Sunday, November 07, 2010
directed by Darren Aronofsky; written by Andres Heinz, Mark Heyman & John McLaughlin; starring Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey
screened as the Jameson Gala on September 22nd; also screened 24th and 25th
The enduring effectiveness of Swan Lake suggests some intrinsic value in a story consisting of simplistic oppositions, even if it’s richer than it outwardly appears. The black and white colour scheme of the tale does not merely restrict itself to the decoration, of course, but inhabits the story itself: white is good and black is evil, and so on. By adding a splash of devilish red, Darren Aronofsky risks collapsing the delicately conflicting balance, but there has always been a more complex element to the fairy tale that is potentially much more damaging to fiddle with. The prince may fall prey to the vampish sexuality of the black swan, but the pure white swan he falls in love with in the first place is a damaged, sad, doomed woman rather than a purely innocent figure. By piling the complications of this story into one character, Nina (Natalie Portman), Black Swan risks cracking under the intensity of such psychological proximity. Though it theoretically, and increasingly formally, mimics the style of a ballet, Black Swan has to at least loosely tie itself to a sense of reality so we can make sense of it, and so the interiorized psychological approach it takes is somewhat inevitable.
Writers Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin are understandably wary of the complexity of mapping out the tale of Nina’s incoherent collapse as being inside her own damaged mind, but their lamentable approach is basically to divert in the opposite direction. Nina is less a protagonist than a victim, not someone who motivates the downward thrust of the script but is instead trapped in its clichéd ideas of familial oppression, realisation of sexuality and the mixture of physicality and psychology demands from her work. She is never defined apart from the darkness, from the moment she first glances at her reflection in the eerily depicted subway window, and is less of a character for it; only a headcase, not really a woman. This is not Portman’s fault, and you do see her working valiantly to deepen Nina’s narrative, to inflect a sense of independence into the part, but Aronofsky mostly directs her merely to react, not act, to gasp and widen her eyes and flinch and shout. There is fragility to Nina’s physicality that is all Portman’s, and without this the film might collapse completely, but there is so much possibility in the strained expression and nervous walk and their accoutrements that no one but Portman is interested in.
The necessarily telegraphed emotional style of ballet seems to recall Aronofsky’s own The Fountain, which channelled such primordial, florid emotions through its wild, impossible imagery. This makes it more difficult to comprehend why Black Swan fails at such a similar task. It isn’t the emulation of ballet’s narrative or formalistic aspects, because the delicious absurdities that Nina’s nightmarish imaginings (or are they?) reach follow through Aronofsky’s fantastically dark impulses to such effect that the film almost takes flight through style alone, rooted in a vague kind of connective tissue through the few successes Portman makes of understanding Nina. It seems, rather, that where The Fountain’s indulgent psychologies reached for a kind of transcendence, Black Swan seems content to nestle its mad flourishes in unilluminating, clichéd arcs. Vincent Cassel’s ballet master would make the same accusations of Black Swan as he does of Nina: it can’t let go, it can’t stop focusing on the technique of its performance. It can’t lose itself in an overwhelming, emotional story because someone hasn’t built one.
The script is too concerned with modulating between Nina’s mind and the reality of the world around her – something it makes a hash of anyway – and this becomes obvious in the ending, where Nina’s acceptance of her fate loosens the film’s grip and lets the blurred line between interiority and reality become unimportant, or even celebrated. There are scattered moments where it does this – Nina’s childish attitude towards sexuality bursting through as she bites Cassel’s character through a kiss, the manic horror of a visit to Winona Ryder’s hospitalized ballerina, and a key moment where Nina questions her psychology most vividly – but mostly it focuses on this divide to the detriment of any intriguing sense of character. Mila Kunis’ spry, sexy doppelganger walks this divide – necessarily defined through Nina’s psychology, she nonetheless comes to define a large part of Nina (through what Nina isn’t, and what she becomes) because Nina’s own characteristics are so thin and undefined. Ultimately, Black Swan is less the story of a ballerina’s descent into madness than the portrait of a woman who happens to be mad – the barest shadow of Nina exists before her freefall, and Portman can’t even pretend to invent one because the production affords nothing beyond giant stuffed animals and music boxes in her bedroom.
When a film like Black Swan comes along, a whole congregation of people breathless in anticipation over it, any disappointments you find with it are hard to ignore. In fact, despite the catalogue of narrative problems, the aesthetic and thematic elements of Black Swan pack quite a ferocious punch, even if they’re often too slavishly exacerbating the film’s problems. There was never any doubt that Aronofsky had set himself a difficult task trying to get his style and this story to actually spark into the remarkable kind of experience they seem designed to make, but for every decadent flourish that burns onto the eyeballs there’s a tired cliché rolling out of someone’s mouth, and Aronofsky clings just a little too tightly to a normalizing narrative that immersion in the style proves an elusive quality. Lose yourself, Darren. You’ve done it before.
Monday, October 25, 2010
directed by Marc Evans; written by Laurence Coriat and Marc Evans; starring Matthew Rhys, Nia Roberts, Marta Lubos, Nahuel Perez Biscayart, Matthew Gravelle, Duffy
screened on September 21st, 22nd and 23rd
A truck rolls by, a faded name on its side. ‘Patagonia’. Perhaps once a tourist spot, but the guide driving his rusting truck only has these two visitors to look after, so it seems business is as faded as the emblazoned word and the dusty desert plains they wander around. This could, quite easily, simply be Argentina, though perhaps that lack of distinction is the implication in the barely-there advertisement. But it’s unlikely, no, that a film would name itself after something so intriguing and then barely engage with it? For the soap-opera dynamics of the half of Patagonia that actually takes place in Patagonia don’t have any need to be there at all, although I doubt they’d be much more engaging in California or Siberia than they are here. Rhys’ (Matthew Gravelle) actual interest in the architecture of the churches he’s been assigned to photograph is part and parcel of why his girlfriend Gwen (Nia Roberts) engages far too deeply in her flirtation with their guide (Matthew Rhys, not very rugged at all). Gwen is never at home here, and, despite the mistakes she makes, the film never suggests a disagreement with this. Wales is, as for Gwen, where Cerys (Marta Lubos) feels she should be as her life nears its end – so Patagonia, then, is for all not somewhere they are truly happy.
Rather curiously sheathed in half, with two plots that are cleanly unrelated, the film swerves between Patagonia and Wales without much rhyme or reason. The more dominant – and naturally, less interesting – half is drawn rather tiredly in Babel-like colours, from the dusty golden glow of the cinematography to the august plucking of the score, and there isn’t much sense of Patagonia as a place distinct from any of the rest of South America, except that the characters – two of whom are visitors – speak in Welsh. Showing the disconnect that should likely be the point of the film, the characters in Wales speak in Spanish, though this plot is played much more heavily for the cultural tension. Though she provides the inevitably poignant climax, Cerys is mostly an excuse for the coming-of-age arc given to Alejandro (Nahuel Perez Biscayart), though his encounters with European tourists, loutish locals and a sweet Welsh student (Duffy) are hardly the most narratively sharp of experiences.
The film seems to be commenting on Patagonia’s status as more a beautiful artefact than a country in the way it interpolates the flashes and exposures of Rhys’ camera, and its emulation of his painterly shots. But as the soap-opera dynamics crowd the film and Wales is inevitably depicted as a rosy, pastoral landscape, any deeper angles that have been vaguely suggested are shunted aside. By reducing its characters to such familiar arcs, the film can’t give them any more than a superficial depth, and generally isn’t interested in engaging them with the histories of the foreign worlds they engage with. The brief hints of something more specific that we are given make the film’s overall disinterest even more maddening – there are stories here being ignored, snubbed for ones that have probably been written during a deep sleep. Often a failure is more catastrophic when the target aimed at was never high enough in the first place.
Thursday, October 21, 2010
written and directed by Xavier Dolan; starring Xavier Dolan, Monia Chokri, Niels Schneider
screened on October 21st, 22nd and 24th
I confess. I have a weakness for young, attractive French people giving themselves over entirely to their lustful urges. Xavier Dolan himself is a young and attractive Canadian person, but he’s from Quebec, and I do believe that’s included in Subsection 1B of my confession. After his vaunted J’ai tue ma mere, Dolan again directs himself in Les amours imaginaires (feel free to explain the disastrous English title, Heartbeats), though he can of course hardly cast himself as the object of everyone’s affection. The dark energy of his filmmaking refracts the few moments of possible sexualisation of Dolan himself as instead slightly self-critical, an awkward physicality we don’t see in Marie (Monia Chokri), or the friend both she and Dolan’s Francis fall for, Nicolas (Niels Schneider).
Dolan achieves these moments through techniques he’s rather boldly cribbed from Wong Kar-wai – it may not be accompanied by In the Mood for Love’s striking musical theme, but you can almost see a pot of noodles swinging from Marie’s hand. Yet there’s something strangely effective about these almost exhausting stylisations, particularly a slow-motion entrance to a party matched to House of Pain’s ‘Jump Around’, that undercuts the imagery so hugely that it almost brought me to tears. Unlike Tom Ford’s imitations in A Single Man, Dolan doesn’t merely copy but adapts these techniques, acknowledging his influences but using an undeniably powerful technique in a different way. These moments in Heartbeats aren’t melancholy, and in their proliferation they shift away from being ellipses – they seem at once ironic and directly devastating, emphasising the sexual dimensions so exaggeratedly that it falls somewhere between mocking and pitying the characters they depict. At no point is this attitude clearer than a purposefully prolonged, simply shot scene where Francis, left alone in Nicolas’ house, furiously masturbates over some discarded clothing.
On the other side of this coin, while Francis and Marie are ironically sexualised and depicted as desperate, Nicolas is removed from most senses of the ‘real’. Inevitably slightly human through the mere existence of the dilemma as to just how much aware he is of his friends’ infatuation, he is nonetheless constructed more as an object, a pretty face and a mop of hair. The epileptic lights of a party emphasize his separation from his admirers: while they are grounded in the space, a continuously moving, unbroken image, he exists only in between the flashes of the lights, his movements frozen images. To Francis and Marie, and ultimately to us, he is simply the physical. Dolan’s script affords him only basic characteristics – and hints that these are mostly unattractive ones – and, though a thankless task for the actor, it needs no more than this from him.
When you finally realise how incidentally the collapse of Francis and Marie’s friendship is treated, the film’s odd rhythms begin to make sense. Interspersed sex scenes show Francis or Marie with unnamed partners soaked in one particular colour of light, a kind of sexuality that is so baldly expressionistic that it is more image than reality, a more mystical eroticism. Dolan consumes you in sensuality and focuses you on the mistrustful dynamics of love, so that while you might not match the lust for Nicolas, you lust for this mood in general; you are reduced to the carnal, the basic desire. It isn’t about liking these characters – the sneering ending makes that clear – but about identifying with how low these familiar feelings have made them, and can, have, and will make you.
Monday, October 18, 2010
directed by Kelly Reichardt; written by Jonathan Raymond; starring Michelle Williams, Will Patton, Bruce Greenwood, Rod Rondeaux, Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Shirley Henderson, Neal Huff, Tommy Nelson
screened on October 18th and 19th
Early in Meek’s Cutoff, we watch a carriage rattle out of frame, and see a man on horseback appear on the hill behind it. Except we don’t, because that man is on a different hill, ahead of the carriage, and this is two shots gradually dissolving between each other. For brief moments, the landscapes merge. They are, of course, the same landscape, the same rising terrain that the travellers we follow have to contend with. Seemingly an echo of this comes later: “About the same as the rest of us, I’d say,” Emily Tetherowe (Michelle Williams) utters, about the native man (Ron Rondeaux) the troupe have captured. Meek’s Cutoff isn’t exclusively about Emily, but her fiercely-thought views sparking against those of others in the camp are an integral motivation within the story. This is the mid-1800s, and not only is someone insisting that this unknown native is their equal, but a woman is doing so.
In the hands of the subdued yet purposeful style of Kelly Reichardt (the mysterious Old Joy, the melancholy Wendy and Lucy), Meek’s Cutoff is never in danger of overemphasising these social dynamics, instead playing them out with careful framing and a gradual increase in tension, cleverly achieved through the diversity of acting styles rubbing against each other. Williams as ever plays things with inward subtlety, while Paul Dano ropes Zoe Kazan into his wide-eyed hysterical dramatics and Shirley Henderson frets quietly on the edges. As the film progresses and the situation becomes ever more fractious, Reichardt directs her actors to reveal the delicate imbalances within the group, each character slowly becoming trapped in their own combustible eccentricities.
Meek’s Cutoff feels like the natural evolution of Reichardt’s attitude towards her filmmaking – it is broader than but not indistinct from her previous films, an experiment in how starkly different elements (of plot, of acting, of character) can be understood in the low-key shooting style many admire her for. Instead of simply aligning with the type of character that typifies her film, Reichardt’s approach extends the ambiguity to every character, never answering any questions we have about them and which they have about each other, and even ending at a completely unexpected, yet reflectively perfect, moment.
As she extends her canvas, her style adapts – framing things in such a way that while the sound focalises attention on one area, our eyes are, perhaps, supposed to drift to another occurrence. She rests shots and carefully manoeuvres the characters to form a sense of being inescapably in someone else’s presence, even in this vast wilderness – the travellers need each other, but simultaneously the antagonism grows. The discordant cello notes of the soundtrack accentuate all these tensions – suggesting menace, or melancholy, or merely despair, or perhaps all of these and yet more. Beyond steady, naturally evolving arcs, not least Emily’s growth into a woman who’ll tote a gun at a man, Reichardt’s project is to suggest and not explain, to craft a small world of these travellers, as fascinated and traumatised by the landscapes as the viewer becomes. Meek’s Cutoff is less a Western than a film set in the locale of a Western; it digs into the typicalities of the genre, but its digging seems natural, to unfold from the dilemmas of the characters. The cutoff of the title, if it alludes to anything beyond the obvious, is the disconnect between the characters, separating even as what happens to them necessitates tightening their pack.
Friday, October 15, 2010
directed by Mark Romanek; written by Alex Garland; starring Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley, Charlotte Rampling
screened as the Opening Night Gala on October 13th; also screened on October 15th and 17th
Never Let Me Go. The words float from the cassette recording, an unknowing request through a romantic gift. That the cassette has shifted from being a melancholy emblem in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel to something fleetingly included here seems at odds with the change of project the film seems to pursue. But this short shrift isn’t exactly representative of a film that could be simply described as diluting its source. It seems instead to refocus it, keeping Kathy H’s voiceover merely as a bare framework as opposed to its overwhelming first person presence in the novel, and explaining the secret of these characters’ existence almost immediately, to channel the involvement into the love triangle instead. Perhaps a slight trivialisation of an intriguing topic, but Ishiguro’s novel hardly delved deeply into the wider repercussions of this alternate past either, blocked by the particulars of Kathy H’s ‘human’ experience.
So maybe Alex Garland’s script makes for a more honest approach to Ishiguro’s obtuse disguise by shifting focus, but new weaknesses crack through; Ruth (Keira Knightley), always the least explored and probably least interesting point of the triangle, is almost demonized, hovering menacingly behind doorframes and giving cruel looks to Kathy (Carey Mulligan), a girl who is supposed – and the paucity of conviction in this is the film’s weakest aspect of all – to be her best friend. None of the characters are helped by the child actors who play out the difficult dynamics in the first section – not exactly aided by a script that seems too keen to truncate the school experience (seen most baldly in the terribly expositional role Sally Hawkins is given), but too studied and brash to work against the harsh angles of these early scenes. Ironically, it ends up being Knightley’s late scenes as Ruth that are the most striking, with a heavy weight to her words and physicality that seem entirely unfamiliar from the lithe actress, but by then Ruth has been and has herself let go.
Yet somehow, despite the strength of Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield, the stronger leaning towards character over moral dilemma does not change the approach the story takes in trying to move us. Without really exploring how these ‘clones’ function in this universe – two frissons with strangers they watch during a trip to a seaside town hint at this wider idea – we can only accept them as closed off from the world, and so Garland’s favouring of characters makes sense. But at these same moments, the imagery (a ball, lost over a fence; a panorama of the broken toys the students joyfully ‘buy’) and the ending try to open the film up to the moral dilemmas. It’s something the film can’t let go of, because it singularises it, but it can’t find a way to properly modulate between the two different angles.
It has to, by design, mark out our focus within the segregation – so while they’re all “students of Hailsham”, Tommy wears blue to the white of the others, or Kathy sits outside, disinterested in the excitement of the sale. Naturally, while our characters might be clones, they’re less clones than those around them, and this niggles as an excuse to merely scratch the idea of this society and not investigate it. If I keep repeating this point, it’s only because it seems to be an impossible situation – perhaps it’s the necessary truncation into a manageable length that was never going to be able to finely contain the details of the novel, no matter how much the cinematic treatment might help the story by packing pages of Kathy’s observation into single images. The specificity both gains and loses something. Like the clones, perhaps, the film isn’t inferior; it’s just troublesome in a rather different way.
Monday, August 09, 2010
What this is obviously leading up to is the arrival of another one of these moments in my film-viewing life. The contrast was perhaps less stark than it was with Jodhi May - They Shoot Horses, Don't They? had already stirred up a mixture of despair and horror in me - but it perhaps says more about the craft on show here that it still felt like I'd stuck my fingers into a plug hole. Unsurprisingly, there are major spoilers ahead.
Alice (Susannah York) is introduced as an immaculate contrast to all the worn down, dowdy women who are queuing up for the marathon dance contest with her; her on-the-spot rendition of Shakespeare exudes an air of superiority in her Britishness, her clean dress, her sparkling coiffure. Like all those who surround her, though, Alice is pummelled by the physical demands of the contest, and her decline is all the more dramatic for the heights at which she begins. After Sailor (Red Buttons), a victim of a second ten-minute sprint around the dancehall, collapses stiffly onto her dress, Alice cracks. Tainted, she thinks, by death, she flees to cleanse herself.
There is something about me, evidently, that has a mind that responds so much more heavily to physical acting - Susannah York barely utters a word in this scene, yet it was, for me, the most arresting, stunning scene of a film that is hardly short on the despair (it is, of course, heavily rivalled by the climax, but that's a discussion for another time). Like Jodhi May, here an immensely dramatic confusion can only make itself known through physical expression. The collection of York's faces I've catalogued here might seem a bit pantomime - it's hard for me to judge, so fresh from experiencing it in motion - but if York's performance is the most overt in the film, the character does not suffer for it.
This isn't just Alice's breakdown - it acts as the film's, the awaited implosion of physical and mental torture that all the characters are enduring. Alice, with the most fragile personality of them all, is the obvious choice for this all to collapse onto. We've seen her freak as she manically pushes Sailor's body off here, but here the full schizophrenia of her breakdown makes itself apparent as she gives the showerhead a deranged smile - a clever opening to the scene, handily reflecting her mind's distortion in a single image before letting York's face do the legwork.
She doesn't know where to scrub herself - her hands concentrate on her midriff, where her dress still remains, but she paws wildly at her arms, her legs, her back, as if she's lost all sense of her body. Because, of course, it's her mind that has been tainted, not her body. She glares at her fellow competitors, who are standing back in bewilderment, disgust and alienation, but jerks in fear at the matron's appearance, giving a triumphant, manic smile when she fends her off.
The contest's compere, Rocky (Gig Young), is a different matter. There's no glare here, more an inquisitive, wary stare; a summation of Rocky's presence as a character, then, as throughout the film he is caring towards the competitors, yet always views them as competitors, as attractions, as numbers. Alice's smile here might signify the boost she gets from male attention; or simply relief that he has sent the others away, that for a second she believes he can actually help her, free her from death's taint. But he tries to get near. The smile flips back to fear.
He moves to turn off the water. She's not clean. She can't possibly let him; the eyes widen. But his gentle, careful voice cuts through her madness a little - disappointment in herself dawns and she moves away. The movements on York's face are sudden and sharp, yet there's a perfect, simple logic to them: she's not clean and she needs to be. "He... touched me," she says, bewildered - death is active, something to be feared. "Is he dead?" If he's not, she can relent, she can survive.
Rocky assures her - falsely, we sense (Sailor looked pretty dead) - that he's going to be fine. Relief - perhaps - rushes through her and he can move, slowly, towards her, through the falling wall of water, the divide broken. But then the alarm shrieks, it's time to go back to dancing, and she screams.
"Someone screamed." "That was you, Alice."
With that last line reading, Susannah York sounds as though she's stepped out of a ghost picture - and, with the shells that the characters have become, she has done. The title - uttered glibly at the film's tragic end - suggests that the Depression has made people into lame, vague approximations of humans, ones that, if they were horses, would be shot, because they're no use to anyone any more. Gloria (Jane Fonda) chooses death, though she is even too lame to do it to herself. Robert (Michael Sarrazin) chooses imprisonment, where he will likely waste away. And Alice escapes into madness. It's a stark message from a stark film that says as much about the Great Depression as it does about the darkening mood of the late 1960s that was the overwhelming mood of 1970s American cinema. But starkness sometimes makes for the very best, the most human, of cinema. A
Friday, August 06, 2010
Monday, March 08, 2010
You only need remind yourself of the tiresome addition of a humanizing father flashback for Willy Wonka in Burton’s adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to see that Burton is afraid to let weirdness stand tall and proud these days, and it’s much the same here. Lunatic supreme the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp, but of course) isn’t the incomprehensible oddball of the novel but someone haunted by the past, and while Depp carries this damaged persona off surprisingly well it can’t help but jar, not least because it thrusts him so far into the forefront of the story they might as well add him to the title. I’ve yet to hear any good reasoning behind Burton’s invention of this whole additional story - the original story’s immense charm and appeal was in its freewheeling, loose nature, and that’s something you feel Burton of old could have carried off. This new story arc is yawningly traditional, and the darkness of feeling the added years (Alice has returned to Underland now a young adult) drags the charm down into the mud.
I’ll take the good points where I can get them, though. While a story focused on Alice would have been preferable - that is, one that doesn’t cut away from her entirely as this does - Mia Wasikowska isn’t really a strong-enough screen presence to maintain that sort of thing. She’s pleasant, but slightly innocuous. So despite the mangling of source material, one queen becoming two provides more queen for your dollar, and both Helena Bonham Carter and Anne Hathaway deliver. It may be becoming a bit boring to see Bonham Carter in every film her partner makes, but she was always the perfect fit for this role - a screaming, impulsive, big-headed (literally) tyrant. Better, though, is Hathaway, whose White Queen floats around airily and angelically whispers her commands, but Hathaway strikes the ironic notes of someone who’s clearly not that perfect, who may be better than her sister but knows it, relishes it, enjoys their childish animosity.
In the end, it’s all about expectations. I long gave up expecting Tim Burton to impress me. Maybe sticking to the original story would’ve brought out the spark in him again, but he didn’t do that and instead he just poured drab darkness over it. His regular collaborators feel a bit freer here than they have done previously, but one senses Burton and co have fallen into a routine they could walk in their sleep. And Alice in Wonderland might be a dream (or is it?), but it’s a fantastical one, a bizarre one; not one with such inevitability to its tread. It feels less like something Burton would want to make than something concocted in a clinical studio boardroom, and he was just the weird director for hire. C-
P.S. I hope to be around a bit more from now on. This was my first 2010 film, so think of this a New Year's Resolution.
Sunday, January 17, 2010
In Funny People, she's again positioned as one of the film's more dramatic parts, and, while her most notable 'comic' moment (aping Eric Bana's Australian accent) doesn't work at all, it's another of her scenes that's stuck in my head. George (Adam Sandler), her childhood sweetheart, has come back into her life and confessed his love for her - and Laura's reaction is heartbreaking. It's a moment that feels genuinely sad after all of George's rather pitiful gloom and askings of people to kill him. She doesn't lie, like you might expect her to; she freely, tearfully admits that yes, she still loves him, and yes, he fucked it up and now she's married and she can't do anything about it. (And she doesn't care, ultimately.) Her antagonistic - but complicated - relationship with her husband (Bana) is the most deeply felt and real aspect to an otherwise bloated movie, and, previously mentioned accent-shenanigans aside, the pair work in tandem to provide both believable family drama and comic lightness.
Leslie Mann is the star of neither 17 Again or Funny People, but she makes herself the star, and not through any selfish scene-hogging. She's a generous actress, a real member of any ensemble she finds herself in, yet by her very nature she marks herself out, by her warmth, her comedic skills, and her empathy. She received notice back in 2007 for Knocked Up, but she knocked her game up even more notches in 2009 and I hope she is given more chances to impress - maybe even gets a vehicle of her own.