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The Captive by Atom Egoyan

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An evil kidnapper, a mother and a father trying to cope with the disappearance of their only daughter and to investigate the affair we have two cops haunted by their own past, if I put it this way then The Captive would sound like ordinary thriller material – ordinary but very up-to-date since the investigation gravitates towards pedophilia at the time of the internet – but as it is usual with Atom Egoyan the structures of film genre are only a pretext to explore his favorite themes: how to deal with the loss of our beloved ones, the way our childhood influences who we are as adults and the conflicting worlds of childhood and adulthood, the role of technology in our lives.

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Spectators familiar with Egoyan’s oeuvre will find many ideas or even whole scenes that sound familiar here – just take the man who gives a lift to a teenager girl and than stands watching her while she enters her home: it comes right out of Exotica – but while Exotica itself and The Sweet Hereafter were able to score both money and critical success, The Captive has busted Egoyan on both fronts. Alas The Captive contains too many elements of reality – of the reality of our time and the way this reality is usually portrayed in film and media – to leave space within them for the allegorical world of the Canadian director – it is no coincidence that drafting the screenplay Egoyan had titled it the queen of the night from the highly allegorical The Magic Flute by Mozart – whose usual mixture of genre elements and personal vision blend badly this time. The early films of Atom Egoyan were highly original in the use of the medium and gave the spectators the sensation that they were facing an artist talking about the future, nowadays Egoyan looks like a director seen by the film industry like ¨the guy who makes films about disappearing children¨ and the worst part of it is that it seems Egoyan has accepted this condition: is this the eclipse of one of the great directors of our time?

Birdman by Alejandro González Iñárritu

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For the Mexican director Birdman represents quite a departure from his previous work, this time we don’t get a multi-layered dramatic story but a multi-layered example of metacinema with a dominant comedic tone. Casting Michael Keaton to play an aging Hollywood star who used to play a superhero with a costume – Birdman – is only the first of many moments in this film to evoke something else, mainly Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz and a lot of Woody Allen stuff (mainly Bullets Over Broadway), but Birdman has not much new to say about these abused subjects: silly Hollywood versus intellectual New York City, commercial success versus true art. The strong point of Birdman is that it mocks everyone and everything, as for its weak point, well, its playing with clichés is quite boring, I’ve had enough of the actor that being a star was an absent father, you don’t need to be an actor to do that and a midlife crisis when you realize you want to leave an authentic mark of your passage on planet Earth, Iñarritu tries to be funny exploring cliché after cliché but the only real interesting feature of the film is Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography that with its ingenious simulation of a never ending long take seems to give to the film the continuous action of the theater event it stages. Birdman is a film deserving admiration, alas all of its intensity expires within the limits of its technical feats,  the one Birdman thing I will remember is the performance by an almost unrecognizable Naomi Watts: I guess it would be impossible to play a middle aged (failed) actress finally having a shot at Broadway better than she does here.

Les garçons et Guillaume, à table! (Me, Myself and Mum) by Guillaume Gallienne

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The boys and William, dinner’s ready! makes much more sense than Me, Myself and Mum, the original title gives the viewer a better idea of what he is going to see since there is a lot of humour in Gallienne’s debut feature: it is an autobiographical story – which Gallienne had already used for a theatre piece – whose main scope is illustrating how full of perils is the moment in our life when we have to understand meaning and consequences of our sexual identity, the instant when our gender has to produce a behaviour which has to be consistent with the idea society imposes on what is female and what is masculine, what can you do when your body and instincts do not conform to the dictates of your gender? in a way this thought provoking film represents the counterpoint to Ozon’s Jeune & Jolie – where Ozon’s cheeky heroine proudly explores her femininity, Gallienne’s Guillaume is the lead voice of a female choir.

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Gallienne is an accomplished actor – he is a member of the prestigious Comédie-Française – and his feat of interpreting here both Guillaume and his Mom is a masterful one: combining Tootsie and Geraldine/Daphne, and though Gallienne the director has chosen to maintain the theatrical nature of his own work here he is also exhibiting a keen talent for the cinematic language, an example is the way he uses his narrator/voice-over roles and the editing to advance the story or mutate the course of what we were expecting to see; Gallienne has a taste for the unexpected, for subverting the rules of the game: just think of the memorable Diane Kruger cameo. Hilarious and moving, tender and cruel, drama and ridicule: Gallienne may have been timid and fearful as a young man but the adult who has directed Me, Myself and Mum is a fearless artist.

The Best Films of 2013 according to Michel Ciment

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Michel Ciment is the Editorial Head of Positif – prestigious French magazine and my favorite one about cinema – Ciment is also known for his books, mainly the one on Kubrick, probably the essential book about the legendary director. Every year in the February issue Monsieur Ciment chooses his 12 favorite films of the previous year, one per month, the photos below represent his selections for the year 2012.

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Philomena by Stephen Frears

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An unerring champion of classic filmmaking Stephen Frears turns once again for inspiration to a true story with Philomena, the tale of an Irish woman who in her later years has decided to find out what happened to the out of wedlock son that as a youngster she was forced to abandon when she lived in a convent run by evil Catholic nuns: Magdalene Sisters territory? yes but Frears is a much subtler director than Peter Mullan so while the description of the absurd system of power run by the Catholic Church is exposed in all of his craziness, the film centre gravitates around Philomena’s quest and her unlikely companion, a journalist willing to exploit her story hoping it will help him to rebound from an unlucky career move, in a certain way they have something in common: they both have been failed by the system of power ruling their lives.

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Except for the bad idea of intersecting home video footage of Philomena’s son throughout the film Frears delivers a poignant story with multiple layers, the development of the relationship between Philomena (Judy Dench) and Martin (Steve Coogan) may be conventional and kind of expected for this genre of film but Frears uses it as a way to explore our controversial connection to the world of media: exploitation for sure, but it is a fact that without the money and the expertise provided by Martin and his employer Philomena’s quest would have been doomed in the beginning. The mystery of the faith is another point brilliantly delivered by Frears: Philomena has suffered at the hands of the Church, Martin has not, but Martin is the atheist while the injustice the Church has handed Philomena has not destroyed her faith, both of them will slightly adjust their vision of life during their common voyage – the college educated guy learning a lesson or two by the old uneducated lady may sound like trite material but Frears manages to make it sound good and real -the fact that the two characters spend a lot of screen time together certainly helps to make their relationship a believable one, just like in every voyage Philomena and Martin are not only searching for Anthony, the voyage is a way to shed light on their life so to achieve a clearer understanding of it. There is a lot of humour here and frequent changes of tone and pace, in the realm of classic filmmaking Philomena sounds like an ideal Frank Capra story but the way Frears delivers it it has a lot of Billy Wilder in it, though the degree of  accomplishment may not be at that level.

Inside Llewyn Davis by Joel and Ethan Coen

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Who is Llewyn Davis? We meet him on the stage of the Gaslight Cafe in 1961, he is a folk-singer who after his act is over will be punched in the face by an unknown menacing guy dressed in black in the alley at the back of the renowned folk music venue, when we see this scene we don’t know why Llewyn is getting hit, but during the course of the film we will make knowledge with his artistic shortcomings and his unfriendly personality and maybe we will develop the urge to punch him in the face. Riddles are an essential part of every film by the Coen bothers and Inside Llewyn Davis makes no exception: the folk scene was thriving in 1961 but they decide to bring to life a loser and not a beautiful one, Llewyn seems to have in high regard his own artistry and disregards most of his musical companions but when we see them performing … well, their act (a surprising Justin Timberlake deserves to be mentioned) looks much better than Llewyn’s; but the main riddle of the film and its core narrative point is the loss of Mike, Llewyn’s artistic partner who – we are told – has killed himself jumping off Washington Bridge, so what do we have here? a successful artistic duo who tells the story of a guy who seems condemned to failure because he has lost his partner.

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What does it mean to be a performing artist is certainly a central theme here – the film’s disillusioned view of the music business is quite blatant – but I’d say the main point of this story is a young man who doesn’t know what to do with his life, Joel and Ethan Coen avoid the easy trap of letting him to renounce his career and to choose a normal life – we know he is not going to Akron, no matter how long Llewyn spends looking at that exit, that’s not the kind of thing happening in a Coen film – and Llewyn’s inability to get recognition (to find his place in a world where he has put his name on two records but the only guys who know who he is are the ones who connect Llewyn’s name to his father) is made worse by his unwillingness to compromise. It is uneasy to relate with a character like Llewyn – this Welsh name sounds quite appropriate for the guy – and the rest of the cast suffers insufficient development – Jean (Carey Mulligan) and Joy (Jeanine Serralles) Llewyn’s friend and sister respectively – as it is usually the case with female characters in the Coen’s films and then we get the usually overblown role played by John Goodman. The photography by Bruno Delbonnel is fantastic, especially the scenes on the highway which have a menacing and realistic feeling of metallic hostility; the Coen work again with T Bone Burnett but is is hard to imagine a renewed O Brother, Where Art Thou? effect here.

Nebraska by Alexander Payne

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Lincoln, Nebraska makes me think of a Bruce Springsteen song, but the lyrics coming to my mind while I was watching the latest opus by Alexander Payne – a Nebraska native by the way – were from Omaha by The Counting Crows ¨I think you better turn your ticket in and get your money back at the door¨ because Nebraska’s plot has a lot to do with a ticket and money, but the film has little to do with the songs, after exploring the vines of California and the Hawaiian islands with mixed results Payne has returned back home to the settings of his first features (another back to basics connection is the fact that the lead role is played by Bruce Dern, while in Payne’s debut the lead was Dern’s daughter Laura) and though for the first time in his career he has not penned the screenplay – authored by Bob Nelson – Nebraska represents a return to form for Payne. It doesn’t matter if we call it a tragicomedy or else since one thing is for sure: Payne continues to explore dramatic situations in contemporary America but he is never shy to expose their comic or contradictory side, this kind of narrative style requires a huge equilibrium, this is an act of funambulism, it is tightrope walking,  we are witnessing a drama and the sudden burst of laughter has to come out of it spontaneously, we almost regret it, they are sad laughs, but we also realize that these laughs belong to the story and that they enrich its significance, to make them work the pitch has to be perfect and Payne here confirms that he is a genuine maestro of the genre.

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Payne and Phedon Papamichael – the cinematographer – have made the right choice going with black and white here, it helps to focus on the substance of things and with its infinite palette of grey it is the perfect tool to enhance the multifaceted aspects of Nebraska, the surface of the plot is plain and simple and in a way reminding of Lynch’s The Straight Story – though Payne’s agenda has nothing to do with Lynch’s – Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is an old drunkard from Billings, Montana who is convinced that he has won a million dollars at some kind of lottery and that he needs to go to Lincoln, Nebraska to cash the ticket, during the voyage there will be some disappointing – or even insulting – sightseeing at Mount Rushmore and a revealing family reunion in Hawthorne, Nebraska, the place where Woody was born and lived many years before moving to Montana. Why an old man who – in the words of his wife – has never cared in his life about being rich cannot see that the ticket is a scam? Is it the idea of returning to Nebraska that is working on his subconscious? Woody is a Korea veteran but he has never talked much about that experience so echoing the sentiment of his whole nation who has emphasized with every available media Vietnam and other wars but has forgot about Korea, we never fully understand why Woody Grant wants a million dollars, his only desire is to buy a new truck and an air compressor for himself and in the end to have something to leave to his sons, during his voyage to Nebraska he crosses a land of despair and lack of opportunities, what it is going to be his heritage and the heritage of the times he has lived? Bruce Dern gives a mighty performance as Woody but Nebraska exhibits a magnificent ensemble cast and June Squibb playing Woody’s wife is brilliant.

Jimmy P. by Arnaud Desplechin

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Jimmy Picard is a Blackfeet Native American who has fought for his country during WWII, he is a resident at the Winter Hospital in Topeka, Kansas but the doctors there ignore how to treat his headaches and nightmares, so the head of the medical stuff decides to call his friend Georges Devereux; Deveraux is introduced as an anthropologist but we’ll soon discover that he is a psychoanalyst from Europe who cannot practice in America yet where his non-Freudian approach is not welcomed and little by little we’ll find out that Devereux is not his name, the doctor is not French, he is a Romanian Jew: the new film by Desplechin presents the meeting of a member of the Vanishing Race with a Wandering Jew, they are two renegades, one of them is the doctor and the other one is the patient but they will need each other to work together to reconstruct their new selves so to try to become citizens anew.

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What does it mean to be an American? What really is the melting pot? What do you have to do and there is any price to pay to become part of it? It is bizarre to have to take notice that a film investigating such peculiar American topics comes from a French director, it makes perfect sense that the director is Desplechin who has spent his career as a filmmaker dealing with literary and psychoanalytic themes. Jimmy Picard says he is a Catholic and he seems to know very little about his Blackfeet spiritual heritage, Devereux has been baptized when he was in France, but now he says he has no religion, his only credo is doing good, helping others; different ways to deal with women and sexuality is another unavoidable theme here but the heart of the film is an exploration of cultural identity: Jimmy is a Native and an alien at the same time in his own country, apart from the war and the hospital he has spent his entire life in a reservation where in fact very little of his culture has been preserved, while Jimmy is an unaware renegade Devereux is a willing one, but if one of them will succeed creating an American identity it will not be a matter of will but of skin color. With Jimmy P. being a film about a prolonged therapy session we get a lot of flashbacks and dream sequences and they certainly are its most cinematically interesting moments: in the beginning Desplechin uses filters and film grain to fully differentiate reality from dream, but he then merges them until we can not distinguish them anymore: just like Jimmy Picard and doctor Devereux will need to face and understand them both to recover their sanity, the viewer will need to go the same course to comprehend their struggle. As a two hours long therapy session Jimmy P. is not an easy film to watch, but Amalric and Del Toro are two brilliant casting choices and thanks to the unusual situation – real life Jimmy and George met for only one hour a day – we are not confined to a room, there is no visual monotony here and its deep layers of thought make it a fascinating cinematic experience.

Rush by Ron Howard

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¨He is a viveur, a danseur and in his spare time he is a racing driver¨ this is how Enzo Ferrari defined Clay Regazzoni – the Swiss racing driver who was Lauda’s teammate at Ferrari – and in a way a definition like this would fit the profile of most of the Formula 1 racing drivers in the Seventies, the time where Rush is set and with most of its action taking place in 1976, the year of the Nurburgring, the year of the season long duel for the World Championship between James Hunt and Niki Lauda, with Lauda maybe being the only guy on the circuit who was a full time racing driver, so even if you know nothing about Formula 1 and the names I have mentioned it is easy to guess that the interest of Rush is depicting the conflicting personalities of his main characters: two opposing ways to conceive life and no matter if you like car races or not Howard will push you to take sides and he has done a subtle enough job to make it not an easy choice: Hunt the playboy will reveal himself a much more decent guy than you would expect while Lauda the computer-man  will reveal himself an emotional and audacious competitor. Nonetheless as it is always the case with films dealing with real life characters – especially larger than life public figures like these – our reaction to the way they are portrayed on the cinema screen will depend on our degree of knowledge/ignorance of these real life stories.

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I have enjoyed watching Rush but I still don’t know why I have liked it, I know these stories by heart, I know who Harvey Postlethwaite was, I know that the unidentified guy named Luca has to be Ferrari’s team manager at the time and Ferrari’s actual Chairman Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, Scheckter’s six-wheels Tyrrell almost made me cry: how much have I liked the film and how much have I liked the reawakening of so many childhood memories? Rush’s main virtue is the careful reconstruction of the period, the cars, the places, the looks everything feels real, alas the actors aren’t up to the task: James Hunt was much more macho and beautiful than Chris Hemsworth, while Lauda had a fascinating personality and character that cannot be replaced by the abuse of prosthetics – quite ironic considering that the real Lauda has always refused them wearing proudly his scarred face – we witness here. In real life Hunt wasn’t the fastest racing driver around – that was Ronnie Peterson – and Niki Lauda is a legend, after remaining trapped for more than a minute in his burning Ferrari on August 1, one month later ignoring the advise of the doctors he returned to the races in Monza: this is the stuff of legend, Lauda has been one of the last Nuvolari. Another bad choice is to show a guy playing Enzo Ferrari, when a director decides to bring on the screen such legendary characters he is working to ruin his own film. But I guess I am being unfair here, Rush is a well executed film by a director who clearly loves the subject, there is passion in Rush, it is not a masterpiece, it is not a faithful account of what happened in Formula 1 in 1976, but it is an engaging and dynamic interpretation of it and a film that easily overtakes his own shortcomings, James Hunt style I’d say.

Her by Spike Jonze

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Who is Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix)? Just one more guy facing a mid-life crisis? When we meet him in Her Thedore is divorcing Catherine (Rooney Mara) and works an emotionally disturbing job, I’d say this is the basic storyline but then of course the reason why there is so much talk about Her is its technological, Sci-Fi elements with Theodore living in an unspecified dystopian future that will lead him to fall in love with an OS. Who is Her? Her is a presence in Theodore’s life and Theodore ignores how to deal with this presence: Theodore’s emotional and sentimental life constitutes the heart of this film, Thedore’s (soon to be former) wife Catherine is Her, his great friend Amy (Amy Adams) is Her and of course Samantha – the voice of his OS (Scarlett Johansson) – is Her. The opening scene is quite significant, at first we don’t understand what is going on, we see a guy in his forties writing a letter to his wife and he is talking about the fifty years they have spent together, then a slow camera movement will reveal he is a worker at ¨Beautifuhandwrittenletters.com¨ so what do we have here? a guy unable to manage properly his own emotions who is helping other people to manage theirs: are emotions fake and are we always unable to deal with them?

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The main problem with Her is that it is a film much more interesting when you write about it then when you watch it, Jonze scratches the surface of a lot of interesting themes here but never reaches their core: we have a beautifully designed dystopia, the dresses and the furniture are so carefully conceived and cars are practically absent from the film but this new world has no substance, only appearance, it plays no role in the development of the story nor in our understanding of it and in a way this could be the skin-deep meaning of Her: no matter how technology changes the way we live some basic human situations will never change. The closing scene (above) echoes Woody Allen’s Manhattan, confirming that we are on the right track trying to read Her as a meditation on the state of sentimental relationships, but Theodore is no Isaac or Alvy Singer, so why should we care about this anonymous character? Her presents a few funny moments but I ignore if and how Jonze intended them to be funny, the first lovemaking between Theodore and Samantha echoes the early scene with Theodore and SexyKitten, if Her was a satire this would have been a memorable scene; then we have the choice of Scarlett Johansson’s voice which is inherently funny: I mean this is one of the hottest females on planet Earth, we know her voice so it’s impossible not to think of her as a human body even if she plays an OS – on this regard the most hilarious scene is the one where the OS wants to use a surrogate body to make love to Theodore, it doesn’t end well but how could? He is dating Scarlett Johansson’s voice, who wouldn’t be disappointed when she shows up in Portia Doubleday’s body? In a way this scene summarizes the film: what you hear is not what you get and posing yourself as a philosopher will not make you one, amassing multiple layers of superficiality will not make your film interesting, maybe Jonze thought the core was the rind.

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