Sunday, October 6, 2013

NYFF: About Time & Abuse of Weakness

After watching a non-festival showing of "Gravity" (more on that later this week) last night, my two screenings had a lot to live up to. Perhaps that played into my underwhelmed responses, but I assure you that these are my true gut feelings towards these films. Read on to find out what I had to say about "About Time" and "Abuse of Weakness".

A Sunday midday screening was the setting for Richard Curtis' latest romantic comedy "About Time". It seemed to be the ideal timing, as it turned out to be a light, breezy, "lazy Sunday" type of film. Much like his previous films, it's a cheerful engagement with a semi-poignant twist.
The plot centers around a young man named Tim (Domhnall Gleeson), who finds out on his 21st birthday that he has inherited the ability to time travel from his dad. With this new-found knowledge that he can revisit past experiences, he decides to use his power to win the girl of his dreams (Rachel McAdams). Thus begins his new journey through life, constantly rewinding in the pursuit of happiness.
If the plot description sounds too sweet and adorable to you, then the film itself is unlikely to change your mind. It's intentionally warm and fuzzy (with misty-eyed voiceover to boot!) and therefore feels very familiar. There are scenes that even feel overly juvenile in their execution. The initial stages of the romantic relationship felt too much like teenage puppy love, rather than the courtship of 30-something adults. To compound this, Tim's early actions are afflicted with dubious logic that's usually reserved for younger persons. If it weren't for the natural appeal of the film's romantic leads, the miscasting could have completely sunk the film.
Maturity issues aside, it's a pleasant watch. Even though its uneven quality-wise, the constant stream of humour is sure to elicit many laughs. The side characters are played by some funny people and they all live up to their reputations. The characterizations sometimes lets them down (quirky to the point of being unrealistic), but they land enough of their jokes to make it work.
The time travel aspect doesn't really resonate as it should. It seems like the film disregards its importance. It often treats scientific explanations as a mere inconvenience and just uses it as a framework for the visuals and jokes. In the end, the script tries very hard to attach poignancy to the idea of living each day to the fullest, but it just comes off as preachy at that point.
Overall, "About Time" may be uninspired but Domhnall Gleeson makes it worthwhile. He rises above the material and emerges unscathed as a rising comedic talent. If there's one takeaway to be had from this film, it's that Gleeson is a capable leading man. I hope to see much more of him and I suspect you'll share the sentiment too. Rating: ★★★1/2

My second screening was the French film "Abuse of Weakness", a loosely autbiographical account of the director (Catherine Breillat) and her experience with tragedy and deceit. Using the talented Isabelle Huppert as the vessel for her story, the film gets very personal. It's almost too much so, as it gradually becomes a self-indulgent project for the director.
In 2004, she suffered a stroke that left her temporarily paralyzed. After 5 months of recovery, she set out to readjust to her former life and gets caught up in a destructive relationship with a famous conman. Initially intended as a professional relationship (she wants him to play the lead in her next film), they grow close and he begins to take advantage of her. Over the course of a few months, he manages to swindle €650,000 from her.
As a true story, these facts are already on the table and therefore only leaves the background information to be filled in. Well, at least that's what one would expect. On the contrary, the plot is shockingly ordinary. What we get is a gullible woman who is unable to recognize this conman for the snake that he so clearly is. With no understandable motivation behind her willingness to trust him, it gradually loses your interest. There's really nothing there, apart from him asking for obscene amounts of money and her then signing the checks.
Breillat's best attempts at providing intrigue are some strange moments of self-deprecation that try to poke fun at the situation. It's in poor taste though, considering the dire situation at hand. The main draw instead, is Isabelle Huppert's performance. She skillfully handles the physical demands of the role and nails the emotions of the final scene, where she's confronted by family and officials about her foolish predicament. That scene is outstanding and ultimately saves the movie from being completely meaningless.
Many great movies have been made about similar afflictions and unfortunate situations. The source material for "Abuse of Weakness" however, was clearly insufficient for it to match up to those films (see "Amour" for example, which also stars Huppert). This film is a strong lesson that not every personal tragedy warrants a cinematic reenactment. Rating: ★★1/2


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