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Clouds of Sils Maria

Directed by Olivier Assayas

      Upon traveling with her assistant, Val (Kristen Stewart), to accept an award on behalf of her mentor, Wilhelm Melchior, actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) learns that he has just died and now must cope with not only his death, but also the memories from her past the resurface. He was the playwright who penned "Maloja Snake", a play that jump-started Maria's career when she was 20-year-old. Now in her 40's amd going through a divorce, she's approached by a film director, Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger), to star as an older character in the film adaptation of that very same play. Jo-Ann Ellis (ChloŽ Grace Moretz) has been cast to play her younger co-star.

      Writer/director Olivier Assayas tackles many issues in Clouds of Sils Maria regarding to the emotional struggles that actors go through, but none of it comes across as preachy or contrived. The crux of the movie is the relationship between Maria and Val both of whom are complex, strong and interesting female characters. The way their relationship evolves feels believable as does their character arc. That believability is a testament to the wise, honest and tender screenplay as well as to the raw, well-nuanced and convincingly moving performances by both Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart.

      It's refreshing to see Stewart in a role that allows her to display a wide range of emotions, so kudos to casting directors Antoinette Boulat and Anja Dihrberg for choosing her. She has just as much charisma and "presence" as Binoche does, and it's fascinating to see them playing off of one another. Moretz is quite funny and amusing in her role as Jo-Ann Ellis. Enriching the film even further, the symbolism, i.e. the haunting images of the titular clouds, provide some thought-provoking room for interpretation. At a running time of 124 minutes, Clouds of Sils Maria is sophisticated, profound and well-acted drama about actors that's far better than the overrated, pretentious and sophomoric Oscar-winner Birdman.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by Sundance Selects.
Now playing at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and IFC Center.

Black Souls

Directed by Francesco Munzi

      Rocco (Peppino Mazzotta) and his brother, Luigi (Marco Leonardi), both live in Milan and take part in the family crime business: drug-dealing. Their eldest brother, Luciano (Fabrizio Ferracane), tends to the family's idyllic farm while refusing to join the drug ring. Luciano's rebellious son, Leo (Giuseppe Fumo), prefers otherwise after he shoots up a local bar and runs off to Milan to live with his uncle Rocco. Leo becomes the catalyst for a series of events that lead his family to seek revenge against another family for the murder of his grandfather.

      Writer/director Francesco Munzi together with co-writers Fabrizio Ruggirello Maurizio Braucci combine drama, suspense and thrills in a way that's intelligent, grounded in humanism and consistently grim. The film doesn't rely on violence or plot twists as a means of entertainment or shock value. Instead, what carries the film is its complex, flawed characters and its foreboding atmosphere that keeps you captivated on an emotional level. The suspense and thrills aren't like the ones you see in Hollywood at all: they're more of a slow-burn. You'll probably know what to expect, but, as Hitchcock once famously stated, suspense derives from the anticipation of a gun that's soon to be fired. While the plot and characters themselves seem like well-treaded territory, it's much more important how the director has chosen to tell the story in an old-fashioned way that respects smart, patient and sophisticated audiences.

      Wisely, director Francesco Munzi knows when to trust the audience's intelligence, imagination and patience. Yes, the pace is slow and the meat of the story takes a while to unfold after the first act, but it helps to keep you absorbed gradually without hitting you over the head and assaulting your senses like most Hollywood directors like to do. Munzi leaves certain events up to your imagination, i.e. the murder of the three brothers' father, and avoids using flashbacks. The performances from everyone seem believable and well-nuanced---none of them over-act nor can you feel the wheels of their performances turning, so the film's sense of authenticity and realism always remains intact, even when the action kicks further into gear during the third act. If you're looking for an intelligent, atmospheric, slow-burning crime drama that's anti-Hollywood, Black Souls won't disappoint you.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Vitagraph Films.
Now playing at Angelika Film Center and City Cinemas 1 2 3.

Wild Tales

Directed by DamiŠn Szifron

      Isabel (Maria Marull), a model, learns upon boarding an airplane that she's not the only one who knows someone named Gabriel Pasternak. Thus begins the first story, "Pasternak," among a total of six separate, yet thematically connected stories. To reveal more plot details about the opening story would spoil its many surprises. "The Rats", is about waitress (Julieta Zylberberg) who contemplates exacting revenge on a customer (Cesar Bordon) with the assistance of the restaurant's cook (Rita Cortese). In "Road to Hell," Diego (Leonardo Sbaraglia), a business man driving an Audi, expresses road rage against another driver, (Walter Donado), only to find the table has turned on him in more ways than he (or you) could possible imagine. Ricardo Darin stars as a demolition engineer in "Bombita." His life gradually spirals into chaos and tragedy, a la Falling Down, as he expresses his anger and frustration toward the company that towed his car. In "The Bill," Mauricio (Oscar Martinez), a wealthy man, discovers that his son, Santiago (Alan Daicz), was involved hit-and-run accident that killed a pregnant woman, so he promises Jose (German de Silva), his groundskeeper, monetary gains if he came forward to take the blame instead of his son. The situation gets out of hand as others, including his own lawyer, wants his own share of the deal. Finally, there's "Till Death Do Us Part," about a bride, Romina (Erica Rivas), who learns that the groom, Ariel (Diego Gentile), has been cheating on her with a woman who's also a guest at their wedding.

      Writer/director DamiŠn Szifron brilliantly infuses each story with comedy and drama while walking a fine line between comedy and tragedy. He truly has a very dark sense of humor which is apparent from the very first story, "Pasternak," which also happens to be the one that generates the most laughs thereby hooking you right into the film as you anticipate more brilliance. The other stories have various degrees of comedy and drama/tragedy, with "The Bill" being the least comical, but that doesn't make it any less biting than the others. Szifron's major strength is his knack for being perceptive about human nature and how volatile it can be. One small incident can awaken the beast within someone who may never have exhibited aggressive behavior in the past. What's separating us from animals, after all? Very few films can make you feel happy, sad, angry, hopeful, depressed, shocked, intrigued, and exhilarated all at once, but Wild Tales, a wickedly funny and smart roller coaster ride of emotions, succeeds at that with aplomb.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Sony Pictures Classics.
Now playing at Landmark Sunshine Cinema and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.


Directed by Damien Chazelle

      Miles Teller delivers the best performance of his career as Andrew Neyman, a student at Shaffer Conservatory of Music who aspires to become a professional jazz drummer. Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), an instructor at the school, conducts the jazz band at the school and picks him as a new member of the band. He leads Neyman through physically and emotionally strenuous experiences as he pushes him to his limits in his many attempts to acheive perfection. Meanwhile, Andrew has to deal with his not-quite-supportive father (Paul Reiser) and the challenge of balancing his fervent passion for jazz drumming with his blossoming romance with Nicole (Melissa Benoist).

      Writer/director Damien Chazelle might change the way you look at drumming or at relationships between students and teachers for that matter. Andrew and Terence have plenty of talent, but, just like any complex human being, they're infallible. Terence instructs Andrew and other members of the band much like a drill sergeant would push a soldier. He's domineering, emotionally abusive and draconian. It's equally moving, fascinating and thrilling to observe how the dynamics between he and Andrew evolve over time. Moreover, the camera work during the drumming scenes, particularly the final scene, captures the intensity and helps it to emerge on a palpable level. Don't be surprised if you'll find yourself overwhelmed with feelings of awe and suspense throughout those scenes.

      Fortunately, Chazelle knows that the meat of the story lies in Andrew's stress-inducing journey as a jazz drummer, so the subplots involving Andrew's dad and Andrew's girlfriend aren't in the forefront or distracting, and it's clear how they affect and shape Andrew on an emotional level. It's also refreshing that Terence doesn't become a caricature or a villain/monster per se because there's more to him than meets the eye as you eventually learn about events from his past that haunt him. Much of the film rings true and feels organic except for one minor, unexpected scene toward the end that lacks plausibility given the consequences which seem too "Hollywood". Still, despite that minor flaw, Whiplash remains an emotionally-charged, captivating triumph brimming with powerhouse performances by Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, both of whom deserve an Oscar nomination. Bravo to casting director Terri Taylor for selecting them. You've never seen them in roles like this before, and they truly hit it out of the ballpark while helping to elevate the film into greatness.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by Sony Pictures Classics.
Now playing at select theaters.
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