God Help the Girl
God help the veteran artist making his or her first work in a different medium, and if nothing else, Stuart Murdoch, frontman of the Scottish band Belle and Sebastian, clearly makes a sincere effort at making a distinctive movie musical with the feature film fruition of his 2009 concept album. But if the good intentions-paved road doesn't necessarily lead to hell, it can also lead to the not-quite-here-nor-there purgatory of fairly pleasant but also fairly forgettable mediocrity. That the plot is fairly threadbare is beside the point, for there have been musicals and non-musicals alike built around less than the scenario of three teens--one, a songwriter (Emily Browning) institutionalized for treatment for an eating disorder; the second, a geeky lifeguard (Olly Alexander) whose own band just disbanded; the third, his eager guitar student (Hannah Murray)--bonding and becoming a band over a summer. The trio are quite likable individually and collectively, and are also more than capable music performers, leaving Murdoch to pull his weight with the score and overall style, and he ultimately falls short. There's no denying that Murdoch's musical voice is a distinctive one, marrying sometimes gentle, sometimes bouncy, melodies to an anecdotal, seemingly off-the-cuff lyrical style, and the idiosyncrasies of his sound match the quirk of the retro time warp look, from fashion to photography, he gives the picture. But there isn't a lot of variation in that musical or lyrical style, which may not be problematic for a concept album but is very much one in a film where the songs serve as the voice to a variety of different characters--who thus end up more or less sounding the same in how and what they sing-speak. When the tunes all start to blend together, the thinness of the story and characters become more apparent, as does the slackness of Murdoch's overall pacing, which makes the film end up stretching close to two hours whose every restless minute is felt, no matter how fetchingly and frequently the stunning Browning croons directly to the camera.
The Immigrant (R)
The title role, a young female Polish immigrant to the United States in the 1920s who, with no one to turn to after being separated from her ill sister, is forced into prostitution is a ready-made showcase for the depth of an actress's dramatic gifts, and to no surprise Marion Cotillard takes full advantage, delivering a performance of subtle power and great soul as the long-suffering but never diminished nor defeated Ewa. It's a scenario out of the cinema melodramas of yesteryear, and director James Gray approaches the material like a true film scholar, with richly detailed historical design, rendered all the more handsome by his careful shot composition (the closer is indeed a stunner). That, however, proves to be the problem, for this type of melodrama demands a messier, less studied approach to really soar and wrench the heart, and Gray's film is one that is far too thought and not sufficiently felt. So as terrific as Cotillard is (and Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner also do standout work as the polar opposite men in her life), Gray's coldly cerebral style keeps Ewa's plight at too far a remove.