Two great actresses, but only one good movie
Glenn Close has spent the past thirty years trying to make a film version of Albert Nobbs, a stage play she starred in way back in 1982 as a male valet who lives and works in a high end hotel in early 20th century Ireland. But Nobbs carries an explosive secret: "he" is actually a "she," a gender switch she made decades ago in order to find steady employment. Having grown accustomed to (if not exactly comfortable with) her male identity -- to the point where she never refers to her birth name, even in private -- Albert imagines a future where he settles down with a lovely chambermaid at the hotel (Mia Wasikowska) and opens a small shop. But then he meets Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), another woman-passing-as-a-man who tries to put Albert back in touch with his feminine side. Meanwhile, the object of his affection is growing closer to the hotel's newest employee, the strapping, if easily angered young man, Joe (Aaron Johnson). The stage is set for tragedy and Albert Nobbs responds appropriately, building to a mournful denouement. Both Close and McTeer recently received Oscar nominations for their performances and it's hard to find obvious fault with their strong work here, or with Close's fierce commitment to seeing this movie made. The finished product, however, isn't exactly worth the 30-year-wait as the passion the star has for the material doesn't come across onscreen. It's always a challenge to center an entire movie around a protagonist who's so restrained and reactive, and that's what eventually dooms Albert Nobbs, both the character and the film. Viewers should sympathize with Albert, but they shouldn't feel superior to her, which is what ends up happening here as we watch her make one bad decision after another. Meanwhile, director Rodrigo Garcia keeps a too-heavy hand on the movie's tone and visual language, which results in increasing the dramatic tedium rather than the tension. Close may have finally realized a life goal (and gotten an Oscar nod) by getting this movie made, but general audiences won't come away sharing the same sense of accomplishment.
We Need to Talk About Kevin
Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk About Kevin is a challenging movie to watch and not just because it's about a teenager who goes on a killing spree at his high school. No, what makes the film tough to process at times is the first-person approach Ramsay takes to the narrative. The movie's events unfold entirely through the eyes and disjointed memory of the killer's mother Eva (Tilda Swinton), a former travel writer who entered motherhood with extreme reluctance. From the time her son, Kevin (played as a teen by Ezra Miller) was born, Eva was convinced there was something fundamentally wrong with him, even as her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) laughed off her suspicions. It turns out, of course, that mother knows best, as Kevin graduates from destroying things around the house to causing an accident that costs his young sister an eye to murdering students and teachers at his high school with his trusty bow-and-arrow. Eva relives her life in disjointed fragments, regularly jumping back and forth between the present and the past. Her cluttered mind also makes her an unreliable narrator -- we're never exactly sure how much of what she's remembering is "real." I have to admit to finding the movie's deliberately heightened reality irritating after a certain point and wished that Ramsay would offer up even just one scene that seemed objectively authentic. But Swinton's complex, layered performance is impressive throughout and there are a number of moments -- including a haunting montage of costumed Halloween revelers scored to Buddy Holly's classic ditty, "Everyday" -- that are strangely beautiful. Warning to just-married couples: seeing this movie may cause you to think twice about becoming parents.
After Fall, Winter
Back in the early '90s, Eric Schaeffer enjoyed a brief stint as an indie movie savant following the release of his 1993 debut feature, My Life's in Turnaround, one of those "movies about making movies" that were so popular at the time. (See the far superior Living in Oblivion and ...And God Spoke.) Schaeffer parlayed that success into the studio vehicle If Lucy Fell, starring himself, Sarah Jessica Parker and Ben Stiller. But when that movie tanked, his quick ascent was put on hold, and while he continued to work steadily as an actor and director, he never regained that early buzz. His latest feature, After Fall, Winter, isn't exactly going to restore his reputation. Schaeffer wrote, directed and stars in this overwrought drama, playing frustrated novelist Michael, who retreats to Paris to escape all the rejection notices coming his way from publishers and striking up a love affair with dominatrix-for-hire, Sophie (Lizzie Brocheré). When she's not doling out S&M punishment to her clients, Sophie acts as a kind of grief counselor for the dying, like the 13-year-old cancer patient she regularly visits in the hospital. For reasons that are only clear to Schaeffer, Sophie lets down her guard (and her whips) and allows Michael into her life, despite the fact that he's pushy and obnoxious. By the time their unlikely (and unpleasant) love story comes to a sad end after a punishing 130-minute runtime, there won't be a wet eye in the house.
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