The Art of Self-Defense (2019)

Director: Riley Stearns

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots

Screenplay: Riley Stearns

104 mins. Rated R for violence, sexual content, graphic nudity and language.

 

I knew absolutely nothing about The Art of Self-Defense before walking into the theater, and all I can say is this was not the film I expected in all the best ways.

Casey (Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) is not a strong person. He is uncomfortable in social situations, and he is unable to defend himself when attacked one night on the street. He joins a local dojo where he is trained by an odd and influential sensei (Alessandro Nivola, Face/Off, Disobedience). As Casey’s confidence rises, he begins to see problems with the way Sensei operates, and it causes him to question his leader.

It becomes very clear early on in The Art of Self-Defense that the world these characters inhabit is a strange and surrealist version of our own. Casey’s answering machine is sarcastic about the amount of phone calls he receives. There’s also a strange quality about the dojo. I’m still not sure if the Sensei’s teachings are lies in this world or if that’s part of the surrealist world that writer/director Riley Stearns (Faults, The Cub) has constructed.

Eisenberg does fine as Casey, but part of the problem is that he is essentially playing versions of previous characters I’ve seen from him. He’s good in the movie, but there’s no range or excitement about his role because I’ve kind of seen it before. Again, not bad in the bed, but he’s overshadowed.

The reason I’m not talking about Eisenberg is because of Alessandro Nivola, who plays the peculiar Sensei. Nivola steals every scene he’s in with a special quality of strange which makes him equally comedic and stone cold disturbing. He’s the character I’ll be talking about most months from now.

The biggest problem this movie has is that Stearns dawdles a bit near the end of the film and doesn’t focus on what’s important as the film nears a close. There are some revelations about Casey, the Sensei, and the dojo that feel more important than they end up being. The ending makes up for this because it is exactly what I wanted without me knowing I wanted it. It’s a bonkers ending that is perfect for a film like this.

The Art of Self-Defense is not a realistic depiction of karate, nor is it much of a realistic depiction of anything, and for that, it works quite well. Writer/director Riley Stearns has crafted a unique experience that’s weird and wild and different from a lot of other recent films, and while I would have liked more exploration into the plot threads at the end of the film, and I would have wanted something more surprising from the film’s lead, this is still a very worthwhile viewing experience.

 

4/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

Gloria Bell (2018)

Director: Sebastían Lelio

Cast: Julianne Moore, John Turturro, Michael Cera, Caren Pistorius, Brad Garrett, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Rita Wilson, Sean Astin, Holland Taylor, Chris Mulkey

Screenplay: Alice Johnson Boher, Sebastían Lelio

102 mins. Rated R for sexuality, nudity, language and some drug use.

 

Gloria Bell isn’t exactly a movie for me, but I found the trailer quite intriguing. I adore Julianne Moore (The Hours, Bel Canto), but part of me will always assume a movie about aging will be terrible. After all, so many of them are, and it wouldn’t have shocked me if Gloria Bell had taken a similar track. Thank God that didn’t happen.

Gloria Bell (Moore) is an divorcee in LA who spends many a night out at the nightclubs for older ladies and gentlemen, clubs that play songs from a more youthful time in Gloria’s life. Gloria seems very unsure of herself when she meets another divorcee, Arnold (John Turturro, Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski), and is quite taken with him. As the two form a budding and affectionate relationship, though, Gloria starts to learn some strange pieces of information about Arnold and she wonders if the two have as close a connection as she is hoping for.

The film is, at its core, an emotionally powerful character piece about a woman searching for love of herself again and love for life. As I watched her in the nightclub scenes early in the film, you can see she is feeling herself in the music but not really letting loose or freeing herself up to it. She knows she loves it, and she loves a great deal of life, but after becoming single again and losing her children to their own respective journeys, Gloria is merely asking an important question: is there a point in starting over now?

This emotionally arresting character arc is made by Julianne Moore’s award-worthy portrayal. For someone like me, who may not truly understand this part of her journey as I haven’t had to experience it, I was taken in by her subtle and nuanced performance. There are layers to the way Gloria uses her line of sight in the film. I kept following Moore’s eyes as she examined the world around her, and I was enthralled by it.

The film, directed by Sebastían Lelio (A Fantastic Woman, Disobedience), remade from an earlier film of his, is a little by-the-numbers, and without a strong central cast, it may not have worked as well, but Lelio is very collaborative with his performers, and that may stand as to why the movie works. He has a vision that is palatable across languages and cultures, and he understands character, and that’s what makes Gloria Bell such an interesting character.

Gloria Bell works because of a director who lets his performers perform and doesn’t offer a ton of flair and a central performance that should not be underestimated. While the story is less memorable that it should be, it’s the journey of its lead that carries the audience, supported by a truly incredible cast that help Moore shine. This is worth checking out if you missed it and need a little self-love.

 

3.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

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