Category Film Review

It Chooses You – A Film Review of ‘The Future’

Poster for The Future

I’ve recently developed this habit of examining the hands of the elderly. The protruding veins, the dark skin spots, and every other mark that signifies the passage of time through age, and it has me perturbed. What’s most disconcerting about my new hobby is the constant reminder that I am only here (insert thirty-something existential hipster angst) and they are there (insert the future), and I have no idea what’s going to happen in between. According to Miranda July, I am only at the beginning.

July’s latest film, The Future (2011), brings this angst to the screen through a thoughtful depiction of the “life has to be more than this” plague of my generation. Bordering on the surreal in execution but rooted in emotional realism, with a clever script, to boot, July’s film seeks to uncover the answers we all yearn for: what’s my purpose in life, why am I here, and how can I make my mark?

In The Future, L.A couple Jason (Hamish Linklater) and Sophie (Miranda July) are on the verge of a life-altering endeavor. The couple – who share the same haircut, the same lulling intonation, and the same fear of commitment – decide to take the plunge on Paw Paw, a terminally ill cat who requires nursing for the last six months of his life. The rude awakening for Jason and Sophie comes when they are informed that the projected six months that Paw Paw has left is the minimum life span. The faceless cat, sequestered to a “cageatorium” while he waits for his new home, might actually live for the next five years depending on how much they love it. The possibility of the later death date becomes the catalyst for Jason and Sophie’s sudden meltdown, and introduces the element of time as a central focal point for the film. The calculations begin as the couple piles up the remaining golden years of their youth against their accomplishments thus far in the mediocre lives they have built. Together they decide to take the following 30 days to find meaning and seek fulfillment without any external influences. They decide to let it (life) choose them and remain alert to all signs pointing them in any direction.

While Jason assumes the rational approach to finding the meaning of life through a “fulfilling” job, Sophie’s path is more chaotic. Her efforts to create something new and fantastic are met with a familiar, demoralizing procrastination. In what is surely a statement on the post-modern obsession with the self and individualism, Sophie becomes transfixed by her colleague’s YouTube dance video, disabling her from creating anything original of her own.  The choice to curtail Sophie’s effort for self-discovery within her current environment is in keeping with the auteur’s offbeat oeuvre. Fragile, insecure, and inadequate Sophie is transplanted into a life where nothing is expected of her except desirability, pointing to the artifice of the picture-perfect life on the other side of that grass.

There is a polarizing point in the film where fans who applaud July’s lean toward the quirky left will be elated with her surreal representation of the couple’s struggle. Those who have difficulty with enduring the bizarre will surely walk away. What is certain is that somewhere in the middle everyone can relate to a film that weaves together imagination with finding your place in this world. Most importantly, as her followers can attest, when Miranda July stops time, we need to listen.

Dance of Death – A Film Review of Melancholia

Dance of Death – A Film Review of Melancholia

There are no guns in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. There are no tanks, or nuclear bombs – just humans, and their immaterial battle for life. It seems befitting that a film exploring isolation, internal darkness and the weighted feeling of not belonging in the world would be bracketed within a story about the end of it. A disaster film that takes mental illness head on? Or a film about mental illness set under the pretence of imminent disaster? I’ll stand by either contention, especially when the film in question is Melancholia, crafted by the controversial director Lars von Trier. Preceded by his 2009 film Antichrist, Melancholia is his second unofficial entry into what could likely become his trilogy of “Grief, Pain, and Despair”. Stemming from the director’s own battle with a deep depression Antichrist and Melancholia share a lifeline that seeks to excavate the profound, the difficult, and the complexities of human suffering as related to psychosis.

As similarly executed in Antichrist, the prelude to Melancholia is bathed in cinematic eloquence, forming the summation of the events about to transpire as well as the link to the subconscious of the film. Comprising the first 8 minutes, each sequence presents slow motion images of agony, beauty, and symmetry, all contained within a suffocating stillness. Lush and luxurious greens are juxtaposed against what resembles a world without oxygen. Extended over the soundtrack to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde III, this is Lars von Trier at his best.

Countering the baroque introduction is the banality of the first scene where we meet the main character Justine (Kirsten Dunst) who is stuck in a limo on the way to her wedding reception. It is supposed to be the happiest day of her life, at least, that is what everyone around her wants it to be. Set against the macro destruction of the world at the hand of blue planet Melancholia, the micro struggle of Justine occupies the first half of the film building the case for von Trier as a sensitive filmmaker intent on justifying emotional disorder. As Justine trudges through her wedding night, much to the chagrin of her whole family, her polarity between delicious highs and devastating lows sheds a realistic light on a woman coming undone. Shot predominantly in a handheld style, von Trier embodies in Justine the emotional, physical and social facets of self-destruction. Justine’s sorrow is inferred through everyone else’s insensitivity towards it. Her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsburg) is her only support.

Melancholia’s duality comes into effect in part two: Claire’s half of the film. The disintegration of Justine’s mind is halted and the power struggle shifts as catastrophe draws near. She grows stronger and Claire tumbles into a frantic state. Where the former has faced death, the latter is only just meeting it. Gainsbourg, who was the tour de force in Antichrist, brings an innocence to Claire as the helpless and naïve caregiver who seeks a “nice” ending to the planet’s explosion. Awarded the Best Actress prize at Cannes, Dunst’s performance here as the transformative weak and dependant patient to authoritative and almighty savant is a testament to the film’s power. The path of destruction for all of human kind is Justine’s saving grace, as von Trier uses the approaching Melancholia to repair her fractured state.

Von Trier who was  accused of misogynist filmmaking with Antichrist, has done the contrary here. In Melancholia it is the female characters that demonstrate courage and emotional strength in the face of adversity. And when that adversity is the end of the world, I can only trust that he believes we can handle it.

Christina Stimpson

You Point, I’ll Drive – A film review of ‘Beginners’

Beginners film poster

After my grandmother died, I went through a phase where I needed to devour all vintage photographs of my family. From weddings in 1938 to gaudy Christmases in 1965, each found in an old trunk or stuffed into a shoebox was treated as treasure and as evidence. I needed them as proof of an existence that predated my life. “This is what my family looked like” was often what would come to mind when I would peruse through my growing collection. I heard similar words and witnessed familiar images in Mike Mills latest film Beginners (2010), which echoes the need to understand how linage in relation to its place in history can shape your personality and life course.

Exploring sexuality, mortality, and decision, Beginners tells the story of the Fields family through the consciousness of Oliver, played by Ewan McGregor. We first see Oliver as he completes the daunting task of rifling through papers, flushing meds, and packing boxes, searching for a decent way to preserve or destroy each of his father’s possessions after his death. Except for a scruffy Jack Russell named Arthur, Oliver is now the sole survivor of his small family.  He is essentially alone. Whether ignited by loneliness or through the onset of a delicate relationship with French actress Anna (Mélaine Laurent), Oliver’s introspection begins.

Non-linear in composition and adorably quirky, the film lapses back and forth between memory and reality using illustration and photographic montage to underline the narrative in its most genuine skin. Visual documentation, such as family photographs and kitschy 1950s adverts provide emphasis for the historical reference needed to understand how Oliver relates to the world. Mills implements narration as the guiding tool through the critical points of Oliver’s upbringing–and the events preceding his father’s death. As Oliver’s self examination begins, so does the retrospective of his father Hal, played with great charm by Christopher Plummer. Inspired by the story of Mills’ own father, Hal uses the death of his wife of 44 years to wipe the slate clean. Dressed in pajamas or a purple v-neck (Oliver can’t recall), Hal announces to his son that he is gay and is anxious to discover “what’s out there.” Oliver becomes witness to his transformation, as Hal discovers house music, becomes an activist in the community, and consumes every bit of his new lifestyle with a joyous fervor. Tangentially, father and son experience a closeness neither of them has known as Hal contributes perspective on Oliver’s failed attempts at love. My only criticism would be in describing the latter half of Anna and Oliver’s relationship. I felt Mills’ succumb to a ‘boy meets girl’ romantic formula too easily. With a script so earnest in exposing sacrifice, how decisions affect our life, and how bonds can be formed or broken, I would have appreciated the same authenticity with Anna and Oliver for the full duration of the film, yet felt it was solely maintained in the father and son interactions.

In a feeble, yet romantic attempt at a first date, Oliver and Anna, get into his car with no destination. “You point, I’ll drive,” he says to her. As the film progresses we learn that these words and much of Oliver’s nature stems from time spent with his mother. It is subtle, but a prime example of how Mills’ convincing script is powerful in its ability to capture the essence of what we unconsciously absorb from our loved ones.

– Christina Stimpson

But the Girl is Safe – A film review of ‘Drive’

But the Girl is Safe - A film review of 'Drive'

There is a defining moment in Drive, when Ryan Gosling stops smiling. The subtle change from soft-hearted mechanic to vigilante protector and maker-of-all-things-right creeps in and marks the point of decent into violence for this leading character, whose only motivation is to protect the woman and child he loves, but hardly knows.

Based on the novel by James Sallis and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, the opening teaser of Drive could play as a short film in itself. Here, Gosling’s character “Driver” is introduced as a lone wolf, contracted to drive get-away cars for L.A underworld heists. “Driver” is dangerously serious, smooth, and in total control for the 5 minutes that he is employed in the racket. Any time either side of that, he declares independence and lives a simple withdrawn life as a stunt car driver for Hollywood films. That is until he meets “Irene”, his point of obsession played exceptionally by the great Carey Mulligan. The genuine interplay between “Driver” and “Irene” would otherwise be misplaced in an action film. They hardly converse, preferring to hold each other’s gaze and smile bashfully until they come to the reality of the awkward moment. The distinction here is Refn’s choice to opt out of the conventional shot sequence between these two characters, and employ a type of long take, letting the camera linger on their interactions to the breaking point. These soft moments, create the backbone of the film and are pivotal in grounding Gosling’s character as a human before he transcends into monster-vigilante hero.

At the very minimum Drive is about car chases. Refn, whose previous films include Valhalla Rising (2009) and Bronson (2009), favors the exchange of visual language over dialogue, in what is Drive’s 86 page script. At its fruition, the film relies heavily on the core performance of its small cast, and succeeds in producing a cohesive work of art from a pastiche of genres. Borrowing style and pacing from film noir, and using the framework of a classic one last heist story, what emerges is a genuine love story between two unlikely neighbors that tugs at your heartstrings when it all goes wrong.

Outside the parenthesis of the “Driver” and “Irene” love story, tragedy ensues. Cloaked in a euro trashy white silk bomber jacket with an emblematic gold scorpion covering his back, Driver sets out on his path of revenge to make things right, return the loot to its rightful owner and get ‘out of it’ for good.

His vengeful actions are presented in extreme violence, without limit for gruesome details, the type where you might actually need to look away. Yet, at no time, is Gosling’s “Driver” out of control. Each violent act is lean, and premeditated to have a beginning, middle and an end and is contained through his will to be protector. Before and after each violent act, is a tormented soul that weighs the guilt of letting a situation spiral out of control.

The heartbeat of the film, provided by Cliff Martinez curated soundtrack, runs an unequalled parallel to the depth of the character’s, the intensity put forth, and the ethereal vision that Refn has accomplished.

Christina

Film Review: The Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Cave of Forgotten Dreams
AP Photo/IFC Films, Marc Valesella

A cautious warning is always given to the younger generation: learn from the past to not repeat its mistakes. This is the treasure Werner Herzog has brought to us in his recent film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. In an expressive exposition of cinema vérité, Herzog has taken cameras, both 3-D and regular, to the Chauvet Cave. The explorers discovered the cave in 1994 in the Rhône-Alpes region of France. The paintings in this cave are anywhere from 32,000 to 20,000 years old and have only been seen, in person, by several handfuls of people over the past 20,000 years. No tours are allowed. Nobody can step on the ground. Nobody touches the paintings. Nobody can venture into entire regions of the cave.

To that extent, the cave has remained as untouched as it was found. Locked away by the French government since its discovery, Herzog is the only filmmaker to ever step inside the cave. In terms of equipment, making a typical documentary in this sort of environment borders on impossible. Unable to leave the meticulously laid steel walkway, the filmmakers cannot avoid being a part of the film. In exploring a cave filled with paintings that already feel iconic, Herzog’s film crew are half adventurers and half chroniclers. Their task is to bring the cave out of the cave. Accompanied by the only tour guides capable of handling this task, the filmmakers voyage into the south of France to reveal humanity before recorded time. Herzog says it best: “I’m doing my best to present the cave as it is to the world…I’ve realized when I see the film with audiences that nobody speaks about having seen a film. They all speak of having been in a cave.” Too true.

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Film Review: Mulholland Drive

Film Review: Mulholland Drive

Sometimes I can be a little slow on the uptake pertaining to certain movies or music. It happens to everyone, there’s just not enough time in the world to see and hear and everything. But there are a certain number of films/albums that are generally considered to be classics, things you really should see before it’s too late, and I think most fans of film would put Mulholland Drive near the top of that list. I never had anything against it, just never had a burning desire to see it. Lately though, Kyle and I have started watching Twin Peaks, another Lynch classic that neither of us had seen (I was 8, Kyle was 4). But he’s a huge fan of Mulholland Drive, and his enthusiasm got me excited for it.

I really didn’t know what to expect of the movie. From the two episodes of Twin Peaks that I’ve seen, I knew it would be weird in the best ways. David Lynch is phenomenal and being just weird enough that it feels like it doesn’t drift into absurd, or at least not that I’ve seen so far. Mulholland Drive takes a similar cue that Twin Peaks does, the idea of an ideal, pristine life, that in all reality, is a fucked up mess. If you haven’t seen the movie, don’t read any further, here’s where get into the nitty gritty.

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Spirited Away

spirited away

My first experience of Hayao Miyazaki did not leave the best of impressions. Clicking through the English-language television channels as a kid in Hong Kong, I happened to switch onto My Neighbour Totoro (1988) at the exact moment when Totoro lets out a massive howl that echoes through the surrounding forest. I was baffled to say the least. And then I was confronted with something even more horrifying: the dubbed dialogue. Deciding that I had seen more than enough, it was not until around twenty years later that I voraciously consumed as many Miyazaki films as I could get my hands on. Choosing just one to write on is difficult (I would recommend almost his entire body of work); however, there is something about Spirited Away (2001) that I find consistently appealing.

Logic is using the front part of the brain, that’s all. But you can’t make a film with logic. Or if you look at it differently, everybody can make a film with logic. But my way is to not use logic. I try to dig deep into the well of my subconscious. At a certain moment in that process, the lid is opened and very different ideas and visions are liberated. With those I can start making a film.

– Hayao Miyazaki

Following the adventures of a young girl, Chihiro, who is unwittingly drawn into a parallel spirit world, Spirited Away is exemplary of the themes and motifs that run through all of Miyazaki’s films, especially the filtering of perception through a childlike perspective. However, this perspective is not only aimed at drawing in young audiences, but also adult viewers. Unlike the Disney animation films that I grew up watching, Miyazaki truly taps into the child’s psyche without relying on clichés or masking harsher aspects of life. Indeed, there are moments in Spirited Away – such as when Chihiro’s parents are transformed into pigs and the presence of a “stink spirit” in the palatial bathhouse – that would be unnerving for some younger viewers.

The beauty within Spirited Away – as in all of Miyazaki’s films – is not only found within the narrative, but the very structure and aesthetics of the animation. In contrast to conventional animation, Miyazaki’s work adopts a flowing, painterly style that appears like a moving watercolour and particularly provides the representation of the spirit world in Spirited Away with a gorgeously vaporous quality. On another level, it also visually signals the fantasy space that Miyazaki creates in the film that serves as a counterpoint to the seemingly banal realities of the everyday life that Chihiro takes for granted.

The serious coming-of-age narrative that stems from Chihiro’s encounters in the film’s fantasy space intriguingly runs alongside environmental and moral concerns that are manifest in the sub-themes of pollution, power and greed. Thankfully, these ideas do not overwhelm the viewer or result in didactic overtones, but enhance the nostalgic thread that is woven into the film. If you haven’t seen Spirited Away, I definitely suggest that you do. Just be wary of any hideous dubbing.

Danica

Éric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales

six moral tales

Although Éric Rohmer is sometimes rather unfortunately overlooked in favour of his contemporaries within the French New Wave, he is perhaps the one auteur from the period who maintained a distinct style and thematic approach to filmmaking across his career. While Jean-Luc Godard became increasingly political and iconoclastic as his career progressed and François Truffaut moved between genres, Rohmer’s commitment to a series of films – under the collective title of the Six Moral Tales – presented film viewers with an individual cinematic treatise on relationships by gravitating around the themes of desire and morality.

I thought audiences and producers would be more likely to accept my idea in this form than in another. Instead of asking myself what subjects were most likely to appeal to audiences. I persuaded myself that the best thing would be to treat the same subject six times over. In the hope that by the sixth time the audience would come to me.
– Éric Rohmer

Composed of six films – The Bakery Girl of Monceau (1962), Suzanne’s Career (1963), My Night at Maud’s (1969), La Collectionneuse (1967), Claire’s Knee (1970) and Love in the Afternoon (1972) – the Six Moral Tales all replay the same narrative conceit that portrays a married or committed man’s reaction to sexual temptation. The individual results are varied (his 1962 and 1963 short films are generally regarded as inferior); however, they collectively reveal a consistent thematic vision. With their naturalistic filming style and introspective, highly intellectual dialogue, they could easily be passed off as banal in some scenes and overbearingly didactic in others. This, thankfully, is not the case.

It is the notable addition of director of photography Néstor Almendros, who was responsible for the cinematography of all of the films from La Collectionneuse onwards, who instills the Six Moral Tales with a restrained and elegant sensuality. The sight of a young girl’s knee, bent as she climbs a ladder, inspires lust in Claire’s Knee, the tanned curves of the provocative Haydée arouses both desire and repulsion in La Collectionneuse, and the problematics of negotiating sexual passion in the face of conservative religious values is at the forefront of My Night at Maud’s. These gestures and dilemmas enliven Rohmer’s loquacious scripts with a subtle eroticism.

Indeed, it is the quiet and gentle eroticism of Rohmer’s cycle, which creates a tension with the underlying ideas of morality, that make the Six Moral Tales such compelling viewing. Although more than 30 years have passed since the films were released within a particular social period that harboured specific ideals, Rohmer’s films still resonate today. If only desire was still portrayed so eloquently.

Danica

Somewhere

somewhere

The other night I happened to catch the ending of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003) on television. Although I have watched this film many times, I still found the final moment between Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson touching. The poignancy of their goodbye, which signals the possibility of unexpected connection, is likely to tug at the heart strings of even the most anti-Sofia Coppola filmgoer. I am sure that you are aware of the group of detractors that I am referring to: the people that claim that her films are boring, rely on hollow aesthetics over plot or character development and are exercises in self-indulgence. However, when Somewhere was released at the end of 2010, it seemed that even fans of Coppola’s style were echoing these sentiments. Unfortunately, Somewhere was a blink and you’ll miss it affair at cinemas in my area, so I was only recently able to come to my own conclusions.

I wanted the film to be really naturalistic and the whole thing to be really minimal, and see how simply we could tell this story visually to not be aware of the camera, so you felt like you’re really alone with this guy, to make it as intimate as possible…I mean, even for me, the beginning [making circles with the Ferrari] is uncomfortable to watch, because it’s like, “ok he’s going to do it one more time,” but it tells the audience: “you know, if it’s not for you, you can leave right now, or you’re going to have to get with the pacing of it.” It makes you have to shift, so you’re used to being stimulated, and shift into this more introspective mood.
-Sofia Coppola

To provide the sketchiest of outlines: Somewhere provides an insight into the empty existence of a film star (Stephen Dorff) and the manner in which his life is subtly transformed when his daughter (Elle Fanning) comes to stay with him indefinitely. He lives in the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, fills his time with meaningless sexual encounters and is characterised by rootlessness and ennui. The opening scene, which Coppola refers to in the above quote, serves as a visual metaphor for the entire film, which is replete with long takes that remain focused on mundane moments for achingly extended time periods. With this technique Coppola interpellates the interior life of Dorff’s character with the viewer’s experience in a conceptual move that attempts to cinematically convey his emotional state. But does it make for good viewing?

This question is, for me, the main one that arises from a viewing of Somewhere. In her previous films Coppola exhibits an uncanny knack for making the banal visually interesting. However, the overtly feminine aesthetics of The Virgin Suicides (1999), Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette (2006) are notably missing here, because – lets be frank – the life of Dorff’s character is pretty ugly. You only have to watch the scene featuring the pole-dancing twins to be overwhelmed with a feeling of grotesque boredom and hopelessness. To her credit, Coppola offsets this tone with the sequences that frame the slowly blossoming relationship between Dorff and Fanning, but, in its devotion to naturalism, Somewhere can at times makes the viewer feel as though they are watching an unedited portion of reality television.

If anything, the main complaint that can be directed at this film is that the concept has overshadowed the execution. That being said, there are a handful of moments that make this film worth viewing (the underwater tea party scene, in particular, is delightful). Just don’t expect “classic” Coppola – the “somewhere” of this film is way beyond the scope of that terrain.

Danica

Howl

Howl

Like many unsuspecting film viewers, I incorrectly assumed that Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Howl (2010) would be a biopic. However, this film is not strictly about Beat generation poet Allen Ginsberg, but is rather concerned with narrating and exploring the poem itself – a cinematic approach that has spawned a relatively innovative genre that Epstein and Friedman refer to as “a poem pic.” Given that poetry is a highly visual form of writing, which often relies on the evocation of imagery to communicate meaning, the relationship between cinema and poetry is certainly fruitful grounds for discovery.

We didn’t think of it as a translation, we thought of it as an adaptation, the way you would adapt a novel. And that’s just one part of it, the animation. The poem lives in several different ways in the film. It lives as performance art, because it was the first spoken word performance art, as the first poetry slam, and it exists as evidence in the court room when people are trying to understand it. So we felt that we were presenting it in enough different ways that the audience would be able to understand it in the way that was most comfortable for them.
– Jeffrey Friedman

Documenting the genesis of Howl and Other Poems, its influential first performance at the Six Gallery reading in 1955, the notorious obscenity trial that it instigated in 1957 and fragments of Ginsberg’s life, Howl possesses the fractured, dissonant rhythm that largely defined the diverse genres involved in the counterculture movement of the Beat generation. The film is presented through different visual registers that juxtapose recreated interviews with Ginsberg (James Franco), scenes from the trial that present dialogue that is taken directly from the court transcripts, black and white scenes that imagine Ginsberg’s personal life and animated sequences that enact the lines of his famous poem. Collectively, the editing and structure take on a form that is reminiscent of free association poetry and jazz, shifting between different temporalities and spaces.

The interview scenes possess a documentary feel that is complemented by the insertion of newspaper clippings, providing the film with a factual tone. And it is the slippage between documentary-style factuality, fiction and poetry that gives Howl its resonance. The manner in which Epstein and Friedman have interwoven poetry into the structure of the film is admirable. For, more than anything, Howl demonstrates the possibilities of experimentation within the film medium. However, this innovation is also at the crux of what I found problematic about the film.

I know that a number of people will disagree with me, but I think Howl is somewhat of a hollow shell. Although the technical quirks and stylistic mannerisms of the film are brilliant, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of style over substance. The animated sequences in particular don’t particularly work and often appear as an unnecessary distraction from the power of Ginsberg’s words. I was left with the overall sentiment that while the film is good, it could have been much better. Notably, there is a line in one of the trial scenes in which a witness claims that, “You can’t translate a poem into prose.” Howl proves that you can translate a poem into cinema, but you may lose something along the way.

Danica