Saving Mr. Banks (2013)
François Duhamel/Walt Disney Studios
No one's hidden pain may be left undocumented these days, and most creative works end up being skinned so that the inner workings of their makers' tormented minds can be laid out on the operating table for inspection. This urge may throw some new light on the activities of characters in a story like "Mary Poppins," where the internalized pain and regrets of a young Australian girl can be seamlessly projected forward onto the book she wrote in later life, lending resonance to every poignant plot point. But it's a strange modern way to interact with art, which has historically been expected to present a mirror to your own personality, rather than provide a hotline to the one buzzing in the head of P. L. Travers. Plus a lot of immortal literature for young people was written by mature individuals with issues, and what does it matter? Look at Enid Blyton; the definitive film about her would have to be made by Wes Craven.
Continue reading "A Roomful of Sugar" »
The Fifth Estate (2013)
Frank Connor/Walt Disney Studios
Julian Assange's pre-emptive attempt to persuade Benedict Cumberbatch not to play the WikiLeaks founder in "The Fifth Estate" was probably a forlorn hope. As if Mr. Cumberbatch, now deep into that period when stars can be seen still visibly enjoying the work, was likely to refuse the opportunity of investigating a character as confounding and mannered as Mr. Assange. The actor's talent for mimicry has been put to good use before, but Bill Condon's film allows him to deploy it on a higher level altogether, and the results are a firework display. It's not his fault that the film comes not long after Alex Gibney's documentary "We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks," which covered some of the same ground in more eccentric and inventive fashion, and did so with a harder focus on Mr. Assange than "The Fifth Estate" can pull off.
Continue reading "Publish and Be Slammed" »
Laurie Sparham/Le Pacte
History has more or less made its judgment on Britain's former Princess of Wales, but what it will make of the current state of the biopic industry is anybody's guess. The double whammy of "Diana" and "Rush" in close proximity suggests that the English-speaking end of the genre can be easily rendered speechless, finding nothing left to say and apparently no new ways left to say it. Excepting some wild-card swerves like casting Cate Blanchett as an avatar of Bob Dylan, mainstream depiction of people in the public eye seems to have lost most of its audacity, unable to gain traction when fame means already being lost into the pulping machine of celebrity and voyeurism and prurience. No coincidence surely that documentarians are currently running rings around feature film makers when it comes to biography, or that those feature films are reduced to the most literal self-explanatory approaches to the material. You don't have to have met Diana Spencer to spot that the character in "Diana" is a sketchy outline, you just have to have met another human being. A scriptwriter can type "Diana feels nameless existential dread in a Paris hotel corridor" with a straight face, but see that exact thing and the floor opens up beneath you.
Continue reading "Royal Pain" »
The Great Beauty (2013)
Gianni Fiorito/Pathé Distribution
When Peter Greenaway gazed at Rome back in 1987 for "The Belly of an Architect," he pointed his near-stationary camera towards it from a distance, until the static accumulating from this God's-eye view nearly caused the screen to bow outward at the sides. Paolo Sorrentino does things differently, and "The Great Beauty" hews close to the affluent end of the Eternal City's citizenry and shares their perspectives instead. Mr. Sorrentino is interested in the effect that people have on their city rather than the reverse process, and his Rome is built on networks of vaguely mournful parties and nightclubs and middle-aged hedonists; a seemingly fragile base for so much history to find itself standing on. The resident Lord of Misrule Silvio Berlusconi never actually turns up, but lurks around every corner.
Continue reading "Tales of the City" »
Magic Magic (2013)
Andrés Gachón/2013 Sundance Film Festival
Sebastián Silva's "Magic Magic" starts off as it means to go on, in a very affected state of agitation. The camera hovers nervously around characters at waist height or below, apparently unable to look them in the eye; a brusque title card flashes on screen for a nanosecond before the camera returns to bothering someone's Skechers. Notionally a horror film, "Magic Magic" lays on the visual alienation tactics in large dollops, nearly turning into something potentially more interesting: a story built of nothing but constant fret and friction between a group of acquaintances (clearly not friends) on a Chilean road trip, where the internal stresses reach such a pitch that even the strongest of them shows signs of climbing the walls. By that point the weakest has already gone round the bend.
Continue reading "Friends Without Benefits" »
Centro histórico (2012)
International Film Festival Rotterdam
"I have been involved in this kind of thing before. It never works." Ahead of the Edinburgh screening of "Centro histórico," Pedro Costa's comment could have been about the dubious nature of portmanteau films; in this case four stories set in the Portuguese city of Guimarães by Aki Kaurismäki, Mr. Costa, Victor Erice and Manoel de Oliveira. Afterward, and filtered through an idiosyncratic Q. & A. with the director, it could just as easily have been a sign of Mr. Costa's professed wish to keep faith with an uncompromisingly political cinema and reach audiences who may not be receptive to his methods. Either way, it surely echoed the sentiments of the film's backers, who having commissioned it to promote the city's status as a 2012 European Capital of Culture and received a work deemed unreleasable, have now cast it onto the waters of the world's film festivals while hoping for the best.
Continue reading "Take It to the Streets" »
The Conjuring (2013)
Michael Tackett/Warner Brothers Pictures
To say that things go bump in the night in "The Conjuring" does an injustice to the volume of the film's audio mix, which has been calibrated to loosen your dental fillings. And to say that there isn't an unpredictable second in the film doesn't make it sound as much fun as it actually is, given the lengths that director James Wan goes to in keeping this particular haunted-house caper barreling forwards. Downplaying the Sam Raimi-flavor pastiche that tends to gum up this kind of exercise — at least until the end — it's a straightforward piece of mostly gore-lite atmospheric scaremongering, in which several fine actors make one another jump out of their skins while a punch-up breaks out in the orchestra.
Continue reading "Rhode Island Dead" »
The Complex (2013)
Presumably by choice, "The Complex" finds Hideo Nakata retrenching so firmly onto more comfortable territory after the misfire of "Chatroom" that the whole enterprise seems distressingly familiar. Mr. Nakata had a big hand in forging a flavor of J-horror with solid international appeal when he made "Ringu" back in 1998; but that tone and style (and visual shorthand, and volume level) have become a rigid template, and "The Complex" opts not to rock the boat. Rigidity also brings the risk of incidental humor: This film features the most useless screen exorcism ever, a protracted ceremony of wailing, chanting and food preparation that produces no discernible reaction from the evil spirit infesting a haunted apartment building, but which could easily prize a guffaw from an audience.
Continue reading "Loath Thy Neighbor" »
Breathe In (2013)
2013 Sundance Film Festival
Male midlife crises don't come much more photogenic and tastefully shot than the one endured by music teacher Keith (Guy Pearce) in Drake Doremus's "Breathe In," a film of quiet pastoral anguish that almost entirely does without the loud urban variety. Barring a certain amount of crockery damage and tearful car-driving toward the end, Mr. Doremus keeps the nature of Keith's wandering eye nicely understated, a 17-year itch with roots lying further back than the audience can see. In the absence of explanatory shouting, the air is filled instead with tasteful silences, classical cello and the frequent sighs of Guy.
Continue reading "The Music Lovers" »
Neil Jordan's taste for merging Celtic blood lust with languid fairy tales has sparked life into supernatural stories before, especially the sprawling canvas and drenching atmosphere of "Interview With the Vampire" nearly two decades ago. "Byzantium" works on a smaller scale. It's at least as interested in the position of women in both civilian and secret societies as it is in the consequences of immortality, and concludes that life is no picnic in either camp. Livened up more than strictly necessary by Mr. Jordan's eye for detail and the endlessly fascinating face of Saoirse Ronan, "Byzantium" holds its own against the expectations raised by this director returning to this particular arena, as well as the inconvenient fact that vampires have been overexposed to death on screens large and small since he was last here.
Continue reading "The Dying Game" »