Sunday, April 26, 2015

Review: The Water Diviner

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
Russell Crowe's directorial debut, "The Water Diviner," falls into a few of the traps of first time directors and occasionally relies on cliches, but the film is an overall impressive filmmaking debut.

Set just after the end of World War I, the apparently true story follows the tale of a farmer (Crowe) who lost his three sons on the same day during the battle of Gallipoli and, this is not a spoiler, his wife to suicide.

Determined to bring his boys home to bury alongside their mother, Crowe's Joshua Connor travels to Turkey, where he is mostly met by British bureaucracy and indifference before being aided by a former Turkish general who led troops during the infamously brutal battle.

And since this is an historical epic, there's a cute little Turkish boy with a beautiful - and, of course, single - mother (Olga Kurylenko) who runs the inn where Connor stays. The potential romance between Connor and Ayshe (Kurylenko) is not overplayed, but the fact that it's there at all seems a bit out of place, considering the nature of the Australian man's quest.

Aside from this relationship, the filmmakers occasionally overly dramatize sequences that could have, perhaps, been better told through subtlety. Those grips aside, "The Water Diviner" offers a lot to praise. Crowe is, as always, impressive in front of the camera, but he obviously has talents behind it as well.

The cinematography by Andrew Lesnie is often gorgeous and, occasionally, stunning. And despite some melodrama relating to hostilities between the Greeks and Turks - especially a scene during which Connor prevents an execution - the film is fairly suspenseful and moving when it needs to be.

This is Crowe's first time behind the camera and I hope he takes another shot at it. Although not without its flaws, "The Water Diviner" is a solid wartime drama that obviously feels as if it were a personal project for the actor-director. I already knew of Crowe's abilities as a thespian, but his talents are clearly not limited to the realm of acting.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Review: Hard To Be A God

Image courtesy of Kino Lorber.
Aleksei German's "Hard to Be a God" may be the type of film that I admire more than love, but admire it I do. The film is my introduction to the Russian director, who is, perhaps, the biggest gap in my viewing history and, in all probability, the most respected but unseen filmmaker by U.S. audiences - especially now that Bela Tarr's films have long been readily available here.

"Hard to Be a God" is the director's final film. He died last year at age 74 and it is said that he began constructing this picture in his head as far back as the 1960s. Between then and recent years, he became a favorite of critics with films such as "My Friend Ivan Lapshin" and "Khrustalyov, My Car!"

His final film is of the type that has to be seen to be believed. On the one hand, its three-hour running time occasionally becomes a bit of a slog, but it's never anything less than a visually stunning one.

Based on the novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatskiy, "God" is set on the planet Arkanar, which is a smaller sister planet to Earth that is inhabited by humans and in the midst of its own Middle Ages. A group of scientists are sent to the planet to help the inhabitants get onto the right course and we get a virtual tour of the place courtesy of Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik).

Rumata, one of the scientists, has been told not to get involved in the planet's political or historical development, but the natives have come to consider him a god. Most of the film follows him as he winds his way through the mud, shit, torrential rainstorms, strewn corpses, scenes of sex and violence and poverty of Arkanar.

The film's most impressive feat is its long takes of Rumata strolling through the frantic day-to-day life of Arkanar's inhabitants as well as the incredible sets, stunning cinematography and brilliant choreography as numerous scenes unfold in the middle of long, unbroken shots.

There's not much in the way of story here, which is fine, although the endless sequences of Don Rumata physically assaulting the natives and drinking in a slovenly manner - not to mention the barrage of toothless, mud spattered Arkanar denizens spitting, farting, shouting, pissing, gorging or assaulting each other - finally begins to wear one down.

If it's often difficult to find much narratively or thematically to cling to in "Hard to Be a God," it's equally easy to be in awe of its overwhelming staging and visuals. In a sense, the entire three hours of the film feels similar to the immense hospital raid toward the end of Tarr's remarkable "Werckmeister Harmonies," a stunning work of hypnotic cinema that you should seek out immediately.

I look forward to viewing more of German's films - hopefully, in the near future. And while my first foray into his work wasn't exactly the type of film you love, it's worth a look and could certainly be called an achievement. I think it's safe to say that you won't find anything else like it.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Review: Child 44

Image courtesy of Summit Entertainment.
Simultaneously a Stalin-era political drama and a serial killer thriller, Daniel Espinosa's "Child 44" may have too much going on at once, but the picture is better than you may have heard.

In the film, Tom Hardy plays Leo Demidov, a military inspector whose job involves seeking out those who speak out against the state and arresting them. The film is set in 1953 and most of the characters live in constant fear that they will be named, which would then force them to denounce others or risk being executed.

Leo is married to Raisa (Noomi Rapace), whom he obviously adores, but there appears to be something off about their marriage. His commanding officer is the stern Major Kuzmin (Vincent Cassel) and he has a nemesis, Vasili (Joel Kinnaman), who is jealous of his position, which will obviously not bode well as the story unfolds.

The first third of the film is primarily concerned with the aforementioned plot mechanics. But a little ways into the story, it shifts gears after a series of children are found brutally tortured and murdered along railroad tracks, stretching from Moscow to the countryside. "Child 44" opens with a quote - "There are no murders in paradise." Leo, who wants to investigate the child homicides, is repeatedly told by his bosses that murder only occurs in capitalist societies and they try to rationalize the situation as a series of unfortunate events.

After Leo's brother's son is found dead and our hero and his wife are shipped off to a remote location after they are denounced, more dead bodies begin to be found sprawled along the tracks. Leo, working with a local inspector named Nesterov (Gary Oldman), takes the case on himself and the second half of "Child 44" becomes a serial killer procedural.

Even though these various plotlines occasionally get in the way of one another and some members of the cast haven't quite perfected their Russian accents, "Child 44" is always pretty engrossing. Hardy has long been a star on the rise and he carries the film as the troubled Demidov.

The reviews for the film have, for the most part, not been very kind. But this is an instance of a film that, despite its flaws, is a solid - although pretty bleak - entertainment.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Review: Ex Machina

Image courtesy of A24.
Fear of technology has long been a staple of science fiction films, from Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece "2001: A Space Odyssey" to James Cameron's "Terminator" films and Alex Garland's (who wrote Danny Boyles's "28 Days Later" and "Sunshine") directorial debut "Ex Machina" is a film that is simpatico to this theme.

In the realm of science fiction, "Ex Machina" is more of a slow burn than a special effects spectacle, although the film's modest effects are fairly impressive. It's the type of film that builds and builds and just when you're sure you know where it's going, it sort of pulls the rug out from under you.

In the picture, a young programmer named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is chosen to work for a week with a brilliant, but reclusive, inventor named Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who is working on a top secret project. As it turns out, Nathan has created a highly intelligent A.I. named Ava (Alicia Vikander) and he needs a subject to work with her to decide whether she has formed consciousness.

This is one of those films where one or more of the characters may or may not be playing one or more of the other characters and it's often difficult to decide who's scheming or being played. This is not giving anything away. In fact, I was almost positive I'd figured out what was going on about a quarter of the way into the film and turned out to be wrong. During one sequence, Nathan discusses "misdirection" with Caleb and this film does a masterful job of employing that technique.

Isaac is quickly becoming one of the most interesting young talents to watch - including his work in "Inside Llewyn Davis" and "A Most Violent Year" - and here he plays a character who is difficult to read, but remains all the while intriguing. Gleeson and Vikander are also impressive, especially the latter who manages to create a three-dimensional character from an individual who is not human.

Another refreshing element is that the film does not heavy handedly explore the nature of the "God complex" that Nathan's character displays. In other words, there are no scenes in which he is accused of toying with nature. There are obvious dangers involved in the experiment, some of which materialize toward the end, but the film doesn't display the type of paranoia toward advances in science often found in other examples of the genre.

Much like the recent "Predestination," "Ex Machina" is thought provoking in its subject matter, but also includes a human element that is often missing in movies of this type, such as the recent misfire "Transcendence." The picture is a calling card for Garland, who I hope will go on to do even greater things.

Review: Lost River

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
I've got to tip my hat to Ryan Gosling. His debut as a director, "Lost River," has some evocative imagery and its share of haunting moments, even if the film on the whole doesn't quite cohere.

Often, debut films pay homage to the movies that inspired the director and, in this case, it's pretty clear that Gosling admires David Lynch, Nicolas Winding Refn, Harmony Korine and even Terrence Malick. There are stylistic touches throughout the picture that give nods to all of the above.

Much like the recent "It Follows," Gosling makes great use of the burnt out environs of Detroit, where the story of "Lost River" is set. Both ethereal and unsettling, the dilapidated homes, graffitied buildings and abandoned neighborhoods are almost a character themselves in the unusual narrative.

A young man named Bones (Iain De Caestecker) lives with his little brother and mother (Christina Hendricks) in a rundown home and they are on the verge of being evicted. Bones steels copper from abandoned buildings "owned" by a creepy villain named Bully (Matt Smith), who rides around in a Cadillac with an elevated seat and speaks as if he were a character on "Twin Peaks."

Hendricks's Billy takes a job working for another creep named Dave (Ben Mendelsohn) at a bar - again, obviously inspired by Lynch - where she takes part in performances with fellow workers, including Eva Mendes, that include brutal stabbings and faces being peeled off. Across the street from Bones is a young woman (Saoirse Ronan) with a pet rat.

Although the film's surrealist narrative elements aren't exactly successful, individual images stand out - including some telephone poles emerging from a swampy body of water, a house on fire and an elderly woman constantly transfixed by a creepy old wedding video.

And while I can't say the picture exactly works, it certainly proves that Gosling has talent behind the camera. When he finds his own voice and (hopefully) makes a second film as a director, I believe it could be something special.

Review: Clouds of Sils Maria

Image courtesy of IFC Films.
Funny, insightful, mysterious and, ultimately, surprising and unexpected in terms of where it ends up, "Clouds of Sils Maria" is one of acclaimed filmmaker Olivier Assayas's finest works. It's the type of film that starts off being about one thing, shifts toward other concepts and ends up in a place that might catch you off guard.

Similar to Noah Baumbach's "While We're Young," although more serious in nature, the film plays upon the idea of learning how to age gracefully by shedding notions about youth in a manner that is somewhat less graceful.

In the film, Juliette Binoche plays well-respected veteran actress Maria Enders, who is traveling with her faithful - and patient - assistant Val (Kristen Stewart) through the Alps via train to attend a ceremony in honor of her mentor, a playwright who wrote a role for her 20 years ago and made her a star.

In the play, Maria had played a young woman who seduces an older woman at their place of work, leads her on and dumps her, provoking the older woman to commit suicide.

But just as Maria and Val near their destination, Val finds out that Maria's old friend has just died and now the ceremony to honor him will act more as a commemoration. Simultaneously, a hot shot stage director has decided to put on a new production of the play, "Maloja Snake," that made Maria famous and wants her to join the cast, but this time as the older woman. He has nabbed a Lindsay Lohan-esque Hollywood starlet (Chloe Grace Moretz) with a reputation for getting into trouble as the younger woman.

The play's title refers to a natural wonder that occurs at the Maloja Pass, where warm air is transformed into mist and low-lying clouds slither up the mountain in the form of a snake. The use of this phenomenon is seen via stock footage and, later, in a mysterious sequence during which Maria and Val climb the mountain to view the "snake."

There have been numerous films made about the making of movies and plays and although Maria is an actress and most of the characters with whom she has contact work in the film or theater world, "Clouds of Sils Maria" does not feel like a movie about film- or theater-making.

And while the film appears to give nods to Ingmar Bergman's classic "Persona" or Robert Altman's "3 Women," Maria and Val never switch places in the manner the characters (might) have done in those previous films. Rather, as the two women run the lines for the play, they begin to reevaluate their relationship with one another through the material they are reciting. In other words, it is through role play that they get a clearer sense of themselves.

Binoche is great as Maria, an actress who doesn't want to admit that she is no longer the young starlet who played the vixen in "Maloja Snake" and must now resign herself to portraying the tragic, older woman. And Moretz shows a comedic talent previously unseen during sequences in which Maria watches YouTube clips of the younger actress in interviews and having run-ins with the law. Her character's later ferocity is even more surprising.

But it's Stewart, playing the voice of reason, who actually carries the film. I would say that it's the type of strong performance that due to the subtleties involved in it might not get the attention it deserves. Then again, the role nabbed Stewart the Cesar, making her the first American actress to do so.

Assayas has long been one of France's finest filmmakers. Much like Steven Soderbergh, he is open to experimentation and his body of work includes low key character pieces such as "Summer Hours" and the lovely "Late August, Early September," biographical works like "Cold Water" and "Something in the Air" and the creepy "demonlover." I believe that "Carlos," his 2010 film about the terrorist Carlos the Jackal, is his masterpiece, but "Clouds of Sils Maria" is up there with his finest work. It's the type of film that deepens in terms of what it all means the more you think it over and provides a showcase for the very talented three women at its center. It's one of the year's best so far.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Review: Woman in Gold

Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
Much like last year's "The Monuments Men," Simon Curtis's "Woman in Gold" is a true story about works of art that were stolen from Jews by the Nazis during World War II. But while Clooney's film was a combat movie, "Woman" is a courtroom drama following the story of a woman who takes Austria to court in an attempt to reclaim a famous portrait taken from her family that now hangs in that country's Osterreichische Galerie Belvedere.

Helen Mirren plays Maria Altmann, who was forced to flee Austria with her husband (Max Irons), leaving her family behind and ending up in Los Angeles. The film is primarily set in 1998 when Maria sues Austria and her case makes it all the way to the Supreme Court. There are also a handful of flashbacks to the Nazis' arrival in Austria and her family being placed under house arrest.

Altmann is assisted in her efforts to take back Gustav Klimt's "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer," a portrait of her aunt that is also known as the "Woman in Gold" and which once hung in her parents' home, by a young attorney named Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), whose grandfather was a famous composer as well as an Austrian Jew.

Similar to "The Monuments Men," Curtis's film draws a fair amount of emotion from its time, place and story about art theft. It's also the type of story to likely make you angry when you consider the lengths the Austrian government took to prevent Altmann from retrieving the paintings that were rightfully hers, but had been stolen from her family decades before.

And also much like "Monuments," the film is a good movie about the Holocaust, but not a great one. The flashbacks to Maria's youth, set against the backdrop of the rise of Nazism in Austria, are a bit more effective than the numerous courtroom sequences set in the late 1990s. And there are some plot threads - Schoenberg's family life, which include financial concerns and a pregnant Katie Holmes - that come up a bit short.

But this is the type of film where performances carry the day. Mirren is great as always and Daniel Bruhl provides some solid supporting work as a journalist helping Altmann and Schoenberg with their cause. And Reynolds' work in this film along with his performances in Atom Egoyan's recent "The Captive" and "The Voices," which wasn't altogether successful as a whole, continues to prove that he has the goods as a dramatic actor.

So, while it's certainly possible that a great film about Nazi art theft and the reparations that followed still awaits us, "Woman in Gold" is a well-made and emotionally satisfying drama with some strong performances. It's well worth seeing.