By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist December 24, 2013 at 7:03AM
Underrated: "The Invisible Woman"
I was struggling to get enthused about "The Invisible Woman" in the run up to seeing it a month or two back—I hadn't been especially enthused by Ralph Fiennes' directorial debut, "Coriolanus," found Abi Morgan's previous work a bit spotty, wasn't particularly overjoyed to be facing another period literary biopic, and buzz had been muted at best when it premiered at Telluride and TIFF. That probably helped my reaction, but I like to think I'd have been knocked over by "The Invisible Woman" regardless, because it's a beautifully made and acted film that I don't think has had a fair shake yet. I've seen it dismissed it some quarters as another young-girl-falling-for-older-man tale, but I found the execution to be much more ambivalent and dark than that—it's the story of how Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones), a mediocre actress with a pretty face, is essentially forced into becoming the mistress of Charles Dickens (Fiennes). She has a crush on him, certainly (who hasn't gone starry-eyed when flattered by a genius), she might even love him at one point, but after she resisted him so long, it feels more like Stockholm Syndrome, and as soon as she relents, he uses her up and moves on. It's borderline abusive stuff, and Fiennes doesn't for a second hesitate to show Dickens as a hugely unsympathetic figure, even if you can understand the appeal at the same time. He gives one of his best performances in some time, but he's overshadowed (appropriately for a film shining a light on 'an invisible woman') by the women: Kristin Scott Thomas' pragmatic, pained theatrical matriarch; warm, sweet performances from Perdita Weeks and Amanda Hale as Nelly's sisters; a scene-stealing, heartbreaking turn from Joanna Scanlan; and best of all, Felicity Jones as Ternan. It's the fulfillment of the potential she's been showing for so long, a performance that can go from the flighty, impressionable girl to the hardened, but thriving woman working as a schoolteacher years after the end of the affair. Like Morgan's smart, complex script, and Fiennes' confident direction, which feels closer to Wong Kar-wai than to Merchant-Ivory, it far exceeds expectations, and if you were thinking of skipping this one, I'd urge you to reconsider.
Overrated: "World War Z"
There were a fair few films that I found myself out of critical step with this year, some of which have been covered here by other writers ("Captain Phillips," "Spring Breakers," "Out of the Furnace"). The biggest gap between consensus and my view probably came with Alexander Payne's "Nebraska," but I'd hesitate to call that Overrated—I simply stopped clicking with Payne's work after "Election," and I'm glad for those who can find something to love there. But I'm truly baffled that anyone could really champion "World War Z," a tepid and dull blockbuster that got a soft pass from most critics, and raves from a scattered view. I'd hesitate to go as far as to call "World War Z" a bad movie, because it's more like a pretty good video game. Brad Pitt's hero, more superheroic and invincible than any other blockbuster lead this year, "Man of Steel" and "The Wolverine" included, is as blank as the first-person protagonist of some survival shoot-em-up, without a single characteristic to him other than 'loves his family.' He moves from level to level, set-piece to set-piece with a series of clear objectives: Level 1: Philadelphia—GET TO THE CHOPPER. Level 2: South Korea—GET TO THE PLANE. Level 3: Jerusalem.—GET TO THE PLANE. AGAIN, etc., etc. And if you were playing as Bradvatar (I'm sure he had a character name, but I'm pretty sure even Pitt won't remember it until he gets the script for the sequel in the post), you'd probably have a good time—look over there, those zombies are climbing a wall! Out the window, there's a nuclear bomb! Initially, the visceral, ground-level perspective feels like a good idea, but the taped-together-with-gaffer-tape script never makes the most of the geopolitics and details of the novel, and we're given so little reason to care about Bradvatar, or, really, anyone. As such, the film adds nothing here we haven't seen many, many times before, except perhaps this large a collection of actors given nothing to do. This isn't a film I hated—there's occasionally an arresting image, and the final sequence is the best budget-saving bottled episode of "The Walking Dead" so far. But "hey, this wasn't the train wreck we were expecting" isn't a reason to give something the thumbs up either.
Underrated: “Pacific Rim”
I know what you’re thinking and yes, I am aware that “Pacific Rim” ’s central conceit is kind of ridiculous, the script is built on cliches and Charlie Hunnam is a bland lead with a questionable Fauxmerican accent. But I just don’t care, because Guillermo del Toro’s robots vs. monsters epic was easily the most fun I had at the movies all year, which is ironic because prior to its release, I had not been especially been looking forward to it. I even questioned del Toro’s status as a Geek God whose reputation (in my opinion) outweighed the quality of his output and went into “Pacific Rim” fairly skeptical. But somewhere around the 40-minute mark, with a giant smile plastered across my face, I had an epiphany that put everything into perspective: maybe del Toro just isn’t an “A” filmmaker and maybe he never will be? Unlike some of his contemporaries who sought to elevate genre material into something more respectable, with “Pacific Rim” del Toro made one of the biggest “B” films of all time that just happens to look like the most beautifully realized “A” movie you’ve ever seen. Like a modern-day Mario Bava (“Black Sunday,” “Danger: Diabolik”), sometimes you have to look past shoddy acting or a juvenile script—which is why Bava’s films aren’t usually mentioned in the same breath with classics like “Alien” or “Rosemary’s Baby”—but you’ll never be disappointed by the craft on display. Similarly del Toro’s passion for the material, silly as it may be, bleeds through into every joyous frame which is what also separates “Pacific Rim” from something like the “Transformers” series. (Michael Bay is passionate about explosions but couldn't really give a shit about robots that turn into cars.) And while I’m not generally a fan of CGI or 3D, this film proved to be quite the exception: a beautifully stylized world that I just wanted to spend more time in which may explain why I ended up seeing it three times in theatres, more than any other film this year. So while I can’t really argue with anyone who couldn’t see past their issues with the film, if you didn’t shriek with delight when that fucking monster sprouted wings, I just don’t know what to tell you.
Overrated: “Blue Is The Warmest Color”
Look, I’m not a monster. I will admit that there is a lot to admire about “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” the 3-hour Palme d’Or-winning sensation that made waves for its raw intimacy as well as for its extended, graphic sex scenes. I think the performances by co-leads Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux are magnificent, the IFC Center’s decision to allow teens to see the film was a brilliant fuck you to the MPAA and admittedly for the first hour or so, I was completely under the film’s spell. In fact, I think everything leading up to the first consummation of Adèle and Emma’s relationship was emotional, intimate and pretty perfect. Unfortunately the problems begin with that oft-discussed 10-minute sex scene whose main problem is less about length and more to do with point of view, which switches jarringly from Adèle’s to the director’s. Up until that scene, everything in the film had been about experiencing first love from the point of view of a 15-year-old girl and all the excitement and weirdness that goes with that but when they finally get together, all the sexual tension that had been building deflates in an instant because they’re just straight fucking. This moment should be thrilling for Adèle, instead it feels like it was constructed for the audience’s (or the director’s) stimulation—like Tyler Durden slipped in a scene from a different film—and while excuses have been made for Adèle’s “voracious appetite,” I just don’t buy it. There was no thrill of discovery there and if the scene had done right by the characters, there is literally no way it would’ve elicited snickers from audiences (as was reportedly a common occurrence). Unfortunately that was only the beginning of the film’s problems as the remaining two hours nearly drain any goodwill built up by the first. Again, the problem is not so much with length as to how it chooses to spend that screen time. Rather than focusing on large dramatic developments like showing us say, SPOILERS the indiscretion that leads to an irreparable rift between the couple END SPOILERS, instead we’re shown endless scenes of Adèle munching down on more spaghetti (not a euphemism). We get it, she has a voracious appetite! Now can we please spend a little more time with these characters while things are actually happening to them? Apparently not. By the time the film ended I was frustrated that it had squandered such promise. Its actresses and audience deserve better.
Underrated: “Touchy Feely”
It’s bananas that “Touchy Feely,” the most recent feature from auteur Lynn Shelton feels totally slept on. With the success of her previous gem “Your Sister’s Sister,” which garnered an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Rosemarie DeWitt, it’s crazy that “Touchy Feely,” which is larger in scope and feels like a step forward for Shelton, hasn’t received the same attention. Josh Pais (whom we mentioned briefly in our “For Your Consideration: Actors" piece) gives a precise yet revelatory performance as Paul, an uptight dentist who discovers he has a magical healing touch. At the same time, his sister Abby (DeWitt) a massage therapist, loses her ability to touch others, which sends her into a tailspin, emotionally and professionally. Scoot McNairy is perfect as her bewildered younger hipster boyfriend, who just wants to please her but can’t, and Ellen Page also does fine work as Paul’s daughter and dental assistant, who is learning to stand on her own. And never forget Allison Janney, the MVP of everything she touches, doing damn delightful work as Reiki master and guru-of-sorts Bronwyn. For all the funny and touching characters and moments, the film achieves transcendence during the interaction between Abby and ex-boyfriend Adrian (Ron Livingston, DeWitt’s real life husband, and boy, can you tell because their chemistry is like woah, off the charts). In an almost dreamlike, possibly fantasy sequence, Abby and Adrian confront their past together, their emotional scars, and Abby achieves the closure that she needs in order to move on from her crippling bodily anxiety. The whole end of the film is set to a gorgeous live performance by Tomo Nakayama who also plays one of Paul’s patients and if you aren’t just melted into a puddle on the floor by the end of it, well then, I’m sorry to say you have no soul. Shelton’s films take up the subject area of the everyday extraordinary, injecting a bit of magical realism into intimate stories of family and love, and this one is no different, though it feels more expansive, a treading of new ground, and she truly demonstrates her storytelling chops, as well as emotional intelligence, and lets her performers shine, each in their own way. It’s just fantastic, see it immediately.
Overrated: “The Spectacular Now”
SPOILERS THROUGHOUT: So, I recognize that “The Spectacular Now,” is a “good” movie—well-acted, well-directed, solid, quality work. But unfortunately, the story they choose to tell resides in overly well-trodden territory. All of the characters are stereotypes from teen movies that have been around since the dawn of time: charming asshole, pretty girl who doesn’t know she’s pretty, popular bitchy blonde girl, etc. And not much is done to change up their genre-established arcs, except for one notable twist (alcoholism!), which still manages to feel old hat, somehow. As soon as Miles Teller’s Sutter busts out the flask at work, my only thought was “oh, OBVIOUSLY.” My second thought was, “James Ponsoldt, you okay buddy?” because he’s now got three features under his belt, and all three of them are about alcoholics. I sort of felt the same way about “The Spectacular Now” as I did about “Smashed,” his previous film, which is that I felt too old for both of them. Had I seen ‘Now’ at 17, or “Smashed” at 23, they might have been extraordinarily moving. But at 30, nothing about these films seem fresh or original or revelatory. I know that this statement glosses over the real skill from all parties involved in the film (and my ability to assess cinema at 17 and 23), but if you’re skillfully telling a very trite and stereotypical story, well, it’s still trite and stereotypical. I kept wanting the film to escalate even more, just to have something different and unpredictable happen. One should not be hoping that the female love interest (Shailene Woodley, fine) dies or is paralyzed in a drunk driving accident just because it might make the proceedings that much more interesting and dark. The film seems like it might go there, and then it doesn’t, resting instead on an ending that’s cliché and safe (and crowd-pleasing to teenagers who probably aren’t even watching this movie). “The Spectacular Now” tries to pull off authentic real-world problems in a high school setting, but it just ends up feeling too clean and too pat. Unfortunately, a very special episode of “90210” contains more complex emotional and moral heft than "The Spectacular Now.”