Tag Archives: Drama

Dheepan (2016)

Dheepan is a realistic portrayal of the refugee immigrant experience undermined by a third act tonal shift towards the melodramatic. The film opens on wartorn Sri Lanka, where bodies are being cremated en masse as families are broken and the individuals remaining struggle to survive. A woman searches the camp for a girl without a mother and we soon find out why as she takes a girl to a tent with a soldier and another man. The three civilians are going to adopt the names of a recently deceased family. Forget their previous lives, the man, woman, and child are now Dheepan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan),  Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), and Illyaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) and will be migrating to France with their newfound passports. When they arrive, they are placed into housing and attempt to start a new, better life.

Jacques Audiarad (A Prophet) is known for directing films with uncompromising detail. He continues that trend here as he probes the personal struggles of those escaping a conflict and assimilating into a new culture. The main characters are not just escaping their homeland, they are strangers posing as a family using passports of the deceased, inventing fake backstories along the way. They are desperate and not necessarily virtuous. Audiard does not spare any of the characters from his gaze. Dheepan and Yalini turn blind eyes to the activities in their neighborhood to ensure their safety and Illayaal reacts violently when rejected by other schoolchildren. The director isn’t interested in a clean tale of redemption or upwards mobility, he wants to portray the grim sacrifices made to survive in a foreign land.

The characters grow closer as they struggle together.

This continues until the latter portion of the film clashes with the initial intent. As tension increases between rival factions within their apartment complex, Dheepan makes a sudden, bold move. Without revealing too much, this action is supported by his past but, in light of the earlier tone of the film, is a drastic and unnecessary change. In a Hollywood production, this type of ending would be typical if not welcome, but here it breaks the established immersion. Audiard’s goal with this decision was probably to show how the experience of living through a conflict remains long after the danger has passed, as evidenced by brief foreshadowing flashbacks, but the bravado it is presented with almost glamorizes the violence that takes place.

It’s a shame that the strong setup is wasted by the action set pieces because the progression of the characters provided a compelling story. We were able to watch as they scrapped their way to a better life, moving from a barren apartment to a furnished home, from individuals using each other for personal benefit to a family unit, and from strangers in an alien world to a gradual incorporation into their new milieu. Instead of steadily gaining speed with the naturally escalating tension, Audiard’s examination of the complexities of immigration is gravely injured by his changing interests and only hobbles to the finish line.

3/5 stars.

Maggie’s Plan (2016)

Filled with professional intellectuals and set in New York City, Maggie’s Plan initially comes off as a misplaced Woody Allen comedy but soon reveals itself to be a much kinder film than most of Allen’s body of work. Maggie (Greta Gerwig; Frances Ha) is a university faculty member intent on having a child, regardless of her current relationship status, until she enters an unexpected relationship with anthropology professor John (Ethan Hawke; Before Midnight). Unfortunately, John is married to Georgette (Julianne Moore; Still Alice), a needy and career focused fellow professor at a different school. As a result of their affair, John divorces Georgette and marries Maggie which leads to the child Maggie had been hoping for. After a few years of marriage, it becomes clear that Maggie and John are no longer working out, but instead of leaving like a sane person would do she creates the titular plan. Maggie notices that he still spends hours talking to his ex-wife and realizes that Georgette was indeed right for him. Together the two women create a scenario for Georgette and John to meet and hopefully rekindle their feelings for one another.

In a film with otherwise solid acting, Moore delivers one of the most hamstrung performances of her career. She has proven herself consistently reliable in a wide range of roles from an adult film star in Boogie Nights to a professor in Still Alice, but here she crashes and burns underneath a repulsive accent. Where is she supposed to be from…England? France? Germany? Is it just a speech impediment? Depending on the specific scene it could be any of those choices. Director Rebecca Miller (The Private Lives of Pippa Lee) was likely aiming to make Georgette appear more sophisticated but the gimmick is entirely unnecessary. Moore’s acting alone would have been convincing enough, but saddled with an accent that would make Tommy Wiseau jealous, her delivery detracts from an otherwise well-written character.

I have absolutely no idea where Georgette is supposed to be from.
I have absolutely no idea what accent Georgette is supposed to have.

Conversely, the character of Maggie is always enchanting. Her attempts at almost Machiavellian manipulation are softened by Gerwig’s performance as she imbues Maggie with a well-intentioned naivete. Maggie is not scheming to absolve herself of latent guilt about entering a relationship with a married man, but rather she’s genuinely trying to create what she perceives as the best outcome for him. Even as things go awry, she never blames anyone, never holds grudges, and instead compensates by taking charge of other people’s responsibilities. As she sacrifices her own desires to help others, it becomes clear that Maggie’s problem isn’t that she is too controlling, it’s that she cares too much about others.

Her empathy, even at her own expense, carries the film. The other characters are each selfish in their own way, but Maggie never has any personal goals beyond a strong relationship with her daughter and every scene with her toddler further exemplifies her affection for those around her. Just as a mother restructures her life for the betterment her child, Maggie adapts herself to take care of her loved ones. She doesn’t always have the most logical methods, but her heart is in the right place as she suffuses the film with her blissfully unaware charm.

4/5 stars.

Fireworks Wednesday (2016)

In 2011, Iranian director Asghar Farhadi won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film with A Separation. Despite being his 5th feature film, it was his first to play in the United States. Since then, distributors have been releasing his back catalog starting with About Elly last year and now Fireworks Wednesday, originally released in 2006. As with his previous films, this is a domestic drama. A young woman, Roohi (Taraneh Alidoosti; About Elly), working as a maid through a temp agency goes to the apartment of a couple about to leave for vacation. Their home is a mess with broken glass from an argument the previous night. During the course of the day, Roohi becomes increasingly entangled in the potential infidelity that led to the fight and plays a vital role in alternatingly fanning and dousing the flames.

Fireworks Wednesday uses minute details to drive its tension. Farhadi’s other films also rely on this technique, but it is noticeably less effective here. The film has a much slower start because, unlike the movies that would follow, the main character is not central to the conflict – she is an outsider. The source of the central conflict is not revealed soon enough making the beginning of the film largely irrelevant as it only serves to introduce Roohi to the scenario. This breaks the sympathy found in Farhadi’s later works. Roohi does not need to be involved in the situation so the drama seems forced and avoidable. Her actions seem like the work of a well-intentioned busybody rather than the tragic, but understandable mistakes of the heartbreakingly human characters we have come to expect from the director.

Roohi becomes embedded in this couple’s troubles.

The film lacks the mystery needed to entice the viewer. Roohi’s actions are all shown on screen so instead of the startling revelations of Farhadi’s newest releases, the limited suspense can only be derived from waiting to see how other characters respond which is rarely a surprise. Furthermore, the key details that lead to conflicts are more blatantly telegraphed. Fireworks Wednesday was only the 3rd film from Farhadi so it is likely that he was still honing his craft here. It is also the last film of his to have a co-writer, which may have contributed to the lack of subtlety in the script.

The performances, however, are consistently strong. Even when the story approaches melodrama, the actors are always believable in their desperation. Characters can swing from innocent to guilty and back again without jarring shifts in tone. The young son of the couple is particularly effective during his brief screen time. Farhadi has had a trend of using children as the voice of reason during chaos. While the adults bend facts and focus on the drama from their perspective, the boy clearly articulates the situation in a sweet and tearful explanation to his confused uncle. The director’s strengths with actors are evident even early in his career.

It’s almost unfair to compare this film, or any other for that matter, to the high bar set by Farhadi’s last three projects. Most movies released would come up short because there are few filmmakers working today that can match his intricate plots and subtly escalating tension. Fireworks Wednesday does not have the precision of its successors, but it is a promising rough draft of the template Farhadi would later perfect.

3/5 stars.

Eye in the Sky (2016)

What is the cost of fighting terrorism? That is the broader question looming over Eye in the Sky. Directed by Gavid Hood (TsotsiEnder’s Game), the film narrows this problem down to the scale of one single drone strike in Kenya. After trailing these terrorists on the East Africa Most Wanted list for years, Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) leads a mission to selectively bomb the house they are meeting in. Unfortunately, there are strict rules of engagement in this situation and before any strike can be launched she needs the permission of General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman, Harry Potter) and several politicians who have conflicting viewpoints.

Drone strikes and questions of their legality and morality have been highlighted in the news recently and Eye in the Sky displays the complexities and minutiae that are inherent in military missions. A major theme of the film is responsibility and blame. Who really makes a decision that, while killing terrorists, could risk harming innocents? Is it the pilot who pulls the trigger? The Colonel that gives the order to fire? The general or several politicians that defined their rules of engagement? The film implies that responsibility is held at each point in the chain of command and the aftermath of these decisions is felt by everyone. One of the most interesting points brought up in the ongoing discussion is about the larger implications of casualties. If they kill one child to save 80 people from a potential suicide bomber, will the British government become reviled? Is vilifying the terrorists in the media worth allowing a bombing to occur? Again, the movie smartly avoids providing direct answers to these questions and is impressively balanced in portraying each opinion.

Every factor, political, moral, or legal is scrutinized.
Every factor, political, moral, or legal is scrutinized.

Furthermore, the film explores how political involvement in the military matters can undermine their efficacy. Beyond morality, each politician in the film considers the political impact of the bombing. How will this affect their career? Their party? In one case a ranking politician asks to a dissenting voice, “Will you be the one who has to go on morning news shows to explain this?”. The film shows how these considerations cripple the politicians with indecision as they continually “refer up” to avoid culpability, despite the time-sensitive nature of the operation. When they begin to rely on predictive damage models to make their decisions, the question of reliability of data is also raised. How much of these models are based on fact and can they change if a ranking military official wants them to? The films shows the desperation that can be created by indecision at a critical moment.

Eye in the Sky is primarily a film about these ideas but it does however have brief action scenes in Africa. Barkhad Abdi of Captain Phillips (He is not the Captain now) plays their man on the ground. Hood deftly uses these scenes to contrast the political risks with the dangers agents in that position take trying to fight terrorism everyday. For the the most part they are well staged. The only flaw is many of the effects are obviously computer generated and can break the otherwise successful immersion.

When decisions are finally made, the film avoids simple resolution. The actions taken – and the actions not taken – play out and the consequences are felt by all. Did someone “win” the arguments? Was the mission successful? What does “success” even mean in the this scenario? As the credits roll, these are the questions that linger over the characters and the audience. Eye in the Sky, succeeds by raising these questions and enforcing the uncertainty of any possible answer.

4/5 stars.

Son of Saul (2015)

Directed by first timer László Nemes, Son of Saul focuses on a subgroup of prisoners called Sonderkommando who were forced to help Nazis in their usage of gas chambers during WWII. Saul (Géza Röhrig) is one of these prisoners and during the first third of the film he performs his duties, including moving corpses and cleaning bloody gas chambers, without disdain or disgust. The single expression he shows is one of pragmatism, not horror. This continues until his priorities shift after he finds a certain body. Saul discovers his illegitimate son’s body and does everything he can to hide it from cremation so he can provide a proper burial.

The film focuses almost entirely on Saul. The camera closely follows him and there are very few cuts, similar to the shooting style of Birdman. Furthermore, Nemes chose to use the Academy ratio (not widescreen). Typically, using this technique in the modern era implies unnecessary nostalgia on the part of the filmmaker as was the case with The Artist, but here it is effective. Nemes uses the smaller area to create a strong sense of location. At any moment it feels like there is something chaotic occurring just off-screen, but we can’t tell because our focus is on Saul – literally. The backgrounds, particularly the most explicit ones, remain blurred and out of focus. These techniques successfully create a world beyond the frame of the film and show the banalization of tragedy. Dead bodies aren’t in focus because they’re not special and how can they be with so many around?

Yet the formal strengths of the film are undermined by its narrative turns. As Saul becomes increasingly desperate and endangers others to ensure the proper burial of his son, he becomes almost hypocritical. He takes risks that could potentially harm the escape plans his peers have worked so hard to execute just to save someone that has already been lost. And after sending hundreds of bodies to the incinerator, what makes his son’s body special? There is the famous quote by Joseph Stalin that “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.” but here Saul’s actions only appear selfish, not tragic, and any small payoff that could have been produced is crippled by a cheap, cop-out of a conclusion.

Son of Saul recently picked up the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Despite the Academy being averse to gruesome subjects, they have consistently shown they love movies about the Holocaust. Why? Maybe because it’s morally unambiguous. Maybe because it’s a time when the US was completely in the right and played the hero. Or maybe it’s just that people are too afraid of backlash to criticize a film based on the Holocaust, fearing that others will think they are belittling one of the greatest tragedies in history. It’s important to note that the film and its subject, no matter how important or sensitive, are separate from each other and criticizing one does not equal criticizing the other. Son of Saul is another example of a historical drama overrated by critics, likely due to its subject matter.

3/5 stars.

Knight of Cups (2016)

“My life is like a Call of Duty campaign on easy. I just go around and fuck shit up.” Yes. That’s a real quote.

Terrence Malick’s newest film continues the downward trend started by 2012’s To The Wonder. The film follows Christian Bale playing a character that may or may not have been given a name. In fact, I can’t name a single character in the movie despite having just seen it as none are memorable or remotely developed. Bale appears to be a successful Hollywood screenwriter that gets sucked into the excesses of Tinseltown while dealing with some inner turmoil. What exactly is that turmoil? It seems to have to do with the loss of a younger brother and conflict with an authoritative father. If that sounds familiar, it is. This was the main thrust behind the significantly superior The Tree of Life (one of my favorite films) and there are glimpses, however brief, of the emotional intimacy found in that work. Unfortunately, these instances are too few and infrequent to carry the film.

Knight of Cups does break into new territory with its subject matter though. Malick’s films are always told using a childlike sense of wonder and imagination with many of the main characters being children. This style continues but is now applied to adult emotions, namely lust and hedonism, as well as seedier environments. Bale’s character moves through strip clubs, exorbitantly wealthy parties, and numerous partners in his descent and while this provides an intriguing contrast, it is never fully utilized. Any potential is squandered through the meandering of the narrative.

“See the palm trees? They tell you anything’s possible.” Also a real quote.

At its worst, Knight of Cups plays almost like self-parody. Every Malick trope is here. Vaguely spiritual whispered voice-overs? Scenes of frolicking on a beach? Majority of the film takes place at dusk with the sun behind the character’s head? Check, check, and check. All of these aspects have been successful at times in his previous movies, but the difference here is that there is no cohesion between the scenes. These films are becoming increasingly like grab bags of thoughts taken randomly from Terry’s bedside notebook and spoken by talented actors over beautiful imagery. Unfortunately, the stunning visuals and vague hints at depth are no longer enough to carry a film this unfocused. There are only so many scenes of a character reaching out of the window of a moving car to do hand jives while a pastor philosophizes that an audience can take.

2/5 stars.