Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Cannes: Agora and Bright Star

<-- Rachel Weisz at the Agora premiere

O
ur reader / contributor in Cannes hasn't had much time for post-screening e-mails but she is quite fond of Agora, from director Alejandro Amenábar (The Others, The Sea Inside). That's rather a surprise since a lot of reports we've been reading have been decidedly less enthusiastic. But you know cinema: it divides whether or not it conquers.

Here she is...
Agora is unapologetically provocative. The Vatican has been wasting its time worrying about Angels and Demons with Amenábar's epic about the religious strife that destroyed Alexandria waiting in the wings. Rachel Weisz, reminding us that her Oscar win was no fluke, is dynamic as Hypatia, the philosopher and astronomer known for her outspoken questioning of God. She has a high-minded nature and has sworn off men and worldly pursuits completely. The first half of the movie follows the expulsion of the pagans from Alexandria and the Christian led destruction of the city's famed library. Many Alexandrians convert to Christianity in the wake of the seige, including Hypatia's former slave Davus (Max Minghella) and confidante Orestes (Oscar Isaac). Hypatia nonetheless remains steadfast in her beliefs, devoting her time to pursuing possible explanations for the heliocentric model. The movie focuses on the growing power of the Christians, as they turn their sights on the Jews and eventually the city's entire political organization. Agora outright accuses the film's Christian leaders of flagrantly manipulating the biblical text and indulging in the worst types of persecution (are there good types?). This is the most forthright challenge to the religion that I have personally seen committed to film.


Max Minghella starts out somewhat weak but grows increasingly impressive as he develops from a slave in love with Hypatia to a religious follower trying to mute his own unease with the tactics being used around him. I was most invested in the relationship between Orestes and Hypatia, and the former's clear respect and admiration for the latter. Watching Orestes negotiate the turning of public opinion against Hypatia gives the movie its most challenging emotional edge. Agora has some trouble connecting the drama of the personal stories with its larger tale of a pivotal moment in civilization, but its audacity, technical clarity, and relatability ultimately make it worthy of the effort.
I know several readers are hoping that we see Rachel Weisz on Oscar's red carpet again. The lack of consensus enthusiasm at Cannes doesn't always mean something in the larger marketplace (and thus the Oscars) but it can. Rosengje thinks that if it surmounts the obvious obstacle -- will anyone see it? will critics care to convince them to? -- it would find Oscar favor.

<-- Abbie Cornish and Jane Campion at the Bright Star premiere

I also had to ask her opinion on Jane Campion's Bright Star which is about the short passionate romance between the poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne. It's my most eagerly awaited picture from the festival on account of my deep love for Campion's The Piano (1993).

Rosengje is less enthusiastic then the consensus thus far.
I enjoyed and admired Jane Campion' competition entry Bright Star but could not fight the feeling that the movie frequently functions as a standard period romance. Abbie Cornish's direct manner and eventual tenderness toward her beloved are captivating. It is a testament to her performance that the poignancy of the relationship is actually more potent in Keats' absence. I felt the leads were lacking in chemistry, but the depth of Fanny's feeling as the film progresses is palpable and carries the film's last act as Keats journeys to Italy to treat his tuberculosis.

Ben Whishaw and Paul Schneider in Bright Star

I found Ben Whishaw to be Bright Star's biggest weakness. The actor effectively portrays the man's sensitivity and his poetic nature, but overall he seems too weak to warrant the affection of the headstrong Fanny. Paul Schneider, in the supporting role of Mr. Brown, gives the movie's most energetic and vital performance amidst the romantic and intellectual angst. He constantly challenges Fanny's motives while demonstrating a true devotion to Keats.

As expected, the technical credits are perfection, with costumes and cinematography standing out. Fanny starts Bright Star obsessed with design, and her frilled and pleated ensembles reveal more about her personality in the opening scenes than her initial interactions with Keats. Campion particularly captures the beauty of the couple's surroundings in a way that is more effective than the resulting poetry. One sequence involving butterflies left me breathless.
This is the same sequence that Roger Ebert referred to in his recent Cannes article, so I'm guessing it's a true standout and one that they'll eventually plaster on beautiful Oscar FYC ads... not that that is all that important at the moment. The real importance is that Jane Campion has finally made another picture. Rosengje wanted Campion's comeback movie to be a bit more "narratively audacious" but thinks it could be an arthouse hit.
Bob Berney, formerly of Picturehouse, has made a career of successfully drawing audiences to arthouse fare, and the young leads and romance should be accessible and enjoyable to a fairly broad audience.
Agora is currently expected on American screens on December 18th. Bright Star arrives on September 18th.

29 comments:

DJ said...

Not one to brag, but a certain someone doe shave both Weisz and Cornish on her predictions ballot...

Haha, vanity aside, these are two of my most anticipated of the year, in one I can finally see one of my favorite actresses take a complex leading performance (Weisz), and the other because of its romantic and sensitive tale. And that butterfly scene has me so curious!

Sean said...

These are probably the two movies I'm most looking forward to at the moment (and with release dates so far away... sigh). Completely envious of everyone at Cannes, but that's a given. Bright Star looks like a beautiful film. Campion + Keats? Totally there.

I'm really anticipating Rachel Weisz' performance in Agora. Loved her in both The Constant Gardener and The Fountain, but the movies she's been in since then have done nothing for her (Fred Claus? Oy). Hopefully Hypatia won't disappoint--it looks like it'll have all the trappings of a beautiful, intelligent role. The film's reception at Cannes seems to have been respectable enough.

Jesus Alonso said...

oddly enough, "The Broken Embraces" was bashed by spanish reviewers and I can picture it getting a couple of noms (Cruz, Screenplay), "Agora" has been praised by the same critic that trashed the most Almodovar and I can't really trust the movie's chances after Cannes... and "Camino" is following the same reception on the USA that several years ago to Coixet's "My Life Without Me". I guess "Agora" will follow that pattern, as it also shows - as "Camino" - the worst side of cristian fanatism.

I trust more now in Campion's movie being the Cannes movie that sneaks into Oscar season. Oh, and I find von Trier's bashing so... amusing. As he probably does, himself.

NATHANIEL R said...

yeah i loved VON TRIER'S quote the other day "I’ve been treated bad by the press before, and I like it.”"

Steve said...

I saw "Agora" and its beautiful. Rachel Weisz hands down deserves the best actress Oscar for 2009.

jessica said...

Well, The Fountain was more about Jackman, so it's nice to see Weisz back in a meaty leading role. But I doubt this is the one that will give her a lead statue. Strong perfs in complex, non-conventional films have been snubbed before

Steve said...

"Well, The Fountain was more about Jackman"

Don't give that lame argument. Jackman did not make that movie by himself, it was a joint effort by him and Rachel Weisz and they both were just as good. So don't give me that lame argument.

And having seen "Agora", Rachel delvers once again and hopefully, she will get recognize in awards season.

Lisa said...

I can’t wait to see Rachel Weisz as Hypatia . Its looks like it’s going to be a real interesting film and so far, mixed or not, the reviews are almost unanimous in praise of Rachel Weisz’s performance in the movie.

As for “The Fountain”, both Weisz and Hugh Jackman were the leads, not one or the other and both of them were important to the movie. I was not a total fan of the film but I loved their performances and to say that one was more of a lead than the other is a total disservice to their chemistry and the great performance they both brought to the film.

JA said...

I went from having not much interest in Bright Star (I like Campion but don't love) to Must See It Now as soon as the Paul Schneider talk started. Get that wonderful man an Oscar!

NATHANIEL R said...

I gotta say that I side with jessica here. The Fountain is Jackman's movie. (Well, Aronofsky's !!! but you know... as the actors go) He completely owns the movie whereas Rachel has much less to do aside from selling the romance.

That's not a knock against her so much as it's about recognizing how great Jackman was in that movie. It's easily his best performance whereas Rachel is far better in The Constant Gardener than she was in the Fountain.

but more importantly: BRIGHT STAR... i'm trying to not read the reviews so much as skim them because i don't want any specifics of the movie ruined for me (not the plot, just the movie details... it's a bio. we know what happens)

adelutza said...

Both Agora and Bright Star sound very good from what I'm reading but for me it's all about Los Abrazos Rotos.
Almodovar rules.

Gabe said...

Disagree compleatly, Hugh Jackman is great but Rachel is just as great. You would not believe his plight for immortality if you did not feel the passion for the woman he loved and Rachel made that passion feel real with her warm and loving performance.

Sorry but you're wrong, compleatly wrong Nathan.

Bailey said...

The Fountain was TOTALLY about Hugh Jackman! Yes, of course you cannot discount Rachel's role or performance in the movie, but let's be real - all she had to do was stand around and be beautiful and convincingly desirable. That's not a slam against her, she performed wonderfully, their roles just weren't equally 'meaty.'

I am DYING to see Agora. I think it will be amazing, even if the thought of Weisz as an Egyptian is a little laughable. She pulls it off, I am sure, it's just kind of funny.

Catherine said...

To be honest, I thought “The Fountain” was all over the place and not well put together but to say that it was Hugh Jackman’s movie is narrow minded my opinion. Jackman was good, don’t get me wrong but Rachel Weisz was equally as good as he was and they both held the film together from falling completely apart by its own overbearing themes, which was way too far reaching for its own good. It would have played better as a study of death and grief and while it did to some extent, the whole time travel/ conquistador storyline just did not work as well at all and took away from what the film was trying to do and it did not help the performances of the leads, who both deserved much better than what they got.

As for "Agora", a photographer friend of mine saw it (She's on assignment for a magazine)and that its good but it has some problems (Pacing, the script is not well rounded) Rachel Weisz on the other hand was given a standing ovation for her performance,which in her view was well deserved. She saw "Antichrist" as well and confirmed the controversy the film has. Its that and much more she said in her e-mail.

Anyway, you have a great site, very informative. Keep up the good work.

C:)

Doug said...

Hugh Jackman's performance was meaty but Rachel Weisz's performance was the heart of the entire film and a movie with out its heart is nothing. Both Weisz and Jackman both deserve equal praise for their perspective work on this film.

cal roth said...

Love love Weisz. She should have won her second best supporting actress Oscar for her devastating turn in My Blueberry Nights. Love her.

And she never looked better than now.

Doug said...

I thought Rachel Weisz gave the strongest performance in My Blueberry Nights, even when the movie itself was not very good.

I'm counting the day when Agora comes out just to see her in another great performance.

DJ said...

I think I have to side with Jessica and Nathaniel. While I consider both leads, Jackman had the "bulk" of the movie - i.e, he carried it on his shoulders, he had the much more complex character. I think it's one of the greatest performances of the decade, whereas Weisz was wonderful, but nowhere near on the same level as Jackman (which is expected, since her role required less). Gosh, just thinking about the one scene were he tattoos the ring on his finger -- it had me absolutely bawling.

The Fountain is my BP win of 2006, I love it so much.

Anonymous said...

I'm embarrased to admit that the only Rachel Weisz movie I've seen is "The Mummy", although I did have Agora on my must see list. I guess I should netflix the Constant Gardener.


I wasn't at all interested in "Bright Star" but the reviews have peaked my interest.

Robin said...

I don't think Hugh Jackman carried the whole film on his shoulders at all. It was the combine effort of both Jackman and Rachel Weisz that pushes the movie forward. As for complex, i actually think Rachel's character was far more harder to do considering the fact if it was played as the usual dying, pity me garbage, it could have ruined the film and made it a into joke. Rachel played the role with dignity and grace and gave purpose to the entire movie. To say that Jackman carries the entire movie by himself is simply not true, it was a group effort.

CrazyCris said...

I'm sooo looking forward to Agora! We've had the poster up in our movie theatres for a month now, all announcing the Fall opening. Only 4 months to go! :P

Jesus Alonso said...

to reply to Adelutza, Broken Embraces is actually on the "very good" Almodovar block. I'd rank it below "Talk to Her", "Women on the Verge", "What Have I done to deserve this", on par with "Bad Education", "Law of Desire", "All about my mother"... maybe on a third viewing I'd reconsider, but I haven't changed my mind that this is the movie Almodovar could have shot in the USA if he wanted, without many changes. I didn't love it to death, exactly, but certainly I enjoyed it a lot. And Cruz is simply, outstanding, in this one.

adelutza said...

I have yet to see a "bad" Almódovar film, and I've seen them all.

Jesus Alonso said...

Oh, Almodovar has made 2 crappy films, imho: "The Flower of My Secret" - only worth to see the acting duel between Rossy de Palma and Chus Lampreave - and the trashy on purpouse John Waters wannabee that is "Labyrinth of Passion". Then there's the failures of "Pepi, Luci, Boom y otras chicas del montón", "Matador" and "Kika". But normally he's a safe bet, for sure, to see at least an interesting film. He just anounced his next project, it'll be a spanish civil war real-life story about a poet who spent years in Franco's prisons.

cal roth said...

Jesus, what about that Mygalle adaptation? Sounds more Almodóvar to me.

Jesus Alonso said...

http://www.publico.es/culturas/226422/almodovar/rodara/guerra/civil

That's the link to the news story - in spanish - about Almodovar's next. A biopic - or sort - of poet Marcos Ana.

By the way, first reactions in Cannes to "Broken Embraces" are enthusiastic. http://www.screendaily.com/cannes-competition-blog/5001196.article

From here, to Oscar race.

cal roth said...

Thanks, Jesus, but look:

"Ahora mismo estoy dividido entre varias historias. Tengo también una comedia, que como todo el mundo me pide me siento casi obligado a hacerla. Y después tengo otra, que es la que ya he terminado el primer borrador y que probablemente sea mi próxima película. Pero eso no lo decidiré hasta el final", matiza.

Almodóvar mentioned this new project of a biopic, but he doesn't say he's gonna make it now. If my Spanish is right, he hasn't decided yet which project he's gonna do next. Ang La Piel Que Habito (Mygalle) has already a screenplay.

Parjanya said...

Few films manage to strike as poetic a resonance as Amenabar’s Agora...and at the heart of the film is Rachel Weisz’s superbly nuanced and layered performance as the proto-feminist philosopher.

Weisz gives her character the objective idealism that it requires, at the same time evoking a plethora of complex emotions.

Her performance, especially towards the end of the film is flawless...very few actresses could have pulled off a dialogue like "Oh Orestes! Cyril has already won"... or "You do not question what you believe in...you cannot...I must" with this amount of subtlety!...

She definitely deserves an Oscar nomination (if not) and the same goes for the film as well... that is if the film's outspoken stand on Christian fundamentalism does not manage to piss off American audiences and critics...

Parjanya said...

Few films manage to strike as poetic a resonance as Amenabar’s Agora...and at the heart of the film is Rachel Weisz’s superbly nuanced and layered performance as the proto-feminist philosopher.

Weisz gives her character the objective idealism that it requires, at the same time evoking a plethora of complex emotions.

Her performance, especially towards the end of the film is flawless...very few actresses could have pulled off a dialogue like "Oh Orestes! Cyril has already won"... or "You do not question what you believe in...you cannot...I must" with this amount of subtlety!...

She definitely deserves an Oscar nomination (if not a win) and the same goes for the film as well... that is if the film's outspoken stand on Christian fundamentalism does not manage to piss off American audiences and critics...