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If you are going to adapt a novel by author Daniel Woodrell, the self-coined writer of “country noir”, you better make sure you get the look and feel of the Missouri Ozarks correct, no matter how dark, dirty, or devastating that hellish journey may be. I haven’t seen Ang Lee’s attempt to do just that with Ride with the Devil, but after catching Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone at the 360|365 George Eastman House Film Festival, as well as listening to co-writer and producer Anne Rosellini afterwards, I can be pretty sure she did everything necessary to make her film true to the source. Not only did this indie duo want to get the aesthetic right, showing the beat down lifestyle of meth cooks and the shattered lives left in its wake, they wanted the real residents of the town they filmed in to accept them, trusting that the depiction would be as authentic and non-exploitative as possible. Knowing they would stick as strictly to the novel as possible, copies were made available to the community—out near Springfield and Branson, MO—and after an almost three year process were finally able to make the movie they set out to accomplish, on the land and in the households of Missourians willing to open their doors.

Described by most as a western, the main focal point is a seventeen-year old girl named Ree. Taking care of her young brother and sister, along with a nonverbal mother trapped inside her own head, the absence of her father is nothing compared to the fact he posted the house for bond in order to leave jail. With a court date soon approaching, Ree and her helpless wards will be homeless if he isn’t in attendance. So, she takes it upon herself to venture out and find the elusive Jessup, asking his old drug buddies and anyone else who might have seen him in the past few weeks. While almost everyone asked is related by blood somewhere down the line, that sacred bond is only worth something if the guilty party hasn’t broken the collective’s laws. Anyone Ree comes into contact with either lies to her face, pleads the fifth, or ignores her altogether. The lone resident unwilling to forget about her father—not because of love or familial obligation to him, but for her siblings to remain under a roof—she soon finds her unwavering resolve dragging her farther and farther from the truth. Standing tall within this desolate wasteland, Ree will not give up until the house is theirs again or they’re kicked off and forced to part ways.

Very reminiscent in subject matter to Frozen River’s portrayal of one mother doing everything necessary to keep her family from starving, Winter’s Bone utilizes the many tenuous connections between resident factions and the sheriff. Something has happened to Jessup, you can tell by the demeanor of those she questions and the brutality both threatened and used to prevent her from finding out too much. If their leader Thump and his men sought justice for some transgression, they can never come clean. While a dead body would be enough to dissolve the bond and keep the Dolly family in their house, evidence of murder would only kick up internal bad blood, necessitating Ree’s uncle Teardrop to seek his own form of retribution. They reside in a cult of stern stoicism, divulging only information needed to those who need it. Questions are frowned upon here, causing much more trouble than help. But while most feel Jessup made his own bed and to hell with the children he left behind, others can’t lay it to rest. Trust becomes key and whether or not the truth can be uncovered, enough to help Ree stay afloat without bringing the law in to tear everything they’ve worked for apart, the crucial decsion.

This dramatic thriller is so tightly wound that you become enraptured in the mystery, slowly discovering that murder is common practice, preserving the greater good. Each resident was born into this life, they’ve been brought up with farmhand mentalities, learning how to cook, shoot, skin, and survive on the land. It’s a community that thrives on an underground economy of drug manufacturing, rendering any communication with the law a violation of code and punishable by extreme measures. They’ve all come to realize the suffering of life, growing fast and self-sufficient at a young age; Ree says herself that she’s a Dolly to the core, taking her knowledge and imparting it on Sonny and Ashlee in case her search for answers leads so deep that all ways out are sealed. The sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) is afraid of these unflinching outlaws, where even the women inside are hardened and protective of their men, standing as sentries to relay messages and also inflict lessons. Seeing Dale Dickey in a role like Merab, tough and feisty in hers and her people’s way of life, comes as a welcome surprise. As do the rest of those leaning on both sides of the fence to help Ree, including Sheryl Lee and Lauren Sweetser amongst many others. But besides the wonderfully constructed tale of courage in the face of monsters living next-door—winning the Grand Jury prize and a screenwriting award at Sundance—the power wielded by the film’s two leads is immeasurable.

Jennifer Lawrence is fantastic as Ree, showing the mettle a girl at seventeen can have, making each and every move with the thought of her siblings and mother close to heart. Fearless in her quest and willing to say and do things that will only get her beaten and possibly killed, the strength of the film can only rise as high as she’s able to take it. To think that the filmmakers actually auditioned an Olsen twin for the role is unbelievable; thankfully they found their Ree, an actress possessing the tools to seem natural out in the country, while also projecting a youthful innocence inherent to her age. But this character can only go so far without the help of someone demanding respect within the town, a person who makes Thump and his men take pause. Teardrop is a force to reckon with and one all hope to avoid confrontation with if the truth of what’s happened to his brother ever gets out. John Hawkes has always shined, but never been this imposing onscreen. Rosellini says he was excited from day one, getting dirty, weathered, tattooed and angry. Hawkes’ Teardrop is the epitome of this Ozark town and, like his niece, willing to do what’s needed to survive. Where that fervor ultimately leads is unknown, as is the final chapter of the Dolly family’s conclusion to the mystery of Jessup. But that’s okay; we don’t need manufactured exchanges or finite answers. Winter’s Bone is an authentic view inside a world most of us will only hear about, a place of tough choices and rough lives where the human soul is worth just as much as it is here.

Winter’s Bone 8/10

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[1] Jennifer Lawrence as Ree Dolly in WINTER’S BONE, directed by Debra Granik. Photo Credit: Sebastian Mlynarski
[2] Ree and Teardrop (Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes): Jennifer Lawrence as Ree Dolly and John Hawkes as Teardrop in WINTER’S BONE, directed by Debra Granik. Photo Credit: Sebastian Mlynarski


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It only took one look at the American poster for Io sono l’amore [I Am Love] to know I needed to see the film. The use of typography over an elegant family portrait, blocking every face but star Tilda Swinton’s, is gorgeous and much more relevant to the work it represents than I’d ever imagine. Throughout the entire piece, characters are often seen with obstructions between them and the camera, giving the audience a voyeuristic view into the Italian family’s world. There is the common display of double doors—one open and the other closed—centered onscreen, portraying the very guarded nature of the Recchis, always hiding something from the others, secrets permeating each and every bond between them. These private maneuvers are always uncovered by either an accepting soul or an unforgiving one, adding drama every second to the overly ambitious story chock-full of deception and, simply, life.

When the film was introduced at the 360|365 George Eastman House Film Festival, we were given a tidbit of information told to the presenter secondhand from a talk with director Luca Guadagnino at Sundance. He said that the movie formed out of his and Swinton’s desire to tackle a melodrama together, exploring the traits inherent in the genre and exploiting them to tell this story of a wealthy family on the cusp of the new economic world facing them. Their money was accumulated through an industrial factory, the reigns of which are passed on during the opening act’s birthday party—a giant family get-together for the elder grandfather, a man with old-fashioned ideals, telling his granddaughter through a face of unmasked disappointment that she still owed him a drawing to replace the ‘novelty’ photo given as a gift, hoping his hard work would carry on through the generations to come. But the father/son duo it falls too argue about what direction to go; the youngest wishes to honor his grandfather’s wishes while the elder looks to sell for the future, retaining the name and identity, but passing on the big decisions to another company.

This event serves as the catalyst for everything that will follow. Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) is off on business now that he is in control of the company, leaving his wife Emma (Swinton) alone at home to busy herself in trifling affairs; outings with her mother-in-law seem to be the only source of entertainment during her day. Their son, Edoardo (Flavio Parenti), angered at what his father is doing to their family legacy, begins to put his efforts towards building a family with his new wife Eva (Diane Fleri) and to partnering with his chef friend Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini) to open a new restaurant of delicious, experimental food while their daughter Betta (Alba Rohrwacher) starts to distance herself from the family, finding herself and her sexuality at college, afraid to confide in anyone, unknowing how they’d react. They all evolve off screen, chunks of time passing with the display of title cards, glossing over weddings and graduations to stick with the meatier, emotional turmoil of moving into a future full of disappointment, loneliness, and complete isolation— both physical and psychological.

At the center, though, lies Tilda Swinton’s mysterious puzzle of a woman. She, as the title says, is Love. Constantly living for the lives of those around her, she transplanted herself to Italy, forsaking her Russian heritage by not only changing her name to Emma, but also forgetting what it even was. The bourgeois lifestyle appeals to her sensibilities, yet bores her at the same time, leaving parties early to go upstairs and look through magazines or just turn in for the evening alone while Tancredi is off somewhere for work. Giving him her entire being, changing her own essence to make him happy, Emma has lost her way and her opinion, sleepwalking through her existence, day after day. When her precious Edo has a problem or news, she stops what she is doing to go to him; when Betta can hold her secret inside no longer, Emma listens intently and accepts the truth, something she had discovered earlier by accident anyway; and when the duty of attending lunch with her mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, she puts on the fancy clothes and the façade of happiness, keeping up the act. She is the manifestation of Love for the rest, undeserving of finding her own source; that is until Antonio’s sexuality, something we see her interested in early on, becomes too much to ignore.

I Am Love harkens back to the old days of cinematic melodrama, going much further into emotionally wrought territory, though. Populated by close-ups showing each actor in differing states of exaggerated expression, the film grabs hold and renders you helpless against the flowing stream of the family’s progression forward. You become swept up into the grandeur of locales, exquisite performances, and riveting declarations of love publically and privately, uncaring of the kind of consequences their actions may hold. It becomes a very professionally made daytime soap, offering the same type of heightened reality, only with the care and skill of trained performers and crew, making every decision a life or death situation, put to a beautiful backdrop of European settings with sprawling country greenery, bustling city streets, and exotic architectural wonders, (the building Swinton climbs up to look at the CD discovered in her son’s dry cleaning is breathtaking). Add to the cinematography a score so in tune with the visuals that you know it was filmed to the rhythm of its notes—music by John Adams, used at first without permission in hopes that once he’d see a cut he’d allow them to keep it as the underlying signature pulse—and the endeavor is a powerful piece of art worthy of exhibition.

And when it all appears to go too far into the melodramatic—even though that’s what it seeks to do—the excitement finds its way to a well-placed valley, allowing the audience to catch its breath and endure the next sharp climb up. So many details are included to retain our attention, objects continuing to play a part in crucial situations, like the stolen Alfred Stiglitz photography book, and made to appear as though they hold an important weight, forcing us to add extra meaning to things, increasing our emotional connection as we invest fully into the story at hand. Deliberate scenes become juxtaposed with sharp, quickly cut sequences such as a wonderfully constructed love scene composed of extreme close-ups and an abstract cropping of the two bodies involved, jumping to flowers and grass in the field surrounding them while the music builds, its staccato becoming the blueprint for the cuts, and its tempo mirroring the act on display.

But the truly unforgettable aspect of this contemporized throwback to a style of film long disappeared—even the opening titles recall the old RKO-type cards, worked over with a crisply modern sheen—is the climactic scene of full disclosure, portrayed by knowing glances devoid of speech after unspeakable tragedy upturns the Recchis irreparably. The music swells to its tipping point, crescendoing up higher and higher until you can no longer take the intensity anymore. And then, BAM! It’s over and the credits begin to play. What an invigorating feeling of absolute torture as the emotional bomb readies to explode, leaving you in a state of immobility, hopelessly needing answers or action that never come, so as to return back down to earth. Instead, you soak in what occurred during the past two hours, realizing how sometimes you must leave without saying goodbye to start anew. To be loved, sometimes you must leave all those you’ve loved behind.

Io sono l’amore [I Am Love] 9/10

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[1] Tilda Swinton and Alba Rohrwacher in I AM LOVE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
[2] Edoardo Gabbriellini and Tilda Swinton in I AM LOVE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

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Those of you that say a monogamous relationship isn’t possible, that you can’t live the rest of your life with the same person and seriously be happy, Monogamy is the film for you. As succinctly and authentically as it can, Dana Adam Shapiro’s film, (Oscar nominated director of the documentary Murderball), peers through the window of Theo’s life. The guy has it all: a beautiful fiancé, a self-employed photography job where he calls the shots, and an apartment in NYC with good friends in walking distance, one of whom owns a bar that he can frequent and enjoy evenings at. Somehow, though, it just isn’t enough, the pressure of existence is too much to handle and he lets it all slip away through paranoia, lust, and fear. Editor Mollie Goldstein, (a Rochester native), and co-writer Evan M. Wiener were gracious enough to partake in a Q&A session after their 360|365 George Eastman House Film Festival screening, illuminating this as the central motif of the story. We all have some need to rebel and fight against a world keeping us down, so they sought to portray someone as free as can be, showing how sometimes one can never be free enough.

The film won the Best NY Narrative Award at Tribeca earlier this year for good reason as its criteria includes craft, acting, and consistency of vision, showing how the accolade was created with a piece of art like Monogamy in mind. Taking two up-and-coming actors in Chris Messina, (who I still can’t believe hasn’t broken out yet, he’s that good), and Rashida Jones, (given a role to excel in with the nuance she alluded to in “The Office”), the film pits them inside the New York City ‘ME’ lifestyle as the only two constantly looking at the others’ happiness first. It’s as though they don’t quite belong, a pair of star-crossed lovers that would feel at home in suburbia, staying sane and down to earth amongst the hustle and bustle of city living. Along with them comes a brilliant ability to make the frame come to life depending on what it’s depicting—kinetic and angular as Messina’s Theo rides his bike through the city, deliberate and technical as the audience peers through his camera lens at his latest subject, and softly full of sorrow when the reality of love’s hardships come to light, unavoidable and sadly allowed to flourish unchecked in involuntary self-sabotage. Throw it some stellar music tracks blaring to the cuts, including a cameo by Bobby Ray “B.o.B” Simmons in the most memorable juxtaposition of talent show tap with seedy, stalker photography, and no other film had a chance.

Perhaps I should get into a little more detail about this seedy photo work pertaining to a side job of Theo’s that breaks up the drab monotony of wedding gigs. Using the handle ‘Gumshoot’, he receives anonymous emails from people wanting to pay him to follow them around on a specific day, snapping candid shots in their natural habitat. It’s a strange job that only gets stranger once ‘Subgirl’ enlists his expertise. This sexy conundrum of a woman claws into the deepest recesses of Theo’s brain, permanently tattooing herself to the backs of his eyelids with her unabashed, public sexual acts, knowing someone is watching—not only reveling in that voyeuristic fantasy, but encouraging it in order to purchase the evidence as keepsakes of her indiscretions. Sometimes she has a wedding ring, sometimes she doesn’t; sometimes her partner does, and others he’s without as well. A mystery begins to build, hijacking his every thought as it takes hold, wrestling him down while his fiancé is laid up in the hospital with a staff infection, all but forgotten as he chases down this woman of pure sensuality. He decides to follow Meital Dohan’s Subgirl, basking in her unceasing libido, pushing away the girl that completes him, Jones’ Nat, because on the last time he initiated the desire to make love, she happened to want to take a shower first.

But the most intriguing fact of Theo’s transformation into this duplicitous figure throwing his life away is that Nat was okay with it all. Not only did she allow him to be ‘Gumshoot’ without a shred of distrust, but she even caught a glimpse of the first Subgirl go-round, asking to see more instead of turning in disgust with a request for him to stop. There is no way she could give him any more space than she already was—Jones’ Nat is the girl most guys strive to be able to find, that perfect mix of attractiveness, kindness, humor, and talent. It’s almost as if she is too perfect; the friendliness with her doctor and other men she meets mutates into flirting and a non-committal attitude inside Theo’s warped psyche. He begins to take all his own insecurities and self-hatred for being unable to break away from Subgirl and projects them onto Nat, turning this beautiful, sensitive soul into a common slut, forcing an image that doesn’t come close to fitting in order to separate himself from her more. Messina becomes Theo as he changes from a compassionate man in love—a guy who, when asked how long until the wedding, replies without hesitation three months, two weeks—to a possessed introvert, infatuated by a scenario he forms in his head about two people he has never met.

Shapiro and Wiener have woven a wonderfully compelling drama about the fissures that exist in any relationship, the ones worked on and overcome in order to prevent them from breaking into fractures causing cataclysmic damage. The story is pared down to its absolute necessities, telling their tale of romance and heartbreak. Goldstein spoke about all the extra Subgirl scenes they had cut after seeing early screenings of the movie, finding out that the true backbone wasn’t the mystery of adulterous deviants, but the constantly on the brink coupling of the two lead characters. By excising repetitious imagery of the stalker exploits, more time is allotted to Theo and Nat’s interactions and gradual descent into the reality of the situation staring them in the face. It brings in the comedic relief of friends Ivan Martin and Zak Orth, as well as their attempts to pull their buddy out of the black hole he’s sunk through, casting him farther out onto the isolated island of his self-loathing. There is nothing better than a long take to show emotion and nuanced performance, a technique used effectively more than once here, sometimes put to music, (a slow trek through the bar towards the end), and others left quiet as characters speak, (Theo and Nat at home after she returns from the hospital). This is a relationship and a true depiction of the work needed to be put in; sometimes love just isn’t enough.

Monogamy 8/10

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