Criticism, Oscar Race

Office Politics Gone Wild: Why you must see ‘Two Days, One Night’

0 Comments 30 December 2014

Two Days One Night
Naturalistic and probing, in Two Days, One Night, Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (The Kid with a Bike) tell an apparently simple, linear story with astonishing depth. Recovering from depression, wife and mother Sandra (Marion Cotillard) returns to work at a solar panel factory after sick leave. Once there, she discovers that her bosses have made her co-workers a Sophie’s Choice: take a thousand Euro bonus and lay-off Sandra, or save Sandra and sacrifice the cash.

It’s not surprising that Sandra’s colleagues choose the bonus over their colleague’s needs. But, when management allows a last-minute recount, Sandra’s husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) urges her to visit each and every individual to plead her case. This reluctant quest — a married mother on the verge of a second nervous breakdown travelling door-to-door over two days and one night — opens up a working class world to the audience. We see into the lives of the others from the factory and their impact on the sobbing Sandra.

Oscar-winner Cotillard (Ma Vie en Rose) portrays Sandra in jeans and a tank top, bra straps showing, hair clutched uncombed in a pony-tail; far more unkempt than the actress who plays her, who is the face of Lady Dior handbags. As Sandra, Cotillard’s walk rides low in her hips, she pops Xanax and, defeated, she retreats to her bed where she lies in a fetal position under the duvet. But none of this is overwrought. She melds perfectly in the Dardennes’ matter-of-fact style; the first true star these Belgian brothers have cast as a lead.

[Related: TIFF Critic’s Pick: ‘Two Days, One Night]

Cotillard has become one of my favorite actresses. Whether in high-gloss blockbuster mode in The Dark Knight Rises or period perfect in The Immigrant, she works from a very quiet core. Her characters always have a life beyond the screen, a before and after. These women don’t ask you for permission, they compel you to watch. The biggest emotions register in tiny gestures.

While Sandra’s struggle and transformation is central to Two Days, One Night, the drama is less a star vehicle than an ethical exploration. Do you leave your morals at the door when you clock in? You may treat your family humanely at home, but the actions taken in pursuit of a paycheck also define your character. In reality, what you do at work is as much who you are as your private identity. In this competitive economy of layoffs and job insecurity, that certainly is cause for reflection, whether you’re American or Belgian

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Criticism, Movies, Oscar Race

Review: You Must Go ‘Into the Woods’ with a Magical Meryl Streep

0 Comments 29 December 2014

Chris Pines cuts a charming, if callow, figure

Chris Pines cuts a charming, if callow, figure

Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore. Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, as directed by Rob Marshall, from James Lapine’s screenplay, is movie musical bliss – better than Marshall’s Oscar-winning Chicago and so much better than his miscast, misbegotten Nine. From the prologue with its swooping camera that establishes many of the fairy tale characters – the Baker’s Wife (Emily Blunt), the Baker (James Corden), Witch (Meryl Streep), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) and Jack the bean-stock boy (Daniel Huttlestone) and on and on – audiences who love the wit and wisdom of Sondheim will be bewitched and transfixed.

Once upon a time, as these remixed Brothers Grimm fairy stories go, the infertile Baker’s Wife makes one of those apparently simple yet Faustian bargains. Her neighbor the Witch (a role originated by Bernadette Peters on Broadway) reveals that the Baker and his family are cursed (it’s a part of that Rapunzel thing). To reverse the spell and become pregnant, the wife must take her husband Into the Woods – over to the dark side – to collect four items. Suddenly we’re in Fertility: the Musical!

All hideous warty witchy wants is a white cow, a red cape, some yellow hair and a golden slipper. What could go wrong? Well, remember, all the Wizard of Oz wanted was a broomstick but the coward neglected to mention to Dorothy and her pals that they would have to kill the Wicked Witch to retrieve it. Oops!

[Related: The Roundabout Theater Company’s ‘Into the Woods’]

The wife’s desire for a child is so all-consuming that the resulting quest for the four ingredients launches a movie about conflicting wishes, moral quandaries and unexpected consequences. The musical relies on the chain of songs to tell the story without pausing for dialog or showy business. There’s no Mickey and Judy reminding us that we’re putting on this performance in a barn – this is sophisticated stuff.

From Streep to Depp as the Wolf (he comes in one size: big and bad), the cast is universally genius, although critics seem to be picking and choosing favorites in a way that diminishes the ensemble’s beauty. Streep – the perennial Oscar nominee is bound for a supporting nod here — relishes playing the enchantress that upends the Baker’s marriage. She sings her witch into Shakespearean depth, as if one of Macbeth‘s crones got her rightful spot to move the plot further while pushing aside the Lord and Lady and their puny human problems. Both Blunt and Kendrick sing beautifully and soulfully – these are not just tunes but deep expressions of feeling: ambivalent, overwhelming, frightening, and occasionally deceitful.

Chris Pine (yes, the Star Trek reboot captain) deserves the notice he’s getting as the feckless Prince that woos Cinderella to a not-so-happily-ever-after. His duet, “Agony,” with his brother, Rapunzel’s Prince (Billy Magnussen) is a rollicking charm-off that echoes Lancelot’s crowing narcissism in Camelot‘s “C’est Moi.” But this Prince Charming’s role is critical, the idea that he is just a pretty face and good manners, and not painted any deeper adds to the resonance of his seductive duet with the Baker’s Wife, “Any Moment.” Chunks of the seize-the-moment, damn the consequences song could be quoted here but let’s stick with “Right and wrong don’t matter in the woods; only feelings.”

[Related: Chris Rock Pushes ‘Top Five’ onto my Top Ten]

Having debuted on Broadway in 1987, following a run at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre in 1986, the musical, riding on Lapine’s brilliant book, carries with it the mournfulness of the AIDS epidemic that raged while it was being composed, polished and produced. Going Into the Woods, or the pines, or the rambles, could bring moments of bliss where right and wrong didn’t matter, only feelings. But not everyone was making it out of those woods alive. Some would become casualties, and others would survive, saddened and sobered, with an altered sense of life’s fragility. Death was a high price to pay for a “shimmering and lovely and sad” moment in the woods — and that’s no fairy tale.

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Criticism, Movies

Jennifer Lawrence Pouts and Protests Through ‘Mockingjay – Part 1′

0 Comments 21 November 2014

Mockingjay“Now I’m condemned to a life of jumpsuits,” complains Tribute Escort Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) early on in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1. She might have been referring to the entire third part of what is now, unlike the book trilogy, a four-part saga in the Twilight mold. And this dark-and-dour installment suffers from saga sag, which is the effort of the Hollywood studios to stretch a stirring girl power series with a monster fan-base beyond reasonable limits for the sake of lucre.

As the movie opens, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is in a state of nervous collapse having been plucked by rebels and dumped in the totalitarian District 13 in the middle of the rigged Quarter Quell. Since it has been twelve months since the audience saw her in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, it’s an awkward emotional pitch at which to reconnect. She’s freaking out but we just sat down with our popcorn.

The good news: Katniss, a potential poster child for the rebels against the fascist forces of the Capitol, has been reunited with her family and big hunk Gale (Liam Hemsworth). The bad news: her home district has been levelled to pixie dust and Panem’s reptilian President Snow holds little hunk Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) captive.

I’m a fan of the books, which are so much better written than Twilight, not to mention emotional satisfying and less drippy. (I know I’m inviting haters, so hate away). But even Katniss, who enters the movie at such a level of despair, seems diminished in Part 1 by all the efforts to replace narrative momentum with unconvincing CGI action set pieces.

Many of the familiar characters have returned along with Trinket, including Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch Abernathy, Sam Claflin’s Finnick Odair, and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Plutarch Heavensbee. But they enter and exit like guests on The Love Boat. Even the fabulous Stanley Tucci as ringmaster Caesar Flickerman is seen at a remove – an image on a television screen within the larger action.

[RELATED: Michael Keaton Pecks at Fame in ‘Birdman’]

Returning Director Francis Lawrence seems more concerned with making it appear that the late Hoffman lasted through the entire production, than in breathing life into the surviving human interaction. The intimate moments between characters seem unaccountably rushed. A scene where Katniss and Gale pause while hunting seems unnecessarily brief – are the sparks still there? What, besides history, does Gale offer Katniss that Peeta cannot? They only just alight at a romantic stream when his beeper goes off. Is that CGI action calling?

Meanwhile, Julianne Moore appears as President Alma Coin (oh, that name – soul versus money). Moore plays the leader through a veil of two-toned gray hair, sexless and drab as those jumpsuits, all taut looks and emotional control. This may be consistent with Coin’s killjoy persona in the books, which invited the involvement of Everdeen’s more charismatic Mockingjay as a focal point of the rebellion, but I would have welcomed Tilda Swinton as Coin to give her some contrast. Not quite Swinton’s clownish Snowpiercer character but one equal to the smarmy evil of President Snow.

While I praise the fictional inclusion of a female political leader (rather than de facto male), I would have liked Coin to be less shut-down emotionally – to be a woman and a leader. How did she become top dog in District 13 – where is that backstory written on her flawless face?

On the subject of gender, it’s interesting that the character of the video director within the movie is female: Natalie Dormer’s tattooed and asymmetrically coiffed Cressida. And we know that Suzanne Collins wrote the source material. And, yet, in actuality, a man stood behind the camera making the movie, flanked by male screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong. And they are supported by largely male studio heads and financiers in the Hollywood machine.

Why should this gender imbalance be important, I mean, it’s an archer goddess heroine with a chick political leader? When will I be satisfied? Isn’t this enough?

Well, no, if that flaming girl power spirit has been co-opted. The female empowerment that drove the series’ popularity has been effectively neutered in this third outing under a sensibility that values action over intimacy.

I never thought I’d be missing those violent-yet-riveting Hunger Games that dominated the first two films and are missing here. But, for the most part, the violence in those long gladiator sequences was intimate. Each time Katniss pulled her bow, or Peeta covered her ass, it tied back into her character’s coming of age. Like the novels, we were miraculously in the head of this prickly, unpretentious teenaged girl struggling to assume adult responsibility and assimilate mature emotions of love and desire.

In Part 1, blockbuster CGI spectacle overshadows Katniss and, by extension, the merely mortal Lawrence. When, early on, Trinket promises Katniss that “we will make you the best dressed rebel in history,” it reflects the beginning of the end of the revolution, the mass absorption of a radical ideal.

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Movies

Mike Nichols had ‘Carnal Knowledge': RIP Sweet Man

0 Comments 20 November 2014

When Carnal Knowledge came out in 1971, I was twelve. Just the name sent shivers up my spine, like reading about Sonny and the bridesmaid in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. I wanted to be Ann-Margret. I’d met Jack Nicholson. It was what happened with adults while I was waiting for a kiss behind the San Diego Jewish Community Center. Roll the clip:

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Celebrity, Movies, Oscar Race

Interview: Hilary Swank stands tall, dives deep discussing ‘The Homesman’

1 Comment 16 November 2014

American Maverick Tommy Lee Jones shines light on Hilary Swank

American Maverick Tommy Lee Jones shines light on Hilary Swank

I had a chance to have tea with two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank at the Hamptons International Film Festival in the lobby of the Maidstone Hotel. We discussed her scrubbed down, soulful role as Mary Bee Cuddy in Tommy Lee Jones’s The Homesman, one of my favorite movies of 2014. The Nebraska native, 40, addressed the challenges of playing a single Nebraska homesteader on the Western frontier and how that woman’s struggle remains relevant today.

You play a virtuous woman in a dangerous time: does that still resonate?

Mary Bee lived in a time where manners and morals were virtues. We are in a day and age where we’ve lost touch with that for a lot of other reasons. For me, she does the right thing because she believes in doing the right thing. She’ll say right to your face how she feels. The world would be a better place if we would just really deal honestly with each other. She goes where angels feel to tread.

As an actress, you had to tread in the past, riding horses, plowing fields. Do you ride?

I didn’t. I love animals. I’ve had experience horseback riding recreationally. But I didn’t know how to ride to this extent. Getting to be an actor gives me the ability to walk – or ride — in someone else’s shoes and empathize with someone else’s plight in life. Playing a farmer, it’s extraordinary how hard a life it is: they have to grow and work and sustain life. Farmers are fitter than any bodybuilder. You have to know how to direct mules and pull that carriage and pull the plow. There are distinct steps to get to it and you cannot skip a step. And then there are those bits like getting on a horse when your horse is not behaving and you’re losing the light. I love that challenge and the collaborative aspect of it. Tommy Lee Jones is a hands-on horseman and he wanted me to look a specific way. When I jump in I get to jump in with the best.

[RELATED: Oscar-Winners Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones Amaze in ‘The Homesman’]

Mary Bee is a Sarah Plain and Tall kind of character. She’s unvarnished. Did that suit you?

It cuts all pretenses and gets to the heart of the matter. To use a book as a metaphor: to judge a book by its cover. It’s so easy to judge a woman on first meeting. Being around Tommy Lee Jones, I see the way people look at him and talk about him. Stereotypes are dangerous. Ultimately he made a feminist movie and it shows his heart and how multi-faceted he truly is. He allows people in. If anything, making this film made me appreciate him like I appreciate Mary Bee. People can put labels on Mary Bee, like she’s bossy, or she’s plain. But there’s more to all of us than anybody can ever see, even the people that are close to us. It’s so important to give people the benefit.

How hard is it to find leading roles this multi-faceted for women in Hollywood now?

I’d love to find a great supporting role and not carry the movie. There are years when we’ve had a lot of great women’s roles I just hope to not make it a gender thing. I want to find roles that tell stories that we can connect to, or learn from, or be entertained by. As a female artist, I do find full-rounded, fleshed out people to play, it just might not be as often as I like. So I can’t really complain even though I want more.

What was your takeaway from this portrait of women in the West?

Their strength, courage and bravery, how they blazed a trail for us women is incredible to me. How they survived and we were able to push on is a reminder that we really should be more grateful for what we have in front of us. And, looking back, we should consider the trails they blazed and say thank you to them for what they endured and accomplished.

The Homesman is currently in theaters.

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