Out of all of Shakespeare’s back catalog, Macbeth has perhaps been the best cinematically served, with such Hall of Famers as Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, and Roman Polanski applying their distinctive worldviews to the material. (Polanski’s 1971 version, his first film following the death of Sharon Tate, is still an amazingly tangible, all-encompassing ode to mud and blood and smoke and shit.) From the first frames of relative newcomer Justin Kurzel’s adaptation, it becomes apparent that his method of putting his stamp on the prose is to, well, ruthlessly pare away much of the prose. While the Big Scenes are rendered with a ravishing starkness, the connective tissue that’s allowed to remain tends to fall away into a low-toned dirge. Even those viewers unfamiliar with the source material may sometimes feel like they’re flipping through a brutally gorgeous set of CliffsNotes.
The Immigrant (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD) – Marion Cotillard earned an Oscar nomination for her performance in the Dardenne Brothers’s Two Days, One Night but I think her best performance of 2014 is in this film. She plays Ewa, a Polish immigrant in 1921 New York who, turned away by relatives, is dependent on a mercenary burlesque producer and pimp (played with the cheap charm of a low-rent impresario by Joaquin Phoenix) for her freedom and for the money to get his sister out of quarantine on Ellis Island. (It is, of course, for bribes.)
If you think you know where this film is going based on that premise, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. The film, co-written and directed by James Gray, isn’t just about her degrading ordeal (which isn’t explicitly shown but is made awfully clear). The initially shy beauty steels herself to the hard times of life on the margins of society, disconnecting her emotions not just from her work but her every interaction in this unforgiving culture, and Cotillard invests Ewa with the fiery will to survive and save her little sister from deportation. Phoenix, meanwhile, creates a fascinating figure of the pimp Bruno, chasing the American dream in the shadows and falling in love with Ewa as she hardens with every day on the streets. Jeremy Renner co-stars as a stage magician and rival for Ewa’s affections, though his underwritten character is easily overpowered by the vivid and nuanced portraits by Cotillard and Phoenix.
There is only one situation in Two Days, One Night—no subplots, no vast canvas. But filmmaking brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (The Kid With the Bike) need only this one situation to somehow speak of the entire world and what it means to be human in the early 21st century. The situation is this: Sandra (Marion Cotillard) has been on medical leave from her workplace, owing to depression. She has a low-level job in a manufacturing plant in Belgium. She’s ready to go back to work, but management has decided to cut her position. According to labor laws, her 16 fellow employees can vote to keep her on the job—but the boss has offered them each a 1,000-euro bonus if they agree to lay off Sandra. She has a weekend to plead her case to each co-worker.
Rust and Bone helmer Jacques Audiard enjoys a reputation head and shoulders above that of the guys who made The Intouchables, another French import screened in American theaters this year. But that cheerfully manipulative fairy tale about the unlikely bonding between a rich quadriplegic and his earthy Senegalese minder came to mind during Rust and Bone, Audiard’s much shrewder film about the rehabilitation of mismatched lovers respectively handicapped by missing limbs and a deficiency of humanity.
Edging into Intouchables territory, Audiard massages our emotional responses with an all-too-practiced hand. Even his mix of socio-economic “realism” with soap opera feels calculated, an unconvincing facsimile of the raw authenticity that made his Oscar-nommed A Prophet (2010) so compelling. At bottom, R&B is a Gallic tearjerker about the existential fall and ascent of two good-looking “cripples.” By dwelling on the hand-to-mouth lives of a beleaguered French underclass, Audiard tries to toughen up—and validate—the sentimentality of his material.
The Intouchables was saved from terminal corniness—and offensive racial stereotyping—by charismatic actors (François Cluzet and Omar Sy) who played it straight, rarely stooping to the level of the script. Similarly, it is star power that elevates R&B‘s often shamelessly schematic narrative: Marion Cotillard (Oscar awarded for La Vie en Rose) and Belgian comer Matthias Schoenaerts (Bullhead) command our rapt gaze from start to finish. Their very different styles of physical performance claim frame space as effortlessly as that of the great orcas that Cotillard’s Stephanie trains.
Christopher Nolan’s Inception, a caper film that heists dreams instead of treasure, is surely the most cerebral action thriller to become a blockbuster. It’s a genre film that reshuffles the rules and lays them out in a mind-bending pattern. Playing out on multiple planes of dream reality, it’s also another Nolan film to completely reimagine the world of cause and effect. But rather than tell a story, Nolan builds a construct and then plays within that construct. This script is more designed than written, the film constructed as much as directed, and that becomes all the more evident on repeat viewings.
This is architecture as cinema, on every level: Narrative, conceptual, symbolic, visual, with story and characters sacrificed to the density of rules and limitations of fantastical (meta)physical laws. It is so dense with angles and layers and details of meaning that I don’t think there is a line of dialogue in the film that does not somehow serve the exposition. Inception is so high concept that it becomes all concept and puzzle and narrative play at the sacrifice of story. By that I mean it foregrounds plot (a series of events) over story (the journey of a character).
Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb is the team leader of this psych-squad with a simple motivation (clear his name and get back home), and a head case on a level all his own. The backstory explains how he lost his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), in experiments in dreamtime, and as a result lost his life, putting him on the run as a wanted man unable to see his children. She now haunts his psyche as a phantom turned nemesis. You could call her the ghost in the machine but really Mal is a symbol of guilt, loss and self-blame as an avatar, a manifestation of his own psyche punishing itself in the most effective way it knows: not simply to remind Cobb of what happened to her, but to sabotage his capers.