Director David Frankel's Collateral Beauty tackles a truly difficult subject, the death of a child, and handles it sensitively and seriously. The title refers to the feeling of a profound connection to the world as the complement to tragedy. Though the collateral beauty concept remains relatively abstract, it is a heartening, comforting balm in the face of such loss.
The story leads into its focus with hotshot New York adman Howard Inlet delivering an enthusiastic, animated pitch for three defining motivators to our lives: love, time and death. Fast forward to three years later and Howard's loss of his six-year-old daughter, whose name he cannot even bring himself to speak. Howard has become uncommunicative; he's shut down though his company finds itself in a tough financial situation. His three partners desperately need him to vote his controlling shares, while Howard writes letters to love, time and death. And so personifications of Love, Time and Death will visit Howard.
The exceptional ensemble cast does a fine job across the board: the anchor Will Smith as the bereaved father Howard; Kate Winslet, Michael Peña, and Edward Norton as Howard's business partners. Each of them wrestles with significant problems of their own: respectively, reconciling with making career the top priority, facing a terminal illness, and post-divorce coping with a much loved but now alienated daughter. As actors contracted to perform as the abstract personas Love, Time, and Death, Keira Knightley, Jacob Latimore and Helen Mirren compellingly deliver theoretical observations about what frustrates, inspires and measures our lives.
However, as good as the acting is, the actors' different styles don't mesh well. In addition, the tone shifts considerably from scene to scene, sometimes a bit flippant (Knightley), at other moments semi-humorous (Norton), and at times poignant (Mirren). Establishing and maintaining a unified feel rests with the director; and while films certainly can and do move through emotional variations, the shifts should occur more smoothly than they do here. Still, Collateral Beauty asks us to consider monumental topics and to imagine a tragic event with empathy and insight, honesty and thoughtfulness, admitting that the pain will never be fixed. It's refreshing to have a film dramatize the subject of grief with sensitivity. At a Landmark Theatre.
Women often are castigated as devious when they're clever or smart. Miss Madeleine Elizabeth Sloane will be so denigrated, plus she will be compared to a man in her position. She is a lobbyist, and she knows to do a work-around without smearing her blood-red lipstick.
Liz Sloane works hard for one company until her values -- yes, this lobbyist has values -- are compromised by a gun bill. So she high-heels over to the smaller, grubbier competition with her sharp skill set to see that the bill passes in Congress by whatever it takes. That might include espionage with a robot-roach, gossip-mongering, tallying, betraying, exploiting people, crossing lines, and campaigning.
Lobbying, she says -- and practices -- is about foresight, playing your trump card. Miss Sloane has given up everything for her career, which leaves her paying for sexual pleasure. She has left chits everywhere, to be called in as accounts receivable. She outsources social interaction. She is like a coach, ordering in brief, succinct bites, brooking no nonsense. Her sound bytes include "get going" and "you're fired." She leaves bits of mystery in and outside the film.
Jessica Chastain embodies Miss Sloane with every fiber, her right index finger pushing that strand of hair away from her face, yet revealing nothing. She is supported by the excellence of Sam Waterston, a lawyer; John Lithgow, a senator; Jake Lacy, an escort; Gugu Mbatha-Raw, an operative; and Alison Pill an insider. Director John Madden, who also directed "Proof" and "Debt," reveals only as needed and still leaves questions. He moves in and around a trial without making that trial a climax, following John Perera's first screenplay.
Miss Sloane is a Greek tragedy set in Washington, D.C. It is an admirable study in morals and character and deviousness -- and filmmaking.
A film made by Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud is bound to be stunning, eye-popping, gob-smacking. After all, les deux Jacques made the unforgettable films, Winged Migration and Ocean. But Seasons has a powerful, if subtle, message beyond the beauty and intimacy of the natural world.
One would think that the title of this excellent documentary refers to the four seasons, hallowed in song and story. It's not. Yes, it begins in winter, but the narrator mentions that winter lasted for 80,000 years, so it's soon obvious that Perrin and Cluzaud have other seasons in mind to document. Their seasons are eras, related to the geologic time table, to history, to time immemorial.
Their seasons cover interminable winters, welcome springs, droughting summers, and fallen autumns over millennia. Their seasons begin with flora and fauna, and not until the documentary is two-thirds complete, do human beings enter the landscape to despoil same.
The script by the Frenchmen is often poetic, but it does not intrude, not even to identify the specific names of the gorgeous orange-beaked bird, the one with the charcoal-colored feathers -- or the bovines or cervines or felines. The cameras, under the direction of Eric Guichard, look closely at fighting bears, the stacked stones of cairns, and at calving glaciers. They look shyly through green and yellow trees or over the wings of geese. And, in the end, when humans show up, the cameras record a wolf lick-kissing a babe, then the huts, and then the battlements built by humans.
Bruno Coulais' music offers pizzicato sounds on strings to accompany the bellows of elk or squeaks of hedgehogs. Seasons is very, very beautiful to look at, but do not get so mesmerized by the visions and miss the message. Seasons is more than pretty.
Watch the opening sequence with both eyes open and that third eye unblinking. Dancing Venus of Willendorf-type marionettes in military dress become real, big women with thigh-high boots, and that becomes Celtic knots of highways seen on high. It's a series of moving still lifes, befogged and misted.
Then the exposition begins. Susan, a gallery owner, is saying good-bye to her husband, who is off with his doxy -- something Susan is beginning to cotton to -- when a package is delivered. Inside is a manuscript written by her first husband, Edward, and entitled Nocturnal Animals, his nickname for sleepless Susan, to whom he dedicated the book.
Susan toddles off to bed with a maybe-good, certainly tantalizing book to read. Whereupon the film becomes the book about a man and his wife on vacation in Texas, far from Susan's glittery world. There are a film chase, right out of the Sam Peckinpaw School of Domestic Terrorism and a book plot from the Rape Culture. Horrified, Susan slams the book shut with her blood-red fingernails. She becomes the woman abandoned in life and in art; she cannot slice the book out of her head, even as she meets with her people at the gallery to discuss art, not life.
Amy Adams plays Susan, suave and slick and terribly believable. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Edward, the husband, and Tony, the protagonist of the novel -- and he never misses a heartbeat in either roles. They are supported finely by Michael Shannon, Isla Fisher, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and a hair-sprayed Laura Linney as Susan's brittle mother.
Tom Ford has made a very scary movie, resplendent with his sense of decorum, of flashbacks among past and present, in novel and life, of color (especially reds), of bleeds and connectors from scene to scene. Nocturnal Animals offers film as crisp, well-cut, tautly sewn, and artfully made to perfection.
One hundred years ago, in the 1916 film Shoes, directors Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley provided a primer in poignant storytelling, perfectly pacing the events to reveal the central character, Eva Meyer. Eva works as a five-and-dime store clerk who turns over her weekly salary to her mother who provides for a ne'er-do-well father and Eva's three younger sisters.
Adapting Stella Wynne Herron's short story published in "Collier's," Weber's screenplay emphasizes the effects of poverty and limited choices because of it. Even with Eva's shoes literally falling apart, the family can't spare the $3 needed to purchase a new pair, and so Eva moves every closer to prostituting herself with a dishonorable musician. As Eva, Mary MacLaren telegraphs subdued despair.
Straightforward and uncluttered, Shoes benefits from on-location shooting, one scene in Los Angeles' Pershing Square, another the front of Woolworth's on Broadway. A wealth of details fill every frame while remarkable effects, especially for 1916, enhance the story. The tinting is particularly beautiful, with a yellow tint throughout store and home scenes with blue tinting to signal night shots.
In addition, Weber superimposes dream footage into the upper left part of the frame; dissolves from the old, shabby to fancied, new shoes and back; and dissolves from a medium shot to a medium close-up to communicate Eva's emotions more effectively. Though the edges of some frames show the deterioration characteristic of nitrate film, fortunately, thanks to Milestone Film restoring the best quality possible, Shoes exists in this wonderful print, with an evocative music score by Donald Sosin and Mimi Rabson.
Made three years before Shoes, the 1913 Suspense stars director Lois Weber herself as a wife in danger. Isolated in her home, Weber is threatened by a tramp who breaks in. This quick, 10-minute film also showcases Weber's cinematic expertise, notable for Weber's inclusion of a triptych, remarkable close-ups, and a thrilling conclusion with cross-cutting among the husband and police racing to save the wife as the intruder approaches the upstairs room to which she has retreated.
The Midwest premiere of Shoes preceded by Suspense is at Webster University's Winifred Moore auditorium one night only, Sunday, December 11 at 7:30 p.m.