Saturday, June 28, 2014

Short Takes: "The Monuments Men," "Escape from Tomorrow," and more

The Black Tulip (dir. Sonia Nassery Cole, 2010)

Regardless of the film's quality, The Black Tulip remains a landmark film: it was shot entirely in Afghanistan by Afghan-American activist and filmmaker Sonia Nassery Cole (this is her feature debut). However, being important isn't the same as being good. The film concerns the Mansouri family, led by Hadar (Haji Gul Aser) and Farishta (Cole), as they open a cafe in Kabul where Afghan citizens and American soldiers alike can dine, recite poetry, and sing songs. The cafe becomes the target of remaining sects of the Taliban, leading to tragedy. The problem is that, for all of Cole's good intentions, this story of freedom and cooperation takes a clichéd path to its obvious endpoint, touching on harrowing elements but never effectively selling them. It doesn't help that the performances are uniformly stiff, ranging from almost decent to flat-out terrible, and that Cole has been accused of falsely depicting Afghan culture. Cole certainly meant well, and the film's message is worth exploring further. Here's hoping her next film does so in a more engaging way. C-

The Monuments Men (dir. George Clooney, 2014)

George Clooney, as a director, has built his career on making films that are modeled on old-fashioned genres. Good Night, and Good Luck. was his true-life take on man-against-the-system dramas, Leatherheads was his screwball comedy, and The Ides of March was his '70s-era political thriller. It should come as no surprise, then, that a man considered the last old-fashioned movie star would take on the rousingly-patriotic World War II drama, as Clooney does with The Monuments Men. Based on the true story of a group of men tasked with saving precious works of art from the Nazis (Hitler was a former art student, and hoped to open an elaborate museum in his hometown after the war), Clooney himself stars as the leader of the team, Frank Stokes, who recruits his motley crew to gallivant across Europe. There's a warm, comedic report among the men - which includes Matt Damon, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, and John Goodman - that gives the film an Oceans Eleven feel, while Alexandre Desplat's brassy score evokes the great war dramas of Old Hollywood. But the film is too lightweight to really land any punches, and mostly just ambles from one scene to the next without any real sense of direction. Plus, Cate Blanchett goes mostly wasted in a window-dressing role as a French art curator. The true story is fascinating; the film can't muster the same excitement. C+

Rust & Bone (dir. Jacques Audiard, 2012)

In 2009, French director Jacques Audiard made A Prophet, a harrowing prison drama that featured twin powerhouse performances from Tahar Rahim and Niels Arestrup and is easily one of the best films of that year. For his follow-up, Rust & Bone, Audiard made a film that tries to be several things at once, but is only fitfully successful. The film follows Alain (Matthias Schoenaerts), a Belgian man who comes to France after being put in charge of his son. He befriends Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard), a killer whale trainer at a local park who loses both legs in a tragic accident. As the film follows their relationship, it becomes evident that Stéphanie is a far more interesting character than Alain, namely thanks to Cotillard's radiant performance. This isn't to say that Schoenaerts doesn't do great work, but that his character is mostly treated as a brute who must be forced to change, with very little interiority. Audiard also lays the tragedy on a little thickly, with one bad thing happening after another, each escalating from the previous. Yet in all the misery, Cotillard shines. An improbable use of Katy Perry's "Firework" becomes a moment of triumph through her. Maybe if the film had focused more on her, it too could have succeeded. B-

Escape from Tomorrow (dir. Randy Moore, 2013)

When Escape from Tomorrow - then titled Escape from Tomorrowland - first premiered at Sundance in January 2013, it instantly garnered notoriety for the way it was made. It was filmed on location in Disney World and DisneyLand parks, and tells the story of a man, Jim (Roy Abramsohn), who begins to lose his grip on reality when he loses his job while on vacation with his family. The hitch was the film was made undercover, without any permission from Disney or any of their sponsors. However, the film itself doesn't live up to it's maverick reputation. The acting is comically awful, with Abramsohn making a particularly nasty and unconvincing "hero." The rest of the ensemble - particularly Elena Schuber as Jim's wife, Emily - are given nothing to do other than inconvenience Jim as he tries to distract himself by following French teenagers. And Moore, a first-time filmmaker, never really gets the nightmare imagery right, causing the film to feel more like an ugly screed against family than a surreal psychotic episode. The film has a genuinely fascinating premise and a neat production story. It's too bad those were wasted on something so bland. C-

Two Lives (dirs. Georg Maas and Judith Kaufmann, 2013)

There's an interesting premise to Two Lives: as the Berlin Wall begins to crumble and Germany slowly shifts toward reunification, Katrine (Juliane Köhler) is called upon to testify in an international case against Norway on behalf of the "war children" (in this case, children with Norwegian mothers and German fathers born during German occupation) who were forcibly relocated to Germany after WWII. Katrine refuses to testify, though, teasing out a long-kept secret that threatens to tear her entire life apart. The post-war backdrop makes for an interesting spin on the secrets-and-lies domestic potboiler, even if the time period (the collapse of communism in Europe) is perhaps a tad on-the-nose, thematically. That being said, Köhler is fine in the lead role, as is the legendary Liv Ullman as Katrine's mother. If there's one thing that really holds it back, it's that the third act takes the big reveal - which is devastating - and fumbles the aftermath with a bizarre finale. Otherwise, it's an interesting and engaging drama with a historically-unexplored premise. B

The Station Agent (dir. Thomas McCarthy, 2003)

The most striking thing about any of actor/writer/director Thomas McCarthy's films is how deeply human each of his characters are. There is no character too minor to be granted empathy, and more often than not those characters come together to form odd makeshift families. The Station Agent, McCarthy's debut, centers on Finbar (Peter Dinklage), a man born with dwarfism who inherits a old train depot in rural New Jersey. Fin is alone, having lost his only friend, but together with hot-dog vendor Joe (Bobby Cannavale) and Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), he begins to take steps toward leaving his self-imposed isolation. Dinklage is an absolute marvel as Fin, imbuing him with profound weariness of having been an outcast his entire life while still flashing glimpses of his warmth and humor. Thanks to Game of Thrones providing a weekly dose of Dinklage's talent, it's remarkable to remember that he was only first being noticed here. Cannavale does great work, too, at hinting at the loneliness under Joe's relentlessly excitable personality. Clarkson had a banner year in 2003, with her performance as Olivia an obvious highlight. She's flighty, troubled, and barely dealing with the separation from her husband, yet Clarkson never lets the character fall into being a collection of tics rather than a human being. The film's a beautiful slice-of-life with a terrific ensemble, and it was just the first taste of what these fine actors and first-time filmmaker would bring in the future. A-

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