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Blu-Ray Pick of the Week: Julieta

“Sing,” “Live By Night” and “Assassin’s Creed” are also new to Blu-Ray this week.

One of the reasons I am so strongly drawn to the movies of writer/director Pedro Almodóvar is because there is such a sweet sadness to his work. His characters always seem to have a deep, heartfelt, passionate yearning for something that is just out of reach. This drives his characters to exhaust all options in pursuit of what they want. In movies like “Talk to Her,” or either of his ventures with Antonio Banderas—“Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down” and “The Skin I Live In”—the results range from extreme to very, very extreme. Or, in the case of “All About My Mother” and this week’s pick, “Julieta,” the action is more subdued. However, it is just as passionate and character driven as any of his other works. One could even argue that in being less outlandish (for lack of a better word), it is even more so.

“Julieta” is perfectly titled in that it is a movie about one woman—Julieta. She is played in the movie by two actresses: Adriana Ugarte as the younger Julieta and Emma Suárez as the older version. Just before packing up to leave Madrid forever with her boyfriend Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti), older Julieta has a change of heart and decides that it is better to stay. She writes in a diary about how she met her husband Xoan (Daniel Grao) decades ago, and about the birth and major life events of her daughter Antia, played by Priscilla Delgado as an adolescent and then by Blanca Parés as an eighteen year old.



Almodóvar takes the first person perspective very literally. This is Julieta’s recounting of her story, and of the knowledge of the events as she knows them. This knowledge is of course later challenged and expanded upon once other characters, such as Julieta’s long time friend Ava (Inma Cuesta) and Antia’s childhood friend Beatriz (Michelle Jenner), come forward to reveal information to Julieta. As they tell her what they know, we get the information at the same time as Julieta.

The interesting thing about the way Almodovar structures the story, first in flashback, then in events taking place in the present, is the way that the new information flows to Julieta—and by extension, the audience—in an organic way. Sure, a very lucky meeting at a children’s basketball court is pure happenchance, but it’s easy to overlook that in favor of who these characters are and what they’re discussing. Nothing really feels forced or gimmicky. If anything, it seems as though life and fate conspire against Julieta, bringing her to the point of despair, and only then do they relent and give her a glimmer of hope that all will be well.


With such a tightly controlled narrative, “Julieta” can seem cavalier about details, but it’s not. A more fair assessment is that it’s an impressionistic piece, at least story-wise. We only get the information that Julieta has and receives. Part of the movie’s journey is in getting to know her as well as what she knows. The other part is in being with her as she learns more details, and seeing how she reacts. While many questions may go unanswered and many unknowns remain that way, that is life—for Julieta, for Almodóvar, and for all of us. All we can do is know what we know, find out what we can, and live life as best as we can based on that information. It’s a subtle, underlying theme in “Julieta” that becomes clear only in reflection on the movie as a whole, and it is a noteworthy one. Rent it.

Also New This Week

Sing

“Sing” is a relatively unspectacular movie in terms of story, animation, character, and voice acting. Celebrities like Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Hudson, John C. Reilly, Scarlett Johansson, and Seth MacFarlane all add their vocal talents to the voice cast. For some, this is a draw, and yes, I too was intrigued by the idea of Oscar winners voicing animated animals.

But the plot, about a koala bear named Buster Moon (voice of McConaughey) putting on a singing contest as his one last shot to make a name for himself, is humdrum at best. “Sing” is also littered with pop songs a la the far superior “Pitch Perfect” movies, and characters who come off like second stringers from “A Chorus Line.” The ideas in it have been done so much before that they really need to be retired, at least for a while—a long while. Even kids have to be getting tired of this by now.

Still, the movie has heart, and it is easy to get wrapped up in the energy and exuberance of the song and dance numbers. This is good, since it’s about half the movie. The other half is the plot, as characters overcome their individual problems to come together and put on an amazing show. Plus, the brief moment of the giraffe singing the Jackson 5 classic “Ben” cracked me up. I may not be easily swayed by the razzle dazzle of “Sing,” but I’m not made of stone. Stream it.

Live By Night

I guess all hot streaks must come to an end eventually. After flooring me with three superbly directed movies in a row, culminating with 2012’s “Argo,” still one of my all-time favorite picks by the Academy for Best Picture, Ben Affleck has directed a dud. Its name is “Live By Night.”

To say this movie is dull is an insult to trying to pierce your skin with safety scissors while watching paint dry. It’s a slog that starts off strong with a petty stick up man named Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) getting mixed up in an Irish-Italian mob war in 1927 Boston. After things go really sideways with the Irish gang leader (Robert Glenister), he heads down to Tampa, Florida, to run bootlegging operations for the Italian one (Remo Girone).

Maybe it’s the balmy weather, but it’s at this point where all of the energy seemed to get sucked out of the movie. Instead of a well-focused revenge/bootleg tale, “Live By Night” veers off in a few different directions. Trouble with a local Ku Klux Klan thug (Matthew Maher), who also happens to be the police chief’s (Chris Cooper) brother in law, and taking heat from a local religious leader (Elle Fanning), who also happens to be the police chief’s daughter, are interesting stories on their own. But when both are thrown into the larger narrative of “Live By Night,” all they do is derail the movie for twenty minutes or so until it gets back on track and focused on the mob and the bootlegging operation.

What’s worse is that there are multiple dialogue-driven scenes that are painfully soft spoken and seem interminable. Granted, there are some surprises to be had at the ends of some of these conversations (the one with a KKK Grand Wizard is a doozy), but I couldn’t help but think the movie is unfocused enough as is, and it really doesn’t need to add pointless conversations to the mix. It got to the point where I sighed whenever Zoe Saldana’s Graciela appeared on screen, because I knew I was in for at least five minutes (a lifetime when watching a movie) of half-hearted playful banter that was utterly meaningless and did nothing except slow down the story, which was already slowed down to begin with.

The one credit I will give Affleck with “Live By Night” is that he knows how to shoot an action scene. He’s shown his skill at this in previous movies, most notably “The Town,” and he pulls off some masterful car chases and shootouts here. Affleck’s staging of the action and blocking with the camera lends itself to drawing the audience in to being part of the action. I commend him for that—but that’s it. The rest of the movie is a soporific waste of time. Skip it.

Assassin’s Creed

Some video game concepts translate very well into movies and others do not. As video games themselves become more and more cinematic, with plots, characters, dialogue, and costume/set designs that are on par with mainstream Hollywood blockbusters, the transition becomes easier. With it being easier, it can also be more successful.

“Assassin’s Creed” is one of the easier, more successful ones. The story, much like the video games series it is based on, tells the story of a man who is kidnapped and forced into a machine called the Animus. The purpose of the Animus is to hack into the man’s DNA and recall memories from his ancestors.

Turns out the man in question, Cal Lynch (Michael Fassbender), is from a bloodline of Assassins. When the creator of the Animus, Sofia (Marion Cotillard), hooks him into it, Lynch re-lives the life of an Assassin ancestor of his named Aguilar (Fassbender again). Sofia’s purpose is to cure Lynch of his violent tendencies, but her father (Jeremy Irons), and other descendants of the Knights Templar—the main enemy of the Assassins—has a more devious motive in mind.

The story of “Assassin’s Creed” flows well from past to present. The action, particularly in the past, is of the run and jump, scale the building parkour variety that those familiar with the games will surely enjoy. It’s fan service, but I don’t think that’s inherently a bad thing, and it works. I also like the fact that they included the swan dives from very high places. I am, however, disappointed that they didn’t show any landings. Perhaps showing Aguilar take a 500 foot dive to land on his back in a wheelbarrow of hay would have been too much, even for this movie. Given its premise, that’s saying something. Still, “Assassin’s Creed” is a fun action/adventure lark that sticks close enough to the ideas of the source material to please fans, while at the same time being inviting enough for newcomers to the world of Templars and Assassins to enjoy. Rent it.

More New Releases: “In Dubious Battle,” about an activist who gets caught up in the labor movement for farm workers in the 1930s, directed by James Franco and starring Franco, Selena Gomez, Robert Duvall, Bryan Cranston, Ed Harris, Zach Braff, and Vincent D’ Onofrio; “Art Bastard,” documentary about fiercely independent New York artist Robert Cenedella that raises some interesting questions about art and about the art industry; “Miss Sloane,” about a lobbyist trying to get gun control legislation passed, starring Jessica Chastain; and “A Kind of Murder,” about an architect in 1960s New York who gets involved in a cat and mouse game with an ambitious detective and a clever killer after he takes an interest in an unsolved murder, starring Patrick Wilson and Jessica Biel.

Andrew Hudak is a lifelong film lover. His column on Blu-Ray new releases appears every Tuesday. He lives in Connecticut.

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