Sunday, December 30, 2012

Possible Worlds

Police thrillers traditionally set the cops out on a chase to catch criminals. They cut through lies and deceptions, elude dangers and get their man, woman, monster, whatever. In Robert Lepage's complex Possible Worlds, which begins with a horrific murder scene, the conventions of the policier are inverted, warped and re-made with a daring verve. The story veers into a surrealistic world of dreams, memories and futuristic science. Catching a criminal seems the least of the worries the cops face at the end, despite other shocking deaths leaving mutilated corpses, each missing its brain. Finally, this intriguing and provocative film inspires its protagonists and its audience to ask existential questions about our time here. Do we exist but once? Are there parallel universes? How do we define our existence? Are memories real or subconscious dreamscapes? Is the film going to solve any of the challenging questions it raises?
The answer to the last question is no, not really, although there is a crass mad science conclusion to the piece. This is the weakest element in an otherwise masterful film that is both mentally rewarding and exquisitely beautiful.
Based on the stage play by Canadian writer-actor John Mighton and adapted to the screen by the author, Possible Worlds also -- significantly -- marks the English language filmmaking debut by Lepage. He has already worked extensively in English in the theatre, but his prior three films -- work which Lepage still considers a hobby despite his skill and unfettered imagination in the medium -- have all been in French. Sadly, this will probably not dramatically increase his audience. The film is too weird and too esoteric to appeal to the mall crowd. But it doesn't hurt that Possible Worlds is so skilfully acted. Canadian Tom McCamus is the man found murdered -- and brainless -- at the beginning of the story. In flashback, we find out how he came to be in such a state.
The regression into his memory produces a series of possible worlds, quite literally, but also poetically. In each, we find the mysterious English star Tilda Swinton playing the alluring object of McCamus' affection.
In each world, our hero is the same man. He is also 'conscious' of each of those other parallel universes. In each world, however, the heroine is transformed and has no connection or memory of her other selves. So Swinton plays four versions of herself. The possibility exists that there are an infinite number of others. Each may (or not) exist only in our hero's brain, the one removed at the murder scene. McCamus, serious and sober, and Swinton, sensual and yet remote, are both splendid, utterly convincing in making the material flow naturally. In lesser hands, the story might otherwise be just absurdist or even ridiculous.
As it is, Possible Worlds may well be the most bizarre and beautiful police thriller you have ever seen.

Wristcutters: A Love Story

 Sometimes we find beauty in the strangest places; and, remarkably for such a gruesome title, Wristcutters could probably be said to be a rather uplifting affirmation of life, hidden within a seriously quirky black comedy. Set in an afterlife reserved for people who commit suicide, it seems to contain wacky nuggets of truth from oddball characters including Zia, searching for the love of his life, Mikal, an accidental visitor, Eugene, a Russian musician that electrocuted himself on stage from being badly heckled, and the weird and wonderful Kneller, played by the ever-mysterious Tom Waits.
Zia slits his wrists and promptly wakes up in a world resembling this one, except that the colours are rather washed out and nobody smiles. He abandons his job at Kamikaze Pizza to search for his former love Desirée, and soon makes close friends with Mikal and Eugene, who accompany him on one of the strangest road trips since Dorothy lost her innocence in the Wizard of Oz.
What gives Wristcutters its edge, are the frequent, addictively interesting, and not immediately fathomable symbols that keep cropping up and nagging away like in any good movie that yearns for cult status: such as the black hole under the passenger seat where things just disappear. We just know that place - how many things have you lost there? Then there are people who are just far too weird to have been dreamt up on the back of a Hollywood paycheck: like the throat-singing mute, the dead-again messiah, or the policeman who still has a hole in his head.
There is a temptingly meaningful logic at work that will leave you fitting the pieces together long after the film has finished. Explaining how to perform minor miracles to the lovelorn Zia, Kneller tells him: "As long as you want it so bad, it's not going to happen - the only way it's gonna work is if it doesn't matter . . . " We soon start looking for clues to this rather crazy world and here Mikal (played by the much under-rated Shannyn Sossamon) looks like a good bet - but then so does anyone if you let your imagination run wild enough.
The religious orthodoxy behind the ultimate ideas of Wristcutters is a weakness, but it is put subtly and light-heartedly so will be inoffensive to most viewers.
If the stars in your sky have gone out for a while, maybe treat yourself to this zany and very well-produced story to set them on fire again. Wristcutters - a Love Story is at once touching, hilarious, thought-provoking and a hugely enjoyable ride.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Rust and Bone

There's a moment towards the end of Rust And Bone when something awful happens, and we are about to witness the ultimate tragedy. For that couple of minutes, the rest of the movie becomes irrelevant; we are just totally immersed in this act playing out. It's a brutal but wonderful sequence and, fortunately, it's not the first time we have such a scene in the movie. That's pretty much what Rust And Bone is: a series of wonderfully brutal sequences.
The movie deals with the relationship between two fragile individuals from opposite ends of life. Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) is trying to be a better father and a better man; Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) is trying to rebuild her shattered life after a horrific accident. Their need for each other grows drastically, but their real lives threaten to get in the way.
As far as story lines go, this isn't anything overly special. It's the kind of kitchen sink drama that we've seen Ken Loach and Mike Leigh do for ages. Fragile characters, broken homes, comedy out of tragedy, it's the usual stuff. Only difference here is that we're seeing it all play out in France, with French people speaking French and doing French things. But frankly, nothing is original these days; what matters more is the execution.
And what sets Rust And Bone apart from other similarly-themed movies is the execution. Working class France is shot brilliantly, looking gorgeous and despairing all at the same time. The special effects are top-notch, and there is a somewhat jarring quality to the editing that really works.
But what you really need to see this film for is Cotillard and Schoenaerts. I was trying to decide who I thought was the better actor in the film, but it's impossible to choose. They are both fantastic. I've never seen Matthias Schoenaerts before, but the guy is amazing. He manages to juggle pain and deadpan humour simultaneously, which is quite an achievement. Cotillard, meanwhile, is the usual perfect self that she is. Such an expressive face, and she's able to make even the hokiest of lines come off natural and genuine. Her talents seemed wasted in The Dark Knight Rises but, clearly, she's at her best when she's speaking her natural language. They are what make these sequences brutal and wonderful, through their chemistry and ability to suck the audience in.
The rest of the film is scattered with great supporting cast performances, especially Armand Verdure as Ali's son Sam. The young boy is a joy to watch, and can be added to that ever-growing list of strong pre-teen child actors.
I'm pretty sure Rust And Bone has won a few awards, and deservedly so. It's amazing to watch, just because it's so fun to see brilliant performances. Like I said before, the story itself isn't probably that amazing. It's been done before; but it's done in such a way here, with those two central performances, that it feels fresh and original. You really should check it out.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Holy Motors

What is more important, a theme of the movie or how it is presented? That's what I wondered after watching Leos Carax's latest picture "Holy Motors". It's a movie without classical narrative but it seems to talk of many things. In it we see a man named Oscar, driven through the streets of Paris in a big limousine, assume many different roles as a part of his job. He becomes an old woman, a motion-capture actor, a dying man and a head of the family of monkeys amongst else, each of his roles having another kind of story, conveying diverse emotions and different messages. In between his roles Oscar changes clothes and make-up, talks with his chauffeur, gets a visit from who seems to be his employer, and has a chance meeting with his former love.
The movie opens with a shot of an audience in a theatre and thus from the beginning makes us aware that it speaks of cinema. One of the first things we conclude is that Oscar is some kind of an actor whose job is to play a couple of different roles every day with other actors like him, all of them being driven around in big limousines. That assumption is confirmed when his employee appears and Oscar complains that he can't get in the role as well as he used to since he can't see the cameras because of how small they became. Also, his name immediately brings to mind the most famous American movie award, and we can easily see him as a metaphor for the award for best actor, his performances as ones for which the award has been given, and a critique from his employee as a critique of the Oscars. But that's not all that points to American cinema. At the beginning of the movie the director himself gets to the movie theatre through the wall covered with painting of the woods which, together with the name of the movie, reminded me of Hollywood and could indicate that everything we see afterwards is an allegory of it. Of course, I could very well be wrong, but since Carax don't want to talk about the meaning of the movie, all we can do is find our own interpretation of it.
In addition to being parables for the award-winning performances, Oscar's roles are also representations of the various characters every one of us is composed of. When we first see Oscar, he's a wealthy banker arranging a dinner with some colleagues. Later in the movie Oscar sees that character having dinner at the restaurant and leaves the limousine to kill him, showing in that way the repulsion we feel towards some of the characters within us, or, if you want, some segments of our personality. The exploration of our personality is additionally revealed as a theme through one of the songs in the movie, sung by Oscar's colleague and long lost love Jean, with lyrics like: "Who were we, who were we, when we were, who we were, back then?". That segment also explores the possibility of love between fragmented people as we have become.
All of that we could say makes the theme of "Holy Motors", but what about how it is presented? It's a series of bizarre looking unconnected vignettes which create very little emotional impact. The acting is great, especially by Denis Lavant who plays Oscar and through him ten more roles, doing all of that impeccably, as well as Kylie Minogue whose performance probably amazed me so much because I had low expectations, but nevertheless makes one of the highlights of the movie. The cinematography by Caroline Champetier and interesting choice of music help keep the audience interested, but they're not without flaws. The main problem is the author himself. He publicly said that he didn't write screenplay because he doesn't know how to write. And that shows. The movie misses any kind of coherency and often feels unnecessary eccentric. I can't help thinking, maybe with a good screenplay the movie could be more than the sum of his parts, just like it should.
So to turn back to the question from the beginning. I still don't know what's more important, but it seems that having an interesting theme isn't enough, for it can very easily be turned into uninvolving mess. Just like in "Holy Motors", a movie which is better to talk about than to watch.