Category: Romantic Drama


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One of the great myths of life is that love is something magical, that it exists beyond our electrochemical human functions, that it is pre-ordained and written in the stars. It isn’t. We love because of chemical reactions in our body, socialization, and the pool of people we have the geographic (or, in our modern time, digital) capability to love. But, just because something is natural doesn’t mean it can’t be beautiful and just because you can love others doesn’t mean that your love for a specific individual is lesser. Love would be less messy and less painful if we could recognize that we will never truly be one with another human being and simply celebrated the moments we can share with others who value our presence and affection. Perhaps more efficiently than any film since Manhattan, Spike Jonze‘s Her cuts straight to the core of romantic love, wrapping it all in a sci-fi world that seems all too real now.

It’s easy to talk about love in a logical way. It’s easy to recognize the evolutionary functions it no longer needs to serve. But living life in a way that maximizes your romantic pleasure and minimizes yours and (just as importantly) others romantic pain isn’t as easy as philosophical discussions. To err is human and we want to possess our partners. We want to be the missing piece of our partner’s existence and for them to be the same for us, but no one can meet those expectations and fantasies. And romance wanes and dissolves when the person we love isn’t the person we fell in love with and the cycle of loneliness and misery begins anew. So, it’s no wonder it takes a machine to solve this most human of dilemmas.

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Among artists of a certain stripe, there’s an uncontrollable urge to make art of meaning, and if they can’t make art that contextualizes some aspect of the human experience, it can drive these artists to mania and depression. And while art that forces us to examine our place in the universe is often the most rewarding, we can’t discount the power of entertainment and escape. Situated at the tail end of Woody Allen’s transitional period from his early comedies to his later “serious” films, 1980’s Stardust Memories is a pitch-perfect encapsulation of one artist’s struggle against his own commercial talents as he desperately craves the ability to craft work of genuine import. And, in the process, he discovers maybe you can do both.

By 1980, Woody Allen had won a Best Director and Best Picture Oscar for Annie Hall, and Manhattan was a turning point for him as a dramatic storyteller, but the mixed critical reaction to Interiors and the even more mixed audience reaction to the increasingly dark and realistic nature of his films was taking its toll on Allen. He felt pigeonholed as a director of silly farces, but Allen cut his teeth on foreign art house cinema, and he wanted to make works more inspired by Bergman and Fellini than the Marx brothers. And Stardust Memories is a stunning work of art as self-therapy as Allen reconciles these warring impulses in a feat of pure cinematic magic truly worthy of its clear cinematic peer, 8 1/2.

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A few years back, comedian Louis C.K. released a stand-up special for HBO, and one of the first bits of his set was an extended rant about the inherent misery of life. His initial metaphor was that anytime you buy a child a dog, you’re actually setting everyone up for misery sooner or later when said dog dies. He then took it further by saying that all human relationships are predicated on inevitable tragedy. Either you date and you break up, you date and you get married, or you date, get married, and then one of you dies. Louis C.K. was taking human mortality for somewhat deep comedic laughs, but the newest film from Austrian director Michael Haneke (The White Ribbon) is an extended dramatic meditation on the untold tragedy and suffering of what happens if you’re a married couple that’s “fortunate” enough to make it to old age together. And, Amour, the 2012 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language film is nearly as emotional an experience as it gets.

Considering the film’s subject matter (an elderly couple’s battle with Alzheimer’s), it was somewhat ironic that this was the film I watched right now for this blog because my best friend and I had a fairly in-depth conversation on the topic just the other day. Amour wrestles with the question “Is it worth keeping someone alive who is no longer themselves in any sense of the word?” It would be easy to misinterpret this film as a chronicle of one husband’s almost selfless devotion to his wife, but that would be the wrong way to look at the film. The film wonders (in a vein more similar to The Road than one might think) whether the notion that human existence is sacrosanct is really true and if there are, in fact, moments when it would just be better if we were dead. And, if my interpretation of Haneke’s thesis is correct, I would be hard-pressed to name a film that handles these topics with more care or brutal insight.

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An elderly French couple, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne Laurent (Academy Award nominee Emmanuelle Riva), wile away their few remaining years in their well-kept but antiquated Paris apartment. Anne is in her 80s but in her youth, she was a much-respected piano instructor and one of her star pupils, Alexandre, is now a famous concert pianist, and the film opens on Georges and Anne at one of his concerts. Sadly, for this otherwise happily married pair of octogenarians, this will be their last night resembling happiness as Anne is on the verge of manifesting symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease (though it’s never stated as such in the film) and she’s not long away from the first of a series of strokes. And though, Anne is somewhat functional at first, it isn’t long before she loses any semblance of her former self and Georges, with occasional help from his daughter Eva (La Ceremonie‘s Isabella Huppert), is forced to spend every waking moment caring for the shell of a person that used to be his wife.

If you couldn’t tell from that description, Amour is a sad film. It reaches Synecdoche, New York/Rachel, Rachel levels of misery. In fact, it’s safe to say that it exceeds both of those films in terms of brutal heart-ache. Yet, it accomplishes all of this without falling into the trappings of melodrama. There were a million ways that writer and director Michael Haneke could have spun this tale, but he went for horrific honesty. There are few possibles fates in life more terrifying than to succumb to a degenerative mental illness like Alzheimer’s and Haneke captures it without sentiment or embellishment or any possible silver-lining. For those who have seen The Notebook, this film comes off as the antithesis of the big reveal of that film. With haunting realism, Amour stares suffering at its purest in the face and doesn’t blink.

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Emmanuelle Riva was nominated for Best Actress at the Academy Awards this year for her performance in this film, and now, I honestly don’t know whether or not she or Jennifer Lawrence should have won. I can’t begin to fathom the amount of research Riva put in to nailing all of the physical symptoms of not just Alzheimer’s but also the multiple strokes her character suffered. It is a commitment to a realistic portrayal of a type of mental illness that’s nearly on par with Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. My family had a close friend when I was a child who ultimately succumbed to Alzheimer’s so I’ve seen the torment the illness wreaks on a human being. And Emmanuelle Riva channeled the bewilderment and constant terror that Anne was feeling any second she wasn’t in a state of merciful lucidity.

However, in a vein similar to Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man (though at least Anne has an arc, but it’s an arc towards stasis), the real emotional core of Amour was carried by Jean-Louis Trintignant as Georges. One can not belittle the suffering that Anne goes through. By the end of the film, she exists as a barely conscious being. But, it is through Georges’s eyes that we experience Anne’s suffering. And slowly throughout the film, Jean-Louis transforms what appears to be a selfless devotion to his wife into an entirely selfish desire to keep her alive because he couldn’t bear to be alone. And Georges is cognizant of his own suffering and has to deal with knowing every day and every night that the woman he’s been with decades is gone and he’s clinging to mere memories and her corporeal existence. And, as a portrait of the malignant reality of getting old and facing the end of everything you’ve ever cared about, Jean-Louis Trintignant is just as good as Emmanuelle Riva. He (along with several other performers) impressed me more than the theatrics of Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, and Day-Lewis is my favorite living actor.

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The cinematography from Darius Khondji paired with Haneke’s direction is uniformly excellent. The camera captures in rich detail every inch of Georges and Anne’s apartment and the quiet life that Georges wants to live versus the tribulations that have been forced upon him and his wife. And, Haneke’s decision to consistently incorporate lengthy takes only adds to the heightened realism of the picture. The takes in Amour become uncomfortably long, but by refusing to turn away from a brutal moment with cuts that alleviate the tension, Haneke forces the viewer directly into the suffering of Amour‘s world. There’s a moment towards the end of the film that I don’t want to spoil for anyone that involves Georges reciting a tale from his childhood to his essentially catatonic wife that ranks among the most effectively shot, written, and acted sequences of modern memory.

Amour is so singular in its dedication to heartbreak that by the end of the film, one may (though it seems mostly doubtful) find themselves inured to the misery. I am a crier. It does not take much to make me cry in a film. And, although Amour is without question one of the most distressing and gut-wrenching films I’ve ever sat through, it did not make me cry. And, I think that was intentional on Haneke’s part. Eventually, Amour begins to leave the realm of sad and enters existentialist horror. You become too overwhelmed with the notion that this could easily happen to you or someone you care about to be able to process the film in typical emotional ways. Or at least, that was my response. By Amour‘s end, I began to experience a physical sense of dread. The misery of this film manifested itself in me as a sense of being physically ill. That’s powerful film-making.

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Watching Amour is a commitment. It’s not entertaining in any traditional sense, and there were moments where the film’s unwavering artistic vision bordered on torturous (in the good sense). You are volunteering yourself to two hours of heart-ache and suffering without any hope of a gilded edge to soften the pain. But, Amour is an edifying experience of truly exceptional power and uncompromising respect for the viewer’s intelligence as well as the plight of its protagonists. For those with an interest in powerful cinema and for film-making that has something to say, Amour was easily one of the best films of last year. However, if you are already depressed or sad about something, hold off on watching Amour until you can come in with a more even-keel because, otherwise, I fear that this film could ruin you.

Final Score: A

(One final note. I have now finally seen all of last year’s Best Picture nominees. This was the last one to come out on DVD/Blu-Ray. And, boy did the Academy really FUBAR what won. For those curious, this is my list of the order of the films nominated for Best Picture [This disqualifies my top two films of the year which weren’t nominated, The Master and To the Wonder]:

1. Life of Pi

2. Amour

3. Silver Linings Playbook

4. Django Unchained

5. Zero Dark Thirty

6. Lincoln

7. Argo

8. Beasts of the Southern Wild

9. Les Miserables

 

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In my review of Werner Herzog’s breathtakingly beautiful Antarctica documentary, Encounters at the End of the World, I went on a lengthy discourse of my definition of a “spiritual experience” removed from any explicitly religious context. To me (an agnostic), a spiritual moment or experience are those times in your life where you are exposed to something of great beauty or an undeniable moment of human communion. And, of course, when I described films that I found to be spiritual experiences, I mentioned Terrence Malick’s stunning masterpiece, The Tree of Life.  Beyond the film’s peerless cinematography, The Tree of Life was philosophical and existential in a way that few American films have ever been. Breaking his streak of waiting years and years between films, The Tree of Life‘s follow-up, To the Wonder, was released after only a two year hiatus, and Mallick hasn’t come close to losing his touch.

Though Bergman was fairly explicitly agnostic, Terrence Malick joins Werner Herzog as being one of the most spiritual and philosophical directors since the great Swede slipped from this mortal coil. What his detractors mistake for ephemera and a sense of muddled clarity is in fact the poetic subtlety of his work matched with Malick’s grand, almost unachievable ambitions. Between The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, it is clear that Malick is obsessed with the notion of man’s struggle to find meaning in our lives. But rather than tackling that most ancient of philosophical questions, Malick is more interested in looking at the heartbreak that comes when that definition isn’t present and the pain and suffering that life itself foists upon us without our consent just through our existence. And if The Tree of Life asked these questions from the point of view of a child discovering the terrible power of the universe, To the Wonder paints a portrait of adult loneliness and desperation and the ultimate fragility of romantic relations.

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Even more than The Tree of Life, plot is a secondary concern in To the Wonder. What story that exists is advanced not by typical plot devices by the emotional power of images, soaring orchestral music, and often half-heard narration. To the Wonder‘s goal is the evocation of a specific set of emotions first and then one can spend the second half of the film trying to suss out the ultimate meaning and ambitions of the film (which are there if one has the patience). And so, like The Tree of Life, if you don’t have the patience for Mallick’s fetishistic devotion to cinematography over traditional characterization and story, To the Wonder will be a torturous experience unlike any other. But, if you can handle a film whose ambitions are more equivalent to a visual tone poem than a conventional film, this film is as must watch as they come.

But, I suppose if I’m going to get any of you to actually watch this film I must tell you “what it’s about” even if the story almost doesn’t even exist. After spending time in France, environmental scientist Neil (Argo‘s Ben Affleck) returns to his native Oklahoma and brings the French single mother, Marina (Olga Kurylenko), he fell in love with back with him to the United States along with her daughter. But the taciturn and emotionally reserved Neil can not give the free-spirited and effervescent Marina the affection and emotional support that she needs and not long after making it to Oklahoma, Marina begins to feel trapped in her new existence. Complications arise when, during a break in their relationship, Neil strikes up a romance with an old friend, a widow (Midnight in Paris‘s Rachel McAdams), who proves a contrast to the jubilant joie de vivre of Marina. Meanwhile, a lonely Catholic priest, Father Quintana (No Country for Old Men‘s Javier Bardem) experiences a crisis of faith.

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The only other films that I can think of that reach the complexity of understanding of adult romantic relationships as this film are masterpieces like You Can Count on Me and Manhattan, and those films have the advantage of having actual plots. Terrence Malick’s ability to project so much emotional complexity through so little is an act of cinematic wizardry without equal. Even his peers of Bergman or Fellini in terms of visual mastery rage against conventional plot through post-modernist gamesmanship, but there’s still the structures of great storytelling. In To the Wonder, I suppose there is an underlying plot but it is so secondary to the simple power of images and suggestion. You can’t accuse Malick of being a minimalist because Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is too lush and magical for that to be true, but more than any other filmmaker of the modern age, Malick has reduced cinema almost to the bare building block of individual images and wrests stunning art away in the process.

That’s not meant to insult other aspects of the film. Olga Kurylenko’s performance in particular stands out despite the fact that she has very few actual lines on screen that aren’t her voice-over narration. Similar to Berenice Bejo in The Artist, Kurylenko has to evoke almost the entire spectrum of human emotion but hardly ever say anything. She does this and more. It doesn’t hurt Kurylenko’s case that Malick’s camera turns her into a stunningly beautiful figure out of some majestic painting. Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams also shine. Affleck probably speaks less than thirty words in the whole film yet he still captures the essence of Neil. But, the other stunning performance from the film was Javier Bardem’s Father Quintana which should do more to make audiences understand the loneliness and isolation of the clergy than any film that has come before.

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If Malick doesn’t get a Best Director nod and if Emmanuel Lubezki doesn’t get a Best Cinematography nod at this year’s Oscars, it will be a crime. When these two men work together, what they produced goes beyond magical; it borders on divine. To the Wonder is photography at its absolute finest and unmatched. Malick has an unerring ability to make even the most mundane aspects of human life look gorgeous with a near religious fervor. One need look no further than the sequences shot in grocery store parking lots or on run-of-the-mill suburban streets to see Malick and Lubezki’s talent to wrest beauty from whatever is on hand. You could watch The Tree of Life with what little dialogue there is as well as the narration turned off, and  if you love cinematography, you would hardly lose much of the experience.

Now, before you see my score for this film, I’ll reveal it early and say I’m giving it the same top marks I gave to The Tree of Life which I only give out a handful of times a year (To wit: Only one film from 2012 received an “A+” from me, The Master), and To the Wonder is the first film from 2013 to get that nod. But, I think The Tree of Life is a marginally better film. It has a grander, more existentialist ambition than To the Wonder. But, to me (and I know how divisive Malick’s later work has become), To the Wonder is a simply flawless film that more than accomplishes its goals of examining the nature and futility of human relations. Malick works entirely within his own sphere of film-making, and if there’s any doubt that he’s crafted yet another masterpiece, you must simply be incapable of enjoying Malick’s particular style.

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For those with any interest with cinema that pushes the boundaries of what is possible in the medium, To the Wonder goes beyond must-watch. To not see this film (or The Tree of Life) would be a dereliction of your duty as a film-lover. Every frame in this film shines with the detailed composition of a Renaissance painting. It is a haunting masterpiece from the opening seconds until its heartbreaking close. Terrence Malick has another film scheduled for release in 2014 and if this means he is back to making films at a regular pace and they are all as powerful as this, Malick just reconfirms his position as not just one of the greatest filmmakers of the modern age but one of the most visionary filmmakers that has ever lived. Malick walks among the gods of the medium.

Final Score: A+

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Don’t let this astonishing film’s title fool you. If you’re expecting a tale of sapphic romance, look elsewhere. In one of the most remarkable studies of human sexuality that I’ve ever watched, not just from the 1960s but from any film ever, 1969’s Women in Love is mature and thought-provoking cinema at it’s finest. Tackling issues as taboo at the time as polyamory, bisexuality, and homosexuality, and then truly diving into why some relationships fail, why others can work, and why, to paraphrase Jack Kerouac, “boys and girls have such a sad time together” (though in this film’s case, men and women). It is exceedingly rare to see this type of rich, character-driven portraiture accomplished on the big screen and Women in Love is the antidote to your stale romantic drama blues.

Based on a 1920 novel by D.H. Lawrence, Women in Love‘s subject matter should be no surprise. Though, in his time, D.H. Lawrence was hounded as a pornographer and purveyor of smut, modern literary criticism has vindicated the man’s enormous talent. If you couldn’t tell by the figure of two naked men wrestling in the film’s poster, Women in Love is a very sensual and some may say racy film (though, it’s fairly tame by modern standards). Exploring an almost absurd number of themes that would fascinate an author after World War I, Women in Love is a tale of repressed homosexual longing, all-consuming heterosexual passion, the class divides that were ravaging Britain at the height of industrialization, the psychic wounds caused by World War I, and the alienation of passionate intellectuals.

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Set in the years following World War I, Women in Love is the story of four very different and very passionate men and women. Gudrun (Sunday Bloody Sunday‘s Glenda Jackson) and Ursula Brangwen (Jennie Linden) are two schoolteachers, bored with their lives that straddle the line between their working class neighbors and the wealthy bourgeois that they associate themselves with. This sense of not having a place in society is established in the very first scene where they are invited to a wealthy friend’s wedding but simply watch it from the cemetery next to the chapel. Their father was also a schoolteacher, and it has afforded these girls an opportunity in life that they neither fully appreciate or understand. And, it isn’t until their romantic lives intersect with two wealthy older men that their lives begin to take on any direction.

Ursula and Gudrun fall in love with Rupert Birkin (The Rose‘s Alan Bates) and Gerard Crich (Oliver Reed) respectively. Rupert is a manic-depressive, alienated intellectual whose stark and, for the time, radical world view makes him something of a joke and novelty among his bourgeois friends. He rejects his girlfriend at the beginning of the film because of her complete inability to express spontaneity and joy, though that may be Rupert’s rationalization to avoid discussing his own bisexuality. Rupert’s best friend is Gerard Crich, a cold and repressed industrialist who is as cruel to those who work in his coal mine as he is to the woman he pretends to love. After a naked wrestling match that oozes more homoeroticism than possibly any movie sequence ever, Rupert and Gerard decide to pursue their romantic attractions to Ursula and Gerard, and essentially nothing but misery follows for all involved.

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Women in Love isn’t just one of the most homoerotic films I’ve ever watched; it’s also easily one of the most erotic and sensual pieces of cinema I’ve ever seen. There’s a scene early in the film where Rupert discusses the fine art of eating a fig that makes any of the sexual fantasies from Belle de Jour seem hamfisted and vulgar in comparison. As a metaphor for the act of oral sex (which is sadly made a little too explicit at one point), it’s enough to make anyone a little hot under the collar. And the actual love scenes are rivaled only by Don’t Look Now in the tasteful and lush eroticism department. And, I don’t just mean the love scenes between the men with the women. Although I believe the implication is that Rupert and Gerard don’t actually consummate their physical attraction to one another, their wrestling sequence is still an astounding visual metaphor for their intense and fiery sexual attraction and how badly these two men want to be with one another but can’t allow that to be.

Ken Russell’s direction is marvelous. The visual composition of the film reminds one instantly of Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence. The easy comparison would be to compare Women in Love to a Merchant/Ivory film like A Room with a View, but much like Scorsese’s nominal costume drama, Russell’s film has so much more going on underneath its surface than the period details. Though the film gets the period details right and obsessives of the 1920s would have much to enjoy there, Russell knows when to subvert period expectations to make an artistic statement. To wit, it is not uncommon to see Ursula and Gudrun in attire that seems anachronistic for the film’s time period and that would have been more appropriate in the late 1960s. And, Russell owes a great debt to the French New Wave with his unconventional use of jump cuts and jarring transitions.

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And the performances are practically universally revelations. Glenda Jackson won an Academy Award for her performance in this film and though I did not find it as awe-inspiring as her work in Sunday Bloody Sunday, that may only be because she spent less time as the center of the film’s attention. After only seeing two of her films (ever as far as I can tell), Glenda Jackson is quickly making a case to be one of my all-time favorite British actresses. She has a toughness and resoluteness that runs counter-intuitive to practically everything I know about actresses from that period. Jennie Linden was quite good as her sister, but Gudrun was a more demanding role, and Jackson aptly captures the spiritual decay and torment that Gudrun continually suffers from the beginning to the end of the film. Glenda Jackson is a long-lost heroine of powerful female acting.

However, I honestly think that the two most entrancing performances of the film come from its male leads. Rupert is more or less an avatar of D.H. Lawrence himself, and he used the character in his novel to espouse his philosophical, religious, spiritual, and sexual beliefs. Oddly enough, Alan Bates bears more than a passing resemblance to Lawrence, and alongside Jake Gyllenhaal’s turn in Brokeback Mountain, it’s one of the truer portrayals of bisexuality in cinema. The Brokeback Mountain parallels are eerie if you interpret Rupert as a bisexual and Gerard as a deeply closeted homosexual (as I do). And Oliver Reed is no slouch himself as the far darker and more tormented Gerard. He has to tap into some fairly violent and damaging places in his performance and at the film’s brutal climax, you believe the pain that would lead him to such depravity.
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This review is getting lengthy so I suppose I shall draw it to a close. There are certain topics that consume all of us, or at least, there are certain topics that consume all of us who allow ourselves to be concerned with intellectual affairs. And for a great many people that fall into that category, “sexuality” and to a different extent “love” come to define our quests for meaning in our short, finite lives. And, Women in Love tackles the themes of love and sexuality with more skill and insight than practically any film I’ve ever seen. Ken Russell (and D.H. Lawrence) approached human sexuality and sensuality like adults instead of in a voyeuristic or condemning manner. The film is light on flashy spectacle, but for those that have the patience for a mature, character-driven portrait of the price of ignoring our sexual passions, Women in Love is a must-see film.

Final Score: A

 

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Along with the Cold War (which officially ended the year I was born, 1989), one of the defining historical conflicts of the latter half of the 20th century that I have virtually no recollection of is the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland. With the seemingly endless sectarian violence between Protestants and Catholics over whether or not Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom or become part of Ireland, I can remember reading about it after the violence mostly ended, but I have almost no recollection over any of the events while they lasted. I was nine when the Belfast Agreement was signed in 1998, but that means I was too young to be an American kid and understand what was happening overseas. And, perhaps it’s because this is my first cinematic exposure to the violence that consumed Northern Ireland, I found The Boxer to be a truly fascinating examination of The Troubles as well as a gripping character study of one man who wants out.

Nominally, The Boxer is a sports movie, but it makes every other boxing movie I’ve watched for this blog seem trite in comparison. Whether you’re talking Rocky or the more recent The Fighter, it seems obvious that The Boxer has more to say about violence, politics, and the human condition than most other sports movies could ever hope to achieve (except maybe the terribly underrated, This Sporting Life). If The Boxer charts one pugilist’s course to redemption, it lays out this man’s path in stark and brutally realistic terms in a world where centuries old hate and violence constantly threatens to undermine any positive steps one man can hope to take. Though the romance at the heart of the film doesn’t carry as much weight as the tale of redemption and political strife, even it cements the senseless and tragic back-and-forth of revenge and violence.

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After serving fourteen years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, former Irish Republican Army member Danny Flynn (The Age of Innocence‘s Daniel Day-Lewis) is released from prison and wants nothing more to do with the men who let him rot in prison for something he didn’t do. But nothing is ever that simple. As Danny is released from jail, Joe Hammill (Adaptation.‘s Brian Cox) is negotiating a peace treaty with the British government on the grounds that the IRA prisoners of war are released, but Joe’s desire for peace in Northern Ireland isn’t shared by all of his subordinates, particularly the revenge hungry Harry (Gerard McSorley). And to make matters worse, Danny’s old girlfriend Maggie (Synecdoche, New York‘s Emily Watson) is now the wife of an IRA prisoner, and in the minds of the IRA, there’s almost nothing lower than a man who consorts with the wife of a prisoner.

When Danny is released from prison, he meets up with his old boxing trainer, Ike Weir (Ken Stott), whose become a pathetic and homeless alcoholic with nothing to do with his life when Danny wasn’t around to keep him going. Together they pair re-open their old gym, and in direct defiance with the wishes of the most militant members of the IRA, Danny and Ike make the gym non-sectarian, which means both Catholic and Protestant kids can train there. And, if Danny weren’t already hell-bent on pissing off the IRA, he begins to rekindle his friendship and eventually romance with Maggie. As Joe desperately tries to keep the fragile peace that he’s brokered with the Brits, all of the sectarian tensions and violence threaten to erupt again as Danny prepares for a highly publicized fight with a Protestant championship boxer.

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This probably isn’t a controversial stance to take but Daniel Day-Lewis is probably the greatest screen actor that’s ever lived. I’ve reviewed a decent number of films with Daniel Day-Lewis in them, and whether it’s The Age of Innocence or A Room with a View or Lincoln or Gangs of New York, I’ve become convinced that there isn’t any type of role that Day-Lewis can’t play. His range as an actor borders on ludicrous. His performance in The Boxer may not be as iconic as There Will Be Blood, but it’s still one hell of a turn, and Day-Lewis finds all of the rage and resentment and, most importantly, world-weariness that is eating away at Danny’s soul and then forces the audience to recognize the insanity of the world Danny finds himself in. There’s a scene later in the film where Danny is boxing a Nigerian boxer, and it’s one of the most remarkable scenes of Day-Lewis’s career.

And, thankfully, Day-Lewis isn’t the only one with a great performance in this film. Emily Watson is a big name in her native United Kingdom, but she should be a huge star everywhere. She may not have the most conventional leading lady looks, but she’s a hell of a performer. And, similarly to Day-Lewis, the character of Maggie helps to emphasize the film’s themes of weariness with the insanity of the Troubles and how the stubborness and obstinacy of those who can’t let grudges go destroys the lives of everyone around them. And Emily Watson captures how the Troubles have eroded what’s left of Maggie’s soul until Danny steps back into her life. Brian Cox, Ken Stott, and Gerard McSorley all also shine in their supporting roles. Ken Stott’s performance as the alcoholic Ike is one of the more heart-wrenchingly realistic portrayals of alcoholism this side of Leaving Las Vegas.

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The film has some minor structural problems, but they’re marginal complaints in a film this excellent and thought-provoking. Similar to The Return of the King, there were nearly three or four different moments when I thought this film was about to end, but then it kept on trucking on. Every sequence after these false endings worked and enriched the story, but it certainly made me antsy as the film continued. But, as I said, when a film has this much to say about the nature of violence, hatred, and the senseless cycle of revenge, I’ll forgive it for ignoring basic laws of cinematic story structure. Both as a historical document of the last breaths of the Troubles as well as an intimate portrait of one man trying to recapture his soul, The Boxer  is an indisputable triumph of character driven and political storytelling.

If you enjoy Daniel Day-Lewis, there is no excuse for not watching this film. I have seen exactly one film where he played the lead that I did not enjoy (the abysmal musical Nine, and it’s not his fault it was bad. You can’t make a fucking musical adaptation of 8 1/2 and not expect it to be fucking terrible). Daniel Day-Lewis’s insane dedication to craft and character is usually worth the price of admission alone (it’s what made Lincoln a very good if not a great film), and thankfully The Boxer has more than just another superb Daniel Day-Lewis film in its favor. My only word of warning for this film is that if you struggle understand foreign accents, you will have a hard time with the almost indecipherable thick Irish accents that all of the characters employ. And there are no subtitles on the DVD or Netflix versions of this film. Other than that, you owe it to yourself to watch this excellent film.

Final Score: A-

 

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Without wanting to sound arrogant, my knowledge of movies is pretty encyclopedic. You don’t run a movie blog for two and a half years and review at least one film from all but five years since 1930 without knowing your way around cinematic history. So, it’s rare anymore for me to come across a film that I had legitimately never heard of before placing it on my Netflix queue. It still happens (Tape a recent, positive example) but it happens much more rarely than it used to. Sometimes, these unknown films become some of my personal favorites that I’ve watched for this blog (Conversations with Other Women), but sadly, on other occasions, I quickly know why these films were lost to the annals of history.

There are movies that you know are going to be a drag from the plot description alone, and 1938’s Army Girl was one such exercise in cinematic triviality. After World War I, the United States army realized that it was time to signal the change between a traditional horse-mounted cavalry to mechanized tank warfare. But, with America’s rich tradition of cavalry as the linchpin of any successful military campaign, this change was met with much resistance. One man (and I’m unsure if he really existed, Captain Dike Conger (Preston Foster) has led a successful string of demonstrations of the power and flexibility of tanks when he is sent to one last camp to facilitate the change.

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But, Captain Conger is a well-known cad whose only rule in his female conquests is that he doesn’t date any women with any affiliation to whatever military camp he’s been sent to. It’s a rule that he never breaks… until he finds himself falling for Julie Armstrong (Madge Evans), the daughter of the camp’s Colonel. She pretends to be a plucky, hick-accented townie until the ruse is discovered by Conger after he’s already started to fall for her. But their relationship is threatened again when the march of technology threatens to put her horse-trained father out of work and with Captain Conger as his possible replacement.

That description of the plot is actually far more enticing than the one Netflix Instant uses which eschews any mention of the romance between Conger and Julie (which is really the main thrust of the film) and instead focuses solely on the tank vs. horse nature of the film. And, believe me, had this movie been solely about Conger’s attempts to convince his fellow soldiers that the future of the military depended on transitioning to tanks, Army Girl would have been practically unwatchable. Thankfully, it filled those moments out with a quaint romantic comedy that made the film bearable (though it’s short running time didn’t hurt matters either).

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I’ll keep this review very, very short because this film wasn’t terrible. It certainly wasn’t good in any sense of the word either. It was just frivolous and unnecessary. Nothing about it stood out except for maybe Madge Evans, and that had nothing to do with her acting ability (which was alright I suppose) but more to do with the fact that she bore a striking resemblance to Irene Dunne (though she lacked Dunne’s natural presence). I only watched this film because it received a Best Cinematography Oscar nod in 1938, and I suppose there were some well-shot sequences for the time. I can’t imagine any reason why anyone reading this blog should watch this film. It’s best that we let Army Girl stay forgotten.

Final Score: C

(I usually put a trailer for the film’s I review beneath my scores for this blog, but Army Girl is so obscure that no trailers for it exist on Youtube. So, that’s why it isn’t there)

 

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Though any look at the score distribution of my films will inform readers that my taste in movies leans towards the high-brow and artsy, I am not ashamed to admit that I am as capable of enjoying low-brow, broad cinema as anyone else. I only dismiss low-brow cinema out of hand when it’s intentionally as idiotic and crass as possible (i.e. late period Adam Sandler). Otherwise, if a film is enjoyable but meant for the masses, who cares? Funny is funny, and while no one would confuse Sex Drive with Woody Allen, I still really enjoy that movie despite it’s stupidity. However, the most unforgivable cinematic sin that I can think of is a movie that thinks it’s incredibly intelligent and profound but turns out to be as shallow as a dinner conversation at the Kardashian household.

I’ve tried to rewatch the original Matrix film years ago (and actually sat through twenty minutes of the first sequel before I started laughing uncontrollably and gave up), and, boy, is that film perhaps the shining example of a movie that will make stupid people think they’re smart. With it’s faux-philosophy and psuedo-scientific bent, The Matrix talked a big game but fell apart if you spent even half a second thinking about any of the absurd things Morpheus was saying. The Wachowski brothers (well technically, one of them’s a woman now) have managed to tread those same laughably asinine waters again with their bloated sci-fi epic, Cloud Atlas. It is not an understatement to say that Cloud Atlas is one of the most astoundingly deluded and self-important films I’ve ever forced myself to sit through for this blog.

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Cloud Atlas‘s narrative conceit probably worked much better in David Mitchell’s original novel but mostly leaves everything feeling rushed and half-cocked in the movie (despite the fact that it ran an agonizing three hours). The film is a series of six interconnected and metatextually nested tales featuring many of the same actors in a large number of roles in the different stories (including Big‘s Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Four Weddings and a Funeral‘s Hugh Grant, and Jim Broadbent). Touching on themes of slavery, free will, and the eternal consequences of our mortal actions, Cloud Atlas weaves a centuries spanning tale that leaves more than a little to be desired.

Certain episodes of the film work better than others, and perhaps not surprisingly at all, it is the portions of the film most dedicated to character and actual human storytelling that shine through more than the action/sci-fi/noir-ish pretentions the film wishes to hold. There are six stories in all in the film but only two made any impression with me. One is the tragic tale of Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), a talented Victorian-era English musician whose homosexuality puts him on the run. He moves in with the aged but brilliant composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent) as Ayrs’s assistant, but when Frobisher’s talents prove a threat to Ayrs’s legacy, Frobisher sees the elderly man’s true nature.

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The only other story worth it’s salt in the film is that of Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent again), an older literary agent who is tricked into locking himself away in a sadistic nursing home by his brother as pay back for sleeping with his brother’s wife years ago. It’s a kafka-esque dark comedy, and it was probably the only moment where the film didn’t have a cockamamie and unearned high opinion of itself. It let it’s hair down so to speak. But the other tales, ranging from typical sci-fi cloning blues, a postapocalyptic wasteland, a troubled 19th century sea voyage, and a silly detective story were all totally forgettable and generic.

And that consistent air of “generic” and “been there, done that” becomes the film’s biggest problem. A sense of deja vu in plot is not a cardinal sin of movie-making. The year is 2013 and the plot well isn’t as deep and untapped as it used to be. But, with the exception of the bisexual and doomed Robert Frobisher and the hell-raising Timothy Cavendish, not a single one of the characters in the film had any life or purpose other than to be used as plot devices. They were uniformly dull and uninteresting and when all of the stories in the film are intentionally cliche-ridden spins on classic genres, you need something sharp and fresh to hold audience’s attention. And at virtually no point did Cloud Atlas‘s writing accomplish that goal.

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I must give the Wachowski’s credit (as well as the movie’s third director, Tom Tykwer) for milking some visual inspiration out of their otherwise tepid tales. the sci-fi cloning nonsense is set in a dystopian future where rising sea levels have virtually annihilated the surfaces of many major cities and crippling poverty permeates Neo Seoul unless you’re the very elite. And when the Wachowski’s want to display their flare for science fiction splendor (which was perhaps the only redeeming quality of the Matrix sequels), they are nearly peerless, and Cloud Atlas is no exception.

That’s probably the last nice thing I can say about the film other than the performances of Ben Whishaw and Jim Broadbent. For a man who was old when he won an Oscar for Iris in 2001, Jim Broadbent brought a bon vivant feeling to the film that was missing throughout. He seemed like he was having fun and actually wanted to be there. It probably has something to do with the fact that he was acting in front of actual actors on actual sets and not in a never-ending sea of green screens (whose presence was painfully obvious most of the film). And Ben Whishaw (who I’m not entirely familiar with) marked himself as a potential talent with his sensitive turn as Frobisher.

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But even more than the problems I’ve laid out so far, Cloud Atlas‘s troubles can be rooted down to one major and defining issue. It believes that it as insightful, intelligent, and profound as The Tree of Life, but it is in fact as obvious and unnecessary as they come. When the deepest notions that your film can come up with is “Slavery is bad” or “Humanity is inter-connected” or “Our actions have consequences,” it becomes very easy to laugh away any philosophical ambitions you pretend to have. And, that is as deep as the film gets. Kenneth Lonergan it is not.

What astounds me the most about Cloud Atlas though is how people I respect and appreciate intellectually seem to adore and idolize this film. Either they watched a different, better movie than I did or they allowed themselves to be suckered in by the surface beauty of the movie and it’s simplistic themes. I can’t in good heart recommend this film to everyone. I feel compelled to read the novel now to see if I find it to be as much of a trainwreck as the movie was, but somehow I feel that isn’t even possible. Unless you’re looking for a chance to laugh at really awful “yellowface” make-up, give Cloud Atlas a pass.

Final Score: C-

 

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In 2006, two films about purveyors of illusions hit theaters, and much like the battle between 30 Rock and Studio 60 (which ironically both premiered that year as well I believe), only one would prevail. Of course, the film that made the biggest cultural headway (and helped to catapult Christopher Nolan into the public imagination) was the Christian Bale/Hugh Jackman vehicle, The Prestige. But, over the years, the other magic themed film from that year, The Illusionist, has gained a considerable cult-following and I’ve meant to watch it for years now. And, I must sadly report that I found the film disappointing. Like any magic trick properly explained, The Illusionist is a hollow, fleeting experience with only just enough flashes of magic o keep it interesting.

I say that it’s hollow and fleeting because The Illusionist has joined films like War Horse as proof that you can have a technically competent and well-executed film that I won’t find especially enjoyable when the the important pieces (plotting, characterization) are merely shadows in fact. Because, like the ethereal projections that Eisenheim the Illusionist (American History X‘s Edward Norton) conjures late in the film, there is nothing substantive beneath The Illusionist‘s surface. With flat, one-dimensional characters and torpid pacing that seems to revel in its own predictability, this film tested my patience to sit through its motions and only earned my attention on rare occasions.

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Years after being pushed away from his childhood love, almost supernaturally gifted illusionist Eisenheim moves to Vienna to practice his trade. But during a packed performance attended by none other than the crown prince of Hungary, Eisenheim sees his childhood love, Sophie (Jessica Biel), for the first time in years. A contessa herself, Sophie is now engaged to the Crown Prince, but seeing Eisenheim brings up feelings that both thought were  lost. As Eisenheim becomes even more popular with the Viennese people and embarrasses the Crown Prince with his tricks, Eisenheim is investigated by Inspector Uhl (Private Parts‘s Paul Giamatti) for any possible wrongdoing. But, of course, nobody knows the massive trick Eisenheim has up his sleeve.

I tend to give more in-depth discussions of characters and plots here, but as I’ve said, there isn’t much going on underneath the surface of The Illusionist. Characters are exactly what they seem, and if you are able to pay even the most remote attention, things play out as you think they will. Although I actually enjoyed the ending (mostly for the film paying off how I expected things to turn out), it is also 100% predictable and even then, it glosses over certain things that would have made more sense with better foreshadowing. Though Eisenheim is meant to be mysterious, the film’s dogged insistence on not fleshing out his character any robs the film of nearly any ability to generate audience sympathy.

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Ed Norton is one of my favorite actors of his generation. I’m not sure if it’s possible to watch him in Primal Fear or American History X and not simply stand in awe of his mastery of his craft. But, like everything else in The Illusionist, his performance in this film is simply “meh.” He can’t maintain his Prussian accent for more than half a scene, and the writing provides him with very little to work with in strengthening the characterization of this bland magician. Jessica Biel is just an outright mediocre actress at best, and she showed nothing new as the Contessa. But, thankfully, like all films he’s in, Paul Giamatti shines as the tireless investigator because he’s just always a champ.

I’m going to keep this review short. I want to play a bit of The Last of Us tonight and keep catching up on Game of Thrones. Hell, maybe if I’m lucky I can even watch Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs which is the next film on my blog list that I have waiting at home from Netflix. And honestly, there was just nothing special about this film. It wasn’t that the movie was bad. And, I actually really enjoyed the cinematography at times, but there was nothing astounding about The Illusionist. And it had enough glaring flaws in terms of its characterization that I couldn’t ever fully (or even mostly) invest in this tale. For fans of the technical aspects of film-making, The Illusionist has some secrets to reveal, but everybody else could probably stay home.

Final Score: B-

 

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In 2008, before Revolutionary Road was released, the film generated a ton of hype for a variety of reasons. Most obviously, it was the first on-screen pairing of Titanic stars Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio (The Departed). It was also buzz-worthy for the fact that Kate Winslet’s then-husband, Sam Mendes (Skyfall), was directing her in a film that required her to have sex scenes with two different men. That’s a feat of marital trust that I’m not sure that I could pull off. While the film was generally well-received, it’s praise nowhere near matched the hype, and having come to the film five years later removed from the hype, I see Revolutionary Road as a film with infinite promise that is sullied by some of the worst, most overcooked dialogue I’ve ever encountered for this blog.

To Revolutionary Road‘s credit, the film is dark beyond compare. The only thing keeping this from being a Todd Solondz-esque journey into suburban malaise is a general lack of graphic material. As a portrait of a marriage on the perpetual verge of collapse and of lives (and perhaps an entire human existence) that are devoid of meaning and fulfillment, Revolutionary Road starts bleak, stays bleak, and ends bleak, and it never shies away from the most brutal and intimate moments in a marriage. With astounding performances from its leads (and supporting player Michael Shannon), Revolutionary Road could have been one of the most effecting character pieces of the 2000s. As it is, I found myself laughing every five minutes from the comically overblown dialogue and speechifying from its principal players.

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Dysfunctional barely begins to cover the marriage of the Wheeler family in the supposed perfectness of the 1950s. Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) works as a salesman/copy writer for the same firm his father worked for and hates the complete lack of purpose in his life. April (Kate Winslet) was a former actress who now pretends to love her empty life as a house wife. Frank cheats on April with a cute secretary (Zoe Kazan) while April has eyes for their neighbor, Shep. When the duo decide that the only way to save their marriage and their lives by moving to Paris, have they found their last chance for hope or is it just another delusion that their lives can have any meaning?

While I have the sneaking suspicion that this is a movie I may actually appreciate on a second viewing, that didn’t make the first viewing any more bearable. It takes until the film’s final thirty minutes for the slow dripping of characterization to finally gel into something meaningful, and by that time, I had already exhausted my patience with the film’s snail-like pacing. Movies like Sunday Bloody Sunday show that deliberate peeling away of character can make for first-class drama, but Revolutionary Road betrays its thematic material and rich characterization with mind-numbing emotional histrionics and dialogue that nukes away any subtlety the scenes might have carried.

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Thankfully, the film had three simply marvelous performances to distract me from the stunningly awful dialogue in the movie (and it’s flaccid first two acts). Both Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet give one of the best performances of their careers as these spouses whose indifference towards one another spills over to near hatred. Each is lost and hollow and desperate for any form of acceptance and meaning, and through their emotionally explosive performances, Kate and Leo make us feel the years of pent-up resentment and frustration eating away at these two spouses. That they achieve this despite the dialogue hurdles in their way is even more of a testament to their performances.

The real scene-stealer of the film though was Michael Shannon whose dynamic portrayal of the mentally unstable son of the Wheelers’ real estate agent provided the film the emotional and manic jolt it needed to put the pieces in play for the film’s rewarding final stretch. Along with Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook, this was a superb modern portrayal of mental illness (i.e. a portrayal set in the 50s). Michael Shannon was the only cast member to receive an Academy Award nomination. Kate and Leo deserved them as well, but more than anyone, Michael Shannon’s performance was incendiary.

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I’ll draw this review to a close because there are other ways I’d rather spend my Wednesday evening than rambling about a film I didn’t particularly care for. There’s a lot to like about Revolutionary Road (and Sam Mendes’s visual direction is superb), but there are even more things to hate about it. I can’t stress enough how “pretentious college theatre student” the dialogue in this movie felt and how much it drew me out of the experience again and again. If you’re a fan of good acting, I’m not sure if I can say that Leo and Kate make this film worth the price of admission, but they’re about the only thing that could.

Final Score: C+