enough to be an enjoyable addition without leaving the film overstuffed. His part in the story is brief, but critical, and it allows Singer and co. to use Quicksilver's powers as part of the film's lightest, most enjoyable set-piece. Unlike the extra mutants in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Quicksilver's guest appearance here is superbly integrated, and it ends just in time to get back to the four established protagonists.

Every one of them has an agenda, yet the streamlined plotting ensures that motives remain clear without grinding the film to a halt. Days of Future Past is always moving, yet it never feels rushed outside of the exposition-heavy opening. The blockbuster it best calls to mind (and not simply because of the time travel aspect), is the 2009 reboot of Star Trek. The JJ Abrams film had a lot going on, yet kept its characters grounded amid all of the flashy effects to deliver an experience where the drama was earned, and therefore resonated. 

Backing up Singer's handling of the story and his main stars are some of his slickest, liveliest direction to date. Eschewing the rather bland color palette of most Marvel films, Days of Future Past is much more visually engaging than the standard summer tentpole. Newton Thomas Siegel's photography, especially in the 1973 scenes, is rich and textured, and lends an extra bit of believability to the fantastical premise and characters. He and Singer also have a bit of fun capturing some of the mutant action on 70s era cameras, further grounding us in a time period where the mutants stand out even more than they do in the present or future. Production designer John Mhyre, whose stacked resume includes superhero flicks and glittery musicals, does a stellar job with sets without going overboard.  

And then, of course, there are the visual effects. Though some elements are more cartoon-y than others (the future versions of the Sentinels), most of the VFX work is superbly handled. It only ups the stakes and the grandeur, rather than taking focus away from the story and characters. Even in the finale, which is filled with some truly massive effects (as well as hefty cross-cutting between past and future), the story's over-the-top emotional core stays front and center. 

Like last month's Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Days of Future Past succeeds because it bucks two major trends found in big-budget spectacles: being overly glib so that no drama interrupts the spectacle, or trying so desperately to be dramatic that all fun is squeezed out. Though Days of Future Past does reset the chessboard for the franchise, it still works as its own self-contained (albeit open-ended) adventure, one with an engaging story and engaging characters worth following. What could have been a jumbled, incoherent mess is, thankfully, one of the most assured and accomplished superhero films to date. As much as the franchise has stumbled over the past few years, Days of Future Past shows that when they're on their A-game, the X-Men are among the best in the business.

Grade: B+

Friday, May 16, 2014

Review: "Godzilla"

Director: Gareth Edwards
Runtime: 123 minutes

The second that Godzilla's iconic roar blasts out of the speakers, you know that you've just witnessed the glorious rebirth of one of cinema's most famous movie monsters. After decades of silly ups and downs, Gareth Edwards' new reboot knows how to remind us all that Godzilla will always be king. If only the rest of the film were worthy of joining him on the throne. Edwards and co. create some stirring sequences, and they also keep the tone balanced between serious and silly. However, a lackluster protagonist and an uneasy focus on various members of the ensemble proves to be a considerable hurdle that the film is barely able to clear.

Faults and all, though, Edwards deserves credit for his handling of the towering monsters (yes, there's more than just the big guy). Restraint isn't a word that comes to mind when talking about a film involving cities being leveled, but it's rather on point here. Edwards handles the big reveal of Godzilla (Gojira, if you're feeling formal) gradually. This is a summer blockbuster/creature feature operating in the vein of Jaws or Alien, where the buildup, and the gradual flashes are more important that showing something in its full glory. 

To accomplish this, Edwards and DP Seamus McGarvey capture most of the mayhem from the ground level. We get a bit of a tail sliding away, a claw-like arm smashing into the ground, or a glimpse of Godzilla's scaly back. It's an inspired choice, and ensures that we, as viewers, look forward to seeing the monsters, instead of quickly growing bored of them. And when it comes time to let loose, Godzilla steps back just far enough to deliver the ridiculous action the character's legacy promises. 

Of course, in handling most of the action from the ground level, this means we have to pay attention to some humans too. Despite a stacked cast that includes (hi, Juliette Binoche) Bryan Cranston (bye, Juliette Binoche), Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, and  David Strathairn the roles aren't terribly interesting or fun to follow. Cranston, at least, has a genuinely compelling emotional core that's effectively set up in the 1999-set prologue. Cranston's character is obviously a stock character (he's the mad man/conspiracy nut who's actually onto something), but the development the film affords his character puts the role far above similar characters. Meanwhile, Watanabe has some fun dispensing loony revisions of atomic history and spouting vague philosophical lines about nature's brutal ability to restore balance.

Everyone else mostly just does their jobs, with the exception being Aaron Taylor Johnson as Cranston's military-trained son. Johnson is also playing a stock character, but his feels totally empty, and even lazy; Charlie Hunnam's role in last year's Pacific Rim looks rich and nuanced in comparison. And, unlike Hunnam, Johnson has no fun characters to play off of. When the story is following Johnson around, the movie becomes a little less interesting, and makes you wish the monsters would hurry up and start causing mayhem again. 

With this human component left half-baked, Godzilla sometimes struggles to engage as it keeps teasing you with the history of the monsters, as well as the mystery of what they're doing now that they've been awakened. Most of the ensemble are also far away from the center of violence, leaving us with only terrified extras to connect with. 

Yet even with the deficiencies in the human roles, Edwards is still able to pull out some powerful visual moments as he keeps you waiting for the big finish. A scene of fighter jets losing power and dropping into San Francisco Bay is smartly used to build the vague sense of dread as the monsters approach. Even better is a freefall sequence that sends Johnson and other soldiers plummeting into the ruins of San Francisco from 30,000 feet. Red tracers streak behind them as they pass through layers of clouds illuminated by raging fires. The mix of painterly wide shots and claustrophobic POV footage is awe-inspiring, and there's not a creature in sight. 

And when the big fights start coming, they are appropriately big and clumsy. Here, Godzilla is a force of balance, meant to wipe out the insect-like creatures attacking human civilization. Yet his role as nature's proxy has no clear regard for human life. In his wrestling matches at the end, the big reptile does his fair share of property damage, all because it's a means to an end (how he's ever going to pay back the city of San Francisco, I have no idea). In between the epic tussles, Edwards finds room to insert moments of satisfying cheesiness. I'll avoid details, but there are certain gloriously over-the-top fight moves that are designed to leave audiences both cheering and laughing. 

Whether or not Warner Brothers decides to pursue a sequel, at the very least they've made an American Godzilla that can stand on its own (as well as erase the memory of the 1998 film). Most of that credit, however, belongs to Mr. Edwards, who has smartly brought the resourcefulness of his indie background to this big-budget extravaganza. The human elements get progressively weaker the further it goes, but Edwards still manages to hold our attention thanks to his inventive ways of never showing more than necessary. Faults and all, when this Godzilla roars, it's pretty damn hard to look at anything else. 

Grade: B-

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Review: "The Immigrant"

Director: James Gray
Runtime: 120 minutes

Well at least James Gray knows how to capture a time period. Even when the results are less than stellar - as in Blood Ties, which he wrote - the man does have a knack for bringing the recent past to life. Yet rather than stay in his comfort zone, Gray has chosen to branch out with his latest film, The Immigrant, which premiered at last year's Cannes film festival. Gray has leapfrogged over the time periods of his other films, and landed in the early part of the 20th century, a time when Ellis Island was filled to the brim with people from nations across the Atlantic. 

One of those people is Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard), who has fled to America with her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) to escape their troubled homeland. Yet Ellis Island proves less welcoming than Lady Liberty's statue and her promises. Magda is quarantined, and Ewa's contacts in America are nowhere to be found. Ewa's American Dream is all but snuffed out at the finish line, when she's rescued by Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), who promises her shelter, work, and money. It's the last item that Ewa latches onto, as it's Magda's only hope of survival while trapped in the hospital on the island. 

Ewa quickly learns, however, that Bruno's line of work may be a bit on the seedy side. The soft-spoken, off-kilter man runs a small theater, which of course is but a flashy display case for his cavalcade of prostitutes. Bruno does his best to convince Ewa that she's becoming part of a family, though she stoically tries her hardest to remain apart from the group. 

Despite a runtime of two hours, Gray lays the basic framework down quite briskly, even as he takes time to show larger images of 1920's Manhattan. Ewa and Bruno's relationship is an uneasy one, but it allows for interesting interplay between the film's two leads. Phoenix, though at times going a bit too broad and whispery as Bruno, does solid work as the more dynamic of the pair. His caring brand of possessiveness, balanced with Ewa's constant deflections, creates a unique set up. Even when a third party is introduced, The Immigrant never becomes a full-blown love triangle, or even a romance at all. 

It is, fundamentally, a story of how Cotillard's fresh-off-of-the-boat immigrant copes with being the lowest member on a food chain. More established immigrants (including Bruno) manage the newcomers, while also doing their best to please the authorities so as to stay out of trouble. Bruno may be Ewa's boss of sorts, but even he reports to an older woman at the theater. He also deals with Jewish slurs on a regular basis. He may be a pimp, but he's not a particularly powerful one. 

However, The Immigrant ultimately belongs to Cotillard, despite the overwhelmingly passive nature of the role. Ewa's goal is a simple one - to help (and possibly free) Magda - and Cotillard's blankness works to her advantage. This isn't a woman who can afford to joyously chase after her own dreams; she has to put her nose to the grindstone and get to work, whatever unpleasantness may ensue. 

The actress' work is mostly quiet, the polar opposite of her Oscar-winning performance as Edith Piaf, but Cotillard does a lovely job of managing Ewa's restraint. In the moments where she cracks, the actress refuses to go for big moments, even in a scene that is practically designed for Oscar-begging histrionics. Speaking both English and Polish, Cotillard is the heart of the film, and the limited manner in which she opens up is mirrored in the film's own emotional tone. When we speak of actors "owning" a film, it's usually about roles that require big flashes of emotion. With The Immigrant, Cotillard proves that it's possible to do this in near silence. 

Gray's direction - classical and elegant - understands this. Sadly, his writing has a much less solid foundation. Instead of merely allowing Ewa and Bruno's relationship to build into a natural display of unrequited affection and exploitation, Gray introduces a second rate magician named Orlando (Jeremy Renner). Renner is perfectly charming in the role, and makes you wish he had more screen time. Yet, enjoyable as he is, Orlando gets in the way of the main duo's relationship, instead of adding another layer to the drama. 

And as much as Gray keeps the story going (the pacing is stately, but certainly not sluggish), certain moments are rushed, and left feeling dramatically weightless. Gray's characters could use a bit more depth as well. There's a great divide in Ewa regarding her Catholic faith and her line of work, but Gray doesn't really dig into it aside from one notable scene (and there it's Cotillard, not the script, that makes it work). Though I'd consider The Immigrant a success, it is a strange, frustrating sort of success. The right pieces are there, but the script doesn't always do enough with them (that, or it deals with them too briefly). 

Production values, however, are very much a triumph. Despite a modest budget, Gray's vision of the 20s is as lush as Once Upon a Time in America or the flashbacks in The Godfather Part II. Sets and costumes are handsomely detailed, and Darius Khondji's sepia and gold-toned photography gives it all a nuanced, painterly quality. On a purely aesthetic level, The Immigrant is worthy of joining the ranks of the films it's so clearly paying homage to. Yet Gray's wishy-washy script trips the enterprise up one too many times. The Immigrant certainly never falls on its face, but it has enough unbalanced moments that cause the end result to be an overeager imitation, rather than a modern classic. 

Grade: B

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Review: "Belle"

Director: Amma Asante
Runtime: 104 minutes

In one of the first scenes of Belle, the younger version of the title character gazes at a painting of an English nobleman and his black servant. The boy is painted submissively, so as to draw the attention to the important white figure and his commanding gaze. These works of art inform Amma Asante's sophomore feature at every turn, as she turns them on her head. The paintings used people of color to draw focus to white figures, while Asante's film uses a well-known white English cast to draw our focus to a biracial actress. That it does this in a fact-based story set in the 18th century is even more noteworthy. Deceptively radical in its approach to Austen-esque stories of love and manners, Belle is both a rewarding character study and a compassionate work of historical and social commentary. 

Born of a slave woman and an English naval officer (Matthew Goode), Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is left by her father only hours after meeting him. Though Goode's Capt. John Lindsay shows Dido nothing but affection in their brief time together, he's unable to look after her. He leaves her with Lord and Lady Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson), the girl's uncle and aunt, albeit without first informing them of her race. Begrudgingly, the Mansfields accept the girl and treat her well, though they intend to hide her from society as long as possible. Sheltered at the Mansfield estate in the country, Dido grows close to Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon), another charge left with the Mansfields.

Yet Dido's life starts to change as she reaches the age when aristocratic girls were expected to "come out" in order to secure a husband. Though financially secured thanks to her inheritance, Dido still struggles to navigate a society that reduces her to little more than "the black" or "the mulatto." As one character points out, the aristocrats will take any excuse they can to diminish or dismiss one of their ranks.

However, even with all of the outings and courtship rituals, Belle remains a lively piece of drama. Asante and Misan Sagay's script have captured the repressed manners of the time and place without making the actual film stiff or distancing. The issues of race, wealth, and power, are not always handled subtly, but they treated with intelligence and care. Some moments are overwrought thanks to Rachel Portman's lush, overwhelming score, but the film's noble intentions ultimately shine through. 

A great deal of this comes down to newcomer Mbatha-Raw. In a sea of faces one expects to see in this sort of period drama, the biracial British actress is absolutely captivating, and not simply because of her "otherness" when placed among her cast mates. She has the right mix of poise and passion, to immediately grab and hold your attention. Though other characters (namely Gadon's Elizabeth) have their own legitimate struggles, Dido's are magnified and complicated by both her race and her illegitimacy. In one of the film's most powerful scenes, drawn from Asante's own experiences, Dido sits in front of a mirror and claws at her own skin, wishing she could simply disappear. Mbatha-Raw's radiant performance is captivating because it captures the essence of a typical Austen-heroine, while also infusing it with darker realities.

The rest of the cast fares quite well, especially Gadon as Dido's unofficial sister and Wilkinson as her uncle trapped between the status quo and deeply buried progressive notions. Mbatha-Raw's interactions with these two are among the film's best acted scenes. Gadon's Elizabeth, despite fitting the mould of a English rose, is without her own inheritance, thus making her less valuable as a potential match. In Elizabeth, we see a parallel as to how the treatment of women as property mirrored (though not nearly to the same degrading degree) the treatment of slaves. Things only get more complex when Dido becomes engaged while Elizabeth struggles to make any progress. 

While scenes with Elizabeth show Dido interacting with things as they are, her time with Wilkinson is smartly used to build the story's more groundbreaking arc. Lord Mansfield, the highest ranking judge in England, has been asked to review a case of a slave ship that threw slaves overboard, claiming that there wasn't enough water to keep them all healthy. As such, the ship owners want payment from the insurers for the human cargo they "lost." The issue of the value of a human life, black or white, is what raises the narrative above the ordinary. 

Asante's ability to balance the two sides of the story so well make Belle a lush, historically aware work. Neither side is shortchanged, and each is given the appropriate weight. In handling both halves so well, Dido's transformation is even stronger than it would have been if the focus had been primarily on one or the other. For all of the heaving bosoms, colorful gowns, and melodramatic outbursts, Belle is unique as period pieces go. In making the film feel like a straightforward period piece, despite its issues of race, Asante has turned the genre on its head. Belle doesn't need to be blatantly 'edgy' to stand out, because its simple toying with expectations accomplishes volumes more. 

Grade: B

Review: "The Amazing Spider-Man 2"

Director: Marc Webb
Runtime: 142 minutes

For a movie as jam-packed with incident as The Amazing Spider-Man 2, it's frustrating how little any of it lingers once the lights go up. Coming off of 2012's decently received Spidey reboot, this sequel goes for the bigger-is-better approach, and ends up doing very little. The cluttered script and awkward tonal shifts keep the web-slinger's new outing grounded, despite the barrage of VFX-heavy stunts.

With two sequels already set (for 2016 and 2018), Spider-Man 2 feels like nothing more than empty set-up for future installments. Worse, neither the villains nor the personal drama has any weight to it until the final minutes. Main villain Electro (Jamie Foxx), a timid scientist who is transformed into a being of pure electricity, is as half-baked as they come. Additional villains Harry Osborn (Dane Dehaan) and the Rhino (Paul Giamatti, used for bookends rather than plot), follow suit.

And as much as the writing and directing deserve blame for the failure of the story's villains, the quality of the acting isn't doing the film any favors either. Foxx starts as a cartoonishly mannered nerd (one obsessed with Spider-Man), before evolving into a flashy stock character with a digitally altered voice. The idea that hell hath no fury like an adoring nerd scorned is alright, but the execution here pales in comparison to, say, Pixar's The Incredibles

Even more disappointing is DeHaan, who doesn't have the right charisma or presence to capture whatever the script wants Harry to be. DeHaan's mannerisms suggest a damaged, yet cocky, emo kid, yet the writing gives him a persona that seems more in line with a WASP-y jock. This results in some truly baffling acting choices that only further the idea that the script had no idea what it was really going for with its characters. As for Paul Giamatti and a cameo performance from Marton Csokas as a German scientist, the less said, the better. 

The saving grace, though just barely, are the interactions between Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield) and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), as well as those between Peter and Aunt May (Sally Field). Though Peter and Gwen's exchanges sometimes clash with the drama around them (they often stammer as though in a parody of indie rom-coms), the actors remain charming to watch as they play off of each other. Despite still being wasted as the hero's girlfriend, Stone emerges as the film's MVP, and proves that she deserves better than the mess around her. 

Only at the climax does Webb's film really come alive. Despite the heavy reliance on VFX stunts, the final battles are actually engaging, though this has more to do with Garfield and Stone's presence than the conflict between hero and nemesis. In the only noticeable improvement from the previous Spidey entry, the effects and overall sense of movement of the digital action figures has much more fluidity. The big moment at the end also packs a genuine emotional punch, at least ensuring that the film (more or less) ends with its best foot forward. 

Yet, like the previous "amazing" Spider-Man flick, the whole enterprise still feels wholly unnecessary other than as a reason for Sony to hold onto the rights to the title character. Aside from one major moment, this bloated sequel accomplishes remarkably. It feels like an attempt to re-do the previous film (the revelations about Peter's parents), while also pushing forward with its own world-building (future villains). It's a film at odds with itself at every turn, and that's something that all of the flashy effects and high-flying stunts can't conceal. 

Grade: D+

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Review: "Young and Beautiful"

Director: Francois Ozon
Runtime: 93 minutes

It seems strange to think that a story involving prostitution could double as a coming-of-age tale and/or character study. Yet the mix has been fertile ground for the likes of Chabrol's Violette, Bunuel's Belle du Jour, and most recently, Von Trier's Nymphomaniac. Joining the pack of this peculiar sub-genre now (frankly, I'm surprised it took so long) is French director Francois Ozon. The prolific auteur last hit American shores this time last year with the excellent In the House, and he'll likely have another project landing here somewhere in 2015. Suffice to say, the man moves quickly. Ozon's current gift may not deserve the superlatives thrown at In the House, but Young and Beautiful, a simple, efficient story of a self-managing teen prostitute, certainly has its merits. 

When we first meet Isabelle (lovely newcomer Marine Vacth), we see her through the lenses of her kid brother's binoculars. Unaware that she's being spied on, Isabelle removes her bikini top for a lazy afternoon of sunbathing in beach in southern France. Despite this blatantly objectifying opening, Ozon is quick to undermine the notion that Isabelle is nothing more than empty Gallic sex appeal. Once Isabelle returns home from her summer vacation (during which she both turns 17 and loses her virginity), she immediately decides to set herself up as a sex worker. 

Ozon has always avoided the laborious route when it comes to revealing motivation, but his approach here leaves one to wonder if there will be any point in the subsequent scenes. His filmmaking is as smooth as ever, and he never allows a scene to outstay its welcome. Yet the cost of such economical writing is that it puts more focus on the specifics of the scenes and characters. 

Despite its undeniable aesthetic competence, what keeps Young and Beautiful from joining the ranks of Ozon's finest is how surprisingly mundane everything feels. The script and direction avoid shock value or graphic detail (unlike, say, Nymphomaniac), but they also refuse to fully develop the ideas trapped just under the surface. Isabelle leads a double life filled with falsehoods, yet she can't stand the theater, which is built upon all sorts of artifice, from actors to sets. Though the film does feature a scene with Isabelle running into a client at a theater, the moment remains detached from its underlying irony. 

More satisfying is an encounter with a client who insists on oral sex, and then drives Isabelle home while blasting opera music. This juxtaposition of the carnal and the sophisticated, enhanced by the sleek editing, is the sort of thing that Young and Beautiful cries out for more of. On the flip side, Ozon's cheeky sense of humor is also largely absent. The film never strains for a dark or uncomfortable laugh, but these moments are rare and they evaporate almost before they're delivered. 

However, Young and Beautiful is not without its various successes. Ozon's pacing is commendable, as always, yet the real draw here is first-time performer Vacth. A model-turned-actress, the 23 year old handles the role with aplomb under Ozon's guidance. The film also works best when it captures Isabelle's adjustment to her secret profession, and the fallout that accompanies one unexpected meeting. This isn't a case of an untrained performer giving a "good enough" performance; it's an assured, effortless debut that hints at (hopefully) greater things to come as/if she pursues the craft further. Geraldine Pailhas delivers strong work as Isabelle's initially oblivious mother, and her confrontational scenes with Vacth are easily the best acted. 

Were it not for Vacth's peculiar, quiet radiance, best in show honors would go to a crucial cameo from Ozon regular Charlotte Rampling. Though her role is best unspoiled, the character is responsible for helping Young and Beautiful, and Isabelle's journey, avoid coming off as completely without growth or maturation. As always, Rampling takes mere minutes of screen time and injects years of feeling into them, to the point where she starts to offset the film's undercooked subtext. In its final scenes, Young and Beautiful starts to push past its routine narrative path and tap into the rich psychology bubbling underneath. Ozon has tackled complex emotions with shocking efficiency before (ex: his 2001 masterpiece Under the Sand), which is why his latest is a hint underwhelming despite its overall success. The efficiency and smooth storytelling remain, but unlike past efforts, Ozon has opted to leave the more enlightening aspects a bit too far off shore. They remain visible, but like Isabelle's brother in the opening scene, you'll need a pair of binoculars to really get a good look. 

Grade: B/B-