In noirish ‘Clouds,’ Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart shine

At a recent press screening, several of my fellow critics and I were lamenting the lack of good movies released so far this year. It’s about time for some titles worth touting.

Clouds of Sils Maria poster with JB KSThe one standout, most of us agreed, is French writer/director Olivier Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Maria,” a drama with neo-noir elements (set in Sils Maria, Switzerland) that revolves around a high-profile actress, exuding poise and sophistication, named Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche).

Maria’s enviable career comes full circle when she is talked into making the ultimate encore: She will return to the play that spurred her success 20 years before, though this time she will star as the older women whose life is falling apart. Cast as the luscious ingénue in this rendition is a Hollywood bad girl struggling to steer clear of the tabloids and be taken seriously as an actress (Chloë Grace Moretz). Kristen Stewart co-stars as Maria’s smart, cynical and chicly bespectacled assistant, Valentine.

We are introduced to Maria and Valentine on a train as it solemnly chugs though gorgeous mountain country and the story of these two women, a generation apart, unfolds like a long journey – freeing and claustrophobic, intimate and impersonal, destined yet random and mysterious. We see the boundaries of their intense relationship stretch, fray and then suddenly, frighteningly vanish.

“Clouds of Sils Maria,” beautifully shot, impeccably cast and confidently directed, has deservedly garnered much praise, especially for the superb performances from leads Binoche and Stewart. (Never having seen “Twilight,” I am now a big Stewart fan).

Suspenseful and sly, wistful and resonant, “Clouds” should not be missed.

Ex Machina posterMeanwhile, many reviewers have been impressed with first-time director Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina” (Garland also wrote the script). This sleek sci-fi thriller is crisply smart, coolly shot with a chilly color palette and well acted. In fact, I failed to recognize Oscar Isaac as the mad but muted scientist. Domhnall Gleeson plays a young techie who wins the chance to assess the emotional intelligence of a sexy female robot – a truly heartless femme fatale (Alicia Vikander). It sounds good and looks great but somehow the film overall felt slightly shallow and short on ideas.

Similarly, “True Story,” fails to live up to its potential, despite grisly real-life details. James Franco plays Christian Longo, an Oregon man who received the death sentence in 2003 for murdering his family. While on the run in Mexico, Longo impersonated a journalist named Mike Finkel (Jonah Hill). In need of a career boost after being fired by the New York Times for making up one of the interviewees in a magazine story, Finkel agreed to write about Longo and later published a memoir about his experience.

True Story posterFranco and Hill are compelling as is Felicity Jones as Finkel’s girlfriend. But director and co-writer Rupert Goold loses his way and the storytelling soon becomes murky.

Also, it’s a bit hard to take “True Story” seriously when it depicts the New York Times newsroom as a place where reporters raucously drink beer and play poker after submitting their stories. (Or maybe it’s just hard to take James Franco seriously after the fiasco that was “Child of God”). But it’s been a few weeks since I’ve seen it and nothing much of the movie has stuck with me. Still, there are worse ways to kill two hours.

Also drawing mixed but mostly good reviews is Levan Gabriadze’s debut feature “Unfriended,” a horror flick that takes place entirely on the small screen, ie Skype and Facebook. Shelley Hennig leads a cast of high-school friends who are harassed by a mysterious cyber-stalker. It’s a clever gimmick and the acting’s good, but other than that, “Unfriended” tells a same-old same-old story about the secrets and betrayals of teen friendships and romance.

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‘Dark Shadows’ fam is all dressed up with nowhere to go

Dark Shadows/2012/Warner Bros. Pictures, Tim Burton Productions/113 min.

A vampire may be able to live on blood alone, but few movies can exist on camp alone. As much as I was hoping to enjoy Tim Burton’s much hyped and highly anticipated “Dark Shadows,” I found it disappointing.

On the plus side, Dark Shadows” looks slick and gorgeous – the art direction, cinematography, set decoration and special effects are spot on. As always, charismatic Johnny Depp is fun to watch. The character he inhabits here is Barnabas Collins, born in Liverpool in the mid 1700s. The Collins family acquires wealth and power not to mention an imposing mansion in their namesake city of Collinsport, Maine.

When Barnabas grows up, he crosses the wrong woman. Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) is a witch, who turns Barnabas into a vampire and buries him alive. Two centuries later, Barnabas is freed from his tomb and walks into a world of hippies, macramé and mini-skirts. This is 1972. It’s hard to be lord of the manor, though, when the manor is falling apart and Angelique wants to reignite their dangerous romance.

The rest of the ragtag Collins clan includes Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer), Carolyn Stoddard (Chloë Grace Moretz), Roger Collins (Jonny Lee Miller), David Collins (Gulliver McGrath), live-in psychiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) and groundskeeper/butler Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley). Bella Heathcote plays the newly recruited governess, Victoria Winters, and Barnabas’ true love from the past Josette DuPres.

But somehow these characters never really get off the ground nor do they jell as a “strange family.” This random crew, despite their fetching costumes and makeup, seems purely the result of stunt-casting. They aren’t given much to do besides exchange arch looks (Moretz does some good lip curls) and roll their eyes at Barnabas.

There’s minimal effort to develop these characters; for example, the attempt to delve into Victoria’s past (she was institutionalized as a child) feels supremely clumsy. And there’s little attention paid to why any of this is happening other than you know that the movie itself is a remake of “Dark Shadows,” a popular daytime TV soap opera that ran from 1966-71.

Joan Bennett and Jonathan Frid starred in the daytime TV soap opera, which ran from 1966-71.

The bland and feeble script from Seth Grahame-Smith creaks along with Barnabas remarking on child-birthing hips and unshaven young people, ie hippies. To liven things up, the Collinses throw a ball and hire Alice Cooper to perform. Barnabas declares that Alice is the most unattractive woman he’s ever seen. Were these jokes layered into an actual story, they would be fun but, by the time Cooper appears, the anachronistic humor is wearing pretty thin.

There is supposed to be a love triangle between Barnabas, Angelique, the icy-blonde bad girl and wide-eyed good girl Victoria. Green does an excellent turn as the powerful, alluring femme fatale. But there’s no tension – Barnabas seems strangely detached from both of them – and Angelique’s hell-hath-no-fury antics grow as tedious as the ’70s jokes.

I wasn’t familiar with the TV series (created by Dan Curtis, it starred Jonathan Frid as Barnabas and film-noir great Joan Bennett as Elizabeth), but one of its strengths was fusing low-key campiness and spooky-goth atmosphere. Burton’s anemic version sorely lacks on the eerie/creepy/scary front.

Though Depp is at his best here, to watch and truly enjoy him for almost two hours would require that he not be completely covered up in top coat and breeches.

“Dark Shadows” opens today nationwide.

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Official trailer for ‘Texas Killing Fields’ now on YouTube

Inspired by true events, Texas Killing Fields” follows Detective Souder (Sam Worthington), a homicide detective in a small Texas town, and his partner, transplanted New York City cop Detective Heigh (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) as they track a sadistic serial killer dumping his victims’ mutilated bodies in a nearby marsh locals call “The Killing Fields.”

Before long, the killer changes the game and begins hunting the detectives, teasing them with possible clues at the crime scenes. When a local girl Anne (Chloë Grace Moretz) goes missing, the detectives find themselves racing against time to catch the killer and save the girl’s life.

Directed by Ami Canaan Mann, produced by Michael Mann and Michael Jaffe, “Texas Killing Fields” also stars Jessica Chastain (“Tree of Life,” “The Help”), Jason Clarke (“Public Enemies”) and Stephen Graham (“Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides”).

The movie opens Oct. 14.

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