Sonntag, 31. August 2014

Venice Film Festival: 3 coeurs (Three Hearts)

French director Benoît Jacquot's "3 coeurs (Three Hearts)" is an imperfectly conceived but mightily directed, superbly performed drama d'amour. The plot construct is light: a man and a woman lose sight of each other after a chaste but impassioned chance encounter, only for the man to later meet and marry the sister of the possible love of his life by accident. A major failing of the film, in fact, lies in the question whether such an innocent secret from a random episode in life justifies the thunderous emotional grandstand that follows.

On the other hand, it plays exactly to the strength of the French to explore the far reaches of the human mindscape, to probe those quietest of feelings we don't know how to articulate, aren't even sure of. Watching the characters delight in, struggle against and hurt under invisible excitements and devastations wordlessly but eloquently, you see this is the people possibly equipped with the most advanced inner sensory technology. This couldn't be realized cinematically, of course, without empathetic performers, and all three principal actors here excel. Benoît Poelvoorde recovers from the other, disposable competition entry "La rançon de la gloire (The Price of Fame)" to deliver a raw and sensitive performance, registering all the primal urges rushing through the mind of an unintentional cheater. Chiara Mastroianni looks splendid and imbues her character's vulnerable nature with detailed shades of color. And then there's Charlotte Gainsbourg with her strong eyebrows and masculine nose, effortless charm and delicate femininity, once again radiating both rebellion and fragility with those soulful, utterly unreadable glances. Hers is a Frenchness to die for. In a limited role, Catherine Deneuve eats and smokes her way through the film and remains a formidable presence the way only Catherine Deneuve can.

There are a couple of abrupt voice-over expositions that are pretty problematic and the droning, darkly ominous score dictates rather too bossily the tone of the scenes, exacerbating the impression of over-dramatization. On the whole, however, it's an engrossing, technically superior film that reminds you how thrilling it is to find such intimate workings of the heart mapped out on the big screen.

Venice Film Festival: Manglehorn / She's Funny That Way

American director David Gordon Green's "Manglehorn" is a rambling, inconsequential, flat out uninteresting character study of an aged locksmith. Said character pines constantly for a lost love, leads an otherwise harmless if sheltered life but could turn obnoxious when family shows up for help. Through a densely written but drearily inexpressive script we don't get to learn much more about him through the course of the film, seeing how thinly his personality is sketched out and how poorly his motivations, or the change thereof, communicated. Al Pacino mumbles, rants, acts up the misanthropic type but can't elevate the material or bring us to care. Poor Holly Hunter is wasted in the thankless role of a lovestruck bank employee. The scene of their unromantic first date doesn't feel revelatory but strained and derivative. The supposedly life-affirming ending rather just sends the eyes rolling.

There's a serious Woody Allen vibe going on in American writer/director Peter Bogdanovich's relationship comedy "She's Funny That Way". Neurotic, manically wordy, sweetly contrived, it's an endearing crowdpleaser with some memorably hilarious bits. The bubbly script cooks up scenarios where a group of fiery characters are set on collision course with predictably disastrous results, which are genuinely amusing to watch especially when there's such comedic gold as Jennifer Aniston, Rhys Ifans or even, in a cameo appearance, Lucy Punch in the cast. Lead actress Imogen Poots also turns in a fine performance as the naive callgirl-turned-movie star but is outactd by nearly every one of her co-stars. Her delivery of the Audrey Hepburn quote near the end is winningly infectious though. Also welcome is an old-fashioned air of inoffensive jokes. Overall, no high art but unexpectedly entertaining.

Samstag, 30. August 2014

Venice Film Festival: 殯棺 (The Coffin in the Mountain)

Unpolished in its technical aspects and having no name actors to boost its appeal, "殯棺 (The Coffin in the Mountain)" is nonetheless riveting work from Chinese first-time director 忻鈺坤 (Xin Yukun).

Opening with shots of a woman in mourning and a subsequent post-funeral banquet, the movie, befitting of is title, is centered around a handful of deaths and corpses, specifically around the remains contained in one coffin that ends up abandoned in the mountains. Told in three chapters that approach the case in question from different perspectives, the intricately structured script, also by Xin, starts off inconspicuously, although even in the economy of its groundwork and casual efficiency of its exposition there's plenty to like. But it's not until things are seen from another angle and secrets keep tumbling out that the wicked genius of the writing truly reveals itself. Each one of the large cast of characters, carefully linked together via a string of accidents, misunderstandings, coincidences and deceits, holds a little piece of the puzzle and carries a portion of the guilt. Their motives range from infidelity and greed to parental instincts and self-preservation, individually straightforward, but fatally complex when taken together. Not so much suspenseful as consistently intriguing, the story unfolds in such a way that always more curiosities arise as mysteries get answered, drawing you in with an almost comical honesty and a voyeuristic kick.

The actors form a naturalistic, dynamic collective, none of whom stands out to disrupt the vital equilibrium. Apparently shot on no budget, there's no showy element in the art or sound department either, furnishing the film with a plain, low-key style. Which isn't too much of a problem when the plot itself has as much juice as it does, delightfully squeezed out by some clever editing work.

Venice Film Festival: 99 Homes / Réalité (Reality)

"99 Homes" is a somewhat timely dramatic thriller that has a decent start but slides downhill all the way to a reluctant, sappy ending. American writer/director Ramin Bahrani has a knack for pumping adrenalin into scenes of confrontation. In the excellent introductory sequence where the central character and his family get mercilessly evicted, he lets the tension play out, the dynamics change and the gravity sink in. With this one scene he drives home the horror of displacement and the deep psychological wound it leaves behind. This jolt of directorial grittiness seldom sees a replay though, as the rest of the film gradually settles into an insipid groove of predictability. The script should be commended for bringing attention to a very specific subject, even if that third act, where the naive young man inevitably gets seduced by materialism and turns corrupt, only to then inevitably redeem himself, can't be forgiven. Andrew Garfield's performance is flawed not only because he never looks like a construction worker with a school-age kid, but that he has yet to harness the subtlety of his physical expression like co-star Michael Shannon. The great Laura Dern is sadly underused.

I generally appreciate the particular brand of weird humor of French filmmaker Quentin Dupieux: not sinister or threatening like Lynch, nor extravagantly unrealistic like Gilliam, but more based on déjà-vu's, memory lapses, reveries... things of the everyday that could just seem benevolently wrong. However, in his latest film "Réalité (Reality)" he really lets himself get carried away, creating characters so immediately improbable in behavior and speech the whole thing quickly turns into a farce. It's certainly a doozy when the different narrative strains- a girl who finds a VHS tape in the innards of a hog, a man searching for the best groan in history, a young guy troubled by invisible rashes- end up connected in one big multi-dimensional plot, but when every trick in the surreality genre from doppelgänger to dream within a dream is employed to confuse and distract the audience, one must ask if there's anything substantial at all behind a could of hot, muddled air. The cinematography is appropriately, creepily pristine. Acting-wise nothing noteworthy, as none of the actors has a meaningful character arc to work with.

Freitag, 29. August 2014

Venice Film Festival: 親愛的 (Dearest)

At 135 min, "親愛的 (Dearest)" is a bit too long, but the burden of its bulk is only rarely felt thanks to a rich and involving script succinctly brought to life by a prime acting ensemble.

Child kidnapping and how in its wake grieving parents sink ever deeper into all-encompassing despair belong to the most established of formulas for a familial tragedy. This fictional recounting of a true case from southern China doesn't reinvent the genre so much as does an especially good job capturing the many nuances of the conflicts set free under such extreme circumstances. The screenplay is not above resorting to the usual tricks and milks sentimentality a little too hard from time to time, particularly in the first half of the film. But starting from an intense, well-orchestrated group chase scene halfway through that showcases Hong Kong director 陳可辛 (Peter Ho-sun Chan)'s instinctual command of dramatic action sequences, the story takes a left turn and introduces a new chapter that asks truly hard questions with a moral edge. How do you prioritize something as pure and natural as a parent's love when blood ties, emotional bond and legal entitlement all get into the mix? Is anyone at fault for something as absolute and undeniable as a child's attachment? Indeed, the power of this screenplay is most keenly felt when it shows you that the most heartbreaking situations in life are often also the most blameless.

Elsewhere, it's highly satisfying to watch three of China's top actors, 黃渤 (Huang Bo), 郝蕾 (Hao Lei), 趙薇 (Zhao Wei), act the crap out of one another. Hao's performance is probably the more wooden of the three, not quite bringing the paralyzing sorrow of a bereaved mother completely across. But it only takes a few calm, piercing, wonderfully ambiguous glances from her in the latter parts of the film for you to see this woman's still got it. Huang is strong as the stricken turned obsessed father, selling his character's naked inner struggles with every wrinkle etched into his face. Zhao only appears in the second half of the film but has the most interesting role. Probably not glammed down enough from her movie star looks, she nonetheless nails the simpleminded drive of her character, hitting you hard in a couple of heart-wrenching scenes that could conceivably be her ticket to the Golden Horse winner's club already resided by her co-stars.

The broadly weepy film score is an obvious weakness and the inconclusive ending may be a problem to some. But overall this is solid old-school storytelling that actually has a worthy story to tell.

Venice Film Festival: The President / La rançon de la gloire (The Price of Fame)

"The President" feels interminable as it follows a fallen dictator of "an unknown country" flee with his grandson across a land savaged by tyranny. As if afraid the audience would otherwise not know the calamity an authoritarian regime could wreak, maimed prisoners, broken families, soldiers-turned-rapists and street-side corpses are the mainstay on screen. It's not that Iranian writer/director Mohsen Makhmalbaf's heart is not in the right place, it's just that the way he goes about it is so stating the obvious it's like making an entire movie about how torture is bad and diseases are undesirable. The "La vita è bella (Life Is Beautiful)" conceit, which is only halfheartedly carried out here, isn't enough to dramatize the innocence of the child because the contrast to all the horrors is ill-established. The one interesting scene throughout, where the little boy, hearing the familiar military melody he used to march to in the palace, threatens to blow the duo's cover, is cut short and gone to waste. Heavy-handed, repetitive, ending on an ickily pretentious note, this is one major disappointment.

One has to ask what a film like French writer/director Xavier Beauvois' "La rançon de la gloire (The Price of Fame)" is doing in the official competition line-up. Chronicling two petty criminals' scheme to steal Charlie Chaplin's coffin for ransom in 1977 Switzerland, the tone-deaf screenplay is so thoroughly unfunny it fails to register as a comedic heist, a buddy movie or even on the level of pure physical gags. The direction is clumsy, leaving long stretches of ineffective banter clogging the narrative flow while displaying little sense of timing with off editing choices. The whole subplot about the circus that pops up later in the story, in fact, so random and unproductive, should have been left on the cutting room floor. The acting is shrill. From both lead actors Benoît Poelvoorde and Roschdy Zem down to the supporting players, everybody gives the impression of an awkward desperation, helplessly begging for laughs. Neither the muted production design that doesn't really reflect the timely flair nor the generically bombastic score helps things in any way.

Donnerstag, 28. August 2014

Venice Film Festival: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Even when it boasts top-notch technical credits, including some surprisingly lavish effects shots, and a star ensemble of big-name Hollywood actors, "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" remains resolutely indie-spirited, both in its daring approach and its metaphysical, zen-y concerns.

Composed of long tracking shots so edited together as to give the impression of one (almost) unbroken shot, there's already a hardcore experimental nature to the picture. While the inevitable transitions do feel forced sometimes under this illusion it tries so elaborately to hold up, at its best this decision for drawn-out takes and extended scenes that branch out and keep racing forward allows for an aliveness that's incredibly invigorating. Surrounding a washed-up ex-superhero actor bent on resuscitating his career by a Broadway comeback, the script is expertly structured, leisurely but precisely ping-ponging the narrative between life on and off stage. Although there are dialogues here and there that may be a little too caught up in their own existential profundity and don't fully ring true, in constantly snaking in and out of the realms of reality, playacting, fantasy and those heightened moments of awareness like wild fame lost or found, this is a dazzling piece of writing that calls into question the very essence of performance, of being.

The cast is individually brilliant but even more electrifying as a colorful bunch. Former Batman Michael Keaton is, if not entirely flawless in his many monologue deliveries, absolutely compelling as former Birdman, registering the weariness, rage, hunger of someone no longer loved by many and bringing with him of course a further layer of truth meets fiction that fuels the trippiness of the film. Edward Norton is fantastic as the slightly crazed actor hired to save the play. Loose, jacked, wonderfully unself-conscious, you can tell he gets this dynamite of a character completely, brains, fears, neediness and all. In limited roles, both Andrea Riseborough and Amy Ryan add glorious sparks to the eclectic happenings. And so fresh is Zach Galifianakis' performance in this movie that, even when looking exactly the same, he's almost unrecognizable.

Ultimately the movie belongs to two men: Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu is on fire here, playing with both storytelling and visual styles so freely the gleeful showmanship threatens to implode on screen. It's a testament to the maturity of his hand that throughout all the craziness, as an audience member you always feel safe and ready to be astonished by what comes next. His fellow countryman Emmanuel Lubezki proves yet again he's one of the very best cinematographers we have. Such evocative lighting and lensing, supernatural in its beauty but also truthful in its attentiveness, such flow and assurance of camera operation even within confined spaces. Aided sonically by a sexy, kinetic, if at times a bit domineering drum score provided by Antonio Sanchez, this camera is so magnetic and forceful it has chi to spare.

Freitag, 15. August 2014

Short takes

"Jimmy's Hall" is easily likeable for its fetching visuals, clear-eyed narrative and liberally-minded message. Chronicling the repressive Catholic regime and a country hall that became a symbol of rebellion in 1930's Ireland, it's a bona fide crowd-pleaser with plainly marked good and evil. While there's certainly a kind of undemanding pleasure to be had in following an old-fashioned freedom fighter tale, refreshing it is not. The script can also use some fine-tuning in a couple of dialogue-heavy scenes, which come across as strangely wooden. The cinematography is outstanding though. With crisp, resplendent, tenderly ironed images of green, amber and grayish blue, the film looks lovely top to bottom. Lead actor Barry Ward has charm to spare but can't really break out from a story that feels too tame and familiar. British maestro Ken Loach is his usual gentle, humanistic, quietly observant self, finding ever-interesting aspects of his actors' faces to captivate, even if the film doesn't hit nearly hard enough.  

"Lucy", from French writer/director Luc Besson, is a serviceable sci-fi actioner that hits a few sweet spots with its casual blend of the superhero and femme fatale genres. A sleek package, lively pace and those dramatic "24"-esque title cards foretelling the next level of preposterousness help the film zip through a jungle of questionable science talk. Add to that a committed lead performance by Scarlett Johansson, who commands the screen in some key scenes with the sheer force of her presence, and one would be forgiven for delighting in the fanboy glee that only comes from, say, seeing grown men telepathically paralyzed. But the guilty pleasure ultimately can't distract from the fact that the plot is based on a single concept stretched very thin and taken ludicrously far. Its malnourishment is most keenly felt upon the abrupt arrival of the ending, which is, after the silly cutaways to dinosaurs and supernovas, cool in its conceptual simplicity but both narratively lacking and technically soft.

"Qu'est-ce qu'on a fait au Bon Dieu? (Serial (Bad) Weddings)", about a white catholic couple whose four daughters marry a Jew, an Arab, a Chinese and an African, is essentially a license to crack race jokes and the film's 97 raucous minutes are packed to the brim with those. Politically incorrect to the point of being shockingly crass, writer/director Philippe de Chauveron lets the bigot loose in a paradise of targets and for all its borderline distastefulness, as a comedy it works. The script cleverly attacks the soft underbelly of a modern, diverse French society right where it hurts, well aware that it's not the offensive words that are the funniest, but how they make the supposedly enlightened bourgeoisie uncomfortable, even confused. The ensemble is solid, with Chantal Lauby as the wannabe tolerant mom bringing the most delight. As stereotypical as "Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis (Welcome to the Sticks)" but not as smartly plotted, this is nevertheless non-stop hilarity that could even feel a little cathartic.

"Guardians of the Galaxy" is an interplanetary bomb-fest that's a bit messy in its storytelling- especially for the galatically uninitiated- but it features brilliant characters seldom seen in comic book adaptations and exudes such genuine playfulness it can't help but be entertaining. Admittedly, there's nothing groundbreaking or even surprising plot-wise, but American writer/director James Gunn mixes cosmic adventure with slapstick humor to great effect, giving the cold and fantastical a firmly earth-bound warmth. A terrific Chris Pratt shows he's leading man material, carrying with him a natural confidence and beer buddy appeal that perfectly sell this accidental hero. The true highlight among the group of misfit fighters is the genetically engineered raccoon Rocket though. Minutely designed and animated to capture both a distinct look and detailed expressions, scripted with killer one-liners delivered famously by Bradley Cooper, it's an achievement all by itself. Extra fun is further provided by the 70's-infused soundtrack.

Dienstag, 12. August 2014

Short takes

"Night Moves" is an eco-thriller that's not very thrilling. Centered around a dam-bombing by environmental extremists, American writer/director Kelly Reichardt goes about it in a flatly sensible, coolly routine, decidedly untheatrical manner. The first two-thirds of the movie strikes one like an everyday terrorist's manual for its practicality and general placidity. The last part finally raises the emotional stakes and cooks up some tension here and there, but it's still pretty frustrating as nothing ever comes near the boiling point. The performances are all correspondingly sedate. Of the principal cast, Dakota Fanning fares best thanks to the perturbing vibe from those big, hollow stares while Jesse Eisenberg falters, hopelessly trapped in the limitations of an impenetrable role.

"A Most Wanted Man", faithfully adapted from spymaster John le Carré's novel of the same name, inherits the original's problem of lacking a strong, compelling plot. The juicier aspects of global counter-terrorism are underused in the construction of the story, which instead gets tangled up in lofty, rather affected concerns of human rights, so that even when every effort is made to suggest some unspecified dark forces of international intrigue, it's never really exciting. Philip Seymour Hoffman proves as watchable as always, adding with each sideways glance and unexpected hardening of his features a much-needed presence to the screen. Visually also underwhelming, one wouldn't suspect from the modest production and cinematography of the film that it's shaped by the hands of Dutch director/ famed style wizard Anton Corbijn.

"Jersey Boys" can't transcend the customary trajectory of biopics and ends up looking quite generic, readily forgettable. Which is not to say that, along the forseeable curves of the known format, the movie doesn't offer a familiar, if lazy, form of entertainment. Lead actor John Lloyd Young is convincing as the man caught between mega-stardom and the unberable ordinariness of an off-stage existence- and boy can he sing. Clint Eastwood's direction isn't in any way inspired but he does guide the decades-spanning life story of a Rock 'n' Roll legend along with a dependably steady hand. There are occasional failings in the technical departments like the crude soundstage in the earlier scenes and some poor old-age make-up near the end, which are not fatal, but definitely distracting.

"Wir sind die Neuen (We’re the New People)" is one of those comedies that most likely come from a real place, mean well, have a big heart and try to impart comforting wisdoms- in this case about how old people are just cool people with experience- but can't find the witty, authentic way to do so. Though the idea of pitching three senior citizens regrouped in a shared flat against their young neighbors is nifty, what follows is a string of caricatures about the generation gap (somewhat flipped but still) and oversimplified resolutions that have zero plausibility. German writer/director Ralf Westhoff does put a spring in the film's step, so things move along with painless briskness, and lead actress Gisela Schneeberger gives an appropriately relaxed performance. Otherwise rather slight and unmemorable.

Mittwoch, 6. August 2014

Når dyrene drømmer (When Animals Dream)

Danish horror/drama "Når dyrene drømmer (When Animals Dream)" is a derivative, if nonetheless delicious new entry into the subgenre of teenage angst-based supernatural mutation.

Monster transformation isn't exactly a subtle or original metaphor for the hormonal unrest befalling insecure young adults and bully-induced aggressive explosion traces its cinematic roots as far back as "Carrie". But director Jonas Alexander Arnby, making his feature film debut here, shows sharp instincts for pacing and composition, so that even when following a familiar path, he never loses your attention. Much like its Scandinavian sibling "Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In)", this movie whisks along without major hiccups and is aesthetically speaking an instant stunner. Playing with the contrast between warm, sun-drenched landscape and fluorescently-lit, pathologically white indoor surfaces, it boasts one gorgeously suggestive frame after another. Also contributing to the overall creepiness of the picture are the angular bone structure and singularly bland features of lead actress Sonia Suhl, who makes several key scenes of persecution come alive as her surreal looks complete the almost cartoonish acts of cruelty and her fragility makes us actually feel the terror.

Technical aspects are all pro, with the cinematography and make-up departments obviously at the forefront. The original music provided by Mikkel Hess should also be credited though, especially its electronically enhanced portion, which adds an unsettling, nearly cheerful sense of impending doom to the mix.