Owen, Binoche Make the Most of Inflated 'Words & Pictures'

Directed by: Fred Sehepisi; Runtime: 111 minutes
Grade: C

Recently, Clive Owen portrayed legendary author Ernest Hemingway in the television docu-drama Hemingway and Gellhorn, while Juliette Binoche wandered the paths of the philosophy and legitimacy of paintings in Abbas Kiarostami's quietly brilliant Certified Copy. There's something effortlessly appealing about both actors in those respective types of roles -- Owen as a gruff scholar; Binoche as an ensconced art enthusiast -- that should bolster Words & Pictures, a lithe rom-com from Roxanne and I.Q. director Fred Schepisi about two high-school professors embroiled in a lighthearted war about whether text or images carry more importance. Instead of letting the topic and the chemistry between two flawed yet passionate artists on involuntary creative hiatus play out organically, the debate gets tangled up in a broad, unnecessary web of events that appeals too easily to stereotypes and shoehorned drama, messily undermining the characters' strengths along its unsurprisingly therapeutic and uplifting path.

At Croydon Academy high-school, sardonic author/poet Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) learns that his job's in jeopardy, largely driven by his alcoholism and disruptive behavior. On top of that, the school's literary magazine -- which, of course, he's responsible for producing -- also might be on the chopping block due to a lack of funds and the uninspired submissions from the students. Shortly after discovering this, Marcus meets one of the school's new teachers: Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche), a dour and detached former painter who keeps people at arm's length because of her crippling health condition. As the semester progresses, a discussion emerges between their respective classes (which share most of the same students) about expression through words/literature against that of visual images, starting a back-and-forth "war" between the school of thoughts. While the students develop passion for the debate itself, Marcus and Delsanto build their own jokey rapport, a reprieve from their dire personal struggles outside of the classroom.

Written by Gerald Di Pego, the mind behind the bizarre thrills of Angel Eyes and The Forgotten, Words & Pictures discovers its best moments while flipping between the merits of literature and visual expression, guided by the two professors struggling with their personal wars with their individual crafts. The conflict between the opposing positions occasionally yields an enjoyable energy, referencing the communication skills of caveman, revolutionaries, and advertisements in what ultimately plays like the highlights of an anthropological lecture on the topic. Notably, it's amusing to see both Marcus and Delsanto tackle the oft-used and cliche "A picture is worth a thousand words" line, handled in a clever way on the school's grounds. As the war simmers at school, the story also reflects on the teachers' creative blocks and how neither are able to practice what they preach due to their individual circumstances. The foundation's there for a study of damaged artists passing their gifts on through teaching, as well as the idea of igniting passion for liberal arts through a form of cultural rivalry.

Apparently, though, that wasn't enough. The personal drama within Words & Pictures becomes overblown amid their fine-arts battle, dialing up the emotional vigor through inflated high-school theatrics and a baldly manipulative progression of the teachers' hardships. Di Pego's script has a tendency of forcing things to happen for the sake of lofty melodrama around the two teachers' hindrances, driving the story in disheartening directions -- mostly involving Marcus, transforming him from puckish rogue to straight-up imbecile -- that are both unnecessary and irreparably damaging to the film's overarching intentions. Worthwhile themes about the power and accountability of artistic endeavors lose their way under the shadow of Marcus' self-destructive drinking, especially after the informal reveal of the dumbfounding mistake he's made that cannot simply be shaken off. Reminiscent of Craig Zisk's The English Teacher, the line separating the depths of flawed characters and inconsistent sabotaging of the plot gets blurry.

Hence, the unavoidable romance in Words & Pictures also doesn't convince under the circumstances, despite the rapport between Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche. Owen wears the scruffy, conflicted writer well, tossing out the origins of words and credibly projecting the demeanor of an emotional drunk, like a tattered alter ego of Dead Poets Society's John Keating. Binoche struggles in the crippled artist's skin, leaving the audience uncertain if she's receptive to relationships while combating Rheumatoid arthritis, but that internal conflict's unique enough to embrace her temperament as she relearns how to paint. Their union, however, seems unreasonable in the story's context: despite Marcus' incessant pursuit and their flirtatious banter about prose and artistry, the chemistry between Owen and Binoche seems better engineered for professional camaraderie than crossing over to intimacy. That awkwardness lingers as Words & Pictures compulsively reaches its zenith of creative debate, weakened integrity, and unlikely romance: an unearned ceasefire that, despite noble intentions, ends up tongue-tied and out of focus.

Lots of Peculiar Features, Emotions in Posen's 'Face of Love'

Directed by: Arie Posen; Runtime: 92 minutes
Grade: C

The Face of Love is the kind of drama that demands sympathy -- or, at the very least, considerate curiosity -- for the central character and the story's conceit if it's going to be watched. If someone goes into Arie Posin's mild psychological romance thinking that a widow's out of her mind for wanting to pursue a man who looks and sounds exactly like her husband, then the things she ends up doing aren't really going to convince anyone otherwise. Unfortunately, that's not the first hurdle that the audience must cross to grasp its obscured musings about grieving and attraction only to one's spouse, where the threshold separating fond remembrance and poorly thought-out recreation of experiences gets repeatedly crossed in a deadly-serious environment. Despite the unsurprising genuineness of the cast as they operate around the macabre enormity of the subject matter, The Face of Love's exaggerated treatment of a widow's anguished obsession undermines that authenticity.

Annette Bening plays the widow, Nikki, who lost her architect husband, Garrett, in a drowning incident while vacationing in Mexico. In the five years after, she's focused on her work as an interior decorator for vacant real estate in Los Angeles, never remarrying or letting go of her devotion to her husband -- to a degree where she nearly hallucinates his presence during everyday activities. She maintains a relationship with her Seattle-stationed daughter (Jess Weixler) who visits frequently, as well as with her next-door neighbor, Roger (a modest but reputable performance from Robin Williams), a widower himself who was also a friend of Garret's. On a whim, Nikki decides to visit the local art museum where she and Garrett would frequent, only she's shocked to spot a man who, for all intents and purposes, is her husband in appearance. She becomes transfixed with finding the man instead of shrugging it off, eventually leading to a relationship between them where Tom (Ed Harris), an artist and college instructor, remains unaware of his resemblance to her husband.

While it's clear that Nikki stands on shaky emotional ground as she pursues Tom following their first encounter, The Face of Love builds some interest in how she'll actually cope with the situation once she's made direct contact with her husband's doppelganger. Director Posin touches on the disarming nature of what it'd be like to essentially see the tangible ghost of one's spouse and the boundaries Nikki's forced to cross in order to further their interaction, especially how she grasps Tom's distinct personality and life experiences while still maintaining her illusion. The ways that Tom avoids discovering what Nikki's orchestrated are questionable -- partial internet searches, overlooked photographs, avoiding Nikki's neighbors in public -- but the psychology of her falling for someone else living in her husband's skin initially becomes enough to surrender to some of the story's whims, bolstered by Posin's steady and intimately expressive filmmaking. The potential for a unique character study emerges in her pursuit, namely in how she'll balance her past and present if things work out.

That is, until Nikki starts to push the boundaries of reliving her experiences with Garrett to literal and self-indulgent levels, hinged on some incredibly reckless choices she makes to feed her longing. Instead of a levelheaded assessment of how a person might handle her new lover's physical similarities to her deceased husband, The Face of Love opts for an overstated look at the emotional perils of an unbalanced woman flirting with calamity by dining at restaurants, trying on specific clothing, even traveling to a favorite vacation spot associated with the past. The drama meanders in wacky, doubtful directions for the sake of Nikki's self-deception, abandoning points that the film might make about singular tastes in romantic partners -- or how someone might break free from that singular focus -- for an exploration of her dishonesty and refusal to move on. Shades of Hitchcock's Vertigo appear in Nikki's nostalgic psychological turmoil, but it's like experiencing Scottie's fixation on the past without the backbone of an underlying mystery or the subtlety of earnest drama.

What ultimately drives The Face of Love beyond this point boils down to observing how high Nikki's able to stack her melancholy house of cards before they come tumbling down, whether she'll be discovered by someone close to her or if she'll reveal the truth on her own accord. Despite Annette Bening's ability to earn compassion amid her character's unbecoming actions, while generating complex energy with Ed Harris' stern yet sympathetic projection of Tom's artistic soul, she's only able to invigorate Nikki's psychosis so much within the space of the film's unsatisfying emotional tempo. While there's an elevation of drama at the end, it's for erroneous reasons that tap into unnecessary divergences in its themes of mortality and stunted catharsis after the death of a loved one. A more thoughtful meditation on this idea exists somewhere within Posin's film, coupled with the fleeting zest for life and the right and wrong ways to mourn, but that's not really what shores up here.

Hardy's 'Locke' a Strained But Powerful One-Man Excursion

Directed by: Steven Knight; Runtime: 85 minutes
Grade: B

Steven Knight's Locke appears as if it deliberately accepted the challenge to craft an intriguing film from a concept that sounds as unexciting on paper as watching paint dry, or, more accurately when it comes to Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy), as watching cement harden. Taking place entirely within the space of his family-friendly BMW with nothing but domestic and professional drama flooding his speakerphone -- in the dead of night, mind you -- this is a scenario that seems destined to be devoid of conflict or suspense, let alone traditional cinematic presence. Surprisingly, what takes shape during Ivan's voyage down the highway is an unexpectedly absorbing glimpse at regret, responsibility, and diverting from the mistakes made by one's parents, navigated by a cracking performance from Tom Hardy and a casually experimental visual style. Despite the scenario's trite setup, Locke's a competent depiction of what happens when an psychologically worn-out driver has nothing but loud concerned voices and his strained thoughts filling the space during his drive towards inevitability.

On the evening before he's supposed to supervise the pouring of concrete for an immense skyscraper, successful construction engineer Ivan Locke decides to make a right turn instead of left on the way home after receiving a phone call. It's unclear where he's headed at first, only that the situation's critical enough to tear him away from the responsibilities of the high-profile, high-cost construction site, a move that's almost certain to lead to his termination. The film gradually introduces the repercussions of his decision, the responsibility he's dumping on his assistant and the demands of a corporation to remove him, amid his resolute conversations through his car's mobile phone, while also painting a picture of his family who'll also be affected by the unfolding events. It's only later that the story gradually reveals the urgency behind his destination in London, the birth of his illegitimate child, reflecting on his mistakes and how he could've prevented all this from happening in the first place.

There's a significant hurdle of frustration Locke has to cross, though, involving the circumstances of Ivan's situation that night, built around this project that could make or break his livelihood getting torpedoed by a personal crisis requiring his immediate attention. The fact that it wouldn't have been such a catastrophic issue had this bombshell gone off some days before or after the concrete pour speaks volumes to the contrived nature of Knight's screenplay, let alone had Ivan been the diligent, straight-shooting construction manager he's purported to be. Alas, the film's deeper musings and suspenseful energy also wouldn't exist without Ivan's abandonment on that precise night: the tension in trying to encourage his stand-in, Donal; quickly phoning in confirmations to workers and city officials; and informing his wife, Katrina (Ruth Wilson), of why he's driving to London instead of coming home to watch a big sports match. Bad things tend to happen at the worst times, sure, but "when it rains, it pours" gets pushed pretty far here.

After embracing the forced conceits in how Ivan's world starts to unravel, Locke settles into the driver's seat as a spare, focused study of the man's plummeting mental state, offering an evolving glimpse at his reactions to earth-shifting developments never seen on-screen. The constantly-moving bokeh lights that accompany a nighttime drive down the highway take on a uniquely symbolic visual motif, mirroring Ivan's distraught blur by framing his tired eyes and on-edge, sick facial expressions with the hazy reflections of time and distance passing by. There's something profoundly relatable about the solitude of Ivan's acceleration towards this location that's only going to bring him grief and undesired change, speaking directly to how we attempt to mentally adjust to abrupt events. In Locke, writer/director Knight exposes the decline of a man during this ride who's desperately tried to avoid the blunders made by his father, then must deal with the repercussions -- and the regret -- when he's failed to do so.

Tom Hardy's performance naturally becomes the film's lifeblood, where the authenticity of Ivan's deceptively prepared tempo crumbling before our eyes transforms into an engaging psychological experience. His peculiarly calm temperament and rhythmic rumble of a voice starts out very self-composed and prepared for the events to follow, then gradually reveals his internal wear and tear with each disruptive inbound and outbound call. Hardy responds to the figurative bumps in the road -- both of the life he's leaving behind and the problem he's driving toward -- with impeccable resonance and complexity, while observing him turns into a moderate philosophical affair in the process, about whether he's respecting his tier of responsibility or if he's being self-destructive in service of his dignity. Despite whether those watching and scrutinizing Ivan's decision agree with him or not, Hardy's projection of the man's turmoil shrewdly convinces that this would be the bed the character would make for himself, informed by his personal code of responsibility.

In that, Locke's brisk eighty-five minutes discover what can best be described as raw emotional suspense, creating anticipation out of Ivan's dedication to his professional obligations and his family's perception of him ... even as both rapidly unspool amid nothing but phone calls and conversations with himself. In the time spent with the construction manager, writer/director Knight manages to get those watching invested in seeing Ivan try to tie up the loose ends of a concrete pour, of all things, if for no other reason than to see him earn bits of catharsis --- and, perhaps, to see him suffer the consequence of neglect -- while his life irreparably changes. Once the intense car ride ends and Ivan approaches his destination, however, the film admirably resists the urge to tie up its own loose ends, leaving it largely unclear what'll happen to the mess of Ivan's life. That's perhaps the most compelling thing about Knight's one-man character study: that the version of Locke who slumps into the driver's seat of his BMW won't be the same as the one who steps out of it, as he shouldn't be.