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 To The Movies – Review: “A Most Violent Year” 3.29.15

I can think of at least three people I know, that had seen this film prior to my seeing it, and all three had the same thing to say about it – “I really liked it, but I think it would be something that you would love“. I didn’t quite know what to make of the comments other than mostly everyone I know knows that I have somewhat of a particular eye for film, and that my tastes seem to be a bit more aligned with independent or what some consider to be art-house films. So I interpreted this comment to mean that maybe it fell a bit on the artsy side of the film spectrum. Though people also know that I’m a big Oscar Isaac fan and consider him to be amongst the very best in the crop of young actors currently working in the film industry (the only two actors out there right now within his age bracket who are as good as him are probably Joaquin Phoenix and Jake Gyllenhaal). What I don’t think a lot of people know is how much of a fan I am of writer/director J.C. Chandor. Who’s maybe one of, if not the most promising up and coming young directors, who also happens to be pretty brand new to the film industry but whose two feature films prior to this one I really enjoyed. In 2011 he released “Margin Call”, a mostly overlooked and underappreciated film about one long night revolving around a group of business men and woman the night prior to the economic collapse of 2008. I was almost as equally impressed with his last film – 2013’s “All Is Lost” about a shipwrecked man played by Robert Redford (which deservedly garnered him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor). Then I saw the trailer for his latest film, this one, and started to think this guy might be one of the next true auteurs, because not only does he write and direct, but I began to start to realize that he may be the next true “genre” director as all of his films seemed to be entirely different then the one previous to it. Which is incredibly rare these days inside the studio system because a lot of directors (and there are several exceptions mind you) seem to make a hit film and then make subsequent films that don’t really deviate or stray away from the formula that originally worked for them. Chandor, like Bennett Miller (“Capote”, “Moneyball, “Foxcatcher”) seems to not really care about anything other than making high quality genre pictures. So when I heard that his newest film was a crime drama taking place in New York City in the early eighties to say my interest was piqued would be an understatement. Especially considering the number of people who said it was a very specific type of film for a very particular audience, that being someone like myself, my anticipation for it grew quite considerably.

“A Most Violent Year” centers around an immigrant, Abel Morales (played by Oscar Isaac), who lives in New York City circa 1981. Which we’re soon told was one of the most violent years for crime in the city’s history. Abel is a hard-working man who owns an oil business and who seemingly is trying to make a name for himself. At the beginning of the film one of Abel’s oil drivers is beaten down after an interstate hijacking. Abel’s wife, Anna (played by the ever so reliable Jessica Chastain), also his bookkeeper/accountant, comes from a Mob-like mentality family, as does the local teamster’s union reps, pressure Abel to fight violence with violence. Which puts him at a sort of inner conflict because he wants to be a business man and not a gangster. To top off his precarious situation with his business, he’s also informed by the local District Attorney (played by “Selma”‘s David Oyelowo) that he is being investigated for a number of different illegal activities that they think he is somehow involved with. Abel seeks council from his lawyer (Albert Brooks – great to see him back in tbe first role I’ve seen him in since “Drive”) in an upcoming deal he has lined up with a Hasidic owner of a local fuel oil terminal, which is the kind of deal that he’s been waiting an entire lifetime for. This deal is the major plot device that drives the story. But can he close it under the pressure of the number of oil competitors, a loving but seemingly untrustworthy wife, unreliable employees, teamsters union, and the District Attorney. Who with the exception of his loving wife, seem to be willing to do just about everything possible to stand in his way to try to make sure the deal doesn’t go through.

This was a brilliantly well made and executed film that defied my preconceived notions and wound up exceeding my expectations and then some. This is writer/director J.C. Chandor paying homage to the classic Hollywood gangster/crime family drama. Incorporating just about every element we’ve come to expect from the genre. The acting is also outstanding. Particularly from its two lead performances, in what felt like it should have been an Academy Award nominated turn by Oscar Isaac who is nothing short of exemplary, as well as Chastain, who wound up receiving a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress for her fine work here. Chandor does a masterful job at recreating the look of early 1980’s New York City, filmed in a brown/yellowish color palette (what I call “cigarette stain”) where everything looks broken down, dilapidated, and decaying. A look that I thought was perfect given the context of the film. In terms of feel it felt like some of the seminal films of the genre like Francis Ford Coppola’s first two “Godfather” films (complete with Isaac putting on his very best Al Pacino/Don Corleone impression), Brian DePalma’s “Scarface” (in terms of its underlying theme of an immigrant trying to become an opportunist in the pursuit of the American Dream), as well as some of the crime films of Martin Scorsese (though much more subtle). At times it felt like it shared more of a direct influence with David Michod’s “Animal Kingdom”, which also took a rather stark and bleak look at the decimation of a crime family. The major difference here is that unlike the Michod film, Abel is not a criminal in the same sense as the characters in that film were but rather becomes one as a mere byproduct of the turbulent times he lives in. I was also thoroughly impressed with its deft storytelling which had me thoroughly engaged from the opening credits through its final frame. Not once did I look down at my watch the entire time (which admittedly I’m sometimes guilty of doing even in other good films just to see how far along we are in the story). There was a tense underlying feeling of unease that permeated as the events that unfold give the film an almost paranoiac feel. Last but not least, don’t believe anything you hear about it being a bit of a slow-moving story with little to no actual violence leading some people I’ve heard go so far as to say they have a hard time even considering it being labeled an actual “crime” film. Well let me be the one to dispel those myths. It is very much a crime film, containing almost all, if not every component contained within the genre. Also, if by “slow” people mean a potboiler/nailbiter that takes its time telling its story than I’m sorry. You just may not have gotten the director’s intentions behind delivering the story in the way that he did. The violence may be sparse yes, but when it comes boy does it pack a wallop. I can’t even count on two hands how many times both my myself and the people around me gasped at some of the film’s more shocking moments (and there were plenty of them). This is writer/director J.C. Chandor’s best work to date, as was the case with its star, Oscar Isaac. It’s an old school, classic, crime drama, that if been given a proper release date of last year like it did almost everywhere else, it would have most likely wound up earning itself a spot on my list of the best films of the year. In a year where we saw a slew of director’s making their masterpieces, here is yet another one that deserved way more attention than it got, marking J.C. Chandor as the new poster boy of genre filmmaking.

[strong B+]

A Trip To The Movies – Review: “’71” 3.14.15

Okay I’ll just come flat-out and say it – “Jack O’Connell is the best twenty-something actor, stateside or international, that is currently working in the film industry today”. The last time I felt like I discovered an actor of his caliber was when I was first introduced to Tom Hardy (who coincidentally enough I draw a lot of comparisons between the two) in Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Bronson” (2008), who as I predicted, like I do with O’Connell, would be a household name in just a few years from then once American audiences started to take notice of these highly gifted young actors. Also, like Hardy, I first caught wind of O’Connell in 2013’s “Starred Up” (another prison drama like “Bronson” which I considered the best post-2000 film of the genre outside of Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet” (2009) ). O’Connell puts in a breakthrough performance that rivaled that of his co-star, the immensely talented Ben Mendelsohn (who’s pretty much been the best part of everything I’ve seen him in). O’Connell was so good in that, that I vowed to myself that I would follow this very promising and undeniably gifted young actor in every project he does from this point forward. And at the young age of 24, he shows the potential to be just as good, if not better, than someone like a Tom Hardy or a Matthais Schoenaerts, but should achieve their same level of fame about a decade younger than they did, those actors being well into their thirties. O’Connell is basically still just a kid, which makes the anticipation of what he’s going to next all that more exciting. And so far, in just the past 2 years, he’s played the lead role in the aforementioned “Starred Up” (2013), last year’s Angelina Jolie directed “Unbroken” (which I still haven’t seen but that has recently moved to the very top of my queue simply because it stars O’Connell), and now this film. Which without giving away what I thought about it too prematurely, let’s just say I wasn’t disappointed by it.

‘”71″ is the new feature film by first time director Yann Demange (I could have sworn when I first read that name I thought it was a pseudonym for the “Muscles From Brussels”) starring Jack O’Connell in the lead (and in fact the only lead, as the rest of the roles I would barely even consider “supporting”). The film is set in (you guessed it) 1971 Northern Ireland and jumps right into the story without little to no setup other than that he’s a British solider who happens to be fighting for the Irish Army. After a quick orientation depicting his squad going through some rigorous training, it jumps right into his specific unit being briefed that they’re being deployed to a dangerous area of Belfast, where an ongoing war is taking place between 2 rival religious factions – the Protestants and Catholics. In one of the more well shot and gripping segments of the film, O’Connell’s unit lands in a war-torn area of Catholic territory, and since the Army is more aligned with the Protestants, to say the townspeople don’t take to their presence well would be a grave understatement. In fact, a full on riot ensues, which is expertly shot using a guerilla-style filmmaking style that makes you feel like you’re right there in on the action. O’Connell’s character, amidst the chaos, gets separated from the rest of his unit, and since his squad is being overpowered by the Catholics, they leave in a hurried rush without him with members of the Catholic militia on his trail (and a chase scene as good as anything I can remember on film since the Keanu Reeves/Patrick Swayze bank robbery foot chase from “Point Break” (1991) ). The rest of the film plays out like a game of cat and mouse where O’Connell’s character, who starts off as the hunter, now becomes the hunted, as just about every character within the film seems to want him dead. The rest of the film takes several twists and turns, which takes a hold of you in its firm grip and doesn’t let go until the film’s closing shot

This was a mightily impressive debut from director Yann Damange and yet another brilliant performance by O’Connell, who seems to be in just about every frame of the film and who is clearly the meat and bones of the picture. The film itself is gripping, taut, and engaging from start to finish, and has an incredible sense of pacing. One thing that stood out to me was that while I went into it thinking I was going to be watching a War film. It rather deftly combined other elements into it that made it an equal parts thriller, political espionage cat and mouse game evoking the works of writer John le Carre, historical drama (1969’s “Z” and 2005’s “Munich” acting as reference points throughout the film), as well as a crime film (my fellow movie companion said it felt a bit like David Michod’s “Animal Kingdom” (2010). Which I didn’t get at first but when he started to explain the levels of corruption by all members of society, I could see why he drew the comparison and understood how he could tie it in. The camerawork was also stunning, and shot in a style reminiscent of the recent films of Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”, “Zero Dark Thirty”) which made it feel authentically real. The only few very minor criticisms I had of the piece was that they didn’t really provide much back story into O’Connell’s character. That and I found many of the interlocking characters from the different facets of society a bit difficult to follow. Kind of how I feel about Asian films depicting the Yakuza – certain characters are difficult to tell apart as many of them appear similarly. Lastly, I think the film could have been expanded on and went further into its story which seemed to go across by quickly at a rather brisk 99 minutes. Those few minor criticisms aside though, this was a well acted, thoroughly engaging, and gripping meta-film about a time and place in history that prior going into the film, I knew little to next to nothing about. And in summation, it was only the second film I’ve seen this year outside of “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” that I was so engaged in that I didn’t take a bathroom break because I couldn’t bear the thought of missing even a second of this well constructed and incredibly tense film. That had me on the edge of my seat from its start to its nicely poetic and emotional finish.

[B+]

Review: ‘Rob The Mob’ 9.30.14

 

Every now and then I find myself in the mood for a bit more lighter fare than what I’m normally used to. Since I’m so used to constantly being let down by comedies maybe more than any other genre, I rarely take the leap of faith needed to check one out unless it comes from a recommendation from someone whose opinion I trust. Though with this movie I more or less just came across it. No one told me about it,  I didn’t read anything on it, nor did I see it advertised anywhere. However I did see that it got some fairly decent favorable scores on a couple of movie sites I check out occasionally. So I thought I’d give it a shot. That and I really like Michael Pitt. My first introduction to the talented young actor was in the American version of Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” (2007) where he did an excellent job playing one of two young men who terrorize an upper class family. He’s gone on to do some strong work in both the TV series “Boardwalk Empire” and played a very small bit part; yet a memorable one, in 2012’s “Seven Psychopaths”. I don’t know if it’s the Leonardo DiCaprio quasi look-alikeness that I like about him or if I geniunely think the guy’s got chops (probably the latter). But really any movie that looks remotely interesting where he’s cast as the lead I will likely check out. Which was the case with this one. Plus, I heard it was a “crime comedy”. So I was hoping for something like Jonathan Demme’s “Married To The Mob” (1988). I also happened to notice comparisons to both “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Goodfellas” on the poster. But knowing very well that those quotes are usually written in hyperbole I still figured oh well what the hell I’ll give it a shot. Hopefully it will surprise me.

It’s a simple enough setup. One that’s based on a true story and took place in New York City in the early 1990’s. We’re first introduced to Tommy (Pitt). Tommy is a degenerate small time crook with a crack cocaine problem who is in love with a girl who more or less is his mirror image. He sticks up small businesses who they themselves hardly make any money for a living. We’re not talking about the sharpest tool in the shed here so it’s only inevitable that he’s going to get caught. And does. The film then cuts to 14 years later when Tommy is released from prison to his girlfriend, who is played suprisingly well by an actress who I hadn’t heard of up to this point named Nina Arianda. These two lovers attempt to “go straight” but because of financial reasons are forced to go back to their old ways. He devises a not so smart idea of robbing the Italian Social Clubs in the city, many of whom have Mob affiliations. After a string of hold-ups, Tommy stumbles upon one club whose boss “Big Al” (played by the always serviceable Andy Garcia) finds out and puts a bounty on his head. Though Tommy comes across something the FBI desperately needs. That and the FBI looks at what Tommy’s doing as what they refer to as a kind of “public service”. The FBI’s “hey better him than us” attitude provides for some pretty solid laughs. Almost as if the FBI gives him free reign to do whatever he wants as long as he’s robbing all of the local town crooks. So in doing so, Tommy begins to misgude both the FBI and the Mob, all while he and his girlfriend start to become almost local celebrities, and attract the attention of a reporter (Ray Romano, who like Garcia, is serviceable in the role). Both entities soon start to tighten up. Especially because the FBI is honing in on Garcia’s character who is a well known big time crime boss. One that in his aging years is trying to go straight and any opposing forces to this will be dealt with accordingly. While Tommy appears to be having a nice run, his time also seems to be running out.

This movie functions fairly well as a whole, even if at times it did feel a bit contrived and cliched. But I think that’s slightly to be expected given a movie like this. The script is mildly clever, and the actors (especially Pitt and in a come out of nowhere and very funny Griffen Dunne) all do a pretty good job in their respective roles. There are quite a few laughs, particularly in the scenes involving Pitt sticking up the Mob. Along with an effective ending that felt like something out of a Hollywood fairy tale that ends tragically. All of these things allow me to give it decent marks. Though as the film develops, specifically near the end, it grows increasingly more and more prepostorous. There’s also that flashback thing movies do only in this case some of it is intertwined with real footage. Making the fake and real flashback scenes slightly difficult to discern from each other. Had they of just left that device out entirely I thought it would have been a lot more effective. But, even still, there’s enough to like here that makes it a worthwhile experience. Especially if you like small, indepedent, charming, lite fair comedies. Just don’t expect anything you’re going to want to write home about.

Grade: B-