Asghar Farhadi's follow-up to the outstanding A Separation, The Past is a confident, engrossing film that buoys itself from becoming too talky by keeping a deliberate rhythm to each scene and conversation. It even covers some similar themes - along with the ever-present and unwelcoming obtrusiveness of the one stated in the title, there's the exploring of relationships / marriages both before, during, and after both parties drift from each other, and the forces that pull each away.
With A Separation, there's a central tragedy to the circumstances that seem utterly convincing and the personalities and dreams of each party prevent a compromise from actualizing. It's similar here, but even more electric and possibly scandalous, particularly with Berenice Bejo's Marie-Anna character. But the film is truly anchored with Ali Mosaffa's Ahmad, the man who comes back to Paris, from Iran, to complete his divorce from Marie-Anna, and gradually falls back into old dramas by pragmatically unspooling a mystery at the core of the film. It's fascinating, in a subtle manner, to watch, as the film is unafraid to confront the material, where lesser films might have their characters learn these secrets learned to their advantage, instead of disseminating to all parties and dealing with it, until the next plot development. It's mature, observed storytelling.
The problem is, the film goes about two or three "reveals" too many, stretching the believability of said central mystery and the emotions riding with it. And when the film veers from Ahmad as the audience surrogate, it loses momentum. Still, it's another expertly made movie that almost has a touch of Almodovar to it, with fine performances elevating the film from an ordinary, Euro-style relationship drama. Asghar Farhadi is going to make many more good movies.
Luxurious, transporting, and grand - though not always effective... but in general, I truly enjoyed The Great Beauty. It's a lovely experience, even if you're not entirely sure on some scenes, it still evokes something in the viewer, usually something strong and almost always enthralling.
Now, the film's been considered a rehash of some of the old Italian greats of cinema, most notably Fellini's La Dolce Vita. I've seen La Dolce Vita, but since it's not embedded in my filmic vocabulary, The Great Beauty doesn't come off as derivative at all to me. And even if it was mimicking those styles and structures (and it does, at least for La Dolce Vita), it still achieves its own emotions and glimpses of beauty, that the complaint seems less relevant to me. And that's where the film works - it's a mesmerizing glide through self-reflective waters for a post-midlife Italian socialite / novelist in Rome named Jep. Like life, Jep wanders in and out of scenes of confusion, awkwardness, emptiness, sadness, and beauty, set against the sumptuous nighttime Roman landscape. There's a loose arc through it all, and when I thought the film might end... it carried on another 40 minutes (!). Not that it was all bad, but there is certain several peaks and valleys that make The Great Beauty not the easiest to process, but it was ultimately rewarding and one I was happy to experience.
I liked The Desolation of Smaug despite a great deal of flaws... and apologizing for liking Jackson's most recent cinematic voyages to Middle-Earth is becoming troublingly commonplace lately, though it doesn't bother me so much. Yet. Its excess seems on fuller display here than in last year's An Unexpected Journey, but there is still a detectable sense of adventure that supercedes the silliness, for me. But, it's a tricky balance. The barrel sequence is astonishingly fun despite being over-the-top, and the spider scenes had some purpose despite also showing a fair amount of near-misses. And Smaug? He's another satisfying creature creation from PJ (Cumberbatch's voice talents help here, too), even though Smaug's scenes funnel into yet another protracted sequence of near-death and dwarven ingenuity. I barely remember the book, so I have no comparison reference points to draw ire from here - which is probably a good thing, given the book's length and that this will be a bleeping 9-hour trilogy. Still, the movies are fun and competently rendered, even if Peter Jackson's storytelling is being sacrificed to squeeze in so much transparent padding.
Ponyo is good, but disappointing. There are, and will be, others who love it and will be enchanted with its childlike wonder, etc. The typical response to vintage Miyazaki. But, I felt it lacking, like 2/3 of a film I'd expect from this acclaimed director. Wonderful visualizations, some great meaningful moments, but the charm was a little obvious and the challenges/lessons not nearly so inventive or affecting. In other words, compared to works of genius like Spirited Away, its magic feels more like a whimper.
The first 2/3's of Silver Linings Playbook was actually somewhat endearing / interesting, creating a couple of believably flawed characters (Cooper and Lawrence) that, through sheer force of a cliched narrative, still had the audience intrigued by how they would react to each new situation. Then, through a pivotal sequence of a football game and a living room scene thereafter, the producers seemed to hijack the script and the movie became everything one might've cynically expected of it from the outset. Stakes are raised, almost artificially, and the delicate world these interestingly-drawn characters dwell in becomes a single-minded game. Background characters and their baggage or relationships? They're now comic supporting crew. This movie simply becomes, well, a whole mess of adjectives, all pointing basically to it being thoroughly unremarkable. It's not that Silver Linings Playbook is entirely unlikeable. It's just that the film ultimately doesn't rise above its own formula, succumbing to every crowd-pleasing contrivance in the home stretch that leaves a distaste for just about anything that occurred. Silver linings my ass. That was far too easy.
Acting was fine, but nobody involved with this production deserves any kind of Oscar consideration. The movie needed to cool it on the speed zoom-ins and pan-outs, too.