Saturday, October 27, 2012


(Canada/France - 2012)

Veteran Canadian actress Sarah Polley showed maturity beyond her years when she made her writing/directing debut at 28 with 2007's AWAY FROM HER, a sensitive and emotionally devastating look an at aging couple struggling to cope when the wife (Julie Christie) is diagnosed with Alzheimers.  As an actress, Polley has always chosen smart and creative projects, even in the occasional instances when she stars in something commercial (1999's GO or the 2004 remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD).  Dating back to her childhood, Polley has worked with many great filmmakers--Terry Gilliam, Atom Egoyan, David Cronenberg, Wim Wenders, just to name a few--and she's learned from them.  Her second feature, TAKE THIS WALTZ, is uneven and too frequently succumbs to quirkiness and occasionally feels "cute" to the point of annoyance.  But it's a deliberate and clever misdirection and it enables the film to really sneak up on you in its much more effective second half.  In a bohemian enclave in Toronto, travel writer Margot (Michelle Williams, who's very quietly become one of today's great actresses) and cookbook author Lou (a nice dramatic turn by Seth Rogen) have been married for five years and a sense of complacency has crept in.  They have goofy rituals and talk to each other in funny voices and they seem more like close friends than a married couple.  Entering the situation is Daniel (Luke Kirby), who Margot meets while on a research trip and it turns out he lives just a few doors down the street.  They begin a flirtaceous but platonic relationship as Margot wrestles with the idea of the known/old (Lou) vs. the unknown/new (Daniel). 

While Polley's script (and a lot of Williams' and Rogen's dialogue feels improvised) is frequently more quirky than it needs to be (Daniel works as a rickshaw driver?) and the dialogue in the early going too obviously prophetic (Margot on air travel: "I'm afraid of connections"), it eventually displays a level of honesty and complexity rarely seen in films like this.  You ever notice in movies how, when men have affairs, they're selfish assholes, but when women have affairs, it's because they need to "find themselves"?  Polley approaches it differently.  Her characters are real (she takes a big risk by making Margot frequently obnoxious) and they're flawed.  She and the film don't take sides, they don't make excuses, and they don't provide any easy answers.  And when certain things are revealed, the characters respond like real people would respond (Rogen is especially good late in the film).  TAKE THIS WALTZ can best be summed up by a line during a scene in a gym shower where Margot is listening to Lou's recovering alcoholic sister (Sarah Silverman, also good in a serious role) talk about the sense of boredom, the routine, and the lack of "new" in her own marriage, and an older woman overhears them and offers some simple words of experience and wisdom:  "New things get old, too."  (R, 116 mins)

(US/Russia - 2012)

A lunkheaded but surprisingly entertaining "men on a mission" combat action film, the barely-released SOLDIERS OF FORTUNE gets off to a clunky and exposition-heavy start before finding its groove as a likably brainless second-string EXPENDABLES.  For a while, it gets perilously close to being a subversively satirical commentary before backing up and focusing on blowing shit up.  Maybe it's the overqualified cast that does a good job of selling it--and admittedly, it's a dumb movie--but I was surprised at how much I found myself enjoying it.  In desperate need of cash, disgraced ex-Marine Christian Slater accepts a job with Soldiers of Fortune, a war-games resort company that caters to billionaires and assorted One-Percenters wishing to experience the thrill of warfare without the danger of actually being killed.  With his fellow dishonorably discharged pal Freddy Rodriguez tagging along, Slater heads to Ukraine to whip his unlikely soldiers into shape:  there's mining magnate Sean Bean, telecommunications giant James Cromwell, international arms dealer Ving Rhames, Wall Street hedge-fund dickwad Charlie Bewley, and spazzy video-game designer Dominic Monaghan.  Essentially observers on a mercenary mission to Snake Island to topple a nefarious Russian colonel (Gennadi Vengerov), the rich fatcats are forced into battle when all of the experienced military guys except Slater are killed en route to the island.  Of course, this is personal to Slater:  the Russian's right-hand man is rogue CIA agent-turned-contractor Colm Meaney, who--wait for it--was the guy responsible for ruining Slater's military career.

SOLDIERS OF FORTUNE never takes itself seriously, and at times, it seems like it might cross the line into actual comedy.  But even as a cliche-filled action film, it's a total guilty pleasure.  Director Maxim Korostyshevsky does a good job making a low-budget film look a lot "bigger" than it really is.  It's very nicely shot in some scenic Ukraine areas (a welcome change of pace from the dreary Bulgarian locations usually seen in this type of thing), there's some daring stunt work, convincing explosions (some CGI, some real), minimal shaky-cam, and a good mix of CGI blood with actual splattery squibs so as not to look completely cartoonish.  There's nothing here you haven't seen before (sweeping aerial shot of the heroes walking a narrow path along the top of a mountain?  Check!  Sneering villain strutting into the room where the nabbed heroes are being held and gloating "Hello again, gentlemen..."?  Check!), but the ensemble cast works very well together and they seem to be having a good time.  Not a great or even a very good film by any means, but it's a lot of fun and accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do, and definitely deserved more than a 50-screen dumping with no publicity at all.  (R, 94 mins)

(France/Poland - 2012)

This frustrating and impenetrable would-be thriller from acclaimed Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski (MY SUMMER OF LOVE) establishes a certain degree of interest for a while but it doesn't take very long to conclude that it simply isn't going anywhere.  Tom Ricks (Ethan Hawke) is an American novelist and literature prof who arrives in Paris and drops in unexpectedly on his estranged wife (Delphine Chuillot) and young daughter (Julie Papillon), in apparent disregard of a restraining order.  Ricks has recently had a mental breakdown and may or may not have been hospitalized or imprisoned.  He's also a bit of a clueless doof, as he falls asleep on a bus and wakes up to find his bags stolen.  He gets a room at a seedy bar/flophouse run by the obviously shady Sezer (Samir Guesmi), who agrees to provide room and board if Ricks will spend his evenings watching a video monitor outside a drug den that he owns.  Ricks foolishly gets involved with Sezer's Polish girlfriend Ania (Joanna Kulig) while at the same time seeing a mystery woman named Margit (Kristin Scott Thomas) who he meets at a literary gathering.  A third-act twist merely confirms what was suspected all along, but it still doesn't really provide any answers, as the whole story may or may not even be happening.  It's really quite dull and pointless, and the pieces of the puzzle probably aren't even meant to fit, which would be fine if it was a visually interesting work.  Hawke is fine in the lead, and plays most of his role in French, but THE WOMAN IN THE FIFTH isn't suspenseful, it isn't overtly stylish, and it's not erotic.  It's the kind of ponderous snoozer that gives subtitled arthouse films a snobby rep. (R, 84 mins, also available on Netflix streaming)

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