Farewell, My Queen. Directed by Benoît Jacquot. This uninvolving historical drama chronicles the last days of Marie Antoinette as seen through the eyes of one of her servants. There are some fine actors on display – including stars Léa Seydoux and Diane Kruger – but the pacing drags down an already meandering plot. The film does not maintain the requisite momentum to make it an engaging tale, often sinking to the depths of sleep-inducing Gallic soap opera. Lead actress Seydoux’s character, the fictional servant Sidonie, clearly has romantic feelings for Marie Antoinette but can never act on them; similarly, the Queen has a doomed relationship with Duchess Gabrielle de Polignac. (At MoMA, where I saw the film, there were grown men giggling at the lesbian subplot, a subject which Jacquot actually handles in a mature manner.) Sidonie has a brief scene of unconsummated sexual activity (looking bored all the while) with an impudent young gondolier, but Sidonie is called to the Queen’s side and so rushes off, knowing where her heart lies. No one, including Sidonie, is particularly likeable, except actor Michel Robin as Jacob-Nicolas Moreau, the wise old archivist at Versailles. Another veteran character actor, Jacques Herlin, who has an especially expressive face, does well in a small part as the Marquis de Vaucouleurs. But when all is said and done, Farewell, My Queen is a royal bore and no amount of powdered wigs and sumptuous costumes can fix that problem.
Life of Pi. Directed by Ang Lee. Currently my favorite film of 2012, Life of Pi was a magnificent experience. I think I benefited from not knowing anything about the film, or even the original novel, before seeing the film. That way, I could just sit back and be in awe of the story unfolding on the screen. Newcomer Suraj Sharma does a tremendous job in the lead of role of teenage Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel, allowing every emotion to show in his face, voice and body language. The saga of his survival adrift in the Pacific Ocean with the tiger “Richard Parker” as his sole companion (both as an enemy and as an friend) will captivate you. The cinematography by Claudio Miranda is extraordinary, making the visuals pop with gorgeous clarity and auxiliary 3D flourishes. Lee’s expert direction evokes feelings which can only be described as movie magic. Life of Pi proves that a big-budget adventure does not have to be another tired franchise reboot. This is a film which grabs you – mind, body and soul – from the very beginning and never lets go.
The Sessions. Directed by Ben Lewin. The Sessions is graced with a brilliant leading man, John Hawkes, who propels the film to great heights even though the screenplay leaves much to be desired. In spite of the weak writing, there are bright spots when the script quotes Mark O’Brien’s own words from his 1990 article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate.” Hawkes brings the role of O’Brien to life, making you really believe that Hawkes is as physically and emotionally fragile as his real-life counterpart. Additionally, writer/director Lewin’s personal experience with polio gives the film a unique cinematic viewpoint. Although The Sessions does have certain “movie-of-the-week” tendencies (as was remarked upon in the review by New York Daily News critic Joe Neumaier), its performances elevate the overall result. Hawkes’ physical and emotional partner in the film, Helen Hunt, is Oscar-worthy as well, playing the sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene with warmth and compassion. William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Annika Marks, Rhea Perlman and Robin Weigert also make strong impressions in roles both big and small.
Silver Linings Playbook. Directed by David O. Russell. This surprising and engaging dramedy boasts a noteworthy cast and nuanced writing/directing from Russell. Bradley Cooper does excellent work as bipolar protagonist Pat, but it’s Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone, The Hunger Games) who gives a star-making performance. She has a vibrancy that is undeniable, a firecracker quality which is perfectly matched by Cooper’s own deftly shaded portrayal. Robert De Niro has perhaps his best showcase for his acting talents in many years, while Jacki Weaver shines as Cooper’s mother. Further credit goes to Anupam Kher as Cooper’s therapist and Paul Herman – a stalwart of Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese films – as one of De Niro’s buddies. One of the loveliest aspects of the film is Cooper and Lawrence’s attempt at taking part in a local dance competition. The finished product dance routine is one of the most thoroughly exhilarating scenes I have witnessed in a new movie this year. Cooper and Lawrence go all-out, running the gamut from hard rock to a Singin’ in the Rain homage. Despite relying on some rom-com crutches (and saddled with an unnecessary character played by Chris Tucker), Playbook is worth the watch.
Sister. Directed by Ursula Meier. I did not know much before seeing Sister, which was a plus. Clearly inspired by classics like The 400 Blows, this Swiss film has a committed lead performance from its boy thief-protagonist, Kacey Mottet Klein. Léa Seydoux stars as the title sister, giving a performance which is much better than what she did in Farewell, My Queen, though not as charming as her character in the movie I first knew her for, Midnight in Paris. Gillian Anderson, in an unusual turn, has what I would call a “large cameo” as an American tourist at the ski resort where Klein steals and trades ski equipment and food. Martin Compston, a young Scottish actor probably best known for the Ken Loach film Sweet Sixteen (2002), is tough but sympathetic as a resort worker who bonds with Klein. I had the chance to see Sister at the Museum of the Moving Image with director Meier and stars Seydoux and Klein in person, which was enjoyable although difficult because of the not-quite-fluent translator. If Sister is nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award (it is Switzerland’s official submission), I would support the win.