Grade: B | 1st Viewing
Polish director Agnieszka Holland’s Oscar-nominated In Darkness is unlikely linger the way other Holocaust biographies like Schindler’s List or The Pianist have; this particular cinematic treatment of an incredible true story boasts neither Spielberg’s mastery of emotions nor Polanski’s deeply personalized sense of perspective. Still, there is much to appreciate as we watch Leopold Socha utilize his mastery of the Lwów, Poland sewer system to hide Jews during the WWII Nazi occupation. What Holland gets right here is the lack of sentiment; his camera wallows in the grimy dankness and the mind-numbing tedium those Jewish fugitives surely experienced, and we empathize with that tedium. The performances are also exceptional, with Robert Wieckiewicz ably convincing us of Socha’s sense of conflict as he risks the safety of both his family and himself to protect the Jews he hides.
Less compelling is the familiarity of the film’s actual narrative. While I understand it’s based on a true story, Holland never completely succeeds in distinguishing In Darkness from the glut of Holocaust dramas that make it to the screen practically every year. In the end, this is a well-made, old-fashioned tale of good triumphing over evil. Though it’s a story worth telling, and it’s ultimately told well, the phrase “been there, done that” never really left my mind while watching the film.
Grade: B- | 1st Viewing
Like In Darkness, it’s the inherent importance of its subject matter that really gives A Better Life its sense of urgency. Written by Eric Eason and Roger L. Simon, director Chris Weitz’s latest film tells follows Carlos Galindo, an undocumented immigrant struggling to make ends meet, to raise his son on his own, and to find a way to acquire “legal” status in the U.S. The film opened to decent reviews last summer, and it caught the attention of many (myself included) when its star Demián Bichir snagged a surprise Best Actor Oscar nomination. Bichir indeed brings some much-needed humanity to a person – and by association, a people – whom many are quick to marginalize and scapegoat. The film surrounding Bichir, however, feels less dynamic; it almost feels like a generic mix between 2008’s The Visitor and, surprisingly enough, The Bicycle Thieves. A Better Life aims to change hearts and minds – and it certainly could – but it succeeds most as a vehicle for an actor deserving of our attention.
Grade: B+ | 1st Viewing
The anachronistic novelty of copying Shakespeare’s prose and pasting it into a present-day setting is hardly a new hat-trick. For so jarring a juxtaposition of classical prose and contemporary mise-en-scène to avoid critics’ accusations of goofy narrative experimentation, however, the filmmakers typically need to offer some kind of justification to their literalistic approach to Shakespeare’s prose. That said, if the methodology behind Ralph Fiennes’ modernized adaptation of Coriolanus suggests anything, it is how truly relevant the 400-year-old text remains. The story of Caius Martius, a temperamental Roman leader whose patience and fealties are tested by the easily-manipulated populace he helps govern, Fiennes’s directorial debut (with a script from Hugo scribe John Logan) is as much fun as it is thanks to its ability to capture the universal frustrations that the a government of the people is capable of spawning. Fiennes angrily taps in to a sentiment that many participants in democracy have likely experienced when bemoaning the tyranny and fickleness of the majority.
Conviction of craft also helps Coriolanus succeed dramatically. As a first-time director, there is rawness and an affinity for stark imagery in Fiennes’ artistic eye (some might argue his visuals can come off as heavy-handed, but I won’t). Most notable in this adaptation, however, is the acting. I sense no excess or ego in Fiennes fiery performance as Martius – a pratfall that has doomed less successful actors-turned-directors – and respectable actors like Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain and even Gerard Butler give strong supporting turns as well. Most noteworthy, however, is Vanessa Redgrave as Martius’ jingoistic mother. Exuding a subdued yet palpably juicy sense of matriarchal authority, especially within her final scene, not one of her line deliveries reads false.
Grade: B+ | 1st Viewing
As trite and as clumsy as it is to compare Margaret to a Claude Monet, it really does seem like the appropriate comparison when discussing this film, which is as deeply flawed as it is engaging. As you watch the movie, which centers a callous, privileged teen named Lisa as she copes with her involvement in a horrible accident, the flaws and the sloppiness of it all are distractingly obvious. But as you distance yourself from your first viewing – as you ruminate over its meaning – the dissonant splotches on the canvas coalesce into something profound, perhaps even beautiful.
The second effort by Kenneth Lonergan, who also wrote and directed 2000’s wonderful You Can Count on Me, Margaret is perhaps better known for its years-long post-production follies, in addition to the rally by film critics late last year to call attention to it. We’ve been told that the movie we are seeing is a compromised edit between Lonergan and Fox Searchlight. Frankly, it shows. It doesn’t really take a film scholar to know many scenes run too long, others feel truncated, and that certain plot-lines might have served the story’s flow much better had they been excised completely.
The sensible conclusion to make of all this is to wish there was a different cut. Indeed, those cuts exist – one running as long as three hours, I’m told – but I am strangely happy with the cut I was lucky enough to see. Its sloppiness and imperfection beautifully complement the anger and confusion Lisa is feeling as she attempts to contextualize the ramifications of that awful accident into her life and her identity. It won’t all make sense right away, and I understand why many would hate the movie for the exact reasons why I’m praising it. But for me at least, rummaging through all that sloppy and confusing filmmaking proved rewarding. Above all, though, Margaret is noteworthy for offering up a career-best performance by Anna Paquin, who’s now probably too busy counting all her True Blood money to give more brave performances like this anytime soon.