In the film "Elles"from director Malgoska Szumowska, Juliette Binoche plays a Paris magazine journalist who interviews two young women (Anaïs Demoustier, Joanna Kulig) putting themselves through school working as prostitutes. The girls envy her bourgeois stability while she comes to want their self-possessed freedom, though the lives of all three are shown to be not quite so clear-cut.
Binoche proves why she is such a world-renowned actress with the way she conveys ideas flickering across her brow and flashing behind her eyes. That skill makes her especially adept at portraying a journalist sitting in front of a computer or padding about her nicely appointed apartment, trying to focus on work but letting her mind wander to the laundry or the dishes or assorted distracted reveries.
The film is ratedNC-17, and even though the sex is explicit, it feels natural to the story — designed less strictly for shock-value than in the recent"Shame."Szumowska frequently skirts the line of becoming a euphemistically "European" film before undercutting an erotic moment with a jolt.
As an essay on women's roles in society and cross-generational female desire, the film provides many questions with no easy answers. It's tempting to call "Elles" some kind of thinking-person's sex movie, but it's more about thinking and about sex (and thinking about sex) and is far more likely to encourage awkward, emphatic conversation than post-show friskiness.
"Elles." MPAA rating: NC-17 for explicit sexual content; in French and Polish with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes. At the Nuart, West Los Angeles.
Consolidating an empire
Empire building carries none of that modern-day angst or ambivalence in "Fetih 1453," an epic about the Ottoman Empire's 15th century consolidation. The movie, a hit on its home turf of Turkey, is a straight-up shot of martyrdom and extravagance, honor and glory. Its stateside appeal will be limited to seekers of old-fashioned historical spectacle with a minimum of nuance.
The hero is young Ottoman sultan Mehmet (Devrim Evin), prophesied as conqueror of Constantinople, capital of Byzantium and the easternmost outpost of the Roman Empire. Setting out to achieve what his father couldn't — to capture the city and unite Rumelia and Anatolia — he wages war with low-key determination and lots of slo-mo spearings.
The story's charisma factor lies in its romance between hunky swordmeister Hasan (Ibrahim Celikkol) and Era (Dilek Serbest), daughter of engineer Urban, whose super-cannon proves crucial to Mehmet's military campaign (and whose mercenary aspects the film excises). While Mehmet's seldom-seen wife dabs her wrists with jasmine, Era works alongside her father in the foundry, plucky and almost jarringly contemporary.
Director Faruk Aksoy divides his nearly three-hour movie among battle sequences, the love story and the various halls of power. He goes for grand scale, if not cinematic inventiveness, and presents the intrigue in straightforward fashion, more expository than scintillating. But the depiction of the Pope Nicholas V as another player on the geopolitical world stage holds a certain fascination, as do the suspicious machinations between Constantinople and Rome.
In a closing scene of starry-eyed worship, Aksoy shows that Mehmet, a Muslim, allowed his subjects religious freedom.
"Fetih 1453." No MPAA rating; in Turkish with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours, 43 minutes. At AMC Burbank 8, Burbank; AMC Tustin 14, Tustin.
Getting lost in mapping the world
Director Braden King's "Here" begins with a title card that declares "The story is still asleep. It dreams," as a poetic narration read by Peter Coyote speaks of scientists and dreamers trying to map the world. The production's own clapboard and a color test card are visible in flickering, fleeting images before actor Ben Foster appears alone in a field.
Foster plays an engineer for an American satellite-mapping company attempting to capture images of remote areas of Armenia. His solitary travels are interrupted by a female photographer (Lubna Azabal) who tags along, their relationship quickly heading toward romance.
Azabal's open earthiness plays well against Foster's compressed anxiety, the spare landscapes around them providing a sensual backdrop seemingly of their own conjuring — after they swim in a secluded lagoon, she asks him to leave it off his map.
King creates a swoony sense of time and place; he uses distancing tactics like abstract narration and imagery from outside the story not so much to deepen the narrative with Foster and Azabal as to create something separate to exist alongside it, a parallel film.
It's hard to say if the two ever really mesh or if they were intended to. "Here" seems motivated by a tone of searching and yearning, not of finding a single way. As Foster's character says at one point, "Getting lost was the goal."
"Here." No MPAA rating. Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes. At Laemmle's Music Hall 3, Beverly Hills; Laemmle's Town Center 5, Encino.
Teens caught in unguarded moments
The feature debut from writer-director Nicholas Ozeki, "Mamitas" is an adaptation of his earlier short film of the same name, and despite flashes of lively charm the expansion may not be entirely justified.
Los Angeles high-schooler Jordin Juarez (E.J. Bonilla) tests well but doesn't apply himself, opting instead to put on the air of a tough-guy player. After being shot down by her cousin, he ends up talking to Felipa Talia (Veronica Diaz-Carranza), a bookish girl he wouldn't normally give a second look.
When they find themselves stuck together for an afternoon, they find a deeper connection.
What Ozeki captures best is how the accumulation of teenage coolness can fall away in unguarded moments. The film lags during a spell when the narrative keeps Jordin and Felipa apart, the sparking chemistry of Bonilla and Diaz-Carranza a noticeable absence from the screen, and the story never quite recovers.
Unbalanced storytelling aside, Ozeki wisely works to keep the film focused on his actors, a smart move considering their live-wire charm.
"Mamitas." MPAA rating: R for some sexual references and teen partying. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes. At selected theaters.
Not enough minutes in the movie
A carjacking goes very wrong in "96 Minutes" and the lives of four young people are all set wildly off-course. The feature debut of writer-director Aimee Lagos, the film feels overstuffed and overcooked, as if the filmmaker were trying to get too much out all in one go.
Two female college students (Brittany Snow, Christian Serratos) are overtaken by two teenage boys from the rougher side of town. One (Evan Ross) has been struggling to be better than his surroundings, while the other (J. Michael Trautmann) has been getting sucked deeper into a wannabe gangster lifestyle.
Information about all four is conveyed via a jagged timeline, flashing back and forth between earlier in the day and events unfolding that night in the stolen SUV, but the storytelling technique feels ostentatious, an unnecessary flourish.
In its desire to be about race and class and cars, unlikely intersections and chance encounters, the film feels like a collegiate production of "Crash," thinking it's saying big things as it traffics in the obvious.
"96 Minutes." MPAA rating: R for violent content and pervasive language. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. At the AMC Burbank Town Center 8, Burbank.
More suitable for the wee hours
More infomercial than movie, "People V. the State of Illusion" calls itself a documentary but is really a 90-minute PowerPoint presentation by motivational speaker Austin Vickers. Narrating directly to the camera, Vickers — a mild-mannered-looking guy with the calm speaking style of an instructional video host — has the answer to the stress that's limiting your potential.
Using a mushy mixture of scientific research about receptor walls and perception with therapy session jargon aimed at addressing self-created "prison walls," Vickers and credited director Scott Cervine — who mostly has to wrangle quick-change graphics, talking heads and a terribly acted dramatization about an inmate who turns his life around — keep up a steady empowerment spiel.
It might suitably serve those who don't want to shell out the hundreds or thousands of dollars for the programs available through Vickers' website. Or those who think self-help books would be so much more interesting if underscored by the type of overblown, battle-prepping music you'd find in a Michael Bay movie.
All others, scour the cable channels at 3 in the morning and you'll get the idea.
"People V. The State of Illusion." No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes. At Landmark's Regent Theatre, Los Angeles.
'Restless City' lacks bustle
With his debut feature "Restless City," director Andrew Dosunmu conjures the heady vibe of a pulsing, multilingual place where cultures don't so much clash or collide as exist on their own.
Set amid a West African community in New York City, the film explores this world unto itself as Senegalese immigrant Djibril (Sy Alassane) hustles CDs and assorted goods on the street, though he really wants to be a singer. As he tentatively moves from the fringes to a life more stable, he meets Trini (Sky Nicole Grey), who is also figuring out her next moves.
The cinematography by Bradford Young, who also shot the recent"Pariah,"creates a vibrant, burnished look, and the costumes by Mobolaji Dawodu are all super-cool, if maybe a little too much so — with so many serious scarves and hats, the characters at times feel more like mannequins than people. (Alassane and Grey both also have a background in modeling and sometimes appear to be posing rather than acting.)
Dosunmu's reliance on slow-motion shots of Djibril riding through the city on his scooter feel straight out of a music video and don't help the off-rhythm pacing, which repeatedly turns stately when it feels like it should bustle. In its portrait of a "Restless City" the film is strangely inert and feels like the work of image-makers, not storytellers.
"Restless City." MPAA rating: R for some drug use and brief sexuality. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes. At Laemmle's Monica 4-Plex, Santa Monica.
Pulled in by a cult
As the skillfully told, small-scale drama"Sound of My Voice"unfolds, a young couple named Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) join a mysterious, smock-wearing cult of budding survivalists operating secretly, and seemingly benignly, out of a suburban basement. The group's leader, a beautiful twentysomething (co-screenwriter Brit Marling) sporting ethereal blond hair and an oxygen tank, claims to be from the future.
The veracity of that claim partly drives the hushed suspense of director/co-writer Zal Batmanglij's debut feature, but so does the anxiety surrounding Peter and Lorna's motives for infiltrating the group.
With storytelling economy and dramatic precision often missing from today's independent films, Batmanglij augments the building blocks for a nifty paranoid thriller with sharp commentary on our faction-centered society and the pitfalls of reinvention. Batmanglij's tonal command is often unsettling: Scenes with knife's-edge narrative tension surprise with moments of astute characterization and vice versa.
Your taste for the current vogue in unresolved endings will dictate your response to the last scene, but until that point, "Sound of My Voice" — bolstered by the fine performances, especially Marling's cryptically angelic authority — is an appealing hybrid of genre smarts and a questioning sensibility.
"Sound of My Voice." MPAA rating: R for language including some sexual references, and brief drug use. Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes. At the Landmark, West Los Angeles; ArcLight Cinemas, Hollywood.
'Warriors' doesn't let up
A violent 1930 uprising by a few hundred Taiwanese aboriginals against their Japanese occupiers gets the "Braveheart"treatment by director-screenwriter Wei Te-Sheng in "Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale," purportedly the most expensive movie production in Taiwan history (and the nation's submission to the Oscars this year).
The first part of the film details rivalries among assorted Seediq mountain tribes, who clash over hunting ground protocol but agree on the threat imposed byJapan'saggressive colonial encroachment in 1895. Focusing on the maturing of true historical figure Mouna Rudo from boyish hunter to fierce warrior and finally middle-aged leader of the decades-later attack, the film portrays a proud people's near-suicidal rebellion with a dizzying array of tones: tense in planning, scarily clever regarding jungle warfare, grimly serious about sacrifice, and in the combat scenes, ferocious to a bloody extreme. (Beheadings are the Seediq way, and the term "head count" gets a whole new meaning here.)
With battle-sequence echoes of Vietnam movies, western shoot-outs and swordfighting epics, Wei could have skimped on characterization, but he keeps cartoonishness at bay in his portrayals of aboriginals — some who are conflicted about their purpose — and a Japanese force of sometimes underestimating bureaucrats. Plus, as the elder Mouna, Lin Ching-Tai boasts a mesmerizing weariness and madness in his eyes.
But at 21/2 hours, "Warriors" is a bruising, relentless experience, one more tiring than inspiring.
"Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale." No MPAA rating; in Seediq and Japanese with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes. At AMC Atlantic Times Square 14, Monterey Park; AMC Puente Hills 20, City of Industry.