Sunday, October 28, 2012

Beyond the Hills (2012)

Beyond the Hills
Directed by Christian Mungiu
Starring: Cosmina Stratan, Cristina Flutur, Valeriu Andriuta, Dana Tapalaga
Grade: C [48] 

While Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days” exposed backstreet abortion as a harrowing, exploitative ordeal, it at least brought to light the stigma of social issues with a powerful realism relatively unseen in Romanian cinema of the time. Beautifully shot and thoroughly engrossing in its first half, this story of nuns in rural Romania is provocative in the way that his previous films have been, but in dealing with the trials and tribulations within fundamentalist Christianity he makes fewer observations about society than he does insinuations, and cynically muddies religion in brazen, simple terms. Even as an Atheist it’s difficult to condone the contemptuous techniques at play here, burying a love story underneath what is essentially “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” played out in terribly repetitive terms over two-and-a-half gruelling hours. His social commentary only really becomes apparent in the final scenes of the film, capped by a final shot which serves to heighten the distaste. This is grubby business.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Like Someone In Love (2012)

Like Someone In Love 
Directed by Abbas Kiarostami
Starring: Rin Takahashi, Tadashi Okuno, Ryo Kase, Denden
Grade: A- [87] 

After Kiarostami’s last film, “Certified Copy,” explored the uncertainty of relationships so briskly, his latest is a tender companion piece with similar themes. The emphasis here is more on how we (particularly young people) approach issues of love and commitment, told through the striking Rin Takahashi’s chance encounter with older man Tadashi Okuno. I found much to relate to in the film’s depiction of the inherent confidence of youth when approaching cross-generational matters of romance (that comes from being more virile and attractive), even as that confidence is often a brittle façade. The film is rarely sexual but nevertheless remains about how sexuality colours our view of relationships, ageing, and overall purpose. Does monogamy seem like an unattainable, unthinkable goal? Okuno does an excellent job of buffering this discussion as an on-screen voice of author Kiarostami, and as a curious respondent to young romance at its most tempestuous and doomed.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Fill the Void (2012)

Fill the Void
Directed by Rama Burshtein
Starring: Hadas Yaron, Yiftach Klein, Irit Sheleg
Grade: B [71]

Despite its deployment of age-old commentary Rama Burshtein’s drama about arranged marriages in orthodox Jewish religion integrates its Austen-derived brand of feminity with a remarkably non-judgemental insight into faith and custom. As a participant of the Jewish faith Burshtein fails to shy away from the difficult pressures of marriage as a confluence of morality, duty, necessity -- and, yes, love -- but does so by revealing how these elements can be shaped into making a decision wise for one’s own future both logically and emotionally. I’m a long way from believing that commitment should stem from anything more than it should stem from love, but this film offers an uncommon, ingrained viewpoint by which to consider the issue more closely. Dramatically repetitive but thematically rich, it’s a film which compels discussion more than most I’ve seen this year.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Barbara (2012)

Directed by Christian Petzold
Starring: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Jasna Fritzi Bauer, Rainer Bock, Mark Waschke
Grade: B+ [79]

The prime example of what a festival film should be, “Barbara” is best viewed with no prior knowledge, its independence of operation as a filtration of characterisation and context piercing in a way that, say, Schleinzer’s “Michael” isn't.  This is a character study by title and design, surely structuring an arc for Barbara but nevertheless encouraging the freedom of its lead actress to ruminate about her character’s motives to quite compelling lengths. Hoss is as great here as she was in Petzold’s Yella five years ago; brooding, tense, judgemental,  withholding a sense of injustice beneath layers of duty and hostility. It’s a case of an actress elevating material that’s strong but vacant and occasionally contrived; what shouldn't work here half-works through the emotion and strength of the performer. Zehrfeld deserves some of the plaudits, too.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Quartet (2012)

Directed by Dustin Hoffman
Starring: Dame Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins, Billy Connolly, Sheridan Smith, Michael Gambon
Grade: C+ [56]

“Quartet”is also a film desperate for us to laugh at old people behaving less than appropriately to each other, the key difference being that – for at least the first half – it’s consistently hilarious, with Billy Connolly in particular flaunting the comic chops we've known he's had for decades now, and Dame Maggie doing what she so often does well, in perhaps as sullen, loaded and nonexclusively comedic a way as she has done for quite some time. Harwood manages to keep this story ticking along well for the first two acts, until M. Smith’s diva is required to vehemently defend her instincts, and then abandon them, in what feels like a really sloppily-conceived chain of events. We know where this is going early, but that doesn’t prevent the last act feeling like such a shoehorned retread of the film’s opening establishing jokes and celebration of old age as a precious, self-evaluating phase in life. There’s a touch of cloying sadness lumped in there, too, but the film has developed so much goodwill by then that it’s difficult to say that the wheels fall off entirely. On this evidence Hoffman is unsurprisingly an actors' director: this cast is having a ball, and they're resoundingly infectious.

Hyde Park on Hudson (2012)

Hyde Park on Hudson
Directed by Roger Michell
Starring: Laura Linney, Bill Murray, Olivia Williams, Olivia Colman, Samuel West, Elizabeth Wilson
Grade: D+ [28]

Loitering somewhere between “The Bridges of Madison County” and “An Education,” yet nowhere near as good as either, Hyde Park is the essence of poor middlebrow filmmaking. Two decades too late, it’s the self-important, voice-over-infested project you’re more likely to see Joan Plowright or Ellen Burstyn starring in these days than poor Laura Linney, and, to my memory, it’s the least Linney has ever impressed. It isn’t an indictment of her so much, given that, of the cast, only Olivia Williams attempts to elevate her first lady-character above besieged-by-the-time twaddle. But that might be because she’s playing the only person who isn’t swept away by the alluded charms of Bill Murray’s President Roosevelt, who’s written to captivate but has precious little on the page to enliven. We’re once again supposed to be amused by King George VI’s awkward demeanour, and the cheap standoff between Anglo-American relations as a brittle opposition of polite decorum and brash self-sufficiency. This isn’t a portrait of history so much as a comment-section cartoon, with cutting satire replaced by pandering bourgeois humour. Those will laugh, those won't; None of us will remember this film in six months’ time, so what does it matter?

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Taken 2 (2012)

Taken 2
Directed by Olivier Megaton
Starring: Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Famke Janssen
Grade: C [47]

I don’t know how much of a compliment it is to opine that Megaton’s sequel is better than Morel’s original, given that the 2008 film hammered us over the head with conservative paternal knowhow, while finding a way to bookend its turgid misadventures with Holly Valance as a rich-bitch-turned-Samaritan. What’s presented here is just as ludicrous, but far more straightforward, with a rounded sense of location and eminently more personal motive helping to offer some accessibility. But the absurd plot points override most of what’s going on here: casual terrorism is an orienteering exercise; slapdash city-roaming is a supposed logistic marvel. The parody here is too pallid to suggest genuine self-awareness, making this seem all the more unnecessary an addition to Liam Neeson’s portfolio of mediocre action movies.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Directed by Stephen Chbosky
Starring: Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller
Grade: B+ [79]

In a world of exaggerated, simplified archetypes in cinematic portrayals of high school, it’s thoroughly refreshing to watch a film whereby students are expressed as actual human beings. This is the case with ‘Wallflower,’ which, with the help of confident performances from Watson and Miller, and a knockout leading turn from Lerman, details the interdependence of friendship through the tentative, personal annals of self-worth. While it’s true that the film’s structure feels as if its burdened central character is being heaped upon (as well as the audience) the beautifully layered routes toward connection ingratiate this sprawling sense of 90s youth with “Dazed and Confused”-style incision. Films with this much feeling simply aren't made anymore.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Holy Matrimony (1943)

Holy Matrimony
Directed by John M. Stahl
Starring: Monty Woolley, Gracie Fields, Laird Cregar
Grade: B- [61]

One expects this comedy about an artist feigning his own death read more concisely than it plays out on screen, but Monty Woolley was a savant at making the stuffy seem worthwhile, and the situation’s no different here. There are points lost for ending a modest running time with a tepidly-played courtroom exchange (as was the trend in the ‘30s and ‘40s) but the Oscar-nominated script so ably details the dilemmas of the noble classes in this time, through the nobility of its central character himself,  that the plucky insight atones for oversights in plotting. It navigates that “Random Harvest” brand of rescue-through-cultural-escapism comedy jauntily, and that was surely the aim.