Movie Reviews: Your Guide to the Theater This Weekend

Love is alive in 1950s 'Brooklyn', but not for Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in 'By the Sea'.

Fox Searchlight | Universal | Film Arcade

By the Sea is Angelina Jolie's elbow nudge to the public. She writes and directs, but mostly stars in the movie which also features hubby Brad Pitt tagging along in his real life role. Disguised as a foreign art film, this is a sly movie star's movie about beauty and sex and beautiful sex and how we all want the same thing in the end.

Movie Reviews: Your Guide to the Theater This Weekend

By the Sea is deliberate in its execution. Unless you give yourself over to the technical brilliance of cinematographer Christian Berger you'll likely be bored into slumber. And to Jolie as well. She's so famous it's hard to imagine her making a movie like this, but here it is, like a challenge. She just puts herself in front of the camera and cries, forever...

Opening like a commercial, Jolie and Pitt speed towards the South of France in a silver Citroen as Roland and Vanessa. He's a writer, she was a dancer and they're having relationship issues of the drastic unspoken variety. At a hotel by the sea, he drinks at the bar and she rejects him upstairs. Nothing happens. The camera watches Jolie, her running mascara, her designer everything, and her huge hair. 

Eventually, Vanessa finds a peephole to the room next door where she, and later, she and Roland, watch the newlyweds next door (Mélanie Laurent, Melvil Poupaud) make love like maybe they once did. Through their shared naughtiness, the couple begin to bond again and the source of all Vanessa's weeping is revealed. But story is not this film's virtue. It's all about Jolie's challenge to us.

As the most famous couple in the world, Jolie and Pitt are in a unique position to do whatever the hell they want. And, instead of making Mr. and Mrs. Smith 2 or Ocean's 17 for millions, they made this non-commercial snoozer - a Godard/Bergman knock off. Seemingly... By putting herself front and center for the first part of the movie, Jolie is turning the tables on us. While we're busy watching her, she watches the couple next door. The movie suddenly becomes our peephole. And something actually meaningful.

Grade: B

In his Poetics, Aristotle says great art should bring about "a movement of spirit" in all of us. Brooklyn, director John Crowley's picturesque Irish love story, is proof Aristotle's words still ring true today. It's a film of performances so charming, you'll love the actors for all time. The music soars in that familiar, reassuring way and you want to sink into this world and stay there forever it's so warm and alive. Brooklyn is a modern classic.

Based on Colm Tóibín's acclaimed novel of the same name, Brooklyn lacks the book's darkness thanks to screenwriter Nick Hornby (Wild, An Education). It's a story of love in a time when the future was so bright you had to squint through the day and the past that tugs at your sleeve not to leave it behind. Set in the early 1950s when TVs were becoming the rage and city families started migrating to the suburbs, the story follows Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), a homely Irish girl who leaves her small town for a new job and life in the States.

Movie Reviews: Your Guide to the Theater This Weekend
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Settling in Brooklyn, Eilis stays at a boarding house and works at a department store thanks to Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), but she's homesick and longs to see her mother (Jane Brennan) and sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) again. However, Eilis soon finds herself. It just takes another person to do it. Tony (Emory Cohen) is an Italian boy with a thing for Irish girls and he's all over Eilis. His gentle ways entrance her and they fall in love. But, suddenly Eilis must return to Ireland and, once there, decide to return to her love or stay in the place she knows as home.

The secret to Brooklyn is in its depiction of the ownership of love. Right or wrong, love is ours individually and it gives us each confidence and power. Crowley's film may not have the depth of its source material and the archetypal characters may bore some instead of entrance them, but it's hard to deny the simple truths of this story, all of which comes across onscreen.

The other secret to Brooklyn ain't so secret. Saoirse Ronan, bafflingly still underrated despite this resume, is sympathy incarnate, a downy innocent of the first order. She's wide-eyed and beautiful in that nonthreatening movie star way (the exact opposite of Jolie in By the Sea). Her Irish accent sings and she masters the period. Her perfect line deliveries never get old. One scene where she scolds Tony at the beach for catcalling her is so dead-on you'll want to cry. And Tony, Emory Cohen, is almost as great. He plays up the West Side Story rhythm of his character and manages to be cocky and likable, no small feat. The story will move your spirit and the actors will steal your heart in Brooklyn.

Grade: A-

Movie Reviews: Your Guide to the Theater This Weekend
Film Arcade

James White furiously headbutts a guy at a bar and, walking through the New York City streets, is about to headbutt you as well. Director Josh Mond's camera bravely confronts its subject in James White. Hovering in front of the face of actor Christopher Abbott, who plays the title character, the movie forces us to know this man. It spends 85 minutes proving he's worth it.

From the opening frame, we're right there with James. We hear what he hears in a club, thundering music, and walk with him into the night. His father has just died and, back at home, he learns his mother (Cynthia Nixon) has terminal cancer. In a flash, James is in Mexico at a resort where his best friend, Nick (Scott Mescudi), works as a clown. He meets a girl. He kicks it in the sun.

Back home and rested, James thinks he's ready to be there for his mother. He wants to be a writer but can't keep a job. He drinks and has a short temper that leads to explosions. James is combustible. But James is trying and this film expertly conveys the struggle within this man to do the right thing and grow the fuck up. 

Mond, who also wrote James White, has just given us the directorial debut of 2015. And he's found a star in Christopher Abbott. Both of these guys are going to do bigger things. But for now, we can enjoy James White. This is a movie about a guy taking care of his sick mother and it has more raw energy than most horror flicks. Abbott makes this guy so unpredictable and dangerous, you're mesmerized by his every action. He's like the crackling end of a live wire. And at the other end is New York City, the power source. What a perfect marriage of character and setting.

Grade: B+

Managing Editor, Zimbio — entertainment writer, critic, and reporter since 2011. Bay Area. Origin: Shark City.