Friday 29 October 2010

LFF #5: Kaboom (Gregg Araki, 2010)

After the dark, ethereal masterpiece Mysterious Skin (2004) and the light, frothy Smiley Face (2007), Gregg Araki returns to his old school sex-em-ups of the 90s marked by bright colours, sci-fi conspiracy and lots of naked beauts. Smith (Thomas Dekker) is in love with his straight, hunky roommate Thor (Chris Zylka) and his lesbian best friend Stella (Haley Bennet) is dating a witch named Lorelei (Roxane Mesquida). After getting wasted at a party Smith meets and sleeps with the perky London (Juno Temple). Soon after leaving her place he witnesses a red haired woman (Nicole LaLiberte), previously seen in his dreams, being attacked by three men in animal masks. Soon he uncovers a cult called the New Order ("the seminal 80s band?") and discovers much more than he bargained for... fans of The Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy are in retro heaven.

Kaboom is a much glossier, slicker affair than any film from that trilogy, but this is essentially Nowhere (1997) part deux. My thoughts on Nowhere are already pretty well established and certainly Kaboom has none of the time defining cultural oddness that I so love about that film. It does, however, have direct music cues, a cafe resembling The Hole, menacing animals and James Duval playing 'The Messiah' - and, of course, it's about the end of the world. Hardcore Araki fans may see this as more of a regression than anything else, especially in the visual department, and certainly Kaboom offers nothing especially new to his already uneven oeuvre. While I'm glad to see the back of the anti-establishment nonsense that littered the likes of The Living End (1992), the visual grit of his erotic dystopias packed a punch that this misses by a mile. It's a much more polished, studio approved look (although I'm sure no major studio would even think about distributing it), in keeping with the films escalating sense of silliness. But many of his fans will be delighted to see him returning to his roots and completely letting loose again. If nothing else can be said for the film, it's a whole load of fun. The dialogue is witty and crammed with innuendo, totally frank about preference-swapping sexuality, as well as nodding to cinema of the past. Refreshingly the film is totally aware of how utterly absurd it is, and the fact that most exposition scenes are played straight faced is what makes it so laugh out loud funny. The cast are totally game too - not just for reciting the convoluted, surfer-headed and horny dialogue, but also for playing it stark naked. Sex has always been a theme of Araki's work but none have played it quite so... adoringly...

I lost count of the amount of times people have sex in Kaboom. The first time we meet Smith he's fantasizing about making out with Thor, who interrupts by bursting through the door with a buxom babe. Very quickly, they're going at it on the bed in comically OTT style. It's not long before Smith has sex with London (this happens multiple times, once in a threesome with Rex (Andy Fischer-Price), who also shares an energetic scene with London alone) and the next time we meet Thor he's trying to give himself oral sex. Everybody in Kaboom is trying to get laid - and Araki amps up the guilty fun of the movie by making sure they mostly succeed. It may be nowhere near his best work (it's also far from his worst) but this is a significant Araki movie for the way in which he approaches sex. It's never specified whether any character is straight, gay or bisexual - preferences are hinted at in conversation but it mostly playfully toys with the idea of anyone being up for anything. This frankness is exciting and we only really learn the preference of a character when they're having sex with someone - gay, lesbian or hetero. The film has an abundance of all, with no prejudice or judgement.

Far from perfect, Kaboom was still a festival highlight for me. A lot of days are spent watching dark dramas with psychological complexities and moral issues. Films with poignancy and gravitas. Films with long takes and minimal dialogue. They may have been among the best films of the festival (in fact, this year had a dedicated event called 'In The Hands Of Fate: Existentialism In Film') but none were as joyously romping as Kaboom. It has next to no substance, and none of the artistry that Araki is capable of. But it's beautiful, bonkers and very, very sexy. I laughed a lot, and I can't wait to see it again.

Thursday 28 October 2010

LFF #4: Somewhere (Sofia Coppola, 2010)

Somewhere has a lot to answer for. Winner of the Golden Lion at Venice, it follows in the critical wake of Marie Antoinette (2006) - which rather than being the over ambitious mess some would claim, is more of an 18th Century Madchester; an intentionally dreamy rave utopia in period dress. I've been a long time fan of Sofia Coppola and even though I enjoyed her luxurious vacation into royal debauchery, it's nice to see her returning to familiar ground. Comparisons will instantly be drawn with Lost In Translation (2003) - and certainly the theme of a celebrity coming to terms with a crisis in a home away from home (Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) spends most of the film hopping between hotels) fits with that particular movie. But there are also key differences. Lost In Translation, through its hazy, dreamlike photography (Lance Acord) and equally otherworldly soundtrack (Death In Vegas, The Jesus And Mary Chain) created a mysterious Japan, a place of loneliness and dislocation, where escape was found through an unlikely friendship. Somewhere is a much quieter, more meditative and more grounded piece of work. The locations are luxurious and exotic, but they're never played for glamour, excess or even dream. Our focus is Johnny, and his existence is lived between sex, sleep and self reflection. The first scene sees him driving around a race track which appears to be a vast, empty desert. With no music the static shot allows the car to pass around the circuit five times. This is Johnnys' life - he may be moving, but he's going nowhere. An obvious allegory perhaps, but a fitting one. This is Sofia, the artist, really finding her feet...

The title is an enigma in itself. What does Somewhere mean? Is it referring to the location of the characters? Their feelings? Their relation to each other, like the relative space between things? I'm not proposing that there's some great depth to the title, but your interpretation may well directly impact your viewing experience. I choose to see the title in wider terms and within the canon of Coppola - to me, Somewhere simply means the place you find your troubles. You can run as far as you want from regret, failure and depression. You can live the swinging parties lifestyle. But these are problems found in people, not places. And sooner or later you'll find them. Somewhere.

This isn't to say the film is bleak, however. The (utterly perfect) ending is ambiguous but also hopeful - in much the same way as Lost In Translation, which ended in an unheard whisper between its protagonists. It's also helped by Coppolas' impeccable taste in and understanding of music. The films main artist is Phoenix, and 'Love Like A Sunset Part II' provides the ending theme - the slow rhythm having been subtly sampled in several sequences throughout the film, which may only be recognizable to fans of the band. As the track (seven minutes in length) begins to crescendo and Johnny walks into the outland where he began, there's a sense of light on the horizon. It's an incredibly powerful scene and one which will linger in your mind long after the film has finished.

We pick up with Johnny at a time of personal crisis. He spends his nights tending a broken arm (he fell down a flight of stairs, drunk) and being entertained by the strippers sent to his room. Coppola lingers on these scenes and allows them to play out in full. The shot doesn't move, but occasionally cuts back to Johnny and his contemplative stares into an empty oblivion. The film doesn't pretend to have any insight into celebrity culture and lifestyle but there are some scenes (outfitted strippers included) that play on our perception of globe trotting and smiley press shoots. I won't give it away, but the scene with his co-star Rebecca (Michelle Monaghan) is awkwardly funny, as is the affecting press conference afterwards. It can be hard to elicit sympathy from a man who has it all, but Coppola and Dorff do it by playing it human. It can sometimes be all too easy to forget that just because you have a mansion in the hills, doesn't mean you're always happy. People carry emotional baggage whether they're movie stars or not, and Somewhere is a film that takes that idea and explores it honestly, without sentiment or artifice. Throughout the film Johnny also receives scathing and insulting texts from a private number, which he ignores. Literally, these are obviously from a person in his past that he wishes to forget - the emotional scars that the film wishes to present. But it could just as easily hold double meaning. The fact that a caller ID is never given leaves it open for the viewer to read a backstory into the film. Look beyond the surface and it could be us, the consumerist message board users, standing on the outside and inwardly judging and passing opinion. The beauty of Somewhere is that I'm not told to think like this by way of some condescending symbolism. I'm not right or wrong. I'm just allowed to be in its presence and watch its beautiful father/daughter relationship play out, in both its honesty and obscurity.

The performances are both terrific - Dorff is better than he's ever been, revealing unseen depths and emotion. He's every inch the fractured movie star and a phone conversation breakdown towards the end ("I'm nothing") is particularly moving. The star of the show however is Elle Fanning as Cleo. Mature, sensitive, subtle, warm and funny, she's totally natural in the role, giving three dimensions to a limited character that even actresses double her age would struggle with. The fact that I was never aware of it being a performance should say everything there is to be said, but it's a remarkable achievement and it'll be interesting to see where she goes from here.

It won't be for everyone (certainly there were mixed reactions at my screening) but this sees Coppola on restrained and commanding form. By stripping away the visual sheen, extending her observations and using music more sparingly, she's created a minimalist but captivating drama - exotic and luxurious, but relatable and heartfelt. I'll be seeing it again in March and frankly, it can't come soon enough. Because Somewhere, wherever that may be, is simply marvelous.

Monday 25 October 2010

LFF #3: In Your Hands (Lola Doillon, 2010)

Kristin Scott Thomas is the sort of actress who warrants the price of a ticket. In a world where movie 'stars' are becoming less important next to franchises and spin-offs, character actors are raising the stakes of independent/foreign moviegoing. While looking through the LFF guide I was drawn to In Your Hands not by the plot or any rave reviews, but by the fact that this fine actress was in it. I was equally sold on the French comedy/drama Copacabana (Marc Fitoussi, 2010) due to the presence of Isabelle Huppert. Have the tables turned? Have the mainstream masses become detached from a Tom Cruise headlined movie while the cinephiles are being drawn out by talent present on a poster? I don't think it's got that far yet, but we're on the way...

Having said all of this, I'm sad to report that In Your Hands is something of a disappointment. Not because of Thomas - she's brilliant in the role of Anna, a surgeon who is kidnapped by a man (Pio Marmaï) who claims to have a grudge against her. What has she done? Should we side with the victim or the kidnapper? This is the question the film wants you to ask as a dangerous love story unfolds in a darkened room. Sadly it's not as psychologically complex as it would like to think and Doillon's choice to elicit quiet rage and confusion from the enclosed setting, rather than claustrophobia and fear, is a big problem. In fact, the film fails from a real lack of cinematic ambition and a seemingly lacking sense of space. I have numerous problems with Panic Room (David Fincher, 2002) but a sense of claustrophobia and menace is not one of them. Although Thomas does her best with the material, the material never supports her. The biggest problem is that the film never decides whether it wants to be a drama or a thriller, and it musters neither enough psychology or tension to qualify as either. As the sporadic conversations between captive and captor become more frequent the film decides to shift toward drama and Anna becomes attracted to her kidnapper. This isn't believable for two reasons. One is that Marmaï fails to register any presence in a role that requires a less typically handsome actor. A weariness or desperation is needed for the role, if not a simmering rage. But Marmaï, who looks like he's just walked off the catwalk, delivers a one-note performance not sufficiently fleshing out an awkwardly scripted role. It's also unbelievable because of the resentment the characters hold for each other and the fact that the film - slow and observational as it is - drops no hints of an evolving relationship. It's an abrupt development that hasn't earned its presence in what should have been, and is being marketed as, a tight thriller.

As aforementioned the film is really doomed by Doillon in her decision to shoot the film as more of a stage play than a taut, cinematic two-hander. There isn't a memorable shot in the film. The beauty of cinema, in terms of these sorts of films, is that you can use the camera to manipulate space. Tools such as lighting, editing and music can create atmosphere and emotion. But Doillon simply places her camera in the middle of a dull room and watches the actors as they occasionally speak their lines. There's absolutely nothing to stop this being put on stage and still being boring. Even when the film ventures outside of the room it's unadventurous, using simple shot structures and editing to no effect. The film threatens to get interesting as Anna tracks down her kidnapper after her escape, but then it just ends. As if everyone just gave up on every idea going, the film cuts to black, exhausted of its potential. Outside of Thomas' fractured performance there's very little to recommend about In Your Hands. It's a disappointment in just about every department and if you want to see one of the best actresses working today on really commanding form, watch I've Loved You So Long (Philippe Claudel, 2008). Because that's brilliant.

LFF #2: Deep In The Woods (Benoît Jacquot, 2010)

Well, I didn't see this one coming. The LFF guide proclaims that Deep In The Woods echoes Herzog's The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser (1972) and Truffaut's L'enfant sauvage (1970) - the latter a particularly interesting case, for its reported roots in fact. These comparisons reflect period setting but the film shares a more recent ancestor. Although it is not thematically similar, the intensity and deranged psycho-sexuality of Jacquot's film recalls Lars von Trier's Antichrist (2009). That film dealt with multiple themes including grief and gendercide but to a greater extent it was an essay on misogyny - a dark excursion into the woods where woman took her revenge for years of persecution. Believing her gender to be the root of all evil, She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) takes control of "Satan's Garden" (nature) and performs a series of increasingly violent and troublesome acts on herself and her husband (Willem Dafoe). Deep In The Woods is the story of what happened on the other side of the woods, two centuries ago, when a dark magician named Timothée (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) takes control of a woman named Joséphine (Islid Le Besco) for his own perverse fantasies. Much like Victor (Jean-Pierre Cargol) in L'enfant sauvage, Timothée is primal - as much a part of the earth as the grass and trees. But he's also dangerous. There's a shade to his eyes that speaks of a thousand sins, dirt under his nails and a flicker of his tongue like a snake. The journey will be one of evil...

The first hour of Deep In The Woods is sensational. There will be some who cry out that the film is misogynist - Joséphine, completely entranced by Timothée's dark spell, is stripped and raped several times during the film. She tries to run away but always comes back to him and further into the film she seems to find joy in his sexual assault. She finally sees her repressed reflection in the troubled soul of this young animal, and her primal instincts take over as flesh embraces in a violently erotic way. A scene in a lake sees her embracing him with a smile on her face... is she still under a spell, possessed, or has she been lured to the dark side? Has this man stripped her of her identity for his own animalistic will? Has she become a mere object, both for him and the audience, to take pleasure in leering at? Jacquot's camera spends a lot of time admiring the fractured state of Joséphine's naked body - the lens poring over her flesh - but it is far from misogynist. There are deeper themes at work. The middle third consists of the couples relationship reaching dangerous heights as they have sex in the dark woods - one scene sees Joséphine in control, as she heaves her body over Timothée in a primitive sexual mass. In a way this section recalls Nagisa Ôshima's In The Realm Of The Senses (Ai no korîda, 1976), but abandons the blood red interiors of obsession for a natural foray into instinct and depravity. Fans of that (much criticized) work will remember that the relationship between Sada (Eiko Matsuda) and Ishida (Tatsuya Fuji) began with an act of violent molestation and rape. Reportedly based on a true story, that film explored the intensity of dangerous desire, culminating in an unforgettable ending. In fact, put In The Realm Of The Senses, Antichrist and L'enfant sauvage in a blender, with a little bit of Possession (Andrzej Zulawski, 1981) and you've got Deep In The Woods. It just falls apart towards the end.

Jacquot's direction is perfectly fine, wildly improving on the observational coldness (although that was intentional) of last years Villa Amalia. That film was also scored by Bruno Coulais (Coraline, Henry Selick, 2009), one of the most underrated composers working today - who has created a moody, shrieking and evocative score for this film. If the film lets itself down in the final third, the score never does, and it's a shame that a soundtrack CD for this masterwork doesn't appear to be on the horizon. The problem is that the film gives up everything that it was working towards and becomes a strange drama of morals. Joséphine is rescued and Timothée sent to prison, but the film spends too long dwelling on what happened in the woods, and attempting to add some kind of leverage to the actions. It all becomes rather muddled and boring, and what I thought the film was became the centre of a pointless debate. It feels almost like an apology when really what the film needed to do was up the ante and go completely mad - reveling in the disturbance and sexual oddness. It's sad that such a confident film ends with a whimper and not a scream of rage.

Most divisive of all will be the performances. I can't really describe them in words, but Le Besco is hypnotic. Her brave performance is a physical and mental one - her body speaking a thousand words when she can't, in a state of possession. Her violently tilted neck, as if it were broken, and haunted stare into nothingness are incredibly powerful. It's unlike anything else at LFF this year and deserves to be seen by everyone. Like most films this interesting however, it probably won't be. And that's the real shame...

Saturday 23 October 2010

The Exploding Girl (Bradley Rust Grey, 2009) DVD Review

Distribution sucks. Need an example? Take The Exploding Girl, which screened at 2009's LFF to some critical acclaim and has since disappeared. It received a limited theatrical distribution in the US in March, but was generally ignored until its Region 1 DVD release a month ago... where it's small fanbase picked up a copy of the beautifully designed box art (echoing the Criterion edition of Chungking Express, Wong Kar Wai, 1994). As far as I'm aware the film still doesn't have a UK distributor and it certainly won't get a release before OSCAR season 2011. Even then, arthouse cinemas in culture based areas will be the only place it'll make money, meaning that unless you have a region free player, you won't get to see this heartfelt gem until it's Region 2 DVD release... I'll estimate it a year from this review. Meanwhile cheap Hollywood rom-coms like The Bounty Hunter (Andy Tennant, 2010) have a marketing budget as big as this entire production. It's sad that I even have to tell this story - but good that I get to promote The Exploding Girl for the next 12 months. Here we go...

Ivy (Zoe Kazan, granddaughter of Elia) is on a summer break when her friend Al (Mark Rendall) comes to stay with her. She's an epileptic and during the course of the film she must wrestle with her feelings for her distant boyfriend and her best friend. Short on plot but packing an emotional punch, The Exploding Girl could easily be shoehorned into the 'mumblecore' movement, but its quietly observational tone deserves more than a quick-fix stereotype that currently exists as a selling point in independent arenas. While it doesn't offer anything particularly new, and even lacks a narrative arc - opting rather to let days pass with no indication of time - Greys' film does offer a noteworthy departure from the mainstream, partly due to the performances of the two lead actors.

Kazan and Rendall are an extremely natural coupling. They invest the relationship with a subtlety and quietness that evokes a lifelong trust and familiarity, without shouting the obvious with broad strokes of backstory. In fact the little dialogue that is present in the film plays second fiddle to the way the actors physically perform with each other - the way they walk down the street together, pass knowing glances in social situations and acknowledge, through facial ticks, an awareness of feeling. The camera, often placed far from the action, is observational in an almost documentarian way - inviting us to share a friendship rather than asking us to buy into one and shoving cliche after cliche down our throat. There's no need for exposition or monologue when you have a scene of two friends sitting on a train, with no need to talk. They sway gently in silence as they mediate on the day, the camera placed behind an unknown character seated next to them. We only catch a glimpse of the couple as he moves forward in his chair. When the characters do speak it's in a kind of shorthand, expecting the audience to fill in the gaps of the relationship as we go along. There's a naturalness that's instantly recognizable and relatable - which proves to be the winning card in the films admirable hand.

DoP Eric Lin shoots the city with a restrained earthliness in the sense that natural light, bustling streets, shade projected by trees, litter, sun and rain are not manipulated - they are all allowed, like the characters, to simply exist for the time that we are allowed to observe them. I will reiterate a point from my Greenberg (Noah Baumbach, 2010) review - just because a film doesn't have the obvious aesthetic artistry of a painting, like Days Of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978) or Il Conformista (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970), that doesn't mean that it can't be beautiful. Context is vital and the photography of The Exploding Girl is so perfect for the particular film it exhibits, that it becomes beautiful. The still naturalness of the image - the fact that it looks exactly like the city landscapes that we inhabit - is what makes it so special, and what makes the possibly emerging romance so lovely. It could happen to you.

Some might find the films languorous pace and lack of plot frustrating - and the inconclusiveness of the ending won't do much to help matters. There's also an intentional distance in the film, perhaps holding a mirror to the way we live our own lives. Ivy and her boyfriend communicate only through telephone calls - mostly they only reach each others answering machines, enhancing the loneliness. Scenes of Ivy lay on her bed or staring into the rainy sky through a misty window, are both intimate and cold, and hold a great sadness. All she wants to do is talk to him face-to-face, but her mobile is the only source of communication. Equally all the music in the film is diegetic - existing in the world of the film through headphones to an MP3 player or a speaker in the distance. The soundtrack is brilliant, not existing to underscore the emotion or manipulate, but rather playing - much like in reality - as the background to our daily lives. It's almost like the antithesis of the musical montage.

By the time you've finished this review you've probably made your mind up as to whether you want to see the film or not, or give a damn about the fact that you probably won't get to for a year. Even though I've seen and loved the film (it's one of my favorites of 2009) I can't help but feel a tinge of sadness when I look at the gorgeous cover art - because I wish you could look at it too. Somewhere along the way the movie industry has lost faith in risk taking and thinking outside the box. And it's a real shame. This is a real gem.

DVD Extras: An interview with Kazan and Grey titled 'Crafting A Character', a music video and 1997 short film, Flutter.

Friday 22 October 2010

LFF #1: Dark Love (Antonio Capuano, 2010)

Love stories can come in many different forms and this years LFF program boasts a wealth of evidence. Whether it be the animalistic sexual obsession of Deep In The Woods (Benoît Jacquot, 2010), the teen transgender romance of Spork (JB Ghuman Jr, 2010) or the exploration of Stockholm Syndrome in In Your Hands (Lola Doillon, 2010), it seems there is an intentional ambition to pull away from convention and challenge our idea of the word and its meaning. In keeping with the theme is Antonio Capuanos' Dark Love, an Italian drama about the gang rape of a young girl and the emerging relationship that forms between victim and aggressor - him behind bars, her struggling to adjust to the world after her horrific ordeal.

Capuano himself, who was present after the screening for a Q&A session, states that the film is very much a "love story" - and this is where most of the problems lie. Although it's based on a true story, it's very hard to swallow such despicable behavior (honestly explored in films like Irréversible, Gaspar Noé, 2002) as the catalyst for a lifelong romance, especially in the glossy, sun-drenched world of Capuanos' film. He's obviously infatuated with the story but the film isn't anywhere near as romantic as the director would have us believe. For the most part the films winning aspect is the mirror held up between the characters. After the rape both Ciro (Gabriele Agrio) and Irene (Irene de Angelis) turn to the arts. Ciro channels his conflicted feelings (love, anger, regret) into poetry and Irene channels her feelings (detachment, fear, intrigue) into acting. The film balances their stories equally for the middle third and it's fascinating to see the film adopt a therapy-through-art sub-plot, meaning that even though the characters are far apart, they feel like two halves of one fractured whole. DoP Tommaso Borgstrom shoots both characters with a distinctively different style, however. Capuano told us that due to new technology he was able to "paint" the film after shooting, although to me this just seems like a pretentious way of describing colour tinting. The opening ten minutes and the colour palette of the prison are bright and glossy, painting the world Ciro inhabits as a positive place - a rehabilitation centre that, under the sweltering sun, provides salvation for the young criminal. The world Irene inhabits is a much moodier, meditative place - an existence lived out in blacks and grays, her distant stare almost as cold as the house she now feels lost in. This ability to "paint" the film is somewhat confusing. The film intentionally passes by any investigation into the crime, any court case or moral judgment of its characters - yet aesthetically it seemingly casts light over the aggressor and darkness over the victim. Perhaps my logic is twisted, but should it not be the other way around? Capuanos' film asks that we buy into a blossoming love (Ciro and Irene communicate through letters), but never positions the characters in a place that we can take the idea seriously.

All of this makes it sound like a bad film. By any stretch of the imagination, it's not - mainly because of the excellent performances by the two young actors. Agrio channels frustration, confusion and longing into Ciro with subtle strokes - a lot of the time Capuanos' camera simply observes his bruised face dealing with the situation he's in. de Angelis is the real discovery of the film, however. It's a (metaphorically, once literally) naked performance of startling power. Her vulnerability and quietness is penetrative and her long stares into the distance (pictured below) are so heartfelt you can just get lost in her eyes. These performances are what hold the film together through good and bad, until it eventually loses its way.

The final third of the film narrows its gaze towards Ciro, abandoning the reflective aspect of a dangerous relationship, and constructing an over-familiar narrative arc for the character. He's not as interesting as Irene, nor is he half as sympathetic, and on his own the film falls flat. After an incredibly energetic opening (a visual and aural assault hard to forget) the story ends with a whimper, not a bang. There's a lot to admire about the film, but there's also a lot to be wary of. If you're able to look past the moral aspect of the film, and entertain its notion of romanticism, then there's an interesting and technically marvelous film to be found. Capuano is a talented filmmaker, but one gets the feeling that with Dark Love, he's become a little lost in his own fantasy. And that's a real shame - it could have been among the best films of the year.

Irene de Angelis in Dark Love (Antonio Capuano, 2010).

Thursday 14 October 2010

Villa Amalia (Benoît Jacquot, 2009) DVD Review

Over the past few decades Isabelle Huppert has become something of an icon in French cinema. From Madame Bovary (Claude Chabrol, 1991) to Ma mère (Christophe Honoré, 2004) and beyond she has won accolades from critics and festivals (Cannes has awarded her Best Actress twice) alike. Her presence in a film automatically makes it interesting - something prolific filmmaker Benoît Jacquot understands perfectly, filling almost every frame of his film with the beautiful actress.

Adapted from the book by Pascal Quignard, Villa Amalia finds us in the same sort of territory occupied by Shirley Valentine (Lewis Gilbert, 1989) - Huppert playing Ann, a gifted musician who decides to escape after witnessing her husband with another woman. The film opens on a dark, rainy night. A P.O.V. shot from the perspective of a moving car instantly informs the tone and Caroline Champetier's (Nettoyage à sec, Anne Fontaine, 1997) beautiful yet haunted cinematography creates a suitably gloomy atmosphere. Ann approaches the house of her husbands lover, slowly, as the tension mounts. Bruno Coulais (Coraline, Henry Selick, 2009) scores the film much like a thriller; dramatic build up and sharp cut-offs informing much of the sound to Ann's deconstruction of life as she knew it. She is interrupted by Georges (Jean-Hugues Anglade), an old friend who recognizes her from afar. Before long she has decided to escape - where to doesn't matter, only that she must do it. She burns her records, throws out her clothes, sells her piano and draws the money from her bank account; Georges is, now, her only friend.

The film takes a good 45 minutes to deconstruct Ann's world - Jacquot's careful camera and the soothing piano music (played by Huppert herself, honing the skills she displayed in La pianiste, Michael Haneke, 2001) informing most of the emotion. The problem lies in the idea - although Ann is a perfectly drawn character, and Huppert plays her superbly, she's hard to warm to. This is, of course, the point - she's grown dissatisfied with life, has become distanced from the people around her and cold to the home she lives in. There are many scenes of her simply wandering the streets or a park, swimming in the pool or, as aforementioned, playing piano. These are her moments of escape, juxtaposed with the harsh scenes of her destruction-cum-therapy. The scenes work how they are supposed to, but emotional attachment becomes an issue.

Huppert is frosty and detached in the lead role; her face a blueprint of regret and disappointment. Her posture says more than her words but the delivery is perfect - every line holds a past and an uncertain future. Villa Amalia may not be a horror movie but there is something haunting about Huppert's performance - her uncertainty and depression having a damaged exterior all too recognizable to some.

Of course, Ann eventually leaves her life and ends up exploring herself in unexpected ways. To say any more would be to ruin a series of interesting and sensitive developments. What's important is how Jacquot (whose Deep In The Woods, 2010, is playing at the LFF this month) and Huppert keep us engaged in a deceptively simple tale; beautifully shot and interestingly scored. It's no masterpiece. But it is a gripping character study and a testament to the astounding talent of one of the finest actresses of our time.

Monday 11 October 2010

Greenberg (Noah Baumbach, 2010) DVD Review

"Hurt people, hurt people" - Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig).

Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) is pissed off. He's pissed off at Starbucks, The L.A. Times, Pet Taxis and most of all himself. He's recovering from a midlife crisis at his brothers house and, like most of Baumbach's intellectual whiners, his crisis isn't totally over. While trying to reconnect with old friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans) he also forms an awkward relationship with housekeeper Florence... and realises that at 40, he's nowhere he wants to be. And it's marvelous.

Whereas The Squid And The Whale (2005) and Margot At The Wedding (2007) focused on conflicts within families (husband vs. wife and sister vs. sister respectively), Greenberg is much more focused on singular characters. In the hands of a lesser writer/director the focus would have been on Greenberg and Florence would have been ham-fistedly introduced as a redemptive love interest. But in the hands of Baumbach she becomes as well developed as Greenberg himself, who actually appears as a secondary character; the first (largely silent) ten minutes having been spent on Florence. The attention to detail and care taken with crafting each character is what makes Greenberg shine. Every declaration of love, hate, regret, anxiety and selfishness is real. Many have a problem with liking the characters in Noah Baumbach movies and it's true that he doesn't always draw them with a silver lining. But that's life. Greenberg is self-absorbed and pissed off at the world - but he's also trying, against the odds, to make things work. Whether you like them or not (and I'm not convinced it matters) the characters are always interesting; their dialogue naturalistic, beautiful and hurtful - sometimes in the same scene. There are several moments of intensely emotional awkwardness which some may find uncomfortable. But to me, that's just Baumbach on good form.

Edging away from the white-washed, Rohmer-inspired tones of Margot At The Wedding, Greenberg is shot by master DoP Harris Savides (Zodiac, David Fincher, 2007) who softens the blow of bustling L.A. by restraining the colour and isolating Greenberg's world. If Margot At The Wedding was foggy, Greenberg is misty - making the future of the character all the more uncertain and engaging. It may not be a film people describe as "beautiful", but that word now seems to be taken on in a classical, Malick-like sense. But in a way Greenberg is beautiful - because it's photography is so perfect for the material it serves.

Greta Gerwig is phenomenal as Florence. Always likable and always real, Gerwig infuses her with an energy and an unhappiness that manifests itself in everything from her body language to her vocal tones. It's an incredibly natural performance, sympathetic but never manipulative and her restrained sadness is made all the more powerful by the way Greenberg mentally (and unknowingly) abuses her. Rhys Ifans provides brilliant support but the real star here is, of course, Ben Stiller. Exploring territory that he hasn't felt for a long time, the comedian reigns in everything he's famous for and turns out a greying, nervous, angry performance; equally wanting and resenting love. He's selfish and obnoxious, but we get the sense that it's not his fault. Stiller installs a warmth to a cold character and ensures that even when we're annoyed at him, we are engaged by him. It's unlike anything else he's ever done and is, quite frankly, OSCAR worthy.

It won't be for everyone but Greenberg is another masterpiece from one of the smartest writer/directors working today. And honestly, we need him more than ever.

Sunday 10 October 2010

A Week At The London Film Festival

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)
It's Monday 4th October. The week holds fifteen screenings of as-yet unreleased films - some will see the light of day in your local cinema, some will not. I collected my press pass from the opening to the NFT1 and headed into It's Kind Of A Funny Story (Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, 2010), a nice and lightweight way to start the festival. Around 50 minutes in the guy behind me was snoring, but it didn't matter. This was the moment I'd been building up to for years. I came out of the film wide-eyed and refreshed (it was a funny and life affirming film, which helped) - by the end of the week, I was considerably more tired and bedraggled. But I'd seen some magical films. This article (a few days late and admittedly rushed) will highlight four films out of the fifteen I saw. Four films you need in your life... when they get released of course.

1.) Waste Land (Lucy Walker, 2009)
Waste Land, the new documentary from acclaimed filmmaker Lucy Walker (who started out on kids TV show Blue's Clues, 1996-2001) quickly ran away with my heart and the honour of being the "best film of the festival" - of course, I still have three weeks to go. It follows Brazilian-born artist Vik Muniz as he travels to Jardim Gramacho, the biggest landfill site in the world. There he proposes a unique opportunity - he will create portraits of the workers at the site, sell the work, and the money he makes will go back to the people in order to improve their way of life - a life that brings happiness and sadness equally to the community. Some are proud of their life as 'pickers', declaring it a "noble profession". Others see it as a go-nowhere pit - a place to end up when all other options in life dry up. With a non-judgmental and kind-hearted spirit, the film always feels like an honest portrait of life in what is, fairly, a slum. People here speak their mind and their views, positive or negative, are not edited. Walker and Muniz observe the people and the film evolves emotionally as we warm to them and the project. It helps that Muniz himself is a kind spirit who grew up on the same streets... and now his genuis (and he is a genuis) is going to help clean them up. The final scenes of the auction, the visit to the Museum Of Modern Art, and the delivery of portraits to Gramacho are incredibly moving. Indeed, amid the constant laughter and warmth of the film I cried not once, not twice - but three times. With a soundtrack by Moby, this is a beautiful film about beautiful people... and the one man who cared enough to let these people help themselves - as human beings and artists.

2.) Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)
Winner of the Palme D'or at the Cannes Film Festival, this human epic should, if there's any justice in the world, go on to win the Best Foreign Film OSCAR at the 2011 ceremony. As the press notes declare, there really are things in this film that you've never seen before - themes that expand beyond life and death; questions arisen through symbols that propel you into universes - the visual language of Weerasethakul's cinema is extraordinarily assured, personal and poetic. He's proven himself to be an artist of unmatched excellence and honesty. It's a deeply spiritual film; an existential film that explores the literal and metaphorical boundaries between the worlds of life and death. As Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) nears his final hours these worlds mesh in astonishingly powerful ways. The photography and lack of score (naturalistic sounds inform the mood) draw you into the world of the film and as the story unfolds, you become hypnotized by the way men, animals and spirits collide. The scene with the catfish will leave some laughing, some scratching their heads and some crying. It left me in awe, its tranquil philosophizing having an almost religious quality. As the film slowly heads into the dark, deep and dank caverns of death the film only becomes more confusing, life-affirming and beautiful. By the time the reflective final scene had concluded and the pop soundtrack had kicked in I was left bewildered. It's not perfect, but at the same time it is... and when you see the film, you'll understand that perfectly.

3.) Self Made (Gillian Wearing, 2010)
Grotesque theatre meets performance art in this fascinating and powerful documentary. The idea could be indulgent - artist Gillian Wearing placed an ad in newspapers, online and in job centers calling for volunteers to take part in an experiment. The ad read: 'If you were to play a part in a film, would you be yourself or a fictional character?' Seven people were chosen to take part in the events that were filmed and indulgent is the last thing it turned out to be. Much like Waste Land, the beauty of the film lies in the respect and non-judgmental honesty the filmmakers bestow upon their volunteers. The idea slowly becomes something more; each of the volunteers has a troubled past - a memory or a person they find it difficult attaching themselves to. Slowly the film develops into therapy through 'The Method' - a style of acting that demands the channeling of life experiences into a character. It doesn't patronize or edit anyone and at times the film can conjure an almost religious quality - Ash imagining himself in the bathwater being an oddly affecting example. Shocking, funny and human, Self Made explores the dark side of human nature and what it takes to push us over the edge and actually just... feel something. Watching the volunteers confront their pasts, their fears, their loves and losses is a moving experience and the short films they produce are both works of art and lonely confessions. Hard-hitting and brilliant; Ash's film will leave you breathless with shock.

4.) Meek's Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2010)
A good Western is hard to come by these days. Not because the quality has dropped - Open Range (Kevin Costner, 2003), The Proposition (John Hillcoat, 2005) and The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007) are all outstanding - but because there are so few of them. We're lucky if we see one a year. But somehow they're always worth waiting for. Westerns are now an open canvas on which to paint existentialist and elegiac stories of life and death; explorations of identity - both personal and communal. Much like the extraordinary Seraphim Falls (David Von Ancken, 2006), Meek's Cutoff takes the personal route - channeling Malick and Tarkovsky in its approach to minimalist beauty exploring place and person. Reichardt is no stranger to slow cinema (see Wendy And Lucy, 2008) but this takes things to whole new levels. Silent for at least half of the running time, the film picks up a band of travelers and their suspect guide named Meek (Bruce Greenwood) without any explanation of how they got there. Slowly, as they appear more and more lost, relationships begin to break down and trust is lost. With the arrival of The Cayuse (Rod Rondeaux) the group become more tired and thirsty... and violent. The ending is one of the best in recent years - with the blind leading the blind, Meek ends the film on a perfectly ambiguous note, not far from where we started. "I'm following you now" - the possibilities are endless.

Saturday 9 October 2010

Frozen (Adam Green, 2010) DVD Review

It's an easy sell. Open Water (Chris Kentis, 2003) in a ski-lift? Hitchcock does the Himalayas? Alive (Frank Marshall, 1993) channeled through Cube (Vincenzo Natali, 1997)? None of these do proper justice to Frozen, the claustrophobic chiller from Hatchet (2006) director Adam Green, but all of them perfectly synopsize the thrill-ride delivered by the rising horror star. A group of friends (best buddies and one of their girlfriends) go skiing and get stuck in a lift in the dead of night - wolves circle below and nobody is coming back for a week. From the first P.O.V. shot staring at the cold drop vertigo shoots through the viewers veins - it's going to be tough.

Dan (Kevin Zegers) is the popular guy who regularly goes skiing with the more geeky charmer Joe (Shawn Ashmore) who feels uncomfortable this year as Dan's annoying new girlfriend Parker (Emma Bell) is along for the ride. The first 20 minutes unfold these characters and exposes cracks in each relationship - and gives each of them a reason to feel uneasy with the other in enclosed circumstances. It may have been better to forget all of this and just strand the characters - much like the recent Buried (Rodrigo Cortés, 2010) the film may have benefitted from trapping us straight into the horror, with no reason or explanation (because the one on offer here is so contrived and clunky you can practically hear the plot gears shifting). Initially all of the characters prove a little childish and spoilt - their bickering and sly asides make it difficult to imagine why we should feel for them in the coming hour. But therein lies the beauty of Green's screenplay. From the second the ski-lift stops fear begins to drip off of every frame. The tension begins to ratchet up as the lights go out and the characters realise that they are not alone. They quickly form a tight unison - out goes the bickering and in comes the situation solving. A lesser writer/director would have emphasized the squabble and informed the action through pre-established motives. But what Green understands is that the only motive is escape - and they can only achieve that together. To say any more of the plot would really be to spoil a tight and exciting thriller - but the first catastrophe strikes an especially brutal blow...

Dan realises that help won't be coming to them anytime soon - so he must go and find help himself. He thinks he can make the drop but doesn't count on his body having gone numb. He jumps the steep drop and plummets through the razor-like air. Landing straight on his feet his legs break and his bones shoot straight through his knees. It's a gut wrenching moment that will have your stomach churning and your heart in your mouth. Joe and Parker attempt to help from above but the circling wolves (much like that shark in Open Water) are getting ever-closer and the clouds are obscuring the light of the moon.

Green keeps the action close and develops the relationships in a believable if predictable way; even when he's treading overly-familiar territory the 89 minute film keeps our attention. Thumping drum beats and soft piano can often sentimentalize or soften the blow of a scene - it may have played out much better in complete, desolate silence - but there isn't a moment that goes by where the established tone and atmosphere is lost. Ice melts and re-freezes as day passes and creeps back into night... as the situation grows bleaker and the stakes rise the film becomes even more gripping. It's not perfect, but it is hugely exciting and occasionally wince inducing (minor details like the loss of a glove will later lead to a horrifying wake-up call) and deserves to be seen by everyone... strap yourself in.

Mother (Boon Jong-ho, 2009) DVD Review

Full review at