Thursday, October 20, 2011

Review - Melancholia

And I'm Feeling Blue

How does one review a Lars von Trier film? The man's work is almost immune to traditional criticism - even within individual films, the tone, content and quality can dramatically shift. And, these days, it's increasingly difficult to separate the art from the artist. At a rough estimate (note: not scientifically tested) 99.9% of reviews of Melancholia have referenced his infamous, stupid Hitler gaffe. You can now add this review to that overwhelming majority.

I'll admit that, generally speaking, I do tend to enjoy the work of von Trier for one main reason: he always tries something different, and the results are always interesting if not entirely successful. There are some films I truly like (if 'like' is the appropriate word): Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, The Idiots or Manderlay. There are others I admire on general principle, but can't say I entirely enjoyed my time with: Dogville or Europa. And there's at least one I actively disliked despite the odd burst of insight or invention: specifically Antichrist.  Melancholia, to cut to the chase, is in the middle category. Interesting, yet flawed.

It's not a significant spoiler to say this is von Trier's take on the apocalypse film. Indeed, the film opens with hyper-stylised, slow-motion images of the end of the world. If anyone has seen the haunting (although somewhat naff) black & white opening of Antichrist, this is similar territory, although with a bit of effects work an over-indulgence of colour these scenes probably work better. Anyway, apocalypse well and truly now, the film jumps back in time and focuses on two different stories. We first observe the wedding party of Justine (Kirsten Dunst), being held in the vast country estate of her wealthy brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). In the midst of a crippling depression, she fakes a smile for her new husband (Alexander Skarsgard) and the party guests (a variety of acting powerhouses). But as the night wears on, the bride finds it harder to keep her veil of happiness in check. In part two, set some undefined time after the wedding, the focus is on Justine's sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Justine is brought to the estate to help her get over another physically exhausting mental health episode. Claire, meanwhile, worries about the news reports that a planet, Melancholia, is one a collision course with Earth. John - an amateur astronomer - assures her everything will be fine. Yet as the planet draws closer, he grows less certain of himself, and Claire's anxiety escalates. In contrast, Justine slowly seems to grow more accepting of the oncoming apocalypse...

This is very much a film of two halves. The first is certainly superior. It plays out like a riff and homage to von Trier's dogma-mate Thomas Vinterberg's classic Festen.  A stunning ensemble cast drives the slow burning drama towards breaking point - John Hurt, Charlotte Rampling, Stellan Skarsgard and a very funny Udo Kier as a frustrated wedding planner are amongst the party guests each compellingly experiencing their own personal melancholy. However, it really is Dunst who holds everything together. Having never really been given the opportunity to flex her dramatic muscles before, she genuinely feels like a discovery here despite being one of Hollywood's most recognisable faces. Von Trier isn't in a hurry to get anywhere, but there are enough interesting ideas and revelations to keep the viewer interested while they await the inevitable doomsday. It's not perfect - Justine's motivations sometimes seem determined by narrative necessity rather than credibility or logic - but it's mostly good stuff.

The second half, however, is comparatively overstretched. Abandoning the vast majority of the cast, it's instantly disappointing to leave such curious characters. It's like the first half is a long tease by von Trier - introducing interesting stories but leaving them behind when there's still life left in 'em. It's not like the acting in part two is bad - Dunst is still great, Gainsbourg fantastic as always, and Sutherland has some great moments. But, thematically and narratively, Melancholia feels more repetitive in part two. The first had all the characters experiencing very different and very subtle inner turmoil. With the cast reduced, it's harder to remain interested. The same beats are hit time and time again during Claire and Justine's story, and while the imminent apocalypse does keep things relatively engaging, there are few emotional payoffs.

That said, the film concludes with an absolutely stunning effects shot that will linger long after the cut to black. Cinematography wise, this is an arresting mix of handheld naturalism and stunning apocalyptic fantasy (while arguably too on-the-nose, the regularly blue tinted visuals work really well). And acting wise, it's impossible to fault. But the story is overlong at over 130 minutes, and the rewards only come after struggling through numerous sluggish sequences. It is, admirably, less excessive and confrontational than your typical von Trier vehicle (if still not traditionally 'accessible'). Yet, typically of the man, the mixed success of Melancholia make this very distinctly the work of cinema's most divisive auteur (not too mention predictably strong female characterisation). A reminder that he's always going to be a more interesting film-maker than comedian.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Review: Cold Weather

The Mumbling Detectives

If there was any justice in the world, Aaron Katz would be better known. On the surface, he's just another purveyor of finest mumblecore. Yet his films have far more character and charm than most directors these days. His first two films - Dance Party USA and the sublime Quiet City - are two honest, realistic romances in a sea of shitty rom-coms and 'chick flicks' (the latter being a term I always find deeply condescending to the fairer sex). Sure, the actors may be non-professional, and the budgets low, but Katz has passion to spare and a keen eye for the everyday. For his third film, Cold Weather, he takes a surprising turn towards genre while never forgetting his mumblecore roots. The results are unique and rewarding.

The carefree first half of Cold Weather will be familiar to anyone familiar with Katz' previous work. Doug (Cris Lankenau) is a guy drifting towards his thirties in no particular rush to go anywhere at all despite his schooling in forensics. He has moved in with his sister Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn), and decides to get a menial job in the local 'ice factory' to pass the time. There he befriends Carlos (Raul Castillo). One day, his ex-girlfriend Rachel (Robyn Rikoon) comes to town on business. Doug invites her over for poker with Gail and Carlos, and soon the quartet are hanging around with each other regularly. One night, Raul gets worried when Rachel doesn't show up for a 'date' they'd arranged. Doug is at first cynical, but is soon persuaded to check out Rachel's motel room. They find an empty room, a suspicious flier, a coded note and some discarded Chinese takeaway. And thus begins an unlikely detective thriller.

For me, Cold Weather is a film that simply worked. It may have caught me in a good mood, and I'll happily admit a bias towards Katz and his low budget contemporaries, but I still loved this film. The first half is fairly typical mumblecore material, and the criticism 'nothing happens' will surely be levelled at it by many. But it's the thriller aspects that add real bite to this movie. Now, don't go in expecting an action packed detective drama - this is a satire if anything. Basically, what Katz has made is a film that imagines what would happen if a bunch of 'normal folk' stumbled across a mystery. They embark on awkward stakeouts, library assisted code breaking and profoundly unexciting stakeouts. Sounds boring, but it's actually very funny. There's a bit with a pipe where Doug tries to emulate his hero Sherlock Holmes that is genuinely hilarious, and the banter between the enthusiastic investigators is always enjoyably amateur. Like Baghead married mumblecore principles with horror tropes, this is an enjoyably naturalistic and playful take on the detective film.

Some will certainly accuse the film of that most frustrating of criticisms: 'nothing happens'. Indeed, many may find the shift from subdued slacker comedy to detective story a bit jarring. But the way Katz ultimately joins the two disparate elements is ingenious. It may sound like a strange comparison, but the ending here reminded me of No Country for Old Men - a sudden ending that may annoy many, but when you think about it it makes perfect sense. Because while Cold Weather often resembles a conspiracy thriller, at the heart of it is a simple, beautifully understated brother and sister bonding story. It only dawns on you when the film is over how likable the characters were, and what Katz was trying to achieve. At it's core this isn't a detective story: it's a down-to-earth relationship drama.

The cinematography is more extravagant than Dance Party USA or Quiet City. DoP Andrew Reed does a wonderful job in capturing a grim, colourless Portland. Indeed, the location is a character in itself: the wintery Oregon conditions lending the film its title. Performance wise, there's the odd moment of mumbling and a distinct lack of experience, but it actually adds to the atmosphere. Again, these people feel like individuals you could meet in any bar. Doug seems a bit moany at first, but as he becomes engrossed in the unfolding narrative you get sucked in with him. Dunn is particularly notable for giving a performance that really captures a sense of quiet, subdued boredom. A jaunty score from Keegan DeWitt works surprisingly well, and is used sparingly.

Cold Weather won't appeal to everyone, and at the end of the day it's relatively lightweight. But it is also completely devoid of pretension, and succeeds in crafting a refreshing mesh of two very different genres. I'm not sure why, but I haven't enjoyed a film so immensely in a long time. Easily the best American indie film I've seen in recent times. It's funny, different and has charm to spare. A real gem.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Review: Midnight in Paris

Art de Triomphe

Midnight in Paris is a very good film. I'd suggest it may even be a great one. This took a while to sink in. Because while I'm a long-time fan of 'vintage' Woody Allen, every recent film I've seen of his has resulted in a feeling of profound distress and disappointed. Even the odd occasion when he might put out an 'alright' film - Vicky Christina Barcelona, for example - there's something missing, and the occasional mumblings that he's 'returned to form' come across as insincere and hyperbolic. The Allen magic that defined his masterworks is typically absent from all but a few of his post-1990 films. His early, funny stuff. His genre dominating and defining romantic comedies. His love letters to Manhattan. His passion for cinema. For the first time in a decade (or, heck, even longer), Midnight in Paris is a magical Woody Allen film.

Perhaps expectations had something to do with it. Having managed to accidentally avoid publicity materials (I did see the trailer and gorgeous poster, but they admirably give little of note away), I was expecting yet another rigid, formulaic rom-com from cinema's most prolific veteran. After his unconvincing sojourns to London (resulting in the abysmal Casandra's Dream, potentially Allen's all-time low), a change of location didn't fill me with great confidence either; especially when the setting was such a frequently filmed city. But Midnight in Paris is destined to be a definitive cinematic essay on the city: a film that probes what it is that attracts countless artists, filmmakers and travellers to the City of Love & Lights. Move over Paris, Je T'Aime - this is a vastly superior reflection on the city and its history.

Having been particularly seduced by the surprises of Midnight in Paris, it would be inappropriate of me to go into more detail. If you haven't seen the film, then, now would be a good time to close this particular tab, so I don't inadvertently ruin some of that joy for you. I assure you, it's a wonderful film, go watch it! Still here? Good: then I'm going to assume you know what the deal is here. I was genuinely excited when the film first jumped back in time - it was unexpected, and quickly established itself as a very effective trick indeed. It's the perfect tool to examine the character of Gil (Owen Wilson). Like so many artists throughout time, he's infatuated by the city of Paris: more specifically, the 'Golden Age' of the 1920s. By literally granting him his wish to be partake in the past (no wishy-washy explanatory magic here, simply simple movie magic) Allen crafts a playful way to examine themes of romanticism and nostalgia clashing with reality. The journey Gil embarks on is a fascinating one, and it will surely resonate with anyone who has ever dreamt an impossible dream.

This isn't new territory for Allen - in my favourite film out of his massive filmography, The Purple Rose of Cairo, he memorably pulled a movie star from the cinema screen and into small town, depression-era America. A character being transported to early 20th century Paris is a riff on the same basic idea. But a great riff it is. Literally having our protagonist interact with the great figures of the time - from Dali to Fitzgerald - makes for a wonderfully entertaining film. Allen has got damn good actors on board to portray these charismatic figures. Adrian Brody is notable for discovering a small fortune in comic gold during his brief cameo as DAAALLLLLIIIII. Alison Pill is one of her generation's most promising actresses, and she doesn't disappoint here as the energetic, slightly loopers Zelda Fitzgerald. They, and others, are always there to provide laughs and unexpected takes on well-known artists. And, of course, Mario Cotillard is simply radiant, especially in affectionate, suitably old-fashioned soft-focus.

The only minor problem I had was with Rachel McAdams. Not her performance, as such: she's actually does wonders with what she has. What she has, as you might infer, is the problem. If there's one overall problem I have with contemporary Woody Allen films, it's that his dialogue has grown increasingly wooden and artificial. His scripts have always artificial, but he always managed to pull it off in his golden days. In recent years, there has been a few too many occurances of obsequious banter. When McAdams speaks here, she just doesn't sound like a real human being. And while Allen parodies the 'pseudo-intellectuals' that populate his films with Michael Sheen here, McAdams' character simply feels underwritten. It doesn't matter all that much, since we're meant to detest Inez, but it was the one part of the film where I feared Allen would overindulge in his bad habits.

The fears were unfounded. It's obvious from the first moments of the film that this is something different. I'm no Allen scholar, but having seen a significant amount of his films over the years, it's telling that the film opens with an out-of-character pre-credits sequence: a montage of the city. While it certainly drags on a bit (although we're pleasantly reminded of Manhattan), it's an indicator that the director has somewhat left his recent comfort zone. What follows is a thematically rich, vibrant, funny, romantic and affectionate film. It's cleverly directed, and wonderfully acted. Midnight in Paris is simply a delight.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Review - Guilty of Romance

Rollercoaster of Love

Sion Sono has become rather prolific lately, and I'm not complaining. This is his second major Western release of 2011 (following Cold Fish), and his most recent film Himizu received enthusiastic feedback from critics at Venice (also, somewhat accidentally, becoming the first major post Earthquake film fron Nippon). But before we get to see that, Eureka have released Guilty of Romance. It's the third part of a very rough thematic trilogy of films about the various different forms hate can take - Cold Fish and the brilliantly unwieldy Love Exposure being its predecessors. And boy oh boy, this is a film full of hate.

The story opens with detective Kazuko (Miki Mizuno) being called to a frankly horrific murder scene. If dead bodies upset you, prepare to be violently ill here - the images of decomposing flesh are deeply disturbing. Kazuko's role has been significantly cut down for this release, so lengthy flashbacks to two other women dominate the film. There's a protagonist of sorts in Izumi (Megumi Kagurazaka); the wife of a famous novelist who lives a life of bored servitude. The most demanding task of the day is calibrating her husband's slippers. After taking a job at a nearby supermarket just to get out of the house, she is spotted by a modelling agent who invites her to partake in a photo shoot. However, it transpires the shoot is actually one for soft pornography. Initially reluctant to participate, Izumi ultimately feels liberated by the encounter and engages in a series of casual sexual encounters. One day, she travels to Shibuya where she is seduced by a mysterious man in a bowler hat, who whisks her off to a love hotel. There, he sexually abuses and humiliates her. Wandering around in a daze, Izumi bumps into the larger-than-life Mitsuko (Makoto Togashi): a charismatic university lecturer who moonlights as a prostitute. She leads Izumi on a disturbing journey full of surrealism, sexual encounters, shocking revelations and - ultimately - violence.

Of the many things that differentiate Guilty of Romance from the pack is the utter joylessness of the film. After early scenes of liberation, this tale is largely devoid of happiness. Sex, Mitsuko teaches Izumi, is a tool, something to be exploited for money (Sono critiquing the porn and sex trades in the process). There's no joy to be found in it, no 'love'. The sex is brutal and profoundly unerotic - surprisingly graphic, too, considering the harsh censorship laws in Japan. As a descent into the strange purgatory that is Shibuya's love hotel district, it's fascinating. The film is rarely less than intense, and Sono's fondness for the odd visual flight of fancy is welcome. A character who walks around squirting neon pink paint on people and surroundings makes for some particularly memorable sights. No stranger to shocking the audience - the gory prologue of Suicide Club, finally released on Region 2 DVD a few weeks ago, still lingers - even the most desensitized of audience members will find this tough going at times.

Like all Sono films, Guilty of Romance is pretty fucking messy. While his films are rarely less than compelling, it's pretty obvious at this stage that he's not one for traditional structure, and his films can feel rather loose as a result. With the UK theatrical just passing the two hour mark (the Japanese one is longer at 144 minutes), it's notably shorter than his recent films. But there's still a lot of ideas, and the frequent moment where the viewer will wonder where all this is going. And, yes, it can be hard to pick out the meaning amongst the increasingly nightmarish events. Some twists and turns are downright unconvincing, including a shock revelation which probably won't come across as shocking to many.

But many of the ideas stick and resonate. Accusations of misogyny will be made, but those people may not have paid enough attention. Sure, women are subject to extremely vile acts throughout the film. But they're also independent, powerful characters. And the men are shown as a foul bunch - few of them are anything other than selfish, and all are exploiting the women in various degrading ways. It all comes back to the key thematic concern of the film, and the 'trilogy' as a whole: hate. These people hate life, and hate other people. In the absence of happiness, they seek whatever twisted pleasure they can find.

The various lifestyle decisions characters in Guilty of Romance make are shown as shallow, unrewarding and destructive ways of life. It isn't meant as a realistic critique - everything is illustrated in broad, cartoonish strokes. And that's what makes the film a fascinating and deeply uneven experience. There are fresh ideas presented every step of the way, and the viewer is forced to engage with them through Sono's take-no-prisoners directorial style. Guilty of Romance is a grim and exhausting film, but it also shows a director who makes his points like no other. It may not be his masterpiece (Love Exposure remains the highlight of this particular trio), but GoR will beat you into submission. And it's all the better for it.