Directed by: Yann Gonzales; Runtime: 98 minutes
Surreal cinema and sexual psychology have frequently gone hand and hand over the years, challenging the way people perceive other's desires and composure within an intentionally conceptual setting. From Nagisa Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses to Pedro Almodovar's Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, filmmakers have lyrically explored those carnal themes while spurring the senses with inventive usage of photography or music, guiding their demeanor. Learning that synthpop band M83 provided their musical energy to a piece of explicit, abstract cinema about an anonymous orgy-party might bolster some expectations for You And The Night (Les Rencontres d'apres minuit), the feature-length debut from short-film director (and brother to the band's lead singer) Yann Gonzales. Alas, ethereal music and dazzlingly orchestrated cinematography are among the rare lucid and cohesive attributes of Gonzales' film, which ends up as a peculiar and superficial stream of vague monologues about life and sex from a huddle of inadequately fleshed-out oddballs.
Ali (Kate Moran) and Matthias (Niels Schneider), along with their gender-bending "maid", Udo (Nicolas Maury ), are hosting a midnight soiree. Not just any kind of soiree, though: anonymous individuals taking on descriptive titles -- The Slut (Fabienne Babe), The Stud (Eric Cantona), The Teen (Alain Fabien Delon), The Star (Fabienne Babe) -- are scheduled to arrive at their ultra-modern home for an evening of lascivious, fetish-friendly antics with few, if any, boundaries. The gathering seems to be a philosophical exercise for Ali and Matthias too, though, where anonymity allots each of them the freedom to vocalize who they are, what they're like, and what they want. Sometimes individually, sometimes in pairs, the guests gradually arrive and introduce themselves, until the seven of them start to interact with one another as a group. Instead of diving right into a night of sex an debauchery, the participants offer bits about their history, sometimes with erotic activity going on in the background and sometimes in stunned, emotional silence. The film's mystery becomes how, and if, these distinctive people will find chemistry with one another.
You And The Night focuses too directly on the drawn-out proclamations of who these people are, though, forming into spotlighted moments on themselves that are both momentous and void of much clarity. Instead of a pool of authentic characters and their developing attraction, these speeches clash into a series of abstractions and archetypes that neglect to associate with one another. Individualism, a sense of self-focus above a search for human interaction, speaks louder and louder with each person that trumpets their arrival to the orgy; granted, that might be a facet of their role-playing, but the points Yann Gonzales might make about personal boundary-breaking are muddled by egotism and elusiveness from the truth. Thus, the film keeps observations at a distance from appreciating each character's gradient of idiosyncrasies, with the exception of the man whose artistic side was overcome by his enthrallment with the size of his genitals, an intriguing quasi-Freudian exploration of manhood and creativity. Bizarre as it sounds, it's possibly the film's most cogent element.
What's frustrating about You And The Night lies in the purpose and design of the gathering itself, which would undeniably prefer to highlight a purpose beyond hedonistic satisfaction. Writer/director Gonzales is hell-bent on keeping most of Ali and Matthias' agendas a highbrow secret, offering little in the way of transparency about how any why these specific guests were selected, relying on auteurist interpretation in the vein of Luis Bunuel or Louis Malle to resolve those questions. It could be as simple as the desire for variety in partners, or as whimsically complex as selecting what's perceived to be a new eternal companion. Any figurative intentions are obscured by the film's deliberate ambiguity and encouraged dishonesty, though. Gonzales concocts these personas that invite deeper inspection and introspection, yet hinders one's ability to reach further into them by planting the seed of doubt that any of it is authentic, and it's quite frustrating.
Why? Because You And The Night displays this incredibly alluring imagery and sonic attitude that'll still make someone want to lose themselves in Gonzales' rich artistic tangle of flesh ... and really wish that the substance were better articulated. On the expectations created by their work on the Tom Cruise blockbuster Oblivion, M83's score is predictably breathtaking, strengthening the otherworldly nature of the numerous flashbacks and visions while forcefully elevating the party's intermittently pompous mood. Vivid surreal imagery traipses through motorcycle rides, psycho-sexual prisons, and graveyards, creating an uncanny dreamscape outside the walls of the brooding party through Simon Beaufils' cinematography. There's a flow to the provocative aesthetic beauty in You And The Night, yet it's squandered between and within haphazard surrealist kinks and a flimsy perspective on what the party's hosts wish to accomplish with their lusty guests, ending on a mismatched note in more ways than one.
Directed by: Aonton Corbijn; Runtime: 123 minutes
Critiquing the final original project of a successful actor, especially one as well-regarded and prolific as the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, presents its challenges: the urge might be there to elevate the entire film in response to his performance, or to simply give it a pass in order to relish the remaining fresh content of their career. While the remaining Hunger Games films will feature him in his recurring role for two more bouts in the arena, A Most Wanted Man ends up being his last substantial, outside-the-box appearance, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a better showcase for his talent than the methodical atmosphere created by Anton Corbijn. Through a morally-ambiguous deconstruction of suspecting individuals of terrorist ties and activities in metropolitan Germany, Corbijn allows a stream of subtle and pertinent tension to surface amid sleuthing, dot-connecting, and surveillance, driven by a weathered intelligence director who's become entirely proficient at navigating the gray shadows of espionage.
Adapted from John Le Carre's novel by Edge of Darkness scribe Andrew Blovell, A Most Wanted Man slips into the cluttered maze of Hamburg, just as a covert intelligence group spots a suspicious face in CCTV footage. With confirmed ties to known terrorist activity, the half-Russian immigrant -- a victim of aggressive torture -- becomes the subject of Gunther Bachmann's small crew of investigators and plants, following him through the city as he seeks asylum and a means of collecting his family's extensive fortune. Bachmann struggles to cooperate with several domestic and international branches of government who've taken an active interest in his target, Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), as well as the refugee's newly-recruited immigration lawyer, Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams). As Karpov inches closer to claiming his birthright, tension mounts over his intention with the funds, as well as whether Bachmann's sleuthing will give the suspect so much rope in baiting potential allies that it might end up being too late.
Those who've seen Anton Corbijn's The American should have an idea of how meticulous, low-impact tension drives the espionage in A Most Wanted Man, though he taps into more verve and momentum as this one maneuvers through the streets of Hamburg. The mystery tends to take hasty jumps through the investigation and the strained political relationships surrounding Gunther, though, relying on willfully vague plotting around Karpov that both expands the story's intrigue and keeps those watching at arm's length. Corbijn hopes to counterbalance the abstraction with hefty, absorbing gray-area themes involving money switching hands, the flawed science of suspicion and intel, and empathizing with those who easily appear capable of monumental charges. Labored plotting and conversations that string everything together prevent it from being entirely successful, rendering stale moments of chatty exposition and an ineffectual romantic angle involving the suspect, but the timely thematic weight that expands within each scene speaks louder.
The potency of A Most Wanted Man relies on capturing the authentic responses of those caught in Hamburg's terrorism web -- Gunther's task force, their targets, and the government branches wanting to both help and regulate their affairs -- and showcasing the impact of so many formidable components brushing against one another. At the center stands Gunther Bachmann, and Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a different form of game-maker in his orchestration of the real-world spy/surveillance tactics in gathering intel on Karpov. Hoffman's scruffy, weathered aura plays incredibly well into Bachmann's worn-down disposition after years of thankless work, thrusting a gravelly yet nuanced accent through his heavy-breathed dedication to fighting terrorism by any means necessary. He displays a great rapport with his comrades, allowing the character's subtle charms to emerge around his closest assistant, Erna Frey (Nina Hoss), and his effective intimidation to persuade local high-profile banker Tommy Brue (a capably European-acting Willem Dafoe) to cooperate with his cause. Robin Wright delivers a subdued spin on Claire Underwood as an American security diplomat, generating disparate energy against Bachmann's ardent agenda.
A Most Wanted Man settles into its rhythm quite similar to the way Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, another adaptation of one of John Le Carre's novels, does: a reserved flow of suspense moves between elegantly-photographed boardrooms and unglamorous points of scheming and surveillance in Hamburg, mostly free of bombastic chases or shootouts. Director Corbijn adds subtle devices that elevate the electricity in the atmosphere, such as the stressed echo of Bachmann's inhales and exhales while observing a mark, as well as sending Bachmann through mundane locations with visual interest -- angular office floors with pale lighting and bank offices with intricate wood grain walls -- that keep the eyes engaged. The plot itself, however, struggles to hold interest as a dramatic thriller, meandering whenever the focus falls on Issa Karpov's character and his evolving relationship with Annabel, as Rachel McAdams feels out of her depth as an illegal immigrant lawyer. At two hours, even with more opportunities for momentum, the pacing slumps.
The final rush of scenes in A Most Wanted Man rewards having patience in Corbijn's deliberate style, opening the door wide for Philip Seymour Hoffman's robustness to shine. Rarely will one find more intensity captured on the big-screen that hinged on the mere signing of a document , a collision of the themes and concerns introduced by Issa Karpov's arrival in Hamburg that funnels into a bleak resolution to the buzz he creates. More than that, the sequences push Hoffman's character into an explosive dramatic situation that proves to be both a challenging zenith for Gunther Bachmann's efforts and a brilliant exercise for the actor. A Most Wanted Man is all about moving pieces that continue to move despite the victories and failures that get individuals' hands dirty in the pursuit of safety, culminating into a potent, significant environment for Hoffman's indelible presence to be submerged in. While not as transformative as Capote or as persistently commanding as Dodd in The Master, the blend of gratification, fear, and disappointment surrounding Gunther Bachmann in the end is a strong cap-off to a phenomenal career.
Directed by: Robert Stromberg; Runtime: 97 minutes
Would the movie-going public even be enthusiastic about a live-action rendition of Sleeping Beauty without the perfectly-cast Angelina Jolie donning the horns, the slinky black dress, and the pearly-white grin of Maleficent? Perhaps, but given the lukewarm climate created by the reimagined tales of Snow White and Huntsman and Jack and the Giant Slayer, as well as Disney's track record with other live-action takes on their animated classics, it's hard to picture yet another flip on a familiar fable getting the same kind of attention without such a fitting, magnetic selection for the villainous lead. Alas, the objective driving Maleficent, the directorial debut from Robert Stromberg, aims to alter that perception on the iconic "Mistress of All Evil", offering a glimpse into her origin story and motivation for her wickedness. Unfortunately, without Jolie and moments of visual whimsy, the rest of this fractured fairy tale has been spun on the same wheel as others cut from a willfully dissimilar, lackluster cloth.
The skeleton of what makes up Disney's take on the Sleeping Beauty legend (even less Perrault and Grimm) has largely been preserved, but Maleficent starts out many years before those events, depicting a young and powerful fairy in her youth. Drawing a picture of a kingdom in conflict between human control and the autonomy of nature, the story fleshes out a whimsical corner of the land, the moors, for the winged girl to grow up and soar, never interacting with the outside realm until a young boy trespasses into the area. Years pass, friendships rise and fall, and the corruptible and controlling hearts of man encroach on Maleficent's domain, to which she's now their primary guardian. After intense conflict and scheming, the adult Maleficent (Jolie) -- stripped of some of her gifts, both physical and emotional -- lashes out against the kingdom, flowing into the events that most associate with the story through the scorned fairy's reprisal, directed at the newborn child of the king: Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning).
Both in conceptual art and visual effect supervision, director Stromberg has a trove of enchanting work to his name, so there's little surprise that he's able to assemble a breathtaking and convincing fantastical atmosphere to the unexplored areas of Sleeping Beauty. The moors Maleficent inhabits in her youth and guards throughout her adulthood are populated with all manner of unique creatures both intimidating and peaceful -- including the three fairy godmothers: Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton); Flittle (Leslie Manville); and Thistlewitt (Juno Temple) -- against a candy-coated, craggy and knotted natural landscape that offers delights for the eyes ... and evolves with their protector's temperament. A significant part of Maleficent comes in presenting the land outside of the kingdom's grasp as able to thrive on its own, serene and misunderstood by the untrusting structuralism of the distant castle, commendably doing so through both familiar and unique fanciful visuals atop the occasionally provocative camerawork of Dances with Wolves and Apocalypto cinematographer Deam Semler.
The elaborations to the Sleeping Beauty fable end up being a double-edged sword for Maleficent, though, deepening its expressive potential while loosening its grip on levelheaded storytelling. Creating the kingdom's panic over the mysterious moors adds a substance-driven, timeless conflict to the fable -- not only do humans fear what they don't understand, but they seek to control and/or destroy it -- while Maleficent's ability to soar through the sky on the power of her wings and freely cast her magic shapes the character into a sympathetic entity, justifying her wickedness. Regrettably, the script from Alice in Wonderland writer Linda Woolverton makes some sacrifices to get those points across, introducing some head-scratcher issues involving the extents (and limitations) of Maleficent's magical powers and the degree of trust allotted to the moors' inhabitants. It's never really wise to pull at the strings of a fantasy environment like that; however, those shifts downgrade the oft-told story more than they enrich it, even putting a different slant on the motif of "true love's first kiss".
Thankfully, Angelina Jolie's there to mask some of those issues with a spectacular turn as Maleficent. The iconic, anticipated moments of her villainy come later in the story, of course: her first order of business is to convince the audience of who "Maleficent" was before she recoils into herself and transforms into the "Mistress of All Evil", to which she presents a fine mix of upbeat etherealness and absorbing melancholy as she's pushed beyond her limits. Her changeover, and the moments when her old self peeks out from her ominous disposition, are what truly elevate Jolie's performance and the entirety of Maleficent -- the fiendish, toothy cackle emerging from her skeletal facial structure and piercing eyes, justifying many of the story's twists through the dramatic and iniquitous displays they afford her. Maleficent's rapport with her right-hand raven, renamed Diaval (Sam Riley) and quite a bit different than what you might expect, offers unique splashes of devious humor and compassion to her character, too, one of the more successful workarounds from the Disney's outlook on the story.
Jolie's livewire turn as the villain isn't enough to carry Maleficent through its messy, embellished outlook on the fruition of Sleeping Beauty's renowned plot-points, even though it comes close. Some of that frustration rests on the shoulders of unpersuasive performances in key roles, where Elle Fanning's typically amiable cheerfulness as Princess Aurora and Sharlto Copley's mad fury as King Stefan are cloyingly projected to the rafters with little nuance. Through a whirlwind of fire and iron that drowns out those performances anyway, Maleficent certainly ends in crowd-pleasing fashion, one that attempts to have its cake and eat it, too, by sneakily preserving some of the hallmarks -- the curse, the kiss, the grand final battle with a dragon -- while bending them into alternate outcomes more befitting this new focus. On the surface, it works well enough as a fantastical diversion; as anything more, especially to those with attachments to the story, it results in little more than yet another clunky fairy-tale redux that barely glides alongside its contemporaries thanks to sensory splendor and a bewitching lead.
Posted by Thomas Spurlin on 11/05/2014