Review: “Copperhead” is a Slow-Moving But Worthy Civil War Drama

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I reviewed Ron Maxwell’s “Copperhead” for Indiewire’s The Playlist, and gave the film a B-.

A Civil War movie without a battle scene is like…wait, what? A Civil War movie without a battle scene?! That is “Copperhead,” a sincere, slow-moving, occasionally successful film devoted to one specific homefront story. That, in itself, is noteworthy. After all, as many of the characters in Ron Maxwell’s film point out, in addition to the costs on the battlefield, there were many, many costs at home. Life carried on, uneasily, and as the war raged the number of fathers and sons who would return home upon its conclusion grew smaller and smaller. With such a stunning body count, it is not surprising to hear that there was a vocal minority against the conflict — including some Northerners.

“Copperhead,” based on a novella by Harold Frederic—whose “Damnation of Theron Ware” F. Scott Fitzgerald called “the best American novel” written before 1920—is the third straight Civil War film for Maxwell, director of the much-loved, quite lengthy “Gettysburg” and the much-derided, even lengthier “Gods and Generals.” It is a smaller-scale story, and that feels like a conscious effort on the part of the director. The film is centered on an upstate New York farmer and dissenter, Abner Beech (Billy Campbell—the Rocketeer!), and his family. Like so many young men on the cusp of adulthood, Abner’s son Jeff (Casey Thomas Brown) is ready to enlist, much to his father’s dismay.

Also causing family strife is Jeff’s relationship with Esther (Lucy Boynton), a sweet-natured school teacher who happens to be the daughter of Abner’s greatest enemy (what are the odds?), the crazy-eyed, ultra-shout-y Jee Hagadorn, played by a wonderfully over-the-top Angus Macfadyen. Eventually, Jeff, who is now going by the name Tom (Jeff being too close to Jefferson Davis for comfort), joins the Union army, leaving a devastated Esther to await his return. Meanwhile, the town grows increasingly hostile toward Abner and his family, dubbing them “Copperheads,” a term for Northerners opposed to the war. With Jee leading the charge, the situation becomes increasingly contentious, and Abner must decide how strong his convictions are.

It all culminates in a rather predictable series of events, and ends a bit too neatly for an on-the-homefront drama. We’re not used to semi-happy endings when it comes to the Civil War—victory having come at a such a great cost—and it is almost jarring here. But Maxwell earns that happy ending by virtue of a smart, thoughtful screenplay by Bill Kauffman. The dialogue is simple and believable, and the sheer number of well-rounded characters is noteworthy. It is not strong on action, however, and Maxwell, the filmmaker behind one of the finest Civil War battles sequences ever brought to the screen—the Little Round Top fight in “Gettysburg”—should have found a way to amp it up a tad. Both Kaufman (this was his first screenplay) and Maxwell will both do better work, but the sincerity they brought to this one is admirable.

What “Copperhead” most lacks—and this is likely by design—is any sense of urgency. Maxwell’s languid pacing does bring forth a feeling of living in the 1860s, of news traveling slowly and the style of everyday life being slowwwwwwwer. But it does not always make for a thrilling movie, especially for those unaccustomed to this style of storytelling. The film’s middle stretch, between Jeff’s leaving with the Union army and the sudden visit of Esther to Abner’s farm, is particularly lethargic, with scene after scene of characters missing Jeff, wondering about Jeff, contemplating Jeff.  For all of their Jeff ponderings, it seems Jeff (this review has now set a record for use of the name “Jeff”) should have been a bit more exciting … and he is not. In fact, Jeff’s central dilemma seems less involving than almost every other character. That is not the fault of young actor Casey Thomas Brown; it is simply a one-note role.

The other performances are mostly fine, with Lucy Boynton an adequate girl-next-door, and Billy Campbell quiet-voiced but strong-willed. It is nice to see the hard-working actor, most memorably seen on “The Killing,” with a lead. (Interestingly, he replaced Jason Patric during filming due to “creative differences.”) But it is Angus Macfadyen who dominates every scene in which he appears as the slavery-and Confederate-damning Jee Hagadorn. It is a performance of much huffing and puffing, but it is also very believable, even amidst the histrionics. Ironically, however, Macfadyen’s finest moment is a quiet one in which he utters a single devastating sentence to the son that has let him down by steering clear of military service. Meanwhile, Peter Fonda makes a couple of rather clunky appearances; the scenes are fine, but feel a bit engineered. (A newspaper is folded, and reveals…PETER FONDA!)

It is a statement of fact that those who consider themselves Civil War or history buffs will be much more forgiving of “Copperhead” than those who are not, and I see nothing wrong with that. For this audience, Ron Maxwell’s film will prove entertaining and though-provoking, at the very least. For the rest, it is unlikely to provide much dramatic sustenance. But that’s too bad, because even though “Copperhead” is nowhere near a great film, it is often a good one, a drama with real ideas about patriotism and dissent in times of conflict. It is a worthy entry in our growing list of Civil War cinema, and despite its flaws, it does not deserve to be ignored.

Photo from the Playlist review

Review: “Fill the Void” is a Compelling Look at Orthodox Hassidic Life

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“Fill the Void” drew raves at TIFF 2012, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to review it for the Buffalo News when it opened last weekend. Here is my 3 1/2 star review.

Some of the finest scenes in the somber, compelling Israeli drama “Fill the Void” involve no dialogue – just silence, stares, heavy breathing and deep thinking.

In one such scene, Shira, an 18-year-old living with her parents in an Orthodox Hassidic community in Tel Aviv, is on an elevator with her aunt, a gaggle of children and the man she expects to be married off to.

Shira, played by a quietly effective Hadas Yaron, looks down, the man looks away, and the only sounds are heavy breathing and kiddie giggling. It is a short moment that says much, and it’s an example of writer-director Rama Burshtein’s intensely focused, unhurried style.

Burshtein’s directing debut, “Fill the Void” is a delicate, involving, simply told drama that raises real questions about faith, family and free will, all while convincingly bringing to the screen a way of life that for many of us seems almost alien.

The Orthodox lifestyle is presented in an utterly straightforward manner, without commentary or condescension. Admittedly, to an outsider’s eyes, Burshtein’s film often feels as if it could have taken place at any point in the last five decades; the sudden appearance of a cellphone is rather jarring.

But this is indeed the present, and in the family led by loving father Aharon (Chayim Sharir) and mother Rivka (Irit Sheleg), the future seems set. Oldest daughter Esther (Renana Raz) and her husband, Yochay (Yiftach Klein), are about to have a child, and youngest daughter Shira’s marital match appears close.

But Esther’s death during childbirth changes everything. Yochay is now a single father, Aharon and Rivka are heartbroken parents, and Shira finds herself unexpectedly thrust into a seemingly can’t-win situation. Under pressure to marry a widow in Belgium, Yochay is presented with an idea by Rivka: marry Shira and stay in Tel Aviv.

We see the wheels turning in Rivka’s mind and watch as Yochay comes around to the idea; this is a film in which characters stop and think. But when dialogue is exchanged, it is often piercing.

Consider a stunning scene between Yochay and Shira, in which she asks him how he felt on the day of his marriage to Esther, “the most beautiful girl in the world.” This, Shira explains, is a feeling of overwhelming enthusiasm she will never have. By pressuring Shira to step into the role of new wife and mother, her family is taking away any choice of future, and Shira understands this better than anyone.

But Burshtein expertly portrays the complexities at hand. What makes the situation so difficult as an audience member is how logical it begins to seem. Shira and Yochay get along well. Shira clearly loves her nephew. Her family adores Yochay and, of course, the baby. Shira should step in, correct?

Logical, maybe. But is it right? To an outsider, that answer is obvious, but even Shira is gripped by a sense of doubt.

The story heads in a direction that is without question predictable – this is not a film full of surprises, sometimes to its detriment – and yet that almost seems fitting. Tradition overwhelms spontaneity at every turn, just as expected.

Burshtein succeeds in presenting what feels like a complete community. After only a handful of scenes, we feel close to Shira, Aharon and Rivka, as well as to Frieda, the woman who watches others get married and wonders when and if she will be next.

Hadas Yaron is an example of note-perfect casting, appropriately making Shira seem at once innocent and naïve, but also logical and very, very smart. Yiftach Klein’s Yochay could have been a dull heavy, but instead is the film’s most complex character, a man who understands what is expected yet knows how difficult expectation can be. The other actors are all well-cast and well-drawn, with Hila Feldman’s Frieda a particular standout.

Is self-sacrifice in the interest of family and tradition a necessity? To most of the characters in “Fill the Void,” there is no need for argument.

But pay close attention to young Shira’s face, and you’ll see evidence of an internal debate that may never end.

Photo from Buffalo News review

Weekend Preview: “The Godfather” is Screening … Plus, Killer Horror and a Sure-Fire Bomb

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The best film showing this weekend in Buffalo? No brainer: On almost any weekend, if “The Godfather” is screening somewhere, the answer is going to be “The Godfather.”

The 1972 classic will be showing at The Screening Room for the first time ever on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Tuesday at 7:30, but note that the Saturday (July 20) show is a “‘Godfather’ food and film event,” an idea that is very fun in theory, at least.

Meanwhile, at the multiplex, we are nearing that strange point of the summer blockbuster season when most of the biggies have been released, and some of the iffier commercial propositions start dropping. Sometimes these are simply films that needed a wide berth from the major blockbusters. Such is the case with “Turbo,” the animated film coming out a few weeks after “Monsters University” and “Despicable Me 2” cleaned up. But “DM2” is SUCH a hit that perhaps a few more weeks would have helped …

“Turbo” should hit No. 1, but the other new releases this week — “The Conjuring,” “R.I.P.D.” and “Red 2” — could then fall in any order. I reviewed James Wan’s “Conjuring” for the Buffalo News, and, quite honestly, loved it — one of the finest horror films in recent years. These flicks tend to overperform, and I believe that will be the case here. Considering how cheap they cost to produce, it is rather shocking there are not more horror films being turned out.

On the other end of the spectrum is “R.I.P.D.,” a movie that has carried the whiff of a disaster for months. This one will flop, big, I believe, and that is a major dent in Ryan Reynolds’ career. It might even lose to “Red 2,” one of the more puzzling sequels of the year. “Red” was likable, and had a fine premise, but … “Red 2”? Really? It could prove a draw to over-40s, though, and might end up a solid earner.

Yes, it’s a weird week, indeed, although you can’t say there is not something for every demo.

Interestingly, the Elmwood Regal brings to town two Indian films, “Ramaiya Vastavaiya” and “Bhaag Milkha Bhaag.” The latter is three hours long!

One of the year’s most buzzed-about indies, the Sundance hit “The Way, Way Back,” opens at the Amherst and Eastern Hills Dipsons, and I’m a bit torn. It looks hugely likable, and very “Adventureland,” yet its hard to summon up much enthusiasm. Its likable writer-directors, Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, should be enough to draw me in, and I’m hoping for a pleasant surprise.

Also opening at the Amherst Dipson is the Kristen Wiig-starring “Girl Most Likely,” a so-so film I saw at TIFF 2012, and reviewed for the Buffalo News. “Girl” is also opening at the Quaker Crossing in OrchardPark.

In addition to “Way,” the acclaimed documentary “20 Feet From Stardom” and the is-this-still-up? Pierce Brosnan romance “Love is All You Need” are continuing their Eastern Hills runs.

Interestingly, Nicholas Winding-Refn’s “Only God Forgives” did not open at any local theaters, but it is available on VOD starting today. You can bet I’ll be ordering.

Ang Lee’s Best Director-worthy — to the Academy, not to me — “Life of Pi” is this week’s choice at Bacchus , while the UB North Campus features Tom Cruise in “Oblivion” on Friday and Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” on Tuesday (July 23), both at 9:15, and the UB South Campus offers up the crappy, but timely, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” on Wednesday (July 24).

Yes, “The Wolverine” is on its way. In a summer of some surprise flops, it looks like a safe bet … But that’s what they said about “White House Down,” isn’t it?

Poster art courtesy of Paramount Pictures

It’s Never Too Early: Pondering 2013’s Best Films … So Far

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I think 2013 has been a surprisingly strong year for movies. Okay, maybe not BIG movies, but there have been many smaller films that, to me, will rank high when the year comes to a close. I decided to make June 30 the cut-off here, so any film that has not officially opened before then (that I’ve already seen) is not here—hence, no “Blue Jasmine.” And of course, there are plenty of movies I still need to see that could make a dent: “Leviathan,” “Beyond the Hills,” “Simon Killer,” “The Act of Killing.” You’ll note that there is plenty of 2012 product here, but I am considering any film actually released in 2013 in North America is fair game. This list may change dramatically tomorrow, but today, in random order, here it is:

  • “Stories We Tell”
  • “Frances Ha”
  • “The Place Beyond the Pines”
  • “Upstream Color”
  • “Before Midnight”
  • “The Bling Ring”
  • “Lore”
  • “Mud”
  • “No”
  • “This is the End”

Some others that at the very least are in the conversation, for me: “The Gatekeepers,” “Side Effects,” “Room 237,” “Like Someone in Love,” “Much Ado About Nothing,” “Fill the Void,” “Spring Breakers,” “To the Wonder,” “Something in the Air” (yes, I think I’ve completely changed my mind on this one), “Ginger and Rosa.”

What do others think? Here are several lists of 2013’s halfway-point bests:

“Upstream Color” still from the film’s official site.

 

Wednesday Round-Up: The Dissolve Kicks Off by Demonstrating Why “Innocence” is “Unmistakably Scorsese”

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I’m not sure why it took Pitchfork so longer to enter the film criticism realm, but taking its time may have been wise. Last week, The Dissolve finally launched, and it features a murderer’s row of cinema heavyweights: Keith Phipps, Scott Tobias, Nathan Rabin, Tasha Robinson, Matt Singer. These are some of my favorites, and the site that has brought them together, Avengers-style, is—so far, at least—a treat.

For example, check out the “Departures” column, explained thusly: “Departures looks at films by talents who defied expectations and tried something different. Are these films true anomalies, or not quite the left turns they appear to be?”

That’s a great idea, and Tobias’s first pick, Martin Scorsese’s “The Age of Innocence,” is an ideal selection:

“It’s hard to compare the New York of ‘The Age of Innocence’ to the savage criminal underworlds of Scorseseland a century later, but only because the kills here don’t stain the hardwood. But Newland is rubbed out just as surely as the pileup of gangsters in ‘Goodfellas’—to a point, he’s responsible for pulling the trigger—and for the same reason: With the world outside threatening change, the mobs in both films have to close rank to survive.”

“Innocence” is, I think one of Scorsese’s least best films, and is deserving of such a close analysis. If this is where The Dissolve is going, I applaud it.

Or consider the column “Performance Review,” in which “each entry focuses on a specific category in a given year, in several different awards ceremonies, in an effort to determine the year’s most criminally overlooked performances. First stop: Bes Supporting Actor, 1991.

I love Mike D’Angelo’s appreciation of Samuel L. Jackson’s un-nominated—by Oscar—role as Gator in Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever”; he was honored by the New York Film Critics Circle:

“[I]n his final confrontation with his father, his act of defiance takes the form of a silent, murderous hate-shimmy that conveys far more contempt than words ever could. It’s chilling to behold. One year earlier, Jackson was still playing roles like ‘Taxi Dispatcher’ in films like ‘Betsy’s Wedding’; Gator changed that, and it’s no surprise it was the New York critics who acknowledged it.”

The Dissolve seems a worthy entry in the crowded field of online movie criticism, and it will be interesting to watch it develop.

And the rest:

  • “Eyes Wide Shut” opened on July 16, 1999. To commemorate, The Film Stage offers a doc on symbolism in Kubrick’s swan song.
  • “Only God Forgives finally opens this Friday, and I am having an internal debate: theater, or home? Chances are I’ll opt for VOD. I’m very much looking forward to it, although it’s difficult not to go in expecting a major letdown. Here is one of the more interesting reviews I’ve come across so far.
  • A Tweet about the ending of Jeff Nichols’ “Take Shelter” led me to this nice analysis of that film’s mysterious and controversial ending.
  • Two must-see trailers: The latest American preview for Wong Kar-wai’s “The Grandmaster,” and the first look at Spike Lee’s “Oldboy.” I did not spot a squid.
  • The great Indiewire is 15. Take a look at its “first issue.” Author Irvine Welsh made an appearance: “According to a story in this week’s issue of _New Yorker Magazine_ (July 15, 1996) the novelist who wrote TRAINSPOTTING spent a night in jail following ‘a recent four-day binge’ which featured ‘everything—everything you can imagine.’”
  • David Cronenberg’s latest has begun filming. “Map to the Stars” John Cusack, Julianne Moore, Robert Pattinson, Mia Wasikowska, Olivia Williams, and Sarah Gadon.
  • The unrealized projects of Alan Resnais.
  • Guess what? Only 50 days until TIFF.

“The Age of Innocence” still is from a TIFF retrospective of the film

David Fincher Returns … With a Lovely Calvin Klein Commercial Starring Rooney Mara

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At some point in the last decade, probably around the release of “Zodiac,” David Fincher became one of my favorite filmmakers. I had always found his work compelling, even “Alien 3,” but it was that 70s-set mind-F epic that truly knocked me over. Since that film, I liked “Benjamin Button,” really liked “The Social Network,” and loved “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”

“Dragon Tattoo” is a film that demands reevaluation; I still believe it was not given a fair shake critically, and was released at an insanely bad time (the holidays). What even the haters will agree on is that it was a star-making role for Rooney Mara, an actress who embodied the heroine of Stieg Larsson’s book (like Noomi Rapace did), but added a level of fragility that was positively mesmerizing.

Her performance is, I think, one of modern cinema’s finest, and it made me a swooning-Rooney-ite.

Mara went on to “Side Effects” and the upcoming “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” while Fincher turned to the Netflix series “House of Cards” as producer and occasional director. But what about big-screen Fincher?

The answer finally came this week, as it was finally announced that he would direct an adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl.” I am currently reading the massive bestseller, and while it has not completely grabbed me yet, I can see why it appeals to the director. If he’s looking for a commercial slam-dunk, this is it. And now that he has inked Ben Affleck? Even better. It will be interesting to see who is cast as the female lead; while still early in the book, I see it as a Jessica Chastain/Amy Adams type.

“Gone Girl” is an exciting choice, but that’s now surprise; check out the many interesting projects Fincher supposedly had percolating:

  • “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”: An odd choice, to be sure, but a fascinating. The latest, sadly, is that Brad Pitt has passed on this oft-delayed movie. That’s a bit of a surprise, and one wonders if this may sink the whole project.
  • “The Girl Who Played With Fire”: As a “Dragon Tattoo” fan, I am hoping this is next, but it is unlikely to be the case. And if it is, it is hard to know whether Fincher will be behind the camera. There were recent rumors that Daniel Craig was holding things up with salary demands, although there is no confirmation that this is indeed the case.
  • “Utopia”: News just broke that Fincher may be developing an American version of this U.K. series.

The finest recent example of Fincher’s talents might just be this drop-dead-gorgeous black-and-white Calvin Klein commercial starring one Rooney Mara. It is a stunner, and a reminder of his commercial roots. He seems to bring something truly entrancing out of Mara, and perhaps the finest praise one can give this TV spot is that it makes me hungry to see them work together again. Like, now. Is it too late to throw her name in the mix for “Gone Girl”?

 

Image: © Calvin Klein

“Stories We Tell” is Sarah Polley’s Greatest Achievement Yet — and Perhaps the Year’s Best Film

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It has been a little over a week since I finally saw Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell,” the actor-director’s documentary exploration of her family and lineage, and I still cannot get it out of my head. That is not always a sign of greatness — there have been movies I couldn’t shake because of how awful they were — but it is this time.

I can say with some certainty that “Stories We Tell” is the best film I’ve seen in 2013, and, I think, one of the finest works about family and memory in recent years.

Yet it’s a difficult film to discuss, as every detail seems like a spoiler. I noticed, in the time between the film’s TIFF 2012 premiere and my seeing it, that almost every review or piece about the film referenced “spoilers” or included a “spoiler alert.” I found that rather obnoxious, but now I see why that was so important.

I think it’s imperative that one enter “Stories We Tell” cold — spoiler-free, if you will. But I say that not only because of the film’s central “secret,” which is alluded to in the film’s trailer, but because of … the rest of it. There was a moment that left me confused, breathless, and exhilarated, and that is the feeling that has lingered for me. Even discussing what Polley is actually up to here as a storyteller feels like a reveal.

Something I CAN discuss is Polley herself. Consider some of her acting resume — Atom Egoyan’s “Exotica” and “The Sweet Hereafter,” Cronenberg’s “eXistenZ,” not to mention “Last Night,” “Go,” “The Claim,” “My Life Without Me,” “Dawn of the Dead,” even “Splice,” which I despised — and then ponder her films as a director (“Away From Her,” “Take This Waltz,” “Stories”), and try to find another actor with that level of range, stylistic variety, and sheer ambition.

Personally, I have always found her unique, especially after her directorial debut, the emotional sucker-punch that was “Away From Her.” My experience with “Waltz,” however, was far different.

I saw the film at a critic’s screening on a weekend morning at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, and I was quite excited considering my love of “Away.” The movie started, and … I hated it. I mean, really, truly hated it. I did not buy it, I found the lead played by Michelle Williams to be obnoxious to the point of outrage, despised Seth Rogen’s character’s job (cookbook author), and about 45 minutes in felt I could not take any more.

So I left. It is easy to do at TIFF; generally, there is another movie across the hall. In this case, that movie was “Burning Man,” which I have called the worst film I ever sat at TIFF. Anyway …

Eight or nine months later, I noticed “Take This Waltz,” that received some real raves at TIFF, was airing on HDNet, a cable channel that often shows Magnolia Pictures’ films as “sneak previews.” (HDNet used to do this, at least; such films have disappeared from its schedule.)

I was determined to watch it again. Could I have been mistaken? Was I in a bad mood that morning? Was it possible I misread everything?

And so I did. And guess what? I was wrong. This time, I adored “Take This Waltz” — was gob-smacked by it. Things that I found obnoxious were still there, but they were obnoxious by design. The central character was a bit annoying, but annoying by design. And its central conflict — whether or not Margot would sleep with Daniel (Luke Kirby) — suddenly seemed remarkably profound.

There was also a scene I had missed by walking out — in my defense, I was not reviewing the film; obviously, if I had been, I would have stayed — that, to me, was one of the simplest, finest distillations of the rush of new love and its inevitable comedown ever.

It’s set in some kind of indoor carnival in Toronto, and Margot and Daniel laugh and hold on for dear life in a ride as “Video Killed the Radio Star” plays in the background. They are young, and in love, and life is beautiful, and then — boom. The ride stops, the music is gone, and harsh light fills the room. Beautiful.

Sarah Polley is, then, someone with real insight on love and life. Watching “Stories We Tell,” her finest creation to date, it is easy to see why.

The film comes to DVD etc. in September, and I urge you to see it — and to not read any reviews first.

 

Director Sarah Polley in a scene from “STORIES WE TELL.” Credit: Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Rent It (Soon): Sally Potter’s “Ginger and Rosa” is a Compelling 60s-set Drama

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Sally Potter’s “Ginger and Rosa” comes to DVD etc. on July 23, and it’s a compelling, smart film with great performances and a wonderful sense of place. I wrote about the film for buffalospree.com upon its Buffalo release a few months ago, and as I noted, it is yet another intriguing entry from the “Orlando” director. Note that I drew some comparisons with “Something in the Air,” a film I very much look forward to seeing again. I think my opinion of it is still evolving.

Festivals never quite finish. Yes, the schedules end, the producers and stars head home, and thoughts turn to next year (or the next festival). But the films keep popping up. Sometimes they appear after only a few days or weeks, sometimes months or years.

I’ve seen this happen firsthand after every installment of the Toronto International Film Festival that I’ve attended; just the other day, I noticed that the forgotten Josh Hartnett action film “Bunraku” (from TIFF 2010) was now streaming on Netflix. Go figure.

Oddly, several of the more intriguing films from TIFF 2012 are finally opening in North America. One of these, Derek Cianfrance’s sprawling crime epic “The Place Beyond the Pines,” is the best film I’ve seen this year; it opens in Buffalo shortly. Another, Sally Potter’s somber, moving drama “Ginger and Rosa,” arrives this Friday, and like “Pines,” it is a unique, well-acted film that’s certainly worth your time.

Elle Fanning and newcomer Alice Englert star as the titular teenagers. It is the London of the 1960s, and the world is gripped by Cold War anxiety. Ginger (Fanning) in particular becomes obsessed with the Cuban Missile Crisis, and begins to devote much of her time to anti-nuclear protests. This, perhaps, was the time she used to spend with Rosa. Once best friends, Ginger and Rosa have drift apart as Rosa becomes involved with Ginger’s dashing father, played by Alessandro Nivola.

Indeed, both friends have found paths to rebellion, but very different ones. The film ends not with the expected dramatic rupture, but instead with talk, and some tears. It’s an appropriate ending, for it was clearly a time period in which societal upheaval was just as likely to result in disappointment as it was triumph.

Potter’s career has been a fascinating one, and while Orlando remains her finest work, but “Ginger and Rosa” seems to be her most personal film yet. The English filmmaker clearly knows the locales and the time period well, and her focus on small stylistic detail is astounding.

The performances are uniformly great, as one might expect from a film featuring Nivola, Annette Bening, Timothy Spall, and Oliver Platt. But it is Elle Fanning who registers strongest. This is another great performance from the young star of “Super 8” and “Somewhere” — her best yet — and an indicator that she is one of the sharpest young talents in cinema.

In some ways, Ginger and Rosa reminded me of another TIFF 2012 selection, Olivier Assayas’s “Something in the Air.” But the “Carlos” and “Summer Hours” director’s study of young people in post May ’68 France was a curiously unemotional affair, one full of visual beauty and dreamy elegance, but a distinct lack of drama. “Ginger and Rosa” is the flip side. Potter’s film is all emotion, and while it is not quite as “pretty” as “Something,” makes for more satisfying viewing.

“Ginger and Rosa,” a smart, moving story of the complexities of friendship and young adulthood, opens on Friday; stay tuned for more TIFF 2012 updates from me in the weeks and months ahead.

 

Photo courtesy of A24

Rent It: Marion Cotillard Gave 2012’s Finest Performance in “Rust and Bone”

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A couple days ago, I told you about “Little White Lies,” a Marion Cotillard-starrer now streaming on Netflix. Sadly, one of her many films only available on disc is “Rust and Bone,” although you can stream it from Amazon for $12.99. It is a great film, I think, one I would call a must-see. Here is my four-star Buffalo News review.

“Rust and Bone” is 2012’s most intensely physical love story, an emotionally shattering sensory collision of killer whales, prosthetic limbs, bare-knuckle kick-boxing, and Katy Perry’s “Fireworks.”

Sounds like a mess, doesn’t it? Have no fear. Jacques Audiard’s French language Cannes entry is a triumph, an intense, jolting experience that verges on the overwrought but never falls overboard.

Marion Cotillard is Stephanie, a killer whale trainer whose life changes following a devastating tragedy, and even though the Oscars foolishly ignored her work, it might be the year’s most complete performance. (What happens to Stephanie is not a secret. Yet not knowing might make the film an even more powerful experience.)

Before the accident, Stephanie meets Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), a beefy, ornery brute and single father. His past includes a kick-boxing stint, and his dream is to get back in that world; a child is not part of the plan.

Ali and Sam move in with his put-upon sister Anna (Corinne Masiero), a frazzled but caring supermarket employee, and her husband, and Ali gets a job as a bouncer. Here, he assists a sad-eyed woman with a knack for trouble – Stephanie. These wounded souls – both physically and emotionally battered – forge a friendship, an odd one.

Stephanie is still recovering from a life-changing event. Ali does not want to be a father to Sam, leading to several heart-wrenching scenes with young actor Armand Verdure. Watch the boy’s reaction when Ali angrily hoses him down, or after a beloved dog is taken away. Then watch Schoenaerts’ responses. You’ll hate him, but you’ll buy every second of it.

As “Rust and Bone” develops, we see almost every corner of Stephanie and Ali’s lives. We watch as the relationship becomes sexual, as the unthinking Ali both nurtures and hurts, as he begins brutal back-alley kick-boxing for money, as he seems to grow, a little, as a father, and as Stephanie starts to live again.

It is occasionally overwhelming, never more so than during the film’s last 10 minutes, a scene involving Sam that many will call manipulative, but in the context of the film seems grimly logical. It works, for three main reasons: its lead actress and actor, and its director.

Cotillard’s passionate, note-perfect work is no surprise; from her Oscar-winning performance as Edith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose” to her unhinged support in “Inception,” she has become one of our finest actors — if not the finest.

But unless you’re one of the lucky few to have experienced last year’s Academy Award-nominated foreign film “Bullhead,” this is your introduction to Schoenaerts, and you’re unlikely to forget it. Along with Tom Hardy, Schoenaerts is our most physically emotive performer, an actor who punches, yells and detonates with Brando-like muscle.

It’s overseen by Audiard, the stylist behind the violent French hits “The Beat That My Heart Skipped” and “A Prophet.” From its uses of music and silence to its visual majesty, it’s the work of a director in full command.

“Rust and Bone” is not a film that works for everyone; the inane Entertainment Weekly included it on its worst of 2012 list. But if it wraps you up, it’s a wrenching, overpowering creation. I’d call it one of the most satisfying love stories in recent memory.

 

Photo: Marion Cotillard as Stephanie and Matthias Schoenaerts as Ali; photo by Jean-Baptiste Modino, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

 

Weekend Preview: Has “Pacific Rim” Effectively Fought the Flop Predictions? And Will “Grown Ups 2” be the Worst Film Ever Made?

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Make no mistake, there is a lot riding on the success or failure of Guillermo Del Toro’s giant-monster epic “Pacific Rim” this weekend. Here, after all, is an original story in a summer of sequels, directed by one of filmdom’s most ambitious directors.

It also has spent the last few weeks trying to counter buzz that had it prematurely pegged as this summer’s “Battleship.”

Since then, Legendary Entertainment and its current (not for long) partner Warner Bros. have fought back. Reviews have started to surface, and they are mostly positive — Kanye West loved it. Has the tide turned? It is hard to say. The trailers have been rainy and dark, the cast is full of good actors who are not stars (Idris Elba, Ron Perlman), and Del Toro is nothing if not an idiosyncratic director, one who is capable of greatness (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) and coasting (“Hellboy 2”).

My guess is that the film will open strongly, draw an interested first-weekend crowd, and then plateau, although the last several days have seen varying predictions. But I truly hope it is not considered a failure, because we need directors like Guillermo Del Toro swinging for the summer fences, dammit.

It will be especially galling if “Rim” is felled by “Grown Ups 2.” I have a friend who sincerely believes “Grown Ups” is the worst film ever made … and while I don’t think it’s quite THAT bad, it is one of the worst studio films of the last decade. “GU2” looks beyond awful, but in a summer of downright strange family entertainment (see heart-eating in “The Lone Ranger”), my guess is parents will see this as a film they can see with their 10 to 16 year olds. Whether or not they SHOULD is another story.

On the indie front, the Israeli drama “Fill the Void” opens at the Amherst Dipson after earning raves at TIFF and beyond. I reviewed the film for the Buffalo News and quite liked it (3 ½ stars). It is a complex look at Hasidic Orthodox culture, and certainly absorbing.

Two other notable indies are opening at the Amherst: “Unfinished Song” and “Dirt Wars.” The former is said to feature one of Terrence Stamp’s finest performances, this U.K. drama appears to be his meatiest part since Soderbergh’s “The Limey.” Perhaps the original General Zod will find himself in next year’s awards chatter. The latter, “Dirty Wars,” is an acclaimed documentary about overseas U.S. military action. It is also available On Demand.

The Screening Room brings back two of last weekend’s movies, with “Grease” at 7:15 p.m. and “Forbidden Plant” at 9:15 on July 12–13. Meanwhile, Fritz Lang’s C-3PO-influencing silent masterpiece “Metropolis” screens at 7:30 on July 16, and a poetry night is scheduled for the next night, July 17, at 7:30.

Bacchus screens this year’s Oscar-winner for Best Picture, “Argo,” on Thursday (July 17), while the UB North Campus has “42” on Friday (July 12), and the Tom Cruise sci-fi film “Oblivion on Tuesday (June 16), both at 9:15. The UB South Campus offers “Oblivion” at 9:15 on Wednesday (July 17).

Note that we are entering that weird mid-to-late summer timeframe, with some probable hits (“Wolverine”), some probable flops (“R.I.P.D.”), and some I don’t-know-whats (“The Smurfs 2”).

Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures; Ethan Miller/Getty Images