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Headed to an arthouse this weekend? Capone has two excellent recommendations--BALLAST and I'VE LOVED YOU FOR SO LONG!!!

Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here, with reviews of two very bleak but ultimately well worth checking out offerings getting released a little wider this weekend. Look for them at those wacky arthouses you've been hearing so much about for decades. You'll thank yourself.
BALLAST When a film opens up with one suicide and one attempted suicide, it's a safe bet that said film is going to be a tad on the bleak side. But nothing quite prepared me for the soulful power of BALLAST, the feature debut from writer-director Lance Hammer, whose film is not about suicide but about the impact these actions have on those left behind. Set in the murky, gray winter of a Mississippi Delta township, the film focus on three black characters, all of who are linked to the dead man. One is his brother Lawrence, who is our suicide attempt, so overwhelmed by his brother's death and his failed attempt at joining him that he is practically struck dumb and inactive by the situation. The brothers owned a mini-mart/gas station that has remained closed for many weeks after the brother's death. We also meet 12-year-old James, a good kid whose path appears clear to us as he begins to hang out with drug dealers, dabbles in crack himself, and seems impressed by guns. When he finds out about his father's death, he visits his uncle, steals his gun, and forces the uncle to walk him through the house to see his father's possessions. The third player in this film is James' mother Marlee, a struggling woman who is informed by a lawyer that half of the house where he husband lived and the store are hers. Her immediate reaction is to sell everything and take the cash, but when dangerous situations rise up where she and James live, she decides to take up residence with Lawrence living in a side house on the property. She and Lawrence never got along, although it seems neither knows exactly why. As much as this film is filled with misery and hard times, it is wonderful to watch the ways Hammer slowly allows his characters to fill in the large gaps in their hearts and soul, and heal each other in the process. The process is slow and painful (which does not mean the movie is either), and blessedly goes against every convention Hollywood has taught us about grief and forgiveness. This is not something that a single kind word or deed is going to heal, not even close. Even the look of the film is rough around the edges. Hammer moves his hand-held camera through the action as if he's a fourth character in this story. Although the movie covers some of the emotional and economic ground as David Gordon Green's GEORGE WASHINGTON, the visual style of the two films could not be more different. BALLAST simply might be too heavy and raw for some, and I understand that. But if you're in the mood to or habit of discovering great new filmmakers, Lance Hammer is one I'm going to be keeping an eye on in the years to come. I hope he maintains the same emotional punch that he holds so dear in BALLAST, because films this strong are few and far between. We've had a couple this year that came close, such as FROZEN RIVER and SNOW ANGELS (notice how all of these heavy hitters take place in winter?), but in terms of naked cinematic fortitude, BALLAST is on most solid ground.
I'VE LOVE YOU FOR SO LONG A little bit more misery for you on this fine weekend, but this film is cut from a distinctly different cloth. Writer and first-time director Philippe Claudel has crafted one of the most delicate and fragile works of 2008, a movie that is the cinematic equivalent of walking on egg shells as British sisters Lea (Elsa Zylberstein) and Juliette (Kristen Scott Thomas) navigate through spoken and unspoken territory in hopes of striking a balance in which both can live comfortably. Living in Paris, Lea is married with two lovely adopted Vietnamese children. Once a doctor, Juliette has just been let go from an extended stay in prison for murder; she went into prison when Lea was still a teenager. Since Lea's home is the only place she can stay presently, Juliette moves in with the family but makes no secret of her lack of interest in being there or interacting with the family. Lea's husband Luc is hesitant and sometimes openly hostile about having the quiet and anti-social Juliette living there. Also living in the house is Luc mute father, Papy Paul, who is perhaps the only person Juliette enjoys spending time with since there's no risk of him asking questions about her crime and punishment. Juliette's crime is revealed fairly early on in the film, but I won't give it away here. Her reasons for committing the crime are far more interesting to the plot and quietly devastating. But the truth is, the film isn't really about the murder. It's about these two sophisticated, lovely women rediscovering a long-lost connection they once had in their youth. And that is a story worth watching. It's also about the painfully slow process of people coming to terms with Juliette's crime and her return to society, finding a job, getting her own place, and confiding in her moody parole officer. It's tough watching Juliette get treated so badly by prospective employers when they find out why she was in jail, but it's just as tough watching Luc hesitate allowing Juliette to baby-sit while he and Lea go out for a night on their own. Scott Thomas has quite simply never been better, and I'm enjoying the fact that half the movies she makes these days are French productions (such as the recent TELL NO ONE and THE VALET). We anticipate the film's big emotional moment when Juliette tells Lea the exact reasons for her crime, and I'll admit, I didn't quite see her explanation coming. But the truth is, I'VE LOVE YOU FOR SO LONG isn't about big moments; it's about a series of smaller steps between the sisters that make it so satisfying. The film is sometimes very tough to watch, as if we're eavesdropping on some very private conversations that no outsider should be allowed to hear. Assuming this film gets any kind of traction, Scott Thomas seems like an easy lock for many a nomination come awards season. It would be a true shame if she is overlooked. This is the kind of film that makes you want to patch up any troubled spots you might have with certain family members, but it never goes for the obvious emotional triggers. You will probably cry while watching this film, but the movie has earned your tears. This is one you shouldn't miss. -- Capone

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