Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Movie Review: Fruitvale Station (2013)

A biographical drama inspired by real life events, Fruitvale Station tracks the final day of Oscar Grant III, the young black man shot dead by San Francisco transit police officers on New Year's Day 2009.

It's New Year's Eve, and in a suburb of San Francisco Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) is a 22-year old black man struggling to find his feet as an adult. He was recently fired from his job at the local supermarket, but kept that hidden from his long-time girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz), the mother of their young daughter Tatiana. Oscar dabbles in dealing drugs, which has landed him in prison in the past.

Nevertheless, Oscar is determined to do better. He has an honest conversation with Sophia, and helps plan a birthday celebration for his mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer). He has an opportunity to make money through a drug sale but walks away from it. He also maintains a warm relationship with his grandmother. Determined to enjoy the New Year's Eve fireworks celebration with friends, Oscar and Sophina head into town on the transit system, but tragedy awaits on the return trip.

The feature length debut of director Ryan Coogler, who also wrote the script, Fruitvale Station is a quiet revolution. Going behind the headlines of yet another police shooting of yet another black victim, the film reveals the humanity in every life. Before Oscar was senselessly killed by a police bullet he was a young African American man trying to straighten out his life, and he mattered to his daughter, his mother, his girlfriend, his grandmother and his friends.

The film is remarkable for its unremarkable yet nimble content. Coogler rounds out Oscar and his environment with a minimum of fuss and a series of efficient yet effective scenes, Michael B. Jordan an agile and sleek presence in the stark and featureless suburban milieu. Coogler drives home Oscar's identity within a smoothly understated narrative, based on real events but also including some fictional imaginings.

The film can be excused for portraying Oscar in the best possible light, but his faults are still on display. He was an ex-convict, a small-time drug dealer, often late to work when he had a job, possessed a temper, and a tendency to cheat on Sophina. He also cared deeply for his family and friends, talked about becoming a better man and accepting responsibility for his decisions, was clever and funny, and showed affection towards strangers. And at just 22 years old, he still had plenty of opportunities to turn the necessary corners, given the chance.

Instead he received a police bullet in his back while lying helplessly prone on the floor. Coogler starts the film with actual phone camera footage of the confrontation at the Fruitvale Station platform, and ends with an in-depth recreation, filmed at the same location. The speed with which inept Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officers allowed the situation to spiral out of their control is stunning, the officers missing every opportunity to de-escalate.

As demonstrated by Fruitvale Station, there was absolutely nothing exceptional about Oscar Grant's last day, except that it should have never been his last day.

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Sunday, 12 August 2018

Movie Review: A Single Man (2009)

A psychological drama, A Single Man delves into individual grief caused by immense loss and the deliberate logic of intending to end life.

It's November 1962 in Los Angeles, and middle-aged and gay English Professor George Falconer (Colin Firth) is preparing for what he wants to be the final day of life. Still deeply depressed after the recent death of his long-term partner Jim (Matthew Goode) in a car accident, George intends to tidy up his affairs and shoot himself. In flashbacks he recalls his happier days meeting Jim after the Second World War and settling down in a loving relationship.

Back in the present, after delivering an impassioned lecture George is approached by Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), one of his students, who notices George's fragile mental state and suggests meeting up later for drinks. In the afternoon George encounters Spanish male prostitute Carlos (Jon Kortajarena) and visits his close friend and former lover Charlotte (Julianne Moore), as the clock ticks towards the end.

The directorial debut of Tom Ford, who also co-wrote the script as an adaptation of the Christopher Isherwood book, A Single Man is a stylish and thoughtful study of anguish. But it also suffers from the typical ailment of this particular dramatic subgenre: plodding pacing, a gradual wilting away of energy, and ultimately a scarcity of ideas.

Despite the film's slick early-1960s look and feel and Ford's clever penchant for playing with colour and light, every scene drags out longer than it needs to. Some sequences, including the encounter with Carlos and the pass-bys featuring the idyllic family-next-door (with Ginnifer Goodwin as the cheery housewife), border on irrelevant. Even at just the 100 minutes the film out-stays its welcome by a stretch.

This takes nothing away from Colin Firth, who is in every scene and fully immersed in the impenetrable sadness engulfing George. Firth combines melancholia with anger at a life no longer worth living, and he remains watchable as momentum seeps away from the script. The supporting characters are just that, Jim (in the flashbacks), Charlotte and Kenny defined only as George sees them.

As a study of depression A Single Man focuses on the reasoning that after Jim's shocking death, George cannot find a pathway towards reclaiming any sort of happiness. The glimmers of hope come from the insistence of Kenny and Charlotte that friendships and love may still lie ahead, but cutting through the thicket of mourning will require herculean yet sensitive and persistent efforts.

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Saturday, 11 August 2018

Movie Review: Our Kind Of Traitor (2016)

A low-key spy thriller, Our Kind Of Traitor features a mildly interesting story but never fully engages.

Englishman and teacher of poetry Perry MacKendrick (Ewan McGregor) and his wife Gail (Naomie Harris) are on Morocco on vacation, trying to patch up their marriage. A burly Russian calling himself Dima (Stellan Skarsgård) insists on buying Perry drinks, invites him to a party, and arranges a friendly tennis game the next morning. Dima introduces Perry and Gail to his extended family and invites them to another party, where he confides in Perry that he is the chief money launderer for the Russian mafia, and a changing of the guard means that Dima and his family are in grave danger.

Dima wants Perry to connect him to British Intelligence services, offering information about corrupt high-level British government officials in exchange for asylum for his family. Back in London Perry does connect with Hector (Damian Lewis) of the MI6. Under-resourced and lacking support from his superiors, Hector recruits Perry and Gail for a follow-up meeting with Dima in Paris, where Dima's enemies start to get suspicious about the tweedy Englishman hovering around their target.

John le Carré book worked on the page, but this adaptation, directed by Susanna White and written by Hossein Amini, struggles to tease out cinematic anchors. The story features no central protagonist or theme other than the dense fog of corruption and careerism subsuming anything resembling morality. Despite good production values, dedicated performances, and a faithful tone, the film operates in a void that discourages caring.

Perry and Gail are barely sketched-in, their background troubles only hinted at. Hector and his crew are all business. Dima's family are background characters with almost no lines of dialogue. The head of the mafia, a man known as the Prince, and all his goons, are one-dimensional evil monsters in three-piece suits.

With Stellan Skarsgård in full-on effusive mode, only Dima comes across as a halfway interesting character, and the curious bond he forges with Perry is the closest White gets to creating a heart for the film. But even here there is trouble: it is difficult to imagine a man with Dima's resources, wealth and connections having to rely on a random encounter with an Englishman to forge his family's escape plan. And Perry's justifications for allowing himself to get sucked into the orbit of an admitted master criminal and killer are only half-convincing.

At least Our Kind Of Traitor attempts to be cerebral, with dialogue, plotting and low-levels of unease and tension deployed instead of mindless action. But the message of pessimistic doom loses its bite in the absence of hopeful souls willing to endure the suffering.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Review are here.

Friday, 10 August 2018

Movie Review: Valley Of The Dolls (1967)

A show business drama, Valley Of The Dolls is a soap opera with overclocked emotions bursting forth at every turn.

The elegantly sophisticated Anne Welles (Barbara Parkins) leaver her small New England town to seek her fortune in New York City. She finds a job at an agency specializing in show business contracts, and meets Neely O'Hara (Patty Duke), the understudy for stage megastar Helen Lawson (Susan Hayward). Helen spots Neely's talent and fearful of being upstaged, fires her. Jennifer North (Sharon Tate) is an admittedly talentless chorus girl surviving on her seductive physical attributes.

Neely works hard, achieves stardom as a singer and an actress, and marries Mel (Martin Milner). Jennifer marries singer Tony Polar (Tony Scotti), whose career is managed by his sister Miriam (Lee Grant). Anne embarks on a relationship with her boss Lyon (Paul Burke), although he never wants to settle. She then achieves some fame as a model for a cosmetics firm. Although all three women appear to be on the fast-track to happiness, plenty of unexpected surprises await, including increasing dependencies on "dolls", the pills that boost energy or induce sleep.

Jacqueline Susann's salaciously trashy book, one of the biggest bestsellers of all time, is turned into a salaciously trashy movie. Directed by Mark Robson, Valley Of The Dolls is undercast with mediocre talent, and overburdened with melodrama. The claws are out, the daggers are drawn, the pills are gulped, and three women (four, counting Helen Lawson) have their careers clouded by negativity, addiction and backstabbing.

Stuck somewhere in the twilight zone between a really warped take on All About Eve and an early model for the primetime television soap operas of the 1980s, the film is filled with naked ambition, hysterical ups and downs, some brief but at the time scandalous nudity, and an entrenched attitude that for one woman to succeed, another has to fail. Of course all the men are also either manipulative or susceptible to manipulation, or both.

As social commentary, the film has some value in marking the sexual revolution of the 1960s and feminism merging into the mainstream. Anne, Neely and Jennifer are sexually independent, free to pursue both careers and husbands, easily drop the men who disappoint them, and never question their strength as women. Unfortunately, in Valley Of The Dolls independence and meanness are often conjoined in both genders.

Barbara Parkins, Patty Duke and Sharon Tate were never more than middling talents, yet here they land as the three stars of a much-anticipated film adaptation. Parkins does little other than look chic, Duke devours most of the scenery with a wildly over-the-top performance, and Tate appears unfortunately perfectly cast as the expressionless and talentless actress surviving on her physical attributes.

Susan Hayward and Lee Grant add some class and bite, but are consigned to supporting roles. The men fare worse: television non-entities Martin Milner, Tony Scotti, Paul Burke and Alexander Davion as Ted Casablanca are all plastic, interchangeable and disposable.

Valley Of The Dolls scores some points as bad enough to be good and a guilty pleasure to suit the right mood, but otherwise just registers as annoyingly overwrought.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Thursday, 9 August 2018

Movie Review: Stronger (2017)

A biographical drama, Stronger explores post traumatic stress disorder through the lens of a Boston Marathon bombing survivor.

Boston, April 2013. Avid Red Sox fan Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) works at Costco and is in an off-again, on-again relationship with his girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany), an enthusiastic runner. Although they are currently having a tiff, he decides to support her by showing up at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Twin terrorist explosions strike the event right near where Jeff is standing; he survives, but both his legs are amputated above the knee.

The post-bombing photo of Jeff being rushed to an ambulance is flashed worldwide. When he wakes up in hospital Jeff recalls spotting one of the bombers, and his description helps the FBI. His rough and tumble working class family rallies around him, including his mother Patty (Miranda Richardson), and he becomes a reluctant symbol of heroism representing "Boston Strong". But Jeff is irritable, suffering from PTSD, has flashbacks about the bombing, and wants to be left alone to recover.

Directed by David Gordon Green and based on Bauman's book, Stronger portrays the often harrowing experiences of a victim and survivor, well after the international headlines of terrorism fade away. After the world gasps with revulsion, counts the victims, and moves on, the injured and their families are left behind to pick up the pieces and reassemble a semblance of a life, and Stronger is their story.

There is nothing special about Jeff Bauman, and this is the point. An ordinary blue collar guy, the last thing he strives for is to be labelled a hero and designated a symbol. Before the bombing Jeff regularly disappointed Erin with his lack of responsibility and care for their relationship. Now the entire city wants to anoint him as a poster child for Boston Strong.

Suffering from the trauma of losing his legs, the shock of the explosions and incessant family pressure, he naturally cracks. Erin does what she can (and more) to stand by her man, by even she can only take so much. Jeff has to go back to who he really is before he can face what he may represent, and the film respects the slow process of physical and emotional healing.

Jake Gyllenhaal disappears into the skin of Jeff Bauman and delivers a performance of hollow and dark eyes, the imperative of determination clashing with the reality of despair. Tatiana Maslany is a revelation as Erin, as she also portrays a real rather than angelic person: Erin has her needs and aspirations, and both Jeff and especially his mother Patty regularly breach her boundaries.

Stronger stays within itself and limits its ambition to a small, intimate and often painful focus on one individual. This is not a film trying to change the world, just a film about one man's world after it has been changed forever.

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Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Movie Review: The Constant Gardener (2005)

A geopolitical conspiracy thriller, The Constant Gardener features a rich plot combining an eloquent love story with governmental meddling, corporate greed and exploitation.

British human rights activist Tessa Quayle (Rachel Weisz) is killed at a remote lakeside location in rural Kenya. She was on a field trip with Dr. Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Koundé) who is now missing and a suspect in her death. Tessa's husband, low-level British diplomat and gardening hobbyist Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), starts to investigate her murder. In flashback, the story of their first meeting and quick courtship is revealed, and they got married before they really knew each other.

She was eager to join him in Africa, where she quickly set about exploring health issues. Tessa grew infuriated with a system enabling pharmaceutical companies to test potentially unsafe drugs on local populations, and demanded help and answers from British High Commissioner Sandy Woodrow (Danny Huston) and Sir Bernard Pellegrin (Bill Nighy) of the foreign office. Now Justin starts piecing together what his murdered wife was working on, and gradually uncovers the depth of a conspiracy stemming from the work of the mysterious Dr. Lorbeer (Pete Postlethwaite).

An adaptation of the John le Carré novel directed by Fernando Meirelles, The Constant Gardener is a conspiratorial mystery wrapped in a tender and unique love story. Starting with an unglamorous death, the film delves into Tessa's story to reveal a vivacious young woman poking too hard at the normal course of modern colonialism. Infused with le Carré's trademark jaundiced pessimism around a world run by grey bureaucrats making all the wrong decisions, this is a grim, layered and uncompromising look at unstoppable corruption wrapped in the veneer of foreign aid.

The film is made all the poignant by the retroactive nature of the love between husband and wife. Justin and Tessa married too soon and relocated to Africa. His low key style, metaphorically reflected in the deliberate care and attention he dedicates to his plants, proved too slow for Tessa. Off she went asking difficult questions across Kenya, and they drifted further apart. Insinuations about her having an affair with Dr. Bluhm did not help, neither did men like Sandy lusting after her behind Justin's back.

It's only when Justin starts following the thread of his wife's death that he starts to genuinely get to know her and truly understand her affection towards him. Meirelles weaves this sense of growing attachment and appreciation towards a murdered woman with the unfolding story of exploitation and connivance, dramatically enhancing Tessa's impact despite her demise in the opening scene.

Not everything about The Constant Gardener is perfect. Meirelles tries to cram too many events and characters into the film, resulting in some people and events left stranded, a long 129 minutes of running time and a somewhat rushed ending. But enhanced by the stark yellows of the African landscape and a firecracker of a Rachel Weisz performance balanced by a low-key Ralph Fiennes, The Constant Gardener is a subdued yet scathing denunciation of realpolitik.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Movie Review: The Equalizer 2 (2018)

An action thriller, The Equalizer 2 is a solid second chapter in the story of a troubled ex-government killer who now works on his own terms.

Former Special Forces operative Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) eliminates a band of thugs on a train in Turkey, returning an abducted American child to her mother. Now working as a Lyft driver in Boston and still grieving the loss of his wife, McCall next tangles with a group of men who nonchalantly abused and drugged an escort. At his apartment complex, McCall takes aspiring artist Miles (Ashton Sanders) under his wing and tries to steer him away from a life of crime.

Meanwhile, in Belgium, a deep undercover American agent is killed along with his wife. McCall's close friend Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo) is sent to investigate on behalf of the CIA. She is soon in trouble, and McCall teams up with his former colleague ex-agent Dave York (Pedro Pascal) to investigate and dole out his unique brand of justice.

Again directed by Antoine Fuqua, The Equalizer 2 does not stray far from the original, which makes it both comfortably entertaining and just as comfortably predictable. This is a good quality film with excellent action scenes and plenty of space and time allocated for introspection and side-plots, but it never threatens to surprise.

Washington is by far the best thing on show, and his sheer presence and unflappable demeanour maintain a high degree of interest. Fuqua allows his star critical opportunities to reminisce about his past life and lost love, and McCall as a rounded and emotionally wounded character is so much more gratifying when he lets his anger loose. The Equalizer 2 is the first sequel project ever for both Washington and Fuqua, and their level of care for the central character is evident.

Helping matters along are several small stories enriching McCall's character. The episode in Turkey, the drugged escort, the old man droning on about his missing sister and his stolen painting, and the Miles salvation project all add texture and a mostly welcome warmth to the proceedings. However, the incidental chapters do pad the running time towards the upper limit of what is tolerable, the film clocking in at a flabby two hours.

The core plot starts with the brutal assassination in Belgium and culminates in McCall seeking cold revenge on those who have wronged Susan. The vigilante theme is as worn out as it sounds, and neither Fuqua's often clever visuals nor Washington's silky delivery can reinvent it. The bad guys are easy to guess and utterly lacking in personality.

The Equalizer 2 hits most of its targets, but most of them already carry the old bullet marks of many previous not dissimilar efforts.

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Monday, 6 August 2018

Movie Review: Midnight Special (2016)

A science fiction chase thriller, Midnight Special has a few ideas mainly derived from other movies, and generally wastes them.

In rural Texas, eight year old Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) is kidnapped by his father Roy (Michael Shannon) and accomplice Lucas (Joel Edgerton). Alton was being raised by a religious cult under the leadership of Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard). The cult worshipped Alton as he appeared to possess superhuman special powers, including emitting light beams from his eyes and sharing visions and knowledge of supernatural events. Alton mainly functions at night, his eyes covered by shades whenever he is near bright light.

The FBI raids Meyer's ranch, worried that the cult members were stockpiling weapons in readiness for a day of reckoning foretold by Alton. Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) of the National Security Agency participates in the interrogations, and deciphers some of Alton's coded messages, identifying a likely location where he may be headed. Meanwhile, Roy and Lucas connect with Alton's mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), as they make their way with the boy to a mysterious rendezvous location pursued by the cult members and the government.

Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, Midnight Special borrows heavily from two Spielberg science fiction classics. Alton is a stranded alien with special powers trying to find his way home, evoking E.T., while the search for a secret location that could be a rendezvous with a superior interplanetary species comes from Close Encounter Of The Third Kind. It's also not a stretch to find echoes of Spielberg's Sugarland Express here as well.

The ideas are borrowed, but the quality of execution and narrative momentum is not. Nichols botches his pacing by playing hide and seek with his plot, the essentials of the story barely progressing from the opening scene to the final 5 minutes. Alton is abducted in the opening credit sequence; Nichols drops obtuse hints about his story for the next 100 minutes, which consist of one long drive and not much else of consequence. Then Midnight Special wraps up with some glistening CGI-created effects set to wondrous music.

Along the way Roy and Lucas prove to be rough-and-tumble kidnappers with relatively good intentions, while Sarah does not quite seem to know what her role is supposed to be. The government types scurry around one step behind the action and botch every opportunity they have to grab a hold of the situation. The religious cult sub-story fades in, then out, then in, before being unceremoniously dropped in its entirety.

The rather tired premise that anyone or anything a bit special attracts ideas of worship or weaponization rumbles in the background. Most of what makes it onto the screen is a distraction, the journey to an empty field existing in a core narrative void. Midnight Special pretends to have a story to tell, but it delivers tepid leftovers devoid of substance.

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Sunday, 5 August 2018

Movie Review: How To Be Single (2016)

A celebration of the ups and downs of singlehood from the female perspective, How To Be A Single does not stray far from romantic comedy conventions.

In New York City, paralegal Alice (Dakota Johnson) forces a temporary break from her boyfriend Josh (Nicholas Braun) in order to find herself. She befriends Robin (Rebel Wilson), who revels in the party lifestyle of being single. Alice's older sister Meg (Leslie Mann) is also single and dedicated to her career as a doctor. New-in-town Lucy (Alison Brie) dates obsessively in search of a husband, and meets her dates at the bar run by the dishy Tom (Anders Holm), an expert at one-night stands.

Alice quickly regrets leaving Josh, but he no longer wants her back. She eventually starts a relationship with businessman and single dad David (Damon Wayans, Jr.). Meg decides to have a baby on her own using donated sperm, but soon meets Ken (Jake Lacy) and they start to fall in love. Lucy repeatedly strikes out in her efforts to find a soulmate, and is oblivious to Tom's growing interest. Robin stays true to herself, living up a life of fun and hard partying.

An adaptation of the novel by Liz Tuccillo directed by Christian Ditter, How To Be Single only superficially tries to be different. The title and theme suggest an intent to not make the pursuit of a partner a central premise, but beneath the thin veneer, the film is a standard a rom-com: three of the four women spend the entirety of the film obsessing about men.

The exception is party animal Robin, who really is a girl who only wants to have fun, and never melts in front of the prospect of finding a soulmate. Alice, notionally the main character, quickly gets busy plotting how to enter or re-enter the lives of various men, despite opening the film by abandoning a man who adores her. She has a late-in-the-day awakening, but not before surrendering to all the cliches about women desperate to attract and please men.

At least Lucy is painfully honest about wanting get rid of her single condition as quickly as possible. Meg is the career woman who falls victim to the sudden urge to have a baby on her own, at which point a man enters her life. Her story almost belongs in a previous generation and has been told before in films like The Back-Up Plan.

How To Be Single delivers a steady stream of decent laugh, Ditter adds a few flashy directorial touches, the four actresses are likeable enough and share the screen time, ensuring limited dawdling. But ultimately, and to no one's real surprise, being single is a foundational part of yet another shallow story about the pursuit of cute couplehood.

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Saturday, 4 August 2018

Movie Review: Words And Pictures (2013)

A romantic drama, Words And Pictures explores two damaged souls finding salvation in each other, but all the literary pretensions cannot conceal the film's predictable foundations.

Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) is a washed-up English teacher at the upscale Croydon College in Maine. Once a marginally famous published author, he is now increasingly dependent on the bottle to get through the day. The College administration start proceedings to review his performance with a strong inclination to terminate him. His students include the studious Emily (Valerie Tian) and Cole (Josh Ssettuba), and the mischievous Swint (Adam DiMarco).

Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche) arrives at Croyden as the new Fine Arts teacher. Once a famous artist, she is now hobbled by rheumatoid arthritis and increasingly bitter about her declining abilities. Jack and Delsanto clash about the value of written literature relative to the visual arts, and their academic rivalry re-ignites his passion for teaching. Emily is particularly inspired by Dina, but has to deal with a bullying episode. Although Dina and Marcus develop a mutual attraction, his drinking leaves him susceptible to self-destructive behaviour.

Directed by Fred Schepisi and written by Gerald Di Pego, Words And Pictures attempts a relatively cerebral take on romamce, and targets a more mature audience. This is a love story in an academic milieu featuring grown-ups hauling plenty of real-world luggage and finding a new spark on life thanks to a professional rivalry. The dialogue is rich with prose espousing the virtues of the written word (from Marcus) and the beauty of the image (from Delsanto), and while initially fresh, the sparring exhausts itself relatively early. Di Pego also falls into a trap of his own making, Marcus' silly game of trading multisyllabic words in alphabetical order overstaying its welcome by about one hour and five syllables.

The two central characters are in midst of suffering when they meet, and a grizzled weariness permeates the film as an antidote to romance flimsiness. Marcus is drinking heavily and in full descent into don't care mode, with dismissal the next logical step. Delsanto (as he insists on calling her) is relocating from the glamour of New York City to the relative backwater of a Maine prep college, her arthritis increasing dictating her art.

Competing for the hearts of the same students, he tries to shape up, dry out and re-energize the student literary magazine, and she attempts to reinvent her painting style and ignite Emily's passion. Both will stumble and take backward steps along the journey, and their clash and tentative efforts towards self-improvement maintain a modicum of narrative interest. Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche are never less than serviceable, but the roles hardly demand a stretch.

All the secondary and supporting cast are short-changed and generally abandoned. Emily is first subjected to a too-quickly forgotten bullying incident and then a truncated art mentorship, and she is  the only student provided with any kind of meaningful screen time.

Words And Pictures has both elegant words and pretty pictures, plus also plenty of bland faux artistry.

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