REVIEW: “The Unknown Girl” (2017)

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Few modern filmmakers capture my attention quite like the Dardenne brothers. It’s not due to some pronounced signature style or showy big budget crowd-pleasing. Instead it is the undeniable naturalism that is found in each of their movies. Their stories are true to life and delve into an assortment of moral conflicts all while remaining free of narrative gimmicks or shiny Hollywood gloss.

Luc and Jean-Pierre’s latest “The Unknown Girl” checks all of the above boxes. It’s story revolves around a young doctor named Jenny. She’s played by Adèle Haenel whose striking performance comes across as almost Bressonian. It’s quiet yet at the same time it brims with intensity, not from any thundering dramatic force or narrative machinations. Instead it comes from the sheer authenticity of the performance.

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Jenny works at free clinic in a blue collar neighborhood but has recently been accepted to a lucrative doctors position with a prominent medical group. With her career and future set, Jenny finishes out her final days at the clinic treating familiar patients and training an insecure intern named Julien (Olivier Bonnaud). Late one evening the buzzer sounds at the front door as Jenny and Julien prepare to leave for the day. Already an hour past closing time, Jenny chooses not to answer it – a decision that will come back to haunt her.

The next day Jenny learns that an unidentified immigrant teenaged girl was found dead nearby. The clinic’s security cameras reveal that it was the girl who had frantically rang the buzzer the night before.   Jenny is shaken by the news and by the guilt of her own negligence. In a quest for atonement Jenny sets out to discover the girl’s identity and to find out what happened to her.

For Jenny it becomes an obsession rooted in finding justice for the young woman but also in obtaining some semblance of personal closure. The Dardenne’s use her obsession to dig deeper into the weakened economic and social structure of Liége, Belgium, a field they have plowed numerous times before. The brothers have always had a keen sensibility towards working-class issues and plights. Here it’s explored through every location Jenny visits in her search for information. We also see it in the various lower-income patients Jenny sees. Some are dealing with social service cutbacks, some with illegal documentation, even addicts wanting fake prescriptions. None are glorified or demonized. They are simply observed through an organic lens.

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A bit more about Adèle Haenel. Her performance and its importance to the film cannot be overstated. She is in practically every frame of the movie and there is such an emotional subtlety in her portrayal. It makes sense. She once tells Julien “A good doctor has to control his emotions”. But the further her search for answers goes she finds it harder to abide be her own rule. Also, despite her one moment of compromise, Jenny is a true organic heroine. It’s seen in her heartfelt desire to identify the girl and in the compassion she has for every patient she sees. Haenel makes it real for us.

“The Unknown Girl” certainly has its place in Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s catalog. As with their past films, its potency comes from its firm anchor in reality. We get thoughtful scrutiny of the medical, ecomical, and social systems without being preachy or heavy-handed. Instead the Dardennes simply depict true life and allow it to speak volumes. That’s the cinematic world they work in and Adèle Haenel fits beautifully on their canvas.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

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2017 Blind Spot Series: “Umberto D.”

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A perfect introduction to the beauty and potency of Italian neorealism would be a double feature from acclaimed director Vittorio De Sica. His movies “The Bicycle Thief” and this one, “Umberto D.” showcases everything that led the movement to be called “The Golden Age of Italian Cinema”.

Neorealism dealt honestly with Italy’s moral and economic post-World War 2 difficulties. Film’s focused on the hardships facing the working class and explored the deep effects of poverty and injustice. They often explored the everyday suffering and survival of those living under economic stress. De Sica was a pillar of the movement which spanned a ten year period although its influence could be see in movies well past its time.

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“Umberto D.” is a reference to the film’s main character, Umberto Domenico Ferrari (Carlo Battisti). He’s an elderly man whose only source of income is a small state pension. As we watch we can glean many things about Umberto. He once had a respectable career and made a good living. We see remnants of that life in his tattered suit and topcoat. He took pride in always paying his bills. This is something we see clearly as he struggles to avoid eviction by his mean, condescending landlady (Lina Ginnari).

Umberto’s only family is his loyal dog Flike who he describes as “a mutt with intelligent eyes. The two have a loving relationship and both would be lost without the other. Umberto treats Flike like he would his own child sometimes even skipping a meal so that Flike can eat. To go a bit deeper, we also get the sense that their relationship is what keeps Umberto going. It’s especially evident in one sequence where he loses Flike. His desperation to find his dog is a reflection of his love but also of his need.

One of the many things De Sica does well is capture Umberto’s basic struggle to get by. He does so without manufacturing stakes or relying on heavy doses of melodrama. As the story moves forward De Sica and screenwriter Cesare Zavattini portray a proud man’s battle to maintain some semblance of his dignity. Umberto’s circumstances steadily chisel away at his optimism and self-respect. Even his physical appearance bears the marks of a burdened soul.

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Not only does the story strip away any hint of artifice, but the characters do as well. As was customary for Neorealism, “Umberto D.” doesn’t feature big stars or accomplished actors. Big actors or big performances ran the risk of drawing attention to themselves. The idea was to keep every bit of the focus on the story being told. Therefore Battisti was cast to play Umberto. It would be his first and only acting role. Ginnari was also relatively unknown as was first time actress Maria-Pia Casilio who plays a naïve young housekeeper.

The story of “Umberto D.” is very simple in scope but powerful in message. Aside from a slow patch or two, it carefully explores a harsh reality that most certainly spoke to the people of its time. More impressive is its ability to still feel strikingly relevant. The heartbreaking story of Umberto and Flike may have originated 64 years ago, but its message doesn’t feel out of our current reach. That’s a testament to its truth and authenticity.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

K&M RETRO REVIEW: “The Untouchables”

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“The Untouchables” hit theaters on June 3, 1987. It was a little over a month away from my 16th birthday and I still remember my unbridled enthusiasm for the movie. I would perk up with every TV spot. I read the movie novelization. I read “The Untouchables: The Real Story” by Eliot Ness. I watched the old Robert Stack television series (what few chances I had in a small rural town). In other words seeing this movie was a big deal at the time.

I can’t count how many times I have watched it since. I can say that after paying it a visit for the first time in a while, it still excites me. Director Brian De Palma’s Prohibition era gangster picture pulls from an assortment of different inspirations. De Palma certainly infuses it with a specific visual style. At the same time the film features several classic filmmaking and storytelling touches. It was a big success. It did well at the box office and at the Academy Awards. It grabbed four Oscar nominations winning one for Sean Connery’s supporting work.

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Kevin Costner plays Eliot Ness, a young and eager Prohibition agent in 1930 Chicago (the role was originally offered to Mickey Rourke). He is assigned the seemingly impossible task of taking down mob boss Al Capone (Robert De Niro). Capone owns most of the city through violence, bribes, and liquor distribution. Ness flounders his first few liquor raids and borders on being a laughing stock around town.

Ness catches the eye of a seasoned cop named Jimmy Malone (Connery) who is fed up with the mass corruption running through the system. Malone pushes Ness to go further and to be willing to get his hands dirty if he wants to stop Capone. The two add a young academy trainee and expert marksman George Stone (Andy Garcia) and Washington bureau accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith) to their team. They begin to make dents in Capone’s organization eventually earning the nickname “The Untouchables”. But can anyone be called ‘untouchable’ in De Palma’s corrupt and violent Chicago?

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Even at almost 30 years-old “The Untouchables” hasn’t lost a bit of its excitement or intensity. De Palma and screenwriter David Mamet deliver a fluid, high energy story that weaves through rampant police corruption and bloody gangland violence. And there is certainly some bloody violence. At times the film flows with a classic gangster movie vibe. But then De Palma will broadside us with a scene of jarring violence which feeds the film’s unique tone.

The presentation is top notch. It was brilliantly shot by Stephen H. Burum and several of Chicago’s historical locations were used. The settings, wardrobes, and set designs are impeccable. The Grammy Award winning score from the great Ennio Morricone is simply superb. Who can forget the deep piano accompanied by the haunting wail of a harmonica? Like so much else in the movie, Morricone’s score is truly phenomenal.

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And how about the cast? A young Kevin Costner is the perfect fit for an earnest and determined Ness. De Niro hams it up to epic levels. Of course he goes really, really big, but he is a ton of fun. And then you have Sean Connery who gives one of the best performances of his impressive career. He’s surly, he’s tough, and he has a ton of charisma. Garcia is really good as the soft-spoken cop in training and Billy Drago is gloriously evil in his version of Frank Nitti. The cast is fabulous from top to bottom.

High expectations can often be a death knell. Thankfully that wasn’t the case with “The Untouchables”. It more than delivered when I finally saw it during the summer of 1987. It was nice to see that it still holds up after all these years. Some have picked the film apart, pointing to everything from Mamet’s script to Connery’s accent. Neither were an issue for me. Instead I see this as a fabulous bit of entertainment that hasn’t aged a bit and is unquestionably one of Brian De Palma’s best.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Unbroken”

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The true story of Louis “Louie” Zamperini is a remarkable one. Zamperini was an Italian immigrant who navigated a troubled childhood to become a record-breaking Olympic track star. Later he fought in World War II where he ended up captured by the Japanese and placed in prisoner of war camps. In “Unbroken” director Angelina Jolie seeks to bring this unbelievable story of life, strength, and perseverance to the big screen.

Tackling movies like this always comes with risks. Many big emotionally-fueled biopics put too much emphasis on melodrama and sentimentality. Some are so systematically polished that they feel like productions instead of intimate stories. “Unbroken” struggles in both regards. Jolie heightens the melodrama through a number of common conventions. We see this mostly in the first half of the film. She also doesn’t shy away from giving us one emotional cue after another whether it be through music or her camera. Also there is no denying that this is a highly polished, by-the-books, prestige film.

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The first scene is the film’s best. We meet Louie (Jack O’Connell) as a B-24 bombardier on a bombing run over the Pacific. It’s a tense and well-shot sequence featuring anti-aircraft explosions and Japanese fighter planes. During this time we get our first flashback which patches together a bit of his childhood. He’s constantly in trouble although we never know why. But don’t worry, we get yet another flashback that shows him finding his way by running for his high school track team. This leads to an incredible experience running in the Olympic games.

From there the film spends a lot of time on Louie being stranded at sea and his time spent at various Japanese internment camps. These segments give us several exciting and inspirational moments. But they also bog the film down because Jolie stays at each place too long. Louie’s experience on a raft with two fellow soldiers is harrowing stuff. There are all sorts of dangers and threats they face, but too much time is spent showing them afloat drained by the glaring sun and starvation.

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And then there are the prison camps. Again, some tremendous scenes that are genuinely moving and sometimes difficult to watch. Seeing a sadistic Japanese corporal’s obsession with torturing Louie is an uncomfortable but effective experience. But as before we spend to much time there. Jolie pounds us with scene after scene of torture and cruelty and she doesn’t know when to move on or to wrap things up. It’s not that we become numb to what we are seeing, but it does lose its effect as it grows more repetitive. Eventually I found myself checking out.

“Unbroken” is a competent and well-intentioned movie centered around an inspiring true story. Louie Zamperini’s life was something to behold and we get a feel for that in this film. At the same time the movie is undermined by Angelina Jolie’s direction. She has a good visual technique, but her deliberate lingering zaps much of the life out of the film. It runs a good 30 minutes too long and I checked my watch more than once. But I don’t want to write the movie off. If you can wade through these bloated patches there are several things to like. Louie Zamperini died a few months before the film premiered. It’s wonderful to know that his life, first captured in a novel by Laura Hillenbrand, has now been brought to an even broader audience. The movie may not live up to its potential, but it does tell a story that deserves to be told.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

REVIEW: “Upstream Color”

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Mark my words, you will spend the first half of “Upstream Color” wondering what the heck is going on. And if you’re like me, you’ll spend the second half making a series of observations or connections that may or may not exist. But all of that is okay because by the end I realized I had watched something intelligent and strikingly original. There is nothing Hollywood about this picture. It’s independent cinema in its purest form. But don’t let that fool you. This is also one of the most visually entrancing pictures to come out of 2013.

To call this Shane Carruth’s movie would be an epic understatement. Carruth serves as director, writer, editor, cinematographer, co-producer, co-star, and he composed the music. “Upstream Color” is only his second film but his first since 2004. When speaking of Carruth comparisons have been made to Terrence Malick and we see the validity of the comparisons in “Upstream Color”. His penchant for filming nature, his use of sound, the sparse dialogue, and his sweeping poetic camera feel heavily influenced by Malick’s work.

It’s impossible to put “Upstream Color” into a box and giving too much of the plot away would be stripping the film of some of its allure. It’s a very abstract movie with a haunting and hypnotic feel that permeates the entire project. And drawing in your senses is clearly one of Carruth’s main objectives. I’ll just say this, a young woman (Amy Seimetz) is drugged by a mysterious man (known only as The Thief) while at a nightclub. The drug is actually a mind-controlling parasite which The Thief exploits in order to rob her. Later she is drawn to a man (played by Carruth) who may or may not have shared a very similar experience.

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There are several other mysterious elements and bits of imagery that are cleverly used to peel back the film’s meaning. But even after you’ve dissected the movie in your mind, thematic interpretation may still be a bit challenging. But that’s one of the things I appreciated about the movie. It doesn’t lay everything out all nice and neat for the audience. It engages you and challenges your perceptions of what you are seeing. Interestingly enough, that also leads to one of the movie’s only flaws. It does reach a point where it gets a bit bogged down in its artful approach. It’s a point where the connections and revelation seems to slow down and the film turns into a series of well shot but drawn out sequences.

That aside, “Upstream Color” is a treat. Shane Carruth shows an amazing eye for cinema and he creates a movie experience guaranteed to be unlike anything else you’ve seen in a while. And I haven’t even talked about Amy Seimetz. Talk about a wonderful performance. Now be forewarned, this is a movie that may not appeal to the masses and it has flown under many radars. But for me it shows the diversity of high-quality movies we saw in 2013. It’s definitely worth checking out. I loved it.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS