Four stars for ‘Two Days, One Night’

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Regular readers know how I feel about “Two Days, One Night,” but I was excited to have the opportunity to review for the Buffalo News. I gave it four stars.

Sandra is in the midst of a predicament far beyond her control. The young Belgian wife and mother suffered a nervous breakdown that led to time away from her factory job.

She has recovered, and is prepared to return to work. But things have changed during her time off. Management found that employees were able to cover for her absence, and eventually came up with a proposal, one with great ramifications for Sandra, her family and her 16 factory co-workers: In exchange for Sandra’s dismissal, the employee will receive a bonus of 1,000 euros. If they turn down the bonus, Sandra can keep her job. Quid pro quo.

Sandra must find a way to convince her co-workers – all in need of the bonus money – to forego that extra financial help so she can remain employed and support her family. Sandra has one weekend to do so.

That is the setup for “Two Days, One Night,” the latest film from Belgian auteurs Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne. It is a simple premise, really, but one anchored in the now.

Above all else, it features the finest performance of 2014, from the great Marion Cotillard. The result is a stunning, vivid, important film that ranks among the Dardennes’ best, and last year’s strongest.

With her supportive husband in tow, Sandra’s journey takes her from co-worker to co-worker, the same quest always in mind. Some are quickly on board – one breaks down in tears, remembering a time Sandra covered for his job error. Some react violently, including a hot-headed 20-something who angrily goes against his father, a co-worker in support of Sandra’s plan.

Along the way, we see that everyone is in pain over the vote, and none of the employees can truly be called cruel.

The Dardennes succeed in making Sandra’s dilemma the audience’s dilemma. We feel for her, and see the pain in her eyes. She does not want to impose upon her co-workers, nor do we want her to. But what choice does she have?

The Dardennes ask us, what choice do the co-workers have? Almost all of them have families. Some are working extra jobs to make ends meet. Others simply know the difference the money would make in their lives. What do they owe Sandra? What does she owe them?

“Put yourself in my shoes,” says one of Sandra’s co-workers. That statement captures the complexity of the situation, and it is this complexity that makes “Two Days, One Night” such a compelling journey.

“Two Days” ends in a vote, but the scenes that follow the vote are the film’s most impressive. They involve an idea that turns the tables, and to some degree, puts Sandra in control. Her decision tells us everything we need to know about who she is, and her feelings for others.

Cotillard received a Best Actress nomination, and while she is unlikely to win, it is not hyperbole to say this subtle performance towers over the other acting nominees – male or female. Cotillard skillfully underplays, avoiding the overemotional, showy theatrics that often plague such dramas.

This is her best work, and considering the actress’ résumé – her Oscar-winning role in “La Vie En Rose,” “Nine,” “Rust and Bone” and the unjustly ignored “The Immigrant” – that says a lot.

For Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, the film represents another high. It is perhaps their most accessible film and stands proudly alongside such masterpieces as “La Promesse,” “Rosetta,” “L’Enfant,” and “The Kid With a Bike.”

“Two Days” takes place in Belgium, but the issues – the sins of corporate management, the ongoing struggles of blue-collar workers, the role of women in the workplace, the inherent power of solidarity – are just as vital in North America.

This simple premise involving one woman’s quest to keep her job says so much about our world. That’s a testament to the skills of the Dardennes and Cotillard, and to the power of cinema.

“The Immigrant” is one of 2014’s best … but good luck seeing it

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It took me a year to have the opportunity to see James Gray’s “The Immigrant,” but the film was worth the wait. What a shame that it has been seemingly buried in the United States, and Canada. (A Toronto friend told me it was actually released in Buffalo before Toronto. That never happens!)

I’m not sure why exactly the film has been treated so poorly. It is the newest work from a critically acclaimed director, stars an Oscar winner (Marion Cotillard) and two former nominees (Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner), was shown to some acclaim at Cannes, and, at the very least, should be attractive to anyone who with even the slightest bit of interest in 20th century American history.

“The Immigrant” takes its time, plunging the viewer into Ellis Island and then letting events play out. It is anchored by the lovely Cotillard’s latest great performance, as Ewa, an immigrant seeking to reunite with her sister, who has been detained due to illness. Phoenix is the slightly seedy businessman who “saves” Ewa, but pushes her into prostitution. Renner is a charming magician perennially at odds with Phoenix’s Bruno.

It is a stunningly photographed, moving story of survival, and one that grows stronger upon contemplation. Its last shot might be the most memorable and perfectly composed of 2014.

But good luck seeing it at a theater near you. Hopefully, it will arrive soon on DVD/etc., and receive the audience it deserves.

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

 

Cotillard, Owen, Kunis, Schoenaerts, Saldana, Crudup, and Caan: “Blood Ties” Might Have the Year’s Coolest Cast

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I’m not entirely sure how it fell under my radar, but racing onto my list of most anticipated 2013 films is certainly Guillaume Canet’s “Blood Ties,” a crime saga co-written by James Gray. It just made its out-of-competition premiere at Cannes with a cast that is, quite simply, impeccable: Marion Cotillard, Clive Owen, Mila Kunis, Matthias Schoenaerts, Zoe Saldana, Billy Crudup, and James Caan.

Think about that group. Cotillard and Schoenaerts are fresh off the success of “Rust and Bone,” one of my 2012 favorites. Kunis and Saldana are two of the hottest young actresses in Hollywood. Owen and Crudup are two solid actors who are too often stuck in lackluster projects, and seem ready for something meaty. And who better to round out the cast of an epic cops-and-crooks tale than Jimmy Caan? Plus, there is Canet. The actor-director who helmed the international hit “Tell No One,” based “Blood Ties” on a remake of the 2008 French release Les Liens du Sang (Rivals), which he co-starred in.

But … the response at Cannes has not been strong. In fact, it has been pretty bad. There are a number of films that have drawn negative reactions in Cannes and garnered praise elsewhere — neither “Marie Antoinette” or “Enter the Void” could be labeled as hits, but both drew stronger responses in North American than they did following their Cannes debuts — and as The Playlist points out, the film is not set to open until the fall (and has no American distributor) yet, so reediting is possible.

The Hollywood Reporter called it “overstuffed” and “lethargic,” Variety said it is “sluggish” and “dramatically undernourished,” and The Playlist said the film is not a disaster, but “certainly a mess” that “never quite lives up to its epic scope.” Xan Brooks in The Guardian did come down quite so hard, describing it as something of a guilty pleasure: “‘Blood Ties’ is Cannes’ equivalent of a hamburger — pink in the middle with French dressing on the side. Inside the screening room, the delegates wolfed it down and then belched their approval.”

Still, the trailer is phenomenal (looking very James Gray-meets-“American Gangster”), and I recall the response to the similarly sprawling “Place Beyond the Pines” was a tad mixed coming out of TIFF, so who knows?

It’s exciting to see Clive Owen in a truly interesting project again. Last week, while driving home from downtown Buffalo, I noticed a cool-as-f*** Owen on a billboard hawking some kind of booze, and it got me to thinking about his career. He has not made a great feature since 2006, the year of “Children of Men” and “Inside Man,” and his recent output has been stunningly bland: “Killer Elite,” “The Boys Are Back,” “Duplicity.” Perhaps “Blood Ties” and the upcoming “Sin City” sequel will put the “Croupier” star back on track.

I’ll be keeping an eye out for more “Blood Ties” news; TIFF certainly seems a possibility.

(Speaking of James Gray and Marion Cotillard, Gray is the director and Cotillard is the star of another buzzed Cannes film, “The Immigrant,” co-starring Joaquin Phoenix.)

Poster from The Playlist