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PFF23: Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, FRA/USA)

A mildly incisive deconstruction of an aging actress, Clouds of Sils Maria follows Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) as she reluctantly assumes the role of her career breakout character’s foil in an onstage production of Maloja Snake. Starring alongside a troubled upstart decades her junior, Maria and assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) navigate the days and weeks leading up to opening night, all the while confronted with a considerable amount of existential hurdles. Cross-generational discord soon rears its ugly head, what with Maria’s unending cynicism straining her bond with Valentine and general sense of self.

Set primarily in and around the titular Alps retreat, Clouds builds an apt enough parallel to our celebrity-saturated culture with ease, if only to intermittently offer valuable insight beyond what we’re already familiar with. The picture of seasoned elegance on one hand, the drug-obsessed byproduct of the post-adolescent A-List on the other – the line between them is bluntly drawn as the former’s criticisms of the latter remain unavoidably banal. Regardless, Assayas incorporates such an element to merely aid in Maria’s slow burning catharsis to varying degrees of effectiveness.

On the contrary, the interplay between Maria and Stewart’s Valentine is what rings most perceptive despite the film’s lax structure. Through repeated line readings, exchanges of opinion and the like, Maria’s worsening identity crisis in the face of personal loss and Hollywood’s decline becomes reasonably involving. Unfortunately, said dialogue-heavy ruminations run their course as thematic redundancy detracts from the film’s minimal strong suits.

With this in mind, Clouds of Sils Maria is steadfast only in the realm of presentation, what with a wholly unique setting lending itself wonderfully to an often arresting visual prowess. While its central character’s struggle is timely and evokes a mere semblance of empathy, Assayas’ latest ends up feeling a bit long-winded and ineffectual as Maria’s waning, all-encompassing complacency takes too long in amounting to an appropriate if predictable crux. Familiar and pseudo-poetic in scope, Clouds of Sils Maria boasts excellent performances and above average intuition despite its oppressively plodding framework.

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PFF23: Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, BE/FRA)

Although I’m entirely (and ashamedly) unfamiliar with the Dardennes’ reputable body of work, it’s to my understanding that their filmography is an amassed masterclass in humanism. Without missing a beat, Two Days, One Night fits the mold as you’d expect it would in its illustration of one Sandra’s (Marion Cotillard) weekend-long struggle to keep her job. Chosen by coworkers to be laid off in favor of their sizable bonuses, it becomes harder and harder for Sandra to remain strong amid adversity given her depression-addled past and ever-weakening resolve.

Wholly speaking, the film in question is a purposefully nuanced exercise that prefers to emulate timely authenticity over anything else and frankly, it rarely fails to succeed. While procedural in scope, it’s clear that the narrative’s aim is to convincingly convey Cotillard’s Sandra’s struggle in a relatable manner that’s impossible not to sympathize with, especially in this economically trying day and age. Everything ranging from her worsening relapse into depression to her concerns regarding her work environment should she be rehired is spot-on and, frankly, I’m hard-pressed to mention a comparable effort this assured and well-rounded.

Even though we’re faced with potentially alienating repetition regarding Sandra’s explanation of her predicament, the film’s presentation remains admirably adroit as individuals’ responses are logical and poised amid our protagonist’s tribulations. Sympathy isn’t forced despite the proceedings’ focus as it nonoppressively illustrates the harsh realities at hand, of which is a refreshingly honest approach to a formula frequently steeped in melodrama.

Remaining entirely adept in its chronicling of the titular time frame, Two Days, One Night is an agreeably simplistic but masterfully orchestrated look behind the curtain of an individual’s relatable hardships. Its rudimentary procedural essence becomes forgivable as emotionality trumps familiarity, not to mention the sheer experience of viewing something so steadfastly authentic in this day and age remaings refreshing beyond words. As it quietly but assuredly crushes you, the Dardennes’ latest is – as far as I’ve deduced – an accessible if particularly characteristic benchmark in their palpably unique body of work.

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PFF23: Mommy (Xavier Dolan, CAN)

In returning to his subjective roots, Xavier Dolan’s latest focuses on a single mother’s reacquisition of her wayward teenage son following the latter’s expulsion from a detention facility. Left with zero alternatives, one Diane ‘Die’ Després (Anne Dorval) struggles to coexist with her emotionally unstable son amid hardships of her own. As stress mounts within the increasingly dysfunctional Després household, along comes the pair’s soft-spoken neighbor to unknowingly usher in a familial epiphany.

As an opening several-minute exchange very frankly sets the stage for Dolan’s most accessible feature to date, Mommy remains a bit of an odd duck by way of narrative and tone, what with sensationalist tendencies lacing the film’s stab at dynamic human drama. Given young Steve’s frighteningly unpredictable vitriol, the film’s sense of humor is surprisingly as effective as conflict is unflinching, however the tonal shifts procured by these moments are as subtle as a meteor shower. While agreeably affecting in terms of scope, it’s hard to deny the film’s oppressively cloying sensibilities as certain situations ring a bit too over-the-top and on-the-nose regarding its themes.

Regarding Dolan’s now-trademark technical proficiency, it’s safe to say that the man certainly knows how to work a camera and an audience. It’s hard to deny how ballsy an employed aspect ratio flip-flop is and, although cheesy in the grand scheme, the soundtrack choices and often-accompanying slow-motion shots manage to evoke more sympathy than disinterest. Some may roll their eyes at the unveiling of the former during a key narrative catharsis, however Mommy‘s intentions are abundantly clear and confident throughout an outrageous 140-minute run time.

It’s not that I openly disliked Mommy on the basis of its simplicity. In fact, I applaud Dolan for producing something this (presumably) personal and throwing thematic familiarity to the wind, it’s just a shame that the proceedings are so… loud. Regarding emotionality in this sense, the film more or less succeeds as light and dark are illustrated in equal measure, what with a fictional wraparound amendment to the Canadian constitution keeping viewers in limbo regarding eventual resolution. It’s a story about a tenuous bond struggling to survive amid hardship after hardship that’s bolstered by Dolan’s singular capabilities as a filmmaker, plain and simple.

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PFF23: My Schedule & Obligatory Hype Post

Hi! Nothing special to report on as this post is meant to merely announce my finalized PFF ’14 schedule. After saving an exorbitant amount of money on account of, you know, not driving or flying to Canada (despite the superior experience), I was even more relieved upon the tardy unearthing of Philly’s festival lineup. Benchmarked by a lot of much-buzzed-about titles, I can’t wait to attend each and every screening. Expect write-ups detailing my thoughts on each of the films below in a (more or less) timely fashion.

PFF '14

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Gone Girl (David Fincher, 2014)

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As it stylistically echoes the highest highs of Fincher’s illustrious career, Gone Girl effortlessly transcends tropes thanks to many a merit. At-first unfolding as a typical whodunnit, one Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) is on his way to the chopping block following his wife Amy’s (Rosamund Pike) disappearance. Alternately examining the couple’s golden years in contrast to what did or didn’t lead Nick to kill, the film evolves into one hell of a well-woven exercise in toying with both expectation and sympathy.

For as laudably ever-present Fincher’s flair is, Gone Girl is nearly impossible to critique at length without spoiling one of many narrative game changers. Much like his needless if agreeably superior Girl with the Dragon Tattoo retread, this film thrives on the basis of long-winded complexity and unpredictability. Flynn’s script – self-adapted from the titular novel – does well in procuring a slow burn consistent with genre trappings until the rug is unceremoniously yanked out from under us. Generally speaking, what once was certain becomes irrevocably muddled amid twist after twist (after twist).

In fact, it’s this haywire progression that functions as a lone weak point, what with said twists purposefully existing to subvert predictability over and over again. Cheap, maybe, however it all functions so well as certain elements are expertly illustrated, including but certainly not limited to the overarching, media-driven influence on the entire case at hand. All things considered, it’s hard to not appreciate how events unfold from scene to scene as a ravenous desire for the truth develops and persists.

While I wouldn’t rank it among Fincher’s must-sees, there still hardly exists a negative aspect of Gone Girl. Relishing in its uprooting of whodunnit procedural tropes, the director’s effective presentational panache compliments the proceedings wonderfully. Despite the absurdity lacing the aforementioned onslaught of twists and turns, the film rarely ceases to engage as impatience regarding inevitable finality rears its ugly head. The commentary on modern media and marriage aside, Gone Girl is still assuredly one of the most deftly recreated literary adaptations to come along since, well, Fincher’s last go-round with the medium.

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The Catch-Up Files, Volume 1

As the Philadelphia Film Festival approaches and 2014 inevitably dwindles, I’ve decided to employ the notes I’ve taken whilst catching up with my backlog of this year’s offerings. Slightly varying in terms of quality, these entries predictably dwarf that of bigger-budgeted mainstream schlock that I was tempted to but didn’t spend money to suffer through in theaters. Only time will tell if I’ll enjoy or loathe the likes of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and similar fare but, in the meantime, I hope you enjoy my brief musings pertaining to the five films featured below. As always, comments are certainly welcome and encouraged as conversation ’round these parts is scarce nowadays.

Volume 1

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White Bird in a Blizzard (Gregg Araki, 2014)

One fateful day in 1988, 17-year-old Kat Connor’s mother vanished without a trace. As her father remains despondent amid her own indifference, Kat vividly recalls her mother’s escalating identity crisis in the face of droll, housewife-driven inanity, not to mention the lack of affection plaguing her parents’ shoddy marriage. Confiding in friends, a police detective and medical professional about said scenario, Kat’s coming-of-age tribulations are also covered in equal measure as she navigates the months leading up to and following her high school graduation. Did her mother simply disappear, or will a harsher reality rear its ugly head?

Among many a subjective and thematic contrivance, White Bird in a Blizzard possesses enough dramatic gusto to push past familiarity and a distracting on-the-nose ’80s aesthetic. Awkward and stilted, the wraparound mystery involving Eve’s (Eva Green) disappearance pales in comparison to Woodley’s Kat in terms of another noteworthy character portrayal and base level involvement. Although schadenfreude by definition, I’ve always found troubled youth – no matter how mildly – to be a fascinating subject. Illustrated to a noticeably more tragic degree in Araki’s Mysterious Skin, the maturation and self-discovery coinciding with particularly grim coming-of-age fare is almost always a welcome departure from the quirky and/or saccharine.

Even still, White Bird‘s core narrative is irreparably hampered by pseudo-poetic dreamscapes and general silliness. With the film’s title complimenting Eve’s hatred of complacency in her predetermined familial role, the revisited visual metaphor – presented as Kat’s curated dreams during therapy sessions – is as easy-to-decipher as they come and adds nothing dynamic to the mix. Laced with an overbearing, sort of lyrical aesthetic reminiscent of Peter Jackson’s equally subpar The Lovely Bones, a certain emotional weight is meant to be conveyed yet nothing is worth caring for, loathsome central characters included.

As viewers simultaneously suffer through soundtrack and wardrobe choices lifted embarrassingly from the source material’s wiki of choice, White Bird in a Blizzard‘s literally laughable third-act reveal serves as the straw to break the camel’s back. Steeped in unintentional hilarity – and I apologize for divulging said spoiler – the ending feels so forced in a “Gotta get ‘em!” creative sense that I was left with no choice but to hate nearly all that preceded it. On the surface, Araki’s latest feature competently functions in the areas I’ve outlined despite the gravity of the core mystery. All things considered though, the film offers little in the realm of worthwhile dramatic conflict, and any semblance of poignancy flies right out the window with flashes of absurdity and genuinely unlikable characters.

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The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (Ned Benson, 2014)

Originally conceived and presented as two separate films, Ned Benson’s then-ambitious dissection of a couple’s estrangement in the wake of tragedy suffers as its presently cohesive whole. Subtitled Them, this newly-edited feature alternately chronicles each party’s respective struggle in picking up the pieces, both emotionally and existentially as the titular Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) and beau Conor (James McAvoy) begin to run in place. Going through the motions as the gravity of what drove them apart affects family and friends alike, the couple’s hopes to persevere continuously wane in the face of such adversity.

In direct comparison to obvious anti-romantic inspirations, Eleanor Rigby unfortunately rings a bit too banal in its finished state. Purposefully melancholy as Eleanor’s sense of self depreciates from moment to moment, the film does its best to but can’t competently engage despite circumstantial, moreover character-driven drama. Frankly, the film’s narrative is largely alienating, what with authenticity taking a backseat to awkward dialogue and lack of chemistry between leads in an inexcusable turn of events. Even the core impetus that drives its foot between Eleanor and Conor lacks a discernible dynamism and, sadly enough, what we’re left with is a routine exercise in projected misery that isn’t nearly as hard-hitting as Benson intended for it to be.

Like I mentioned earlier, Benson’s original intentions with the material were and still are more intriguing than the thinly plotted, pseudo-incisive substance presented throughout. While the Him and Her division could (and quite possibly did) lend itself wonderfully in a presentational and/or technical sense, the melding of both individuals’ perspectives procures little more than base level emotionality. Cookie-cutter details surrounding the overarching scenario simply fail to evoke sympathy – a fact that mildly perturbs given intendedly somber commentary on love, loss and self-betterment despite an overwhelming desire to throw in the towel.

Regardless of subjective temptation, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is an exercise in self-important familiarity. Attempted insight into the protagonists’ disparate private lives falls flat as I, the viewer, failed to connect with either of them. If anything, the obviously comparable likes of Blue Valentine, etc. thrive on their effectively cloying methods – often painfully authentic illustrations of love on the rocks and, while emotionally manipulative, excel thanks to an air of overall attachment. Eleanor Rigby trades this for nothing more than an anti-romantic outline full of rote thematic conflict. It’s intermittently engaging, sure, however Ned Benson’s seemingly earnest efforts lack staying power before it all even ends.