Review: Unforgettable ‘Phoenix’ explores identity, memory

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It’s pretty rare to feel as overwhelmed by a film as I felt after finishing “Phoenix.” Here is my 4-star review of one of 2015’s finest.

There are at least three moments in the stunning, unforgettable post-World War II film “Phoenix” that will, quite literally, take your breath away.

Two occur near the midpoint of director Christian Petzold’s story of a concentration camp survivor’s attempt to reconnect with the (non-Jewish) husband who believes she is dead, and to learn whether he betrayed her to the Nazis. Another is the film’s overwhelmingly emotional final scene.

When the latter moment occurs, the greatness of Petzold’s achievement is cemented. “Phoenix” is one of 2015’s finest films, and a gloriously complex conversation starter.

Its theme of the intersection of identity and memory brings to mind a number of very good films, from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” to Pedro Almodovar’s “The Skin I Live In.” But the German-language “Phoenix” tackles the concept with originality, emotion, and verve.

Nina Hoss stars as Nelly, the German-Jewish survivor. We meet her in a series of strange, mysterious sequences. Her face, covered at first in bandages, is significantly damaged. She is accompanied by her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), but nevertheless seems alone in her thoughts.

Before the war Nelly was a singer at a Berlin nightclub called Phoenix – the name takes on new meaning as the film progresses – and lived with her dashing husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). Was Johnny the reason Nelly was taken by the SS? Did he betray his wife?

These are the questions that haunt Nelly, and also haunt Lene. Now physically and emotionally damaged, Nelly is about to have plastic surgery. While she could, in a sense, start a new life, she tells her surgeon that she wants to look like the woman she was.

Once the surgery is complete, Nelly wants to seek out Johnny, despite Lene’s protests. She soon finds him at Phoenix, and after several thwarted encounters and the realization that he does not recognize her, something occurs that shocks her: Johnny whisks Nelly away and lays out a plan.

He wants her to pretend to be his late wife, so he can claim her inheritance. What follows is a peculiar game in which Johnny attempts to teach “Nelly” how to talk, dress, and act like the wife he believes is gone. The process culminates in a stunning series of events.

While much of the success of “Phoenix” is from the script (co-written by Petzold and the late Harun Farocki, and based on a novel by Hubert Monteilhet), the trio of lead actors all give award-worthy performances.

As Lene, Kunzendorf takes a character that could have been one-note – the friend who knows best, and has an idea for your future – and infuses her with complexity. Lene watches helplessly as Nelly tracks down Johnny and agrees to his scheme. Watch Kunzendorf closely in these casually devastating scenes, and see an actor who has mastered the art of facial expression.

And, of course, there are Hoss and Zehrfeld. The duo starred in Petzold’s previous effort, “Barbara,” and were quite impressive as physicians in early-1980s East Germany.

In “Phoenix,” they go even farther with equally difficult roles. Hoss must, in a sense, give two separate performances, as Nelly when she is with Lene, and “Nelly” during her encounters with Johnny. She creates an individual who is both heartbreakingly hurt yet stunningly strong-willed.

Zehrfeld, meanwhile, has the task of demonstrating the cold, calculated nature that has kept Johnny alive, but also needs to evidence a certain charm that still envelopes Nelly.

For Hoss, Zehrfeld and Kunzendorf, then, “Phoenix” is a triumph. And for director Petzold, it is a masterpiece, one that elevates him to the upper echelon of international filmmaking.

When was the last time a film left you breathless? “Phoenix” will, and that makes it a must-see.

Review: ‘A Borrowed Identity’ is a distinctive coming-of-age film

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“A Borrowed Identity” came and went from local theaters quickly, but the hit or miss film should draw interest on DVD, etc. Here is my 2 1/2-star review.

The young protagonist of Eran Riklis’ “A Borrowed Identity” fits the coming-of-age mold nicely. He is smart but emotionally complex. His family life features great love, but also paternal upset. His long-term plans are a bit sketchy.

Above all else, he is dropped into a situation in which he is different from his fellow teenagers in one key respect: Eyad is a Palestinian-Israeli, an Arab trying to fit in at a predominantly Jewish school in Jerusalem.

This is the hook of a film based on Sayed Kashua’s novel “Dancing Arabs,” and it is a good one. Unfortunately, while the concept is certainly unique, the film is not. It’s an adequate, worthy production, but one that never quite surprises or makes a case for lasting significance.

Still, teenage audiences, especially, will find much to chew on. “A Borrowed Identity” is certainly a stronger coming-of-age tale, for example, than the overrated “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.”

Yes, it is a subtitled, Hebrew-language drama, and features some brief nudity, but one of its successes is demonstrating that many of the issues teenagers face in North America exist in some form around the world – even amidst the greater tensions of 1990s Israel, and the Middle East at large.

When we first meet Eyad, he is a young adult (played by Razi Gabareen) attempting to learn how his politically active father ended up a common fruit picker. “Why? Because of the state,” explains his grandmother. “How? Because he got involved in politics.”

We jump ahead several years to teenage Eyad, now played by the poised young actor Tawfeek Barhom. He has been accepted into a boarding school in Jerusalem, and leaves home with great reservation.

“Welcome,” says one of the first adults he speaks to. “I didn’t realize they accepted Arabs here.”

Eyad encounters the usual bullies, but also becomes friends with the Jewish Naomi (Danielle Kitzis). She offers some tips on blending in, including the common pronunciation of words starting with “p.” (At home, the “p” is often pronounced as a “b” – as in “Barliament.”)

Time jumps ahead once more and Eyad and Naomi are in love, but attempting to keep their relationship quiet. He has become a popular student and friend to his Jewish classmates.

Eyad forms a particularly close friendship with Jonathan (Michael Moshonov), a music-mad teen with muscular dystrophy. This relationship is crucial to the film’s second half, for better or worse.

While it’s nice to see a prominent character with a disability on screen, the time away from school is, quite simply, less involving. Moshonov gives a strong performance, as does Yael Abecassis as his mother, but the scenes between Eyad and Jonathan begin to feel repetitive and dull.

However, this relationship is essential to the film’s “twist,” and it explains the significance of the title “A Borrowed Identity.” Without detailing what occurs, Eyad makes a crucial decision that will impact his life. In the context of the film, the move seems abrupt, and not altogether satisfying.

For all of its flaws, this latest entry from the director of international successes “The Syrian Bride” and “Lemon Tree” remains a distinctive entry in the global coming-of-age catalog, thanks mainly to its fresh milieu and sturdy central performances.

Barhom makes Eyad a strong-willed, often rebellious individual. He is an actor to watch. Also noteworthy is Danielle Kitzis, whose Naomi feels wonderfully real and delightfully wise – a strong female attempting to keep her relationship with Eyad alive and healthy amidst difficult circumstances.

“A Borrowed Identity” will not linger in one’s memory for long, but it deserves to be seen, and contemplated. Plus, there is a scene in which a character thinks he spots Saddam Hussein’s face on the moon. That has to be a coming-of-age flick first.

Review: ‘Spike Island’ is no classic, but Stone Roses fans will adore it

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It’s a ridiculously clever concept, really: a U.K.-set coming-of-age folm centered around each Stone Roses’ era-defining Spike Island gig in 1990. Unlike the Madchester heroes legendary concert, however, director Mat Whitecross’s “Spike Island” is not one that will be remembered for decades. Unexceptional it may be, but the film is undeniably involving for Stone Roses fans, and Anglophiles in general. (It’s “Taking Woodstock” for Britpoppers!)

It’s the kind of Lads-with-a-capital-“L” flick with a main character known as “Tits.” (Charming …) And that gets old pretty fast. However, star Elliott Tittensor gives a fine, believable performance as the aforementioned Gary “Tits” Tichfield, a young man devoted to the Roses, his own band, and his pals.

Tits and the other characters are saddled with some yawn-inducing subplots, including a dying father and dull romantic subplot involving — yes — SALLY (Cinnamon?), played by the Khaleesi herself, Emilia Clarke. When the gang finally makes it to the site of the gig, the film finally takes flight with some clever and convincing use of old film of the band and fine stage-setting from Whitecross.

And even when the characters and story feel rote, there is that glorious music. “Spike Island” is a reminder why the Roses still matter, and if it does nothing more, that makes for a worthwhile film.

The film is now available for rental or purchase on VOD, an ideal format considering its appeal to a limited but devoted American audience. For that group, “Spike Island” qualifies as a must-see.

Review: ‘Magic Mike XXL’ offers go-for-broke cinematic insanity

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This 3 1/2-star review of “Magic Mike XXL” was one of the more enjoyable reviews to write. I’m glad to see so many critics were as impressed with the film as I was.

We need “Magic Mike XXL,” and we need it now. The news cycle of summer 2015 has been utterly topsy turvy, making this the ideal moment for a film of six-pack abs, charmingly daft “male entertainers,” deliriously turned-on women, and a deluge of dollar bills.

Some things have changed in this sequel to the enormously successful “Magic Mike.” Gone is the element of surprise that came from director Steven Soderbergh’s 2012 film, one inspired by star Channing Tatum’s stint as a male stripper.

Gone too are many of the first film’s notable actors, including Matthew McConaughey’s crazy-eyed club owner Dallas, and dead-eyed Alex Pettyfer’s Kid. And Soderbergh (“Traffic,” “Ocean’s Eleven”) is replaced by his longtime assistant director, Gregory Jacobs.

Also jettisoned – wisely – is any semblance of seriousness. Admittedly, Soderbergh’s somber eye for economic hardship was key to the first film’s critical praise. (One of its more memorable sights was Mike’s sad notebook of ironed dollars.)

But dropping the gravity makes for a better film. For “Magic Mike XXL” is the rare sequel that improves on its predecessor. It’s a raucous, weightless party that might just be the summer’s finest comedy.

Much of that is due to immensely talented “21 Jump Street” and “Foxcatcher” star Channing Tatum, the inspiration-producer-star of the most unlikely franchise in filmdom. In “XXL” he is as delightful as ever, cementing his rep as equally liked by both sexes

When we last left Tatum’s “Magic” Mike Lane, he had made the decision to bail on Dallas and the Xquisite Strip Club crew just as they were ready to make their move from Tampa to Miami. He had also hooked up with the Kid’s sister, Brooke.

Fast-forward three years, and Mike has his own (struggling) business and a broken heart. When a call comes from old mate Tarzan (surprisingly witty WWE legend Kevin Nash), he cannot help but ponder the life he once led.

As Tarzan, Richie (“True Blood’s” Joe Manganiello), the aptly named Ken (Ken doll-ish Matt Bomer), Tito (Adam Rodriguez), and amiable DJ Tobias (Gabriel Iglesias) explain, Dallas and the Kid have split town. So the gang is heading for one last blowout, the annual stripper convention in Myrtle Beach.

It doesn’t take much to talk Mike into joining this merry band of dancers, and soon he has a seat on Tito’s food truck.

That’s pretty much the plot. Occasionally, there is a callback to the hard-out-there-for-a-stripper vibe of “Magic Mike,” but the focus is mostly on this motley crew of characters and their adventures on the road.

Several sequences drag, yet by the time the crew unleashes its convention performance, “Magic Mike XXL” has become the rowdiest bachelorette party of (at least some of) its audience’s dreams. And my goodness, is it a comically joyous blast of shirtless anarchy.

New to the proceedings is Amber Heard’s Zoe, a sharper, sexier foil than the first film’s wan Brooke (unmemorably played by Cody Horn). Jada Pinkett Smith is perfectly cast as Rome, an old love interest of Mike’s who runs a wild establishment in Savannah.

The always likable Elizabeth Banks – who, between this, “Love and Mercy” and “Pitch Perfect 2” is having one heckuva summer – Donald Glover (“Community”), and Andie MacDowell pop up in fun supporting roles, and let’s just say you’ll never look at Michael Strahan the same way again.

Yes, the film misses McConaughey’s disorderly glee, and the darker elements Soderbergh brought to the table. But Jacobs directs with a light, unobtrusive touch, and he knows when to let his actors’ personalities take over. (It’s worth noting that Soderbergh was still involved as cinematographer, editor and a producer.)

Take, for example, Manganiello’s Richie. More of a background player in “Magic Mike,” “XXL” sees the actor steal almost every scene he’s in. One sequence in particular, a mini-mart, Backstreet Boys-soundtracked dance amid bags of Cheetos and bottles of Pepsi, might be the funniest scene of 2015. It’s that strong, and Manganiello nails it.

The film’s core audience was well-represented at the screening I attended, and hooted, applauded and laughed with abandon.

However, male or female, straight or gay, permissive or prudish, you will simply not find a summer flick to match the fun quotient of “Magic Mike XXL.” If you cannot appreciate Tatum and company’s go-for-broke cinematic insanity, maybe movies just aren’t for you.

40 days till TIFF15: Toronto Film Fest returns with heavy hitters, Hitchcock

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The Toronto International Film Festival held its kick-off press conference this week, and the announcements were, in a word, stunning. This is a stacked festival ready, with many, many more announcements to come. Here are a few thoughts on the first batch of titles, for Buffalo.com.

The message at this week’s 2015 Toronto International Film Festival announcement press conference was clear: TIFF is back, in a big way. It’s not as if last year’s festival would be classified by most as a disappointment — ask the scores of audience members who trooped into festival venues last year if they were disappointed, and they’re likely to laugh and shake their heads.

But TIFF’s bold move to only allow films making their world or North American debuts at the festival, a direct strike against fests in Venice and Telluride, led to much grumbling among media and filmmakers. It also meant a number of major films either skipped Toronto altogether, or screened at the tail-end of the festival.

For 2015, Toronto’s head honchos eased up, and the result, as evident from the press conference, is a stunning lineup of heavy hitters and Oscar bait. While there are a few notables missing from the lineup — Todd Haynes’s “Carol,” the Aaron Sorkin-penned biopic “Steve Jobs,” mountain climbing pic “Everest” — the galas and special presentations announced this week include some real stunners.

Consider just a few of the films announced for this year’s festival, running from Sept. 10 to 20:

  • Michael Moore’s the-title-says-it-all documentary “Where to Invade Next” is sure to be controversial.
  • Ridley Scott’s “Interstellar”-ish “The Martian,” starring Matt Damon, is one of the most high-profile world premieres in festival history.
  • “Theory of Everything” Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne plays a transgender pioneer in “The Danish Girl.”
  • Fictional drama “Stonewall,” based on the 1969 Stonewall Riots, is directed by a very unlikely individual: Roland Emmerich (“Independence Day.).
  • And how about Alfred Hitchcock? The festival concludes with a free screening of “Vertigo,” complete with a live score by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

More announcements will follow in the weeks to come. But make no mistake — while it may be 80 degrees outside, the Oscar race is on.

‘Mommy’ is a fine introduction to director Xavier Dolan

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Is there a more interesting young filmmaker than Xavier Dolan? The French-Canadian director’s filmography — “I Killed My Mother,” “Heartbeats,” “Laurence Anyways,” “Tom at the Farm,” and “Mommy” — is utterly fascinating. I’ve been kicking myself for two years for missing “Tom at the Farm” at TIFF13, so I’m thrilled to see it’s coming to the U.S. soon.

As for “Mommy,” it’s a difficult yet fascinating film, and another great selection for the Cultivate Cinema Circle series. I wrote a bit about the film for Buffalo.com. Incidentally, I’m sorry to say that this is my last “Screenings” column for the foreseeable future. I’m glad I went out promoting such a unique filmmaker.

Are you aware of French-Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan? If you’re a cinephile, the answer is yes, but Dolan has not yet crossed over from festival/indie darling to mainstream acceptance outside of his home country. The actor-director is at work on his most-profile project to date, a new film starring Marion Cotillard and Léa Seydoux. So it’s a fine time for an introduction to his emotion-heavy style of personal storytelling.

Thanks to the Cultivate Cinema Circle film series, Dolan’s Cannes Jury Prize-winning “Mommy” is making its local debut. It’s a long, sometimes exhausting experience, but undoubtedly a memorable one featuring a stunning performance from Anne Dorval. (Note that his first three films are streaming on Netflix, including the stunning “Laurence Anyways.”)

The free screening will be held at 7 p.m. on July 23 at the Mason O. Damon Auditorium at Buffalo Central Library. Visit cultivatecinemacircle.com for more info.

Poster courtesy of Cultivate Cinema Circle.

Review: ‘Escobar’ puts focus on wrong character

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Any way you look at it, “Escobar: Paradise Lost” is a disappointment. I missed it at TIFF14, but recently review it for the Buffalo News. Here is my two-star review.

Let’s say you are creating a film about Pablo Escobar, the infamous Colombian drug lord who died in 1993, and whose story could not be more appealing to Hollywood. It’s got it all – drugs, politics, violence, controversy.

Plus, you are fortunate enough to have one of the world’s finest and most compelling actors, Benicio Del Toro, attached to play the man himself.

Would you then decide to make Escobar a supporting player in the film, and focus instead on a dull, fictional Canadian surfer dating his niece? Would you opt against telling how Escobar came to power, and how his life finally came to an end?

If so, the resulting film might look like “Escobar: Paradise Lost,” a lamely titled, clumsily written and directed biopic that wastes a charismatic performance from Del Toro.

There is something to be said for this project even coming together. After all, various feature films on the life of Escobar have been announced over the years.

It is hard to imagine better casting than Del Toro, but after seeing “Paradise Lost,” it is clear that we’re still waiting for the definitive feature film about the “King of Cocaine.”

Yes, Escobar is but a supporting player in “Paradise Lost.” The main character is Nick (or “Nico”), played confidently by “Hunger Games” star Josh Hutcherson.

The film begins in 1991, as the Colombian criminal is preparing to surrender to authorities. He has called together his most trusted men, including Nick, a wide-eyed former surfer who fell in love with Escobar’s niece Maria (Claudia Traisac), and became entrenched.

These tense, early moments are among the film’s best, and promise a fascinating study of power and influence. This promise fades as we cut back in time to Nick and his bro (Brady Corbet) working on the beach. Nick and Maria soon lock eyes from afar, and before we know it the couple is visiting uncle Pablo’s estate.

Del Toro’s Escobar is smart, rational and devoted to his family. Perhaps he is too likable, actually, making some of his later actions feel almost out of character.

After a pedestrian hour of Nick’s furrowed brow, “Paradise Lost” finally picks up its pace for a grim, violent conclusion. Yet by that point it is hard to care about the plight of Nick and Maria. Only Escobar maintains our interest.

And how could he not, as played by a typically awards-worthy Del Toro? This is his best role since Steven Soderbergh’s “Che,” and he commands the screen. Hutcherson does a nice job of matching Del Toro’s intensity, and his decision to make this film can be applauded; he would be smart to follow the Robert Pattinson path of choosing offbeat projects with major filmmakers.

“Paradise Lost” helmer Andrea Di Stefano is not a major filmmaker, rather a young Italian actor making his feature directorial debut. Despite the film’s overall failure, it does indicate some cinematic talent.

But the crucial decision to make Escobar a secondary figure in the tale is an insurmountable problem.

Perhaps the story of Pablo Escobar is simply too large and messy to be chronicled in one feature. While it might be said that the focus of “Paradise Lost” on one time period is not unwise, the film serves only to frustrate by attempting to look beyond the most interesting man onscreen.

That’s not very smart, and neither is “Escobar.”

Review: ‘The Connection’ gives classic crime drama a French twist

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My 3 1/2 star review of “The Connection,” one of summer 2015’s more entertaining films for adults.

The sleek, stylish, long but briskly paced 1970-set French crime drama “The Connection” is a shades-sporting blast — surely one of the summer’s most entertaining concoctions. Consider it a refreshing trois couleurs popsicle after a steady cinematic diet of stale, butter-soaked popcorn.

And that’s a pleasant surprise, since on paper this thing could not have sounded less promising. “The Connection,” after all, covers some of the drug-smuggling ground covered by William Friedkin in his classic, Oscar-winning crime drama “The French Connection.”

Think back to Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle, “that” kinetic car chase, and the indelible image of Doyle shooting a thug in the back, an image so memorably used on the film’s poster. Those are Andre the Giant-sized shoes to fill.

But director Cédric Jimenez’s “The Connection” pulls it off by expanding the story far beyond the time period in Friedkin’s film, into the early 1980s. His style, too, is more influenced by Martin Scorsese and even Brian De Palma’s “Scarface” than Friedkin. (Less gritty, more flashy.)

Shot on 35mm, “The Connection” has a widescreen scope befitting a story of international drug trafficking. The setting is Marseilles, ground zero for the heroin trade. As explained in a jazzy montage early in the film, morphine would arrive from Turkey to be processed in labs around the city, and the drug would the be shipped to New York and elsewhere.

The logistical genius involved was staggering, and this “thug-ocracy” like no other was wildly successful.

Enter Pierre Michel, a Marseilles magistrate presented with the unenviable task of taking down the network. Michel is played by Jean Dujardin, the Oscar-winning star of the modern silent smash “The Artist.” (Remember “The Artist”? Unlike “The French Connection,” there’s an Academy Awards chomp-ing flick that has receded from memory in just a few years.)

Even if it’s a rather standard G-man role, Michel is the meatiest part for Dujardin since “The Artist.” He has the George Clooney role, if you will – the smart, likable, slightly-in-over-his-head audience conduit. He’s considered by some to be a “cowboy,” a dedicated agent willing to put his family life on hold to focus on the investigation.

The kingpin here is Gaëtan “Tany” Zampa, nicely played by Gilles Lellouche with a mix of fierceness and humanity. This is no one-note villain, and Lellouche steals the picture by injecting this crime lord with, let’s say, compassionate criminality. (“Take care of their funerals. Nicest wreathes possible.”)

Michel and Zampa butt heads for most of the film’s 135-minute running time, and share several nicely menacing scenes together. These sequences lack the narrow-eyed brilliance of the Al Pacino-Robert De Niro coffee talk in Michael Mann’s “Heat” (another influence on Jimenez’s film), but serve to amplify the stakes between the two characters.

Throughout the film are successful and failed drug raids, surprise shootings, one “Marseilles massacre,” worried glances from gangsters with nicknames like “Bimbo,” and complex findings involving police corruption.

It climaxes with a thrilling raid followed by a somber killing, resulting in a nicely cynical conclusion.

The casting from Dujardin on down is just right. Since “The Artist,” the handsome star has popped up in films good (“The Wolf of Wall Street”) and bad (“Monuments Men”), but in “The Connection” he has the opportunity to display some of the “Artist”/“OSS 117” charm that made him an international success.

Making an impression in a very small role is Pauline Burlet, the young actress who gave a memorable performance as a sad-eyed, rebellious teen in Asghar Farhadi’s “The Past.” She is in only a few scenes, playing a young addict, but cements her status as an actor to watch.

“The Connection” is not a masterpiece like “The French Connection,” and it likely won’t pop up on many best of 2015 lists at year’s end. But it’s a crime drama with real verve, and a welcome, tasty June treat.

Review: ‘When Marnie Was There’ is another exquisite film from Studio Ghibli

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“When Marnie Was There” recently came to Buffalo’s North Park Theatre in both its subtitled and dubbed versions, and I was thrilled to review the former. I gave it 3 stars.

“When Marnie Was There” is, in every way, exquisite – exquisitely sad, exquisitely haunting, exquisitely lovely. The latest, and, supposedly, final release from Japan’s Studio Ghibli animation studio might not be a Ghibli classic, but it is a fine creation in every way.

It’s a somber tale, one based on the classic children’s novel by author Joan G. Robinson and directed by the mega-talented Hiromasa Yonebayashi. The director of 2010’s “The Secret World of Arrietty,” Yonebayashi was an animator on such Ghibli classics as “The Wind Rises,” “Ponyo,” “Howl’s Moving Castle,” “Spirited Away” and “Princess Mononoke.”

Like those gems – all directed by the legendary Hayao Miyazaki – “When Marnie Was There” is a hand-drawn film of great ambition and stunning beauty. Here is a film about adolescence, friendship and memory centered on a young adult but told without the cheap humor that sinks so many animated efforts.

This is heavy, emo cinema, and that does make for an occasionally exhausting experience. It also lacks the epic scope of Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises” or the poetic significance of recent Ghibli release “The Tale of Princess Kaguya.” But this involving story has its own offbeat charm.

Young Anna is the main character, a smart, sad-eyed young girl whose asthma leads her foster parent to propose a summer in the country. Here, it is hoped, Anna can heal and perhaps emerge from her shell.

She is in many ways a frustrating central character, one who is easy to pity, but also quick to annoy. One scene in particular, when she harshly tells off a good-natured girl, makes it hard to consider her as wise as one might like.

Yet Anna also feels completely believable, gripped with the ebb-and-flow emotions of youth.

Seemingly doomed to outsider status, one day Anna spots a pale, blonde-haired girl in a mansion by the sea. After several attempts, Anna finally meets this strange figure named Marnie.

The girls see something special in the other, and become fast friends. Something is not quite right, however. Marnie seems to disappear often, and continually speaks in dreamy, fanciful ways: “I’m desperate to get to know you,” “You’re my precious secret.” “It’s OK to cry. Just know that I love you.”

Discovering who Marnie is, and why she has entered Anna’s life, is the film’s central mystery. Yonebayashi slowly peels away the story’s many layers before finally laying it bare in “Marnie’s” final stretch.

The answers are not particularly surprising, but they are moving, if a bit overly melodramatic. “I’m sorry, it’s a sad story,” says a character in “When Marnie Was There,” and she ain’t kidding.

This sadness means “Marnie” is not a film for young children. The themes – abandonment, familial loss, adolescent panic – are simply too hefty for little ones. But older children and teens who enjoy introspective drama will swoon over the story of Anna and Marnie.

Note that “Marnie” is being presented at the North Park Theatre in both English dubbed and Japanese language-English subtitled versions. I watched the subtitled version, and would strongly recommend it. Having watched my share of dubbed films, subtitles are almost always preferable.

The lead voices in the Japanese language version – Sara Takatsuki as Anna and Kasumi Arimura as Marnie – give wonderful performances. They may lack the star status of dubbed-version leads Hailee Steinfeld (“True Grit”) as Anna, Kiernan Shipka (“Mad Men”), John C. Reilly, Ellen Burstyn and Kathy Bates. But stars add little to a project like this one.

However you see it, “Marnie” is lovely. Cinephiles around the world are hoping this is not the end for Studio Ghibli, but if it is, “When Marnie Was There” provides a fitting conclusion.

Review: ‘Saint Laurent’ is stylish and enthralling

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I gave 3 ½ stars to the better of the two Yves Saint Laurent biopics, Bertrand Bonello’s “Saint Laurent.”

One shot in the Yves Saint Laurent biopic “Saint Laurent” captures its title character more than any other. It is the late 1960s, and the famed designer stands alone in his store on a busy Paris street. He is imprisoned by his creative successes, as well as his personal failures. Both become even stronger throughout the film.

The image captures the fragility of an emotionally damaged individual whose revolutionary work changed women’s fashion forever. It is stylish and captivating, like the film itself.

Controversial director Bertrand Bonello’s film is unquestionably compelling, but also flawed. It is long – two and a half hours – rather humorless and centered on a main character who is not particularly likable, but certainly a zeitgeist-altering genius.

In a sign of just how vast a shadow he still casts, “Saint Laurent” is his second biopic in the last two years. The first, titled “Yves Saint Laurent,” is streaming on Netflix, and watching the two makes for a fascinating comparison.

“Yves Saint Laurent” earned the support of the late designer’s partner, Pierre Bergé, and utilized some of his actual designs. It is also thoroughly rote and crushingly dull, the type of “A to B to C” biopic that is sure to please the sycophants.

Bonello’s “Saint Laurent,” on the other hand, is the looser, unauthorized version that seems to truly capture who Saint Laurent was, and why we still care. It is the epitome of the warts-and-all biography, devoting much of its running time to the title character’s hedonistic, sex-and-drugs-fueled artistic peak.

It’s no wonder Bergé found the 2014 effort more to his liking, though in both versions, Bergé is the central figure in his life and career. (He is played in “Saint Laurent” by Jérémie Renier.)

“Saint Laurent” stars Gaspard Ulliel, who is perhaps best known stateside as the star of “Hannibal Rising.” His performance here is astounding. He disappears into the role and captures the designer’s charisma and intelligence.

Bonello is boldly uninterested in telling Saint Laurent’s story in chronological order. Therefore, as the film begins he already is a fashion world star.

It’s a domain of unhinged creativity, model-packed parties and elaborate decadence, and Bonello stages it all as an explosion of color, sound and sex. It also is an insular existence – Saint Laurent’s mother gently chastises him for not knowing how to change a lightbulb – and Bonello smartly captures this feel via a split-screen montage with models sporting Saint Laurent’s designs on one side, and archival footage of the increasingly combustible outside world (Vietnam, 1968 Paris, etc.) on the other.

Despite the clever directing of Bonello and the stunning work of Ulliel and Renier, things start to become a bit tiresome as we approach the two-hour mark, and the designer is at his lowest mental point.

However, Bonello then makes a wonderfully creative, unexpected move: He drops the aged, near-death Saint Laurent, now played by the actor Helmut Berger, into the story.

From this moment on, even as the designer mounts a successful comeback show, we continually cut to a man who seems drained of the verve of his prior decades. He putters around his decadent home, feeding the latest incarnation of his beloved dog, looking at magazines, and waiting for … something.

It’s a sad ending for a genius, one who finished life as nothing more than an eccentric figurehead. It’s also brilliant, and makes for the film’s most absorbing stretch.

“Saint Laurent” is one of the more enthralling biopics about a creative mastermind in years. At its best moments, it is a downright addictive experience, fitting for the story of a man whose most well-known fragrance was called “Opium.”

What the film has in abundance is imagination. And despite its somber portrayal of Yves Saint Laurent’s personal complexities, I think the man himself would have found the dreamlike imagery on screen to be utterly intoxicating.