It'd be misleading to read Ira Sachs' latest effort, "Passages", through the eyes of its amorous, confused, and ultimately destructive lead character Tomas (Franz Rogowski). Oscillating between the relationship with his husband, Martin (a tremendous Ben Whishaw who deserves all the year end accolades) and his start-up affair with beautiful teacher Agathe (Adele Exarchopoulos), Tomas doesn't feel that far removed from the caddish interlopers of the French New Wave. But "Passages", ultimately, concerns itself less with Tomas and more with the two people caught up in his sexual confusion. This is a film about frank sexuality- which is terrific when it's fresh and impetuous- and all three people in this love triangle experience it. However, what lingers most vividly about the situation is the way Sachs quickly dries out the sexuality and creates a devastating portrait of those rejected and damaged from Tomas' willful carnality. Whishaw is brilliant in the way he recoils and holds in his sadness during one incredible scene. Likewise, Exarchopoulos is luminous in her stringent performance and the way she maintains a sense of individuality within yet another expression of amour fou (something she's become famous for). I suppose all the character traits were there on display in the opening scene as filmmaker Tomas berates and constantly stops a scene he's filming in order to get the right presence of someone walking down a flight of stairs. "Passages" is an exploration of the starts-and-stops we experience in a relationship as well. It's just a shame it comes at the expense of two wonderful people like Martin and Agathe, who Sachs handles with empathy and intelligence.
The Last Voyage of the Demeter
Typically a dumping ground for left-over gambles and small independent films that finally manage to squeeze their way onto one of the 24 screen multiplexes, August is a miserable month. Add to that at least one horror film each year in a vain attempt at counter-programming, and that's where Andre Ovredal's "The Last Voyage of the Demeter" lands. Literally ripped from the pages of Bram Stoker's "Dracula" tale, "The Last Voyage of the Demeter" actually succeeds because of its swallowing atmosphere and confident bloodletting in a confined space. The space is a ship whose unlucky cargo happens to be the prince of darkness, and the cast is a who's-who of familiar character actor faces (Liam Cunningham from "Game of Thrones", Corey Hawkin, Aisling Franciosi, and David Dastmalchian) charged with battling the creature. There are no great revolutions here. It isn't saying much. The scares are generally rote. But what "The Last Voyage of the Demeter" does have is terrific production design and a suffocating sense of foggy, inevitable bloodshed. For the August dumping ground, that's enough for me to purely enjoy this film for what it is.
The Unknown Country
I love, love, love this type of wispy travelogue film that says nothing, but manages to say everything. As the woman traveling, Lily Gladstone deserves her big year, and Morrisa Maltz's "The Unknown Country" understands that the most powerful expression in cinema is not the words, but the face. Harboring a restless sense of sadness and displacement, the film follows Tana (Gladstone) as she travels from Minneapolis to her cousin's wedding on the reservation in South Dakota. From there, she heads south in search of something greater than herself. Generally keeping the viewer imbalanced on just where we are in the journey with Tana across an American landscape that's alternatively beautiful and alarming for a single woman, "The Unknown Country" also takes the time to dwell on the genuine, honest faces Tana comes across in her journey. We even get to hear these people tell a quick story of their lives, and a fiction film becomes semi-documentary... as if Maltz also wants to craft an anthropological study of the goodness buried in a world teeming with angry talk radio and the division of people- something that becomes central to Tana's long car rides that not only serve as a location marker, but also the static of a world going on carelessly around her. Ultimately, "The Unknown Country" knocks all this away and chooses to emphasize the people orbiting around Tana. Best when it settles on the sweet, proud worldview of her estranged relatives on the Indian reservation (including a knock out performance by long time character actor Richard Ray Whitman), it's enervating to watch Gladstone's performance begin to soak in their grace and carry on southward for something more. The world may still be swerving around her, but "The Unknown Country" has the grace and fragility to slow everything down and celebrate those in the moment. A wonderful film.