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Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Review: Clouds of Sils Maria (2015)

* * * *

Director: Olivier Assayas
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloe Grace Moretz

The key is that the older woman and the younger one are, in fact, one and the same, just at different ages. So argues the younger woman, at any rate, as she tries to help the older one figure out how to play her character. Olivier Assayas' Clouds of Sils Maria is a story about two women working at unraveling a story about two women and like 2011's Certified Copy, another recent and excellent film starring Juliette Binoche, this is one in which the lines between "fact" and "fiction" blur often, sometimes even from one sentence to the next within a scene. It's a film that you really need to pay attention to, and perhaps even watch multiple times, in order to get its full effect as it is so rich in meaning. It is also beautifully, artfully made, full of shots and moments which stun you with how aesthetically entrancing they are. Clouds of Sils Maria is a film that can leave you feeling unbalanced from time to time, but it's also one that your mind will keep turning back to long after the fact.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Review: The Hustler (1961)

* * * 1/2

Director: Robert Rossen
Starring: Paul Newman, Piper Laurie, George C. Scott, Jackie Gleason

Though he bristles when another character calls him a "loser," Eddie (or "Fast Eddie") Felson seems allergic to victory. The only reason he ever seems to be winning is so that he can find a way to lose, pushing and pushing and pushing his luck until it finally runs out and all the gains he's made have disappeared. Paul Newman was already a star by the time he starred in The Hustler, but Eddie Felson is, in many ways, the quintessential Paul Newman role - roguish, troubled, slightly hardened, and overall irresistible; no wonder he played it twice (winning an Oscar for the sequel, The Color of Money, 25 years later). Now 54 years old, The Hustler isn't one of those ageless films that still feels as fresh and revolutionary as it did on its first release, but it is nevertheless one that has aged well enough that it still feels dynamic and alive.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Review: Focus (2015)

* * *

Director: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Starring: Will Smith, Margot Robbie

Two thoughts kept coming to me as I watched Focus, the latest film from directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (the team behind 2011's Crazy, Stupid, Love): One, if Cary Grant made films today, he would probably star in this one because it's a piece which relies heavily on the charisma and charm of its lead actor to carry the day, and because it has a somewhat old school romantic caper in an exotic locale vibe to it; two, Margot Robbie is going to be a star. She's just got "it," whatever that is. As for the film itself, Focus is the sort of thing that Hollywood increasingly seems to be moving away from - mid-budget studio features not based on existing material, not intended to be part of a franchise (or "shared universe"), a star vehicle aimed at adults - but which reminds us of why there ought to remain some room in the marketplace for works like it. Focus isn't reinventing the wheel and it isn't going to end the year as one of cinema's "bests," but its an entertaining picture with its own particular delights, and it's going to be a real shame if movies of this type actually do become extinct.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Review: Beyond the Lights (2014)

* * * 1/2

Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nate Parker, Minnie Driver

For a film which lays out all its major themes in fairly blunt fashion within about the first thirty minutes, Gina Prince-Bythewood's Beyond the Lights unfolds with incredible grace and subtlety. Released late last year and more or less abandoned (it played in theaters for only 12 weeks, playing at over 500 theaters for only 5 of those weeks and at less than 100 for the remainder), this romantic drama is one of 2014's hidden gems. If there were any cinematic justice in the world, between this film and Belle, 2014 would have been the year of Gugu Mbatha-Raw, a consistently fantastic actress who deserves more high profile roles. However, if "high profile" ones aren't forthcoming, then at the very least hopefully she can continue working in challenging, well-conceives roles like this one.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

21st Century Essentials: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009)

All eras have works of art that are fundamental to our understanding of not only the craft itself, but the culture from which it was created. The 21st century is still nascent, but it isn't too early to start creating a canon that demonstrates the heights to which film as an artform has reached since the year 2000. These are the essential films:

Director: Niels Arden Oplev
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Nyqvist
Country: Sweden

Six years after the fact (and three after the American remake), the first screen adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo should not feel as revolutionary as it still does. Yet it’s still a gut punch to watch a film so unflinching in its treatment of sexual violence, so determined to see that violence from a female point of view, and so eager to not merely give its female protagonist agency, but allow her to seize it for herself. Although the narrative’s mechanics make it somewhat unlikely for success as a film (for one thing, the two leads don’t even meet until the halfway point and up until then are operating in their own separate stories), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is nevertheless a spellbinding piece of work thanks in no small part to the fact that the girl in question happens to be one of the most compelling and fascinating female characters ever committed to film.