Blue Is The Warmest Color is a film comprised almost entirely of faces. The faces of children, teenagers, young adults and parents. But one face in particular steals the whole show. That is Adèle’s, the movie’s heartbreaking central character. Everything is written in the tremulous shadows and puddled tears of her face as she journeys from confusion to ecstasy to agony during the movie’s three hours. She is young when we meet her and young when we say goodbye–even though a few years have passed–but she is still trapped in the limbo of a first love that was never allowed to fade, or die, or simply wither due to inattention. The movie’s French title, translated as The Life of Adele: Chapters 1 & 2, suggests there is more to come in her story. Happiness, perhaps, or at least the relief that arrives after finally moving on. But for now we are left with an image of the emotionally fragile Adele walking away from the camera, alone and unsure of how she will continue to cope.
In the monumental 12 Years A Slave, the face of actor Chiwetel Ejiofor is itself a monument, etched with agony, anger, and sorrow, carved by rivers of sweat, tears and blood. It is a gravestone of hope and a testament to gnawing despair. It’s a cauldron of buried intelligence, roiling compassion, and seething rage. It’s a face that doesn’t tell a thousand stories, it tells only one: an unimaginable account of harrowing injustice and unspeakable violence. That face is the centerpiece of director Steve McQueen’s artfully precise and unwavering approach to a tragic, personal narrative, one that not only chronicles the true plight of Solomon Northup, a free man shanghaied into slavery, but also depicts the macabre and feverish insanity of the antebellum South.
The monochrome lives of heartland dreamers are etched into the black-and-white landscape of Alexander Payne’s new film, Nebraska. Offering bleak tableaus of Americans living among the clutter of ancient regrets and hopeful fantasies, the picture is anything but grim, thanks to Payne’s generous regard for both the comic and the poignant potential of his characters. The movie ambles stoically forward on the shoulders of longtime veteran character actor Bruce Dern who, as Woody, the determined winner of a phony one million dollar sweepstakes, delivers a once-in-a-lifetime performance.
French director Claire Denis continues her puzzling descent into incomprehensible cinema with her latest film, Bastards. With an approach that could be called aggressively elliptical, Denis plunges into an incestuous family drama that is repellent and tedious, yet constructed with enough of the director’s elusive artistry to keep one expectant and tantalized. However, in the case of this thoroughly frustrating exercise, her non-linear technique of jagged time jumps, disorienting close-ups and scissored mise en scéne comes off as pretentious and clumsy. By the end of the film, you’re left wondering not only what it was all about by why you should even care.
Matt Dillon and Naomi Watts play a couple living on the margins of society in a Florida suburb in the new film Sunlight Jr., a rare, aching and accurate depiction of poverty in America. Raw and unsentimental, the movie illuminates lives that far too many of us these days can see ourselves living as we tiptoe from paycheck to paycheck, increasingly worried that we are only a health crisis or a lay-off away from the skids. As directed by Laurie Collyer (Sherrybaby), the world of Sunlight Jr. is one in which daily life is a grind riddled with disappointments, desperation and humiliation, briefly interrupted by the transient pleasures of sex, a drink or, in the case of Dillon and Watts, the dreams of starting a new life, with better education in their future and maybe even a new baby.
It’s remarkable that even today the enduring charisma and confidence of Muhammad Ali resonates with a power able to overcome even the most pedestrian of documentaries about his life. In conception and execution The Trials of Muhammed Ali is standard issue stuff. It doesn’t knock the champion down to the rapid fire, bite-sized montages we see in the PBS commissioned American Masters series, but it also doesn’t pack anything resembling the punchy, dramatic arc of the fine Oscar-winning When We Were Kings, a novelistic documentary account of the stirring “Rumble in the Jungle.”
A Hijacking is the Danish film industry’s answer to America’s Captain Phillips. Where that movie deals in visceral thrills, edited at a jackhammer pace, A Hijacking explores the subtle tensions of psychological tug-of-war, preferring a calm, almost contemplative approach. Both films deal with the abduction by Somali pirates of a large shipping vessel, and both track the ensuing hostage negotiations to their suspenseful conclusions. Captain Phillips presents clearly drawn lines between the good guys and bad guys. It rattles you with noise, firepower, and showy technique. But A Hijacking prefers a strategy of emotional complexity, forcing you to assess your own feelings about the principals involved in a very long, very torturous ordeal of gamesmanship and survival. Captain Phillips entertains with an all-you-can-eat action buffet. A Hijacking nibbles away at your nerves.