Sunday, January 6, 2013

Elena's Brave Law

     In this crop of DVD reviews we reap a middle of the road Pixar effort, a delightfully nasty little Russian drama, and a Prohibition era family crime flick.  Might as well start out in the backwoods...

  Lawless - I viewed director John Hillcoat's last film, The Road, in a far more positive light than did the critical consensus, and was REALLY hoping that I would feel the same way about Lawless.  Unfortunately, while it was certainly not a bad movie (I quite enjoyed the first three quarters of the film), it did not impress me nearly as much.  The screenplay was written by Nick Cave who collaborated with Hillcoat on The Proposition and Ghosts...of the Civil Dead, neither of which I have seen.  I myself know Nick Cave better as the lead singer (and song writer) of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and I found the film to be much like a musical composition with various movements, leading to a swelling, climaxing crescendo, with a gentle final coda.  The movements were quite promising for the most part, but the crescendo was too loud and rapturous, too fraught with obvious emotive manipulation, to suspend disbelief as a narrative composition should.  The epilogue also seemed far too easy.  Nothing in the preceding story foreshadows any of the events that are revealed in hasty exposition to set up the final scene.  My investment in the characters couldn't quite make the time jump with them.
     It is impossible to leave Lawless feeling like you wasted your time watching it, however, because it is full of some really great acting, starting (for me at least) with Tom Hardy and Jessica Chastain.   Besides being gorgeous, they are two of the most versatile and exciting young talents emerging in cinema today.  Not surprisingly, they have amazing chemistry on screen, bringing heat, vulnerability, and a palpable sense of largely unspoken connection to their characters' budding romance.  Hardy, as the oldest brother in a nearly mythic family of bootleggers, is all quiet strength, filling a room with just his eyes or posture.  This is a completely different side to the actor.  Chastain may not stretch her limits quite as much, but without the elements she so believably awakens in Hardy's character, he would not have nearly as much depth.
     They are far from the only bright points in this ensemble, however.  Guy Pearce is positively chilling (at least at first) as Hardy's foil.  I am not very familiar with Jason Clarke, who plays the middle brother, but am really looking forward to seeing him in Zero Dark Thirty after his work here.  He is the (often drunken) heavy, and he is like a wild beast: a primal, terrifying thing.  The film Chronicle is sure to make my worst of 2012 list, but actor Dane DeHaan was the best thing about it, and he is solid here in an entirely different sort of role.  Gary Oldman plays a small part about like most of us would expect.
     It sort of hurts me to say this, but the weakest element in the cast is Shia LeBeouf, as the youngest brother.  It pains me, because he completely exceeded my expectations, and this is the most promising work I have ever seen him do.  Working with such talented people appears to have helped him grow as an actor tremendously.  Besides his brothers, he also had Mia Wasichowska (as solid a pro as you can find at her age), to play opposite, and he evinces much greater depth of personality and feeling than I was sure he was capable of portraying.  If the story had not centered around his character, it wouldn't even be a problem.  However, a cast full of more seasoned characters in supporting roles only emphasizes his weaknesses, and the film occasionally suffers for it.
     While I do have a few gripes, I still think that Lawless is a film worth seeing.  Who knows?  Years from now we may look back on it as the picture in which Shia LeBeouf's career took an entirely new path.  Stranger things have happened.  3 1/2 of 5*

  Brave - I'm not a huge enthusiast when it comes to animated films in general, although I have enjoyed many of the films that Pixar studios has released over the years quite a bit.  The thing about Brave is that it doesn't really SEEM much like a Pixar film.  The animation is still much as we've come to expect, stylish and impressive, but hardly as innovative as it once was.
     It also features some top notch voice talent including Kelly MacDonald, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson, and Julie Walters.  All do commendable, if not PARTICULARLY memorable work.
     However, Pixar became successful by making cartoons that focused on subjects and themes not usually found in animated features.  This story unravels in a fairly standard fairy tale format, with elements native to many of parent company Disney's films from the twentieth century, such as a young maiden heroine, a witch, and parent/child conflict.
     Whereas most Pixar films give you concepts to ponder and think about long after the film is over, Brave seems to settle more for a standard pat moral or two.  Don't take the life you have for granted.  Be careful what you wish for.  The tongue in cheek wit aimed at adult audience members is also largely missing, replaced by much less subtle forms of humor.
    Which is not to say that this is a BAD film.  It's not.  It tells a somewhat original story, and does flip the classic fairy tale on its head a bit, since the princess is running AWAY from finding her prince.  It just seems a little bit like Brave turns the clock back on many of the advancements Pixar worked so hard to inspire in the animated medium.  This was no Cars 2, but it was certainly no Up either.  4 of 5*

  Elena - Russian screen writers Andrey Zvyagintsev (who also directs) and Oleg Negin have crafted a unique little drama in Elena.  It is simple and understated, a talky family drama about the establishment of a will.  But make no mistake, this film twists your perceptions around like Hitchcock at his best.  Your sympathies are the film maker's playthings, and none of the primary characters are entirely who they seem to be at first glance.  It is a fascinating study of just how much more (and less) people can turn out to be capable of.
     I don't want to give too much away, as this film relies on surprise to be effective.  However, I could not possibly end this post without stating my great appreciation for the film's two primary actresses.  Nadezhda Markina as Elena, and Elena Lyadova as Katerina, really inhabit their characters in a way that drives the central themes of the piece.  They are opposite sides of the same coin, and flip sides of themselves.  That's all I can say.
     It is not surprising that this film won a special Jury Prize at Cannes in 2011.  Thank goodness that it has finally become available for viewing in this country.  I fully expect this to be one of my favorite non-English language films of the year.  I highly recommend checking it out.  4 1/2 of 5*

Related Posts:  21 Chronicled Footnotes (Chronicle review)

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