Saturday, May 09, 2009

Un quartetto di emozioni

While everyone's going nuts over Star Trek (which I will be seeing, so let's just see if I can be bothered to write anything about that), last night I decided to be all weird and different and I went to see Il divo. Thankfully I refer not to Simon Cowell's pop-opera quartet, but instead to Paulo Sorrentino's lauded film about former Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti. However, inspired by the pop-opera quartet and my easily divisible reactions to the film, I'm crossing those caterwauling men (I wish I could use their faces in this post, but they just look like smug, self-satisfied bastards in every photo) with the Seven Dwarfs and bringing you my review in the form of four emotional subheadings. Confused? Yes, you're right! That's the first one. (DoyouseewhatIdidthere, etc.)

Confusion. It may as well be admitted immediately: I went into this film knowing nothing more about it than the couplet "Italian politics" (which is hardly a thrilling advertisement, but anyway). I didn't know who Guilio Andreotti was, I had no cognisance of the events that unfolded before me. I've never been a political person and I'm certainly not an Italian political person (hey, if I don't even care about my own country's politics, I can hardly be expected to care about Italy's). So, for much of the film, I was a bit confused as to who all these people were, what they were doing and why they were doing it. It'd all been jazzed up a bit, probably for people exactly like me, but we'll get to that in a second.

Amusement. Forgive me. But as Guilio Andreotti, Toni Servillo walked like a camp Nosferatu and looked like a cross between David Frost and Milton from Office Space. Servillo's performance isn't by any means bad, but, at least initially, Sorrentino seems all too intent on mining the caricature for laughs, positioning Andreotti's immobile face and hunched body against "hilarious" oppositions like a lost cat. I wasn't amused by the attempts to amuse me, but more the ludicrousness of it all, as well as the time I spent trying to figure out exactly who Servillo resembled. Did I get the perfect description? (Vote now!)

Annoyance. I haven't seen Gomorrah yet, but from what I've heard it fits the same mould as Il divo does- visceral, hyper camerawork, a style aping classic Martin Scorsese; basically, jazzing the dull story up by quick editing, shocking sonoral moments and camera placement that shoves half the frame up to your nose and the other half so far away you need to squint. Il divo adds to the sleek post-modern feel by sticking every character's name, rank and nickname on-screen when we meet them, these labels sliding behind objects and twisting around things and generally making themselves hard to read. You want to make politics more exciting, I get it. But to be honest, the only reason I didn't fall asleep was because you threw in a gunshot or someone yelling every so often so I was jolted out of my slumber.

Melancholy. Alright. So the film didn't work for me on an intellectual level, and that's probably my fault. And it didn't work for me on an aesthetic level, and that's definitely their fault. But there were a couple of moments that cut right through all the bullshit and genuinely moved me. Andreotti and his wife are watching television, and she reaches for his hand, which he coolly gives to her. As they sit there holding hands, staring at the TV, she turns to look at him, and here, for once, the camerawork hits the bullseye. The point-of-view shots linger over the side of his face, desperately trying to penetrate his hard outer shell, and you realise that his wife has lost him completely, no matter how hard she tries, and as she tries again to talk, to break through to him, it's a devastating moment. And then there's the secretary, crying on the bus- a singular moment of unfettered melancholy. Il divo doesn't get much right, because there's so much bullshit, both on the level of plot and of film aesthetics, but when it reveals the deep sadness at its core, it's undeniably powerful. C

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Victim's Gold Stars: Les Autres

What's this? The second (and last) of my awards posts within a week of the first? Have we entered an alternate universe?

Anyway, now these things are all done and dusted I can get back to posting very occasionally and possibly producing something people might actually be interested in reading. No, I'm not pessimistic, what makes you say that?


Laurent Cantet, Robin Campillo & François Bégaudeau, The Class
Inevitably loses the trajectory of the passing months in its more selective, freewheeling approach, but maybe that's a good thing; school life becomes as homogenously existant as you remember it. There's so much wit here, but not arch or fake; there's a reason why this all feels so real, and much of it surely grew, at least, from the page.

Mark O'Rowe, Boy A
Uncompromising, really, in the harshness with which it depicts the world and the difficult re-entry of our central character back into it, but also humanizes each character with the painful truth of someone who recognises the ultimate tragic simplicity of our lifes and the inability to deal with such unfamiliar events.

John Ajvide Lindqvist, Let The Right One In
Deliciously unpredictable, slightly impenetrable; spinning mysteries so barefaced that their unsolved nature is perversely delightful, while crafting characters that challenge the genre conventions without being ludicrously self-referential or self-aware in their difference.

Howard A. Rodman, Savage Grace
An arch, savvy screenplay befitting the material; laced with ripe dialogue and absurd moments, but these work with the mood of the direction and the acting, and the moments of shock, sensuality and harsh wit only add to the sumptously uncomfortable experience.

Lorene Scafaria, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist
It was inevitable, really, that I'd be caught by the youthful hipsterism or whatever label you want to slap on this film, but Nick and Norah is so effervescent, so witty, so generous in how it sets out the various characters that its easy to forgive the tiny slip-ups it makes just because it's so warm, inventive and open.


Fatih Akin, The Edge of Heaven
One of those multi-strand, coincidental narratives which isn't done with quite enough panache that you don't notice the interlocking, overlapping nature of it all, but all the same, these coincidences seem less the point than the emotional reflections they provoke. Still schematic, but makes up for it in character, unusual trajectories and knowing when to quit.

Arnaud Desplechin & Emmanuel Bourdieu, A Christmas Tale
Fat and complex, like a Russian novel. It really does seem to encompass everything, and yet it doesn't feel exhaustive or, indeed, exhausting: it barely seems to scratch the surface, in the end, shuttling characters around and off and on and in and out. And as a portrait of a family, it's disarmingly truthful and uncomfortable, but engagingly so.

Jenny Lumet, Rachel Getting Married
Another difficult family gathering here, with an even tighter focus; Lumet, befitting the camerawork, shoots straight for the dark centre of things instead, obviously peeling back layers but never making it seem like she was holding anything back, even if she has been. Raw, slightly indulgent, but marvellous.

Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg & Judd Apatow, Pineapple Express
Now, I know what you're thinking, I don't normally go for this sort of boy's club juvenile humour stuff. But, simply put, Pineapple Express was hilarious. There's a slightly menacing morbidity here which is never removed as I expected it to be; the threat, the villains, are truly dangerous. But what's most important is that the film knows its way around jokes, lunacy and a boy's club that's actually quite sweet.

Joachim Trier & Eskil Vogt, Reprise
All loopy, self-referencial and with fascinating ways of approaching things; playing with the literary theme, obviously, and as such reflects the variety of ways to write a book, while never seeming to loose the coherence of the story of the friendship at its heart.

(excluding any Best Picture citations)

Taxi to the Dark Side
Precise and detailed, superbly presented, consistently engrossing. Never afraid to follow the little threads but keeps them revelant and always returns to the intimate topic at hand. Bonus points for looking fantastic, because so often they don't deem it important.

Up the Yangtze
A story of change; never judgmental, simply observant, watching an old tradition fade as the youth try and make their own way into the world. Again, not afraid to follow tangents but keeps them impactful and doesn't overplay the emotions it could easily ladel on.

We Are Together
Heart-warming; not a documentary with a "mission" beyond exposing these kids to a wider fame than they'd already achieved. There's less objectivity and more intimate involvement, here, but you really feel connected to these kids by the end, impressed not just by what they've done but by their spirit, their feeling.

(excluding any Best Picture citations)

The Chaser (Chugyeogja)
A breathless, shocking thriller; approaches a familiar plot almost from the opposite end, subverting expectation immediately and continually surprising, but never skimping on either character or excitement.

A Christmas Tale (Un conte de Noel)
Desplechin's trademark tangential plotting, his rich characterizations, his superbly awkward human interactions, laid all across a two-and-a-half-hour mini-saga of a family's Christmastime. Impeccably acted, intimately detailed, and effortlessly engaging.

Don't Touch The Axe (Ne touchez pas la hache)
Its strict focus works surprising wonders for it; through the intimate detailing of the Duchess and her relationship with the General, we slowly become engrossed, fascinated as much by the small details as the wider canvas of French society and forbidden passions that's painted.

The Edge of Heaven (Auf der anderen Seite)
Once again mining his German-Turk heritage, but taking a less direct approach than he did with previous film Head-On, Fatih Akin takes on a wider canvas this time, but keeps the style intimate and focused. Some superb performances increase the rich experience.

Love Songs (Les chansons d'amour)
My 'pet' of the year, really: not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but extraordinarily easy to love. It feels fresh and personal, the slightly twee songs given weight by the emotional (if unstable) characters singing them, played by such charismatic, beautiful people it's hard not to want to get sucked into this world and have sex with them all (hey, that's what they're doing).


Mathieu Almaric, A Christmas Tale
The 'rogue' son; Almaric doesn't put up any difficulties towards understanding why he's an outcast, but you can also understand why his girlfriend is so fascinated, yet weary, of him. A Christmas Tale is an ensemble performance, really, and Almaric is just part of the superbly created family dynamic, but what marks him is his strange ability to be world-weary and childish all at once.

Emile Hirsch, Milk
I stand by my belief that Emile will one day be a movie star; here, he provides his best work yet by bringing joyful energy and passionate support to another ensemble. His Cleve Jones is a dedicated, individualistic character who is never given 'big' moments by the script, but his humanizing, cheerful work is all the more laudable for that.

Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
You're shocked, I can tell. There's really not much to add to this discussion, but Ledger's frightening, magnetic, witty, manic performance is something completely unexpected, already a timeless reconception of a famous role and certainly the performance people will remember from 2008.

Eddie Marsan, Happy-Go-Lucky
In part, impressive merely for the fact that it seems such a change of pace for Marsan; but that aside, Scott is a bulldog of a character, perhaps too over-egged as an emblem of the British negativity Poppy faces everyday, but that doesn't stop Marsan's work from being exciting, funny, and often slightly terrifying.

Brad Pitt, Burn After Reading
The diamond in the rough; where exactly Pitt got this from, both in the context of the film and his previous career, is a mystery, but he gets the yuppie consumerist insufferablity with such delicious irony. It's a pleasure to watch him hit the comedy mark so perfectly throughout.

(with sincere apologies to Rosemarie DeWitt, ousted at the last minute)

Hiam Abbass, The Visitor
A performance best described as tender; Abbass turns up and turns what could have been a stock figure into a heartbreaking, beautiful character, infecting the film with warmth even as she's attempting to be as frosty as possible, because there's something affecting about her innate privacy, which makes breaking through that so much more intense.

Patricia Clarkson, Elegy
Sweeps in, sharp and sexy, to provide insight and wisdom to the narrower main characters. Clarkson is always superb value, and here she also provides a wisp of sadness as her character recognises she's being cast aside; there is pain in her eyes, but strength too, and Clarkson is as magnetic and clever as always with her limited screentime.

Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
An absolute whirlwind; Cruz storms in and lights up the film, making everything immediately revolve around her, and providing justification, in her rich line readings and wild, empassioned gestures, as to why it should. Film-saving, career-making, utterly delectable work.

Ari Graynor, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist
Just hilarious. Graynor is abandoned for much of the film yet makes those stretches almost the best of the film, spinning a new classic 'drunk' character with her speech and expressions, calibrated to maximise hilarity from something that's not too unfamiliar from your own experiences.

Rachel Regulier, The Class
The best of a superb bunch of new faces in the film, Regulier is both a magnetic presence and a generous ensemble player, working excellently with her classmates while providing a singular characterization that almost unbalances things. Keyword almost: Khoumba's confrontational, disengaged front is tempered by hints of her smarts, both street and intellectual, though Regulier, similarly smart, leaves room for ambiguity, slightly mystery.


Laurent Cantet, The Class
Coping with this class, even though I'm sure the actors were less troublesome that their screen counterparts, can't have been easy, but the seamless naturalism would reflect no troubles at all; add to that the liveliness, the freshness of the whole project and this is a superb achievement.

John Crowley, Boy A
Again, working specific wonders with the cast, drawing superbly sensitive performances; but also has a terrific sense of place, a measured, precise feeling about proceedings, and an eye for unusually acute moments.

Tom Kalin, Savage Grace
Over a decade since his last film but still sharply attuned to the specific style he wants, matching sets and acting with the dialogue to provide a stylized, rich experience. Again, a great sense of place, too, capturing various moods without needlessly expanding the camera's viewpoints.

Mike Leigh, Happy-Go-Lucky
Working his improvisational magic once more; Leigh's process seems a truly collaborative one, but someone has to take the reigns and he's as finely observant and tactful as ever, pulling focus onto our heroine to just the right amounts. (And we'll forgive that one slip-up with the homeless man, because nobody's perfect.)

Tarsem, The Fall
Such richness of vision, in everything from the storyline to the costumes, but never loses the heart of the piece either, and does wonders with young Catinca Untaru. Alright, so slightly indulgent, but as with the best auteurs, that just makes everything more wonderful.


James Franco, Pineapple Express
The lovable stoner; Franco mines so much comedy from what might have been a stale stereotype, spinning endless riffs with his vocals, expressions, gestures... Franco finally 'arrived' last year, and on the basis of this clever, charismatic turn, it's not hard to see why.

Andrew Garfield, Boy A
An astonishing breakthrough; Garfield is painfully raw as the imprisoned boy who is released back into society as a man. The secret weight on his character's shoulders never far from his or our mind, Garfield's sympathetic, unmawkish performance reveals the sheer difficulty of simply being a human.

Ben Kingsley, Elegy
I have never been a fan of (Sir) Ben Kingsley, so I was taken aback to find his performance in Elegy as affecting as it was. It's all part of the film's real 'adult' (in the emotional rather than explicit sense) that his character is so complex, so intellectual yet basely sexual, and Kingsley navigates these contradictions very adeptly.

Sean Penn, Milk
Possibly the most exciting performance Penn's ever given. By turns playful and sober, romantic and focused, sensual and political, it's never not a biopic performance but it doesn't feel like an imitation, it feels like an essence has been captured, and then set free. The thrilling centre of the film.

Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
The performance is a bridge between actor and character, but that doesn't diminish the raw power of the performance, the commitment to the possibly-familiar story arc, the humour he brings to the film as well as the tears.


Anna Faris, The House Bunny
And Miss Faris continues to outshine her material (which isn't actually that bad here but anyway...). The script does, admittedly, give the film to her on a silver platter, but that doesn't stop her comic timing, her clever characterization, her perfect vocalizations, her inspired expressions... Yeah. She's brilliantly funny, basically.

Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Using her movie star charisma to the good of the character; Kym's focus-pulling dramatics make Hathaway's status a sore character point, and she embraces it all, shining harsh lights on Kym's multitude of failings while providing witty moments and emotional asides. Hard to watch, sometimes, but truthful in that pain, and delightful out of it.

Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky
Works, across the arc of the film, on turning the audience fully around; initially ingratiating, Hawkins does not compromise Poppy's relentlessly cheerful attitude whatsoever, but shades it with reasoning, hidden moments of a darker complexion, and completely turns you around to how you percieve her- without changing in the slightest.

Julianne Moore, Savage Grace
Moore has been lost in the mainstream for long enough for it to be evident that she needs the freedom, the looser boundaries, the adventure of smaller, more independent filmmaking to really grasp a character. And grasp she does; Barbara is a fierce, vibrant woman, and Moore bites down on her prentiousness, her frailties, her distorted perceptions to fashion a performance that is frighteningly magnetic.

Michelle Williams, Wendy and Lucy
The quiet, unassuming centre of the film, Williams does nothing flashy with the part, instead letting us grow accustomed to her with time, letting our involvement rest on both virtue and fault, quietly carving a subtle, affecting performance that rests within the quiet beauty of the film.

(see the full top ten)

Boy A
A difficult subject handled with delicacy, subtlety and humanism; answers are not to be found within, simply the moving story of society's failings, both in the cause of the tragedy and the difficulty of Jack's reintroduction. Low-key but devastatingly effective.

The Class
Surely familiar to anyone who's ever attended a public school; I, for one, recognised the genial arguments and the bitter, difficult debates, the difficulty of positioning yourself between your own intellectual progression and how others percieve you. The Class gets all the little details right, and is so deftly executed, so unassumingly witty and poignant, that it really is an unexpected masterwork.

The Fall
An astonishing piece of work; such glorious imagination, rendered on-screen so with such aplomb, such a stunning sense of style. A singular piece of work, yet one that is eminently connectable, appealing as it does to both the audience's childhoods and their adult perceptions of a world gone wrong.

The difficulties of a friendship, the difficulties of writing, the difficulties of adulthood; life is difficult all over, really, but rarely has that difficulty been rendered so exactly and through such insightful, clever cinematic techniques.

Trouble the Water
An exemplary documentary; the large part of the film is dominated by Kimberley Rivers' astonishing home video footage of Hurricane Katrina, which would probably be worthy enough in itself, but directors Carl Dean and Tia Lessin not only manage this footage, they track Rivers and her family after the hurricane, providing an intimate portrait of the results of the devastation, while also widening out to larger issues that Rivers, intentionally or not, raises. A striking, moving, engrossing watch.