Disobedience

May 22, 2018 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Rachel McAdams, Rachel Weisz, Alessandro Nivola
Directed by: Sebastián Lelio (“A Fantastic Woman”)
Written by: Sebastián Lelio (“A Fantastic Woman”) and Rebecca Lenkiewicz (“Ida”)

After earning an Oscar this year for his compassionate foreign-language drama “A Fantastic Woman” (“Una Mujer Fantástica”), Chilean director Sebastián Lelio makes his American film debut with “Disobedience,” a seductive and mature love story between two women with ties to an Orthodox Jewish community in London.

Esti Kuperman (Oscar-nominated actress Rachel McAdams) and Ronit Krushka (Oscar-winning actress Rachel Weisz) have been close friends since childhood. Growing up together in the synagogue where Ronit’s father was a well-respected rabbi, their lives parted ways as young women when Ronit “disappeared” to New York to become a photographer.

Many years later, Ronit finds herself back in London to pay her respects after her father dies, although she admits she was never as close to him as he was to his students. Early on, Ronit is surprised to learn that Esti has married their mutual childhood friend Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), one of the rabbi’s prodigies. Ronit assumes it is a marriage of convenience, however, since she knows Esti, whom she has been intimate with in the past, has always been attracted to women.

Ronit’s arrival — you guessed it — reignites something inside Esti that she has kept dormant for a long time. As the two women begin to re-embrace their passion for one another, the Jewish community around them begins to stir. Already having an unfavorable opinion about Ronit for leaving her father and her faith behind, those closest to the rabbi question her motivation for returning to a society that ostracized her long ago.

Adapted from the 2006 novel of the same name by English writer Naomi Alderman, “Disobedience” is an absorbing, well-written narrative that explores the conflict between free will and religious obligation effectively and in a thought-provoking way. In Ronit, Esti and Dovid, Lelio introduces audiences to a cast of three-dimensional, adult characters who are given choices, have conversations and never overdramatize the uncomfortable situation they find themselves in. In a less capable director’s hands, a film like this would likely amount to a worn-out love triangle, but Lelio identifies the nuances within the relationships and allows them to breathe on their own. He also avoids turning the outspoken Ronit into a she-devil stock character who waltzes into Esti’s life to cause trouble like some biblical serpent — especially since the film opens with her father sermonizing on the “desires of the beast.”

While Nivola blends Dovid’s anger, empathy and disappointment perfectly, “Disobedience” belongs to McAdams and Weisz in their most provocative roles to date — from Ronit’s condemnation of Jewish traditions to Esti’s pent-up sexual frustration that she releases in one erotic afternoon. We could have done without the couple listening to The Cure’s “Lovesong” (too on the nose), but every other moment they spend together feels honest.

The Light Between Oceans

September 5, 2016 by  
Filed under Brian, Reviews

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz
Directed by: Derek Cianfrance (“Blue Valentine”)
Written by: Derek Cianfrance (“Blue Valentine”)

There is something about the way some directors — in their wisdom? Confidence? Daredevilry? — allow their actors the considerable space to breathe freely and to nakedly “be” that, when we’re lucky, results in electrically vulnerable performances, dazzlingly intimate in their heedless, tightrope un-selfconsciousness and breathtaking in their vital, textured fullness and authenticity. It’s the sort of freedom that can clear away tricks and tics, stripping things down to the personal and uncrafted, to the spontaneous, inadvertent starbursts of honesty and messy, trembling revelation that inspire special, unexpected, often whole-soul performances from even celebrated, marquee actors, with whose best we previously thought we were well acquainted.

David O. Russell does that. (Witness: Christian Bale in “The Fighter,” the tremendous ensembles of “American Hustle” and “I Heart Huckabees,” Mark Wahlberg in every Russell movie he’s cast in.)
And Derek Cianfrance does that.

Watch “The Place Beyond the Pines” and try to tell me that isn’t your favorite Eva Mendes role, or some of the best work you’ve seen from Cooper and Gosling. Watch “Blue Valentine” and tell me you don’t have to remind yourself to exhale because you feel just that certain that you’re eavesdropping on private moments you weren’t ever meant to see (but can’t possibly tear your eyes from).

Cianfrance’s latest, “The Light Between Oceans,” could hardly be called as “raw” as “Valentine” or as “gritty” as “Pines;” on the surface, in fact, “Oceans” — a sweepingly romantic post-World War I period piece lit like a sunkissed watercolor painting — might seem a departure from the director’s oeuvre of hard-hitting, in-the-room immediacy. Undeniably, though, it shares that observer’s sensibility, that commitment to intimacy that both trusts and challenges its towering, A-list cast. Moreover, a careful viewing of Cianfrance’s recent narrative work reveals a clear lineage, a shared DNA that leads to the conclusion that “Oceans” was, indeed, the next logical step to which this has all been leading.

Based on the best-selling 2012 Australian novel, “The Light Between Oceans” unfolds the sort of heady, tragic tale that might, in lesser hands all around, veer easily and permanently into the swamp of melodrama. Reeling from his time in the Great War, the intensely solitary Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) applies to become keeper of a lighthouse on the fictional Janus Rock, 100 miles from the coast and the nearest human being (a situation which screams metaphor, but not ultimately overbearingly so). In short order, he catches eyes with Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander) a schoolmaster’s daughter whose piercing boldness and effervescence, despite losing two brothers to the war, disarms Sherbourne completely. Love blossoms, the two decide to marry, and the nearest human being becomes much nearer, as the rapturous newlyweds retire to an idyllic, private life on Janus. As it tends to do, though, tragedy besets the couple, and the inability to bear a child leaves both (and particularly Isabel) despondent — until the day a baby washes ashore in a dinghy, bringing with it the promise of life and happiness, but also an uncommonly heavy choice.

Bathed in exquisitely aching restraint and soul-rending inner turmoil, Oceans is potboiler escapist theater at its very best and classiest. From the early-goings extreme-wide of a steam train billowing a florescence of smoke across an undeveloped landscape, the production design, costumes, setting, and masterful symphonic score by Alexandre Desplat weave a wonderfully nostalgic portal to the sumptuous epic romances that populated the ’80s and ’90s, such as “Out of Africa,” “The English Patient,” and the films of Merchant and Ivory. As my viewing partner noted, “Oceans” feels like a novel — in a very good way. The strength of its direction and performances more-than-ably support what might be otherwise oppressively weighty themes, and the film thrives when we’re given airless, desperate moments in which to co-suffer with our protagonists.

Vikander is at first a luminous firecracker, recalling Audrey Hepburn as she exudes irresistible, irrepressibly girlish glee to chip away at Tom’s first-act stoicism; as the film progresses, she seamlessly “matures,” contending with despair and tribulation in stunning moments of hoarse, raw-throated agony and quiet, hard vindictiveness. Fassbender, our oak, indisputably one of our greatest living actors despite breaking out relatively recently in 2008-2009, is absolutely tailor-made for the repressed torment that inhabits Tom, so much so that “Oceans” seems, finally, to make an incontrovertible and nigh-embarrassingly obvious case for what we all know in our hearts we’ve been clawing to see: Fassbender’s John Proctor in (Cianfrance’s?) The Crucible. (Seriously: Why deny it any longer? Let’s solidify the Day-Lewis heirdom. We’ll all be the happier and more blessed for it.)

Weisz, as a third, profoundly interested party, continues her run as one of Hollywood’s most intriguing and enigmatic screen presences, imbuing a potentially somewhat straightforward role not only with every drop and more of the requisite, excruciating pathos, but also with enough eye-darting lost-ness and unpredictability to bring the character vibrantly to life amid despair. Australian screen giant Bryan Brown also shines in a gruff-then-tender turn as Weisz’s father.

If the film falters, it is, unfortunately, in the end. For my money, the resolution is given too short shrift to land with an emotional finality proportionate to the rest of the story. I needed more time with it, a chance to go deeper. Two, three more short scenes, tops. There are extreme decisions and actions by our protagonists that seemed, at times, a bit to swallow, but they went down eventually, particularly as the events they set in motion and the artistry with which said events were handled justified any misgivings. The film, at day’s end, is good. Very, very, very, very, very, very good. Where “Blue Valentine” gave us frank, uncomfortable, exposed-nerve emotion, acutely beautiful in the openness of its wounds, and “The Place Beyond the Pines” set a harrowing, multi-generational, “Wuthering Heights”-style opera in a dingy, recognizable modern world of motorcycle crime and police corruption, “The Light Between Oceans” blends these spirits, foregoing the “edge” of 2016 for the chance to carry us away like we used to be, once, to wince tear-stained faces and open grateful hearts at the delicate intertwinings of love and pain. Oscar nominations, well-deserved, should be in the offing.

Youth

January 8, 2016 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz
Directed by: Paolo Sorrentino (“The Great Beauty”)
Written by: Paolo Sorrentino (“The Great Beauty”)

Save for the pair of formidable performances by actors Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel, this unconventional dramedy helmed by Italian director Paolo Sorrentino (“The Great Beauty”) is a compelling albeit frustrating mess. Set in a vacation resort in the Swiss Alps, two longtime friends (Caine and Keitel), one a retired composer, the other a working filmmaker, reminisce about the past and meet a cast of surreal characters that add no real substance to the bizarre plot (or lack thereof). While the dreamlike imagery is lovely and attempting to solve Sorrentino’s ambiguous themes will probably help you develop a strong mental stamina, it’s not an experience many would consider unpretentious.

Oz the Great and Powerful

March 8, 2013 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams
Directed by: Sam Raimi (the “Spider-Man” trilogy)
Written by: Mitchell Kapner (“The Whole Nine Yards”) and David Lindsay-Abaire (“Rise of the Guardians”)

There aren’t many movies that your grandparents could have enjoyed as small children that are still capable of entertaining audiences today, but the 1939 MGM classic “The Wizard of Oz” defies convention and remains enjoyable 74 years later. Despite displaying very little of the grammar present in modern filmmaking (like cutaways and performances that aren’t constantly projected toward the back of the theater), “The Wizard of Oz” endures. It’s curious, to say the least, that the last three-quarters of a century has failed to deliver another universally-acclaimed film set in L. Frank Baum’s enchanted Land of Oz. Yeah, sure, there was “The Wiz” and “Return to Oz,” but those remain cult hits at best. Why hasn’t some studio stepped up, eager to craft a modern classic that would also earn them enough cash to build an actual Emerald City?

Twenty-eight years after their aforementioned “Return to Oz” flopped, Disney, um, returns to Oz with the prequel “Oz the Great and Powerful.” James Franco stars as carnival magician Oscar “Oz” Diggs, a low-rent huckster working a sideshow in the dusty Kansas countryside. With the help of his put-upon hype man (Zach Braff), Oz fools the yokels with his sleight of hand and charms the ladies with a never-ending supply of his grandmother’s one-of-a-kind antique jewelry boxes. When one of his romantic encounters comes back to bite him, Oz books it for a hot air balloon. One tornado later, however, and Oz finds himself in Oz. Stumbling out of his wrecked balloon, Oz meets the witch Theodora (Mila Kunis) who tells him of a prophecy wherein a wizard named Oz will defeat the Wicked Witch. Who is the Wicked Witch, you ask? Is it naive, love struck Theodora? Her conniving sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz)? Or their rival, glittery, good-hearted Glinda (Michelle Williams)?

Of course it’s not Glinda. I mean we’ve all seen “The Wizard of Oz,” right? Anyway.

Try as he might, director Sam Raimi can’t overcome two big problems that bog “Oz” down. First, the screenplay, credited to Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, creaks and lumbers under the weight of too much exposition and almost-certain corporate interference. It too-often lazily mirrors the plot structure of the 1939 classic. Second, and most disappointing, is that Franco is completely wrong for the part. The movie needed a natural flim flam man – someone with smarmy charisma to spare; someone like Robert Downey Jr., who was originally cast and dropped out. Franco can be a great actor, but when he’s called upon to laugh heartily like a vaudevillian rascal and shout “prestidigitation!”  he sounds more like a high school drama student getting ready to tie a classmate to cardboard railroad tracks while he twirls his mustache. “Oz” is far from a total blunder, though, and a handful of bright spots stand out. Williams’ warm and radiant Glinda, the magnificent and fragile living doll China Girl (voiced by Joey King), and the whiz-bang climax all point toward the rousing adventure the bloated script and James Franco are keeping hidden behind the curtain.