Thursday, September 1, 2011

Reviews: 'Circumstance,' 'Higher Ground,' 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' and 'The Tree'

These reviews previously appeared in the September 2011 issue of ICON Magazine. They have been republished with permission.

2.5 stars (out of 5)

Circumstance has the right title, and that's no compliment. Rather than actually working to create true drama, this Audience Award-winning Sundance favorite, about a pair of gorgeous lesbian teens (Nikohl Boosheri and Sarah Kazemy) in modern-day Iran, mopes around amidst the built-in intolerance of its setting, as if that were sufficient conflict for a compelling feature film. The result is an increasingly plodding piece of indulgent, false provocation, with handsomely shot, but emotionally flat, depictions of the couple's impossible dreams standing in for scenes of substance. Debut filmmaker Maryam Keshavarz incorporates an ominous male character (Reza Sixo Safai) to represent the oppressive government's ever-watchful eye, but his development is so spotty (addict? religious zealot? crybaby?) that the metaphor is basically for naught. Circumstance works best when stripped of its failed ambitions, and embraced as a shallow gay club film about sexual awakening. It's the sort of movie some curious Muslim girl will catch on a lonely Saturday night, taking from it the inspiration to better free her mind. And, you know, every culture needs at least one of those.

Higher Ground
3.5 stars (out of 5)

Vera Farmiga, easily one of our finest working actresses, settles into the director's chair for Higher Ground, an arthouse adaptation of This Dark World: A Story of Faith Found and Lost, Carolyn Briggs's memoir about life in a Christian commune. Pushing herself to a level of intensity no other filmmaker has perhaps had the guts to, Farmiga is stellar in front of the camera, as is her sister, Taissa, who plays her character as a teen. Behind the lens, though, the Oscar nominee lacks that same assuredness, crowding her palette with ambiguous flourishes and struggling to establish a coherent point of view. Her general message of balance and broad-mindedness is ultimately received, but her heroine, a curious progressive ostracized for her doubts, has muddled motivations and a cloudy identity (for example, her love of literature comes and goes as the script sees fit). Commendably exploratory in nature, Higher Ground is a must for anyone fascinated by the psychology of religion, but there's no getting around it: for a movie about finding one's voice, it could surely use a clearer one of its own.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes
3 stars (out of 5)

A shoo-in for a visual effects Oscar nomination, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is well worth seeing if only for its CG bravado, a mesmerizing blend of expertly-directed action sequences and the cutting-edge latest in motion-capture magic (Andy Serkis handily steals the show as Caesar, the super-smart – and alarmingly soulful – Che Guevara of apes). But don't dare trust the folks who hail this excessively plot-driven, fall-of-man prequel as one of the year's best films. Virtually every scene with the primates – who revolt after serving as lab rats for brain-boosting Alzheimer's drugs – is inspired and affecting, but those with flesh-and-blood actors have all the weight of a windswept furball. Emotionally vacant to boot, stars like James Franco and Freida Pinto are helpless against a spoon-feeding script, which offers cautionary, tsk-tsk parallels too obvious to praise. It's a sign of serious ineptitude that the scale is so drastically tipped: no one needed the humans to be hollow in order to carry out the movie's mission; we'd have still rooted for the apes.

The Tree
2.5 stars (out of 5)

Everything that made writer/director Julie Bertuccelli's 2003 debut, Since Otar Left, a near-masterful revelation (the dangers of prolonged and dishonest grief, hugely meaningful compositions) are downgraded in The Tree, an Australia-set, English-language follow-up with a central metaphor so hulking you can't wait for it to topple. When Peter (Aden Young) dies from a heart attack and leaves his wife, Dawn (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and their four children to fend for themselves, daughter Simone (newcomer Morgana Davies) decides that his soul has been reincarnated in the massive fig tree that sits in the family's yard. Drought-stricken roots begin to damage the house's plumbing, and the more Dawn and company come to accept their loss, the more the tree – and nature itself – literally invades the home. You can see where this is going, but the film does not relent, and though it's beautifully made (the tree is one helluva camera subject), Bertuccelli saves precious little grace for her narrative. The highlight is Gainsbourg, who with this and Antichrist has gotten bone-deep devastation down to a kind of harrowing science.

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