Saturday, July 30, 2011

Review: Arrietty

Size Matters

It seems only fitting that a week after Pixar unleashed their hyperactive automobile sequel upon Europe - to critical apathy - that Optimum Releasing decided to be cheeky and release Studio Ghibli's latest opus upon saturated multiplexes. And some contrast it is. (The Borrower) Arrietty - based on Mary Norton's classic The Borrowers, which you've probably seen adapted a dozen times before - is one of the most subdued, thoughtful and innocent animated films in many a year. Even more so than Ponyo, it shows Ghibli - specifically first-time director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, with Hayao Miyazaki himself taking writing and producing credits - channeling the simple joys and wonders of childhood imagination.

Arrietty is a wee borrower - about the size of a large insect. She lives with her father Pod and mother Homily in a home underneath an old Japanese house. Arrietty's first official 'borrowing' - where the small folk borrow (alright: take) unwanted or superfluous items from 'human beans' - coincides with the arrival of the ill but kind human boy Sho. While the borrowers take great pains to avoid being seen by human eyes, Arrietty accidentally reveals herself to Sho. Despite her parent's objections - and the very real fears that they'll have to move away if the human family become aware of their presence - she lets curiosity get the better of her and forges a peculiar relationship with the friendly boy. However, Sho's maid Haru isn't so friendly...

It's a plot handled simply and very effectively. It predominantly takes place in and around a single house, and as a result the location becomes as much of a character as any of the humans or borrowers. The threats faced by the borrower family are well considered, subtle and engaging, and it helps that the main characters are by and large a likable and colourful bunch. Arrietty's curiosity about the world around her is infectious. Drawing comparisons to the 'sick mother' plot thread in Totoro, Sho's illness (he has a bad heart, but a good heart - geddit?) is a brave decision for a family film such as this - it's a story that encourages the viewer to embrace the wild and imaginative, while never forgetting that reality can be extremely cruel at the same time. Bold messages for any film, albeit ones that are handled with great care and subtlety. Most of the time, this is a joy to experience, and while you certainly become attached to the characters, it isn't the heartbreaker Grave of the Fireflies was despite a handful of moments of sadness or lingering concerns. Definitely more sweet than bitter.

The real star here is a sense of scale. The typically magnificent animation of the Ghibli team brings vivid life to the setting through two very different sized perspectives. The tiny borrowers looking upon an everyday world makes for compelling visuals from beginning to end. A beautiful touch is the way the rodent threats of the world are illustrated with glowing eyes (indeed, the scenes behind walls or under floors are highlights), but even the simple sights of them traversing a kitchen, bedroom or makeshift ladder makes for wonderful viewing. Backing it up is some stunning sound design - the rustling of clothes, the blowing wind, drops of rain. It's a fantastic miniaturised world to spend time in: the sense of wonder absent in similar films (and many other adaptations of the source material) present and correct here. It doesn't feel artificial in the slightest.

Speaking of sound, a further highlight is the absolutely tremendous soundtrack from Cécile Corbel - influenced by Celtic sources, and penetrated by - gasp! - English lyrics, but unmistakably Ghibli at the same time. It's a soundtrack that soars, encapsulating the tone of the film perfectly, especially over the original Japanese language dialogue. Through a series of unfortunate events, I had the dubious privilege of seeing half the film in subs and half in dubs. As you can likely guess, the former is a clear winner. The English dub is typically dodgy - only Saoirse Ronan as Arrietty has character. Others - including the usually reliable Mark Strong as Pod - are bland. Other minor characters have heavy English accidents so distracting it provoked giggles from some audience members. A peculiarly heavy-handed translation doesn't help. In short: as with all anime, see it subbed if you at all can.

Flaws are few - I picked up on what appeared to be a minor but distracting continuity error (the curious case of the unlocking door), and original it most certainly is not. But Arrietty by and large is a joy - innocent, charming, considered. It fits smugly into the Ghibli filmography even before Hayao Miyazaki's favourite environmental ponderings are introduced. Indeed, this is a film that's almost up with Terence Malik in terms of capturing the beauty of nature, and man intruding upon a fragile ecosystem. It's a film that has things to say, but doesn't condescend. There are plenty of subtle touches for the observant Ghibli fan to pick up on too - whether it's the opening that echoes Spirited Away or the ponderings on nature familiar from Nausicaa, Mononoke and Pom Poko.

Full of character, Arrietty shows one of world cinema's two great animation studios on top of their game after the other fumbled. Your move, Pixar.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Review: Cell 211

Prison Broken 

If cinema is anything to go by, the first day on the job or the day before retirement are invariably going to be the worst days of your life - that is if you manage to survive 'em. Spare a thought, then, for Juan Oliver (Alberto Ammann), yet another victim of this common cinematic misfortune. It's not even his first day in this case - a day before he's due to start a new job as a prison warden, he decides to introduce himself to his colleagues. Unfortunately, as a result of an accident involving a homemade shotgun and a badly timed prison riot, he ends up being abandoned in the middle of the prison with the rampaging occupants. Thinking quickly, he discards his shoelaces (makes sense in context) and pretends to be a newly incarcerated prisoner to try and survive the inevitable shanking that would ensue if his true identity was revealed. He's quickly (incredibly, I'd say) taken under the wing of Malamadre (Luis Tosar), the slightly psychopathic leader of this mini-revolt. Juan begins a desperate struggle to survive while simultaneously trying to stop the riot. Also, he has a caring, beautiful and very pregnant wife. Don't worry: we're frequently reminded of this in case you forget.

Finally receiving a wide release almost two years after its Spanish release, I feel it's important to point out that while this review will - spoiler! - veer towards the negative, Cell 211 is enjoyable for what it is. Indeed, the very things I will inevitably criticise in the paragraphs to follow will likely be seen as positives by others. Let me concede that it's well paced: frantic for the vast majority of its running time. I'll also admit that the integration of Spanish social commentary does the film some favours - integrating Basque politics and ETA into a fairly standard prison thriller does give it bite, and the whole thing is a fairly damning critique of Spain's criminal justice system (albeit not one with the power of, say, Japan's Confessions of a Dog). And Tosar as Malamadre is strangely compelling in a charismatic yet oddly vulnerable performance.

Now: on to why the rest of the film is pretty shitty.

OK, maybe that's hyperbolic, but I certainly am a bit bemused at the enthusiastic feedback to the film I've seen elsewhere. The very first scene is symbolic of many of the film's problems: a graphic wrist cutting scene. It's certainly a bold opening to grab the audience's attention, but it became clear to me when the film was over how utterly pointless it was. There's the vaguest of narrative and thematic justifications for it, but shock value seems the central reason for its gratuitous inclusion. You see, this is a film that wants you to think it's balls to the floor tough, but in reality it doesn't have the testicular fortitude to back up the posturing.

As energetically paced as the film is, it doesn't matter when every single of Cell 211's numerous plot twists and contrivances are a) predictable, b) cliched, c) signposted from miles away, or d) all of the above. Indeed, there's an absurd amount of coincidences required to setup the central plot. For a film that aims to sucker punch the audience, it lacks the element of surprise, so all you're left with is blunt force. And blunt it is. The movie's single biggest flaw is the background and motivation given to Juan. Illustrated in pitifully derivative flashbacks, the relationship between our protagonist and his wife is about as subtle as getting hit by a bus. It's the sort of lame, super-basic background information we've seen hundreds of times before, and here all it's doing is clogging up screen time as it hurtles towards an obnoxiously obvious resolution. A series of brief flash forwards to post-riot interviews are equally broad - while they're mercifully brief, they're also so redundant one has to wonder why they were even included in the first place.

Director Daniel Monzón directs proceedings with an eye for the bland and unspectacular. While there is an attempt to establish a documentary style aesthetic, it's simply lacks character. Performances range from the good (the previously mentioned Tolsar) to the bland (Ammann makes an uninteresting protagonist) to the bizarre (some of the inmates have truly unusual and often distracting delivery). Of the side characters, only a single prison guard acts with any sort of dignity: most others are simply there to propel the plot along, no matter how out of character their actions are in the process.

Cell 211 is nonsense, and there's certainly an argument it doesn't have pretensions to be anything else. But just because it's subtitled we shouldn't forgive it for numerous narrative failings and weaknesses. Indeed, from a Hollywood production house - a remake is, predictably, already planned - it's likely critics would have been less forgiving. Personally, as Cell 211 finally entered a preposterous final act, I could only feel disappointment that its flaws outweighed the positives. Because it is, in spite of itself, moderately entertaining - it's just a shame how many cheap tricks are employed for equally cheap thrills.

I have heard a handful of people compare this to Jacques Audiard's superb A Prophet. To compare such an intelligent subversion of the prison movie to this artless silliness is unfair to the extreme.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

The End (of Over Long Titles)

Here we are. Eleven years on, a combined budget in the billions, an overall gross closer to eleven figures. There hasn't ever been anything quite like the Harry Potter movie franchise. Say what you will - and let's be honest, when it comes to Harry Potter haters are most definitely going to hate - but it's been a social phenomenon the likes of which we're unlikely to see again. Such is the overwhelming popularity of the films, like the books before them, that Harry Potter has more or less been entirely critic proof. Records were broken left, right and centre despite concerns about quality. In sheer scale terms - eight films with a predominantly child cast - it's utterly unique. Actors who were only ten when we started have shot through adolescence and into adulthood on-screen. Harry Potter, in fairness, is one hell of an epic.

If the more demanding cinema-goers and critics had anything to say about it, though, we wouldn't have gotten past part one. Harry Potter: The Movies got off to a bad start under the direction of a one Chris Colombus, who churned out two embarrassingly workman-like franchise starters. I was a twelve year old Harry Potter fanatic at the time the first was released, and even then I thought it was a piece of shit. I ignored the second (later got around to it and very much disliked it) but after assurances Prisoner of Azkaban was good, I took the risk. It was indeed good - great even. The focused direction of Alfonso Cuaron - hot off, em, Y Tu Mama Tambien - made a film that, unlike the first two painfully literal adaptations, felt like a film as opposed to a simple screen translation of the source material. After the definite highpoint of the series, the franchise settled into a steady stream of inoffensive mediocrity. We can blame J.K. Rowling for this, or more specifically the many, many people who insisted on adapting her work for the screen. The material wasn't strong enough - the often 'talky' books simply weren't easily adaptable to screen, and the increasingly heavy setup for the return of Voldemort made Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince seem unfortunately chock full o' filler. And of course, what is conjured up in a reader's imagination isn't always as compelling when shown expensively yet shoddily generated by computers.

An unlikely hero emerged out of all this however: David Yates. From Order... onwards, Yates was granted directorial control over the series, a privilege that the previous three hadn't indulged. This meant Yates had ample time to hone his skills and vision. Narrative issues aside, Yates imposed an endearingly bleak atmosphere upon the films to match the increasingly hopeless vibe of Rowling's books. This is a franchise that simply got darker and darker. By the time we reached Deathly Hollows Part One, pretty much the whole film was shrouded in greys and blacks: a surprisingly characterful approach for a multi-million dollar Hollywood epic. Unfortunately, the split of the final novel into two films meant DH1 was the most filler-tastic entry yet - the infamous 'hanging around forests' middle act of the book predictably not translating all that well. The cast was good, the direction & cinematography great - but it all felt stretched.

Not to worry, here we are, three paragraphs later, finally onto Deathly Hallows Part 2. The end. Finito. No time for catching up, straight into it! With only the barest of reminders - i.e. the closing 'cliffhanger' of part one - we're right back with Harry, Hermione and Ron tracking down Horcruxes (don't know what they are? You should have watched part one!). It quickly becomes apparent this is very much a direct continuation of part one, a single whole as opposed to two halves. This is a small problem in one respect: eight months on, it feels odd to be thrown straight into the butt end of a second act. After a relatively brief revisit to Gringott's - complete with dodgy CGI - we're back to Hogwarts and an extended finale. It's a strange and admittedly unavoidable structural flaw, but one worth pointing out - a monster five-hour Deathly Hallows mastercut is certainly something that would allow us to truly appreciate the film's overall successes.

Back in Hogwarts, there's a lot of setup for the final confrontation to get through. Indeed, the initial scenes celebrating the return of the three prodigal children are the definite highpoints of the film. A rousing welcome back, a headmaster evicted and some epic sequences showing the gaggle of wizards building up the castle defenses are genuinely exciting and engaging. When the battle inevitably arrives, it's a strangely delivered one in many ways. Many of the important deaths occur off-screen, and it's frequently interrupted by less exciting asides (a visit to a maze of lost items is significantly held back by dodgy effects). Yet for the most part it's handled with a suitably epic approach. Many of the characters get welcome moments to shine - step-up, Matthew Lewis as Neville, a surprising action hero amidst the bloodshed. And when the battle finally comes to a messy conclusion, all that's left is the final battle it's taken the guts of twenty hours screen-time to get to.

Yates, once again, is the true star here, alongside cinematographer Eduardo Serra. They create an extraordinarily grim atmosphere, occasionally penetrated by thoughtful use of colour. Indeed, one scene contains the most vivid use of white I've ever seen in cinema, all the more powerful when contrasted with the predominantly dark hues of the overall colour scheme. Another impressive scene seems to channel Sam Raimi of all people. The soundtrack from Tree of Life composer Alexandre Desplat is urgent and suitably dark. Overall, it's a film composed with an intensity to match the narrative focus. 

There's a lot of this
Flaws, though, there are a few. The cast, as always, are a mixed bunch. The main three fit snugly into their roles at this point, even if Watson and Grint have little to do here other than cozy up to each other while Radcliffe saves the day. The huge cast of talented British actors and actresses impress (Maggie Smith) and bemuse (Jim Broadbent) as always with their limited screen time, but Alan Rickman as Snape is perhaps the only side character to receive adequate levels of attention. He handles the limelight experly. However, there are also a few distractingly poor ones - again, the Irish Evanna Lynch frustrates more than bewitches as a spacy Luna. There are also some poorly delivered moments amongst the good - an infamous profanity is underwhelming on screen, and a moment where Voldemort hugs another provokes unintended giggles. Indeed, Ralph Fiennes as He Who Shall Not Me Named is a dispiriting non-presence. For a representation of all that is evil, he's surprisingly lame. It means that a sense of real threat is never as persuasive as it could be. And, of course, it would be remiss not to harshly chastise the dreadful epilogue - awful on page, awful on screen.

Concerns there are plenty, like the rest of the films that have come and passed. Yet, despite the problems, Deathly Hallows Part 2 does have more energy than would be typical of a Hollywood blockbuster. It's full of character, albeit character that the computers aren't always up to imaginatively rendering. Don't get me wrong, we're not dealing with a masterpiece here - it is only Harry fucking Potter after all, and Prisoner of Azkaban remains a firm first in terms of quality and content. Yet Yates has done much with the bloated source material he had to work with, and the result is a film that isn't half bad (although is certainly half a film). It's a welcome conclusion, and a good chance to savour the many achievements of this epic Hollywood franchise to end all epic Hollywood franchises. I thoroughly enjoyed the Deathly Hallows (Part 1 and 2) - and, eleven years after dismissing Philosopher's Stone for the junk that it is, that's a sentiment I didn't expect.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Opinion: The Rise and Fall of Mainstream Comedy

Send in the Clowns.

So, Bridesmaids. Or as the frothing critical reaction might have you believe, the film not even sliced bread has anything on. Rarely has a mainstream comedy received such ecstatic reviews. On metacritics, there's a single 'negative' review, six 'mixed' and thirty-two 'positive'. It's fair to say Bridesmaids has fared extremely well commercially and critically. And don't get me wrong, I kinda enjoyed it too. Kirsten Wigg is a fantastically charismatic comedienne (makes a change in Hollywood's merry brigade of unfunny funny people), and I'll be honest I chuckled more than I usually do at films of its ilk. But I also think Bridesmaids is indicative of many of the characteristics that are holding big budget comedy back these days.

Bridesmaids, you see, is 125 minutes long. While a certain percentage of that simply brings the lulz, an awfully large amount of those minutes are spent on 'plot'. At first, it's endearingly unsentimental in its approach - typical wedding related schmaltziness is smartly lampooned. And our protagonist Annie is subject to a surprisingly heavy level of misfortune as the plot progresses - it's as if she hits bottom, and the bottom caves in and reveals even more humiliating depths. This I liked - humiliation is the subject of many a great comedy. What I didn't like was the final half hour when everything plays out exactly how you expect it too. I hear you yelling 'but Bridesmaids isn't aimed at you, the cynical anti-social blogger! It's aimed at an undemanding mainstream audience!'. Firstly, no need to shout, we're all friends here! Secondly, that undemanding mainstream audience are idiots and best ignored.

Bridesmaids is far from the first recent comedy to suffer from generic and overlong third act syndrome. Judd Apatow produced and directed films have a ludicrous fondness for it, and one that has worn thinner as time marches onwards. With the 40 Year Old Virgin, the stapled on rom-com actually kind of worked and didn't totally bog down the film. With Knocked Up there were plenty of laughs but also began to show signs of bloat with a tedious focus on 'relationships'. By Funny People (candidate for the most ironic title of all time given the profoundly unamusing content), the laughs were completely buried in a mundane, poorly written and largely predictable narrative. Anything he has produced follows a similar path, and they're far from alone (disclaimer: I will always quietly respect Apatow and Paul Feig for giving us Freaks & Geeks, no matter what they shit out).

In short, Hollywood comedy has completely forgotten how to lose the plot. Only the most finely honed of comedy dramas can carry a meaty plot along with the lulz. Most just aim for irreverence, and with great success. But to get financing it almost seems as if comedies are forced to add a dodgy romantic subplot to appeals to this supposed 'target market'. I don't doubt they exist, but are they truly that demanding of a happy ending no matter how ill-fitting it seems? After all, the best comedies often focus on surprises and subversions - the unpredictability and randomness of the Big Lebowski or Burn After Reading, the twisting of well-established expectations in Airplane! or Blazing Saddles. Where are the unexpected laughs when you know exactly how the film is going to turn out?

I'll take Hall Pass as another example of they're doing it wrong. Personally, I didn't find it funny, but that's subjective (and the variations in senses of humour significantly complicate this argument - apologies it's taken four paragraphs to make that vital point). But structurally, it's a disaster. Characters exist merely to forward the plot as opposed to their inherent comic value. So you have the put upon wife just waiting for the inevitable last minute reconciliation, the (Australian, in this case) young, attractive temptress who's present to provide our protagonist with the insight required to further the plot, the wacky best friend and many more stilted, lazy archetypes. All this from the two guys who were once amongst the finest purveyors of immature yet hilarious nonsense? Similar formula can be applied to other examples such as Role Models or I Love You, Man, although both examples are certainly more amusing than Hall Pass. Laughs seem a secondary concern, shoehorned into a crowd-pleasing plot rather than t'other way around.

Indeed, in many cases building a basic plot around chuckles in post-production can be a good idea - Anchorman or This is Spinal Tap are two shining lights; films where a ramshackle, unobtrusive plot doesn't need to get in the way and merely propels the laughs forward. This can go the other way too - Family Guy's lazy formula is a painful example of what happens when 'random' humour is allowed to dominate - but in general laughs and a plot need to gel well together, depending on what the style dictates. It's what separates 'good' Simpsons from 'bad' Simpsons. In comedy, making the audience laugh should always be the primary concern. Giving into lazy genre excesses isn't the way to achieve this. A comedy descending into cheap sentimentality is forgetting the core concerns of the film in the first place. The Hangover - a film I'm again not particularly fond of: maybe I'm just a humourless git - at least built the jokes around the core concept of a monster bender. The plot and the jokes felt like they fit together - shame the jokes weren't always that funny, and it's a formula that already seems stale given the negative critical and audience reaction to the overly similar sequel.

It's also worth noting that the holy art of satire is close to dead in the water these days. The works of Mel Brooks / Zucker, Abrams and Zucker were regularly hit & miss, but at least they had the good sense to rigidly lampoon their chosen genres. Then along came Scream, cinema's great meta-satire - a joyfully self-aware slasher film that ripped the piss out of its influences as regularly as it embraced them. Unfortunately, a group of individuals believed that this clever approach was too subtle, and I think everyone will agree that Scream is far from subtle. The result was the stillbirth known as Scary Movie: a movie that has since spawned the most horrid collective of non-comedies in many a decade. Date Movie, Meet the Spartans and Vampires Suck to name but a few; films that mistook cheap pop culture references for parody. It's a problem that has penetrated even the early works of Dreamworks animation (most notably the Shrek sequels and Shark Tale). Timeless genres are no longer the subject of comedic scrutiny - instead, it's poorly delivered 'gags' lamely satirising cultural artifacts that are already out of date by the time the films pollute our screens.

Finally, of course, it seems fitting to mention 'the big one', the biggest blotch on the comedy circuit: many comedians these days just aren't funny. Adam Sandler, the Wayans Brothers, Rob Schneider, Jonah Hill, Kevin James and many others are deplorable funnymen. The occasionally funny likes of Will Ferrell, Steve Carrell, Jim Carrey and Ben Stiller consistently prove themselves as one trick ponies, simply copying their initially likable zaniness to increasingly diminishing returns (most of them, curiously, proving more capable dramatic actors). Others like Paul Rudd, Seth Rogen, Michael Cera and Kirsten Wigg are definitely far more bearable, but tend to be more charismatic 'straight guys and gals'. They are there to ground laughs rather than provide them a lot of the time. It's a shame the people around them aren't always so talented. Even people like Ricky Gervais and Simon Pegg - individuals responsible for some of television and independent cinema's finest contemporary comedies - have failed to transition to make the transition to Hollywood, becoming more annoying than funny. Maybe it's just those darn studio executives who have shitty senses of humour.

There has always been bad comedy - the British sex-comedies of the sixties and sixties, to pick one overflowing sub-genre. Yet there has always been good to. These days, one must examine the fringes of the comedic scene to track down the gems. It's stuff like In The Loop (making political comedy and swearing funny again) or Four Lions (from television's contemporary satirical master Chris Morris) that are providing hearty laughs to those who stumble upon them. Wes Anderson also provides plenty of laughs alongside drama, and Shaun of the Dead shows that affectionate genre satire isn't dead. These are, alas, rarities. The much more frequent and visible Judd Apatow films are at least preferable to more Adam Sandler vehicles (Jack and Jill looks beyond horrendous), but they're still often forgetting to focus on the laughs.

Comedy isn't dead, but looking at multiplexes it often seems as if it is.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Review: The Tree of Life

Mother Issues

It's mere minutes into The Tree of Life when Jessica Chastain - as the nameless Mother character - sums up the thematic concerns of the Tree of Life in voiceover form. Running with a biblical vibe that runs throughout - indeed, the opening text is from the Book of Job - the character vocalises the conflict between 'Nature' and 'Grace'. Nature, we're told, refers to the people who go through life selfishly and cynically, while the ones who follow the path of Grace are the optimists and the ones who choose to see the beauty in everything. This is all over images of a family coming to terms with the news that one of the three brothers has been killed at the age of nineteen. The Mother grieves. The Father (Brad Pitt) tries to return to normality. Another of the sons (Sean Penn) drifts through a beautifully captured (ah, the joys of architecture!) modern city, seeking solace in his work. In many ways, the opening fifteen minutes is a condensed version of the major preoccupations that director Terence Malik explores over the following two hours.

The set-up is followed by a cinematic imagining of, well, everything really. Like a more literal interpretation of the final act of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Malik - along with his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and an astoundingly successful effects team - visualises the beginnings of the Universe. There's the Big Bang, the beginnings of life on Earth, the reign of dinosaurs and their subsequent decline. Yup, dinosaurs - the CGI may be a bit iffy, but that's the scope of Malik's vision. Has evolution ever been granted such a vivid, beautiful cinematic interpretation? Following this transcendent tour de force, we return to the O'Brien family, this time in 1950s Waco, Texas. The children are born and grow up, and Malik exploring the family's trial and tribulations through a nostalgic filter - everything from the affectionate to the tragic.

The film is largely seen through the eyes of eldest son 'Jack'. His birth - symbolised pleasantly through the image of a child escaping from a sinking house - and early childhood are lent breathtaking life. Shot in a manner that suggests what an Ozu film would look like if his camera suddenly sprouted legs, the low angles and handheld style show us a film in love with the cinematic form. Camera movement is the real joy of this film - the cinematography is endearingly energetic throughout. The camera is the star, capturing the characters in vivid closeups. The vibrant, sharp editing is a vital ingredient, while the soundtrack - drawing heavy on religious hymns and classical music - simply adds to the sensory stimulation. This is a film that makes you fall in love with the cinematic form again.

To explore what the camera actually captures, we must inevitably return to Grace and Nature. Here, they're largely symbolised by Chastain and Pitt respectively. It's also where Malik's endearingly focused and 'simple' storytelling veers, at times, towards the simplistic. Chastain is effectively idolised by the camera and her children. She's timid, and occasionally unable / unwilling to defend herself in arguments with her husband, but for the most part she's represented as a Goddess. Malik clearly has a deep affection for his mother, and he visualises it as if Chastain has rays of sunshine beaming out of every orifice. If you've seen Darren Aronofsky's hyper-affectionate framing of Rachel Weisz in The Fountain (a film that also invites visual and thematic comparisons) you'll have an idea what you're dealing with here.

Pitt, meanwhile, is the patriarch figure you'll recognise from many a work of art - stern yet well intentioned, and struggling to see the good in a life hasn't played out he planned / hoped it would. They're archetypes, and this is a strength at times and a weakness at others. Since much of the film seems to be filmed through the eyes of a child, it's only natural that the parents should be represented with the broad strokes and defining characteristics that a child would pick up on. But the lack of depth to characters does somewhat stand out as the film enters its final half-hour (there's nothing as traditional as 'acts' here, the narrative structure loose but inventive). There are a lot of scenes capturing Chastain's more optimistic outlook on life and her more peaceful relationship with her children, while we're also constantly reminded of Pitt's authoritarian streak and growing frustration with the straws he drew. Grace and Nature, indeed. It, at the risk of underselling the otherwise endearingly broad delivery, borders at its worst on the repetitive.

One could argue that Jack (superbly portrayed by the young Hunter McCracken) - perhaps Malik's projection of himself - is what passes for a protagonist in a film that is hard to define in traditional terms. Large chunks of the film focus on him as he speeds towards adolescence. He begins to notice girls. One segment, again suggesting borderline Oedipus complex, documents an embarrassing and confused discovery of his mother's negligee. His playful streak begins to lean towards the destructive - nothing insidious, simply childhood curiosity. He forms friendships with his brothers. It's a wonderful portrait of simply being a child. And it's only at the end, when we briefly return to Penn's grown-up Jack, that it all becomes clear how the structure and content fit together.

This is a film about life and death, man's relationship with the natural and how ultimately despite our limited understanding we're all part of a much wider Universe. If it sounds pessimistic, it's not at all. This is a film about the glory of life and the beauty of the world. It encourages us to embrace our memories and relationships, and not simply to aimlessly drift through our short existence.

The Tree of Life is an everything film. Like a handful of others - Synecdoche, New York or 2001: A Space Odyssey (the film Malik's opus is most likely to be compared to) - it attempts to encapsulate the human experience in cinematic form. Malik is not entirely successful - the film's deeply considered tone and pace admittedly become a struggle as ideas are regularly repeated. The occasional moments of surreal imagery, notably a strange levitation scene and another inspired by Snow White, feel awkward and oddly implemented. For the most part, however, The Tree of Life is a gloriously personal vision. It brings complex ideas to life with vividly simple execution. While it is certainly not 'accessible' in the traditional sense of the word, the complexity of the film has also been overhyped. Once you get past the brief 'obtuse' opening (and TBH even that isn't confusing), the film flows in an extremely straight line. What it lacks in a traditional three-act structure it makes up for with clarity of delivery. But despite the many strengths and weaknesses of the core narrative, what The Tree of Life reminds us most about are the simple joys of the cinematic form. Watch it, and gleefully recall what an auteur and a talented crew can do with a video camera.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Review: A Separation

Under the Veil

A Separation - or Nader and Simin, A Separation, to lend it its full title - is a damn good reminder that surface level simplicity can mask some serious depth. An Iranian film written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, A Separation's narrative isn't the most original tale that has ever been told. It's the delivery that counts, though, and it's what makes this film something very special indeed.

Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) are a middle class and relatively liberal (for Iran, anyway) couple with a young daughter named Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). They're stuck in a purgatory of sorts - separated, but the courts refusing a full divorce. The only reason Simin hasn't straight up left the country entirely is her attachment to her daughter. Complicating matters is Nader's father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), suffering from Alzheimer's and in need of a full time minder. Nader hires the deeply religious and rather pregnant Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to take care of his father during the day, but things quickly go awry when Razieh realises she has to touch the elderly man, an act strictly prohibited by her religion. Nader agrees to hire Razieh's unemployed husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) to take over the position, but Razieh is reluctantly forced to return when Hodjat's debts catch up with him. It isn't long before a misunderstanding between Razieh and Nader leads to an act of violence that will complicate the lives of both families.

It's a simple enough foundation, ultimately descending into a lengthy legal battle between the two very different families. It's all down to how Farhadi handles it. Each character is given a credible motivation, and it goes an awful long way towards pulling you into the narrative and ensuring their actions have very tangible impacts. Nader is determined to prove his innocence, no matter what it takes - he's just certain he's in the right. Simin simply wants to ensure her daughter is safe, while Termeh's actions are constantly influenced by her deep-rooted desire to get her parents back together. On the other side, Razieh's loyalty to religious and social expectations underpin her every move, and Hodjat's short temper and frustration are defining character traits. Most importantly, though, every single one of them are fundamentally (pun partially intended) decent people, thrown into a situation that's out of their depth. No-one's perfect, but they're all easy to relate to. It's pretty much impossible to take sides, even when it appears the situation is crystal clear - the reality is it never is, and none of these people are 'wrong'. It makes every complication all the more effective and heart-breaking.

This eventually becomes the cinema of desperation - each character driven by their distinct motivations into varying levels of frustration. A web of lies and mistruths develop on both sides, but you can't begrudge the characters when every one of them is certain they're correct. Hodjat poses the real threat, his temper threatening to escalate into something more dangerous. However, he's the one least certain of events, and a last act revelation puts us right back on his side. And watching innocent Termeh get caught up in it all becomes the most painful of all. The scenes where she willingly participates in a small but significant mistruth just to get her father and mother back together is powerful stuff.

The characters are wonderfully crafted individuals, and the performances are very much the successes the roles demand. Farhadi's direction is again pretty basic, but to his credit he just keeps the camera squarely focused on the people without any unnecessary faffing about. It's a tightly paced, tightly famed and tightly edited production, minus the emotional trickery of something like non-diegetic music. It's a masterly exercise in simplicity of cinematic storytelling.

Most impressively at all, the audience is always allowed make up their own mind. There is a lot of social commentary here - religious orthodoxy is up for scrutiny, as well as the class structure and gender politics in contemporary Iran and more basic concepts like justice and family. It's not necessarily a critique of these things though - the ideas are presented with an admirable balance. They're ideas presented through the characters, and as I said before no-one here is 'wrong'. Initially an audience member might reject a particular character on moral grounds, but it's unlikely there won't be a moment when you won't feel for them no matter your views on their beliefs. A sequence where Razieh is asked to swear on a Quran, for example, is heartbreaking viewing no matter whether you relate to her plight or not. A Separation is distinctly Iranian in many of its thematic examinations, but most of the ideas are vividly universal - like the best world cinema, the film transcends the merely national. 

In a rare moment of visual brashness, Farhadi chooses a final image that lingers over the entirety of the closing credits. It's an ambiguous conclusion, without any obvious resolution. But that's not what matters - all the points have already been made, and any lingering plot threads are ultimately irrelevant. Instead, the crushingly silent final moments simply surmise the key concerns of the conflicts that have taken place over the previous two hours. In A Separation there are no easy resolutions, and the only winners are the audience.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Review: Incendies

The flames of repression

Lubna Azabal as Mawal
Incendies opens boldly. Director Denis Villeneuve barely gives the audience a chance to adjust to the darkness of the theatre before we're introduced to child soldiers in bold, direct close-ups, zooms and pans. Numerous characters enter the film in this manner - it's an inventive and powerful directorial choice. Alas, it's a film that, despite this vivid visual delivery, rarely gets beneath the surface of the characters. The extreme close-ups are a firm and unfortunate reminder that in Incendies what you see is often all you get.

The child solider prologue lingering, there's a sudden shift in locations and tone. We're now in the office of a Quebec notary, reading out the will of a woman Nawal to her twin children Simon and Jeanne. Emotions - and not just sadness - are running high, and confusion and anger run even higher when notary Jean reveals that Nawal has left a mission of sorts for her children. There are two letters to be delivered before the will can finally be executed - cryptically, one for the 'father', and one for the 'brother'. Jeanne and Simon, as far as they aware, have no brother, and their father died long ago. Jeanne, though, is suitably intrigued by a mysterious old passport left behind by her mother, and soon embarks on a quest to Lebanon to uncover her mother's repressed past.

The central mystery at the core of Incendies is the film's strongest point. Based on a play by Wajdi Mouawad, it's a tale that encompasses family tensions, war, revolution, political intrigue, assassinations and torture. It's a smorgasboard of extremities, although one grounded by a compelling and simple potential endgame. And said ending doesn't disappoint - everything comes crashing together in a shock reveal that is extremely well delivered. It's not one that eagle eyed viewers won't have spotted before the conclusive revelation, but it is still a surprisingly effective payoff to a labyrinthine plot.

Alas, the time spent getting there isn't always as compelling or engaging. It's rare that the viewer will be bored as Mawal's odyssey plays out, and the story of one woman caught up in the Lebanese war is a fascinating one at the best of times. Yet the whole thing lacks originality, and very often relies on increasingly strenuous coincidences, exaggerations and narrative gaps. It's almost a necessity to build to the conclusion, but there are moments when everything seems more than a little ridiculous. Even a handful of moments where Villeneuve explicitly reminds the audience of the horrors of war feel like they should have been handled with some more originality.

It doesn't really help that we have little time to get to know the characters or their motivations despite the fact that we spend so much time in their company (the film sneaks past the two hour mark). Characters - except for maybe Jeanne and Jean - only seem to be provoked into doing anything when the narrative demands it, and as a result their actions don't always seem entirely credible. Mawal largely remains an enigma throughout - partially necessitated by the plot's forward momentum and her role in it, but it means it is difficult to truly emotionally engage with her despite the often unbearable suffering she is subjected to. The frequent jumps back to the present are equally a mixed bag, and Simon as a character particularly suffers. He clearly has a troubled background with his mother, and yet it's one he only seems willing to confront when his sister finally demands he joins her on her quest for the truth. And it's even sometimes downright incredible - are we meant to believe Simon and Jeanne never questioned their mother's past during her life?

Perhaps I'm being overly cynical, and Incendies is far from a poor film. It's consistently compelling if only irregularly remarkable. It's most certainly well made - the previously mentioned close-up shots a pleasant trick in an otherwise conservatively shot film, barring a suspenseful and inventive sequence near the end. And one can't fault the performances. Perhaps it's merely that it is held back by its theatrical origins. But there is definitely an overarching sense that Incendies at its worst relies on conveniences. However, isn't that half the joy of artistic license?

Incendies, in short, is a great story that takes a few unfortunate shortcuts to get where it ultimately needs to. What it lacks in emotion it makes up for in suspense and intrigue. Yet it is also a film that fails to truly engage with these people propelled into remarkable circumstances. A good film? Definitely. A scorcher? Not quite.