Midweek Review: 2 New-To-DVD Releases – “The Salvation” + “Girlhood” and One Trip To The Movies – “Wild Tales” (6/1-6/3)

First up was the Mads Mikkelsen (TV’s “Hannibal”) western drama “The Salvation”, which was officially released Tuesday on both DVD and VOD. What can I say, like the Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn I will see just about any and everything this Danish actor stars in. I also happen to like Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who played the film’s villain and outlay enemy to Mikkelsen’s film protagonist. It’s about as simple as simple set ups go. Mikkelsen’s Danish wife and child meet him in America only to quickly be murdered in a thrilling stagecoach scene and Mikkelsen is left behind. Mikkelsen than goes into bad ass, revenge mode, and swears vengeance on the men who killed them. He does but winds up in one of those small, little frontier towns and learns that one of the men he’s killed is the brother of one of the most notorious and corrupt outlaws in the town (Morgan). A somewhat predictable story follows that (you guessed it) has Mikkelsen escaping and teaming up with some of the local townspeople who aren’t too keen on Morgan’s character and for the rest of the film we get a relatively standard, yet enjoyable, Spaghetti Western, with a fair amount of action but all contained within something I felt like I had seen before. Mikkelsen is enigmatic as usual, as is Morgan as he pulls off just the right blend of menace and ruthlessness. I’m going to recommend this for fans of the Western genre and of the actors involved. However, that being said, it breathes no new life into a genre of which I recently talked about in my “Slow West” review that seems to be reinventing itself in original and innovative ways particularly as of late. I can confidently say you won’t find much of that here. But for the most part, it’s a good time. [B-]

Bande de filles Movie Poster

Next up was a highly anticipated film from the young French female director Celine Sciamma, who wowed audiences with her sophomore effort “Tomboy” just a few years back in 2011. A movie which I held in such high regard that it wound up on my Honorable Mentions list at the end of that same year. “Girlhood” is an extension of “Tomboy” in that it depicts an adolescent girl, seemingly going nowhere and who is on the verge of dropping out of school. She teams up with a rival street gang, where she finds community, moral support, and a new-found sense of confidence. Things that seem to be lacking at home and she seems to find exactly what she’s looking for. But like ., “Tomboy”, this is a deeply probing (and quite moving) look at adolescence. Drawing to mind another film I saw the same year as “Tomboy” – Dee Rees’ “Pariah”, a coming-of-age story, like this one, except in that it focused on a young teenager struggling with “coming out” and showing the world who she really is. “Girlhood” seems to focus more on finding one’s own true identity and being faithful to who you are and not who you think others may think they might want you to be. Sciamma seems to have a perfect and uncanny understanding for these coming-of-age stories of adolescence (sorry Richard Linklater, this is no knock on you) and manages to do it with such a sense authenticity that it’s hard not to get wrapped up and emotionally invested in her characters. This is one of the sleeper house hits of the year, and it’s too bad (well, not for myself, but for others I know who try to stray away from subtitled films…which as an added disclaimer, for those of you that do, you’re missing out on 90% of the world’s best films) that it’s a foreign film in the French language. Because it’s a deeply raw, moving story, about teenage adolescence, that is remarkably well done and should be seen by everyone. This should make my list of Honorable Mentions at this year’s end. [B+]

Last up, was “Wild Tales”, a film I ventured out to the theater to see, as for one it got astronomically good reviews, but even more importantly, it garnered a nomination for Best Foreign Language film (Argentina) at this past year’s Oscars. That and it was nominated for the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival (and word has it earned itself a full ten minute standing ovation following). Other than this I knew little to next to nothing about it other than I heard it was supposed to be completely and utterly batshit crazy. The story itself contains six short films, almost like one of those anthology movies you see that have been being released in droves these past  few years. Except with one major difference – this film has got more hilariously depraved and deranged moments in its 2 hour running time than almost any other film I’ve seen like it (similarities could be drawn between it and 2013’s “Cheap Thrills). Except unlike that film, everything seems to take place coincidentally and by a mere matter of chance (think Ben Wheatley’s “Sightseers” (2012) as a reference point and there’s quite a fair bit of dark humor/black comedy and satire, that takes on an almost screwball “oh my god you’ve got to be kidding me” element to the proceedings that had both myself and my fellow moviegoers laughing hysterically at various moments throughout the film. Just at the mere absurdity of it all. My one critique of the it as is usually with most “anthology” films are that some are segments that are better than others. The first starts off real strong, as the second and third, but I felt like it lost a bit of steam in its fourth and fifth segments, only to finish strong in its final act. Though despite this one somewhat moderate criticism of the film I still had a hell of a time with it. As it’s a funny, daring, original, and undeniably deranged piece of cinema that wound up being well deserving of its Best Foreign Language film nomination. [strong B]

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Review: “The Congress” 11.30.14

This is yet another example of a film that caught my attention solely because of the fact that I loved Israeli-born writer/director Ari Folman’s previous effort – 2008’s Golden Globe Winner for Best Foreign Language Film “Waltz With Bashir”. I recently revisited “Waltz” for maybe about the half dozenth time or so and found it to be every bit as mesmerizing as I had remembered it from the 5 or so previous viewings of it that I had seen. Maybe even more so. Part of the reason why I revisit movies is because I feel like I look at them differently with each passing year. That and it’s always a wise choice to revisit a director’s previous work which allows someone like myself to drum up anticipation for their next film. This film in particular highlights this ethos exactly. As WWB is a brilliant film from a multitude of cinematic stand points. It brought an entirely new and fresh approach to the documentary format in that it was shot similarly to what Richard Linklater did with both “Waking Life” (2001) and “A Scanner Darkly” (2006). It presented us with a series of interviews that the director films beforehand then has a team of animators draw over the already filmed material which gives them an almost surreal and dream-like quality. The major difference being that Forman utilized this same look but without the fictionalization of the 2 Linklater films. His was a real life account of a series of different people talking about their experiences of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Which not only gave it a sense of authenticity in terms of how it breathed new life in telling a somewhat familiar war-torn story. It gave me a newfound admiration for how animation could be used to tell a highly effective tale with a deeply emotional center. However, since then, a very seemingly long 6 years have past. And now Folman is back with his next feature that finds him, like many other foreign filmmakers, coming to the United States following an award-winning film of theirs. This plus it boasted a rather impressive cast in Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Paul Giamatti, Danny Huston, and Kodi-Smit McPhee in a film that like WWB, brings back this combination of animation with live action footage.

The film opens with a close up shot of Robin Wright’s character, and a close zoom out with an off-screen voice-over by her film agent played by Harvey Keitel. Keitel is debasing her about her career and the many ups and downs it has taken, more recently for the worse. He says that he has come to bring her one last opportunity to do something that might kickstart her career. A move that could give her the same fame and notoriety she received for films that she was in when she was younger. Films like “A Princess Bride” (1987) and “Forrest Gump” (1996). It is quickly brought to our attention that she is playing a fictionalized version of her real life self. Though everyone around her including her son (Smit-McPhee), head of “Marimount” Studios (Huston), and son’s doctor (Giamatti), play characters and not themselves. Wright is being told that in order to save her career, she needs to be copied, or “computerized”, so that she can maintain both her youth and success. She is very apprehensive to this as she seems to be a “technophobe” as her daughter puts it. She’s afraid that by becoming cloned or made into a chip she might lose her sense of self and identity. However, because of her growing older and in need of a career change, she decides to take the offer. She then heads to some sort of scientific division within the studio, where she undergoes said transformation. Then, at this point, we jump 30 years ahead to the year 2033. Where she is about to cross the border from real life to computer life. And after having done so, she’s transported to this world where a number of different events transpire. Most of which revolve around the studio and the societal framework known as “The Congress”. The film takes a huge shift at that point and delves into entirety new territory, as it goes on to explore themes of identity, existentialism, the self, and post-technology. Giving us an inventive glimpse into the future.

I’ll start by saying I felt very indifferent about this picture. There really was so much to like, yet at the same time a lot that I had quite a bit of hard time finding myself being able to get into. First off, as I mentioned above it boasts a pretty incredible cast. Robin Wright is perfectly cast here as the aging star who’s own real life career trajectory is important in terms of the story’s context. She’s also in just about every frame of the film, so almost all of it rests on her really pulling her weight. And she rises to the occasion here providing some very strong work. Also, the animation, which a little more than a third of the film consists of, is simply breathtaking. As was with WWB, Folman and his obviously very talented animation team provide a visual spectacle with animation that makes anything I’ve seen up to this point look outdated. It’s hallucinogenic and acid-soaked imagery is nothing short of dazzling to watch. There’s also a pretty deep emotional core to the film, as the Wright character goes on a journey of self discovery that forces her to tap into some pretty introspective places. That stuff aside, the film feels almost tedious throughout its entire duration. The shift in tones were off-putting. The first third drags and then just when it starts to get interesting, they totally shift focus in the story and we’re presented with this entirely new universe and character arch. That and the animation segment, which takes up about the second third to three-quarters of the film, is a head scratcher and utterly difficult to keep up with and follow at times. It feels overwrought and much too dense for even the hardest of genre fans. Which in the case of this film would be heady Science Fiction. It attempts to explore some really deep existential themes that at times just seemed like a tad bit too much. So for all the incredibly stunning imagery on display here, the film gets caught up in the too many themes in which it tries to explore. And even despite its great cast and voice over work by people like Jon Hamm and Tom Cruise, this is mostly a tiresome effort for director Ari Folman and a disappointing follow-up to “Waltz With Bashir”.

[C]