dir. Roger Allers
starring: Liam Neeson, Salma Hayek, Quavenzhane Wallis, Alfred Molina, John Krasinski, Frank Langella
running time: 84 minutes
I want to make it perfectly clear that I have never read the book on which this movie is based. Going in, all I knew was that it’s a series of poems written in the early 1920s in Lebanon and that the main director on the project is Roger Allers — best known for directing The Lion King and the Oscar nominated short The Little Matchgirl (along with other involvement with Disney). Needless to say, I had absolutely no idea what to expect. Thankfully, The Prophet turned out to be a gorgeous meditation on life with some of the most luminous uses of animation I’ve certainly seen in recent years.
The premise is really quite simple. Kamila (Salma Hayek) is hired as a housekeeper for Mustafa (Liam Neeson), who’s been on house arrest for the last seven years. Kamila’s daugher, Almitra (Quvenzhané Wallis), a recent mute, winds up meeting the poet who introduces her to a series of beautiful poems that she finds alluring. Mustafa is then taken by the police to be dropped off in a ship so that he may go home, but only after he signs a document stating his teachings have been lies. The story takes place almost in real time, often pausing as Mustafa gives some heartfelt speeches intertwined with short vignettes.
Roger Allers brought together some of the world’s best artists, ranging from watercolor experts to background animators and stitched together all of their visions in a fascinating exploration of life. There are numerous segments to name and they all have different aspects that make them great, but it’s the way Allers is able to shift between the main story and recitations of Mustafa’s poetry that lifts this to something almost magical.
The best way to describe The Prophet is to compare it to Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Unlike the rock band’s visual masterpiece, The Prophet doesn’t blend animation and live action but the way what is being said compliments what’s shown on the screen flawlessly. It’s not a film that focuses on pandering to the lowest common denominator, but it’s definitely something people of all ages can enjoy. The young will marvel at it for its stunning colors and the older crowd will have an emotional connection with it.
Certainly one of the biggest surprises for me at 2014’s TIFF and one that stayed in my mind the longest, Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet is something I cannot wait to watch again. I did find that I connected with certain segments more than others, but it still instills such a wonderful feeling in the audience and you walk out of the movie feeling more alive than ever.
dir. Christian Petzold
starring: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld & Nina Kunzendorf
running time: 98 minutes
Christian Petzold is a director I’ve never been familiar with. Similarly, Nina Hoss is an actress I’ve never been introduced to but I do recall praise being thrown at her for Barbara, which happened to be directed by Petzold. The premise of Phoenix didn’t sound the most appealing and I was expecting something more akin to In Darkness, using the holocaust as the very center of the story. What I was absolutely pleased with, however, is just how delicately handled Phoenix is and it’s much more similar to Vertigo than a typical holocaust story.
Nina Hoss plays Nelly, a concentration camp survivor who, with the help of her friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf in a very memorable supporting turn), gets facial-reconstruction surgery on her disfigured face. Nelly begs the doctors to make her look exactly the way she did before but with no clear photographs and very little evidence of her own existence, the doctors insist she considers starting fresh. Left with no choice, Nelly looks for her husband Johannes (now called Johnny), even at the expense of Lene’s disapproval. When the now unrecognizable Nelly finds Johnny in a nightclub called Phoenix, she approaches him without giving away who she is, because he may have betrayed her and given her away to the Nazis.
Johnny makes the most out of the situation. Seeing some resemblance in the ‘mysterious’ woman with his (in his mind) dead wife, he forces her to dress up and act like Nelly in an attempt to claim his deceased wife’s inheritance. From here, Nelly’s dedication is tested and Johnny’s fidelity is made ambiguous and we’re left wondering if he really betrayed his wife or not.
Petzold constructs an intimate romance with the backdrop of the tail end of the second world war in a way that I’ve seen very few directors do. Using beautiful cinematography to darken the landscape, he evokes a sense of horror while simultaneously lighting the characters in order to make them feel disconnected. As the film progresses, and especially as the old lovers become more familiar, the landscape dramatically changes.
Phoenix is not a film that makes a big effort to have something legitimately relevant to say about today’s society but in focusing so much on the characters, there’s an element of trust that blurs the line between the reality within the movie and the fantasy (much like the aforementioned Vertigo). Nina Hoss is astounding as Nelly — her equal focus on vulnerability and mysticism pushes a character that could have been played one-note to something remarkable. Ronald Zehrfeld as Johnny is the perfect counterpart. He, too, exudes quite a lot of vulnerability and mistrust but he’s much more manipulative and off-kilter.
For what it’s worth, there are small chunks of Phoenix that move a little bit slower than I’d like it to. Some of the motivations are made unclear but that only helps to heighten the mystery and lets the movie flow in a much more organic manner. it’s a slow-burner of a film that demands your attention from start to finish and the payoff is incredible. Petzold crafted something unique using a setting that has been done to death with a finale that absolutely paralyzed me.
dir. Olivier Assayas
starring: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloe Grace Moretz
running time: 124 minutes
My first 2014 TIFF movie was, admittedly, kind of a bore. Clouds of Sils Maria presents some interesting themes and a pretty unique exploration of celebrity and aging but there’s just so much going against it that in the end it made no impact on me at all. Coming out of Cannes this year, the movie, and especially Juliette Binoche & Kristen Stewart, garnered wild praise and some called it one of Assayas’ best. While I can understand the love for Binoche — the woman can rise above just about anything — I’m completely baffled by the positive word Stewart seems to be getting. I’ve always found her to have inconceivably poor line delivery and she never knows what to do with her hands, face and voice volume. But I digress.
Clouds of Sils Maria is indeed a fascinating concept. An aging actress, Maria (Binoche), and her close assistant (Stewart) stay at Sils Maria (ooh, how clever) to prepare for Maria’s upcoming role in a play for which she became famous 30something years ago. This time she’s playing the opposite role — the lesbian who, through her 19 year-old counterpart — is forced into suicide. Maria’s whole life starts blending together once she starts using her assistant to read her lines with, leaving an ambiguity about whether she’s acting or showing her true emotions.
The problem with Clouds of Sils Maria, especially if you don’t know much about it, is that it takes what seems like a lifetime to actually set up the premise. Not that we’re treated to some sort of complex character study, or that we as the audience need a lot of background, but it’s that it’s so dry and, quite frankly, boring. What should have been about Maria and Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz) and how much they’re alike without realizing it, becomes this oddly desperate attempt to allude to something far deeper than director Olivier Assayas has the capacity to explore. The film also has a really awkward structure to it, sometimes highlighting chapters, other times using long musical montages to show passage of time and at times it tries to be contemplative and reflective. In essence, it’s all over the place tonally.
It goes without saying that Binoche is tremendous in this. She tackles the sad, empty, lonely actress with so much dedication and depth. She plays to the aforementioned ambiguity brilliantly, always asking the audience to wonder whether what they’re watching is her true self. Ultimately it’s the one thing the movie gets right: the complex sort of exploration of a meta world. Stewart, on the other hand, has to bounce off Binoche and she just looks uncomfortable and it’s tragic because they’re almost in every scene together.
Would I recommend Clouds of Sils Maria? Sure — or at least to those who are looking for something melancholic, meditative and deeply thematic. Would I watch it again? Certainly not. It bored the life out of me more often than not, its musical shifts in tone and editing make it really difficult to look past its flaws, and having to stomach Kristen Stewart’s mouth-breathing again for 2+ hours is enough for me to say ‘no thank you.’