AFI Film Festival Score Card

All film enthusiasts dream about getting to attend a major film festival. I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve wondered what it’s like to be at Sundance or Cannes or TIFF, hopping from screening to screening, catching so many different types of films and being able to experience giant world premieres with no expectations. I had only attended one film festival before and it was the Boston Film Festival. A very small event, just a weekend long, showing mostly unknown independent fare with a few larger pictures squeezed in for good measure. It was hardly an event of note, but still an experience like what I had always dreamed of just on a diet level. It felt like a nice precursor to something of a Venice or Berlin level, a preface to an experience I would maybe be lucky enough to have sometime down the line. That festival was over two years ago now, and while I haven’t yet been to Toronto or France or Park City for any of the major film festivals, I did get to jump up to something far larger than the Boston Film Festival.

Last week saw the AFI Fest in Hollywood, the last major film festival of the year. This is where films hitting theaters in December that have already premiered come to get a nice push from filmgoers and where Oscar hopefuls that missed out on the circuit decide to make their debut. This year’s fest turned out to be an extravagant one with a lineup practically literally bursting with goodies that I was quickly trying to figure out what real-life commitments I could miss or postpone so that I could hit as many films as possible. This is how film festivals snatch you up, they make it impossible for you to forego anything they have on the roster and before long you’re spending hours upon hours in line trying to see between two and four films a day.

I won’t deny that the Reel Reactions team went a little crazy, but when you discover how the AFI Fest operates, the Institute isn’t trying to make seeing all of these films a daunting task. As the seven day fest trickled on, we started to get really good at navigating the cinephile crowd and organizing our schedules to the point where we, as a team, caught the majority of the festival. Just to lend some perspective, I saw eleven films in seven days. Three of them were world premieres, four were gala screenings, and the rest were high profile imports and conversations (we saw Michael Keaton & Edward Norton discuss acting and eleven-time Oscar nominee Roger Deakins talk cinematography). We found ourselves at the festival six out of the seven days and saw a movie in just about every theater of the TCL Chinese Theater, as well as the Egyptian Theater and the Dolby – where the Academy Awards are held each year. We saw famous faces like J.C. Chandor, Jessica Chastain, Mark Wahlberg, Paul Thomas Anderson, Timothy Spall, Oprah Winfrey, and Clint Eastwood, among many others and made a couple of friends while waiting in lines that were between thirty minutes and four hours long. Needless to say, it was an exhausting week, but ultimately a gratifying one as well; as you’ll see below, we got to see some really great films.

Here is the Reel Reactions AFI Fest Scorecard. Divvied up between myself and my RR co-critic, Zack Sharf, and former EP, Harrison Richlin, as well as a friend of the blog, AJ Schmidt, we’ve given our two cents about the eighteen films we collectively saw, listed in the order in which we were able to see them.

“A Most Violent Year” (Gala Screening + World Premiere)

Dir: J.C. Chandor

Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Albert Brooks

JC Chandor’s third directorial effort couldn’t be more of a toss up. The whole idea Chandor presents in his tale of capitalism, social Darwinism, and the all-encompassing greed is in direct contrast with the popular tropes set up in preceding crime dramas. Instead of the typical gangster anti-hero like Henry Hill or Tony Montana, we are given Abel Morales, a forceful, yet genuine immigrant who only wishes to do right in his chase for the American Dream. Instead of the building rage that erupts into a violent outburst, we are given a portrait of a man caught between a rock and a hard place and asked to appreciate it for its subtleties and details. Instead of a year, the story only takes place over the course of thirty days! Everything is contradictory and that is part of its appeal. Oscar Isaac reminds us why he is one of the best actors working today, giving his most lived-in performance as Abel, perfectly externalizing the internal struggle of a good man surrounded by bad people. Chandor, channeling the great Sidney Lumet, directs with true confidence paired next to DP Bradford Young, whose amber hues give a sleek look to 1980s New York City, a time and place one would expect to be grittier and more chaotic.

Unfortunately, the supporting cast is given little to do, particularly Chastain, who takes on a Long-Island version of Lady Macbeth that is given barely any kind of character arc. The film’s biggest problem is its script, in that the story is spread too thin. There is so much going on in the background, between Abel’s trucks being jacked, Abel trying to buy a tank yard by the river, and Abel being indicted by the District Attorney, that it’s difficult to figure out what’s holding it all together. What begins as a tense and engaging character study turns into a tiring test of endurance with very little payoff. (6/10) – H.R.

“Black Coal, Thin Ice” (Golden Bear Winner – Berlin International Film Festival)

Dir: Yi’nan Diao

Starring: Fan Liao, Lun Mei Gwei

The third film from Yi’nan Diao walks a tonal tightrope that yields fascinating, if baffling, results. An entrancing exercise in style, Diao adopts much of “Black Coal, Thin Ice’s” operational feels and aesthetics from classic Hollywood noir but bakes it with his own charismatic humor providing a hyperactive blend of cinema that is wholly original. Cast in an arrangement of barricading spaces – tight rooms, underpasses, cable cars – and either caked in snow or neon light, there is a surrealist quality that engulfs Diao’s mystifying piece of work (the title of which is directly translated into “Daylight Fireworks,” a much more dream-like name), but for as involving as it becomes, there’s a impenetrable casing that withholds the full plotting from coming into focus. How things migrate from A to B to a confounding C to an even more bizarre D is connected through more dotted lines than complete strands, but Diao’s unique take on a golden genre is enough to excuse most of the screenplay’s confusion.

“Black Coal, Thin Ice” might owe more than a little to Joel & Ethan Coen in terms of setting a neo-noir in a frosty small town and sprinkling a sense of humor throughout the grime and grit, but what makes Diao’s film so strikingly unique is how it appropriates that “Fargo” feeling into a tiny Chinese province. This feels like an area of a famously cinematic country that has yet to be explored and in Diao’s confident hands, it’s given a perfectly bleak lens. This matched with Diao’s hyperbolized hilarity transforms “Black Coal, Thin Ice” into an engrossing absurdist neo-noir that might fumble with undisciplined storytelling, but still turns reference and risk into a piece of work unlike anything else. (7/10) – M.M.

“Leviathan” (Best Screenplay Winner – Cannes Film Festival)

Dir: Andrey Zvyagintsev

Starring: Elena Lyadova, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Aleksey Serebryakov

Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s bleak drama and occasional black comedy focuses on a family in a remote fishing town trapped by economic and social situations beyond their control. At a staggering 140 minutes, this weighty drama puts its central characters through an emotional ringer as they fight to keep their land from being purchased and destroyed by a madcap politician. Both a searing family drama and a startling look at middle class Russia, “Leviathan” touches on a handful of themes and characters without every committing to the idea that one angle is most important. The result is a sprawling, lifelike epic that only tightens its grip on the viewer with each passing minute. The more you absorb the characters’ predicaments, the more their existential downfalls prove inevitable, making the drama film a heavy meditation on family, faith, and friends in the destructive path of social decline. Punctuated by alluring visuals and an ominously operatic score by Philip Glass, “Leviathan” is a masterpiece that walks the fine line between morality tale and societal fable. (9/10) – Z.S.

“The Tribe” (Critics Week Grand Prize: Slaboshpitsky – Cannes Film Festival)

Dir: Miroslav Slaboshpitsky

Starring: Grigoriy Fesenko, Yana Novikova

When I picked up Zack Sharf at the airport upon his return from the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, all he could speak of, out of the many films he saw, was a small Ukrainian piece called “The Tribe”. As soon as I heard it was coming to AFI, I knew I couldn’t miss it and I’m glad I didn’t. The film, told in complete Ukrainian sign language without the assistance of subtitles or voiceover, is an entirely intuitive experience unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. It tells the coming-of-age story of Sergey, a deaf teenager who enrolls in a boarding school teeming with petty crime, prostitution, and violence. First time filmmaker, Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, who was present at the screening I went to, his first time in America, is utterly confident in his direction – blocking out scenes in long, single takes, basically only cutting to express a transition in time. “The Tribe’s” two leads, Grigory Fesenko and Yana Novikova, both deaf in real life, are utterly fearless in their performances, physically bearing all of themselves for the film. By making the lack of sound part of the diegetic world, in that everyone is deaf and therefore only speaks in sign language, it almost plays out like a classic silent film, the actors using their entire bodies to show what is going on. However, it is far from dated, and instead feels fresh and unique, so that even though it is consistently brutal and, at times, horrifying, there was not a moment I could take my eyes off the screen, for I might risk missing part of the story. (10/10) – H.R. 

“August Winds”

Dir: Gabriel Mascaro

Starring: Dandara de Morais, Geová Manoel Dos Santos

Writer-director-cinematographer Gabriel Mascaro has made a name for himself as a Brazilian documentary filmmaker, and he takes the keen objective eye of a great documentarian and applies it whole-heartedly in his feature film debut “August Winds.” Not unlike the coastal breeze of the film’s setting, “Winds” proves refreshing for most of its runtime before its increasingly ambiguous themes (that range from life and death to memory and the sea) grow tiresome and chilly. The film works best when it’s quietly following islander Shirley, a tractor driver who spends her days collecting coconuts, caring for her grandmother and listening to rock music on her tiny boat while her boyfriend scuba dives for octopus. Without any musical cues, a large portion of these observational scenes come off as non-fiction, and it allows the film to feel especially in tune with its subject matter. But when Shirley’s boyfriend makes an unpleasant discovery during one particular dive, the film takes on more themes that it can handle. As an astute study of the social and economic pulses of a part of the world most domestic American viewers don’t know exists, the film paints a vital portrait, but as a meditation on death it doesn’t have anything interestingly new to say. (6/10) – Z.S.

“Two Days, One Night” (Palme d’Or Nominee – Cannes Film Festival)

Dir: Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardennes

Starring: Marion Cotillard

With “Two Days, One Night,” the award-winning Dardenne brothers have crafted a topical, powerhouse morality play built entirely on the existentialism behind modern economic decline. Belgium’s official submission for this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, “Two Days” stars a stripped and unnervingly delicate Marion Cotillard as Sandra, a depressed mother who spends a weekend trying to get her co-workers to reject a pay raise so that she may keep her factory job. The plot here is audaciously simple in many ways, but the fact that Sandra’s entire existence rides on the results of these conversations makes each one have the weight and anxiety of a dramatic thriller. The tension is only heightened by the Dardenne’s well-executed single shots, which force the actors into their lived-in roles and give a breathless sense of immediacy to the proceedings. Weather or not Oscar-winner Cotillard finds herself back in the awards run based on her work here can’t overshadow the quiet devastation and burgeoning resiliency of her masterful performance. Cotillard is a knockout. (9/10) – Z.S.  

“Inherent Vice” (Gala Screening + Los Angeles Premiere)

Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Jena Malone, Maya Rudolph, Benicio Del Toro, Martin Short, Eric Roberts, Michael K. Williams

An expansive cast strewn about sunny Southern California, set within a haze of reefer smoke and arranged throughout a complex narrative tinged with moments of slapstick, serious drama, layered mystery, and sudden violence comprise some of the surface and aesthetic elements of director Paul Thomas Anderson’s two-and-a-half hour homage to Robert Altman and adaptation of the Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name. As sprawling as the landscapes of which our central figure, Doc Sportello (a perpetually stoned Joaquin Phoenix), traverses, Anderson adapts Pynchon’s prose beat for beat but drenches it in crackling style, complete with speckled cinematography courtesy of Robert Elswitt and a riffing score by Jonny Greenwood that signifies a departure from his stirring work on Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood” and “The Master.” Many of the normal Anderson-isms are scattered throughout, but like the directors incredible “Boogie Nights” which was modeled mostly after the energetic work or Martin Scorsese, “Inherent Vice” is a comic noir in the vein of Altman’s “The Long Goodbye,” or like if the late independent filmmaker had directed such diverse classics as “The Big Sleep,” “The Naked Gun,” or “The Big Lebowski.” It’s experiential, intentionally upending convention and deliberately avoiding sensible narrative conveyance or a tidy conclusion.

Fans of Anderson will most likely be prepared since Anderson’s most blistering and challenging works tend to avoid conventional adherence and as a follow-up to his divisive “The Master,” “Inherent Vice” proves Anderson isn’t going to go mainstream anytime soon (“Vice” is less cerebral than “The Master,” but just as enigmatic). The flailing narrative is intentional, so those seeking concrete answers will find their heads spinning, but Anderson’s direction never falters and he injects severe, rip-roaring comedy throughout which is an attribute of the director’s work that hasn’t been on display since “Punch-Drunk Love.” There is surely a lot to mine out of “Vice” and I look forward to deconstructing it on future viewings, but on the surface there are still a ton of obvious merits, notably Josh Brolin in an atypical comic performance and breakout beauty Katherine Waterston who is extraordinary. Waterston flanked Anderson at our gala screening when the director, drunk off champagne, introduced the film enthusiastically to a crowd who received it warmly. It will surely be a hard sell, but those who seek out the film appropriately and adore the auteur’s voice will hardly be disappointed. (8/10) – M.M.

“’71” (Nominated for 9 British Independent Film Awards)

Dir: Yann Demange

Starring: Jack O’Connell, Sean Harris

Though it was my first time at a film festival as big as AFI, it quickly became clear how slow-burning and contemplative most of the films being presented were. It was tiring, to a degree, to have to go through so many complex and challenging, albeit wonderful, pieces where the audience was forced to engage with what was on screen instead of the other way around. I was thankful to be given a reprieve from this when I went to see “’71,” a well-constructed, edge-of-your-seat thriller from first-time director Yann Demange that follows a lone soldier as he tries to escape IRA-occupied Belfast, Ireland. We are guided through each heart-pounding moment of the story by Gary Hook, a British Soldier brought to life by Jack O’Connell, star of “Skins” and the highly anticipated biopic, “Unbroken.” Though O’Connell is a tremendous talent whose fear and pain are felt throughout as the plot progresses, it is really Demange’s direction that shines brightest. In this tightly packed 99 minutes, we are given a story of life and death, of two countries torn apart by a rebel cause, and of an internal battle for purpose and reason in a world devoid of any. Demange’s jarring, hand-held tracking shots through the streets of Belfast propel us from scene-to-scene and are reminiscent of the kind of work director Paul Greengrass has become famous for. Each beat of the script elevates the tension to new heights, all leading to a climax that will leave you breathless for about ten minutes. As dark and violent as the story gets, at the core, it’s about a man’s journey out of war, of understanding how meaningless blood and destruction can be. (8/10) – H.R.

“Mr. Turner” (Best Actor: Timothy Spall – Cannes Film Festival)

Dir: Mike Leigh

Starring: Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Martin Savage, Richard Bremmer, Lesley Manville, Ruth Sheen

Mike Leigh is one of those directors who can do no wrong by me. His idea of crafting a story is the complete process, where in which he doesn’t simply work off a script, but off characters and situations and then helps to shape the details around them. His biopics, in particular, are atypical, not following the usual rise/fall/rise structure in most true life stories, but instead takes moments that reflect who the focus was at their deepest levels and strings them together to form a comprehensive study. With “Mr. Turner,” Leigh paints upon his largest canvas to date, detailing an intimate 25 years in the life of famed British landscape artist J.M.W. Turner. Timothy Spall, who won the Best Actor prize at Cannes Film Festival for his multifaceted portrayal of the curmudgeon Turner, disappears into the role, able to convey more about the man with a forceful grunt than an entire monologue. Dick Pope, Leigh’s longtime collaborator, frames each shot with the same nuanced disarray that Turner became famous for when he passed, but was made a pariah for when he was alive. The supporting cast, particularly Dorothy Atkinson and Marion Bailey, both lovers of Turner, are astonishing and give depth to an already exceptionally layered artist. The film, like the life of the man, is chaotic, jumping from days spent painting by his loving father’s side to being tied to a ship’s mast during a snow storm so he could best capture the elements, each moment connected without transition because life is not only about the big events, but also the quiet times that change our entire being. (9/10) – H.R.

“Eden”

Dir: Mia Hansen-Love

Starring: Félix de Givry, Pauline Etienne, Vincent Macaigne, Greta Gerwig

French filmmaker Mia Hansen-Love tackles an expansive narrative covering the garage music scene as experienced by her brother, co-writer Sven Hansen-Love, over a period of twenty-five years. Seen through the eyes of a naïve though admirably uncompromising young musician, the comprehensive film portrays the fruits and pitfalls of the potentially lucrative, but brutally selective, profession. Soon drugs and women dispel passion and the drive toward success in this broad cautionary tale.

Commendable in its scope, if not its inspired but desultory forays (for instance, Greta Gerwig submits a typically halting and gauche cameo as a fling), the passion extended by filmmakers who witnessed and/or partook in it is explicit. Félix de Givry as the ambitious and reckless hero gives a convincing performance about aging, yet not maturing into a man. The movie is admirable and fitful much in the same way. It effectively encapsulates the garage scene, but doesn’t offer much of an arc other than in witnessing the A-to-B rise and fall of a movement. Unfortunately, in failing to enhance the various sporadic subplots, a potentially great movie shimmers a little only to suffocate similarly in the way the era it so vividly illuminates did. (5/10) – A.S.

“Clouds of Sils Maria” (Palme d’Or Nominee – Cannes Film Festival)

Dir: Olivier Assayas

Starring: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloe Grace Moretz

French auteur Olivier Assayas finds himself deep in the Swiss Alps and the female psyche with his serpentine and sublimely aware dramedy. A dauntless Juliette Binoche plays middle-aged actress Maria Enders who, at the height of her international notoriety (not to be confused with acclaim of the aesthetic sort here), takes on the less glamorous part in a play opposite the one that made her famous twenty years prior. Weathering the ups and downs of her boss’ doubts amid playing the suitably elder role is her young assistant, a rock solid Kristen Stewart. What follows is an exploration of the loneliness found in stardom and the ambiguity of role playing, on and off the stage, where popularity and desolation are taken to task effectively in equal measure.

Assayas’ film wallows in duality and could, with some justification, be labelled esoteric if not for the dexterity both leads bring to characters worthy of empathy. Binoche, with her resplendent insecurities, and Stewart, efficient in her understanding and shrewdness, push the material beyond the opaque foundation it straddles. Not coincidentally, the influence of Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona” looms large when the women disappear into the mountains and equivocation becomes a way of life. The outside world is never far away, however, as Assayas has a bone to pick with ostensible celebrity in the internet age. His film ends up being perfect fodder for his specious gripes. It’s a prevaricating amalgam that stands firmly with arms wide open, if only to reveal the yielding hand of the superficial status quo and the absurdity of champagne problems. (8.5/10) – A.S.

“The Gambler” (Gala Screening + World Premiere)

Dir: Rupert Wyatt

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Brie Larson, Michael K. Williams, Jessica Lange, John Goodman

Gambling is one of the most intense sports around and there’s barely any physicality to it. It is a game of mental strength, trying to hold back the nerves and anxiety you are facing as each card comes barreling down on the table from the dealer’s hand. This is the idea presented in Rupert Wyatt’s remake of the 1974 James Toback film of the same name, that a man who has lost all mental strength and sense of anxiety is the best and worst kind of gambler, one who has no fear of losing. Mark Wahlberg, who portrays the aforementioned gambler, gives one of his better performances of the last few years, perhaps even his best since “The Departed”, but it is a role nonetheless stilted by an intellectualism Wahlberg, sadly, can’t pull off. Though there are only two scenes that feature Wahlberg as a literature professor ranting to a class full of students who clearly don’t give a crap about what he’s saying, they are two scenes too many and only serve to irritate the audience’s suspension of disbelief. He truly does shine in lower moments though, where he is on his own, troubled by his inner demons, caught under water by what seems like an endless cycle of depression and self-abuse. The scenes of him gambling, expertly crafted for maximum tension, are displays of that abuse, as the line between not caring about losing and wanting to be hurt is somewhat blurred. Doing the hurting is Michael K. Williams, who adds charm and zeal to what could have been a thankless role, elevating the character past just being a gangster, but a mediator as well. Unfortunately, the rest of the supporting cast is given a pretty raw deal, with Jessica Lange and John Goodman only showing up for two or three brilliant scenes and then disappearing as if they never existed. Brie Larson tries the hardest to pull a performance out of what she’s given, but the script gives her very little to do and very little payoff. I’m sure that, as a producer, Wahlberg wanted to put the focus on himself, but in doing so, took away from what could have been some really incredible supporting performances. (6/10) – H.R.

“The Fool (Durak)”

Dir: Yuri Bykov

Starring: Sergey Artsybashev, Pyotr Barancheev

The moral decay and political obliquity of contemporary Russia are put into unreserved context with writer-director Yuri Bykov’s night-in-the-life drama. The deliberately tense plot finds an earnest engineering student incurred with the dilemma of warning the tenants of a dilapidated high-rise’s inevitable and imminent collapse. He runs into an issue of ethics when his burg’s highest officials debate intensely, though leisurely, over the various implications of warning the supposedly expendable denizens.

Bykov permeates an efficient sense of urgency throughout his often scrupulous satirical drama, but therein lies a fundamental problem. “The Fool” takes itself much too seriously to have any of the satire and incredulity hit with the needed impact. A paradoxical interest presents itself when veracity meets expediency, as it does here. Time is intrinsically of the essence for the thriller-half of the plot, but its raison d’être is as a polemic of socio-political absurdities. There is a malleably potent film within Bykov’s amalgam, it’s just not as graceful in the shaky and languid structure presented here. (6/10) – A.S.

“Selma” (Originally a 30-minute presentation, last minute change to World Premiere)

Dir: Ava DuVernay

Starring: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson, Giovanni Ribisi, Oprah Winfrey, Tessa Thompson, André Holland, Stephen Root, Tim Roth, Lorraine Toussaint, Alessandro Nivola, Common, Dylan Baker

The best thing that ever happened to the historical drama, “Selma,” occurred well before the film’s production even began, and that was the replacement of director Lee Daniels in favor of Ava DuVernay. The switch irrefutably altered the outcome of the picture, voiding the campy, tasteless attributes that characterize Daniels’ work in favor of a moving, humanistic drama told with personal control, intimacy, and urgency by a young African American female who could very well be on her way to an Academy Award nomination. The film, which stars Englishman David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is of a rare biographical breed that looks to spotlight a particular incident to signify the whole, and present the personified epicenter of the drama as a well rounded individual, capable of both right and wrong. There is something undeniably special about this superb film in that it brings you closer to history without ever plastering its lesson up on the screen as if it were a chalkboard.

Ripe with a supporting cast that seems endless, the film belongs to a trio (arguably quartet) of key players that without even just one of them, the impact of the production would be instantly lessened. Of course, there is Oyelowo, who reincarnates Dr. King majestically, not only uncannily resembling the iconic civil rights leader but appearing with the familiar gusto that has enlivened the man’s legacy, while also providing shades that humanize him in ways that have honestly never been attempted before. Dr. King is not glorified here, and the dimensions offered by writer Paul Webb and portrayed by Oyelowo are masterclass – it’s very possible the actor has torn open this year’s competitive Best Actor race – and he is partnered wondrously by newcomer Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King. DuVernay, of course, is deserving of applause (over two minutes of standing ovation applause actually, as it happened at the AFI Fest world premiere) for her uncompromising look at the brutality of the incidents surrounding Selma and the presentation of the figures involved. But, also making a splash, is cinematographer Bradford Young whose naturally lit frames are stunning, as if delicately painted by hand. He gives “Selma” a glow of importance that only heightens the significance of the film, which amazingly draws parallels to the current times further evidencing the timelessness of the fight for civil rights. Worthy of comparison to both “Lincoln” and “Malcolm X,” DuVernay’s “Selma” is a rarely melodramatic, humbly assured, and sure-to-be widely recognized work that is all but guaranteed a fruitful legacy. (9/10) – M.M.

“American Sniper” (“Secret” Screening + World Premiere)

Dir: Clint Eastwood

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller

When people saw Clint Eastwood talking to a chair at the Republican Convention two years ago, they all laughed, amused by the cooky old man who was once the biggest bad-ass in the world. When people watched “Jersey Boys”, they scratched their heads, perplexed by the strangely stale and simple adaptation of one the most lively and energetic musicals ever made. When people watch “American Sniper”, they will frown, saddened by how far gone the talents of a once great filmmaker really are. Eastwood’s latest directorial effort tells the true life story of Navy SEAL, Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in American military history and whose struggle with PTSD becomes a center point of the film. This is not a distinctive perspective to take on war, the idea of the soldier who can’t adapt to life outside of battle, and is better addressed in past films like “The Hurt Locker” and “Jarhead”. What the story lacks is a sense of the emotional turmoil Kyle went through readjusting between fighting overseas and being home with his family. Instead, Kyle remains completely detached from the audience as we sit and watch the excessive battle sequences that take up at least 80% of the movie and that are so poorly constructed, one might assume all Eastwood does is sit in a chair and point at things. A sandstorm that takes place at the climax of the film looks so unrealistic that I imagine Eastwood’s CGI Team were working in Microsoft Paint.

However, there are some salvageable elements to the movie, like Bradley Cooper, whose transforming depiction of Kyle is incredibly authentic and continues to show the actor’s vast range. Cooper hones into the physicality of a Navy SEAL and portrays the big and small moments with subtly and realism. Sienna Miller also pops up in what could have been an intricate role as Kyle’s wife, but is criminally underused and given nothing to do in the latter half of the film. Though the movie is strung together haphazardly, throwing in parts of his childhood regarding his brother and never paying it off, it is still some of the better work Eastwood has done in the last few years, compared to “Jersey Boys” and “Hereafter.” (5/10) – H.R.

“Alleluia” (Best Picture, Director, Actor, & Actress – Austin Fantastic Fest)

Dir: Fabrice Du Welz

Starring: Lola Dueñas, Laurent Lucas

Out of France comes a deliciously sordid tale of modern love from writer and director Fabrice Du Welz. Unapologetic in its depiction of gross fetishism and uncompromising passion, the film finds two depraved lovers seducing an eclectic set of lonely women in order to swindle them out of their fortunes. The scheme takes a turn for the worse in each of their three conquests due to the pathetic Don Juan’s passions and the violent jealousies of his doting murderess.

Du Welz’ commentary on romance begins routinely enough until it takes a shockingly violent and refreshingly comedic turn, catapulting the viewer into gluttonous amusement. Leads Lola Dueñas and Laurent Lucas attack their roles with fearless voraciousness. This forces an inescapable sympathy on the audience, much in the way the couples do to their subsequent victims. Fortunately the stylish, tastefully executed, and thrillingly roguish genre mashup leaves no real victims in its wake as far as viewer appreciation is concerned. (7/10) – A.S.

“Goodnight Mommy”

Dir: Severin Fiala & Veronika Franz

Starring: Susanne Wuest, Elias Schwarz, Lukas Schwarz

“Goodnight Mommy,” a bloodcurdling and hair-raising horror feature from directors Fiala and Franz, is a perplexingly brutal piece of specialty cinema from the endless woods of Austria where the real life Schwarz twins try to figure out if their actress mother, who is recovering from heavy surgery, is actually an imposter. Navigated by misdirection, “Goodnight Mommy” is a perfect exercise in mounting dread, chilly atmospherics, and sustained tension that at times reflects moments from “Under the Skin” before arriving in a territory familiar to admirers of Haneke’s “Funny Games.”

There is a lot of fantastic work here, from the petrifyingly unusual frames that capitalize the first half to the shuttering harm that transpires later on, but much of it feels wasted when the twist amounts to nothing more than a tired trope. Maybe it stands out because it felt obvious from the first few minutes, but the film’s apparent intellect kept me hesitant, until it pans out exactly as I had originally guessed. The moral: Excellent execution of a tired trope doesn’t make the trope any less tired, and so much becomes undone because of the destination where “Goodnight Mommy” concludes. But, for those more inclined to experience the journey, it’s an unsettling import tended to with remarkable insight, but even favorable folks and genre fans will probably be unable to hide their slight disappointment by the time the credits roll. (7/10) – M.M.

“Still Alice” (Los Angeles Premiere)

Dir: Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland

Starring: Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish

Julianne Moore stands at the forefront of the Best Actress race due to her deteriorating performance in “Still Alice,” a tear-jerking drama about a middle-aged college professor who is diagnosed with an early onset of Alzheimer’s. Over an unpronounced period of time, Alice fights to hold onto her memories as her brain is wrung dry by the savage disease, having to be reminded about herself by her husband (Baldwin), her children (Stewart, Bosworth, Parrish) and scheduled memory tests that slowly get harder and harder to complete. Directors Glatzer and Westmoreland lend a coaxing hand to the proceedings with feathered shallow focuses and indeterminate time leaps that clue us into the haze that is slowly consuming Alice – and transitively us, forcing us to readjust between scenes – but “Still Alice” is elevated into a truly affecting experience because of its leading performances.

The acclaim for Moore here is limitless; starting with an extended static take of the actress participating in a diagnostic memory test to her gut-wrenching final moments, Moore evades showiness and melodramatics to make the tragedy that Alice can’t escape feel all the more vicious. Her mounting confusion and the emptiness in her eyes tell more about the state of her illness than any professional verdict, and she is given phenomenal support by Kristen Stewart (namely in the film’s last scene) and Alec Baldwin, who is at his most sensitive and fragile on-screen state ever. Instead of a decent film with a powerhouse performance, “Still Alice” is a quietly relentless film with delicate performances embedded with relatable heartbreak sure to open the tear ducts of several audiences when the film’s released this winter. (8/10) – M.M.

“Mommy” (Jury Prize: Xavier Dolan – Cannes Film Festival)

Dir: Xavier Dolan

Starring: Anne Dorval, Antoine-Olivier Pilon, Suzanne Clément

“Mommy”, the latest film from Quebecois director Xavier Dolan, was the final film I went to at AFI and definitely the most celebratory piece I saw at the festival. Dolan, who also wrote the script, crafts yet another wildly creative Oedipal tale of a disturbed son and a mother trying her best in the wake of tragedy. At times wild and full of humor, at other times deeply emotional and heartbreaking, there is always a consistent sense of hope that things will turn out okay for our three main characters, each going through a struggle of their own that eventually connects them all. By using a 1:1 aspect ratio, Dolan forms a sense of confinement throughout the movie, unable to escape the society that looks down upon these troubled and flawed human beings who have all fallen victim to circumstance. It also makes the story incredibly subjective, as we are rarely pulled away from the agony going on within each character, whether its Die’s struggle to gain control of her son, as well as her own life, or Kyla’s desire to speak without a stutter. As Die, Anne Dorval is a revelation. Overwhelmed by the amount of misfortune that has come her way, Die is always barely keeping her head above water and Dorval plays this so delicately and with such genuine feeling that we yearn for things to just work out for her. Antoine-Olivier Pilon gives an amazingly manic performance as troubled teenager Steve, who, though outwardly violent and out of control, is trying his best to be there for his mother. Suzanne Clément, as well, bravely portrays Kyla, also a mother, but who feels distanced from her own family and seeks refuge with Die and Steve. With an eclectic musical arrangement that allows for a brisk pace, tremendously candid performances, and passionately inventive direction, “Mommy” is not merely an exposé on hardship and dysfunction, but also an exploration of the unyielding power of love. (9/10) – H.R.

Foxcatcher (Closing Night Gala Screening)

Though none of us actually attended the AFI Fest screening of “Foxcatcher,” we all were able to catch it at various points either before or directly after the Fest (Bennett Miller’s film opened the day after it screened at AFI). For those who are curious, or who missed our review of the film last week, Miller’s newest is a masterpiece that features incredible technicality on all fronts, namely the breathless cinematography from Greig Fraser and the ferocious editing from a team that includes Jay Cassidy, Stuart Levy, and Conor O’Neill. In terms of Miller’s filmography – this being his third feature behind “Capote” and “Moneyball” – “Foxcatcher” feels like the culmination of everything that made those two Best Picture nominees so strong, but he goes even a step further in order to mine a deep American cynicism that adds layers to an already chilly and challenging film. His meticulous direction, impressively subtle and totally inward, plays with a deafening silence that manages to engulf the audience whole and foreshadow the tragedy that caps this true crime sports drama.

On a more obvious note, the triumvirate of lead performances from the most unlikely of actors – Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, and Mark Ruffalo – is truly extraordinary and register as easily the finest work that any of them has ever produced. Nary a moment wasted, “Foxcatcher” possesses a scent of mastery; a potency that has accompanied some of American cinema’s most timeless pieces, and for me proves that “Foxcatcher” has a far reaching legacy. This might be one of the most profound films to present itself in some time. (10/10) – M.M.

By Mike Murphy, Harrison Richlin, Zack Sharf & AJ Schmidt

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