Criticism, Oscar Race

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

No 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

No 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′

No 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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Criticism, Movies, Oscar Race

Oscar Winners Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones Amaze in ‘The Homesman’

2 Comments 14 November 2014

American Maverick Tommy Lee Jones shines light on Hilary Swank

American Maverick Tommy Lee Jones shines light on Hilary Swank


With The Homesman, Director/Co-writer/Star/Texan Tommy Lee Jones confounds again, making brilliant American cinema on the back of the blockbuster dime he earned for Men in Black and The Fugitive, among many others. His taste is no-nonsense, astringent in its view of human nature, and unsentimental about the American West. As we learned in his less mainstream 2005 film with the unpronounceable title, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Jones is not about currying favor with the audience: ride along if you dare, and you’ll discover something authentic and unexpected. And, in both films, the performances are exceptional, from Melissa Leo in Estrada to Hilary Swank in The Homesman.

The atypical Western — and one of my favorite movies of 2014 — starts with a portrait of Swank’s plain-and-bossy Mary Bee Cuddy. She lives alone on the Nebraska prairie: driving a mule, fetching water, making supper. Her overly tidy cabin is an oasis of civilization that sets the scene for a muscular set-piece where Mary Bee invites a gristly neighbor, Bob Giffen (Evan Jones) to dinner and proposes to the man after a postprandial song that puts the sod to sleep. When Mary Bee says, “I can’t live without real music much longer” she’s not exaggerating.

This set-piece grounds us in Mary Bee, her virtues and flaws, an aching loneliness more ungovernable than the mule. She is a good woman in a setting that offers no rewards or solace for such purity. And while this dinner sequence recalls one of my favorite scenes in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds – the introduction of the Christoph Waltz’s Nazi Jew-hunter, a villain at the family table – Jones exercises restraint, letting the scene unfold without snappy dialog or swirling camera movements (Rodrigo Prieto is the cinematographer). It remains both intimate and devastating.

From there, the movie adopts the narrative form of a journey from the West to the East – against the grain of the typical Western. Mary Bee assumes the responsibility that no man in her small community will accept: taking three mad women (Miranda Otto, Grace Gummer, Sonja Richter, all terrific) back across the Missouri River to the relative sanity of Hebron, Iowa. As John Lithgow’s Reverend Alfred Dowd says, “Life gave them more than they could bear.”

Enter Tommy Lee Jones, hanging from a noose, as George Briggs, the sinner that Mary Bee’s saint recruits to be her wingman on this impossible journey with three justifiably feral women. Briggs is a wild, selfish, unreliable cuss, with wiry hair popping out of his brows and ears. Jones relishes the role. Somewhere, deep within this grizzled cowboy is a man that’s abandoned his humanity on the frontier. Can Mary Bee revive and lasso that soul? That’s just one of the movie’s questions, but redemption really isn’t what Jones is about.

Jones has the flashier role – he’s Gabby Hayes to Swank’s Randolph Scott – but Swank, a Nebraska native, has the lead. While she bears a little too much star charisma to be entirely plain, the reedy Oscar-winner (Million Dollar Baby, Boys Don’t Cry) demonstrates convincing restraint and unfashionable earnestness. Because Swank, Otto, Gummer and Richter (and Meryl Streep in a cameo) have full and juicy parts, I’m tempted to call The Homesman a feminist Western. There’s no need. That would be surrendering to a sort of Stockholm syndrome. We’ve gotten so accustomed to the underrepresentation of complex women in contemporary movies that when we see a drama like this we categorize it as “feminist” when we really should just embrace it as clear-sighted, intelligent and provocative.

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Criticism, Movies

Review: Can’t Beat it – Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons in ‘Whiplash’

No Comments 08 November 2014

Blood on the skins.

Blood on the skins.

When ambitious young musician Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) strives to be a Buddy Rich class drummer, he nearly dies trying in a charged battle of wills with his thorny professor Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons). The buzzy Sundance hit that won both the Audience and Grand Jury Prize vibrates with life lived at fever pitch.

Speaking of pitch, while Whiplash takes its title from Hank Levy’s jazz standard, the rousing drama has the construction of a sports movie. The conflict between talented newbie Neyman and authoritarian Fletcher (J. K. Simmons) at a prestigious Manhattan music school mimics the locker room. Think of Neyman as the ace college pitcher that surrenders everything to go pro – and Fletcher as the crusty tough-love coach that throws every curve to break the rookie before he gets to the show.

Whiplash makes this point by opening with Neyman practicing on his drums, awash in sweat, before being interrupted – and dissed – by the muscular Fletcher. By the movie’s end, there will be buckets more sweat dripping off the cymbals and blood, too, lots of blood.

By singling out this drummer, talented writer-director Damien Chazelle shows the performer’s athleticism, the way that being a great musician requires integrating so many skills – physical, artistic and psychological. Chazelle pays homage to the hard work of the aspiring musician in a society that is increasingly disdainful of that profession.

[RELATED: Jake Gyllenhaal makes us crawl in LA noir ‘Nightcrawler’]

Teller — who broke out as a charming yet directionless high-schooler in last year’s indie drama The Spectacular Now — plays the fresh-faced Andrew with quiet ferocity and brutal physicality: His scenes on the drums find him beating not only the skins, but also his own body, leaving a trail of sweat and blood wherever he goes. It’s a performance you can’t get out of your head.

Beat it: Teller and Simmons throw down

Beat it: Teller and Simmons throw down

But it’s Andrew’s antagonist that has the stand-out role, freed of carrying the plot. Simmons, a familiar face (TV’s Law & Order, Spider-Man) if not a familiar name, is ferocious in the supporting role that will bring him an Oscar nomination. His dedicated and abusive music prof hurls racial and sexual slurs, and even chairs, to rip under the skin of his disciples. He’s not a character that fits in the politically-correct present, but the question the movie raises is whether the ends justify the means. Can his raging behavior turn raw talent into genius?

Whiplash has its flaws: the family and romantic subplots are sketchy, with Paul Reiser playing Andrew’s loving father, and Glee’s Melissa Benoist as his blue-eyed girlfriend. Both characters hover out of focus at the edge of the gripping central duel: the fraught battle to achieve greatness that defines both teacher and disciple, to make music together that’s not just beautiful but immortal, like that of Buddy Rich or Charlie Parker.

Whiplash expands on November 14th.

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