June 2011

The Rite  •  Araya  •  Blue Valentine  •  Biutiful

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DVD reviews by Loey Lockerby and Dan Lybarger


The Rite

the rite

If you're looking for a thoughtful examination of religious belief in the 21st century, The Rite is most assuredly not the movie for you. Although it is loosely based on a true story, it has all the qualities of a cheap attempt to jump on the exorcism-movie bandwagon.

Colin O'Donoghue plays Michael Kovak, a young seminarian with serious doubts about the priesthood. At the urging of an older cleric (Toby Jones), Michael makes one last attempt to shore up his faith by traveling to the Vatican, where he studies to become an official church exorcist. He also meets the eccentric Father Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins), who shows him the error of his skepticism.

The Rite offers some interesting scenes early on, especially as Michael struggles with his calling. It quickly becomes a checklist of personality changes, mysterious sounds, impossible knowledge — basically, everything you've ever seen in a film about demonic possession. Hopkins coasts along with a performance that (unsuccessfully) combines Hannibal Lecter with Dr. Van Helsing, and O'Donoghue and the other actors just fade into the scenery. The Rite is not terrible, but it is dull, which is the very last thing a movie about demons should be.

Extras: Deleted scenes; an alternate ending; a piece on the real exorcists who inspired the story. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 —LL

Araya

When Paul Simon lamented, “Everything looks worse in black and white,” he probably hadn’t seen French director Margo Benacerraf’s 1959 film Araya. In fact, until 50 years later, hardly anyone had seen the movie shortly after it won the International Critics Prize at Cannes. It’s full of the dreamlike images resembling the ones Simon sang about in “Kodachrome,” but the photography in the film is strictly monochromatic.

Araya, which is available at www.milestonefilms.com, doesn’t fit easily into any sort of category. It stars the people who lived in the dry Araya peninsula in Venezuela but the movie isn’t a documentary. There’s a thin but credible story about how the residents spend their lives extracting salt from the marshes.

The white mountains of salt loom over the villagers as they load the mineral into wicker baskets. Life on these marshes appears limited. About the only options the people there have are fishing and salt harvesting, but the residents don’t seem glum about it. Benacerraf clearly loves and respects these people and doesn’t view them with European condescension. In one of the featurettes, she returns to the village in 2009, and the people there greet her as if she never left.

In the same featurette, we learn the surreal look of Araya isn’t due simply to the camerawork. In color, it turns out the water in the marshes is a garish pink. In addition, the harvesting machines, which a presented as an eerie portent in the 1959 movie, have flattened the marshes, removing much of their previous beauty.

Despite the beauty of the photography and the unique subject matter, Araya is her only feature. That said, she and Charles Laughton (The Night of the Hunter) might be the only directors who’ve batted 1,000.

Extras: Two featurettes, audio commentaries, press kit downloads and her 1953 short film Reveron. The latter shows her later movie was not fluke. Araya is subtitled in English, but can be heard in either French or Spanish. (N/R) Rating: 4 — DL

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Blue Valentine

Blue Valentine

Blue Valentine is hardly what you'd call an entertaining film, since it's about the dissolution of a relationship. What writer-director Derek Cianfrance accomplishes is raw and wrenching, but also brilliant.

Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams lose every trace of movie star glamour to play Dean and Cindy, a working-class couple trying to overcome their rough backgrounds. They find a glimmer of hope in their sweet, tentative relationship, but neither of them can handle the trials of lifelong commitment.

Anyone who has ever experienced — or even witnessed — a scenario like this will find Blue Valentine difficult to watch. Cindy and Dean are sympathetic characters whose flaws simply run too deep. At times, you may want to slap both of them and force them into couples counseling, if only for the sake of their young daughter. At other times, it's just too obvious that they can't make this work, and should call it quits before things get even worse.

Cianfrance jumps back and forth in the timeline, offering clues that enrich the characters and show the inevitability of their fate. It takes a while to sort out what's happening when, but the breathtaking performances and rich emotions easily eclipse any structural problems.

Extras: Commentary by Cianfrance and co-editor Jim Helton; a making-of feature; deleted scenes; an in-character "home movie" shot by the actors. (R) Rating: 4.5 —LL

Biutiful

biutiful

Javier Bardem’s Oscar-nominated performance is pretty much the only reason to sit through this disappointing effort from the talented Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel). Bardem plays Uxbal, a low-level Barcelona criminal who acts as sort of a fixer between cops and crooks. He’s also an advisor for employers who don’t want to pay for legal labor. He can also communicate with the recent dead and is trying to find meaning in his seemingly wasted life because he’s dying of cancer.

While the story for Biutiful is more linear than the ones for Iñárritu’s previous movies Amores Perros and 21 Grams, it feels more convoluted and meandering than its predecessors. It lacks the tight scripts that Guillermo Arriaga (whose directing debut The Burning Plain is also a letdown) wrote for the previous movies and careens out of control.

At two and a half hours, Biutiful, which takes its title from a drawing one of Uxbal’s children makes, is a grim, slow, underdeveloped slog. Iñárritu flirts with several potentially worthy subjects like illegal immigration and finding a purpose in a seemingly wasted life, and abandons them before they develop properly. It’s as if Iñárritu has decided that if a concept is depressing, it’s worthy of inclusion regardless of importance.

Rodrigo Prieto’s photography is gorgeous, making even the grimiest corners of Barcelona weirdly photogenic. Bardem’s galvanizing presence and Maricel Álvarez’s turn as Uxbal’s estranged substance abusing wife almost make it possible to care about these self-destructive, self-absorbed people. Despite the number of deaths and the proliferation sorrow, Biutiful primarily seems to generate indifference. If your eyes water while watching the film, it’s probably just allergies.

Extras: Cast and crew interviews and Behind Biutiful: Directors Flip Notes. (R) Rating: 2.5 —DL

Loey Lockerby can be contacted at lrl94@aol.com.
Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@eFilmcritic.com.