Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Consequnces of Love

As Titta (Toni Servillo) watches impassively through the window of his hotel room, a suited man in the traffic island below, distracted by the sight of a passing woman, walks smack bang into a lamppost. With simple economy, this scene near the beginning of Paolo Sorrentino's The Consequences Of Love (Le Conseguenze dell'Amore) establishes several key features of the film, for it encapsulates Titta's status as an aloof observer, cocooned from the "street level" of everyday human affairs, as well as affording an early glimpse of the catastrophic disorder that desire can bring.
There is no room in Titta's life for disorder. Neat and fastidious, with a greyly lugubrious air, he has lived a quiet exile in the same Swiss hotel for eight long years, estranged from his wife and children in the south of Italy, rarely talking to anybody, or venturing out, resolutely ignoring the civilities of bartender Sofia (Olivia Magnani), occasionally playing cards with a once-wealthy couple (Raffaele Pisu, Angela Goodwin), who have fallen on hard times, and always paying his expenses with perfect punctuality. It is a life dominated by clockwork routine, in which nothing out of the ordinary ever happens and the future already seems set in concrete. Even if the hotel manager wonders what his permanent guest actually does for a living, Titta is a master at guarding his secrets to the grave. Until, that is, he plunges feet first into a romance with Sofia and nothing can ever be the same again.
From the start, Titta's evasive taciturnity makes him an enigmatic figure, so that viewers are immediately drawn into the other characters' curiosity about his person and circumstances. Sorrentino has crafted an assured mystery, first focusing on the minute details of Titta's strange entombment in the hotel, isolated, bored, and unable even to sleep, before slowly importing thriller elements, with some deft twists and, ultimately, life-or-death suspense. Yet what gives the film its dramatic power is that the criminal plot, which eventually emerges, is as understated as the central character, and so complements, rather than displaces, the very human story of Titta's living death, sentenced to stay in a place of transit and wait in silence.
Servillo, who also starred in Sorrentino's previous films, L'Uomo In Più (2001) and Il Divo (2008) offers a performance of perfectly controlled containment, setting the tone of cool, sterile surfaces, shrilling underneath with nervous tension. Shot mostly within the hermetic confines of the hotel, The Consequences Of Love gives Titta's claustrophobia and alienation a vividness that is only enhanced by cinematographer Luca Bigazzi's vertiginous camera angles and Pasquale Catalano's disorienting triphop soundtrack. For in the end, as in the beginning, Titta is a prisoner, fixed in place and unable to escape, his only small consolation being his faith, unwavering, if highly questionable, in his fellow man.
This is a tense, tragic portrait of a life suspended. Simply unmissable.

Only God Forgives

 "One of the worst films ever" was one response heard upon leaving the multiplex. "Almost the worst film I've ever seen," said another critic on radio; the thing is, that was followed up with, "second only to Inland Empire". Perhaps this says something for the lack of truly awful films the person has actually seen, but if you are familiar with the reference to the Lynch directed masterpiece, or in fact David Lynch at all, you are already most of the way towards knowing whether you can sit through the hour and a half that is 'Only God Forgives'.
Nicolas Winding Refn's second collaboration with Ryan Gosling was not going to be a Gosling film at all; it was only due to the dropping out of a fairly unknown British actor, for a role in 'The Hobbit', and Gosling's desire to help his best buddy director, that lead to where we are now. Where are we? We have an art house film that was hated at the Cannes Film Festival, and which would have most likely bypassed most casual cinema goers had it not been for the big name, actually drawing in crowds of excited but naive Gosling fans, and curious but naive passers-by, on a trip out for their weekend's entertainment. Sadly for them, 'The Notebook' this is not.
Remove 'Drive' from Refn's catalogue and 'Only God Forgives' sits as a steady continuation of his vision; 'Drive' is in fact the most accessible and "Hollywood" the man has ever gone, or may likely ever go. Sadly for many who do not know of the 'Pusher' trilogy, 'Bronson', 'Fear X' or 'Valhala Rising', it makes for high expectations ripe for the shattering! Forget any comparison with 'Drive'; the film features Gosling, who again says very little, features explosions of violence and looks absolutely gorgeous. That is about all the two films have in common. The story, as far as it is one, is of Julian, who runs a muay thai boxing club as a cover for more shady dealings. His older brother does something awful and vengeance is visited upon him; this prompts the devil of the piece, Julian's poisonous mother, played by Kristen Scott Thomas as you have never seen, to fly in and order Julian avenge his brother's demise. Julian cannot do this, and so follows the tripped out dream-scape that seems to be a vague effort at a revenge tale, a spiritual journey which serves as an exploration of the futility of vengeance, the battle between forces of good and evil, the damage of guilt, self-loathing, the need for forgiveness and redemption, the Oedipal complex of a man broken and owned by his mother, and shattered masculinity, all delivered with shadows of Shakespeare in the background.
The top of the list of great things about this film is the cinematography; you can DESPISE this, and still need to concede that we are unlikely to see a film whose framing, lighting and textures are more terribly seductive. Larry Smith shot 'Eyes Wide Shut' with Stanley Kubrick, and has worked with Refn twice previously; based on the evidence, it is fair to say Refn has found his partner, just as Chris Nolan had with Wally Pfister. Next up, the sound editing and Cliff Martinez's score rumble, grind and push at the edges of the piece. Martinez previously worked with Refn on 'Drive', but again, there is little comparison. The performances are all very good, but it should be noted, and this is meant absolutely sincerely, it could be easy to watch this with the wrong mindset. These people are not characters, they are archetypes; do not expect standard characterisation.
Now, the violence! For all the uproar about how full-on this movie is, it is quite clear this criticism comes from people whose high water mark for extremity is 'Saw'. I should note, this is not a complaint; in fact, I rather admire the technique of always cutting away, or shooting the violent scenes in such a way that we, the audience, aren't completely privy to the retribution. Even if a belief that this ties in with a theme of the film is incorrect, it is still safe to assume that it was Refn's intention to defy our expectation of what we are going to see every time. This does, however, lead me to say that the violence is tame. Yes, it is extremely stylish, but I have seen more raw and disturbing violence in Scorsese's pictures than in this one.
In many areas admirable for its Kubrick-standard perfection, but admittedly tiring, this is a film that will find its most loyal audience in the art house crowd. If you only watch films for a standard western approach, an entertaining story, with a clear through-line and plot, characters with traditional arcs and actors giving dialogue-driven performances, then avoid at ALL costs! If you grasp the idea that a film can be something else, an expression like a Salvador Dali painting, in which every image, gesture and moment can be considered key to your understanding of what's going on, deepening your analysis of the film, then this is worth your attention, as it does have a lot going on that cannot be absorbed in one sitting. That does not mean you will love it; despite a dedication to Alejandro Jodorowsky , Refn lacks the man's mastery of this sort of visual poetry. You will, however, be hard pushed to find a more strange and challenging film in the main stream for some time! Overall, this is not a scratch on Refn's best work, but it is worth giving him, and all involved, a round of applause for truly going all out to shake us out of what I will call "cinematic apathy".
Now and then we need a film like this, whether we like it or not!

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Imposter

Considered a dead-cert win at the Academy Awards next year, Bart Layton's documentary The Imposter has rapidly generated a great deal of notoriety and acclaim. The quintessential 'stranger than fiction' tale, it's sensational blend of archive footage, delicate reconstructions and heartrending talking head interviews illustrate that, not only is Layton a masterful, investigative reporter, but moreover a profoundly impressive storyteller.
Back in 1994, the blue-collar Barclay family from San Antonio, Texas, was left distraught after the disappearance of their 13-year-old son, Nicholas. Like any teenage boy, Nicholas was a cocksure kid, filled with energy, love for his family, and certainly wouldn't run away from home for no good reason. Weeks turned into months, and eventually the case was abandoned by the police and press. Three years later, the local Texas police department receives an international call from Spain. On the receiving end is a character claiming to be Nicholas. Putting in a bogus story about how he escaped the clutches of a drug fuelled, pedophilic organization, the police think his story check out, and soon enough Nicholas' sister Carey jets over to Europe to meet her long lost brother. In front of police officials, she takes a good look and identifies him as the legitimate lost brother. Three years ago, Nicholas was a blue-eyed, spunky American teenager, now he's transformed into a dark haired, brown-eyed man with stubble and an irreplaceable French accent.
The Imposter, like its central subject, is not the documentary you expect it to be. With many twists, contortions and moral judgments, you’re pretty much open-mouth and on the edge of your seat throughout the film's entirety. That's partly down to Layton's craft, particularly the Errol Morris-like interviewing technique – which sees people gaze directly into the lens of the camera and, vicariously, straight at us. But, even more astounding, is the capricious performer that names the film. Frédéric Bourdin, a then 23-year-old man of French-Algerian descent, is actively impersonating Nicholas the whole time, convincing not only the state officials, but the abandoned boy's own mother. With a shrouded history as a homeless orphan thrown into the life of deception and petty crime, he longed to fit in and have a family of his own. When that opportunity didn't surface, he decided to steal Nicholas's own.
"How could he get away with it?" I hear you cry. That's something I'll leave for you to answer when you see this documentary. Suffice to say, Bourdin is an intimidating, convincing, intelligent and charismatic figure. To the point where we sit back and reflect whether we ourselves could have been swung by his quick wit throughout the length of the interview. Even if Bourdin is the great pretender, a new revelation in the film's final act suggests that the Barclay family in turn, is perhaps keeping up appearances of their own too.
It may not be my favorite documentary of the year, but The Imposter is the best psychological thriller I've seen in recent memory. It transcends the documentary stratum. A dauntingly universal account of a missing child and false identity, its stupefying moments will leave you silenced whilst the movie plays out. But, as soon as the credits roll, you'll be talking about this exceptional movie for years to come.

A Hijacking

For his second directorial feature, Tobias Lindholm (co-writer of The Hunt) delivers the kind of indifferent, matter-of-fact realism not experienced since the early days of Dogme 95. And because it cuts through all the fluff and artifice that has invaded commercial films without compromising momentum as a situationist thriller, one must concede that A Hijacking has upped the ante on Danish rebellion against the Hollywood system.
The refusal to include actual scenes of the hijacking in a film specifically titled "A Hijacking" is no accident.
A cargo ship MV Rozen is hijacked by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean. Among the eight men crew taken hostage is Mikkel (Pilou Asbæk), the ship's cook. A translator for the pirates issues demand for $15 million in exchange for release. But back in Copenhagen, CEO of the shipping company Peter (Søren Malling) learns that gaining the upper hand demands patience. And so negotiations play out in silence like a sociopathic Fischer-Spassky game: cold, calculated, unyielding.
I can't think of any movie in which I have wanted so much to resist and cease watching, yet fail to do so because it has a quality so raw, unsympathetic and intuitive. In keeping with Lindholm's debut feature, an unforgiving prison drama (“R”); A Hijacking is filmed on location, in chronological sequence and on board a sea freighter that was hijacked in the Indian ocean. Casting also features a real life hostage negotiator as the central figure and naturally, Somali pirates.
Arguably, mechanical reproduction of genuine conditions doesn't guarantee a convincing film but in this case, it does — A Hijacking looks so suitably stained with normality that one instantly recognizes the absence of gimmicky aesthetics. Unmanipulated, you resonate with the film's fabric of reality while searching for something more, and in the process, gain access into psychological domains that underpin both Peter and Mikkel.
It's not for nothing that Lindholm went through great lengths to replicate an uncomfortable, pressing scenario because the film offers reflection on an overlooked form of terrorism. Corporations may be showing it to employees as a resource on how to respond during such crises, but A Hijacking’s master stroke — is the revelation of an impasse between the moral versus the practical. There is no payoff at the end of this film, it is one the most sophisticated vérités I have seen, the meta-argument leaves you deliberating, and the film takes off like a thinker on paradox.


Living from the river. Life is hard but the people are hard-working, honest and resourceful. If Mark Twain was writing now, and had not been seduced into doing graphic novels, these are the people he would be writing about. In fact, this film does homage to Mark Twain; Huckleberry Finn was based on a childhood friend of Mark Twain's called Tom Blankenship, the name of a character in this film. This film then, essentially, is a modern up-date of that genre.
The two boys are played superbly by Ty Sheridan and Jacob Lofland. Their characters are fourteen-years old, hardened and matured by their environment. The two actors seem believable and natural in their roles. Chris Pine was originally considered for the role of the mysterious stranger, and with his blue eyes and young looks, he would have looked attractive and charismatic as he encountered the boys. I bet he wishes he had been in this well-scripted film. However Pine's loss is Matthew McConaughey's gain. Robinson Crusoe was never like this. I doubt if Pine could play this as well as McConaughey, who lives this role. Actor? This guy looks like he has done nothing, but, live on the river, all his life. You totally believe he is living on this island. If there was a Best Eating Baked Beans Oscar, he would get it! A totally convincing performance! All performances were great. Not just of McConaughey and the two boys, but of all the supporting actors too. At first you are unsure who is who in the families. They seem a little cold but as the film progresses the characters develop. All are believable. The female roles, there are three, are all strong and well developed. The lovely Reese Witherspoon, star of Legally Blonde, like Sharon Stone in Casino, shows here that she can play a gritty role. Youngest actress, Bonnie Sturdivant, like the boys, got it just right. Older actors too were great; Sam Shepard, who played his role with some depth, and it was good to see Joe Don Baker in a small role.
All actors played their roles convincingly. As said, their lives are hard; they are plain-speaking people, however the occasional bit of laconic home-spun philosophy, will also be said.
This movie is beautifully filmed, lovely rich colours. The river is filmed lovingly, so too the way of life. The film is homage to the life and the river. However while we see beautiful scenes of the river, we see too the grittier scenes of urban decay and dereliction and waste. All filmed brilliantly.
There are many different threads and themes to this film and it is unclear what will be resolved. Friendship, family, life and death, love and violence are all explored. The adult themes are not hidden. The boys have to try figure out the truth and act accordingly. The film is very much seen through their eyes. However we do see a little bit more than the boys see. What is the truth? What to do? The truth is not very clear, clear as mud, perhaps. No real judgment is made about the truth, or the characters, or their decisions. Their lives are too rich and complex for that sort of simplistic verdict.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Before Midnight

Jesse, Céline and Linklater are a different sort of breed, when they work together. They invented cinematic magic in Before Sunrise, reveled in the afterglow and made it more beautiful in Before Sunset, and have now matured into a great team in Before Midnight. Each of these films have a gap of exactly nine years (1995, 2004 and 2013). So in a practical sense, the characters have aged along with us, in real-time. Never did I expect an already beautiful story to get better than the first two movies combined. Both the first two films ended in brilliant, ambiguous situations that left us with bi-polar answers to a single question. One seemed practical. Another stemmed from within heart. Either way, team Before.. succeeded each time (and have done it yet again) in one of the most accurate and authentic portrayals of love since Michel Gondry gave us Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Hawke and Delpy in Before Sunset (2004) and Before Sunrise (1995)
The film is an absolute marvel, showcasing the very best dialogue and capturing the sheer essence of acting brilliance from stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Director Richard Linklater has also created the crowning work of his directorial career, showing incredible restraint and focus on two characters that still feel just as new and fresh as the day we met them. The film opens with a near fifteen minute take that gets its hook into you and never lets up. It's a cinematic sensation.
The writing is astounding. Sharp, intelligent, biting, humorous, with staggering subtext, but most importantly, it feels real. If the screenplay doesn't get an Oscar nomination it would be a shame.
Midnight takes place nine years after the events of Sunset. Jesse and Céline are still together and have managed to have twin girls, Nina and Ella, and are living in Europe. The film takes place at the tail end of a six-week vacation in Greece where Jesse has just dropped off his thirteen-year-old son Hank, from his previous marriage, at the airport for his return back to Chicago. Realizing that he's missing the formative years of Hank's teenage life, Jesse and Céline explore the option of possibly making a move to America, leaving opportunities and a life in Europe behind.
The acting is flawless, and so is the writing. The movie could so easily have become nothing more than two privileged white people moaning about their white person problems, but it instead gets right at the heart of what makes simple day-to-day living, even when nothing major is wrong with your life and even when you can admit that to yourself, so difficult. Before Midnight is very sincere in that it openly discusses lots of interesting things and everyday problems. It actually consists of couple major dialogues that clearly expose whole spirit of plot. There is a dining scene where characters discuss their first sexual intercourse or just their sex lives and I was surprised how precise, natural and nice each word was. It did not "scream" as it happens in most of films. Each and every other dialogue was a masterpiece, very quiet, peaceful and calmly emotional. The last scene in the bedroom which actually last half an hour, just runs very quickly because of beautifully written script (which Hawke and Delpy co-wrote), the poster child for screen writing and brilliant storytelling for years to come.
Ethan Hawke is an actor that never quite caught onto the awards circuit for some odd reason. Nominated for his performance alongside Denzel Washington in Training Day, Hawke has shown tremendous range throughout his career including missed opportunities for recognition in Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. As Jesse this time around, Hawke uses every ounce of magnetism, charisma, and acting ability to bring himself to the levels of legendary actors like Daniel Day-Lewis and Marlon Brando. He becomes a man all too familiar to the male viewer and ignites the film into a spectacular frenzy of passion. Hawke isn't afraid to show the inner turmoil of Jesse as the growing cancer of guilt has come to the surface. He works moment after moment in expressing the bewildering beauty of love at the expense of one's own values and sacrifice. He's almost the distant, and utterly toned down, cousin of Freddie Quell from Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, a man so complex but inserted with terrific character beats and an actor willing to commit entirely to the craft to portray him flawlessly. Hawke surpasses not only his past features but the very being of himself as an actor. It's his finest turn yet.
Julie Delpy is as imaginative and magnetic as ever. She's a wonderful presence, often a very skillful example of acting on the finest level. She executes the pure feelings of uncertainty in conjuncture with the script which is a clear and marvelous character study on love. She's wildly immersed into Céline, accomplishing not only a somewhat free- spirited damaged woman but a sex appeal that triggers any person's romantic desires. She's an effortless existence in the film, which makes Céline not only explicitly real, but tenderly and mysteriously loving for the viewer. It's a performance that defines her abilities as an actress and one that will be remembered fifty years from now as we all think back on the amazement of Julie Delpy.
The film is breathtakingly accurate and precise in capturing the love and relationship of couples, it will and should be studied by film schools and writers for years to come. Linklater bares his soul, frame after frame, showing confidence of his own idiosyncratic vision of this story and being as accessible to even the youngest of people. This is Linklater's most personal tribute to the scope of cinema and will be his defining moment on the silver screen. The film is a must-see and is the first masterpiece that 2013 has to offer. Before Midnight is an instant Oscar-contender and a triumph in filmmaking.