Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Short Takes: 2014 Oscar Nominees, Part Two

Two Days, One Night (dirs. Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne, 2014)

Two Days, One Night is something of a "Judas" moment for the Dardenne Brothers. The Belgian directors made their name by adhering to the aesthetics of the French New Wave: amateur actors, child protagonists, strict use of diegetic sound, and handheld cinematography. But in this film, for the first time, they've worked with a major international movie star: Marion Cotillard. It could have been seen as the auteurs selling out. Instead, the film turns out to be another affecting, remarkable work from a duo who have made nothing but affecting, remarkable works.

Cotillard stars as Sandra, an employee at a solar-panel company who learns that, while she was on leave, her boss held a vote amongst her co-workers: either Sandra stays or they get to keep their bonuses. Naturally, her co-workers chose their bonuses, and Sandra petitions for another vote, this time by secret ballot. She gets her request, leaving her with one weekend to convince her co-workers to surrender their bonuses and allow her to remain employed.

The Dardennes have stated that the film is meant to be an allegory for the austerity measures that have affected Europe since the 2008 economic collapse. But greater meaning or not, the film succeeds thanks to the remarkable empathy that the directors have for the characters. Each of Sandra's co-workers are given reasons for their decisions, and in every case it's presented as valid; they do what they have to do to get by, even if it comes at the cost of someone else. Cotillard is, of course, incredible in the role of Sandra; that pretty much goes without saying with an actress of her considerable talent. Ultimately, the film is another great work from a impressive pair of auteurs. A-

More after the jump.

Still Alice (dirs. Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland, 2014)

Alzheimer's disease is an inherently terrifying disorder: rather than attacking the body, it deteriorates the mind, meaning that the patient slowly loses their self - the very essence of what makes them who they are - before their very eyes. It's a tragic process to witness, as memories fade, knowledge disappears, and basic functions slowly become impossible tasks. Still Alice, from directors (and real-life partners) Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, finds Dr. Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) dealing with early-onset Alzheimer's. A linguistics professor at Columbia University, she receives her diagnosis after getting lost on campus one day, and her family - husband John (Alec Baldwin), son Tom (Hunter Parrish), eldest daughter Anna (Kate Bosworth), and youngest daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart) - are supportive at first. But as her condition deteriorates, she struggles to keep a grip on both herself and her family.

Needless to say, Moore is absolutely fantastic in the role of Alice. More than just successfully portraying how the disease affects her, she manages to make Alice someone who handles it in a very real way. She's not a saint because of her illness; she's still perfectly capable of saying harsh things and shutting her family out. But she never sacrifices the audience's empathy, either, making her portrayal a stunning work. Similarly, Stewart is terrific as the daughter who chose acting over college, the black sheep of the family who turns out to be the one Alice needs the most. Even in smaller roles, Baldwin and especially Bosworth make the most of their screen time.

However, it must be said that the direction by Glatzer and Westmoreland is also crucial to the film's success. The way they use the camera's focus to illustrate Alice's fading mind is clever, and they use a finely subdued approach to storytelling that doesn't browbeat the audience for sympathy. Glatzer - who is suffering from ALS, also known as Lou Gerhig's disease - and Westmoreland demonstrate empathy toward everyone in the film, making it a far better film about living with chronic illness than it could have been. A-

The Judge (dir. David Dobkin, 2014)

They often say, "they don't make them like they used to" (never mind who "they" is). In the case of The Judge, that's a mercifully good thing. There's not a cliche in the feel-good "prestige drama" book that The Judge doesn't regurgitate onto the screen, to the point where it often feels more like a parody of a John Grisham thriller than it does a serious movie.

The story is as follows: Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) is a slick lawyer who's sold his soul and is divorcing his wife. When his mother passes away, he returns to his small hometown in rural Indiana to attend the funeral, spending time with his brothers (Vincent D'Onfrio and Jeremy Strong) while doing his best to avoid his father (Robert Duvall), a longtime local judge. But when his father is accused of murder, Hank decides to stay in town and defend his father in court, allowing them to mend the bond that had long been broken and spend some time together after so many years.

What the plot synopsis above doesn't note is the major weather event where the family bonds, Judge Palmer's secret cancer and secret chemotherapy, the mentally-disabled younger brother (Strong), Hank's former flame (Vera Farmiga) and her daughter (Leighton Meester) who's just old enough to possibly be Hank's, and a twist that most in the audience could see coming from a mile away. In the right hands, parts of this could work well. But director David Dobkin doesn't have the skill to make any of it feel fresh or interesting, wasting good actors in roles that feel like cardboard cutouts instead of real people. It ultimately ends up feeling like an overlong, rote exercise in re-creating the feel-good films of the 1990s. But The Judge lacks the heart of those films, instead stumbling over itself from the very beginning. C-

Inherent Vice (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014)

Author Thomas Pynchon is a cult hero for a reason: his knotty, rambling prose is a challenge to decipher, and his reputation as a recluse lends him an air of intrigue. So it makes sense that director Paul Thomas Anderson, a filmmaker who's built his reputation on dense, obtuse films like The Master and There Will Be Blood, would be the one to bring Pynchon to the screen for the first time. Based on his 2009 novel, Inherent Vice is centered on Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a perpetually-stoned private investigator in 1970s Southern California. One night, his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) shows up asking for his help in a serious matter. This leads Doc into a tangled web of drugs, missing persons, crooked cops, Asian cartels, and...dentists.

There's no denying that the film's shagginess is charming, from Joanna Newsom's loopy, verbose voiceover narration to Phoenix's terrifically silly performance. Everyone in the cast does fine work, particularly Josh Brolin as Doc's LAPD ally "Bigfoot" Bjornsen. And the film looks great, too, thanks to Robert Elswit's gorgeous sun-dappled cinematography. Yet the film can never shake the feeling of, ultimately, being a stoner riff on film noir that never quite sticks. Perhaps the best way to describe it is as an uneasy marriage of Chinatown and The Big Lebowski, but never quite reaching the same glorious highs of either of those two films. It's not quite a misstep, but it is less than Anderson is capable of. B

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