I try to be as open-minded as I can when it comes to art films, and enthusiastic reviews for Leos Carax's absurdist genre mashup Holy Motors had my hopes up, but I gotta confess: this film lost me. It goes without saying that I just didn't get it, but, I guess for me at least, it turns out there is such a thing “too weird”. It seems like the sort of surrealist art film that a number of high-minded critics will love defending simply because it's so inexplicable. If you're able to turn off the rational part of your brain and just enjoy its mad collage of sights and sounds, then more power to you. If, like me, you're one of those people who like their movies to be, y'know, about something, you'll find no satisfaction here except for isolated amusements among its endless parade of non sequitur film making. Does that make me a simpleton? Probably, but I know what I like, and this one is not my cuppa tea. Still, it's never a bad thing to intake a foreign oddity this time of year merely as a break from the deluge of awards season candidates, and indeed, you'd be hard pressed to find a less Oscar-friendly film than this (although it's practically its own FYC ad for Best Makeup).
** out of ****
It seems somewhat appropriate that Alfred Hitchcock's unmistakable profile – as it appeared in silhouette form on his TV series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” – features so prominently in Sacha Gervasi's Hitchcock, because the film itself presents nothing more than a silhouette of the man; a distinctive, iconic personality, but one without any depth to it.
Taking a lighthearted approach to backstage Hollywood drama, Gervasi's film chronicles the making of Psycho, the game-changing horror that forever silenced ponderings that the master of suspense may have been losing his touch. Feeling the need to stretch his creative limbs, Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) is forced to put it all on the line – his money, his reputation, and his relationship with his wife and collaborator Alma Revel – for the thrill of artistic risk-taking.
Gervasi doesn't really do anything to offend the legendary status of Hitchcock, but as a character, he doesn't give Hitchcock much more motivation beyond obsession with completing his film. We don't feel like we know much more about him as a person. When the picture fades to black at the end, we've simply just spent an hour and a half with the well publicized persona we're already familiar with. His imagined conversations with real-life serial killer and Psycho-inspirer Ed Gein proves as needless a gimmick as you (or Hitchcock, rather) can imagine. It's his spouse and professional partner Alma, who always stood in his enormous shadow despite heavy involvement in all his pictures, that gets proper exposure here, as earnestly portrayed by Helen Mirren. Special mention to supporting players James Darcy and Scarlett Johansson for nailing their impersonations of Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh with almost eerie precision.
** out of ****
The Guardians (not be confused with those of Zach Snyder's owl movie) work in secret to preserve the innocence of childhood and instill wonder in kids all over the world. Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and the Sandman all have their champions of youngsters who believe in them sight unseen, but Jack Frost isn't getting the same love or attention. He's learned to be content simply wreaking wintery hijinks for 300 years, but he'll have to find his centre and learn some responsibility when the Guardians ask him to join their ranks. They need his help to protect the world's children from the wicked nightmares of the Bogeyman (aka: Pitch Black), who wants a bit of belief thrown his way too.
Rise of the Guardians is the sort of movie which forces its audience to take the bad with the good. The distinctive production and character designs (which executive producer Guillermo Del Toro had a big hand in developing) are wondrously creative, but also chaotically busy. The film is technically accomplished, particularly in regards to Alexandre Desplat's lovely score and DreamWorks' ever-improving animation, but it feels so very imposed in the barrage of the sound mix and the in-your-face storyboarding. The premise (from William Joyce's childrens book) is imaginative and rings with valuable undertones of faith and identity, but is somewhat wasted on a thin story that vexes with its rushed pacing and hyperactivity. Still, I'll take an fresh concept like this over any of the repetitive floats in DreamWorks' endless parade of uninvited sequels.
**1/2 out of ****
The Invisible War is a blood-boiling expose on the shamefully underexposed epidemic of rape victims in U.S. military institutions. With straightforward, journalistic sensibilities, director Kirby Dick assembles a series of first account testimonials from servicemen and women who have suffered not only sexual abuse, but the infuriating indifference of the military legal system that seems to do nothing to protect them. While the multitude of talking heads and the horrifying stories they tell do kinda blur together at a point, that may indeed be the point.
*** out of ****
The Queen of Versailles tracks the “riches to rags” story (although “rags” is a hell of an exaggeration) of the Siegel family, one of America's wealthy elite, as the recession challenges the ludicrously ostentatious lifestyle to which they had become accustomed. The documentary does not attempt to elicit our sympathy for the obscenely rich, but it does attempt to humanize them, becoming a shrewd and ultimately sad dismantlement of the American Dream.
The opening third of The Queen of Versailles is infuriating and laughable in equal measure as it presents the Siegels living within the vacuum of luxury and power, seemingly oblivious or simply indifferent to how they must come across to the other 99% of the world. We gape in outrage at the decadent indulgences and frivolities on which they spend, including the under-construction Versailles, the single largest private home in America. And we laugh in disbelief because they virtually appear as caricatures of themselves: David Siegel, founder of Westgate Resorts, the world's biggest time-share enterprise, literally delivers his interview while seated on a golden throne. His wife Jackie, a busty former beauty queen nearly 30 years his junior, prattles on about every vain extravagance that fills her life – and her soon-to-be palace. One the eight Siegel children prophetically mentions, “you don't have to worry about money, but at the same time you kinda do.”
Indeed, the ridiculous spending would have to end. The economic crisis of 2008 meant that average Americans could no longer afford to vacation at fancy time-shares, thus stopping the flow of money that powered the Siegels' life. This previously happy-looking couple begin to show their true colors when they go from haves to have-lesses. What's dejecting is not that they're suddenly less rich, but how emotionally dependent on money these people have become. David Siegel confesses that business is the only true love in his life, and becomes increasingly distant and depressed as the film trudges on. Jackie continues to put on a botox-induced smile, but one can't help but detect a sense of denial about her new situation.
*** out of ****
Jacques Audiard shines a harsh, unflinching light on human emotion in Rust and Bone, a hard-edged love story conveyed by two outstanding lead performances from Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard.
Ali (Schoenaerts) is a vagrant street fighter who hardly seems an appropriate fit to raise his five-year-old son Sam. He freeloads at his sister's place while renting himself out for security services and winning cash in organized fistfights. Stephanie (Cotillard) is a whale trainer at Marineland until a fateful accident takes both her legs and plunges her into depression. The two form a relationship that starts merely as physical , but deepens as they discover in each other something worth living for.
Rust and Bone is an unusual romance in that there's nothing romantic about it. Audiard, in a style similar to his merciless prison film A Prophet, bares his characters' emotions without the slightest trace of sentiment or melodrama. It's a tough way for his two leads to sell the love story, but they're equal to the task. Schoenaerts (who was excellent in last year's Bullhead) has clearly mastered the art of restraint; a boiler of confused feelings simmering beneath masculine pride. Cotillard, meanwhile, strips herself down to the essence of depression and vulnerability. Hers is a difficult portrayal of a tough personality reverted to tender fragility by cruel misfortune. She brilliantly evokes empathy without asking us to warm up to her.
*** out of ****
In Seaching for Sugar Man, director Malik Bendjelloul tells the fascinating human interest story of the musical artist known as Rodriguez. Never heard of him? That's because he never made it big here in North America. The Detroit based songwriter produced one album in the 1970s (Cold Fact) that quietly flopped, but over in Apartheid-era South Africa, the record became an underground hit, and eventually snowballed into a full out cultural phenomenon. And Rodriguez was blissfully unaware. The documentary recounts how the musicologists and journalists in South Africa miraculously tracked down the mysterious musician, living a humble life in downtown Detroit, dispelling rumours of his suicide and resurrecting the legend for a series of concerts in the one country that embraced his work. It's a quaint sort of real-life fairytale about dreams coming true, but one that may have better been suited to a shorter format. Even at a brisk 86 minutes, the film is heavily padded by musical interludes of Rodriguez's underexposed songs.
**1/2 out of ****
Lee Hirsch's wrenching, powerful documentary Bully brings its audience face to face with cruelty and violence – psychological and physical – among America's youth, and dares us not to look away. With a jumbled structure that hops between a handful of character studies, we see an array of impacts that bullying has on those children who lack the strength to stand up for themselves: a misfit who grows acclimatized to his oppressors just to have connection with other people; an outed lesbian in Bible-belt America pressured into changing schools; a girl who was driven to hold her tormentors at gunpoint; parents of victims who took their own young lives after enduring one cruelty too many. While it does not illuminate all perspectives of what is really a complex and multi-sided issue, it is an important piece of social activism that should be mandatory viewing for all students preteen-and-up, despite its unsettling subject matter.
*** out of ****
For generations, the Palestinian village of Bil'in had picked olives in the fertile valley below. When Israeli bulldozers come in to develop the land for new building settlements in 2004, the villagers begin what becomes a longstanding siege of nonviolent protest, captured by the ever-recording camera (five of them, to be exact) of video journalist Emad Burnat, director of 5 Broken Cameras.
At once epic and intimate, this remarkable first-person account brings a refreshingly personal perspective to a genre that frequently risks overly clinical analysis. We're not just witnessing the unfolding of a complex political issue, but the growth of a man's family and the evolution of his perceptions as they are seen through his precious cameras. More than just a meditation on the eternal Israel/Palestine conflict, it is a testament to the very spirit of documentarianism.
***1/2 out of ****
The trials and tragedies of a child soldier in Africa are laid bare for us in Kim Nguyen's War Witch. Rachel Mwanza gives a devastating performance as a girl forced to shoot her own parents and join a band of rebels fighting the government. As the vignette-driven film unfolds, she elopes with another young soldier to get married and leave their life of violence behind. The film settles into a pace less powerful and disturbing as the traumatic first act, but of course, their past always comes back, ready to wallop us with more emotional weight.
*** out of ****