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 Gemini, Cinephile, Actressexual. Also loves cats. All material herein is written and copyrighted by him, unless otherwise noted. twitter | facebook | pinterest | tumblr | letterboxd

 

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Entries in Reviews (227)

Sunday
Sep142014

TIFF: "Still Alice," or Adjust Your Best Actress Charts

The final TIFF feature review. Whew, 25 films screened and written up. And all by closing night! Please give me a round of applause in the comments. I've never been this successful at managing a festival and comments are the only way I know you're appreciating it.

When we first meet Dr Alice Howland in this fine film adapated from the bestseller by Lisa Genova, she is celebrating her 50th birthday. She's happily married to Dr. John Howland (Alec Baldwin) with three grown children whom she adores though she isn't exactly a perfect mother or wife, at least as defined by your typical movie woman, in which case she'd be inordinately obsessed with her husband and children's particulars. In fact, she almost entirely defines herself by her own career and skills (imagine that!) as a respected linguistics professor.  She values articulate communication and higher education and maybe she isn't super imaginative about other forms of expression. In fact, she's downright dismissive about her youngest daughter Lydia's (Kristen Stewart) interest in acting. She gives her a continual hard time about her education and career and is frustratingly absent from all of Lydia's minor triumphs. 

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Sunday
Sep142014

TIFF: Miss Julie or, Acting: The Movie! 

The 2014 edition of TIFF ends tonight and so will Nathaniel's review coverage with Still Alice. Wrap-ups and Oscar updates coming shortly thereafter. Now Liv Ullman's Miss Julie... 

"Kiss my shoe!" Colin Farrell reenacts critical reaction to Chastain's debut film year

This review contains 126 year-old spoilers if you’re not familiar with August Strindbergh’s one act play, which has been adapted to film frequently. The play is about the bored, lonely, and loveless daughter of a Baron, Miss Julie (Jessica Chastain) who enjoys toying with the servants, especially with John her father's valet (Colin Farrell). She flirts shamelessly even in front of his fiancé the cook (Samantha Morton) ordering him to perform sometimes demeaning and not very valet-like duties, like kissing her shoe or bringing her flowers. The story takes place in a single night in which the valet and the lady of the house will consummate their extremely uncomfortable and scandalous attraction with incredibly disastrous results... especially for Miss Julie. If 19th century Swedish country estates had been unionized John surely would have told her what wasn't in his job description. 'Not that. Not that. Definitely not that. You're playing with fire, Miss Julie!'

We understand Miss Julie's maddening hypocrisies straightaway as, when the story begins, she's already ordered the cook to feed her dog "Diana" an abortive dinner since the naughty girl has had sex with the gate keeper's mongrel dog. Foreshadowing 101 anyone? Diana is played by an adorable pug so we'll ignore, for Jess's dignity, that the play indicates that the dog ought to resemble Miss Julie! The pug laps down the meal hungrily and then proceeds to whimper through the entire first scene. This too proves foreshadowing, as yours truly began to do the same. If only Samantha Morton could have scooped me up, as she mercifully does with the confused pup, to carry me out of the screening room! 

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Saturday
Sep132014

TIFF: The New Girlfriend

Nathaniel's adventures at TIFF continued

 François Ozon remains one of France's most prolific directors. Like most prolific auteurs this means an uneven filmography. Even the very good films can feel ever-so-slightly underrealized. Is it the rush or just the nature of the artistry of the prolific, all first draft energies, favorite or borrowed styles structures and themes, and just warming-up ideas with the occasional lightning-strike perfections?

Like many fans I'm still waiting for another of those lightning strike perfections like certain moments in Under the Sand or 8 Women in full but his not-quite-there efforts can still be highly appealing: Potiche anyone?

The New Girlfriend turns out to be all of the above with grand moments, messy ones, energetic diversions, familiar tropes and half formed ideas... which as it turns out is just fine for a movie about embryonic searches for new identities. It begins with a funereal yet beautiful opening sequence that recalls an Almodóvarian trance, and quickly moves into an Up-like backstory prelude detailing the very intimate friendship of Laura and Claire (Anaïs Demoustier) from childhood to Laura's early death. When we begin our actual story Claire and her husband Gilles (Raphael Personnaez, who also starred in The Gate at this festival) along with Laura's widowed husband David (Romain Duris) and his infant daughter Lucie are all still reeling from Laura's demise. One day on a guilty whim, Laura jogs to David's house to check in on Lucie only to make a startling discovery when no one answers the door and she lets herself in: there's David, in full drag, tenderly feeding Lucie with a bottle like a good mother. Claire can't believe what she's seeing and to cover her tracks for where she was that day with her husband she says she was with "Virginia... a girlfriend, someone you don't know." And thus begins our subject matter with the title taking on multiple meanings. Is David more Virginia than David? Which of them is Claire befriending? How desperate are both of them to recreate Laura in her vacuum? And what kind of a girlfriend can Virginia even be since she has a visible penis? 

The rest of the film is largely devoted to both farcical and dramatic consequences of this new secret in Claire's life with delightfully surprising beats amply peppered across the character arcs. Demoustier proves rather masterful in delineating Claire's internal confusions and hypocrisies, especially and most amusingly her illicit hypocritial thrills in having a new girlfriend at all (the prelude makes amply obvious that Laura and Claire were so devoted and happy together that they didn't cultivate other friendships). But full warning: the film is way too comically provocative and politically incorrect to please the easily offended which many in the LGBT community seem to be of late. Claire for example thinks 'gays are fine, trannys are not!' in one joke that goes over well in context but will surely offend out of it and calls David "sick" while still encouraging him to do it. David isn't as certain of what his gender fluidity means to be a role model for any political agenda. And Gilles ignores ambiguities and is convinced that David is just gay, always has been.

Though Romain Duris has long since proved his worth as a leading man, his screen attraction is entirely masculine, so I'll admit that it was easy to wonder what the film would have been like had the more beautiful Personnaez considered his inner woman instead. Would it have dulled the surprise or the comedy or made Claire's confusing situation between the two men in her life and this new girlfriend more believable?  Who can say? The time jumped epilogue leaves things both tied neatly up and slightly ambiguous as to what went down between the climax and the credits roll but by that time we know the characters well enough to draw our own conclusions. B

previously at TIFF


Saturday
Sep132014

TIFF: A Little Chaos

TIFF 14 doesn't actually wrap until tomorrow night but my adventure in Toronto has come to an end. There are still a few writeups to come but here, for you, is my take on the Closing Night Film as I zip up the suitcase and head to the airport.

How to describe that thing where you thoroughly enjoy watching something that is neither objectively good, nor enjoyably bad? I imagine anyone who has an inordinate fondness for an entire genre or subgenre, quality be damned, will understand. Sci-fi and horror fans will line up nodding, I'm sure. But for me that genre is the costume dramedy.

Those with allergies to "light" costume period pieces should give this trifle from actor/director Alan Rickman a wide wide berth. For me, prone to enjoy both famous thespians playing dress-up and royalty porn as long as it neither are weighed down by the self-seriousness of Oscar-seeking biopics, this obscure fanciful tale flew by. Alan Rickman plays the King of France who wants a brand new something-he's-never-seen-before as new attraction for the gardens of Versailles. He's about to move the entire court there and the unveiling must be magnificent. A fountain it will be then and his royal gardener Andrè Le Norte (Matthias Schoenaerts in walking romance novel cover form with long luscious locks but broad shouldered manliness) hires the widow landscape designer Sabine De Barra (Kate Winslet) to create it because he recognizes that she's actually a visionary immediately though he can't quite admit to it as he weighs her proposal.

Complicating matters is that the King doesn't handle failure well and Le Norte's future hangs in the balance and he wants things quicker than they seem possible. Also: Le Notre and De Barra are, SURPRISE! (just kidding), falling for each other.

There's a bit of proto-feminism wishfulfillment happening and a bit of romantic melodrama but the movie never totally commits to any one thread. Its paper thin, really, with nothing much in the way of thematic interest that's actually explored or depth of characterization. All hangups aside it was just great to see Kate Winslet on the big screen again but she could've done this in her sleep while blinded by silly hats and short of breath from a corse---oh, wait. But better light and unchallenging than embarrassing which is how things go in the movie's most obvious bid at self-seriousness with a "twist" flashback about Madame Barra's tragic past that the movie teases ad nauseum from early on.

The movie suffers from what looks like underfunding since it skimps on anything that might back up the central subject matter which is meant to convey and continually references about how lush, overgrown, and imaginative De Barra's work is. But again, an easy sit, especially if you're costume inclined. Winslet and Schoenearts work fine together though their romance feels more talent-based than physical. Since their work is dramatic they sometimes feel like they're in their own film. It's not unlike those classic Disney fairy tales, really, where the leads are drawn as "beautiful" realistic-ish humans while the side characters are from another species, with oversized heads or comic limbs. Among the ensemble, most of the actors are delightful even if no one is remotely challenged (oh look Stanley Tucci doing his fun gay sidekick schtick again!). Jennifer Ehle (far on the periphery) and Helen McCrory (near the center of the action as Schoenaerts shady wife) both manage to play into the movies preference for types and caricature while also slyly suggesting actual individual character. As a result their scenes feel like whole new films sprouting up like weeds inside the one we got but that's okay since this garden is wilted. C+

 

Also at TIFF: WildThe Gate, Cub, The Farewell Party, BehaviorThe Theory of Everything, Imitation GameFoxcatcher, Song of the Sea, 1001 Grams, Labyrinth of Lies, Sand DollarsThe Last Five YearsWild Tales, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on ExistenceForce Majeure, Life in a Fishbowl, Out of Nature, The Kingdom of Dreams and MadnessCharlie's Country, and Mommy

Friday
Sep122014

TIFF Quickies: Behavior, Cub, The Gate, and The Farewell Party

Nathaniel's adventures in Toronto, the last leg.

I came out of my last screening a few hours ago and a plane awaits me tomorrow which is a good thing since I'm running on fumes. Four more films need writeups and we'll probably do a podcast. But we'll worry about this tomorrow. Tomorrow is another day. My TIFF screenings ended tonight. And get this: Less than 48 hours after my return to NYC, critics screenings for NYFF begin. I'm not even exaggerating. No rest at all for poor Nathaniel.

 

 

LMAO. Tweet of the Year! Okay, on to the movies...

Behavior (Cuba)
A huge hit in Cuba, and their probable Oscar submission if they submit at all (they often skip it), Behavior tackles tough topics like educational buerocracies, dead-end poverty, alcoholism, juvenile delinquency, prejudice against immigrants, you name it. More importantly it asks questions that have interested educators forever: how involved should a teacher be in the lives of her students? do you prepare them for life outside of school or merely provide them shelter from that life for a part of each day? Do you break the rules for one if you feel that child is a special case? Yet for all these heavy topics, provocative questions and the film's frequent classroom scenes, this drama never feels didactic or preachy but organically dramatized around its dimensional characterizations rather than characters as stand-ins for ideas/types (with a couple of exceptions). It's the story of an old passionate teacher Carmela (Alina Rodriguez), past retirement age, who is always at odds with the schoolboard because she's inflexible when it comes to bending rules to meet a student's needs. It's also the story of her class trouble-maker Chala (12 year old Armanda Valdez Friere in a frankly amazing debut), who the schoolboard wants to send to the Cuban equivalent of a juvie home. Chala is the sole breadwinner at home (through illegal means) and his mother drinks away the money rather than paying the bills. Carmela believes the kid has a good heart and continually demands disciplinary leeway at school.

a moving story of teacher and student

While many of the plot developments in Behavior are depressing and predictable, the movie is stubbornly hopeful, knowing the odds are against success but pressing on anyway. Writer director Ernesto Daranas, a fine new voice in Latin American cinema, makes sure this doesn't happen in a corny inspirational way, as in so many inferior teacher/student dramas do, but with roll up your sleeve grit in its narrative and smart visual choices - the camera is often exactly the right distance from the actors, to keep you fully aware of their tough environment and also their dreams. (Cue multiple shots of Chala on rooftops.) Behavior suggests that Carmela has saved a few students from their own lives, knows it, and will save as many more as she can manages before she dies... maybe even Chala. Her stubborn heroism? She knows that the broken system and these broken homes will long outlive her. B+

Cub (Belgium)
I got dragged to this slasher movie by two friends who I hadn't seen in a long time. Spent the film with fingers carefully crossed over my eyes for watching / not watching simultaneously. A group of Cub Scouts are out for a camping weekend and they pick a spot much further into some spooky woods than they were intending, woods they're warned against but you know how people are in movies, they never turn back when warned. The Scouts three barely adult supervisors tell the young boys the tale of Kai a boy who becomes a deadly werewolf at night. It's a legend meant for campfire scares but we see Kai right away, not a werewolf but a boy their age with a creepy one horned mask who watches them from afar. He takes an interest in one of them, a loner named Sam (Maurice Luijten), the film's lead. Kai doesn't attack him but starts the bloodletting elsewhere. It's mildly entertaining but the characters aren't that well delineated and I predicted the finale about 75 minutes in advance. My friends thought the kills were imaginative and I will concur that two of them were, particularly a morbidly funny group kill. But ... GROSS.

"GROSS". That's actually my full sophisticated one-word review, and come to think of it my review for all slasher movies. I have come to understand and admire the broader horror genre after years of reading great critics enthusing about it, but this subgenre I'll never get - even when it comes with subtitles.  C-

The Gate (France/Cambodia)
Like Labyrinth of Lies a few days back, The Gate benefits from a continually engaging true story. The new film from Regis Wargnier, who won the Oscar for the Catherine Deneuve epic Indochine, returns to that rich well of stories, French expatriates in countries they've colonized. The Gate, more appropriately titled Le temps des aveux in French, is based on the memoirs of a man named François Bizot (Raphaël Personnaez) who was arrested by the Khmer Rouge while he was innocently researching Buddhist traditions at monasteries. The communists believed this Frenchmen was a spy for America and the film becomes a battle of wits and test of humanity as Bizot and his captor Much (Phoeung Kompheak) argue and debate about Bizot's purpose in Cambodia and his fate. Like most good prisoner/captive dramas, their relationship is perversely intimate and the heart of the movie. Since its based on Bizot's memoirs, and the film begins near the ending, with Bizot returning to Cambodia we know he survives but things look bleak for a time and even when freed, the chaos isn't over since his wife and child are Cambodian/French and they don't have as much protection. Intense at times and surprisingly well acted -- most of the cast were non-actors aside from, of course, handsome French movie star Personnaez. B


The Farewell Party (Israel)
Israel's Oscars, "the Ophirs," have heartily embraced this dramedy about senior citizens who accidentally and after much prodding become crusaders for mercy killings of their terminally sick friends and spouses. It is far more tasteful than it sounds starting with heartbreaking decisions among longtime friends. But, curiously, the mood gets lighter and lighter in mood and the film funnier and funnier as it progresses. The comic highlight is a wonderfully cheeky display of solidarity when one of the friends is diagnosed with dementia but there are many little laughs along the way and each ensemble member finds a way to shine in a dialogue heavy film. It's a difficult film to describe, part drama about longterm love (both platonic and romantic), part ensemble black comedy, part agitprop about personal choice in matters of the end of life rather than machine-mandated life, and all parts delightful. It's not a done deal yet but it's easy to imagine this as Israel's Oscar submission and if submitted, an actual nominee in the Foreign Language Film category.   B+

Also at TIFF
A Little Chaos
The New Girlfriend
Wild
The Theory of Everything and Imitation Game
Foxcatcher and Song of the Sea
The Last Five Years
Wild Tales and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
Force MajeureLife in a Fishbowl and Out of Nature
Mommy
The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness
Charlie's Country