Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

STILL ALICE (2014)
Julianne Moore stars as a woman who develops early onset of a rare form of Alzheimer's. She's a linguistics professor with three children (Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish) and a medical professor husband (Alec Baldwin) whose lives are disrupted by her illness. It's a surprisingly nuanced film, with an interesting structure. As time goes on (and we're never sure how much time has passed between scenes), the film takes a little bit more away from her. It's gradual, and the film asks us (without dwelling on it in a pedantic way) to consider how much of our lives and identities are made up of memories and common touchstones. We see how it disrupts her marriage, how it upsets her relationship with children that she doesn't always remember. We see how a need to be independent while ill can gradually become a fear of being left alone and then, finally, a resignation. There aren't any knowing confrontations or unearned emotional beats. The movie just moves forward, focusing on Moore's excellent performance in the foreground and her changing relationships with her family, and magnifies common adult anxieties with this disease as she slowly dissolves into a haze. I've been thinking a lot about this movie since I saw it, and I think what's so interesting is that her relationships with her husband and her children are defined by expectations of the future and how independent they all are. The disease steals Alice's future rather quickly, and her independence fades away. This movie ponders what gets left behind when the future, the past, and freedom have disappeared. It's a haunting, hard movie, and it doesn't reassure the viewer, but it's excellent in its unflinching honesty and in Moore's performance. ****

CAMP X-RAY (2014)
Kristen Stewart is an Army PFC assigned as a guard at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, where she develops a tenuous friendship with a detainee (Peyman Moaadi). In the course of her time there, her convictions become less certain. I'm all for movies where people develop out of the black and white, right or wrong, binary thinking that trains us to think there are only two sides to every issue. Seeing this movie in light of the declassified portions of the torture report, the movie almost looks restrained, although it is very upfront about how we've skirted the Geneva Convention. This is a large-scale form of institutionalized, systematic bullying, and in the film you can see where it swallows everyone who becomes a part of it, both the oppressors and the oppressed. It's not an attempt at an apology or a justification of torture, nor is it an endorsement. There's a criticism I've been seeing of this film where, other than the two main characters, a lot of people feel like everyone else is a flat stereotype. I think that's part of the point of the film, though. It's about how we tend to see and accept the surface of people without looking any deeper, and as the two characters learn more about each other and come to have a respect for the value of the other's life, they see each other as people rather than as the stereotypes they've been taught to expect. The film puts you through the same process. Stewart and Moaadi (who was so excellent in A Separation a few years ago) are both great and compelling. The movie doesn't try to offer pat solutions, but instead has my favorite kind of movie ending, which is that they have both come to an understanding. ****

CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA (2014)
Fascinating, dreamlike movie about actors, art, and relationships. Juliette Binoche plays an actress who made her name at 18 in a stage production by a famous recluse. She played a young temptress who seduces and manipulates an older businesswoman. Now, after the recluse's death, another director wishes to revive the play with Binoche in the older role. She's reluctant and not sure she can identify with the role, and much of the movie is about her attempts--through studying the role--to come to terms with the way she's changed over the years. She has a close relationship with her assistant (Kristen Stewart, who is great in both this and Camp X-Ray and more people need to be talking about this) that sometimes borders on too close, and as they argue about how to approach the character and what the role means, we get a sense of the ephemeral quality of art and how differently people can interpret it. The director wants to cast a young Hollywood train wreck opposite Binoche, and there's something going on with that role that I find interesting. She's played by Chloe Moretz, and as much as I really think Moretz is talented, her performance here is something of a revelation. There's a real nuance as she goes from glossy stereotype to thoughtful performer to, in the end, something much more akin to the role she's playing. So much is happening in the margins of this movie, but the movie sticks with its dreamy qualities, taking place mostly in the Swiss alps and contemplating the unknowable, ever-changing clouds as a metaphor for art and emotion. All of this while staying ambiguous and almost impenetrable. For all of its dialogue, so much of what's happening is in the visual language, which is rooted somewhat in Bergman films and in old German Hiematfilm. ****

THE COLONY (2013)
Boring movie about a future ravaged by global climate change where humans survive in bunkers. Then they get menaced by cannibals. It's like The Road Warrior but without any excitement. The cannibals are pretty ludicrous; what is it with post-apocalyptic movies where the mere act of being a cannibal turns someone into a super-strong sub-human savage who has no language and only wants to eat constantly? Laurence Fishburne and Bill Paxton can't save this thing, which is tired and predictable and underwritten. It's not even good or committed enough to be truly bad, it's just mediocre. *1/2

ESCAPE PLAN (2013)
I wish the script had been better. Sylvester Stallone stars as an expert who breaks out of prisons on behalf of security companies, but is sent to this futuristic sort of super-prison where he runs afoul of a warden (Jim Caviezel) who has a vested interest in keeping him locked inside. He makes friends with Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is fun as hell in this movie. Seriously, this might be one of the times I've dug Schwarzenegger the most, because he's not worried about looking tough, he's just having fun. Schwarzenegger and Stallone team up to break out, and there's actually some really good suspense in this movie and some decent plot twists (though a few are pretty obvious). I like that the characters are smart, but not geniuses. They earn everything rather than just being cool and floating through this movie. With a smarter script and a little more of a sense of fun, this could have been a great B flick. As it is, it's not worthless, but it just really could have been something more. Jim Caviezel, by the way, is kind of amazing in this movie, throwing in affectation on top of affectation on top of affectation, crafting this hilarious performance that you can't really take seriously, which somehow only adds to the effect of this movie. And Vinnie Jones is in it! It's so close, man. **1/2

ALL IS LOST (2013)
This movie opens at the start of a bad situation: Robert Redford, alone at sea in a sailboat, wakes up in his cabin to see water rushing in. It turns out that his boat has been pierced by the edge of a wayward shipping container. As he deals with repairs, a storm moves in, and the whole thing becomes a survival drama. There's almost no dialogue in this movie; we just watch as Redford tries to survive what happens, but it's incredibly compelling. I love that we're just in the situation; the only stake is survival. There's no lesson for Redford's character to learn, we don't know what he's trying to get back to in order to empathize with him, the movie doesn't try to manipulate us into feeling something. The whole thing hangs on watching this man try to survive alone in the middle of the Indian Ocean, and the unassuming humanity of Robert Redford's performance. You can't watch it without being conscious of Redford's advanced age, which creates its own suspense, but it's really powerful just having him there, alone, capable but cut off, his radio dead, making mistakes and misjudging situations, maybe not moving quickly enough, and growing more and more desperate and then quietly resigned over his fate. Between this movie and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it's been a reminder that we have a lot of good actors today, but that Robert Redford comes from an era of actual movie stars. Excellent movie, one of the best of last year. ****

EUROPA REPORT (2013)
Very interesting movie that presents itself as the report of the first crewed mission to Jupiter's moon Europa to investigate heat signatures under the ice. It establishes a lot of realism and scientific accuracy about space exploration, but it's also very suspenseful. I don't want to talk about the third act, because it gives a lot away. But I like its focus on the question of how much an individual life is worth when compared to discovery and the breadth of knowledge still left to be known. The movie doesn't settle on an answer--wisely, I think--but presents a cost for explanation that's realistic without being preachy. Impressive. Very impressive. ***1/2

1 comment:

Roger Owen Green said...

Just saw Still Alice. Still pondering this...