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

AFI Fest 2014: "Two Days, One Night"

Director(s): Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne
Runtime: 95 minutes

The entire plot of Two Days, One Night, from Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes, would exist as a mere montage in other stories. Yet the Dardennes are rarely ones to race through stories, and spend their films unpacking the smaller moments in the lives of the working class. Two Days, One Night is instantly recognizable as a Dardenne bros. film, yet it also finds the directing duo working with a rarely seen sense of urgency in their storytelling. It's a classic ticking clock scenario, as filtered through the grounded, humanist viewpoint that the brothers have honed over their careers. The race against time makes for a more accessible film without watering down the Dardennes' skills behind the camera.

For Sandra (Marion Cotillard), the story's shrinking window of opportunity is a matter of life and death. Sandra's boss at her factory job has given the rest of the staff an ultimatum: Sandra keeps her job, or everyone else gets a bonus. With the vote set for the following Monday, Sandra only has the upcoming weekend to canvas the 16 co-workers to get enough votes to keep her job and keep her family from going on welfare. Though Sandra has support from her husband and a few co-workers already, she must also face her own doubts about herself, made worse by a recent bout of crippling depression.

Initially, the depression angle seems poised to get in the way of the time sensitive story. The Dardennes make Cotillard cry and collapse so much in the first 20 or 30 minutes and it doesn't feel earned. We know Sandra's situation, but we haven't spent enough time with her for this series of mini-breakdowns to mean anything. Instead of discarding the depression, however, the Dardennes keep it yoked to the main story. Thankfully, it's a decision that ultimately works in the film's favor. Two Days, One Night's plot is the epitome of simplicity (90% is Sandra finding and talking to her colleagues), and as Sandra gathers more confidence, the film becomes significantly better at linking her depression to her more obvious struggle.

Sandra is one of the Dardennes' best protagonists, and Cotillard (arguably the biggest star they've worked with) is perfect casting for the role. Even when forced to cry more than necessary, she beautifully captures Sandra's desperation and her self doubt, which the depression certainly doesn't help with. Despite the tears, this is one of Cotillard's most restrained, naturalistic roles. Thanks to the Dardennes, it's also one of the actresses' finest performances, easily rivaling her Oscar-winning turn as Edith Piaf, albeit on a different end of the dramatic spectrum. Her eyes seem more expressive than ever, and she's also begun to tap into her expressive face with subtle twists of her mouth. 

Beyond Cotillard front and center work, it's impressive how well the Dardennes keep Two Days, One Night from falling into simplicity. Sandra's co-workers, even those who vote in her favor, all have valid reasons for wanting their bonuses. Some refuse to vote for Sandra with solemn respect, while others are outright hostile. The script finds shrewd ways of varying Sandra's speech, in which she explains the vote and what's going on, to illuminate how comfortable she is with each person. All of the actors playing Sandra's associates, save for one scenery-chewing crier, are quite good with the brief time they're afforded by the script. With Cotillard stripped of the usual movie star glamor, she and the rest of the cast blend together, even though the star is the only recognizable face.

The Dardennes' direction and writing is among their most confident, but a few head-scratching decisions in the film's middle make it harder to decide if Two Days is a great film or merely a very good one. The scene that represents Sandra's lowest point in the story is timed to coincide with an overly calculated arrival of a guest. As a result, when Sandra has to try and undo a horrible mistake, it's difficult not to laugh at the absurdity of the timing. The Dardennes have always been gifted with an ability to, in their minimalist and gritty way, maintain a film's tone. So when Sandra blurts out her mistake to her husband (Fabrizio Rigione), it's jarring enough to prompt a double-take (the audience I saw it with certainly had no problem letting out a laugh). If the scene is an attempt at pitch black comedy, it's a poorly placed one that undercuts the film's earnest drama.

Even so, Two Days, One Night is still one of the Dardennes most confident and most accessible films to date (and that's not just because of Cotillard's presence). By setting the film up with such desperation and urgency, the directors have created a story that covers several meaty angles (economic struggle, depression, etc...) with the momentum of a thriller. The film's ending is close to being pat when taken on its own, but the story's overall conclusion is mature and nuanced, forgoing the temptation to wrap things up with a Hollywood happy ending or a total downer. Both approaches would do a disservice to how well Two Days, One Night once again exemplifies the Dardennes' skill with capturing the lives of the working class, where any success or failure is just another moment in life, ready to be followed by countless others even after the screen goes dark.

Grade: B+/A- 

AFI Fest 2014: "The Wonders"

Director: Alice Rohrwacher
Runtime: 110 minutes

There's no denying the rugged beauty of Alice Rohrwacher's The Wonders, but whether or not that beauty is worth the time of day is less certain. After a solid start, Rohrwacher's second film takes a turn into iffy dream logic that ends the film on a muddled note. Though the film's conclusion is filled with a hazy sense of tragedy, the ambiguities that arise at the end are more frustrating than compelling.

Set in rural Italy, The Wonders initially has the quiet confidence of its protagonist, 12 year old Gelsomina (Maria Lungu). The oldest daughter of a pair of beekeepers, Gelsomina does her best to win the approval of her stern father Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck). Wolfgang longs for a son but he and his wife Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher) continue to churn out daughters. And, aside from Gelsomina, they don't seem terribly adept at learning the tricks of tending to the family beehives or harvesting honey. So even when Gelsomina does her best and keeps things on the family farm running, she's never given the paternal approval that she really deserves. 

Things at the farm continue as usual until Gelsomina stumbles across the set of a flashy TV commercial promoting an upcoming contest. Said contest will bring together local families to show off their authentic, homemade products, with the winning family earning a fat load of cash. Gelsomina sees a chance for escape, while Wolfgang only sees a tacky waste of time. 

Rather than drag the viewer through the expected clashes between father and daughter, Rohrwacher puts off the contest for as long as possible, which is mostly beneficial. Gelsomina and her sisters have a free-spirited, natural chemistry on screen, and The Wonders is at its best when it lays back and watches the family work and play. Lungu and the other young actors never feel too coached, and their interactions consistently ring true. The arrival of a German foster child (a boy) adds an extra layer to the drama, forcing Gelsomina to work alongside a manifestation of the child Wolfgang never got to call his own. Louwyck and Rohrwacher make an odd but interesting pair as the mismatched parents, and the former thankfully refrains from turning Wolfgang into an easy villain. Rohrwacher (the director) may have her points of view as to who's right and wrong, but she never forces any interpretation on the viewer or her actors. Each person has their reasons for wanting to do things their way, and those reasons are always rooted in the context of the story.

Italian life is often dramatized as obscenely opulent (The Great Beauty) or violent (Gomorrah, any other mob-related movie in the past decade). The disaffected working class tend to get left behind on the big screen, so it's admirable of Rohrwacher to completely root her story in a way of life that's struggling to compete with modernity. The family's financial difficulties are given proper exploration without turning the film into a civics lecture. When something goes wrong - like when an entire vat of honey overflows - it comes across as a real loss, rather than a minor inconvenience. 

Unfortunately, all of that sensitivity goes out of the window once the family acquiesces to Gelsomina's determination and goes to the contest. It starts as a send up of gaudy TV fakery, and the way such contests prey on the hopes and dreams of people scraping by to make a living. But once Gelsomina's aunt Coco (Sabine Timoteo) scares off the German foster child, The Wonders starts throwing in scenes that feel like they belong in a different film. The scenes involve blurry distinctions between dream and reality, and even though they're quite nice, they arrive with no real warning. There's no time to become even remotely anchored in the different layers of reality, so the impact of the scenes is often muted. Rohrwacher's is gently heartbreaking, but it screws with one's perception of events that it's difficult to become fully invested. There isn't room enough to connect with the film's emotions, because unlike young Gelsomina, The Wonders loses confidence in the idea that it's perfectly fine the way it is. 

Grade: C+

AFI Fest 2014: "Winds of August (Ventos de Agosto)"

Director: Gabriel Mascaro
Runtime: 77 minutes

In the ever-expanding range of unofficial cinematic sub-genres (Oscar Bait, Misery Porn, Classroom Cinema) one that gets mentioned far too little is Shrug Cinema. These are the films that, even when they have good traits, amount to little more than furrowing of the brow and a mumbled, "...that's it?" Other labels carry more of a sting, since Shrug Cinema can be an entirely neutral experience, but it's just as prominent (if not moreso) than the above-mentioned categories. The latest film to earn this label, unfortunately, comes from Brazilian director Gabriel Mascaro. August Winds, Mascaro's debut, has some intriguing ideas about how we hold on to memories, but its characters are so flat that those ideas never crystallize. It's Shrug Cinema 101, straddling that fine line between mere emptiness and active failure. 

Set in a rural, coastal Brazilian village, Winds begins its languid 77 minutes with the every day lives of Jeison (Geova Manoel Dos Santos) and Shirley (Dandara De Morais), young lovers who make their meager living by harvesting coconuts (and also making love on top of said coconuts, which seems really uncomfortable, but that's none of my business). When the young lovers find a skull in the nearby coral formations, they're forced to confront the unfortunate reality that death claims us all, sometimes violently. 

Mascaro's status as a Brazilian native is clear, and he shoots the film without condescending towards his impoverished characters or shying away from the rough realities of life in the town. His initial introduction of death, here represented by the waters slowly eroding the town's coastal setting, is a good starting point, but the film soon stalls. The death of a visitor, presumably an accident, hits Jeison especially hard, and Mascaro's screenplay has a smart way of tying the loss into Jeison's past.

So why does August Winds get blown out of one's memory so easily? The most likely answer is that Mascaro's directing is more informative of his setting than of his characters. The film is particularly unfair to Shirley, who is soon left behind as Jeison becomes increasingly obsessed with taking care of the washed up corpse of the visitor. Neither De Morais nor Dos Santos are terribly expressive, existing so simply in front of the camera that it's difficult to finding anything resembling character traits. 

And even though Mascaro portrays rural life well, his method of filmmaking makes August Winds feel much longer than its brief runtime. Though Mascaro's final shot is a great culimation of the film's loose ideas and themes, so much of what comes before is needlessly protracted. Long shots are not inherently good things, and August Winds is a textbook example of the technique being applied to material that doesn't warrant it. As fierce as some of the winds are in Mascaro's world, they're unable to give life or movement to this wafer thin, stagnant tale. 

Grade: C-

AFI Fest 2014: "'71"

Director: Yann Demange
Runtime: 99 minutes

'71 may star rising Irish actor Jack O'Connell (Starred Up) in its lead role, but it's far more successful as a morally murky thriller that tackles on of modern history's most painful cycles of violence. Set in its titular year, Yann Demange's debut film follows 24 hours in the life of Sgt. Gary Hook (O'Connell), a British soldier left deep in IRA territory in Belfast after being separated from his regiment. Demange, working skillfully off of Gregory Burke's tight, visceral script, has made one hell of a debut feature, which has understandably maintained its strong hype since premiering in Berlin in February.

Though O'Connell gets a few fleeting moments at the outset to give some hints about Sgt. Hook's personality, he quickly becomes an audience cipher once all hell breaks loose. For most of the film Hook is left at the mercy of others. Factions after him include his regiment, the official IRA and its more radical and militant wing, and the local Catholic and Protestant locals. Hook's awful situation wouldn't be quite as awful if the lines distinguishing some of these factions weren't so obscured.

Without leaving the audience completely in the dark, Demange and Burke have created a world filled with double crossers and shifting alliances. With O'Connell as our window into The Troubles, '71 is able to take the audience through a hellacious microcosm of the violence in Northern Ireland. O'Connell gets less to do as an actor beyond the purely physical as '71 progresses, but Demange's handling of the broader story keeps the complex backdrop from becoming overwhelming.

Debut features tend to be either overly ambitious or far too safe, but Demange has pushed himself just enough to make '71 work on its own terms and announce himself as a promising talent. His film is energetic and chaotic without being overblown or rushed, thanks to some vibrant camera work and slick editing. And even though it's more of a director's showcase than a performance piece, all of Demange's cast do well at playing their varying degrees of moral ambiguity. 

Investigating a subject matter like The Troubles is akin to strolling through a minefield. Remain too observant, and a film can send mixed messages about what it depicts. Lean too heavily on one side, and nuance is sucked out of the frame in favor of white-washed propaganda. Demange and Burke go for a point of view that is simple, but not simplistic: The Troubles is hell on earth for everyone; a cycle of human cruelty that continually feeds on itself with no proper end in sight. It's a mature enough angle that gives '71 the room to work as a non-stop thriller while doing enough justice to its setting to avoid cheapening the subtext. '71 isn't one of the great films about The Troubles, but it's one of those uncommonly striking first films that hints at future greatness from its director, all while standing proudly on its own nimble feet.

Grade: B

AFI Fest 2014: "Timbuktu"

Director: Abderrahmane Sissako
Runtime: 97 minutes

Abderrahmane Sissako's Timbuktu has been described as a tapestry-like portrait of West Africa. A tapestry it may be, but it's one that the moths have eaten away at. Still, there's much to admire about Timbuktu, even though its attempts to shoehorn in a traditional narrative dilute the story's impact. Set in the titular city during occupation by Islamic extremists, Sissako's film is at least deserves praise for its intelligent, varied portrayal of modern African Islam. 

For roughly half of the 106 minute runtime, Timbuktu has only the loosest of plots, which is hardly a bad thing. When the film opens, Islamic militants have taken over the ancient trading city (beautifully photographed by Sofian El Fani), and are in the midst of rolling out their regressive policies. This means no music, no singing, no soccer, etc... And if you commit one of the worst of sins like adultery? Death by stoning. The militants may be rebels, but their mission is hardly one of liberation.

Rather than plunge the viewer into an unending string of horrible deeds, Sissako takes his time building up tensions between the townspeople and their imposing conquerors. At first, the militants only look like a minor nuisance, even with their heavy artillery. The citizens are openly defiant (within reason), not content to roll over and turn into lapdogs. The extremists may have the firepower, but they're also the ones who look out of place amid all of Timbuktu's beautiful stone structures. These isolated incidents flow together as if they were merely part of an observational documentary, rather than a drama. And then the plot kicks in.

The problem with Timbuktu's one traditional plot thread isn't that it's poorly executed, but simply that it doesn't fit in well with the free form pacing of the other scenes. After an accident lands Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed) in jail, he falls victim to the extremists' newly-established sense of justice. Sissako tries to balance Kidane's story with his more objective story components, but neither side gets its proper due by the end. Timbuktu deserves credit for not bludgeoning the viewer with endless scenes of people suffering, but when it comes time for the extremists' actions to matter, they're only marginally affecting. There's a lot that can be done with the banality of evil angle, but Timbuktu often comes across as nothing more than banal.

And as beautiful as the film looks, other technical contributions aren't as consistent. A number of editing flubs jolt one out of the movie. Sissako and El Fani shoot Kidane's fateful encounter in a beautiful wide shot, but a series of jump cuts muck up the action and drain the scene of its hushed horror. Even more troublesome is the score, which underscores several important scenes with sappy, melodramatic strings and piano chords. It's as if Sissako doesn't trust his own attempts at loose objectivity. Timbuktu only becomes more stylistically at odds with itself as it goes on, never reconciling its dueling approaches to storytelling and structure. Whatever beauty resides at the heart of Sissako's cinematic tapestry diminishes as one pulls back to see how badly frayed the edges are.

Grade: C+

AFI Fest 2014: "The Duke of Burgundy"

Director: Peter Strickland
Runtime: 106 minutes

Campy, sexy, and mesmerizing, The Duke of Burgundy represents a giant leap forward for British director Peter Strickland. The director last appeared at AFI Fest two years ago with Berberian Sound Studio, a 70's horror-influenced mystery that eventually drowned in its own self-conscious weirdness. With Duke, however, Strickland has made his characters more than just figures to wander through the frame looking as bewildered as the audience. Some of the film's stylistic flourishes are a bit head-scratching, but Strickland's sensitivity towards his actors, amidst all of the atmosphere, helps this film reach that oddly sublime territory that Sound Studio never found.

Set in Europe (no country is named) during the 60s, Duke opens with a scene that could practically be the intro to an especially cheesy porno. Young, wide-eyed maid Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna) arrives at the manor of butterfly collector Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), where she's bossed around by the older woman. It's all rather stiff in a way that doesn't make it clear whether or not the phoniness is intentional. Eager to get to the heart of the matter, Strickland quickly pushes past his silly opening and reveals that Duke has much more going on.

The Duke of Burgundy, even with its lush visuals and heaving bosoms in lingerie, is actually the year's most engaging romances. Not only are Evelyn and Cynthia actually lovers, but it's Evelyn who pulls the strings in their roleplaying and S&M endeavors, despite acting in the submissive role. Evelyn's pouty, breathy intonations can be grating, but Cynthia is a remarkable and complicated character. As the older woman (not to mention the breadwinner of the house), Cynthia must deal with self doubt, paranoia about aging, and her declining interest in the roleplaying games while her lover's appetite only increases. 

Knudsen's performance is a big part of why The Duke of Burgundy avoids being nothing more than an exercise of atmosphere. Cynthia plays the dominant role, but given external circumstances, that dominance is a trap. Knudsen brings out Cynthia's vulnerability while still maintaining the character's often steely demeanor. Both leads are tasked with playing characters pretending to be in the their opposite relationship roles, but it's in Cynthia that the film finds its resonance.

Strickland continually references European erotic films from the 60s and 70s, but his vision manages to avoid cheap exploitation. Rather than mercilessly toy with his characters like some spiteful god, the director normalizes most of their relationship, even as he asks us to laugh at some of the details. By not condemning Cynthia and Evelyn's relationship, Strickland continually intrigues with each new development. The relationship's normalization makes the film more relatable, not less. Strip away the non-stop roleplaying, and The Duke of Burgundy is simply exploring the later stages of a romantic and sexual relationship, and the struggles that arise when the parties involved aren't on the same page.

That said, fans of Strickland's first two films needn't worry that the director has gone soft. Strickland's characters may get more earnest attention, but The Duke of Burgundy is still a lush work of cinematic hypnotism. In one early scene, Evelyn watches Cynthia pull on some lingerie through a keyhole. At first, the scene appears to me nothing more than shameless voyeurism on behalf of a naive, simple woman. But when the film returns to the same scene a second and third time, and the audience becomes privy to the actual balance of power, the film's blurring of roleplaying and reality starts to congeal.

Even Strickland's dips into strangeness for the sake of strangeness come across as refined and purposeful. The meaning of some scenes, like one intense montage of butterfly wings, may remain elusive, but at least this time Strickland doesn't get mired in his own visuals. And speaking of visuals, The Duke of Burgundy has a myriad of striking imagery that rivals Cynthia's expansive butterfly collection. The sumptuous, gothic visuals - elegantly strung together by the playful and mysterious editing - are more than worth the price of admission. Strickland and cinematographer Nic Knowland, without going for any big, show-off moments, draw one in deeper and deeper not only into Cynthia and Evelyn's life, but their isolated and gloomy home. The manor starts as a handsome, yet muted, living space, but gradually becomes less hospitable as the two women's relationship falters. As if the visuals weren't enough, brooding and ethereal musical contributions from British-Canadian band Cat's Eyes add the perfect finish to the film's atmosphere. Whether or not The Duke of Burgundy makes sense to the head is secondary to whether it makes sense to the eyes and ears.

Grade: B+

AFI Fest 2014: "Mommy"

Director: Xavier Dolan
Runtime: 139 minutes

After taking a leap forward with this year's Tom at the Farm, Xavier Dolan has moved neither forwards nor backwards with his latest film. Instead, Mommy finds Dolan taking a step sideways. The 25 year-old Quebecois enfant terrible's fifth film is manic, compelling, overbearing, and filled with flashes of brilliance. In other words, it's everything we've come to expect from a Xavier Dolan film. 

Set in a ficitional, near-future Canada, Mommy opens with an explanation of a new law that allows parents to turn their children over to the state without going through the court system. It's an entirely unncessary intro, made more apparent by the absence of any other changes in Canadian life. Remove the opening title cards, and Mommy would still make sense and succeed or fail in the same ways.

Mommy marks Dolan's return to the emotional battleground that exists between mothers and their teenaged sons. At the start of the film, Die (Anne Dorval) picks up her son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) from a juvenile psych ward. Steve is, to put it lightly, a problem child. So even though Die cares for her son, she must contend with her own financial woes and Steve's volatile temper. The only saving grace of the new set up is Kyla (Suzanne Clement), the shy, stuttering teacher from across the street. After an uncomfortable introduction to the family, Kyla befriends the pair and agrees to homeschool Steve. The exposure to Die and Steve's loud, white trash glory even brings Kyla out of her shell.

Special emphasis should be placed on 'loud,' as the word best characterizes just about every facet of the work in front of and behind the camera. Shot in a cramped 1:1 aspect ratio, Dolan and cinematographer Andre Turpin put the viewer in uncomfortably close proximity to the volcanic displays of just about every human emotion under the sun. It's energizing and exhausting all at once. Dolan has never been one to bury his films in subtlety, but with Mommy he attacks his material with a absolutely florid tone. 

To their credit, the actors are all perfectly in sync with the nature of the execution. Dorval and Clement have both worked with Dolan before, although this time they're playing roles that are quite different from their previous collaborations. For Dorval, this means transforming into a larger-than-life, brusque woman. After only a few minutes with Die, it's easy to see where Steve got his wild side from. Clement, meanwhile, goes in the opposite direction, retreating into her role as the psychologically delicate Kyla. Both women are uniformly excellent, and create authentic, complex characters amid all of the swearing and shouting. Pilon, a newcomer to the Dolan-verse, acquits himself nicely, and never goes out of his way to present Steve as a likable kid. Steve can be a bit of a terror, and Pilon takes the role by the horns without losing the character's humanity (that said, he's awfully punchable).

The unconventional family dynamic at the center of Mommy is easily the strongest aspect of Dolan's script. Watching these three intense personalities bounce off of each other keeps the film afloat for its 140 minute run time. With so much energy being put out by the cast, the film doesn't even feel terribly indulgent the way that some of Dolan's shorter offerings did. Beneath all of the shouting, Mommy is ultimately about Die being pushed towards a fateful decision that forces the single mom to face a shattering do-or-die dilemma. As a depiction of the complex layers of a mother's love, the film is never less than superb. The message may lack nuance, but it's not without legitimate emotional weight.

Yet, as is typical of Dolan's everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach, not all of the storytelling compents work as well. Dolan establishes the goals of his main characters, but then gets lost in his own story. Kyla's tutoring sessions with Steve, which could have been the crux of the story, are glossed over in montages. Die's string of odd jobs are given the same treatment. Dolan's hyperactive directing keeps the story moving along, but at times Mommy moves through certain plots recklessly. It's too freeform for its own good, and undercuts the tension in Die and Steve's situation.

The sheer intensity of the experience is eventually enough to help Mommy get by, although at times just by a hair's breadth. There's a messiness to the storytelling that recalls Dolan's transgender opus Laurence Anyways, for better and for worse. Though less visually opulent, Mommy can slip from moments of dramatic wonder to full throttle shrieking. Yet as out of control as the film becomes at times, Dolan's conclusion still resonates. Difficult choices are part of any loving relationship, and the climactic decision here, preceded by a wonderful dream sequence, is wrenching stuff. As unlikable as Dolan's characters can be, he still manages to unearth their dignity. It's what holds his films together through their considerable highs and lows, and what keeps audiences and critics on edge to see what he does next. 

Grade: B

Review: "Foxcatcher"

Director: Bennett Miller
Runtime: 134 minutes

An impressively reigned in dramatization of actual events, Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher represents another winner for the director following Capote and Moneyball. Plenty of attention has gone to Steve Carrell being cast against type, not to mention his prosthetic nose. Foxcatcher, however, has no need to rely on publicity-tailored gimmicks of casting and make up. Somber, but not suffocatingly so, Miller's latest is a stately yet steadily engrossing tale of a toxic struggle for recognition.

Despite owning an Olympic gold medal, wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) isn't exactly living the high life. He trains away in a dingy facility presided over by his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), an Olympic medalist as well. Yet only Dave seems to get proper recognition. Early on, Mark gives a speech to a local elementary school, but only because his older brother had to cancel at the minute. Ever when you're an Olympic gold medalist, it's still possible to be the understudy. To Mark's relief, that changes when multimillionaire John Du Pont (Carrell) lures him to his mansion and future training site. Though Dave takes longer to convince, Mark jumps at the chance to take the spotlight at the head of Team Foxcatcher, which Du Pont wants to be America's representative at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. 

For all of the footage of wrestling practice and talk about the Olympics, it's clear that Miller has no intention of making a traditional sports drama. The wrestling scenes aren't given any sort of glamorous make over. Instead, Miller and cinematographer Greig Fraser shoot everything in a distant, observational manner. The wrestling scenes play out like dialogue exchanges, rather than heart pounding fights for supremacy. 

As in Moneyball, Miller's real goal is to use a story rooted in the world of sports to get into the enigmatic heads of his characters. Deftly juggling the story's focus, Miller and his three editors carefully assemble the story so that every change in direction feels completely natural. We start following Mark, but then Du Pont creeps onto center stage, only to hand things off to Dave as the story winds down. Shifting focus across multiple characters is nothing new, but Miller's execution is so methodical that it never becomes a distraction when one of the three main actors vanishes for significant periods of time. 

Carrell, to his credit, never lets the fake schnoz do all of the acting for him. The real Du Pont's eccentricities and instability were toned down for the film, so the performance isn't especially showy. Yet Carrell still dons the man's off-kilter ego elegantly. Even in scenes that focus on other characters, Du Pont hovers around as a hook-nosed harbinger of vague existential doom. Ruffalo, initially a supporting player, turns in nuanced and compassionate work as Dave, the big brother protecting Mark from Du Pont's unsettling father figure.

Tatum, however, is the film's MVP. The role plays on and then subverts his lunkhead, masculine persona. Foxcatcher's most affecting moments, the ones that break through the gloomy grey visuals, are rooted in Tatum's portrayal of Mark's inferiority complex-saddled psyche. Moreso than the other performances in the film, Tatum's is built on an intricate marriage of an insecure center surrounded by the lumbering, hulking form of a world class wrestler. The actor has proved himself as a viable comedic leading man, but in Foxcatcher, he proves that he can also tackle a layered dramatic role given the right material.  

Additional aspects of the film are just as thoughtful and subtle. The detailed production design gives life to the Du Pont mansion and communicates its obsession with greatness without drawing attention away from the story. Spare musical contributions heighten the overcast, autumnal mood and subtly underscore the film's notion of warped patriotic fervor. Fraser's visuals, though initially nothing special, come to possess a stoic, haunting quality as Foxcatcher wades into unstable psychological waters. 

Foxcatcher has several compressions of time, most notably at the end, but never shortchanges the development of its characters. Du Pont's mental decline is never thoroughly explored, yet Miller and writers E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman manage to get their point across. Foxcatcher could have easily become the John Du Pont Show, but the film stays true to its intentions by not sensationalizing its events. Indulging would have made the story's truth too strange to work as fiction. By scaling back on the tabloid-ready details, Miller turns Foxcatcher into an austere, sobering look at the madness that can befall those who strive for greatness. 

Grade: B+/A-

Friday, November 7, 2014

AFI Fest 2014 Review: "A Most Violent Year"

Director: J.C. Chandor
Runtime: 135 minutes

Though perhaps not a great film, the 28th AFI Fest has gotten off to an appropriately glamorous start. The AFI is a training ground for up and coming voices in film, so it only makes sense to kick off the festival with A Most Violent Year, the third film from rising writer/director J.C. Chandor. Jumping genres once again, this time to the world of classic New York gangster drama, Chandor has created a solid story out of familiar parts that is best when it focuses on leading man Oscar Isaac.

Set in 1981, one of the deadliest years in New York City's history, the film derives its central tension from its characters resisting violence, rather than engaging with it. Abel Morales (Isaac) is determined to expand his family oil business, even as unknown forces keep getting in the way. Though Morales' business, which he bought into, has a good reputation and threatens to eat away at the competition, a string of attacks threaten to wreck everything he's worked for. But Abel refuses to heed the advice of his fellow businessmen or the teamsters and arm his drivers and salesman. Even when an attack comes right to the Morales' doorstep and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) finds their youngest child playing with a loaded gun, Abel remains committed. Whatever illegal or ethically dubious details might be in his company's books, Abel refuses to go down a road that will turn him into an outright gangster.

Like some minor Sidney Lumet drama that the master never got to make, A Most Violent Year takes its time to build up its narrative momentum, allowing a few choice moments to really hit hard. Set up as a classic family-crime drama, Chandor fares far better when he just sticks to the business and crime angle than with the personal relationships. The more the film zeros in on Abel, the better the film works, whether in tense negotiations or a fantastic car-turned-foot chase. A Most Violent Year is easily Chandor's best work in terms of establishing a fully-realized world and infusing said world with a gripping atmosphere.

Yet it's Isaac who props the film up through its two hour duration. Doing a complete 180 from his breakout performance in Inside Llewyn Davis, Isaac brings a quiet confidence to Abel, even as the character endures various hardships and pressure from multiple angles. If Chandor is loosely channeling Lumet in A Most Violent Year, then Isaac's work calls to mind a young Al Pacino in his iconic collaborations with the director.

Isaac is so central to A Most Violent Year's success that it's disappointing to step back and realize how underserved the rest of the ensemble is. The most underwhelming is Chastain, especially given her top billing. In the scattered glimpses the film affords into Anna's personality, one can see the beginning of a red hot, scene-stealing performance. Instead, Chandor sidelines the character for long stretches of time, leaving Chastain with little to do other than pepper on a Brooklyn accent, be a little sassy, and let solitary tears streak down her face. Smaller supporting roles don't get much better. David Oyelowo, playing a D.A. investigating the Morales' business, has the makings of a compellingly ambiguous antagonist, but winds up with even less to do than Chastain. Albert Brooks, as the family's lawyer, has a few decent lines (and at least has enough to do), but more often than not he appears to be sleepwalking through his role. 

Compensating for the lackluster supporting characters, thankfully, are Chandor's work as a director on the big picture issues. However thin the characters, Chandor's work with his actors (Brooks aside) at least gives the impression that everyone is invested in their material, no matter how scant. And when it comes to Abel's story, the storytelling really clicks, tipping its hat to crime dramas of the 70s and early 80s without flailing around as a work of hollow mimicry (I'm looking at you, Blood Ties). 

The film is also a technical marvel, largely thanks to its visuals. With each passing film, cinematographer Bradford Young proves he's the real deal. The versatility he's displayed in such a short period of time is astounding, and his green and yellow tinted visuals here are some of his strongest to date. The choice to keep the camera slowly pushing forward heightens the underlying tension of the various forces inching Abel towards his breaking point. If Roger Deakins and Emmanuel Lubezki are the current kings of the cinematography world, then Mr. Young deserves to be named as their heir apparent. Returning Chandor composer Alex Ebert does a nice, albeit unmemorable job with scoring duties, while editing is smoothly handled. Beyond Young's contributions, the costume department deserves the most credit, subtly capturing the styles of the early 80s with sharp suits for the men and a few dynamite outfits for Chastain to strut around in.

Despite the promise of the title, A Most Violent Year is not an all out orgy of violence. Chandor takes the more interesting route, exploring how outside violence ensnares its protagonist pushing him deeper and deeper into a corner until he has to make a critical choice. Everything else around that dilemma may feel extraneous, but the main story is enough to maintain investment in Chandor's story. A Most Violent Year misses out on greatness, but its strengths - namely Isaac and Young - are prominent enough that it's worth a look, even with the weaker elements that are trapped in orbit around the strong center.

Grade: B