A Trip To The Movies: Review – “Sicario” 10.10.15

What can I say about Canadian born director Denis Villeneuve that hasn’t already been said. Anyone like me who has been following the director since his breakout film – 2010’s “Incendies”, which, was nominated for Best Foreign Language film at the 2011 Oscars, knows that he is one of the most interesting movie auteurs currently in the business. Because of the success of that film, like with what happens with many foreign directors, Hollywood came a calling. Now a lot of the time, in fact more often than not, this is usually met with mixed results. Except what was different about Villeneuve is that he debuted his first English language film with 2013’s “Prisoners”. An immensely dark, emotionally powerful, and complex film with an all-star cast that included Jake Gyllenhaal, Hugh Jackman, Paul Dano, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Maria Bello, and Viola Davis. It was a major success and praised by critics worldwide but was only seen by a certain demographic of American audiences. Mainly the kinds like myself who enjoy films that mostly straddle the line between somewhat commercial but are more indie type fare. Many people I know skipped it over entirely. But it’s the one film that I’ve noticed comes out the most out of any other film I’ve seen in the past 3 years when I talk among people who have seen it. And it’s usually something like “why hasn’t everybody seen that film”? “Prisoners” introduced us to a new kind of filmmaker, one whose vision and style is more akin to David Fincher, but his darker works like “Se7en” (1995) and “Zodiac” (2007). In fact “Prisoners” was deemed “too dark” by a large demographic. But I think this had to do with the fact that it dealt with a very difficult subject for people to swallow – child abduction – which I’ve heard is every parents worst nightmare. But besides its dark subject matter and tone, it was and still is a master class in the art of filmmaking. Then came his second American film, “Enemy”, released in 2014, and also starring Jake Gyllenhaal (for those of you who ever hear me showering Gyllenhaal’s praises it’s because of his work in those two Villeneueve films). “Enemy”, much so even more than “Prisoners” was under seen and overlooked, mostly because of it’s incredibly strange mood and tone. It was Villenueve’s love letter to the great David Lynch, who is admittedly a very acquired taste and it had a very limited run in theatres because so few people saw it. I for one loved it, and like his other 2 aforementioned films prior, all 3 made my best of top 10 list in the respective years in which they were released in.

Villeneuve’s newest film, “Sicario”, is his first film in 2 years and also his first film since “Prisoners” to bode such an impressive cast. I remember hearing about it almost a year ago now when it was in production, and saw that Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, and Josh Brolin all had signed on to do it. I also learned in reading the production notes and summary that it was about the US/Mexican drug war in Juarez. Which, as a huge admirer of the crime drama and love for the director, I started counting down the days then until its release. And when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival back in May and competed as 1 of 5 films for the Palme d’Or (Cannes’ category for Best Picture), I was beside myself in anticipation for it and marked it as my #1 most anticipated film of the fall way back in May of this year.

“Sicario” (English for “hit man”) opens right off the bat with an incredibly intense and well executed sequence involving Emily Blunt’s character, Kate, a FBI agent and tactics expert who, with the rest of her team, raid and take down a drug cartel outside of Phoenix, Arizona. This is one of many harrowing scenes in the film that shows the urgency and imminent threat of death behind every corner of this particular line of work. Because of her stand out job and reputation as a tactics expert (she’s 5-0 in taking down the drug cartels she is assigned to, she is called on by the CIA, but really an elite confidential special tasks force unit, led by Matt (Josh Brolin – in as fine a form here as I’ve seen him in anything since “No Country For Old Men” (2007) ), a Department of Justice adviser that commissions Kate to take down one of the largest drug cartel/crime syndicates in the city of Juarez, Mexico. Kate reluctantly signs on, and she is partnered up with one of those elusive, quietly restrained, we have no idea what he’s doing here types named Alejandro (played by Benicio del Toro, easily the best part of the film and his finest work since well, ironically enough, 2000’s “Traffic”). We see the film through Kate’s eyes, and she quickly finds out that both the special unit that she works for, as does Del Toro’s character Alejandro, operate under their own set of rules and seem to understand that the drug war in Mexico is like night and day compared to the drug war that Kate is used to in the States, and in a pivotal sequence that I was so flabbergasted by, she learns what she’s in for as they enter Juarez for the first time (all I will say is both this, and the tunnel sequence, were two of the most expertly staged and riveting sequences we’ve since the bank robbery segment going all the way back to “Heat” (1995) ). Where the intensity and anxiety that was induced had me swallowing my tongue in my throat. As Kate and her team, along with the always present Alejandro, go on to take down these so-called cartels, Kate goes through a personal transformation as both her morals and beliefs are tested to the limits and she enters a world that one might call nightmarish.

“Sicario” is a dense, thought provoking, action packed thrill ride, which also winds up being director Villeneuve’s most straight forward and accessible film to date. Which to me was its biggest surprise. It totally defied almost every expectation I had of it. In while it’s congruent and feels very much like a Villenueve film. It also felt like his most restrained. Not so much in terms of its level of violence. It’s incredibly violent, and should be, as its subject matter practically demands for it to be (after all, it’s a film about taking down drug cartels). But in its ability to not alienate the moviegoer as some of his previous films have. And while it was dark and psychological like many of Villeneuve’s prior work. It gets more into the mind of the Kate character, as we literally see everything from her eyes and point of view. Blunt’s performance, much like Jessica Chastain’s in “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012 – a film I drew a lot of comparisons to), she is thrown into a world that even despite her vast knowledge of, she really has no idea what she’s in for until she’s thrust straight into the heart of it. I also thought its treatment of the War on Drugs and the politics behind American intelligence in relation to the Mexican cartels themselves was handled rather deftly and two-sided. There wasn’t at any point within the film that I thought I was watching a “pro-American” depiction of the War on Drugs and I thought it showed a very equal representation of both parties involved, from the counter-intelligence officials to the cartel members themselves. Del Toro is outstanding as the quiet vigilante type, who we never quite know and are kept in secret as to why he’s commissioned for the job. Unlike Kate/Blunt’s character who is more of a “by the book” FBI agent who seems to live by a moral code and tries to upkeep everything she’s been trained to operate under, but only inside the States. This dichotomy between Kate/Blunt’s character and Alejandro’s/Del Toro’s characters, being on both sides of the law but operating under very different laws of their own, was handled with the utmost precision and was utterly compelling. The story arch and character development is on par with one of the greatest films I’ve seen out of the genre in as far back as I can remember. The cinematography (by the great Roger Deakins – 11 time Oscar nominee) is astonishing as is the film’s pulsating score, which left me and most of my movie group viewers on the edge of their seats. In closing, I think fans of Villeneuve’s previous work might be left feeling a little underwhelmed, but only because of what they’ve come to expect from the director. The film isn’t quite as dark or psychological as a fan of his might expect it to be (though don’t be fooled – the violence is consistent and packs a wallop). But it’s a rather straight-forward, though smart and intricate, take on the War on Drugs and the moral decisions and complexities all of those involved have to face. This is the finest “Drug War” movie since “Traffic” (2000), and it should easily earn a low spot on my top 10 or high on my Honorable Mentions list at this year’s end. Villeneueve is the newest foreign equivalent to something we have Stateside to the likes of David Fincher. And I personally can’t wait to see any and every film he puts out from this point forward in his career.

[B+]

Sicario – w/Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, and Josh Brolin

Saturday, Oct 10, 2015, 3:45 PM

Regal Lloyd Center 10 & IMAX
1510 NE Multnomah St Portland, OR

11 Portland Film Enthusiasts Went

Synopsis: An idealistic FBI agent (Emily Blunt) is assigned to work a dangerous stretch of the US-Mexico border by her superior officer (Josh Brolin). She’s exposed to the brutality of the Mexican drug cartel, and becomes partners with a defector from the cartel (Benicio Del Toro) who possesses keen knowledge about the organization. As she gets dee…

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A Trip To The Movies: Review – “The Tribe” 8.19.15

Plemya Movie Poster

As many of you might already know, including my movie meetup and discussion group whom I now see movies with weekly. I have what some may call somewhat of a unique approach to how I pick and choose what films I see. It’s really a rather simple one from my perspective that starts by following press on all of the major festivals that take place throughout the year. Festivals like Cannes (you can pretty much guarantee that if a movie premieres and is well received at Cannes, I will be seeing it later that year or whenever it gets released in the US), New York, Toronto, Sundance, Berlin, and Venice I keep on my radar all year, and then from that point I devise a list of whatever was well received at such and such festival. And that pretty much sums up how my list gets generated. Now there are some exceptions, like films from directors that I admire who choose not to premiere their films at any of the major festivals. Whic applies but is uncharacteristic and is somewhat of a rarity. But even more importantly, this “method” or “approach” to picking films opens up many doors to some of the more lesser known titles that do well at their festival premieres, but unfortunately just don’t seem marketable to a wide audience (and some might say aren’t meant to be). A lot of these are foreign. And each year there’s a pretty substantial list of about 15-20 foreign films that I flag that were well received at some of these festivals, many of them garnering nominations in several categories, and others who wind up winning. Those seem to be the ones I take a closer look at and almost always will add them to my list of movies to see whenever they wind being released here in the States.

Such was the case with “The Tribe”. A film that first caught my attention when it won multiple awards (3 out of the 4 it was nominated for) at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. Second, and what struck me most, was that it had what appeared to be a rather unique concept – which was (and I quote) – “a movie that unfolds through the non-verbal acting and sign language from a cast of deaf, non-professional actors—with no need for subtitles or voiceover—resulting in a unique, never-before-experienced cinematic event that engages the audience on a new sensory level.” At first I thought to myself – “wait a minute…so basically a contemporary take on the “silent film”?. So while it certainly piqued my interest I wasn’t quite sure what to think of it. Then I kept reading one good thing after another after another about it and decided to myself that there must be something here of value. Knowing little to next to nothing about it other than the 3 awards it picked up at Cannes, the film’s highly original concept, and seeing the kind of trailer that I love but are rare nowadays in that it told you little to next to nothing about it, I jumped at the opportunity to see it during its 1-night/1 show limited engagement here in Portland.

“The Tribe” was nothing like I had ever seen before. It was a total immersive experience into the world of the all deaf characters that inhabited the film. It also totally went against any expectations or preconceived notions that I had going into it. What worked for me here on almost every level is the filmmaker’s ability to engage the audience and keep them on the edge of their seats throughout its entire 2+ hour duration. A mighty difficult task to do taking into account that it revolves around a group or “tribe” (i.e. a gang) of deaf Ukrainian boys in a boarding school (if you even want to even call it a “school” – those who see it will know what I mean) that spend little to no time in class (why would you if there’s nobody there to tell you to?). You see, to expand on the story much further would give away some key spoilers that could potentially ruin it for those who plan to see it. But what I will say is that in this this particular school its boys and girls operate and function in the furthest possible realm of anything you could imagine of what we deem as a proper school. Which forced and challenged the audience to guess what it really all revolved around. It’s a stunning achievement given the many shapes and forms the story takes on as it unfolds, and it brings you deeper and deeper into something you just might not thought possible. The cinematography is beautiful, with long tracking shots and very few edits that really allow the viewer unprecedented access into the proceedings. It’s somewhat of a “deaf crime film” that was incredibly intense; never mind highly controversial, with its highly explicit sex scenes and unspeakable acts of violence in its final act that I almost had to look away from (really). In trying to keep this short as again to not give away any spoilers, “The Tribe” wound up being the most truly unique experiences I’ve had at the theater so far this year, and I walked away from it speechless. It’s a master work of foreign cinema, and it should easily earn a spot on my list of the best films at year’s end.

[B+]

Cannes Favorite – The Tribe – Limited Engagement 1 Show Only – Hollywood Theatre

Wednesday, Aug 19, 2015, 7:30 PM

Hollywood Theatre
4122 NE Sandy Blvd Portland, OR

6 Portland Film Enthusiasts Went

Winner of multiple 2014 Cannes Film Festival Awards, THE TRIBE is an undeniably original and intense feature debut set in the insular world of a Ukrainian high school for the deaf. The movie unfolds through the non-verbal acting and sign language from a cast of deaf, non-professional actors—with no need for subtitles or voiceover—resulting in a uni…

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A Trip (Back) To The Movies: Review – “Post Tenebras Lux” (“Light After Darkness”) (2012) 5.17.15

I noticed that this film was playing at a theater in town of which I think I talked about in a couple of other reviews. It’s Oregon’s “only student-run cinema” that shows films that are a bit different, avant-garde, art house, whatever you want to “label” them as. I personally always get excited when they announce their upcoming lineup each term of the school season, and I even mark a calendar for what films I plan to see. They’ve opened me up to a lot of new experiences with movies I would have never heard of if it hadn’t have been for them in the 8+ years I’ve been living in Portland. I was particularly interested in this one. As after having seen the trailer before another film I saw their recently, Harmony Korine’s brilliant and misunderstood “Spring Breakers” (2013), they showed a trailer for it where I learned a couple of things. For one, it won the “Best Director Award” at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival in Mexican writer/director Carlos Reygadas 4th trip to Cannes. It’s an award of the utmost highest prestige for any filmmaker, and one that certainly has some clout (just the year prior, Nicolas Winding Refn won for “Drive”). I’ve always felt like Cannes is especially good at choosing projects in certain categories, and knowing my love for directors and the “auteur theory”, this caught my attention. As it looked to be one of those sprawling films takes place all over the world and didn’t really have any kind of narrative thread that I could tell of, at least by the film’s trailer. It also stated that it evoked the works both the great American director Terrence Malick as well as Hungarian director Bela Tarr. Anybody that knows me knows that my affinity for both of these directors runs deep, particularly that of the former, so at the very least, I knew I was in for something that at the very least would be worthwhile from a challenge the moviegoer point of view.

The film starts off with a little girl (the real life daughter of Reygadas) playing on a farm on the verge of a thunderstorm with cows, horses, and dogs circling around her. She’s shown looking around in a state of marvel or wonder at the “life” she sees going on all around her. It’s the first in a sequence of loosely edited together “fragments” or sequences within the film. From here things go from strange to stranger, as we are introduced to several vignettes of different segments in which the viewer kind of has to connect the dots in order to make any kind of sense of what they’re watching (and just as a disclaimer – I don’t mean this as a bad thing). An AA meeting of some sort takes place, which quickly soon after jumps out of Mexico to England, where the camera brings us into a boy’s locker room as they prepare for a rugby game, to a Lucifer-like, red animated Devil figure with a toolbox who seems to be making house calls of some sort (the film is rich with ambiguous symbolism), to a bathhouse, where the little girl mentioned above’s mother and father, the two central characters of the film – Juan and Natalia partake in some rather deviant sexual activity. From there the film mostly carries on in this fashion. With Mexican villagers climbing the film’s gorgeously shot countryside (it quickly becomes apparent why Reygadas won the coveted Best Director prize) to scenes involving Juan and his nuclear family, and both back to the Lucifer-like hellish character, and finally back to the English boys playing rugby to act as the film’s rather loose and open-ended climax (if you even want to call it that) of the film.

This was somewhat of an endurance test even for someone like myself who (without sounding boastful) is a bit more versed in what people consider art house cinema than most. The film comes across as a sort of “expressionist” painting, which leaves us as a viewer, the audience, to try to make sense of what it’s trying to say. The first thing that was striking, at least to me, was the way in which the aspect ratio of the film was shot. Imagine those old “home movies” from the sixties that you see in films or on TV that show just a small square in the middle of the screen. Well, the entire film is shown in this ratio, apparently known as 4:3. Apparently done to achieve a look with a clearly framed center. But (and this is a tab bit hard to for me to explain to someone who hasn’t seen it) with the outside of the square box shown in distortion like you’re looking at something through a foggy glass window. This gives it the expressionist feel in which I spoke of above.

Now here’s my major critique of the film and my critique of film’s that are simply art for art’s sake in general. Without any sort of narrative arch or development of any of the characters within the story, I found it almost “too” abstract and too challenging to make any sort of sense of what was going on. Sure the cinematography was rather impressive, and I genuinely did enjoy what I made out to be the film’s rich symbolism when taken its fragmented scenes and tried to put them together. What did each character represent though, and what was the film trying to say? Even for a hardcore art house film enthusiast such as myself, I found that I was constantly questioning why the director consistently transported us from one location to the next, without any outward meaning or semi explanation at least on a surface level. I’ll end by saying that I’m a big fan of the Swedish art house director of Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007), who may be the greatest filmmaker within the art house genre of all time. But even despite his loose interpretations and symbolic leanings, there was always, even with Bergman’s more artistic endeavors, I always felt like there was some semblance of understanding on my part. Which, despite of the undeniably impressive cinematography on display here, the interpretation seemed like that of a Rorschach Test, and admittedly, there has to be a point somewhere in where I draw the line, which wound up being the case with this film.

[C+]

A Trip To The Movies: Review – “Mad Max: Fury Road 3D” 5.17.15

I’m not sure how many directors have gone on to make a reboot or remake of their original films. Then comes in writer/director George Miller, who, in 1979, made the original “Mad Max” (1979), and its subsequent sequels – 1981’s “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior” and 1986’s “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” (1986). Here we are thirty years later, and Miller presents us with his 4th installment of the series. I have to admit, when I first heard about this film I was very reluctant, as I’m not usually one for remakes, redos, reboots, or whatever you want to call them. Then I found out that it was going to be helmed by the original writer/director of the series, and after seeing a trailer way back in January after “American Sniper” I thought to myself “wow, this looks like something that has some serious potential”. I also thought either they did a really good job with the trailer and that it looked like it could be the next great action movie, or it could wind up like something more akin to Miller’s 3rd installment – a film held sacred but not by anyone I know other than its deepest admires of the series – “Beyond Thunderdome”. Which after the groundbreaking innovative first and second installments within the series, frankly put, should never have been made. What also intrigued me which I don’t usually follow was the rumor mill from the set – stars Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy were at each others’ throats, Hardy was reportedly very difficult to work with on set (not the first time I’ve heard this), and that the filming process took much longer than usual for a film to complete. However, after having recently revisited the first and second installments in my anticipation for the newest, that and its great reception coming out of Cannes last week and glowing reviews that came in at the end of last week, all but pretty much sealed the deal for me. My anticipation for it plus the bar were set high.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” starts off with a bit of back story of shots in black and white, similar to how “The Road Warrior” did, providing us with some background into how the film’s setting of a future-esque Australian desert wasteland came to be. Also, similar to “The Road Warrior”, natural resources are scarce, particularly that of gasoline. A philanthropist by the name of “Immortan Joe” employs a young woman named Furiosa (played by Charlize Theron – more on her to come) to take an armored big rig truck across the barren Australian desert to collect gasoline. Meanwhile the newest and first Max in the quadrilogy to feature anyone other than Mel Gibson, played by the always wonderful Tom Hardy, is caught in middle of the whole thing and is taken prisoner by the “War Boys”, Joe’s army, and is imprisoned to act as a blood donor for one of the War Boys (Nicholas Hoult – the young boy, now obviously much older and almost unrecognizable, from 2002’s “About A Boy”). The action really picks up when Furiosa veers off course with Joe’s five wives on board, setting off a spectacular chase scene (or shall I say chase movie) with other contributing gangs following their trail. Max is eventually freed and steals Furiosa’s rig, but the truck is soon disabled and Max and Furiosa butt heads as to whether or not she is going to allow him to carry on with her and Joe’s 5 wives on board. Though Max proves himself as a force to be reckoned with, and the two rebels band together across an action packed, visually spectacular high-octane thrill ride, fighting of the legions upon legions of Joe’s army while doing so.

To start, I’ll say that this is maybe the best action movie that has come out post-2000 (sorry “The Bourne Trilogy”, this one ups you in every department). It starts off with an absolute chaotic and balls to the wall roller-coaster that grabs a hold of you from its first sequence and doesn’t let up until the end credits role. It’s the greatest example I’ve seen so far of a film’s original creator, taking their original concept and story, and redoing it, the way it should have been done to begin with, for more contemporary audiences who may or may not be familiar with the original trilogy. I haven’t seen a movie with this much energy, this much velocity, and this much non-stop action since Gareth Evans’ “The Raid: Redemption” (2011), a film until seeing this film I would have labeled the best action movie of this century. But this movie goes deeper in that in almost every angle from an action film standpoint. I couldn’t help but think of Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), and the opening sequence where they storm the beaches of Normandy. Now imagine that level of visceral action and continue it throughout an entire duration of a 2 hour film. It’s a hyperbolic comparison I know. But one that seemed to enter my brain throughout. The film is also perfectly cast – with Hardy playing the epitomized loner. A man whose actions clearly speak louder than his words. Then there’s Theron in a role that puts her in the same echelon as say someone like Sigourney Weaver in the Alien quadrilogy (1979-1992). Bringing a nice blend of post fem attitude along with its several other sub-genres. Resembling something of that of a post-feminist action film, punk-western (and I really have to emphasize the futuristic punk look and vibe of the film), and post-apocalyptic road-rage chase-thriller. Lastly, I should point out its dazzling use of 3D in a film that’s a breathtaking visual splendor, with every burn, crash, and explosions coming off the screen at you. In fact, it’s the best use of the format that I’ve seen since Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity (2013) and really deserves to be seen as such, as I can’t imagine it being half the immersive experience it would had I of seen it otherwise. This is about as high-octane and thrilling of an action movie you’re bound to see all year, which also happens to be the very best in what the action genre has produced for us in as far back as I can remember. And one can only imagine that writer/director George Miller is sitting back and marveling at his creation in what can undoubtedly be considered the best in the series of “Mad Max” films to date.

in 3D [A-]

in 2D or any other format you choose to see it in other than the following [>B+]

A Trip To The Movies – Review: “Leviathan” 2.8.15

It only seems fitting that my follow-up to my “Spotlight On” feature segment on Russian director Andrey Zvyaginstev should be his latest film. A film as I mentioned in the previous article, that garnered some of Zvyaginstev’s best reviews to date worldwide. Taking home a plethora of different awards at many of this past year’s festivals. Including 1 win (Best Screenplay) and 1 Palme d’Or nomination at Cannes, as well as being a Golden Globe winner here stateside and nomination at this year’s Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language film. I spent most of the weekend revisiting some of Zvyaginstev’s previous work – 2007’s lofty and ambitious “The Banishment” as well as 2011’s “Elena” so I could hopefully gain a clearer understanding of what exactly this director is trying to achieve. What I came up with is that he seems to be Russia’s counterpart or distant cousin to the films of Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s work pre-“Birdman”. Zvyaginstev’s films all seem to have a common thread that he likes to explore which I interpret to be how we deal with life’s many challenges and adversities, creating bleak dramas with an underlying element of social realism to them. However he, just as much as any other director I can think of at the moment, makes tepidly paced films which take their time to unravel that place much more of an emphasis on establishing setting and the characters that are contained within them than any other elements. His films are always weighty and dense, and are more in tune with what you make of them than what he wants you to make of them. This was maybe the director’s most ambitious film to date, and surprisingly his most accessible one, tying in themes of family, society, fate, power, and corruption that have become almost trademark in pretty much all his films so far to date.

The film opens with a series of gorgeous shots on the Russian coastal countryside that to me looked like what I imagine a country like Iceland to look like. Sparse, dreary, cold, and isolated, but also very beautiful. The story revolves around its protagonist, Kolya, and the unfortunate situation in which he finds himself in as the town mayor, Vadim, is going through the legal process of taking over Kolya’s property and abuses of his position of power to unfairly take it out from under him to build one of those new strip malls. But Kolya refuses to put a price tag on his beautiful coastal property, as both he and his family, as well as the families of both his father and grandfather have lived in it for generations it having being built more than half a century ago. His situation is further complicated by his increasingly distant and seemingly unhappy wife, Lilia, and troublesome teenage boy Roma. Kolya is a strong man though with high moral values and seems to juggle both his family situation and the process of his house being repossessed rather well. And even enlists the help of an old military friend of his now turned lawyer, Dmitri, who’s a prominent lawyer from Moscow. Kolya starts to build a case against the lecherous slime ball mayor Vadim citing violations of civil liberties and direct violations of the law. Though once a secret is revealed involving both his lawyer friend Dmitri and his estranged wife Lilia, things start to crumble and take a turn for the worse for Kolya’s situation, and he is confronted with challenges and moral dilemmas involving his family that he so desperately tries to hold onto as well as his property at whatever cost and whatever means necessary which, as the film ensues, his efforts begin to grow more and more increasingly dire and hopeless. Culminating into a tale of almost Greek tragedy-like proportions.

Like many of Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s previous work before “Birdman” like “21 Grams”, “Babel”, and “Biutiful”, Zvyaginstev spins us another bleak, tragic family tale that mostly works on a lot of levels and not so much on others. Since I did “like” the film but can’t say I necessarily found it “enjoyable” (similar to my feelings after having watched “Foxcatcher”). I found myself marveling more in its technical achievements than I think I did most anything else. The film is exquisitely shot with much credit due to its cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, who has worked on every single Zvyaginstev film to date and captures some amazing back drops and portraits of rich symbolism. The acting felt real and authentic, despite many of the characters not feeling all that particularly likeable (to say Zvyaginstev has a pessimistic world view would be the understatement of the year). All of the characters are flawed in some shape or form. Alcoholism being an ongoing motif within the film with almost every character trying to hide their pain and sadness behind a vodka bottle. The story and narrative arch was also engaging and well crafted. With fully developed written characters and believable situations in which they find themselves in. My very few minor complaints of the film is that like the aforementioned “Foxcatcher”, it felt like a bit of an endurance test at a somewhat tedious 2 hour and 20 minute runtime. I thought some of it could have been trimmed down slightly and it would have still have had the same desired effect. Also, despite the very strong performances from each of its actors, I found the material to be a bit too cold and I had some degree of difficulty getting emotionally involved with any of its characters. The sole exception for that of maybe the central character Kolya, who you almost have to sympathize with as his world gets turned upside down and his situation is so tragic that as a human being you only can have empathy for him. But even despite those few criticisms of the piece, this was yet another lofty, rather ambitious, and fine example of the types of social dramas that seem to be coming out of this part of the world right now. Zvyaginstev gives us yet another rich story of people on the verge of desperation. I have a feeling this is going to be too bleak and too depressing for most, but it contains a deeply rich, personal, and moving story, that I for one am really glad I saw and will continue to see any Zvyaginstev film that he does from this point forward for the rest of his career. My only hope is that next time he will present us with something that is a little more hopeful and not as engulfed in sadness and tragedy.

[B]

Review: “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them” 2.1.15

This was a film that I had been following throughout the festival circuit as it had opened to mostly positive reviews at the Toronto Film Festival in 2013. Shown as a 2-part film at that festival with the same title but differentiating each part by “Him” and “Her” it wound up popping up at last year’s Cannes Film Festival put together as one film – “Them”, for reasons I can only speculate on but can imagine the Weinsteins felt a 2-part film would be much more difficult to market and turn off audiences by the daunting task for watching (for further proof see Steven Soderbergh’s brilliant “Che” which was shown in 2 parts but was virtually unseen as it clocked in at just about 4 and a half hours). So here we have the 2 films packaged together in one part that I almost considered seeing in their original 2 parts, but decided to forego the idea and see the version that was released this year on DVD. I wanted to see this film for 2 major reasons, both of them having to do with the fact that I knew little to next to nothing about it other than I thought I had read a Stephen King book by the same name years back and without having researched it though it might be an adaptation of it. That and I really really like Jessica Chastain, who won me over in a number of recent films like “The Tree of Life (2011), “Take Shelter” (2011), “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012), and last year’s “Interstellar” (I’m also really looking forward to seeing her in the recently released “A Most Violent Year”). She almost never seems to disappoint and is one of the best actresses currently working in the film industry working today. I’m also a fan of James McAvoy. Liking his career trajectory and his choices of films he’s made with movies like “The Last King of Scotland” (2006), “Atonement” (2007), “Trance” (2013″), as well as his TV work in the original BBC version of the show “Shameless” (2004-2013). So not knowing much about it added to the fact that I really admire the 2 leads, was the real reason that led me to want to see it.

The film starts out by introducing us to its 2 leads – a woman named Eleanor Rigby (Chastain) and her husband Conor (McAvoy). The two appear to be madly in love which is seemingly quite apparent from the start. However, soon after, we find Eleanor jumping off a bridge and plummet to what we think is her demise. Though she lives the fatal accident, and returns home to her family, who don’t seem to know how to act or what to do or say since their daughter has just attempted to take her own life. Her father (played by the always excellent William Hurt) encourages her to go back to school to get her mind off of things and gets her back into a program she once dropped out of (for reasons that is uncovered as the story unravels) with the help of a professor (“Doubt’s” Viola Davis). Meanwhile James McAvoy’s character Conor, who runs a restaurant that’s a sinking ship, too goes home to his wealthy but distant father and receives little to next to no compassion other than a place to stay. He does seek solace in his best friend, the chef at his restaurant (Bill Hader, who I loved in last year’s “The Skeleton Twins”), but even he can’t seem to be capable of giving the help Conor seems to so desperately need. Conor begins to track down his ex-wife Eleanor as he appears to want nothing more than to have a conversation with her. Though Eleanor is completely shut off from both him and her family, but finds a bit of sympathy in Viola Davis’ college professor. The film then rears its head and gives us a bit more back story into what event ultimately led to the couple’s decimated marriage. Which is when we as the viewer are entered into a heart-rendering story about grief, loss, and the devastating effects it can have when people are confronted with it.

I wound up being slightly mixed about the film but thought it had more pros than it did cons. First off, it totally went against my expectations of being a mystery, suspense, or horror story and winds up a more conventional and straight ahead drama. Throughout it I couldn’t help but think about other films that I’ve seen that deal with similar themes like death, loss, the grieving process, and failed marriages like Todd Field’s “In The Bedroom” (2001 – one of my top 25 favorite films of all time) as well as 2 other films from 2010 – John Cameron Mitchell’s “Rabbit Hole” and Derek Cianfrance’s “Blue Valentine. All of which came to mind while watching it. The acting here, as one would expect from both of these two brilliant young actors, is top-notch. Chastain once again puts on a performance that’s a sight to see beaten down by her loss. McAvoy was also almost equally as good as her grieving ex-husband who has his fair share of demons. I also really liked its ruminations on grieving and how everybody deals with it differently, which is a credit to the writing team. Where it fell a bit short with me was its sometimes slow pacing in which it’s a bit confusing as to why Chastain’s character Eleanor or her ex-husband are in grief and mourning until about halfway through, when I personally thought the revelation could have come much sooner and been just as effective. It also felt a bit too familiar as the majority of us have probably seen this same subject depicted and explored before like in the films I mentioned above. Lastly, the ending felt a bit anti-climatic, that left me thinking what the overall message was that the writer and director wanted me to take from it other than grief and the coping of a loss can be incredible difficult. That being said, the two performances, at least to me, were both good enough and the story though a bit trite, was engaging enough that I’d consider it at least a worthwhile watch. Even if the end result leaves a little bit left to be desired.

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Review: ‘Bastards’ 11.7.14

I deliberately chose to revisit this film for 2 important reasons. One, because it currently holds a spot on my top 10 films of 2014, and two, because I never got around to writing a review for it. Paris born writer/director Claire Denis has just about as diverse of a résumé as almost any other international filmmaker that I can think of. She first caught the eye of the filmmaking landscape with her debut breakthrough film – 1988’s “Chocolat”. She made quite a few films throughout the nineties, all of which admittedly I haven’t seen. But starting with around the turn of the century is about when I caught on and got interested in her work. Her incredibly controversial body-horror picture “Trouble Every Day” (2001) was my real first introduction to her. A film that stands out as one of the pioneering films of the French New Extremity movement. That film resonated with me so much to the point that I still think about it often when talking about my conversations on film. Then
my next taste of Denis was with 2008’s “35 Shots of Rum”. A rich, poignant family drama about a bi-racial daughter and her recently widowed father. Then only to be swept up once again the following year with 2009’s “White Material”. A film about a young woman trying to stay alive in a war-torn post-colonial Africa. One thing that stands out at least to me in relation to Denis’ work is not only her ability to make such a diversity of different films within her body of work, but ones that are always risk taking and seem to challenge her audience. Having really liked the 4 previous films I had seen of hers, mixed in with the fact that it received a Un Certain Regard nomination at last year’s Cannes Film Festival I knew this was one I wasn’t going to miss.

The film starts right off the bat with a suicide. The man’s wife is questioned and believes she knows why her husband went to such lengths. We flash forward a year, and the story introduces us to Marco (the great French actor Vincent Lindon) who moves into the apartment building of his now widowed sister and dead brother-in-law. Marco also takes an interest in one of the other building residents. A rich heiress whose husband was the business partner of his late brother-in-law. A man who Marco feels is responsible for his death and the suffering and financial debt he put his sister in. Though Marco seems to have quite a fascination with the man’s wife, and the two soon develop an affair. Meanwhile his grieving sister’s daughter goes missing and is found brutalized after an accident in the hospital. Marco’s focus then shifts to finding out who could have possibly done such a thing to his niece while still continuing his affair with the man’s wife who he think’s is responsible for his dead brother-in-law. Did her husband really have something to do with it? Why did his niece get into the accident and wind up in the hospital? Are the two interconnected in some way? This is what the film goes on to explore in its second half.

What can I say other than I absolutely loved this movie. And consider it to be Denis’ best film to date. Given that Denis is now in her late sixties and even though probably has a few films left in her, it almost felt like a culmination piece in relation to the rest of her body of work that I’ve seen. It’s a noirish and nightmarish vision that’s shrouded in mystery. Like some of her more controversial pieces (ala “Trouble Every Day”) it’s a grand statement on the dark side of humanity and the depths to which people out there can go. Except it’s not intentionally nihilistic like the films of her other French counterpart Gasper Noe. Denis is much more of a psychological director whose movies contain quite a bit of mystery. It’s reminiscent of films like George C. Scott’s “Hardcore” (1978), David Lynch’s trilogy of films about mistaken identity – “Lost Highway” (1997), 2001’s “Mulholland Drive, and “Inland Empire” (2007), alas mixed in with a taste of Joel Schumacher’s “8MM” (1999). It’s incredibly dark, erotic, and perverse much like those films were. Also, like most of Denis’ work she seems more interested in really challenging the audience to think more than anything. Which who anybody that knows me knows how much I value that aspect in terms of how I view film. Lastly, is the film’s last act which contains some unabashedly truths about the innately evil and unspeakable horrors of the dark side of humanity. Totally taking me by storm and one which had me sitting there not knowing exactly what to do with myself once the credits rolled. This is an unforgettable film, but only for people who like their films to be both dark and challenging. If this sounds like your cup of tea, well, then there’s really not a better foreign film I can recommend to you that I’ve seen all year. This is one that currently stands high on my list of the top 10 films of 2014. One in which I’m pretty confident in saying that I think should hold out and remain there by year’s end.

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