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Recent Movie Round-Up 12/14/2012

Today in Recent Movie Round-Up: Hobbits, orcs, and wizards, oh my! Also: A prank call leads to very nasty results, Truffaut makes his final film, and the Dardenne Brothers create a sweet, loving portrait of childhood.

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (Extended Cuts) (Peter Jackson, 2001-2003)
Perhaps the best trilogy of this generation and pretty much the best set of fantasy movies of all time next to Harry Potter. What Jackson did with Lord of the Rings still feels like it was made today (even in spite of a few minor yet dated effects). It’s also one of the rare blockbusters that doesn’t sacrifice complexity for scope. Despite having familiar elements, the character arcs and relationships all have depth and nuance that is rare for a mainstream epic of this stature. The relationship/conflict between Frodo, Sam, and Gollum/Smeagol especially aged terrifically. The extended cuts don’t add much other than world-building, but that’s not a bad thing either.

Plus, I had the pleasure of seeing the trilogy as a theater marathon, seeing all three extended cuts back to back. It was exhausting (12 straight hours of LOTR), but very much worth it, and I wouldn’t mind having a similar experience again. I liked the LOTR trilogy before, but seeing it again gave me a renewed appreciation.

Compliance (Craig Zobel, 2012)
How far can the phrase “Based on a True Story” take you? Apparently, it is able to forgive even the strangest lapses in logic, surprisingly. Compliance is a, claustrophobic, disturbing true-crime thriller that manages not to feel overly exploitative while still managing to bring shock and discomfort to just about any viewer who lays eyes upon it.

The premise, that of a prank phone call leading to a sexual assault in a fast-food restaurant, is ridiculous, but believe it or not, knowing that this kind of incident has actually happened over 70 times in over 30 states (The first frame of the film is a huge title card in big bold letter saying “INSPIRED BY TRUE EVENTS” in all caps) actually managed to make the more unbelievable stuff that much more terrifying. It doesn’t always work. There were two instances that felt far-fetched even for this type of story. But damn is this an effective film. Elegantly directed, terrifically acted, and insanely suspenseful, not to mention disturbing on numerous levels.

Also, Ann Dowd kills it. She single-handedly elevates the material as the fast-food restaurant manager. Her performance remains completely natural even amidst the insanity that unfolds on screen. She alone makes it worth seeing, even if the subject matter may turn you away.

Confidentially Yours (Francois Truffaut, 1983)
Truffaut’s last film may be very light in comparison to his other masterpieces The 400 Blows, Jules et Jim, Day for Night, and Bed and Board, but it’s just as masterfully crafted. Essentially just a noir homage shot in black and white (not typical for a 1983 film), it features the typical mainstays of the genre: femme fatales, conspiracies, and gorgeous chiaroscuro lighting and set design. It’s all pretty basic, but it’s incredibly well-done for what it is; terrifically acted and immensely entertaining.

Also, it’s oddly fitting as Truffaut’s final film because of how cyclical it is when compared to the rest of his filmography. He started out with The 400 Blows, a deeply personal autobiography, then went on to make movies that celebrated cinema and art such as Day for Night and The Last Metro. Then, for his final film, he makes a homage to a cinematic mainstay shot in black and white instead of color. Even more poignant to this claim is the final shot, which I won’t give away, but let’s just say that Truffaut’s fascination of children comes back in a beautiful way.

The Kid with a Bike (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2011)
Premiering at the Cannes film festival last year, coming to America this year, The Kid with a Bike is a gorgeous depiction of pre-adolescent angst that perfectly captures small, heart-rending disappointments of childhood, along with the small acts of kindness that go a long way. Elevated by a terrific performance by Thomas Doret, who doesn’t contain a single ounce of falseness in his performance, the film is lovely, poignant, and sweet in all the right places.

However, it is pretty flawed. Running at 87 minutes, it doesn’t give enough time to develop the core relationship between the titular kid and his foster mother. The only thing that made this relationship work in the long run was another wonderful performance by Cecile De France, but it could’ve worked much more with a bit more scenes between just the two of them. Plus, there’s a major character that serves only to be the “bad influence” that feels like he’s lifted straight out of a corny after-school special about not trusting drug dealers.

Aside from those gripes, I found this film to linger in the mind much more than I thought it would much later from when I first saw it. That’s a sign that it pretty much worked on the levels that it needed to, but I wish that it was a bit longer. Still, though, this is coming-of-age done right. Plus, it’s certainly worth seeing just for being able to witness one of the most stirring, gorgeous uses of Beethoven in recent memory.

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Recent Movie Round-Up 12/7/12

Today on Recent Movie Round-Up: Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen 2gether 4eva, dead people being impersonated, missing children being impersonated, and another Truffaut masterwork.

Take This Waltz (Sarah Polley, 2012)
Sarah Polley’s follow-up to Away From Her (Which I talked about last time) takes an interesting twist on the typical movie about infidelity: It’s not even really about infidelity so much as it is about constantly being tempted by it. Michelle Williams plays Margot, a woman who is happily married to her husband Lou (Seth Rogen) until a desire starts flaring up between her and their neighbor right across the street. Played by Luke Kirby, he is an expertly, slow, and patient seducer who ropes Margot in with his clear passion. He seems to be a nice, steamy alternative to Lou, who is the nicest guy in the world but doesn’t have that same sensual passion (Their marriage almost creepily feels more like a brother/sister relationship).

Take This Waltz is one of the best films of the year. I wouldn’t put it in my top 10 (It just goes to show how much amazing stuff came out this year) but it’s certainly a worthy, honorable mention. On paper, this shouldn’t work. If you think about it, the character of Margot is inherently unlikable. A well-off white woman with a loving husband who has to choose between him and another amazing man? Oh, the drama, right? In actuality, the movie feels very authentic because it uses this conceit to explore whether a loving relationship really is enough to satisfy an individual, and because it is anchored by terrific performances by Michelle Williams and a surprisingly warm, sometimes dramatic turn from Seth Rogen.

Hell, Michelle Williams may just be the main reason why this whole movie works. Again, this isn’t a “likable” character by definition, but we sympathize with her because, well, Michelle Williams is literally one of the most lovable actresses in history, alive or dead. Her work here is, dare I say it, Oscar-worthy in how it captures the nuance and emotional turmoil of such a situation without making it feel insufferable or like a soap-opera. Seth Rogen is likable as always, but what makes this different from his other roles is its understatement and quiet kindness compared to his usual lewd, bombastic nature. Hell, when it comes time for him to show off his dramatic chops, he impresses. The biggest surprise is Luke Kirby, who just comes out of nowhere with a performance so insanely charismatic that you can buy him being able to seduce Michelle Williams. His character is pretty hard to swallow (His job is as a rickshaw driver and he manages to have a nice, moderately expensive house), but in terms of his personality, Kirby nails it.

All in all, this is another win for writer/director Sarah Polley, who continues to make lovely, understated, elegant dramas about authentic relationships in turmoil. I’m definitely in for seeing what she does next…

Alps (Giorgos Lanthimos, 2012)
Wanna know how much I love Giorgos Lanthimos’s absurdist pitch-black comedyDogtooth which came out in 2010? It was in my top 5 of that year and my favorite foreign feature as well. Everything about its oddness raised deeply unsettling questions about nature vs. nurture, the extent of control, and the psychological mindset of children in an incredibly disturbing fashion. Yet, unlike most disturbing films, I’ve actually seen it twice and enjoyed myself each time thanks to the wickedly dark comedy.

So expectations were high for Lanthimos’s next film Alps, which had a killer premise: An underground company offers the service of impersonating dead loved ones in order to help coping grievers. Considering how Dogtooth handled similarly strange material, I was excited to see how Lanthimos would go crazy this time. However, I was surprised by how much more restrained this film is compared to Dogtooth. It’s not nearly as weird or insane (Though it certainly has its stand-out moments) but it’s just as psychologically complex, really examining the effects of grief, identity, and death in a strange and unique fashion.

If there’s a flaw, it’s that it doesn’t have the emotional punch that Dogtooth had. Alps is a very cold film that treats its characters as guinea pigs in a sadistic psychological experiment. It only examines, and is completely objective, and never for a single second puts us in the shoes of its characters nor does it allow us to sympathize with them. This is definitely what Lanthimos is going for, but considering the subject matter, a slightly more humanistic approach would’ve been better. Still though, this is an offbeat film that intrigues just as much as it entertains with is weirdness. Not quite Dogtooth, but certainly stands on its own.

The Imposter (Bart Layton, 2012)
Bart Layton’s The Imposter is one of the most unbelievably fascinating documentaries I’ve ever seen. The true story behind it is so bizarre that it really has to be true: A young boy goes missing, the family grieves, is discovered again in Spain after three years of absence, and soon the family discovers that this kid they have picked up may not even be their son at all.

What transpires is a hell of a story that unfolds with an incredibly amount of precision. The use of reenactments is brilliantly done, looking just as professionally made as a slick Hollywood production without masking the real truth of the story as it weaves in the talking-head interviews.

But perhaps the most incredible feat of this movie, it’s the only documentary I’ve ever seen that has an unreliable narrator. I won’t give away how this works, but let’s just say that it’s vital to the film’s message that the movie ends up cheating the viewer, because it truly does allow us to understand what it was this family had to go through. See it and be surprised for yourself.

The Last Metro (Francois Truffaut, 1980)
As far as depictions of the Nazi occupation go, don’t be expecting something overly bleak. Despite being the director of The 400 Blows, the majority of Truffaut’s latter films were all very light in tone and The Last Metro is no different. While it doesn’t have the depth of his masterpieces, you can always count on Truffaut to make an incredibly lovable, entertaining film. And The Last Metro is rife with great characters, well-meaning humor, and a simple yet well-done story. To top it all off, Catherine Deneuve’s performance elevates it to a whole ‘nother level, creating an incredible female character who is genuinely strong-willed and fascinating to watch.

Tune in next time on Recent Movie Round-Up, for I will be going through the entire Extended Lord of the Rings trilogy to prepare or The Hobbit. Get excited!

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