Monday, November 30, 2015

Far from the Madding Crowd (2015) [PG-13] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli for on May 6, 2015

Far from the Madding Crowd, based on Thomas Hardy's fourth novel (and the first to have widespread success), is precisely what one would expect from a big budget adaptation of a Victorian classic: stately, beautifully photographed, impeccably acted, and faithful to a condensed iteration of the text. There's nothing here to astound or surprise; the movie neither exceeds nor falls below expectations. Those who love Hardy and/or the less-filmic romances of his era will derive the most from Far from the Madding Crowd. This is designed with an older, art house-going viewer in mind - someone who doesn't demand quick cuts and ceaseless camera movement. It's the kind of film we saw often during the 1990s but which has become less common with the demise of Merchant-Ivory and the Jane Austen boom.

Like the 1967 John Schlesinger film, the 2015 version doesn't stray far from the source material, although Thomas Vinterberg's interpretation is more understated. Both films focus more on the romantic aspects of the movie than the social ones, undercutting the novel's thematic foundation. The divisions among the various social classes are noted only in passing and the isolation of the characters from society is never remarked upon. Like most of Hardy's novels, Far from the Madding Crowd deals with sorrow, loss, and regret. The story has its share of lighthearted moments to go along with the darkness, and it never gets close to the territory into which Hardy's infamous Jude the Obscure ventured.

The film follows the life of Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), a headstrong young woman who, after inheriting a farm, is determined to run it herself. She has no shortage of suitors. Shepherd Gabriel Oaks (Matthias Schoenaerts) proposes marriage before his fortunes take a turn for the worse. Bathsheba's wealthy but taciturn neighbor, William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), is smitten but his proposal is also met with a rejection. The one to capture Bathsheba's attention and awaken her desire is British army sergeant Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge). However, although their affair leads to marriage, their relationship has all the lasting power of an adolescent crush, with Bathsheba almost immediately regretting her impetuous decision, and Frank gambling away her money and putting the farm in debt.

Carey Mulligan is an inspired choice to play Bathsheba, a role that might have gone to Emma Thompson had the film been made 20 years ago. She's cool and confident; we come to respect her strength and appreciate that she doesn't need a man to be complete. Matthias Schoenaerts interacts well with Mulligan and is a solid presence in the background. Michael Sheen makes Boldwood a more sympathetic, even tragic, character than in either the book or the 1967 movie. There's a misstep with Tom Sturridge, whose Frank comes across as creepy from the beginning; missing is the erotic frisson necessary to make credible his white-hot romance with Bathsheba. We don't feel the passion between the two characters necessary for us to accept what happens with them.

Far from the Madding Crowd is beautifully photographed by Charlotte Bruus Christensen, who captures a number of breathtaking shots. Vinterberg treats his set design with care, drawing on a simple is best philosophy (e.g. the film Dogma); the period details are without peer, resulting in a you are there experience.

There is unintentional irony that a movie with this name is being released in May. As Far from the Madding Crowd slides almost unnoticed into art houses and a few select multiplexes, it offers the strongest counterprogramming imaginable against the madding of the early summer blockbusters. This is not intended for the Age of Ultron or Mad Max audience. Instead, it's a traditional, literate motion picture. Imperfect as it may be, the title reflects not only the subject matter but its place in theatrical distribution. [Berardinelli’s rating: *** out of 4 stars]

Labels: drama, romance

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Focus (2015) [R] ***

A film review by James Berardinelli for on Feb. 26, 2015.

With a lighthearted caper movie, the formula is easy to understand if not execute. It's all about conning the viewer as effectively as the on-screen marks while camouflaging enough of the unavoidable plot holes to make things hold up on a second viewing. Although Focus, a comedy/thriller that plays to star Will Smith's strengths, succeeds at the former, it's on thin ice with the latter. The movie is mostly entertaining, although there are times when the pacing flags, but several scenes (one in particular) are designed for in-the-moment sleight-of-hand without being overly concerned about whether they'll make any sense in retrospect.

If the granddaddy of movies in this genre is the Redford/Newman Oscar winner, The Sting, then Focus is a distant cousin several times removed. It does enough things right to earn a recommendation, but there are misfires aplenty for those who care to look for them. The chemistry between Smith and co-star Margot Robbie (who will forever be remembered for her revealing turn in Martin Scorsese's Wolf of Wall Street) is strong enough to paper over their underdeveloped romance, but there are a couple of monologues that function as exposition dumps (including one near the very end). The third-act twist (and house rules specify that caper movies must all have these) is unpredictable but also borders on nonsensical if one bothers to sit down and think about it. The movie is at its most fun when it stays small and light. One of the best sequences is a New Orleans street scene that turns pickpocketing into ballet.

Focus takes us into the world of master con artist Nicky (Smith), a slick operator who boasts unparalleled skills, relentless focus, and possibly a gambling problem. Although he sometimes works alone, he has assembled a team of 30-odd associates whose job is to labor in concert to steal as much as quickly and surreptitiously as possible. Nicky's not interested in a big score; volume derives income. Nicky's new apprentice, Jess (Robbie), is a looker with raw capabilities that Nicky wants to refine. In the process, he falls for her. Or does he? And how does she feel about him? Is he a beloved mentor or a mark? Is she an innocent or a femme fatale? In some ways, the questions are more interesting than the answers.

The movie travels from New York City to New Orleans to Buenos Aries with the stakes becoming higher with each stop. The second half of the film doesn't work as well as the first half, but it's got a snarling Gerald McRaney (the veteran TV star who may still be best known for starring roles in Major Dad and Simon & Simon) to provide an enjoyable diversion.

Focus underscores that Smith is at his best in movies with this tone: a little flippant but with darker undercurrents. It's not a straightforward comedy but there are some funny moments. Smith is in desperate need of a hit; it has been about seven years since he made a legitimate box office splash. It's perhaps no surprise that Nicky owes more than a passing debt to the title character of Hitch, one of Smith's best-liked films. It's unfortunate that co-directors and co-screenwriters Glenn Ficarra & John Requa couldn't do a better job fleshing out the interaction between Smith and Robbie, although the revolving door of actors attached to the project could have something to do with that.

As so-called refrigerator films* go, this one doesn't boast the smartest of scripts but it's clever enough to offer a few surprises and the likeability factor for the protagonists is high. The film's tone, like its pacing, is uneven, but that's not a major drawback. It doesn't overstay its welcome although it comes perilously close during a lackluster denouement. Focus is uncommonly good for a February release (damning with faint praise?) but may not clear the bar of being worthy of a trip through snow and ice to reach the multiplex. Star power, actor chemistry, and caper movie twists make for a nice diversion… but not much more. [Berardinelli’s rating: *** out of 4 stars]

*refrigerator films, as characterized by suspense master Alfred Hitchcock are movies that seem well-crafted, and hold together while you’re watching them, but make less sense later when you give them a second thought while standing in front of the refrigerator.

Labels: comedy, crime, drama, romance

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Love, Rosie (2015) [R] ***

A film review by Kate Erbland for on Feb. 4, 2015.

Plenty of romantic comedies are guilty of going the vague-hypnosis route when it comes to storytelling, repeatedly telling the audience that the protagonists belong together, rather than showing why through charming interactions or actual chemistry. Say it enough times - they belong together, they belong together - and everyone is bound to believe it, even if they’re not exactly sure why. Christian Ditter’s good-hearted and intermittently sweet Love, Rosie attempts through sheer force of will to convince viewers that its good-looking protagonists, Rosie (Lily Collins) and Alex (Sam Claflin), are a good match. Love, Rosie is more a psychological experiment than a romance, hinging on susceptibility to the powers of suggestion.

Rosie and Alex’s romance blooms from a long-standing friendship, supposing that just because people have loved and admired each other for the majority of their lives that they are somehow meant to be together. The film opens at a wedding - not Rosie and Alex’s, sadly - and zips back to high school to show us exactly how things went so very wrong for the fateful pair. Through a series of misunderstandings, secrets, and outright lies, Alex and Rosie continually miss connecting in a romantic way, often injuring their friendship in the process.

This goes on for approximately two decades.

Despite a fizzy and energetic tone that allows the time-spanning feature to clip along at a snappy pace, Love, Rosie stays refreshingly rooted to the real world for its first two acts. Rosie’s problems are real (Alex’s problems, which we rarely see, are oddly explained away as simply being indicative of his fuck-up lifestyle), and although the film occasionally glosses over them to deliver big-screen sheen, Rosie must still react and respond to some major issues, from a teen pregnancy to a derailed career. Later, things go a bit weird and haywire. (Why does it take Rosie, an ambitious and dedicated employee, over a decade to be promoted to receptionist at the hotel that employs her while her best pal Ruby was apparently hired for that same position years earlier?) But the majority of Love, Rosie doesn’t dance around the kind of relatable issues romantic comedies rarely allow to dominate their feel-good features.

Adapting Cecelia Ahern’s novel Where Rainbows End, screenwriter Juliette Towhidi is tasked with turning an epistolary endeavor (one kitted out with letters, emails, texts, and chats) into a workable screenplay. Although the film offers up a few snazzy bits of on-screen text to mirror its source material, they’re not overwhelming and they actually fit neatly into the narrative. (Special bonus: The film’s various chat screens and text message captures actually look like the kind of stuff audiences would interact with in the real world, not some strange proprietary technology invented mainly to confound viewers.) Ahern’s first novel, P.S. I Love You, also went the big screen rom-com route, thanks to Richard LaGravenese’s 2007 feature of the same name, which similarly featured a sweet story wrapped up in some real-world pain.

Towhidi’s script changes a number of details from Ahern’s book, sometimes in service to clarity - Rosie’s first husband and the father of her child, originally two different men, have been folded into one character who accomplishes the same purpose with ease - although it occasionally serves to add a little unnecessary drama. In Ahern’s novel, Alex’s entire family moves to Boston, while the film imagines it as a scheme for both Alex and Rosie to attend college there, though Rosie’s interest in the idea never seems keen enough for her to remember the difference between Boston College and Boston University. Unfortunately, the film frequently relies on telling over showing, and Rosie and Alex’s bond is rarely demonstrated through palpable on-screen chemistry. It’s enough to make any rom-com fan ache for talk-heavy genre offerings like You’ve Got Mail, When Harry Met Sally, and Sleepless In Seattle, which allowed their characters to actually get to know each other as they fall in love.

But Love, Rosie isn’t really kind of romantic comedy given to big declarations of love, which at least effectively jettisons overwrought cinematic troupes like the tried-and-true run through an airport scheme (hard to do with current aviation securities in place) or the perpetually popular break up a wedding scene (which has only ever worked in The Graduate, and even then to questionable results). Instead, the film goes for mostly low-key proclamations - a brief letter, a sad email, and a one-line chat - that may not be as emotionally effective, but at least feel honest. Love, Rosie might not be able to mesmerize its mainly unconvinced audience, but it’s certainly sweet enough to believe in for a little bit. [Erbland’s rating: ** ½ out of 5 stars]

Labels: comedy, romance