Friday, May 29, 2015

"Testament Of Youth" -- Movie Review

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new biographical drama from The United Kingdom, “Testament Of Youth”, based on the memoirs of British writer Vera Brittain. 


When a young woman’s life is disrupted by the onset of World War I, how will the war’s events impact the rest of her life?


As a young woman in early 20th Century England, Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander) is more concerned about her career than landing a husband.  Working hard to get into a university, she earns acceptance by Oxford, much to her father’s consternation.  Although Mr. Brittain (Dominic West) is worried about his daughter being alone, he’s convinced to pay for her education by Roland (Kit Harington), a young man who’s very much smitten with Vera.  Determined to become a writer, Vera studies hard once at Oxford, but gets sidetracked once “The Great War” begins. 

It seems like everyone close to Vera suddenly joins the army – her brother Edward (Taron Egerton), her friend Victor (Colin Morgan) and her now-boyfriend Roland.  With all of them off to fight the war, Vera feels guilty remaining in school, so she leaves Oxford in order to become a nurse as a way of assisting in the war effort.  Despite a rocky start, Vera grows into the job.  When Roland is given a leave, he and Vera are briefly reunited; while he remains aloof at first, Vera persistently shows her devotion to him and he softens.  When it’s time for him to return to the front, they agree that when he gets his next leave around Christmas, they will marry. 

The war, however, cruelly intervenes once again; Roland is killed in action before they can wed and soon thereafter, Victor, while under Vera’s care at the hospital where she’s stationed, also passes away from injuries incurred during battle.  Vera then requests and receives a transfer to the front in France where Edward turns up as a patient; badly wounded, she gets him some much-needed medical care before sending him back into action.  Once Vera is forced to return home by her frantic mother (Emily Watson), she is informed that Edward, too, was killed.  Returning to her nursing duties, Vera is less celebratory than most upon announcement of the armistice.  But with the war’s end, can she simply resume with pursuing her chosen career as though nothing happened? 


While all of the performances are fine, “Testament Of Youth” suffers from some occasionally overwrought direction by James Kent, who opts for a rather heavy-handed approach during revelation at some of the major plot points, relegating the movie into what sometimes appears to be a sappy melodrama.  It’s unfortunate because the story did have so much promise; unfortunately, it isn’t until late in the film – during the middle of its third act, to be precise – that it takes a stab at trying to redeem itself.  Here, the motion picture shows what it’s really about – an independent suffragette who turns devout pacifist as a direct result of having personally witnessed the ravages of war.

At the end of "Testament Of Youth", there are title cards shown informing the audience that Brittain's book was a best-seller in England and remains in print to this day.  While the book itself may be impressive, the movie version on which it is based is not.  In fact, learning how impacting this book was on British culture comes as something of a shock, at least if you're basing your opinion on this film without having read the book as a precursor to seeing the motion picture.  "Testament Of Youth" seems more about seeing how much it can beat up on its own heroine before someone from the audience screams "Uncle". 

Vera certainly comes across as virtuous, that's no doubt.  Further, the fact that she was able to -- at least to some degree -- survive The War To End All Wars relatively intact (despite having suffered many psychological and emotional scars) is also nothing short of admirable.  But the bigger story here is what she made of that experience and what she did with her life as a result; sadly, it comes across as nothing more than an afterthought in "Testament Of Youth", tacked on at the last few minutes near the end of the movie.  The real tragedy here is not so much the story that was told, but instead, the story that went untold in this film. 

Testament of Youth (2014) on IMDb

Sunday, May 17, 2015

“Two Shots Fired”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a screening at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center of the new comedy-drama from Argentina “Two Shots Fired” (or “Two Gunshots”, depending on the translation). 


When a young man survives a suicide attempt, will his relationship with his family also be able to survive?


One day while trying to repair the family lawnmower, Mariano (Rafael Federman) finds a pistol in the backyard’s toolshed.   Fascinated with the weapon, he brings it back to his room and fires it – once at his head and once at his stomach.  As it happens, the first shot just grazed his skull and he managed to recover from the shot to his stomach; after spending only a week in the hospital, he returns home where his mother Susana (Susana Pampin) and older brother Ezequiel (Benjamín Coehlo) take care of him while he recuperates. 

While it remains unclear as to why Mariano did it – much less how he managed to live through it – his family seems not to want to press the issue with him and instead prefer to just let him try to return to his life as normal, which includes playing a recorder as part of a quartet.  Meanwhile, Mariano’s family makes an effort to return to their own life as well; in the case of Ezequiel, it means driving around the neighborhood looking for the family dog, which recently ran away.  For Susana, it means a great many things, not the least of which being keeping an eye on Mariano. 

After taking some sleeping pills, Susana sleeps for three straight days; once she wakes up, she decides to take a vacation with a few acquaintances.  Staying at a small house by the beach, Susana soon finds that she’s with a group of people she simply can’t stand.  Nevertheless, the group at least make an effort to get along as best they can during their stay.  But upon returning home, will Susana find everything back to normal or will there be yet another unpleasant surprise from Mariano awaiting her?   


There are some novels which, while you read them, you might wonder to yourself, “Gee, I can’t see how they could ever make a movie out of this thing!”.  One example might be “Catch-22”; while the book by Joseph Heller was very successful, the film on which it was based was not.  “Two Shots Fired” is not based on a novel; it is instead an original screenplay by longtime filmmaker Martín Rejtman.  If anyone who ever read this screenplay gave an honest appraisal to Rejtman (which apparently never happened), they likely would have similarly told him you can’t make a movie out of that thing. 

It certainly doesn’t help when the person charged with making the film doesn’t understand its genre or when both the characters and the story line are so horribly disjointed (see below for a more detailed explanation on this).  When the filmmaker feels no obligation to commit to telling a story with interesting characters, it’s hard for viewers to make the necessary emotional investment necessary to maintain an interest in the story. If the screenplay had been written by Pirandello, it likely would’ve been titled, “A Bunch Of Oddball Characters In Search Of A Plot”. 

Following the screening, there was a question-and-answer session with the writer-director of “Two Shots Fired”, Martín Rejtman.  Rejtman said that he seems genuinely surprised that a number of people see his movie as a comedy because he sees it as something more in the genre of a thriller.  He was asked about the characters’ lacking of interaction with each other; Rejtman claimed that he doesn’t really see the world that way, but rather, that is how he sees the world of those characters and no deeper meaning was intended beyond that. 

Two Shots Fired (2014) on IMDb

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

“I’ll See You In My Dreams”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new comedy-drama, “I’ll See You In My Dreams”, starring Blythe Danner and Sam Elliott. 


When a woman’s world is turned upside down after suffering personal losses, will an unexpected romance convince her there is another chapter in her life?


Recently forced to put her beloved dog to sleep, Carol (Danner) suddenly finds herself more alone now than ever before.  Between spending the past 20 years as a widow and her daughter Katherine (Malin Akerman) living out of town, Carol is understandably feeling there’s nothing left for her in life.  As a result, Carol’s days are filled with either sipping Chardonnay or playing bridge with her gal pals (Rhea Perlman, June Squibb and Mary Kay Place).  So, it comes as something of a shock that Lloyd (Martin Starr), her new pool cleaner, takes a sudden interest in her. 

Despite a vast age difference, Carol and Lloyd bond over their mutual love of music.  Soon, the two forge a friendship that has all the appearances of possibly blossoming into a romance.  Although having affection for Lloyd, Carol hesitates to take it to the next level precisely because of the fact that she’s nearly twice his age might; the thought of being labeled a “cougar” doesn’t exactly appeal to her.  It is around this time that Bill (Elliott) runs into her at a pharmacy and proceeds to hit on her; after a few chance meetings at various spots around town, Carol agrees to go out on a date with him.

It takes only a few dates, but it is soon clear to both of them that they are hitting it off; excited at the prospect of a new romance so late in life, they agree to see each other with increasing frequency.  The problem with their plan is Lloyd; when he learns Carol is seeing Bill on a somewhat regular basis, he’s quite disappointed – perhaps even a little heartbroken because Lloyd sincerely believed he had a chance with Carol.  With Lloyd lurking in the background, will Carol be able to continue exploring a relationship with Bill or will Lloyd try to break them up? 


“I’ll See You In My Dreams” tries to build on the relatively recent success of movies like “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” by appealing to the geriatric set with late-in-life romantic adventures.  Unfortunately, it ultimately gets derailed by its own cloying cuteness and plot contrivances.  As an example, there’s a scene where Carol and her bridge buddies get high on medical marijuana!  Really?  In an effort to extend the joke – already built on a rather flimsy premise – they get stopped by a policeman when he spots them pushing a shopping cart full of munchies back to Carol’s place. 

The ability to suspend your disbelief beyond any reasonable degree combined with immunity to an utterly relentless succession of clichés are what an audience will need in order to get through a viewing of “I’ll See You In My Dreams”.  The movie isn’t about aging so much as dealing with life’s various challenges, no matter what your age; this is certainly a noble theme to plumb, but the film’s material turns out to be less than capable of the task.  As a comedy, it’s mildly amusing at best, often relying on old tricks to get laughs; as a drama, it also depends heavily on trite plotting. 

Following the screening, there was a question-and-answer session with the movie’s director and co-writer, Brett Haley, as well as some of its stars – Blythe Danner, Sam Elliott and Rhea Perlman.  Haley said that this screenplay was rejected by just about everyone in Hollywood, but that didn’t stop him from trying to get the film made; in the end, it was produced as an independent with a small budget (partly through Kickstarter funding) and wound up having only an 18 day shooting schedule.  Danner said she loved the script but expected only to be offered a role as one of the bridge-playing cohorts; she was delighted when she was asked to play the role of Carol, but knew it would be demanding because the character is in nearly every scene. 

I'll See You in My Dreams (2015) on IMDb

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

“Saint Laurent”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of “Saint Laurent”, a drama starring Gaspard Ulliel in the title role as noted fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. 


As Yves Saint Laurent’s success in the fashion world increases, his personal life spins out of control – but will his dangerous lifestyle choices threaten his career or his life?


From the mid-1960’s to the mid-1970’s, couturier Yves Saint Laurent (Ulliel) commanded the attention of the fashion industry with his bold, feminine designs that not only made women feel beautiful, but also more glamorous and confident as well.  Despite achieving a level of success beyond his wildest dreams, Saint Laurent was still feeling empty; his dedication to work resulted in him having precious little in the way of a personal life.  As a result, in those all-too-rare moments when he found himself able to break away from his office, Saint Laurent wound up going way overboard when it came to partying.

Although having both a personal and professional relationship with his companion Pierre (Jérémie Renier), Saint Laurent’s lust was insatiable; he frequently found himself prowling the streets at night in search of male prostitutes.  Eventually, he landed a more meaningful relationship with Jacques (Louis Garrel), a striking model who dragged the designer into increasingly dark areas of his life – places which Saint Laurent apparently went rather willingly, despite protests from Pierre and investors in their company who grew concerned about the fashionista’s well-being. 

In Saint Laurent’s later years, he was very much a loner, largely having been abandoned by his friends and former colleagues.  Living in an ornate home with only his pet dog to keep him company, Saint Laurent became a chain-smoker only able to hold a conversation with his domestics.  He spent much of his days and nights watching old movies on television and frequently reminiscing about his glory days; by this time, he has long since alienated Pierre, who remained connected to the business, but missed Jacques, who may have been his one true love.  With little left to keep him engaged post-retirement, Saint Laurent was eventually rescued by a long-overdue death. 


While watching “Saint Laurent”, one can’t help but wondering that if the movie were to return to the editing room to have its scenes haphazardly rearranged in any random order, would anyone notice the difference?  Sadly, it appears unlikely – although another edit of the film is greatly in order; at two and a half hours in length, it is far too long, especially considering that the motion picture doesn’t have much in the way of a plot.  From a standpoint of dramatic narrative, it is just about as flat as a line in the electrocardiogram of an expired hospital patient – appropriate, since the motion picture is essentially DOA.  There is very little that draws viewers into the man’s story, aside from the fact that he’s famous and successful (which turns out to be not quite enough to maintain interest). 

Since there’s very little of a strong narrative thread in “Saint Laurent”, there’s no feeling of forward momentum to the story.  This results in a disastrous third act, which is where the wheels completely come off the movie (although they were never that securely fastened in the first place).  In this last portion of the film, Saint Laurent is seen largely as an elderly man whose moments of partial lucidity are occasionally interrupted by flashbacks that seem almost like non-sequiturs (but arguably, the scenes of Saint Laurent as an old man could be considered non-sequiturs as well). 

During this screening, there appeared to be quite a few people who bailed out – and who could blame them?  A long movie with little story about a dangerously hedonistic lunatic who appears to have little regard for those around him, Saint Laurent the character is hardly hero material.  At the end of the film, two women exiting the theater were heard discussing “Saint Laurent”; one said, “I thought the movie was ending 15 minutes ago”.  “It should have”, responded her friend.  In fact, it probably should’ve wrapped up a good deal sooner than that. 

Saint Laurent (2014) on IMDb