REVIEW: “The Immigrant”

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Whenever the topic of greatest working actress pops up Meryl Streep so often finds her name at the top of the list. I do belief Streep can be really good, but I believe a strong case could be made for Marion Cotillard. She is a sensational actress who has proven herself with every role she has tackled. She does it again in James Gray’s new film “The Immigrant”. This period drama was a very personal project for Gray. In an interview with Variety he said “It’s 80% based on the recollections from my grandparents, who came to the United States in 1923.” We see this personal connection running throughout the entire film.

The story starts in 1921 as Ewa (Cotillard) arrives at Ellis Island with her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan). The two have left their home country of Poland, which has been ravaged by World War I, in hopes of starting new lives. But during the processing, Magda is quarantined for a suspected lung disease and Ewa is set to be deported due to some questionable immorality that took place on the boat to America. But she catches the eye of a man named Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) who uses his money and influence with a particular guard to free Ewa and save her from deportation.

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With no place to go, Ewa accepts Bruno’s offer to work for him in hopes that she can earn enough money to get her sister the medical care she needs. The problem is Bruno runs a ‘gentleman’s show’ and the women he employs are prostitutes. Bruno is charming and persuasive but he also exploits Ewa’s desperation. Ewa is torn between the moral consequences of her actions and her desire to help her sister. Things are complicated even more as Bruno develops an infatuation with her which brings with it jealousy, rage, and even violence.

The movie centers itself on its characters and the different plights of each. Ewa’s circumstances are obviously difficult and the dream of a new life seems practically unattainable. Bruno is often a despicable and detestable man, but at times we see glimpses of compassion. The reasons behind his occasional generosity is a puzzle. Is it due to a genuine love he has for Ewa or is it in the interest of making money? Jeremy Renner plays a struggling magician named Orlando. He is a cousin to Bruno but the two haven’t been close in years. He too is drawn to Ewa and he looks to be a more gentle and loving alternative. But even he shows glimpses of instability making us question who he really is inside.

These characters are magnetic of themselves but they are even richer due to the brilliant cast. Phoenix is always good and while this role doesn’t ask him to dive as deep into the character as some of his previous work, he still has moments where he just takes over a scene. Renner is also very good and he often offers some needed changes in tone which he has no problem handling. But the true standout is Marion Cotillard who once again completely immerses herself in a role. Watching her dissect her character and give her such strong emotional form is akin to watching a fine artist. It’s heavy material and Cotillard expresses it with an emotional precision that we rarely see. She also has a classic-styled radiance that fits this type of movie well and translates beautifully with the camera. Cotillard is brilliant and this is my favorite performance of the year so far.

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James Gray’s story is engaging and heartbreaking. His characters are interesting and compelling. But there is also a perfectly realized 1920s New York City that plays a major role in the film. Gray’s vision combined with Darius Khondji’s cinematography creates shades of the city which sometimes look bustling and vibrant but often times looks cold, harsh, and unwelcoming. It’s a portrait that walks hand-in-hand with the characters and their situations.

There are a few things in “The Immigrant” that could be picked apart and a case could be made that it has a few lulls. But for me the selling point here are these characters who I happened to latch onto instantly. It’s also a period film featuring a master class in acting by Marion Cotillard who I believe is one of our finest. She absolutely owns the screen and she leaves nothing behind. That alone makes “The Immigrant” worth seeing, but I’m happy to say it has even more to offer its audience than just that.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Funny Games” (1997)

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Michael Haneke has a reputation for torturing the characters in his movies as well as his audiences. I’ve found this critique to be a bit harsh, but after seeing his 1997 Austrian psychological thriller “Funny Games”, it’s a little easier to see where people are coming from. Haneke’s signature style and filmmaking techniques are all employed here, but what separates this film from others of his I’ve seen is the gruesome and torturous ordeal that we have to endure. Granted, there are varying elements to this in many of Michael Haneke’s movie but nothing quite like this. But that doesn’t mean this is a bad film. It’s an unsettling but riveting movie that never let’s go of you. But be warned, it’s not an easy movie to digest especially for more sensitive audiences.

The movie begins with Georg (Ulrich Mühe), his wife Anna (Susanne Lothar), and their son Georgie (Stefan Clapczynski) heading to their lakeside vacation home. Upon arrival they greet their strange acting next-door neighbor who is accompanied by two unfamiliar preppy young men. The family goes on to their lake house where they begin to settle in. Georg and Georgie head down to the lake to get their boat ready for sailing while Anna prepares dinner. That’s when the two young men, Peter (Frank Giering) and Paul (Arno Frisch) show up and begin giving Anna a hard time. After Georg and Georgie return things turn really bad and Peter and Paul put the family through a hellish game of psychological torture that goes beyond cruel.

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There’s no need to go further into the story because it would unquestionably spoil things. Let’s just say “Funny Games” evolves into a voyeuristic and often times uncomfortable experience. But to be honest that’s exactly what Michael Haneke is trying to create and it is most effective. I found myself squirming in my seat several times and Giering and Frisch are quite menacing but in a very different way that we usually see. Haneke and his two young actors are able to sell us on uncertainty and we have a hard time reading and a harder time predicting the actions of Peter and Paul. Frisch gives a stand-out performance as the more talkative and calculated of the two. Surprisingly his fantastic work didn’t lead to a bigger career. Giering is also very good as the quieter and seemingly more subservient Peter. It was at the time considered a breakout performance. Sadly he would die only a few years later after bouts with alcoholism and severe emotional issues.

I alluded earlier to Haneke’s specific filmmaking techniques including using still cameras and letting his scenes play out. It’s heartily employed here. So often Haneke strategically sets his cameras and then requires us to watch as his characters go through a variety of different situations. In “Cache” it was through the video camera of a mysterious and unknown provocateur. In his most recent film “Amour” we often times are forced to observe the difficulties and indignities of an elderly couple trying to manage a crippling illness. But it’s at an entirely different level in “Funny Games”. We watch a nice middle-class family being psychologically terrorized and in a sense we are enduring it too. It’s not an easy watch and there doesn’t seem to be an ounce of mercy coming from script or the camera.

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But perhaps the most fascinating thing about “Funny Games” are the numerous references to movies, movie plots, and movie structures made by Paul and Peter. Then there is Paul’s obvious awareness that he is in an actual movie. I don’t intend to go any further because it’s something better experienced than told about. But these little additions do more to make the audience feel like observers which gets to the big point Haneke is making with this picture – the fascination with violence in the media. In fact there’s one point where Peter even says “We mustn’t forget the importance of entertainment”. The line fits perfectly in the situation, but it’s also directed at us. Haneke attempts to prove that very point by exposing the audience and I have to say he got me.

You certainly can’t call “Funny Games” a fun movie and its not the type of film that you’ll want to watch over and over. It’s a disturbing thriller that I found to be smart and compelling but also brutally painful and sometimes emotionally unbearable. As someone growing more and more appreciative of Haneke’s work, I did find “Funny Games” to be a mesmerizing film. Sure it’s unsettling but it intends to be and it does make some interesting points in very sly and crafty ways. I certainly wouldn’t call this a film for everyone, but its unconventional and unashamed boldness really impressed me. It’s another winner from Haneke. Just be aware of what you’re getting into.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW – “Life Itself”

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A countless number of aspiring couch critics have spoken of the role that Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert played in nurturing their desire for film criticism. The various incarnations of their groundbreaking and one-of-a-kind movie review program entertained, broadened, and inspired generations of film fans. Siskel and Ebert became synonymous with film criticism and while they weren’t the only talented and knowledgeable movie critics during their day, they were instrumental in bringing it to the mainstream and creating a wider appreciation for it as a whole.

I was one of those kids they influenced. It was during the early 1980s that I was first exposed to their weekly television show. I watched them any opportunity I had and I made them part of my weekend. To say I was obsessed would be an understatement and almost instantly I wanted to be a movie critic. Eventually I began to favor Gene Siskel and the way he talked about movies. But over time my appreciation for Roger Ebert and his unmatched knowledge and passion for movies grew tremendously. While we were sometimes at odds concerning things outside the world of cinema, I considered him a wealth of information and his reviews were like fascinating lessons that increased my understanding of movies and of the people of make them. That’s one reason his passing last year had such an effect on so many people.

“Hoop Dreams” director Steve James brings the life of Roger Ebert to the big screen in “Life Itself”, a documentary based on Ebert’s memoirs. It’s a unique but heartfelt mixture of biographical information and poignant emotions. James began his documentary before Ebert’s death and when the beloved film critic passed away James pledged to the family that he would finish his joint venture with Roger.

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“Life Itself” follows Ebert during what turned out to be his final months. We spend a lot of time with him in rehabilitation centers following his debilitating battles with cancer and a fractured hip. Some of what he is going through is sobering and uncomfortable but, as he conveyed to Steve James, to omit the reality would be to do a disservice. His wife Chaz serves as his rock and it is impossible not to be moved by her love and dedication to her husband. I also appreciated the truth that she shares in so many of the interview bits we get.

Throughout the film we get many breaks that look into Ebert’s past. We learn a little about his family and his early forays into the newspaper business. And of course we see his jump into film criticism for the Chicago Sun-Times and eventually alongside his local rival Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune. The film has a genuine sense of honesty which shows itself in its dealings with Ebert’s past struggles with alcohol and his off-putting arrogance. But it also reveals deep passions that he possessed and how is life was forever altered for the better when he met Chaz. Personally I was drawn to his relationship with Siskel which was far more competitive and combative in its early stages that I realized. Watching the evolution of their relationship shined a new light on two men who I watched so religiously for so many years.

“Life Itself” is a solid documentary that will certainly appeal to anyone who appreciated Roger Ebert’s work and his contributions to motion pictures. I do think Steve James loses his rhythm midway through the film and his jumps to different events in Roger’s past are jarring due to a lack continuity. But the last act gets back on track and it leaves you with a lump in your throat and an even greater appreciation for a man who meant so much to movies and the art of film criticism. As the final credits scrolled across the screen I reclined in my chair and shook my head. I just can’t believe both Roger and Gene are gone.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

Your Voices: On Tom Cruise

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Your Voices is a simple concept created to encourage conversation and opinions between movie lovers. It works like this: I throw out a certain topic. After that I’ll make my case or share my opinions. Then it’s time for Your Voices. Head to the comments section and let fellow readers and moviegoers know your thoughts on the topic for that day!

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The story of Tom Cruise is fascinating to me. At one time he was the most loved and adored movie star in the business. He was a mammoth box office draw and many of his films hold special places in cinema history. But something happened. Over time people’s opinions and reactions to Cruise dampened. Was it the Scientology thing? Was it the Oprah couch-jumping? All of those were certainly low points in his otherwise stellar career but many actors have done worse. Still his decline in popularity is undeniable and (as is evident by his recent film, the wonderful “Edge of Tomorrow”) he isn’t a guaranteed big money-maker.

Personally I still like Cruise a lot and I appreciate the star quality he brings to a film. But I also think he is capable of really good performances as well as some fun big budget action pictures. Perhaps some of my appreciation for Cruise is rooted in nostalgia. I grew up through the 1980s when he rose to the top of the movie star food chain. I loved so many of those movies. But I also really appreciate some of his later work. In a nutshell I can understand some people’s aversion to Tom Cruise. I just don’t necessarily agree with it and I still find myself interested whenever I see his name attached to a movie.

YOUR VOICES: What is your take on Tom Cruise?

Now it’s time for Your Voices. In light of the so-so success of his recent film, what are your thoughts on Tom Cruise? Do you enjoy his movies? Does he rub you the wrong way? Please share you thoughts on today’s question and I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.

REVIEW: “X-MEN: Days of Future Past”

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The X-Men franchise (and I’m including the Wolverine films) has been filled with great movies and great disappointments. It was only two years ago that we saw a reboot of sorts and a new direction for these cinematic superhumans. Now they are back in a film that at first sounded risky and potentially disastrous. Instead of continuing with a storyline strictly focused on these rebooted characters, “X-Men: Days of Future Past” mixes them with the characters (and the performers who played them) from the past series. So my first question was is this “X-Men 4″ or X-Men: First Class 2”?

This huge mash up could have went terribly bad. I’m so happy to say that the opposite is true. In fact, after a somewhat disorienting start, the movie turns into what is easily one of the best movies of the entire franchise. Bryan Singer, the architect of the original X-Men films returns to direct this ambitious and large-scale blockbuster which gets its title from the classic comic book storyline from Chris Claremont and John Byrne.

 

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The future world is a dark place especially for mutantkind. Giant robot mutant hunters known as Sentinels have chased mutants to the edge of extinction. The X-Men of the future (played by the original cast members from the first films) have traced the origins of the Sentinels back to 1973 and a man named Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage). Led by Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen), they devise a plan to send the never-aging Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time to influence the situations that lead to the Sentinels’ creation. You with me so far?

When arriving in 1973, Wolverine is tasked with enlisting the help of the younger Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender). The problem is a lot has changed since the final credits scrolled in “X-Men: First Class”. It’s this landscape, filled with political tensions, shattered relationships, and fragile psyches, that Wolverine must navigate if there is any hope of averting their future extinction. Obviously several major threats are at work both in the past and in the future. The movie hops back-and-forth throughout but the main focus of the film is Wolverine’s mission in 1973.

The movie literally plunges into its bleak future setting with practically no buildup whatsoever. We do get some exposition that sets the table, but it took me a few moments to get my feet planted and, aside from the familiar faces, it took some time to connect this movie to any of the earlier films. But once the story begins to take form it is an exhilarating and captivating experience. In fact, the story is the movie’s greatest strength. “X-Men: DOFP” features one of the smartest and most layered stories that you’ll find in a superhero picture. Even more, the story never becomes convoluted or confusing. I loved how everything unfolded and numerous connections to other X-Men films are sprinkled everywhere.

Another thing I appreciated is how everything had importance and carried weight. Every decision had to be made with careful thought given to their consequences. Convictions had to be questioned and actions had to be scrutinized. There are very few wasted scenes in this movie (there are a couple – for example the Wolverine butt shot? Seriously Bryan Singer?). I also think the way they joined the old with the new was smart, effective, and It avoided all of the traps that it easily could have steppedl in. Narratively this was a huge treat right up to its very satisfying payoff.

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As for the performances, can we just go ahead say without question that Hugh Jackman IS Wolverine? Once again he is very good, but he was not his normal action-fueled centerpiece and I’m fine with that. The real highlights for me were Fassbender and McAvoy. Fassbender is one of our best working actors today and his Magneto is menacing and unpredictable. He’s a man of conviction and unharnessed anger and Fassbender paints him perfectly. But the best performance may be from McAvoy. He’s tasked with conveying a huge range of emotions and I never questioned the authenticity of what he was doing. It truly is brilliant work that sets itself apart in a profound way.

I can’t believe I’m saying this again, but here we have yet another really strong 2014 blockbuster. On an almost unprecedented level, this year’s big budget movies have really taken steps up (minus a couple of disappointments). “X-Men: DOFP” is really good. It’s start is a bit jarring, the future Sentinels look pretty generic, and I could list a few other nitpicks. But in terms of story, storytelling, and sheer entertainment, the movie scores where it counts. Now the big question is where does it go from here? Have we seen the last of the “First Class” X-Men? Will the old timers take back the reins? I don’t know but after seeing this movie I am really intrigued.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “The Sundowners”

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What is a sundowner you may ask? In this film from 1960 one character defines a sundowner as “someone whose home is where the sun goes down.” It was an Australian term used for roamers who traveled across the countryside taking one job at a time. They would pitch their tent wherever they were at the end of the day and that was their home for the night. Richard Zinnemann’s film follows a family of sundowners who move from place to place taking sheep herding jobs. The film bombed in the United States but did well overseas and would go on to earn five Oscar nominations including one for Best Film.

Robert Mitchum plays Paddy Carmody, a nomad at heart who has no desire to settle down in 1920s Australia. He is perfectly content with being constantly on the move and working small jobs here and there. But over time Paddy’s insatiable wanderlust begins to clash with the desires of his wife Ida (Deborah Kerr) and his teenaged son Sean (Michael Anderson). They believe the time is come to consider settling down. They’ve grown tired of constantly being on the go and Sean is at an age where he wants to experience life and set out on his own path. Paddy’s stubbornness and his family’s patience provide the film its central contention.

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Some critics pointed out that there isn’t a lot of plot in “The Sundowners”. That’s essentially true although the film’s intent is to be a sprawling tale of the family’s lives, love, and rugged endurance. We follow them along the Australian backcountry as they drive a large herd of sheep, contend with a sweeping wildfire, and live off what the land provides. This allows for some truly beautiful, sweeping scenes that vividly capture the Australian countryside. The film was originally set to be shot in Arizona, but Zinnemann petitioned hard to spend the extra money and shoot it on location. It was a good decision. The landscapes are anaccurate setting and the story feels perfectly in place. And some scenes, like the aforementioned wildfire are shot with such tenacity and skill. Simply put, the movie looks great.

The family encounters several interesting people along the way. They hire and befriend an Englishman and fellow roamer named Rupert. Peter Ustinov would receive an Oscar nomination for the role. There are also several other interesting faces that pop up when Ida convinces Paddy to take on a stint at a sheep shearing station. She hopes the time in one place will soften him to the idea of settling down here. It’s at this remote station that their family dynamic takes some dramatic turns which sets up the rest of the film.

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As for the performances, Mitchum is rock-solid as always. His Paddy is a tough, salt-of-the-earth fellow, but one whose stubbornness threatens to alienate the family the holds most dear. Mitchum fits right into the character although his Aussie accent is a bit erratic. Kerr is as brilliant as always. Her Isa puts off tough and rugged pioneer vibes but also maintains a distinct femininity. Kerr would earn one of the six Oscar nominations of her career for this role. Amazingly she never won an acting Oscar but the Academy did give her the honorary “Whoops, We Screwed Up” award in 1994. The supporting work was uniformly strong and it too gained critical praise.

“The Sundowners” does run a tad too long and there is an occasional lull or two. The absence of a more defined plot may be an issue for some as well. But the movie does a great job of selling its characters and drawing us to them. I really liked the family and I wanted to see how their story plays out. I also appreciated how grounded the story feels. The film never embraces the sentimentality that many family dramas are consumed by. It just wants us to get to know these people and to experience the life they live. Personally that was enough for me.

VERDICT – 4 STARS