Saturday, April 26, 2014

Short Takes: "The Broken Circle Breakdown," Spike Lee's "Oldboy," and More

The Broken Circle Breakdown (dir. Felix van Groeningen, 2013)

Belgium's 2013 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film is a familiar story dressed up with some intriguing elements. Atheist bluegrass singer Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) falls in love with devout tattoo artist Elise (Veerle Baetens) and they have a daughter, Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse). However, Maybelle is struck with a debilitating disease, which puts a considerable strain on Didier and Elise's relationship. It's interesting how the film essentially functions as a musical drama, with their performances of bluegrass standards underscoring the emotional moments (an impromptu rendition of "Didn't Leave Nobody but the Baby" at a funeral is especially heart-wrenching). Van Groeningen impressively shifts portions of the film through time, creating a patchwork of the couple's relationship that, for the most part, creates a strong emotional portrait of these two wounded lovers. Heldenbergh does a terrific job of portraying Didier's anger at the situation, but Baetens is the one who owns the movie: her quiet struggle with her love and her faith is sublimely stunning. She helps the film power through its more miserablist tendencies. B+

Pocahontas (dirs. Eric Goldberg & Mike Gabriel, 1995)

The "Disney Renaissance" of the 1990s marked a notable improvement in Disney's creative and financial reputations, owing to the animation wing's interest in revitalizing the animated musical and telling emotionally complex stories. Pocahontas, though, stands out in particular, being the only film during this time based on a true story. When English explorers, led by Captain John Smith (voice of Mel Gibson), come ashore in what would become Virginia, Pocahontas (voice of Irene Bedrad) and her tribe are (rightfully) afraid of them. But when Pocahontas and Smith fall in love, the relationship between the groups becomes more complicated. The film broaches upon some surprisingly heavy themes for a Disney film, and was considered by the company to be a "prestige" project. Though it is emotionally and thematically complex, the film doesn't quite succeed in everything it attempts, and often feels more like a sketch of what the film wanted to be rather than a fully-developed film. That being said, the animation is gorgeous, and it features some of the most complex music in the Disney canon. (Best ShotB+

More from the Dardenne Brothers, Spike Lee, Nicole Holofcener, and others after the jump.

The Kid with a Bike (dirs. Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, 2011)

By the time The Kid with a Bike premiered at Cannes three years ago, the Dardenne Brothers had become synonymous with the kind of neorealism that Vittorio De Sica was famous for in post-war Italy. It seems appropriate, then, that The Kid with a Bike so often pays tribute to De Sica's Bicycle Thieves, while telling a heartbreaking story. Cyril (Thomas Doret, in his first acting role) has been left to a state-run juvenile facility, but holds out hope that his father (Jeremie Renier) will take him back one day. After a chance encounter, local hairdresser Samantha (Cecile De France) agrees to provide a foster home for Cyril on the weekends, hoping to help the young boy move on from his difficult past. The film is structured like a modern fairy tale, complete with a scheming dealer (Fabrizio Rongione) who attempts to lead Cyril into a life of crime. There's an admirable looseness to the plot, and the Dardennes open up the setting to allow the viewers to explore it with the characters. The whole thing, though, is held together by Doret's impressive performance, which feels completely authentic for a young boy who's father clearly no longer wants him. It's devastating work. A-

3 Women (dir. Robert Altman, 1977)

Robert Altman was no stranger to chasing his muse wherever it led. Though the late director is best-known for his large-ensemble films such as M*A*S*H, Nashville, and Gosford Park, he also made a number of smaller films that showcased his maverick attitude toward filmmaking. 3 Women - supposedly based on a dream Altman had - is a perfect example of the latter kind of film. Pinky (Sissy Spacek) is a new hire at an elderly care facility, and Millie (Shelley Duvall) takes her under her wing. Soon, the two of them are roommates, but Pinky's meek demeanor soon proves to be something much, much different. While the plot nods to Ingmar Bergman's Persona (and would certainly later influence David Lynch's Mulholland Dr.), it hardly matters, as Altman films it through a surreal haze that focuses more on dream-logic than narrative. The performances of Spacek and Duvall - as well as Janice Rule, the third woman - fill out these women in ways both grounded and idiosyncratic, adding to the film's dream-like quality. It's an unusual, experimental film, but one that's definitely worth taking the plunge. (Best Shot coming 5/6) B+

Oldboy (dir. Spike Lee, 2013)

Let's get this much out of the way: there was never any good reason to remake Oldboy, Korean director Park Chan-wook's 2003 sensational (and far superior) thriller about a man who is imprisoned by a mysterious figure and seeks revenge upon his release. It was just an attempt to make money off of a known property that the subtitle-phobic wouldn't check out otherwise. And for the most part, the film feels like a limp cash-in. Josh Brolin plays Joe Doucett, the man kidnapped and imprisoned in 1993, then framed for his wife's murder, and released 20 years later, but Brolin never seems particularly engaged with the material. Elizabeth Olsen, similarly, slums it as the woman who helps Joe in his quest to find his daughter, while Sharlto Copley somehow quietly over-acts as the man who imprisoned Joe. If you're familiar with Park's film - or the manga it's based upon - you know where all of this is going. Unfortunately, Lee does very little to give the film new energy or perspective, and with the exception of a re-staging of the infamous hallway scene, he seems bored with the entire endeavor. That scene, in fact, is the only time Lee really strives to match Park's intensity and style. It's a shame, too, since it's been a long time since Lee has made a film he really believes in. A director as talented as he shouldn't be turning out flaccid junk like this. C-

Enough Said (dir. Nicole Holofcener, 2013)

Writer/director Nicole Holofcener has made her name with romantic comedies that are more realistically and emotionally complex, usually centering on the people who get left out of mainstream rom-coms (no twenty-something architects here). Enough Said is one of her best films to date. Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is a masseuse who forms a bond with Marianne (Catherine Keener, a Holofcener regular), a poet. After meeting at a party, she begins a relationship with Albert (James Gandolfini, in one of his final roles), only to discover that he is Marianne's ex-husband. Even though the setup is a sitcom-level contrivance, Holofcener plays up the emotional collateral damage while still imbuing her script with good laughs and honest characterization. But much of the film's success belongs to the one-two punch of Louis-Dreyfus' and Gandolfini's performances. As Eva, Louis-Dreyfus delivers the expected comedy while showing off impressive dramatic chops; the fact that she hasn't been cast in these kinds of roles more is a serious missed opportunity. Gandolfini, too, finally gets a chance to put away his New Jersey wiseguy typecasting, making a terrifically warm and humorous romantic lead. The two actors' chemistry is absolutely boiling, and together they make this film a true treasure of independent cinema. If only all rom-coms had this much heart and soul. A-

To Rome with Love (dir. Woody Allen, 2012)

Coming off the heels of his 2011 "comeback" Midnight in Paris, there were high hopes for Woody Allen's To Rome with Love, the next stop on his cinematic European vacation. However, the film is more in-line with the rest of his post-millenium films than its nostalgia-fueled predecessor. The film is broken into four interwoven segments, each with a varying degree of success. The love triangle between Jesse Eisenberg's Jack, Greta Gerwig's Sally (Gerwig is horribly underused), and Ellen Page's Monica - with Alec Baldwin's John floating around the edges - is easily the worst, with all four talented actors failing to make the hokey mess work. Similarly, the sex-comedy mix-ups of a young Italian couple - Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) ends up taking a high-end prostitute (Penelope Cruz) to meet his family's business connections, Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) connects with a famous actor (Antonio Albanese) - is a stale farce that even the film seems to take little interest in. However, the other two segments work much better. Opera director Jerry (Allen himself), upon meeting the family of his daughter's fiancé (Alison Pill and Flavio Parenti, respectively), discovers that the father (Fabio Armiliato) is a phenomenal opera singer - but only when he's in the shower. This mostly works through the absurd visuals of a shower being placed in the middle of an opera stage for his performances. The best, though, is the story of Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni), an ordinary, opinionated man who inexplicably becomes Italy's biggest celebrity overnight. It's a simple, easy story, but it has more charm than the rest of the film combined. Unfortunately, it's not enough to save the entire film. C

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