'Empty Hours' Filled With Responsibility, Passion, and Growth

Directed by: Aaron Fernandez Lesur; Runtime: 101 minutes
Grade: B-

The process in which teenagers learn the ropes of adulthood is a bit different for just about everyone: some make choices that alter who they'll become, while others have circumstances thrust upon them that force them to grow up a lot quicker than expected. Mexico's The Empty Hours (Las horas muertas) depicts a rather unique set of circumstances for a young man to experience his coming-of-age period, jamming the eighteen-year-old into an unconventional position of authority at an indecent place of business owned by a family member. Emphasizing nuance and organic human behavior through the simplicity of its location, director Aaron Fernandez Lesur tells a subtle yet versatile tale of responsibility, sexual chemistry, and finding satisfaction when life becomes overbearing, one that avoids the falseness that occasionally crops up in other coming-of-age films.

If given the choice while growing up, would you want to manage a by-the-hour motel? While I'm sure a few clients come along just wanting a decent nap, most of the patrons at Motel Palma Real on the coast of Veracruz aren't interested in sleeping, typically pulling into their parking areas with a companion and expecting both discretion and attentive service from the staff. That's the environment Sebastian (Kristyan Ferrer) -- just a few months shy of eighteen -- will have to maintain while his uncle is off having emergency medical tests, framed as an opportunity to learn a few life lessons while make some money in the process. After his uncle leaves, the keys to the kingdom are left in Sebastian's hands, forcing him to upkeep the charming state of its ten rooms and fill the boring time between arrivals. Unexpectedly, he finds a conversation companion in an attractive woman, Miranda (Adriana Paz), who frequents the hotel as a getaway for her secret lover, whom she's always waiting for.

Captured through cinematographer Javier Moron's candid perspective and doting attention to shadows, The Empty Hours strives to make Sebastian's inherited motel feel like an genuine, cozy environment, one that doesn't aim to glorify the location's purpose or make its patrons more appealing. The film's casual pacing embraces the routine activities of maintaining the two-toned lascivious motel for reserved dramatic effect, notably when Sebastian unavoidably listens to people in pleasure and his search for a new maid ... and what he's required to do, required to clean up, without one. From observing where he tries to get some sleep during the louder evenings to his drifting eyes onto a sultry part-time worker who does some of the laundry, there's a slyly erotic and voyeuristic tone to how Sebastian acclimatizes to his new surroundings, accentuated by his mix of eager and frustrated responses to the place's demands.

Through it all, though, Sebastian remains a charmer, a self-composed guy who credibly rolls with the punches and treats the situation as if it's within his capacity, convincing others that he's at least got the motel-management side of the business down. That's necessary for a film as singular and slight in focus as The Empty Hours: without the charisma and stability of Kristyan Ferrer's performance, much of Sebastian's interactions (and, thus, most of the film) could've rang hollow or inauthentic. Naturally, that genuineness comes even more into play once his burgeoning sexual energy complicates the story, starting with the transient part-time laundry girl and moving to Miranda, a sultry but mistreated woman whom he both sympathizes with and finds himself drawn to. When he's not observing the patrons -- even playing a guessing game with Miranda about their lives -- he also develops a sociable relationship with a sketchy coconut-selling boy across the street that becomes significant, a parallel to his own way of making the most of limited means.

The Empty Hours rarely leaves the grounds of the hour-by-hour motel -- once or twice for scooter rides, but mostly to briefly illustrate Miranda's dates and her unsatisfying job as a condo salesperson -- which both constricts the film's scope and heightens its dramatic intimacy and purpose, almost metaphorically bottling up Sebastian's temperament. While there are lurid tones around each bend in the film, bravely allowing its developing chemistries and obligations to go where they will, director Lesur uses this environment chiefly to communicate messages about adult responsibility and gratification, around transient infatuations and the messes left for others to clean up. That's why the abrupt, yet meaningful and stimulating resolution to The Empty Hours' growing sensuality gets swept up at the end by understated metaphorical images about being trapped in a tough situation, yet persevering anyway. For many young adults whose responsibilities and circumstances trump their desires, that's the way it goes.

Less Mystery, More Drawn-Out Grit Down 'Mystery Road'

Directed by: Ivan Sen; Runtime: 121 minutes
Grade: C+

Over the past decade, from Lantana to David Michod's latest The Rover, the Australian film scene has gradually inched its way higher in contemporary prestige, producing a consistent stream of persuasive crime thrillers and modernized westerns with a gritty appeal. Ivan Sen's Mystery Road, yet another glimpse at seedy organized crime in the Aussie outskirts, aims to further that perception, hinged on drug-dealing and teenage prostitution as authority figures hesitate in directly attacking the source. While it's given a faintly unique edge through its protagonist, a detective from the region's indigenous population who both earns respect and meets some resistance because of his heritage, there's very little here that hasn't been seen or heard in countless others rural procedurals, reminiscent of the investigative energy in the Coen Bros.' brand of suspense without a compelling villain or faint black humor. Add in sluggish pacing that goes beyond slow-burning tension, and you've got a rugged yet protracted and humdrum mystery through the troubling cultural landscape of the outback.

Like many whodunits of its type, Mystery Road begins with the discovery of a body: a young local teenage girl cradled in a tunnel in the outskirts of Queensland. Detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) gets called in for the investigation, a singularly-focused former tribesman and skilled sniper whose family life is in shambles. He quickly discovers the world of drug abuse and prostitution that the girl was involved in, starting a connection of dots that draws a little too close for comfort to the police department's substance task force, helmed by renegade officer Johnno (Hugo Weaving). Swan's investigation constantly brings him in conflict with the locals -- including suspected dog killers -- and his police force, becoming even more personal when his daughter's knowledge and cooperation become a necessary piece of the puzzle. As the pieces come together, it becomes more and more obvious that Detective Swan will probably be forced to handle the situation by himself.

Mystery Road operates under the impression that its disconcerting trek through police corruption and underage prostitution, the byproducts of rural drug-dealing, will provide enough of a backbone for the murder's intrigue, that the underlying seediness and Swan's crusade against it will be engrossing enough as plot devices. Director Ivan Sen's matter-of-fact handling of the material leans more towards dryness than authenticity, though, unsurprisingly tracking behind the detective's sleuthing -- poking around motels, provoking locals like Pete Bailey (a robust glorified cameo from Ryan Kwanten), buddying up with local kids for info -- without enough escalating tension or impact behind what's discovered. While the overly-attentive script bears some of the responsibility through its predictability, the film's restrained visual style and drawn-out conversations factor into that as well, an attempt at low-budget genuineness that neglects to bolster the tension. Mystery Road plays out like an everyday hour-long TV procedural that's stuffed with bland realism and undercooked social commentary until it reaches the two-hour mark, equal parts methodical and mundane.

It doesn't help that the novelty of Detective Jay Swan's character feels only halfway explored, partly by intent -- Ivan Sen leaves a lot about the collapse of his family and prior police work a secret -- and also out of undeveloped execution. Notably, Jay's presence as an indigenous detective seems both barely significant and inconsequential enough to meet the film's provocative demands, without a sturdy cultural impact. Together, it renders an obscured outline of a protagonist for Aaron Pedersen to embody; however, the actor's sharp gaze and calm intensity enhance the character's depth, revealing the temperament of an estranged father and formidable interrogator with a direct, invested purpose behind purging the area's dealers. The rest of the performances reacting to Pedersen draw from Australia's robust cache of talent -- Hugo Weaving's upticks in fierceness stand out in his cluster of head-butting sequences with Swan, while Jack Thompson adds a disquieting tempo to an at-home questioning -- yet the characters come across as a detached medley of denizens alongside the film's central premise.

Oddly, I found the most persuasive and riveting aspect of Mystery Road in Swan's cowboy-esque capabilities with a rifle, how his precision emphasizes his emotional state and how it reflects on the directness of his resolve. Along with also being a subtle yet effective way of conveying some of his personal history -- a conversation piece that quickly leads to intimidation over Chinese food -- it transforms into robust foreshadowing for the film's pragmatic yet thrilling shootout. Director Ivan Sen telegraphs a fitting, lethal finale that erupts organically around the harrowing territory of the drug trade, elevating the comments about on-duty death that are seeded throughout the story. While the reaffirming conclusion can't quite justify its slow approach to the satisfying finale, lacking much of what galvanizes Australia's many other shrewdly-executed crime films and a far cry from something like No Country for Old Men, at least it ends of a well-executed high note that suggests the director did, indeed, have some rousing ingenuity in his crosshairs.

Well-Made Parts of 'Cuckoo-Clock Heart' Unsteady in Motion

Directed by: Stephane Berla, Mathias Malzieu; Runtime: 89 minutes
Grade: C

French import Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart originated as a combination of a book and a concept-driven album, La Mecanique du Coeur, from the band Dionysos, influenced by the brand of macabre, lyrical storytelling you'd typically find in Tim Burton's oeuvre. The narrative mixture successfully blended into an animated music video for one of the album's catchier tunes, "Tais-toi mon coeur", which naturally sparked the idea to transform its fantasy-bound concept -- a boy with a cuckoo-clock heart is forbidden to fall in love for health reasons, yet does so anyway -- into a feature-length motion picture. Director Stephane Berla, who also directed the music video, shares creative duty with the band's lead singer, Mathias Malzieu, to shape the seemingly easy-to-adapt book, music, and visual concepts into a form of the story befitting the big screen. Unfortunately, despite its infectiously quirky concept and an alluring visual style, the repeated winding of Jack's heart seems to have worn down the fluid movement of its mechanisms, resulting in a rickety display of breakable hearts and day-seizing.

We're transported to a fanciful version of mid-1800s Edinburgh, Scotland in the story's beginning, starting on the coldest evening in recorded history. Through the frost and persistent snow, a pregnant woman makes her way to a local witch midwife, Madeleine, who offers her booze and pancakes before beginning the birthing procedure. After the mother's delivery, the midwife discovers that the baby's heart has been frozen solid (somehow, the other internal organs are fine), leading her to improvise a functioning heart for little newborn Jack: a small cuckoo-clock heart, complete with a sharp-beaked bird that juts out. Under the midwife's care following his mother's abandonment, Jack lives an isolated life where he abides by a series of rules to keep him safe considering his condition, until he's old enough to travel with Madeleine to the city. There, he runs the risk of breaking one of his rules -- to never fall in love -- when he meets Miss Acacia, a musically-inclined young girl whom he immediately falls for.

If creative aesthetics were the only components needed for a quality piece of animated storytelling, then Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart would be heralded as a triumph. On the surface, it's beautiful: Jack's pregnant mother hikes through a whimsical snowy wonderland where frozen-solid birds flop gracefully into snow mounds, while an older Jack curiously observes the sepia-tinted, sun-covered curves of his local town after years of isolation. Magical, slightly macabre touches -- starting with an ice-cube heart being clipped out from a baby's chest -- add dashes of the bizarre to everything that's going on, illustrated by an intricate visual style that emphasizes lean bodies, wide eyes, and tender expressions in the characters' semi-broad faces. Writer/co-director Mathias Malzieu's band, a low-key but robust mix of classic and alt-rock, supplies the rhythmic energy from scene to scene, coupled with abstract, poetic lyrics that double as an emotional narrative. Independently, all its uniqueness offers a lot to absorb as the hands of Jack's heart tick away along his journey into the world, toward Acacia.

The script holding Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart together doesn't do its individual artistic merits the diligence they deserve, though. It isn't wise to think about the premise any deeper than the surface -- how'd Jack made it through childhood fears if love and anger are too much for his clock-heart to take? -- since there's not much to the story beyond its droopy emotional tempo, weakened by the arbitrary limits of Jack's emotional threshold. Hinged on the very brief, love-at-first-sight meeting of a young boy and girl that'll linger for many years, the metaphors laced within Dionysos' conceptual lyrics end up feeling awkward and incompatible against the plain story of Jack's fragile machine of a heart and his forbidden infatuation for Miss Acacia. Those imaginative flourishes that entrance on their own end up being a hodgepodge when stuck together, especially unsatisfying during the singing numbers, rooted in Malzieu's grasp on dreamlike idiosyncrasy and a desire to emulate Burton and Selick's stop-motion tone. What's left but to flip one's mind off and try to embrace the strung-together images and sounds as a quirky children's book in motion.

That could work, mind you, had Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart not ended up being such a melancholy affair as its gears kept moving. Jack's ticker suffers a physical and emotional gauntlet throughout -- needlessly tortured during the boy's voluntary school years and reinvigorated during travels outside of Edinburgh in search for Miss Acacia -- a figurative expression of the fragility of emotion, the power of a mother's protective love, and overcoming the fear of heartbreak. Much of those intentions gets obscured in a blizzard of misguided, artificial tragedy late in the film, though, powered by needless dishonesty and manipulation that's consciously engineered for gloomy repercussions. Despite the resolve of its visual splendor and delicate temperament, Jack's story ultimately doesn't offer much of a takeaway beyond breaking down into self-indulgent tragedy and, unfortunately, a feeling of futility about the makeshift boy's journey. Heartbreak may be unavoidable, but there are better ways of conveying that point than this frigid ticking of clockwork, well within the spectrum of these imaginative minds.