Holiday movie magic: A brand-new black and white, the blonde bombshell, a bad cop, Cronenberg and Scorsese

It’s that time again … Oscar season is here. Starting Wednesday, Nov. 23., there is much to see at the movies; these films surely will appeal to noir fans. (Check your local listings for details.) Enjoy!

‘The Artist’

Bérénice Bejo

“The Artist,” set in 1927 Hollywood, is writer/director Michel Hazanavicius’ visually resplendent ode to the vivacious beauty of silent cinema. Debonair heartthrob and household name George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) coasts from movie to movie and lives in high style – posh home, trophy wife (Penelope Ann Miller), loyal valet (James Cromwell) and faithful companion, a Jack Russell terrier.

Ambitious actress and dancer Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) has talent, looks and perfect timing – the introduction of sound is reshaping the way films are made. She’s drawn to George but, at first, he doesn’t pay her much attention beyond an admiring glance. George’s idyllic world starts to collapse when he sees that his style does not work with the latest and greatest technical advance, talkies. Can he find a way to keep up with the times and salvage his career?

The story, though a bit of a stretch, is delightful. The era is fastidiously recreated and Hazanavicius draws fine work from his cast. Dujardin neatly balances pomposity with humility and Bejo dazzles as Peppy. Her high energy nearly sparks off the screen and it’s a joy to watch her marvelously expressive face. And John Goodman is spot on as blustery producer Al Zimmer. The film has won several awards from festivals, including best actor for Dujardin at Cannes.

“The Artist” is a tender-hearted, near-perfect pastiche of a classic art form.

‘My Week with Marilyn’

Kenneth Branagh

Manipulative, desperate, vulnerable. Funny, gifted, magical. Never dumb. In “My Week with Marilyn,” Simon Curtis’ portrait of ’50s screen icon Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams), we see her multiple sides and many problems through the prism of chaste voyeurism and our jaded, tell-all modernity.

“They like to keep her doped up, she’s easier to control. They’re terrified their cash cow will slip away,” says one observer, during the shoot, in England, of 1957’s “The Prince and the Show Girl.” Her co-star and director Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) takes issue with her erratic behavior, but he also envies her raw, intuitive talent.

Adrian Hodges wrote the screenplay, based on “The Prince, the Showgirl and Me,” a memoir by Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne). Clark was an assistant director on the film and the son of art historian Sir Kenneth Clark (of “Civilisation” fame). Dame Judi Dench plays actress Dame Sybil Thorndike; Dougray Scott plays Arthur Miller.

Curtis creates a beguiling visual confection with tour-de-force Oscar-caliber performances.

In “Rampart,” directed by Oren Moverman, Woody Harrelson plays a corrupt cop in early 1990s Los Angeles. Moverman wrote the screenplay with James Ellroy. Also stars Steve Buscemi, Sigourney Weaver, Robin Wright, Brie Larson, Anne Heche and Ice Cube.
Note: “Rampart” is out for one week only in Los Angeles and New York; wider release hits in January 2012. We at FNB are looking forward to seeing it!

‘A Dangerous Method’

David Cronenberg speaks at a press conference last week.

David Cronenberg brings his consummate eye to a remarkable historical drama in “A Dangerous Method.” Flawlessly photographed, the story is rendered with intelligence, austerity and precision. Though the chilly, almost clinical, tone undermines the film’s emotional buildup, it’s nevertheless a gripping saga.

Under Cronenberg’s lens is the groundbreaking work of Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) in the pioneering days of psychoanalysis when ethical boundaries had yet to be drawn. Jung’s intent on helping a young woman named Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), who enters his clinic flailing, wild and barely able to speak.

Beaten by her father as a child, Sabina is emotionally shattered as an adult. She makes rapid progress with Jung and the two begin an illicit, intimate relationship. Eventually Sabine decides to become an analyst and in the course of her study challenges some of Freud’s work.

Vincent Cassel plays psychiatrist Otto Gross; Canadian newcomer Sarah Gadon plays Jung’s wife. Christopher Hampton wrote the screenplay from his play “The Talking Cure,” which was based on the book “A Most Dangerous Method” by John Kerr.

“We’ve all been influenced by Freud whether we know it or not,” said Cronenberg at a press conference last week in Beverly Hills. Cronenberg added that though Freud fell out of favor, his professional stature has recovered lost ground in the last 15 years. “Some of his theories have been absolutely confirmed.”

He pointed out that despite his stern and uptight reputation, Freud was in fact “handsome, charming, witty and funny.” That called for “slightly oblique, non-traditional casting” so Cronenberg said he talked Mortensen into the part. This is their third collaboration, following “History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises.”

Of Knightley’s portrayal of Sabine, Cronenberg said, “I’ve always thought she was an underrated actress. … It’s a really beautiful performance.”


From a champion of film noir and master neo-noir director Martin Scorsese comes “Hugo,” an adaptation of Brian Selznick’s novel, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret.” It is one of Scorsese’s most accomplished productions ever (stunning 3D color cinematography; gorgeous production design by Dante Ferretti) and one of the year’s very best films.

Georges Méliès

In 1930s Paris, a boy named Hugo (Asa Butterfield) lives in the walls of a railway station and keeps all the clocks running. He clashes with an over-zealous station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), flirts with a pretty young girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) and meets her family, including the great but forgotten filmmaker, Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley).

The movie is Scorsese’s Valentine to the cinema, and few more sumptuous love-notes have been made. Filled with clips from silent classics, including Méliès’ 1902 masterpiece “A Trip to the Moon,” this is a jewel no genuine movie lover should pass by.

“Hugo” review by Michael Wilmington

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Film noir with Farrell and Knightley is a little bit of all right

London Boulevard/2010/GK Films, et al/103 min.

“She’s not wearing that dress, the dress is wearing her,” the fashion police might grumble before making an arrest. “London Boulevard” commits a similar crime – it’s a movie that ultimately overpowers its director.

That said, there is much to admire in this work from William Monahan, who directed and wrote the script from a novel by Ken Bruen. Monahan, having won the Oscar for “The Departed,” is completely in his element with noir scripts, setting up compelling narrative threads and knocking out smart, fast, sometimes-funny lines.

Colin Farrell plays Mitchel, an ex-con determined not to return to jail. But, in need of quick cash, he hooks up with simple-minded Billy (Ben Chaplin) and helps him make his rounds collecting money in South London for flashy gangster boss Rob Gant (Ray Winstone). At a pub gathering to celebrate Mitchel’s release, a pretty girl (Ophelia Lovibond) tells him he could approach a “retired” friend of hers for a job as a handyman.

The friend turns out to be anxious and vulnerable Charlotte (Keira Knightley), a famous actress who can’t leave her Holland Park home without being bombarded by the snapping and flashing of verminlike paparazzi. He catches her eye (Colin Farrell just has a way of doing that), then earns her trust as well as that of her manager, Jordan (David Thewlis), a former actor and fluent drug-taker. At the same time, Mitchel tends to his unstable sister (Anna Friel) and seeks retribution for the murder of a damaged old criminal (Alan Williams).

Still, the ties with the underworld are tough to break. After Mitchel endures a beating from rival thugs (Billy flees), the boss offers him a promotion. “No thanks, got a new job” does not go over well and Mitchel has to find a way to extricate himself from Rob.

“London Boulevard” has many of the elements of a first-rate neo noir. It starts with high energy (the music helps) and an exciting pace – Monahan seems in command of his material. Chock full of dodgy characters, the movie is nicely cast and all the actors are interesting to watch. Farrell and Knightley have a spindly spark of chemistry, which is about all you could expect from this ships-in-the-night liaison.

But, about two thirds of the way though, the movie’s rhythm goes haywire, lingering too long on one storyline, then rushing abruptly to another. It’s hard not to notice the drafty holes in the story as it shunts to its slightly surprising, yet far from inevitable, conclusion.

Flaws aside, however, “London Boulevard” is an entertaining yarn with a considerable amount of visual flair (Chris Menges shot it) and intelligence. So the movie police might complain – film noir with Farrell and Knightley is still a little bit of all right.

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Dark dramas shine at Chicago International Film Festival

Dark domestic dramas led the fine slate of high-style movies at the 47th Chicago International Film Festival, which boasted a lineup of nearly 200 titles.

In “We Need to Talk About Kevin” (UK) by Lynne Ramsay, neo noir meets New Age parenting in a haunting thriller. We witness, in jagged pieces that jump back and forth in time, the unthinkably brutal rupture of a dysfunctional but not entirely unhappy family.

Creating buzz at many fests, Tilda Swinton will doubtless continue to earn acclaim for her wrenching portrait of a mother struggling to love her son Kevin (Ezra Miller) who comes into the world seething with anger. Chicago-born John C. Reilly plays her denial-prone husband. Rich with visual metaphor and captivating performances (though the script is not fully there), this is destined to be a neo-noir classic. (“We Need to Talk About Kevin” does not release in the US until February.)

Samuli Niittymaki

I doubt Finnish director Zaida Bergroth had “Mildred Pierce” in mind when she made “The Good Son,” which won the top prize in the new directors competition. But I kept thinking of Michael Curtiz’s 1945 classic starring Joan Crawford as a flawed single mother of two daughters, the elder of whom is a bit of a snake, as I watched Elina Knihtila portray Leila, a flawed single mother of two sons, the elder of whom (Samuli Niittymaki as Illmari), is a bit of a psycho.

Eero Aho plays Leila’s new love interest, a kindly writer named Aimo. Anna Paavilainen is excellent as Illmari’s girlfriend as is Eetu Julin as Unto, the younger brother. Arresting images, subtle acting, nicely paced.

Arguably, “A Dangerous Method” (Germany/Canada) by David Cronenberg could be classified as a domestic drama, dealing as it does with the long-term adulterous relationship between renowned Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and a patient-turned-student-of-psychoanalysis Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). Viggo Mortensen is Sigmund Freud; Sarah Gadon is Jung’s wife. This finely crafted film is already generating Oscar buzz.

“Martha Marcy May Marlene” (US) is the kind of film that leaves you reeling, then lodges in your mind for days. Elizabeth Olsen (sister of Ashley and Mary Kate) stars as a young woman who escapes from an evil cult and struggles to reconnect with her estranged sister (Sarah Paulson) and her new brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy). Writer/director Sean Durkin’s fragmented narrative swerves from past to present; the tension mounts masterfully to a claustrophobic level. Thoroughly mesmerizing, but as much as I admired Olsen’s presence and vulnerability (she may be an Oscar contender), I felt no sympathy for her character. John Hawkes (of “Winter’s Bone”) is unforgettable as the warped cult leader.

English actor Dexter Fletcher makes an impressive directorial debut with “Wild Bill.” Though the story is essentially rooted in cliché, the fresh writing and powerful acting inject vitality into this tale of an ex-con (Charlie Creed-Miles) reconnecting with his young sons (Will Poulter and Sammy Williams) in London’s East End.

A desire for a father-daughter reunion drives the ex-con (Mark Pellegrino) in “Joint Body” by Brian Jun. But he gets sidetracked when he meets a stripper (Alicia Witt) in a seedy residential motel in downstate Illinois and the two end up on the run. (The term joint body refers to a convict who works out and walks the walk with confidence.)

Too melodramatic to be a real thriller, Thierry Klifa’s “His Mother’s Eyes/Les Yeux de Sa Mère,” (France) about a writer’s plan to ingratiate himself into a fractured family, is still intelligent, engrossing and features an easy-on-the-eyes cast, which includes ever-lovely Catherine Deneuve, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Géraldine Pailhas and Jean-Baptiste Lafarge.

And though definitely not a noir, the festival’s grand-prize winner, “Le Havre” (Finland/France) by Aki Kaurismaki, recounts the forming of a temporary, makeshift family. A working class French man (André Wilms) befriends and protects an African boy (Blondin Miguel) who lands illegally in Le Havre on the way to reuniting with his mother in London. Lit and composed like an Old Master painting, Kaurismaki’s film brims with humanity and humor.

Tomorrow: More about movies at the festival

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A literate, exciting action movie that’s drop-dead gorgeous

Hanna/2011/Focus Features/111 min.

Michael Wilmington

By Michael Wilmington

“Hanna” is “Kick-Ass” and “The Bourne Identity” filtered through “Pride and Prejudice” and “Atonement.” And I don’t mean that as a knock.

Director Joe Wright, who made the 2005 Keira Knightley version of Jane Austen’s best-loved novel and the lauded film of Ian McEwan’s grim tale “Atonement,” is a director with a style both flashy and sumptuous.

And in “Hanna,” he’s demonstrating something we might not have expected from him: burn-down-the-house action-movie skills. The movie — starring Saoirse Ronan (the jealous little girl from “Atonement”) as the kick-ass title heroine Hanna, Eric Bana as her action-mentor dad Erik, and Cate Blanchett as Marissa, the vicious C.I.A. agent villainess — is such a departure from what Wright has done before that it’s hard not to be impressed.

Saoirse Ronan

Wright starts the film with a snowy deer hunt and kill in the wilds of Finland, where the gifted 16-year-old Hanna, trained in all manner of martial arts and assassin skills, brings down a stag and muses philosophically. The story moves with dizzying speed to the Moroccan desert, Hamburg and Berlin, escalating into spectacular brawls, subway battles and bloody showdowns.

It’s quite a ride. The whole movie is a long three-sided chase: Hanna is captured early on by Marissa when Erik leaves her on her own, after arranging to rendezvous with her later in Berlin. Then Hanna escapes and Marissa pursues both her and Erik. The fights are all set-pieces and Wright shoots one of them in a virtuosic unbroken Steadicam take, which reminds you of the spectacular tracking shot on Dunkirk Beach in “Atonement.”

The three lead actors — along with Tom Hollander as the perverse villain Isaacs, Olivia Williams, Jason Flemyng and Jessica Barden as the British family Hanna meets in the desert — have the kind of acting chops you don’t usually see in movies like this, and they display them as much as Seth Lochhead and David Farr’s script lets them.

All the characters, in fact, have more fullness and surprises than the action-movie norm. They’re reminiscent at times of the psychologically detailed or richly eccentric characters in an old-style British thriller by Alfred Hitchcock.

We haven’t had many really literate thrillers lately (The “Bourne” movies excepted), and it’s a pleasure to see one here, to see filmmakers who are trying to please us on a multitude of levels and not just trying to blow us out of our seats.

The results are drop-dead gorgeous and exciting, but not completely satisfying. What we’d expect from Wright — memorable characters and high-style high drama — are here, but not emphasized as much as the story sometimes needs in order to make total sense.

The action scenes are scorchers, and they’re shot beautifully by cinematographer Alwin Kuchler on stunning sites and sets by designer Sarah Greenwood. (Her interrogation chamber below the Moroccan desert is an homage to Ken Adam’s great War Room set in “Dr. Strangelove.”) But I thought they became a little too set-piecey at times, took over the show a little too much.

Ronan has a talent for bewitching the camera and for suggesting levels of thought, memory and passion beneath the surface. Ronan is kind of strong and silent here, which deepens the film’s mysteries, including any nagging questions we might have about the relationship among Hanna, Marissa and Erik. [Read more…]

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