FRANCOIS OZON’S SWIMMING POOL — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Swimming Pool is one of those erotic dramas that toys with thriller elements without ever really becoming a full blown suspense film, at least not in the traditional sense. Directed with extreme specificity by Francois Ozon, this 2003 British/French mind-teaser features two startling performances, one from lead Charlotte Rampling, and the other from Ludivine Sagnier, who does some of the most effortless on screen nudity that I’ve ever seen in a film. Ozon and co-screenwriter Emmanuèle Bernheim’s narrative is simple on the surface, but beyond tricky in the fine details, and I’d never want to spoil anything, so all that I’ll say is that Rampling plays a successful writer who accepts an invitation from her longtime publisher (Charles Dance, excellent as usual) to spend some time at his gorgeous French country house in an effort to get cracking on her new mystery novel. But before she can get into any sort of creative groove, her publisher’s promiscuous and free spirited daughter shows up, looking to crash at the villa and hang out topless by the pool, while bringing home an interesting selection of men at night to entertain.

This is a very sexy movie, and if you’re looking for a film to get the juices flowing and isn’t afraid to confront hot-blooded sexuality up front and center, this one will certainly do the trick. Sagnier’s glistening body is repeatedly studied by Ozon and cinematographer Yorick Le Saux’s patient camera, and it’s clear that she was an actress very comfortable in her own skin while shooting, because there’s hardly a scene where she’s not unclothed to some degree. Rampling’s internal psyche is explored in interesting ways all throughout the twisty narrative, and while I’m reluctant to describe the plot any further, I’ll allow that the fates of both Rampling and Sagnier become crucially intertwined, with the film coming to a close on an abstruse note of moral questionability and psychological complexity. Philippe Rombi’s playful musical score knew when to twist the screws and when to have some fun. Swimming Pool premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, and Ozon’s unrated director’s cut is available on disc.

 

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Ghost: A Review by Nate Hill

  

Ahh, Ghost. What an authentic romance classic, a film that puts a big old grin on your face whether you want it to or not, a sloppy, smile that’s just wide enough to catch the tears that fall as a result of the sadness which accompanies the sweet, too essential ingredients in any love story that hopes to affect us in either direction. Balance is key, and Ghost employs both the giddy, heart-skipping joy of romance and the looming possibility of threat and tragedy in equal measures, never getting too dark or to soppy, at least for me. Demi has never been more adorable, in one of her career highlights. Her and Patrick ‘Roadhouse’ Swayze play star-crossed young lovers, in the beginning stages of building their lives together, a time that should be unconditionally happy for both, and is, until one fateful event rips them apart and plunges the narrative into effect. They encounter a thief in an alley one night, and Swayze is killed. Only, his spirit remains behind, for more reasons than he at first realizes. He keeps a protective, loving eye on Moore, and is driven to the notion that his death was no accident, his lingering presence meant for the purpose of both truth, love and retribution. He is aided and assisted by a sassy psychic (Whoopi Goldberg) who acts as his conduit between both realms. There’s supernatural intrigue and conspiracy afoot, but as exciting as that stuff is, it’s the love story between Patrick and Demi that has kept generations rooted to the story. A romance film is nothing without two leads who share both chemistry and a great script, which this one supplies generously. They are a show stopping pair in their scenes together, and if their predicament doesn’t draw forth both smiles and cries from you as a viewer, well, you’re wading through the wrong genre, my friend. The two of them make this one an honest to goodness winner with their performances, supported by narrative elements that only raise the stakes of their relationship. A film which will never not be a classic, and everyone should have in their collection. Ditto.

Cool World: A Review by Nate Hill

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Cool World is known, by those few who may be aware of its existence, as the ‘other’ film in which live action characters inhabit the same realm as cartoons. The more famous one of course is Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a glorious gem of a film that gets the acclaim, notoriety and long lasting attention, as it well should. (We won’t speak of a third one involving a certain moose and squirrel that really does earn it’s bad rap). Cool World is somewhat maligned as the black sheep of the two, and in some people’s eyes (Ebert laid a stern smackdown on it) downright hated on. It’s no doubt very different from Roger Rabbit, which is admittedly the better film and the easier one to like and relate to. But this one is brilliant in its own right, at least for me. I love the way it uses a sombre tone with its human creations to throw a unique light on them as soon as the Toons show up. It’s quaint and wonderfully inaccessible, with some scenes existing purely of a need to showcase a stream of consciousness type style that doesn’t so much halt the proceedings, as give them their own surreal flavor. Brad Pitt is Frank Harris, victim of a jarring post war tragedy and thrown headlong into the cartoon world, eventually finding himself a Detective in their realm. Outside in our world, lonely cartoonist Jack Deebs (Gabriel Byrne is a sly choice for the role) falls in love with one of his creations, a blonde bombshell named Holli Would (voiced and later played in the flesh by Kim Basinger). Holli is as devious as she is gorgeous, and works to use Jack’s attraction to her as a conduit to escape into our world. Pretty soon a deafening cacophany of cartoon creatures in all shapes, sizes and colours floods out of their dimension and into ours, creating quite the cosmic mess for Pitt to clean up. It’s fun without being too zany, the overblown fuss of the Toons contrasted by a glum human world, reeling from the war and unexpecting of such an event to unfold. Granted, the meshing of the two dimensions isn’t given the precise, big budget fanfare and cutting edge methods of Roger Rabbit, but the world building and special effects here are still pure enchantment and offer a dazzling level of entertainment. Pitt is stoic with flinty sparks of boyish charm, Byrne hilariously plays it dead straight, and Basinger is dead friggin sexy. She steals the show especially as Holli in human form, having a ball with the bubbly bimbo trying to keep a straight face in the real world. The Toons in general really are a diverse bunch, ranging from animals to inanimate objects to tiny little formless cutesy blobs and everything in between, filling their frames with a chaotic, detailed miasma worthy of Studio Ghibli. Lot of hate floating around for this one. You won’t find any from me, I love the film, and accept it for the adult friendly,  experimental oddity it is. Great stuff.

THOR: THE DARK WORLD: A Retrospective by Joel Copling

Rating in Stars: ** (out of ****)
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Christopher Eccleston
Director: Alan Taylor
MPAA Rating: (for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, and some suggestive content)
Running Time: 1:52
Release Date: 11/08/13

At the start of almost every sequence, Thor: The Dark World seems like it’s heading in the heading in the direction of being a surprisingly, solidly interesting first sequel to Thor. By the time we reach the end of each sequence, though, the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely has regressed backward to the flippant and familiar. This process is tiresome in its repetition, because here is a narrative that has some real potential to make major steps toward building upon the direction in which the Marvel Cinematic Universe seems to be going. Instead, by giving us all the generic beats of a sequel that feels a lot more like wheel-spinning, the screenwriters offer only the familiar to underwhelming results.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is now the protector of the Nine Realms, on one of which he easily defeats a fearsome rock beast to the adulation of the crowd watching (“Maybe next time you should start with that,” exclaims one of his fellows, and we nod in agreement). He’s juggling this responsibility with that of rebuilding the peace left to die by his adoptive brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) after the disastrous events he facilitated and then committed on Earth (for which he will remain in prison) and the prospect of ascension to a throne currently filled by their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins, once again displaying credence in an underwritten role).

The major conflict here shows up on Earth, though, because Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, looking disinterested), the woman Thor met and fell in love with on Earth during his last visit, has stumbled across an anomaly with the help of Darcy (Kat Dennings, a delight) and Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), who kind of went insane after New York’s invasion by aliens. The anomaly’s source is a mysterious rift in the time-space continuum (I think) that leads her to the location of the Aether, a substance that predates existence (I think) and possesses some sort of power to do something. Honestly, by the time Jane is pointing out to the others that it will cause “spatial extrusions” (what?), the audience will have clocked out both intellectually and emotionally.

The film even offers the requisite villain whose main henchman is far more threatening and interesting. The former is Malekith (Christopher Eccleston, embarrassingly hammy), whose major defining feature is looking like a steely-eyed, poodle-wearing cousin of Nosferatu, and the latter is the Kursed, played by Adewale Akinnuoye Agbaje in a convincing physical performance that gains mileage from his silence. They are the last of the Dark Elves, an ancient race whose members (excepting a horde of expendable soldiers, of course) all died as a result of Malekith’s bid for power. It’s dull stuff and, once again, overshadowed by the continued, conflicted relationship between Thor and Loki (Hemsworth and a very good Hiddleston shine in these sequences).

After much to-do (a treasonous escape from his home realm of Asgard, a death, some more expository nonsense about a “Convergence” that I think created the universe), Thor and Malekith do battle that once again introduces a bit of creativity into the mix (The hero, his foe, and a bunch of other things around them dash in and out of different realms) before yet again devolving into murkiness (The final confrontation way overcompensates the lack of distinctive coloring in director Alan Taylor and cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau’s imagery by dousing everything in red). It’s indicative of the constantly shifting process of regression inherent in Thor: The Dark World, which is at least an interesting mishap.

IRON MAN THREE: A Retrospective by Joel Copling

Rating in Stars: ***½ (out of ****)
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall, Ben Kingsley
Director: Shane Black
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence throughout, and brief suggestive content)
Running Time: 2:10
Release Date: 05/03/13

If the first film had the opportunity to examine the reasons that its titular superhero had to don the gold titanium alloy suit shot with hot-rod red that has an arsenal of weapons up its sleeves and in its shoulder pads only to thrust him into a generic conflict and its first sequel did nothing to expand upon that potential (It certainly didn’t and, in fact, regressed from it), then Iron Man Three is the first time in this series–or, indeed, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, considering his appearance in The Avengers was in direct proportion to how he interacts with another superhero–that the man within the suit has been properly examined. What writer/director Shane Black finds is a damaged prodigy from privilege and a source of unflappable sarcasm. It seems that trauma, which is the real conflict in store for the man, activates the defense mechanism of outwardly taking nothing seriously.

That is a quality that Black’s carefully honed screenplay shares, too, as is clear in a sequence wherein Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) visits an anomalous location in Tennessee where an explosion may or may not have occurred that is similar to a series of them that have left many people dead and no trace of a source. He meets Harley (Ty Simpkins), a young, plucky kid whose personality mirrors Tony’s own and who aids in Tony’s investigation of the scene of a crime that left five people dead. The scene is oddly but affectionately balanced between the investigation and their repertoire. Downey’s performance is similarly balanced between the moroseness of Tony’s internal conflict and his sarcastic deflection of it; it’s the actor’s best work to date in the role.

That internal conflict has reared its head in the form of sleeplessness and posttraumatic anxiety following the events that led to New York City being overrun by aliens. Even the mention of the city or the beings from someone as innocuous as a child who wants an autograph on his drawing of the battle sets the stress level to 11 for Tony, whose Iron Man alter ego has gone through an upheaval as of late. The lack of sleep has nonetheless spawned a terrific creative spike in the form of remote-controlled suits and a nifty device that summons them and has been placed subcutaneously in his wrist. When one of those attacks is upon Air Force One, he uses one of them to great effect–until, of course, it meets the front end of a semi truck (The interrupted hero shot is a constant, go-to gag that never fails to illicit a healthy chuckle).

External conflict is two-fold this time around. First, there is the re-introduction of Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), whom Tony met in 1999 (a meeting that we see in a prologue amusingly scored to a late-decade one-hit wonder) while working on a project with confidant and sort-of-girlfriend Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall). He wants to collaborate on his newest bit of technology, which is the rejuvenation of genetic defects through cellular manipulation, with Stark Industries, but Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), its C.E.O., thinks it highly weaponizable. The other, seemingly more generic conflict comes from a terrorist calling himself the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley); he is the one responsible for bombings positioned as social experiments for the President of the United States (William Sadler), who has now publicly championed James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), aka Iron Patriot, as an official superhero on the government’s behalf.

Things, though, are not as they seem, and the result is the film within the Marvel Cinematic Universe that feels as if it’s taking the biggest number of chances. Part of that is in the revelation of the Mandarin’s identity (refreshingly played as a joke that might be a barb aimed at the MCU itself for giving us such generic villains); the other part is in the action sequences, which are either creatively conceived (the aforementioned Air Force One rescue or the destruction of Tony’s residence, in which a piano is used as a weapon) or thrillingly staged (the climax, which might predictably be set among crates on a rig in the ocean but is a highlight all the same due to the welcome levity of humor and more of those interrupted hero shots). Iron Man Three is unique and risky, yes, but it’s also a lot of cheeky fun.

JEFF NICHOLS’ MIDNIGHT SPECIAL — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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The experience of watching Midnight Special was akin to eating 50 Oreos with a humongous glass of ice cold milk. In short, I loved every single second of this fantastic film, but I’m not too surprised, considering how Jeff Nichols has only made quality films, with his sophomore effort, Take Shelter, registering as a masterpiece of introspective, existential cinema. He’s back in semi-ambiguous mode here after the solid southern drama Mud, and to be honest, I want Nichols to stick to this arena, the thought provoking genre bender that you can’t quite pin down. It’s a miracle that a major studio funded this film – bravo, Warner Brothers. There’s no chance of a sequel or lunchboxes or action figures with this one, and it seems to have been crafted with BRAINS as the motivating factor, not endless action scenes or noisy visual effects. Instead, the audience is treated to tantalizing ideas, smart dialogue and riveting plotting, excellent performances, realistic family dynamics that propel the narrative, and CGI that’s used to enhance the story, and not act as the central focus. I loved the Amblin-ness of Midnight Special, and how it reminded me of John Carpenter’s Star Man and other nostalgic offerings from the 80’s, yet still made with modern panache and overall exquisite style, rarely ever calling overt attention to itself. Adam Stone’s shimmery and bold widescreen cinematography meshed perfectly with Chad Keith’s inspired and subtly stylish production design, which went a long way in evoking these feelings. And the last 20 minutes of the film are spellbinding in their ability to transport you out of the theater and into a movie world where you just have to know what’s going to happen next.

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If you’ve see the trailer, that’s all you need to know from a plot stand point. There’s a strange and unique child being moved across state lines by two men with a variety of groups giving chase, and for some reason, the kid is able to emit light rays from his eyes. I’m giving nothing away that’s not shown in the trailer. And I’ll reveal no more. This movie has a ton of heart and honest emotion that worked me over like a baby, and a central performance from Michael Shannon that is compelling and totally consuming to observe. Jaeden Lieberher is equal parts spooky and sympathetic as the potentially dangerous cargo, while Joel Edgerton and Kirsten Dunst are both very effective in supporting roles. Adam Driver nails his scenes as an NSA agent looking into the situation, while Sam Shepard has a cameo as a cult leader who feels that, for some reason, the boy is very special. David Wingo’s music is haunting and pulsating and delivers a serious punch, and again, it must be mentioned that the entire film has been shot with casual elegance by Stone, who clearly was favoring a lot of natural light, and knew exactly where to place the camera in some key situations. But the star of the show is Nichols, and his erudite sense of storytelling, never holding the audience’s hand too firmly, and always allowing for tantalizing bits and pieces from his heady narrative to remain unanswered, so that when you leave the theater, you’ll be thinking about the fine details for hours after the film has finished. I can’t wait to see this film again and again and again and I have no doubt that it will be included in my top 10 favorite films of the year.

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DAVID O. RUSSELL’S THE FIGHTER — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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The Fighter is an inherently compelling piece of entertainment. Christian Bale, as a crack-addicted boxing coach, stole the entire show, but Mark Wahlberg, starring as real life boxer Micky Ward, was low-key terrific and was somewhat overshadowed by the hype that accompanied Bale’s transformative performance. Wahlberg clearly excels while working with director David O. Russell (they previously teamed on the masterwork Three Kings and the criminally underrated I Heart Huckabees) and it’s clear from frame one that this was Wahlberg’s passion project. It’s probably the least idiosyncratic movie that Russell has ever directed, but switching it up a bit thematically and stylistically was probably a good move for him at the time, as he definitely showed that he’s got solid commercial instincts and that he can stay focused with a concise story. The film also has some huge and unexpected doses of humor (mostly at the expense of the broadly drawn characterizations that comprise Ward’s white-trashy sisters) that really bring the laughs.

You might not like the brutality of boxing, you might not want to have your face rubbed in the low-class Lowell-grit-‘n-slime for two hours, and sure, most of the beats in the script are predictable, but it’s got such a rousing finish and the story is so quintessentially American (who doesn’t love a second, sometimes third chance in life?), that it’s hard not to find the film inspiring to a certain degree. The acting across the board was so strong and enjoyable that in tandem with the sharp and believable dialogue, the obviousness of some of the story recedes into the back of my mind. The Fighter has a somewhat traditional boxing movie narrative, but everything is spiced up by the gritty, lived-in atmosphere and by the rough and tumble dynamics of the Ward family. Amy Adams and Melissa Leo were both terrific, and again, it needs to be said, without Wahlberg’s sensitive and quietly observed performance, the film would be without its steady anchor. It’s his best overall performance since Boogie Nights and it’s something that he should be very proud of.

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