Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Short Takes: "Enemy", "Batman & Robin", and more

Gloria (dir. Sebastian Leilo, 2013)

Gloria (Paulina García) is in her fifties, divorced, and living alone now that her children have grown up. It's the perfect setup for a kitchen-sink drama, but director Sebastian Leilo has created a film that hums with the same joie de vivre as its protagonist. Gloria goes out to clubs, dances, and meets a former navy officer (Sergio Hernández) who she believes she could have a stable, permanent relationship with. Of course, there are hiccups along the way, as Gloria is forced to confront not only who he is but also her own past. But so much of the film's success comes from Leilo's snappy direction and from García's brilliant, tour-de-force performance. She never shies away from the rougher edges of Gloria's personality, yet she makes the audience fully believe in her strength and independence. It's a marvelous portrait of a woman fully determined to be herself. A-

Enemy (dir. Denis Villeneuve, 2014)

Given that the Jose Saramago novel that the film is based on is a reworking of Fyodor Doestoevsky's The Double, it should perhaps come as no surprise that Enemy finds Denis Villeneuve doing his best imitation of fellow Canuck David Cronenberg. Adam (Jake Gyllenhaal), a meek college professor in Toronto, discovers while watching a movie his doppelgänger, Anthony (Gyllenhaal again). Anthony is like Adam in every way, except more brash and sexual. Things become complicated when Anthony demands that Adam switch places with him, giving Anthony the opportunity to spend a romantic getaway with Adam's girlfriend Mary (Melaine Laurent) and get away from his pregnant wife Helen (Sarah Gadon). Though Villeneuve - working from a script by Javier Gullón - certainly achieves an eerie vibe through hazy cinematography, he doesn't really have the kinkiness to match Cronenberg's Dead Ringers, to which this film bears a strong resemblance. That being said, Gyllenhaal is terrific in the duel roles, and Gadon stands out as a woman who's had enough of Anthony's behavior and is willing to take an alternative. It's a fine thriller, but it never lives up to its full potential. B-

Batman & Robin (dir. Joel Schumacher, 1997)

This is the film that brought the original Batman movie franchise to a screeching halt. The plot involves Batman (George Clooney) and Robin (Chris O'Donnell) doing battle with two serious threats: Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his band of hockey stick-wielding cronies (whom I assume are the 1976 Philadelphia Flyers), and Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman) and her sidekick, Bane (Jeep Swenson). "Serious threats" is a misnomer, since the film doesn't have any real stakes. Actually, it doesn't have much of anything: the acting is across-the-board terrible, though Thurman does strike the campy chord better than anyone else, while Schumacher incompetently stages and shoots one dull action sequence after another. This is a film that has no idea what it wants to be, other than a hit. And it couldn't even manage to get that right. (Best ShotF

In the Land of Blood and Honey (dir. Angelina Jolie, 2011)

It probably doesn't come as a surprise that Jolie's first feature as a writer/director would be related to a humanitarian cause; in this case, the Bosnian War of the mid-1990s, in which over 100,000 people were killed and an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 women were brutally raped. The film filters the war through the relationship between Danijel (Goran Kostic), a Serbian soldier, and Ajia (Zana Marjanovic), a Muslim Bosniak artist who's landed in a prisoner-of-war camp. The two form a romantic bond that shifts with their circumstances during the war. As a director, Jolie proves that she has a strong eye for detail, and she brings out fine performances from both Kostic and Marjanovic. As a writer, however, she struggles to provide any sort of quiet moment for the audience to catch their breath. The result is that she lays on the tragedy and despair far too thickly, making the film a chore to watch and difficult to stomach in some of its brutality. It's a fine debut for her as a filmmaker, flawed but indicative of her potential. C

Cries and Whispers (dir. Ingmar Bergman, 1973)

Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman is perhaps the Scandinavian nation's best-known filmmaker, having earned international acclaim for a large portion of his career (he died in 2007). Cries and Whispers, though, holds a vaunted status in his filmography, and for good reason. The film centers on three sisters - Karin (Ingrid Thulin), Maria (Liv Ullman), and Agnes (Harriet Andersson) - who are reunited when Agnes becomes gravely ill. Their reunion, as many family reunions do on film, unearths old resentments and long-guarded secrets between them as they reflect on their lives growing up in their childhood home. The film is beautifully shot in stark blacks, whites, and reds, giving the story an almost mythic quality. And the central performances are uniformly terrific, with each actress revealing multitudes about these sisters' relationships than words could ever express. It's a deeply moving, powerful film that proves why Bergman was considered one of cinema's greatest humanists. (Best Shot coming July 29) A+

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (dir. Peter Jackson, 2013)

The best thing that can be said about The Desolation of Smaug is that it is an improvement over The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Unlike that first film in the pointlessly-stretched-out trilogy, there are fewer diversions and introductions here, with the plot advancing forward rather quickly as Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), and company make their way to the Lonely Mountain to reclaim the dwarves' kingdom. However, there's still not enough interesting things happening here, even with the return of Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and the introduction of Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), a character created for the films whose sole purpose so far has been to serve as a love interest to both Legolas and dwarf Kili (Aiden Turner). Though there's more momentum in the narrative of this film, it feels like Jackson has lost interest in exploring Middle Earth, delivering a few inventive action sequences early on but phoning in the climax. I'm sure if you were to watch all three Hobbit films together (the third is due later this year), this one works better. But as a stand-alone film, being better than it's predecessor still isn't good enough. C

Under the Skin (dir. Jonathan Glazer, 2014)

It's hard to describe an enigmatic film like Under the Skin, director Jonathan Glazer's first narrative feature in a decade. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien creature who roams Scotland, preying on men with the help of a motorcycle-riding assistant and her own allure. The film doesn't have a plot so much as a premise, but those willing to take a look will be justly rewarded. Johansson is a wonder as the creature, capturing the little nuances that make it seem more human as it navigates a world that it doesn't completely understand. The film is filled with beautiful imagery, complemented by a haunting score from Mica Levi (of the band Micachu & the Shapes). It's a hard film to explain, but once it gets, well, under your skin, you'll have a hard time forgetting it. (Best ShotA

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