Thursday, February 5, 2015

Cake and Two Days, One Night

             Girls Just Want To (Remember When They Could) Have Fun
                              Review by Ken Burke
 Cake (Daniel Barnz)
Jennifer Aniston portrays a woman racked with physical pain, a ruined life, and a desire to end it all, yet she finds attraction toward the widower of a suicide-successful-friend.
Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
Marion Cotillard plays a woman laid off from her job but given a second chance over a weekend to convince her co-workers to reverse their vote yet lose their bonus.
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ superbly insightful reviews.  This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.  Now, onward to illumination; you may want to protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
This posting’s subjects have much in common so I’ll just blend their reviews as appropriate.

What Happens: In Cake we have an intentionally-unattractive Jennifer Aniston (no makeup, 15 extra pounds, truly looking at times like that old phrase, “death warmed over”) portraying Claire Bennett, physically scarred and in great pain from a car accident (caused by Leonard [William H. Macy], a needed fact to understand this narrative but one not revealed to us until well into the film), further burdened by the emotional pain of the loss of her child in that wreck (another late revelation; see, I told you to take my Spoiler Alerts seriously).  Her discomfort-depression-combo has led to separation from her husband, Jason (Chris Messina), her unwelcome-sarcastic-attitude within a pain-management-group presided over by fed-up Annette (Felicity Huffman, barely recognizable but very effective in a small role, as is real-life-husband Macy in his), a willingness to risk legal troubles for herself and housekeeper Silvana (Adriana Barraza) by traveling from her posh L.A. suburb to Mexico for more pain-killers than the ones she already has stashed all over her house (their attempt to smuggle the pills inside a statue of St. Jude [patron of lost causes] almost goes awry at the border except for the needed intervention of lawyer Jason; Silvana’s daughter is frequently upset with Mama for giving so much devotion to this demanding, often-uncaring, poorly-paying boss when she already has under-employed Papa to be more worried about), and a fascination with former group-mate, Nina Collins (Anna Kendrick), who jumped from a high freeway overpass leaving behind bitter (despite the “forgive me” note) husband Roy (Sam Worthington) and young son Casey (Evan O’Toole), with Claire alternating between a desire to end her own life (maybe by drowning in her therapy pool, maybe by following Nina in a short flight to the waiting freeway concrete) or trying to begin again with Roy and Casey.  Along the way, she encounters visions of Nina promoting the suicide route but ultimately opts for listening to Silvana’s pleas to stop being so self-centered, seriously considers a connection with Roy and Casey (including bringing the kid a much-desired-birthday-cake—lemon with fudge frosting, looked yummy—[Nina was supposed to make him one but jumped instead], which quietly connects us to the film’s title), and ends her presence in Cake with a determined-yet-painful-decision to finally sit up in the car that Silvana’s driving her around in rather than continue to recline for her own comfort, oblivious to the world passing her by.

 Meanwhile, over in the French-speaking region of Belgium (a fact I got from press materials, not from my clarity in watching Two Days, One Night, but as Jimmy Buffett says in “Margaritaville,” “hell, it could be my fault”), Sandra Bya (Marion Cotillard), also married and still with children, has a better situation on the home front than Claire (her husband, Manu [Fabrizio Rongione], is extremely supportive, which she welcomes when her emotions will allow such acceptance of his aid but other times, driven by the embarrassment of her situation, she sneers at his help as pity) but not where employment is concerned (recuperating Claire apparently is still given financial support from Jason, allowing her to remain in her well-appointed-home) because as a result of a recent work absence due to illness she’s been voted out of her job by her 16 coworkers so that her salary could be used to give each of them a €1,000 bonus.  Sandra’s devastated by the sudden news, informed by supportive colleague Juliette (Catherine Salée) with a phone call to her home on Friday, as she was set to return on Monday; instead, they hastily convince the boss, Dumont (Batiste Sornin), to override foreman Jean-Marc’s (Olivier Gourmet) previous actions, allowing a second, secret, vote right after the weekend, giving Sandra a frantic opportunity to canvas each of the 16 in hopes of convincing them to choose her continuance over that much-needed extra cash.  From there the plot moves on in an unusually-linear-fashion (none of the standard subplot involving supporting characters, such as with the distraction that Nina provides from Claire’s confused attempts at recovery in Cake) as Sandra tracks down her colleagues in person or by telephone in the short time available to her, pleading her case to each one where she finds a few willing to help (the initial vote was 14-2 against her, but manipulated by Jean-Marc‘s implied threat that if she weren’t laid off then one of them would be), others who are sympathetic but need the bonus for various legitimate purposes, and a few who offer nasty rejections for daring to match her needs against theirs.

 When the Monday-morning showdown arrives, though, the result is 8-8 (once again, you were warned about my beans-spilling-style) so, without a majority, she’s let go.  At the end, we briefly have the option of a reprieve (just as Seattle Seahawks’ fans thought they suddenly had the 2015 Super Bowl victory in their grasp with only 1 yard and scant seconds on the clock separating their team from a winning touchdown) as the boss offers the compromise of distributing the bonus but then hiring Sandra back soon when an African immigrant’s short-term-contract is up, but she rejects the offer (the coworker took a chance of such a result but voted for her anyway; the Seahawks took a chance on their passing game but that shocking interception left them without the salvation Sandra provided to her supportive colleague—not the guy in the photo above; he's an early backer who was greatly ashamed that he put his own needs above her potentially-terminal-situation in the first vote [you have to use what you have where these promo photos are concerned, but this image is relevant as well]).  As she walks away from her former job, she suddenly seems tranquil and assured for the first time since the opening minutes of the film when we were thrown immediately into her dilemma.

So What? Both of these lead female actors deliver terrifically strong performances (Cotillard made the finals for the Oscars; Aniston was talked up for that achievement but had to settle for nominations—and losses to Julianne Moore [Still Alice (Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, 2014; review in our January 22, 2015 posting)]—from the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild [Cotillard was overlooked by both groups; further, she along with the other nominees will likely lose the Oscar to Moore]), supported well by the rest of their casts; both stories deal with serious real-world-problems that impact individuals in manners that offer marginal hope for improvement (Claire’s finally determined to make an effort in her physical therapy and try to cut back on her constant over-medication, self-prescribed or otherwise, but determination will take her only so far as she must find strategies for somehow actually coping with her overwhelming chronic pain; Sandra’s got the option of going back on the dole while searching for another job, but the reduction of income will put a serious strain on her family’s stability); both of these damaged characters seem to have moved past their suicidal inclinations, a situation that Sandra also found herself in because after initial failures to secure supportive votes she took a massive pill overdose, then relented which necessitated an emergency-room-visit that took precious time away from her short-term-campaign (Claire had a similar episode after Leonard’s barge-in-visit where he desperately, vainly attempted to gain forgiveness); and both stories refuse to offer any unanticipated-dramatic-breakthroughs that settle their protagonists’ scores in manners more characteristic of typical-Hollywood-resolutions, whether of a serious (Black or White [Mike Bender]) or comic (The Wedding Ringer [Jeremy Garelick]) nature (I’ll offer some brief comments on these 2 movies in my next posting).

 Claire’s situation is given some useful added dramatics through those occasional, but imagined, visits from Nina so that we see both of them at different times seemingly jumping to their deaths—Claire from Nina’s lofty freeway intersection, Nina from Claire’s hospital room after the actual overdose episode (we all know that Nina’s already dead by this point so her jump is more melancholy-remembrance than shocking action, although when she first pops up in Claire’s pool on a sleepless night we’re given brief reason to wonder if she’s really dead after all—or if this story’s about to take an unadvertised Twilight Zone-type of turn).  Still, the slow revelation of how Claire came to be so seriously hurt, along with the loss of her son, just feels like an overly-calculated-move to drum up some mystery to go along with the unrelenting depictions of her painful present life, with the sudden intrusion of Leonard (breaking up an attempt by Claire to share a peaceful lunch at her place with Roy and Casey rather than the no-sex-sleepovers she’s previously had with Roy) finally resolving the injury/death-mystery but in a most jarring, arbitrary manner.  When the focus is just on Aniston’s portrayals of struggles with pain relief, though, this film’s at its best.  Compared to Claire’s constant anger and sarcasm, Sandra’s mood in Two Days, One Night is often one of overwhelming sorrow, as her desperation leads to a lot of crying (which she’s trying hard to control, indicating that her previous illness was depression-based, although she’s determined that it’s now overcome enough to not impact her job readiness despite her foreman’s unwillingness to accept that self-diagnosis, leading to his tactics to simply be rid of her through the manipulated coworker vote).  Her instability is matched well by the hand-held-camera strategy which presents us with a slightly shaky rendering of her life in crisis, although she was seemingly on the dole during her illness so it’s not like she’s never faced what she now considers humiliation before.  Cotillard’s very effective in showing Sandra’s alternate-vulnerability-tempered-by-anger, but it’s more of a firmly-commanded-one-note-performance (melodic as it may painfully be) than the varied elaboration of this woman’s fuller complexity that would have been allowed under a less-constrained-chronological-set-up.

Bottom Line Final Comments: Indicative of my arguably-dismal-but-damn-proud-of-it-anyway-track-record of (non-) agreement with the cumulative scores for films to be found in the Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic sites (33% agreement with the former, 38% with the latter; where the disconnects are concerned I trend higher but I’m lower a notable amount of the time as well—of course, I could also argue that I'm in agreement with at least 1 of these 2 esteemed groups 71% of the time, even more when they occasionally overlap, if I need to position myself in the mainstream instead of on the critical fringes; isn't self-serving-statistical-rationalization marvelous?), I’m heading in the “wrong” direction for Cake and Two Days, One Night, based on these well-known-measures of critical consensus.  My 3½ of 5 stars is 70% in the positive direction for Cake compared to a rare agreement between the 2 “super sites” at a mere 49% each, while my 3 of 5 stars for Two Days, One Night is a marginally-positive 60% decision compared to their respective laudatory tallies of 96% and 90% (with many awards from critics’ groups and others already won, nominated for, or still pending results).  Essentially, the reasons why I’m veering off into contrarian directions this time (a strategy suggested to me by a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle—a group where I’ve been voted down 3 times for membership—in order for my reviews to stand out a bit more, to draw more controversy—therefore readership—to this blog; however, I've rejected this as an operational approach, although it would seem that my rankings have yielded that result anyway, because I feel more compelled to stay consistent with my gut feelings—even to the point of promoting Nymphomaniac: Volume[s] I and II [Lars von Trier] as one of the best releases of 2014 [more on that next week], despite its general distasteful dismissal by others, even in my contrarian San Francisco area) include my contention that Cake—despite its overly-calculated-attempt (sounds like the Seahawks again) to enhance the drama by not telling us why Claire is so damaged until well into its running time—does an admirable job of exploring the daily-debilitation and, at times, sense of hopelessness that haunts sufferers of chronic pain (an opinion verified by my marvelously-resilient-wife, Nina Kindblad, herself the innocent victim of a horrific car crash years ago [broadsided in the passenger seat by a speeding drunk] and now the bearer of chronic pain that must be alleviated on a daily basis by a variety of strategies).

 The more melodramatic elements of Cake pull it down a bit in my estimation (but not nearly so much as with the blasé dismissal from the ranks of the community of critics-at-large), but overall Aniston’s contributions here would justify for me her choice as an Oscar-contender for Best Actress over hard-hiking Reese Witherspoon (Wild [Jean-Marc Vallée; review in our December 11, 2014 posting]) or even previous-Best-Actress (La Vie en Rose [Olivier Dahan, 2007]) Cotillard, whose grief in Two Days, One Night is palpable but whose story and delivery amount—in my perception—to an hour and a half of frustrated repetition, broken occasionally by some sincere support from various ones of her small-factory-coworkers.  Obviously, most reviewers don’t share that opinion either, but how could the unwashed critical masses possibly approach my singular insights?  However, I doubt it really matters much who’s nominated against Julianne Moore for Still Alice, a stunning performance in a film with the narrative structure to develop a fuller range of actor presentation than does Cotillard’s compressed-time-situation or even Aniston’s somewhat-more-varied-story, allowing Moore to reach a level last year than none of her worthy competitors were able to match.

 In considering possible Musical Metaphors for this pair of serious-minded-films that offer much honesty about the personal and social sense of hopelessness and failure (even though unearned and unjustified) that bedevil these female protagonists, I rejected the use of Cyndi Lauper’s upbeat song that I borrowed from for my posting title.  However, I found a couple of others that are appropriate to both of these films, so I’ll start with Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” (from the 1965 Bringing It All Back Home album), which on its surface is more about a romantic breakup finalized with cynical statements from one of the former lovers but could easily be interpreted as how Claire and Sandra see themselves, as “gamblers [who’d] better use your sense … [because] This sky, too, is folding under you.”  The video version I’ll start you with is at, a cultural artifact from Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, NJ where Dylan joined in with the Grateful Dead on July 12, 1987 (there are some great guitar licks by Jerry Garcia, but the audio’s a bit rough in places—and the video’s definitely low-fi at best—so if you’d prefer here’s the official recording at  However, I’ll also offer “Needles and Pins” (written by Sonny Bono and Jack Nitzsche, probably in 1963 as best I can determine) for 2 reasons:  (1) It can be taken literally as referring to Claire’s situation where her physical therapist notes that she’s now had pins in her legs for months (and probably feels like she’s being constantly stabbed with needles, bringing on the desire for that desperate attempt at medicated relief of various types), while the French-language version by Petula Clark (“La Nuit N’en Finit Plus”) at (a #1 hit in France, in 1963 I think but can’t find verification, except I'm almost sure I saw this listing in the film's final credits) is used in Two Days, One Night in a scene where Manu attempts to turn it off their car radio in order to protect Sandra from its melancholy lyrics but she refuses, insisting that she’s stronger than that (at times she is, her suicide attempt notwithstanding, but we don’t fully see that until the very last on-screen-scene), and (2) Regardless of literal implications and uses of this song in these films the lyrics in general have appropriate connections in their evocation of statements such as “Because of all my pride The tears I gotta hide … Why can’t I stand up and tell myself I’m strong …”  However, in order for those non-bilingual cultural slobs like me to appreciate what Manu‘s referring to in the lyrics, I’ll also give you the much-of-the-world-big-hit-version by The Searchers at https://www. (from their 1964 album, It’s the Searchers).

 OK, faithful readers—somewhere between 12 (based on specific feedback that I actually get) and 6,000-9,000 of you (based on Google’s worldwide tallies of my best showing over a given past month, although that seems to change by the minute)—that’s it for this week. I’ll be back soon, though, with my long-delayed Top 10 of 2014 (now that I’ve finally seen about all that’s available to me of notable contenders) and some predictions for that Oscar ceremony later this month.

We encourage you to check your tastes against ours with the summary of Two Guys reviews (please note that Two Guys critic Ken Burke is a bit odd—in more ways than one—using a 5-star-rating-system but rarely going to the level of 4 ½ or 5 stars, reserving those rankings for films that have been or should be acknowledged as time-honored masterpieces so that a 4 is about the best you can hope for from star-stingy Ken).  But we ask you to be aware that the links we recommend within our many reviews may have been removed or modified without our knowledge.  Other overall notations for this blog—including Internet formatting craziness—may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage.  

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AND … at least until the Oscars for 2014’s releases have been awarded on Sunday, February 22, 2015 I’m also going to include reminders in each review posting of very informative links where you can get updated tallies of which 2014 films made various individual critic’s Top 10 lists and which ones have been nominated for and/or received various awards.  You may find the diversity among the various critics and the various awards competitions hard to reconcile at times—not to mention the often-significant-gap between critics’ choices and competition-award-winners (which usually pales in comparison to the even-more-noticeable-gap between box-office-success, which you can monitor here, and what wins the awards)—but as that less-than-enthusiastic-patron-of-the-arts, Plato, noted in The Symposium (385-380 BC)—roughly translated, depending on how accurate you wish the actual quote to be—“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” so your choices are as valid as any of these others, especially if you can offer some rationale for your decisions (unlike many of the awards voters who simply fill out ballots, sometimes for films they’ve never seen).

To save you a little scrolling through the “various awards” list above, here are the Golden Globe winners for films and TV from 2014 and the Oscar nominees for 2014 film releases.
If you’d like to know more about Cake here are some suggested links: (27:13 interview with actor Jennifer Aniston from December 2014)

If you’d like to know more about Two Days, One Night here are some suggested links: (51:04 interview with actor Marion Cotillard at the 2014 New York Film Festival),%20one%20night
As noted above, we encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, including our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our extremely-limited-level of technological control.

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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.

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