It’s Only the End of the World (Juste la fin du monde, Canada-France, 2016)

Boiling point melodrama

I’ve only seen one of Xavier Dolan’s films, Heartbeats, and didn’t like his direction. This Grand Prize of the Jury prize winner at Cannes is much more surefooted as he places the camera close-up to individuals who are under-going a meltdown during a family reunion. Dolan’s screenplay is based on a play by Jean-Luc Lagarce and the tight framing is an elegant way of avoiding staginess; he also favours an expressive shallow depth of field by using rack focus to change the subject of the shot. There’s no doubt, however, that the key to the success of the film is its stellar cast: Nathalie Baye, Vincent Cassel, Marion Cotillard and Léa Seydoux. Gaspard Ulliel, too, is excellent as the protagonist who returns to his estranged family to announce his imminent death.

He hasn’t seen them for 12 years and has not been good at keeping in contact. It’s soon clear, Cassel’s character always seems to have his back to the action, that the pent up frustration of Louis’ absence is going to explode. The film is stagy in the sense that each of the characters get to have a private conversation with Louis that expose the history, of lack of, between them. However, as noted, such is the brilliance of the performances the scenes remain gripping. If Cassel’s rivets up his incendiary tendencies, Cotillard dials hers down to play Catherine as mousy but with a hint of steel. Baye breezes through as the mother who is determined to make the best of the occasion while not blind to Louis’ faults. Seydoux smoulders with resentment toward her brother (who’s a successful writer) that she barely knows.

If the ending, involving some fantastic symbolism with a suddenly animated cuckoo clock bird, is a little laboured, it otherwise doesn’t let down the preceding narrative. As the ironic title suggests, dying isn’t at all unusual so we shouldn’t forget living. Bradshaw suggests the film’s about the dysfunctionality of family life but I wonder if it’s more about how important family life is and what may happen if you neglect it.

Advertisements

Mama (Canada-Spain, 2013)

“Where’s mama?”

I’m doing some work on Guillermo del Toro so watched Mama as one of the films he executive produced and I’m pleased I did (I think). ‘I think’ because I was genuinely scared and that’s the first purpose of horror films. Of course they’re more interesting if they also have something to say, like last year’s Get OutMama is about parenthood and childhood trauma when parents fall short. I think Kim Newman gets it wrong in his Empire review where he complains that we get to see the monster too early. Because we’re not particularly concerned about what the monster is, though there is a detailed subplot explaining the why, we can focus on the children who’ve spent five years living on their own.

Guillermo del Toro was so impressed by Andrés Muschietti’s short of the same name that he facilitated the feature length version, co-written with Muschietti’s sister, Barbara who also produced. They both went on to make It, one of the big hits from 2017.

Mama owes a lot to J-horror, particularly in the contorted movements of the monster but also through the creepy mise en scene, such as stains on the wall. The CGI is not overblown and most of the shocks come from the editing. A great horror movie to make going to sleep an issue.

The performances of the children are superb, a tribute most likely to Muschietti’s direction. Children are recurring characters in Del Toro’s work, probably as a consequence of his owned traumatised childhood in a Jesuit school. I shall have to watch It.

Heartbeats (Canada, 2010)

Full of themselves

Full of themselves

25 year old Quebecois, Xavier Dolan (above right), is obviously a talent as he’s already directed five features; imdb also has five producer and editor credits as well as four for costume design and six writing! If Heartbeats is full of rather self-absorbed young people then that’s because that’s what the film’s about. I’m probably too old to appreciate such a subject and I am i sure wasn’t like that when I was a twenty something (I’m lying). Stand outs, include the costumes (something I don’t usually appreciate) and Monica Chokri’s Marie, she is superb at the small changes of facial expression that indicate dissatisfaction.

Despite Dolan’s talent his direction annoyed me. Faux reality TV hand held re-framings, including push zooms, irritate rather than suggest realism. The film also includes young people, who are not characters in the film, talking heads speaking about relationships similar to the Big Brother post-eviction interviews. Again it may be a generational thing, but I don’t think Reality TV, as an aesthetic, has much to offer film.

I do fear for the youngsters of Montreal as most of them seem to smoke like chimneys.

McLaren 2014

Poetry in

Poetry in

‘McLaren 2014 is a Programme celebrating the centenary of pioneering Scottish artist, filmmaker and musician, Norman McLaren.’ (http://www.mclaren2014.com/about_the_project). Subject to small changes, the programme of shorts will last 1h20 and include: OPENING SPEECH (1961), BLINKITY BLANK (1955), LE MERLE (1958), PAS DE DEUX (1968), SYNCHROMY (1971), LINES HORIZONTAL (1962), NEIGHBOURS (1952), Là-HAUT SUR CES MONTAGNES (1945), V is for VICTORY (1941), LOVE ON THE WING (1938), HEN HOP (1942),  BEGONE DULL CARE (1949) and A CHAIRY TALE (1957).

I was familiar with the brilliant Pas de deux (above) and Neighbours (below) and if the rest didn’t come up the standard of those two classics that’s not a criticism. McLaren’s GPO film, Love on the Wing baffled me but it was clear that he was pioneer of absurdist comedy, using animation, with his Opening Speech and A Chairy Tale.

Devastating, still; still topical

Devastating still; still topical

McLaren made Neighbours in 1952 after visiting China; although the version that won an Academy Award was shorn of its ending when mothers and children become victims of the fighting neighbours. Seeing that, at a time when many civilians, children included, have been killed by the Israelis, was chilling.

Take This Waltz (Canada-Spain-Japan, 2011)

Making the most of life?

Making the most of life?

I did realise that Michele Williams is a superb actor, she was by far the best thing in My Week with Marilyn, and had excelled in Meek’s Cutoff, but I was unprepared for her brilliance in Take This Waltz. Her character, a slightly kooky woman, Margot, unsettled after five years of marriage, could have been difficult to sympathise with; however, Williams’ performance means that issue is not a question. Her husband, an excellent Seth Rogan, doesn’t understand that marriage doesn’t make the relationship, he says there’s no point asking how she is as he knows everything about her. What he doesn’t know is that she’s fallen for a neighbour, a charismatic artistic type, and the film charts her efforts not to give up on her marriage.

Writer-director-producer Sarah Polley mostly makes  this ‘will they/won’t they’ narrative entirely convincing. There’s enough ambiguity in the relationships for us not to be entirely clear about characters’ motivations, which is suitable as many people in life are not sure about their motivations either. There’s a virtuoso shower scene when women of all shapes and sizes talk about their lives. The contrast between Williams’ ‘perfect’ nubile body and the older women’s, reminds us that we all will age. Incidentally, the aqua-robics session that precedes this is hilarious.

The ending is suitably ambiguous. Without ‘spoiling’, we are left with questions about Margot’s future that are left unresolved.  I was also left with absolute admiration for Williams and am going to give Blue Valentine another chance; I think I let Ryan Gosling put me off that film far too early on.

As an aside, I recently watched Only God Forgives (2013, Den-Thailand-Fr-US-Swe) which, along with Drive and The Place Beyond the Pines (US, 2012), showed Gosling doing his inarticulate (maybe ‘catatonic’ is a better word) male schtick. To be fair Pines was redeemed, in part, by Bradley Cooper, but please if you’re going to dramatise male stupidity, make it human like Rogan’s portrayal of Margot’s husband. Then again, I’m not sure that we aren’t meant to admire the Gosling characters. Only God Forgives did feature fabulous cinematography and a fantastic Cliff Mansell score, both wasted on meaningless crap.

Stories We Tell (Canada, 2012)

Telling not showing

Telling not showing

If you haven’t see this film I urge you to do so before reading this post. I try and avoid knowing much about a film before I see it and in the case of Stories We Tell I think ignorance is crucial to our appreciation of Sarah Polley’s artistry. Before the spoilers, in brief: the film is an investigation into who is actually director Sarah Polley’s father and this is told, mostly, with a mixture of home movie footage and talking heads.

At the start we see Polley, at a sound mixing desk, instructing her father as he starts the narrative voice over of the film. He’s reading a script and refers to himself in the third person. Immediately Polley has set up, in a self-reflexive way, that she is in control of the documentary. Although her father is narrating a story in which he is a key participant (is he her biological father?), the fact he’s reading from a script under his daughter’s direction makes it clear she’s the boss.

One of her siblings says, early in the documentary, ‘why would anyone be interested in our family?’ I was inclined to agree as the only thing that was remarkable was the enormous amount of home movie footage used to partially illustrate the narration and interviews. However, Polley’s parents were theatrical so maybe that wasn’t so surprising.

Polley’s pursuit of the truth soon becomes an engaging narrative and the film works as a (sort of) documentary family melodrama but it also gradually becomes clear that what we’re seeing isn’t quite what we think it is.

It’s amusing to watch montages of the talking heads, who are also participants in the story, contradicting one another when asked the same question. They are not obviously being medacious as our understanding of events, particularly within families, are often diverging. There is a hilarious moment when Polley asks an ex-colleague of her mother’s if they’d slept together; his denial is entirely undermined by his eyes’ leap to the right.

At her mother’s funeral, she died at a relatively early age from cancer when Polley was 11, there is a home movie shot of her real father sitting at the back of the church. Why would anyone, ignoring the question of whether a home movie would be made at a funeral, pick out him in this particular framing?! My first thought was Polley must have digitally edited the shot to enhance the appearance of her real father for dramatic purposes. However by now I’d also noticed that the voice over narration (by her biological father) had slipped into the first person, so emphasising subjectivity. When had that happened?

I will have to watch will film again to unpick the way Polley playfully undermines our faith in both the sound and vision of what she is presenting. It’s likely that the clues are present much earlier than when I noticed: she’s obviously questioning the ontological status of the documentary form as well as telling a story about her family. This formal uncertainty complements the uncertainty about her familial relationships.

The credits are the giveaway that some of the ‘home movies’ are in fact pastiches of the form performed by actors; I didn’t notice the difference between the real and unreal home movies, probably because I wasn’t looking for it.

Peter Bradshaw makes an excellent point that it’s possible that Polley’s motivation in making the film was to pre-empt her real father’s memoir about her parentage. Polley was determined to get her version of the story told but, at least, she is clear that it is a version and not reality.

As a documentary, this is a tour de force and one of the films of the year.

Blindness (Canada-Brazil-Japan, 2008)

Only the blind can see

Only the blind can see

A Lord of the Flies for the 21st century. This harrowing film , based on Nobel prize winner Jose Saramago’s novel, investigates what happens if everybody goes blind. The first sufferers are interned in an old hospital and the main section of the film investigates the dynamics of what might happen. The film is science fiction (SF) as it is set in a world that’s either not quite like ours or in the future.

The architecture of the city in which it is set, mixes skyscrapers with buildings from earlier centuries; the film was shot in Canada, Brazil and Uruguay and features Brazilian, Japanese, Mexican, as well as Hollywood, actors in the lead roles. The director, Fernando Meirelles, is also Brazilian; the novelist is Portuguese; the screenplay’s by a Canadian; cinematographer Uruguayan; there are 13 production companies involved from different countries. The is about the ‘human condition’ and not about any specific culture. All this is to explain why I’ve categorised this as ‘global cinema’: one that speaks to, and about, (most of) the world. Slumdog Millionnaire can probably be similarly categorised.

The direction and cinematography are fantastic. Objects often block our view as if our sight were deteriorating, such as circular decorations being like blotches before our eyes. Mirrors fragment the mise en scene, making it unclear what we are seeing and a very shallow depth of field is used also to blur our vision. As conditions grow worse we enter the iconography of the horror movie, all the more powerful as we clearly not watching a ‘straight’ genre movie.

I was wondering how the film could end and I won’t spoil the fantastic conclusion the film offers. The cast are uniformly good and Julianne Moore plays a fascinating variant on her ‘brittle housewife’ persona. I’d put this film up there with Children of Men (2006) as being amongst the best SF movies ever made.