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.

[B-]

Review: “Calvary” 12.6.14

Writer/director brothers John Michael McDonagh and Martin McDonagh may be 2 of the best filmmakers out right now on the current scene. Unlike The Coen Brothers and more like Ridley Scott and his late brother Tony but catered more towards the intellectually minded moviegoer, they both make their own films as they seem to each have their own unique approach and take on cinema. I was first introduced to the pair by way of brother Martin’s brilliant and often unspoken of “In Bruges” (2008). A film about 2 hitmen, played by Brendan Gleeson and Colin Ferrall (in what I still consider to be the latter’s best performance to date), as they hide out in a small Belgian town called Bruges. Then came the writer/director of this film, John Michael, and his bravura debut film “The Guard” (2011). A crime film about a dirty cop, once again played by Brendan Gleeson, and the detective brought in (Don Cheadle) to help him infiltrate a drug smuggling operation in a small Ireland town. I still consider “The Guard” to be one of the better crime comedies of the past decade that had a knock out, razor-sharp script that proved John Michael had an undeniably gifted knack for writing as well as directing. Then the year following, we got another fresh and exciting new film from his brother Martin in the form of “Seven Psychopaths”. Martin’s second film about hitmen boasted an incredible cast by the likes of Colin Ferrall, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Tom Waits, Harry Dean Stanton, and Michael Pitt. All 3 of the aforementioned films earned Honorable Mentions spots on my “best of” lists from those years. Enter 2014 and we now have the second film by brother John Michael, fresh off of “The Guard”. One that once again starred Brendan Gleeson, who as mentioned above, has starred in 3 out of the 4 of the brothers’ films to date. I’ve always considered Gleeson to be one of the more gifted actors currently working in film who seems to almost always impress me both in and outside of the studio system. That and he’s earned himself 3 Golden Globe nominations for Best Actor for 2 of the films mentioned above, ironically enough 2 films by different brothers, both of which I already mentioned, those being both Martin McDonagh’s “In Bruges” (2008) and John Michael’s “The Guard” (2011). Because I thought so highly of all 3 of the films by this writer/director/brother team, who mostly work independently outside of one another, and are a great example of my approach to movie watching ethos, I decided to put this one high up on my list when it came out. Having missed it during its theatrical run, I drew up quite a bit of anticipation of seeing it once it became available on DVD.

The film grabs our attention right off the bat with a man who while in confession conveys a dark secret to the church’s priest Father James (played by Gleeson). A confession that possesses certain ramifications to both Gleeson and one of the other fathers. This sets the wheels in motion automatically straight from the get go as Gleeson then goes on a mission to find out information from other members of the Irish community in which he lives in. Along the way he encounters a multitude of different townspeople. None of whom seem to have respect for the honorable priest, who seems to be ridiculed and mocked in just about every said encounter. Gleeson’s Father James is a troubled, wounded man, who seems torn by his profession. As he is both a servant of the Lord and an a man of principles outside of the faith, who seems to just want to know the truth, regardless of whatever evilness he’s willing to come across while trying to find it. Throughout the story we are introduced to several characters – his suicidal daughter (played by “Eden Lake’s Kelly Reilly), town mistress, writer friend (M. Emmet Walsh), doctor, nemesis (the wonderful, scene stealing Chris O’Dowd from the hit TV show “The IT Crowd”), criminally minded mechanic (played by Jim Jarmusch regular Issach De Bankole), and rather very wealthy but stubborn financial backer of the church. Not one of them seems to have one iota of respect and/or care in the world for Father James and he only finds opposition from his many parishioners who seem to be doubting both their own faith in themselves as well as the Father’s in his own personal quest to seek the truth. A journey of self-discovery that finds him testing his faith in spirituality and religion, both inside and out.

This was a remarkable film from almost every cinematic standpoint. First is yet another brilliantly gifted performance by Brendan Gleeson, who seems tailor-made for this type of material, an actor who seems to be a muse for writer/director John Michael and his brother Martin. In one of his more finer performances to date. He is enigmatic here as he carries weight of this complex and emotionally resonant material on his back. He is the meat and bones of the film, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he earns his third of fourth Golden Globe nomination working for this unquestionably talented writing/directing team of brothers. The second thing that should be pointed out is the assured and flawless script and direction by John Michael McDonagh. It’s a landmark achievement from both a writing and directing standpoint. Since the film relies heavily on its script, as did McDonagh’s last directorial effort “The Guard” did. He utilizes his trademark dark comedy and humor to reveal a story that winds up being much deeper than I possibly could have ever imagined going into it. The scenes between both Father James’ Gleeson and his daughter (Reilly) are particularly strong, poignant, touching, and heartfelt. McDonagh makes sure not to waste a single frame here as it features some gorgeous cinematography of both the Ireland coast and countryside. The Mise-en-scene (the setup of images within each shot) on display here is nothing short of dazzling. The lighting radiates across the screen and both it and the film’s framing are impeccably shot. It also boasts a very well put together soundtrack, one in which its music of classic oldies, more traditional Irish folk music, and melancholic piano and string sounds is perfectly aligned with the material. Last, but certainly not least, it does an incredible job at exploring such difficult themes such as questioning faith, morality, the evil that men do, and prejudices about the priesthood. All done with a sense of authenticity and grace that is so rarely done of movie of this kind (an exception being 2008’s Academy Award nominated “Doubt”). While admittedly I thought the first third of the film dragged a bit, I soon came to realize that it was done so in a way only to effectively set up the story and characters. This wound up being a refreshing take on one man’s morals, principles, religion, and faith, that totally won me over and in my opinion is so far is right on par with both the writer/director brothers’ best work to date. Along with a spellbinding performance by Brendan Gleeson. This one is sure to make my list of Honorable Mentions at this year’s end, and just might wind up vying for a spot on my top 10. A sharply written, brilliantly directed, and well acted film. “Calvary” is a phenomenal film that just happens to fall somewhere just slightly below the slew of this year’s best.

[strong B+]

Review: ‘Ida’ 9.15.14

 

“Ida” is yet another great example of the crop of European films that explore existential ideas during times of war that are shown through the eyes of young women. This coming from a director out of Poland, Pawil Pawlikowski, and emulating some of the works of the great Polish director Krzysztof Keislowski (1989’s “Dekalog” English Title: “The Decalogue”, 1993-1994’s “Three Colors” Trilogy) whom explored similar themes. I also found myself drawing up comparisons to a great German film I saw just this past year – Cate Shortland’s 2012’s “Lore”. Which followed a young girl in post WWII Germany whose parents flee and she is left to care for her many even younger siblings who are left behind, also while fleeing Allied forces. These are raw, human stories about the determination of strong young women who rise up in times of crisis, and in the process, go on a journey of self discovery throughout the process.

The film centers around the titular character, who we meet at the beginning of the film as a young nun in a convent. We quickly find out that she is an orphan, and the sisters there encourage her to go and seek out a family member who has been writing her before she takes her vows to become a nun. Ida goes and finds her aunt, who is slightly unwelcoming at first but who begins to show her pictures of her parents, allowing Ida a first glimpse into the story of her family. The aunt further explains that she knows of a man who may be alive and might know what happened to her parents. The two of them then embark on a journey, unlocking many secrets along the way. It is during this journey that Ida begins to discover herself, and in turn starts to question her religious faith, sexuality, and what family truly means to her. I would go into more detail about where the plot goes, but I’m afraid I’d be giving away too much.

I thought Pawlikowski did a great job not with just exploring the heady themes he does here, but from a cinematic standpoint, how uses black and white film to really capture the setting. This gives it a more naturalistic look. The icy, cold, wintry landscapes also give the story a more authentic feel. It features a bold performance by the young and obviously very talented actress Agata Trzebuchowska, who’s beauty shines through but who is equally as effective in showing grief, pain, and sadness, especially in her determination to find out the truth. I also liked how music played a key role in almost every scene, and plays an even more pivotal role in Ida’s liberation. My only criticism of the piece is that it’s a bit slow to start, and really the “meat” of the film is entirely in its 2nd act. At a brisk 82 minutes long, I personally felt as if they could have taken the story further. That being said, I thought Pawlikowski did a rather deft job at creating a dense story within such a short running time. If you enjoyed movies like 2008’s “Doubt” or 2012’s “Stories We Tell” I could see you really enjoying something like this. For others looking to just sit back and be entertained, I think they’ll find its pacing to be a tad slow at times, and its themes a bit too deep. That being said, I thought it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

Grade: strong B