James vs. His Future Self (Canada, 2019) – GFF4

Back to the past

Director Jeremy Lalonde co-wrote this with his star Jonas Chernick and they’ve produced an agreeable SF-romcom. If the hybrid is unusual the narrative trajectory isn’t: blinkered boy eventually gets the ‘hot’ girl (Cleopatra Coleman). The science fiction element is James’ future self visits his young self, a nerdish scientist, to tell him it’s a mistake to develop time travel because he’ll lose ‘the girl’. The time travel paradox is interestingly dealt with as the future self, Jimmy (Daniel Stern channeling Christopher Lloyd though not as manic), will disappear if his advice is followed. Although formulae abound on chalkboards (they’re retro!) the science, understandably, is as fictional as the narrative and the film barely qualifies as SF.

Fortunately the romcom side has its pleasures, particular Coleman’s Courtney; Coleman is an Aussie and I look forward to seeing more of her. She manages to convey her female exasperation with male stupidity with deft changes of facial expression; the film is very much on her side. However, of course, James is the protagonist and while it’s unfair to chide Lalonde for focusing on the man, we do need more female orientated romcoms (as far as we need them at all).

Frances Conroy is excellent as the demented boss of the lab that James and Courtney work in. She is a truly unhinged creation that portrays the ‘mad scientist’ as both female and old; this is the sort of genre tweak that make can films interesting.

Unfortunately the dynamic of Jimmy seeking his own destruction is not investigated. This isn’t surprising as it would shift the narrative weight onto the older character and the focus, in true romcom fashion, is on the move toward coupledom. There are some good lines: Courtney says her putative partner dresses as if he were higher on the ‘spectrum’ than he actually is. The best scenes are between the two when James, urged on by Jimmy, tries to move his long-standing friendship with Courtney toward sex. She obviously fancies him but is savvy enough to know the switch in the dynamic from friendship to lust (she reckons the moment has long past) is fraught with difficulty. This isn’t investigated in detail, which is unfortunate but then it the number of laughs would have been reduced.

Overall the film’s worth seeing for its offbeat indie vibe; for some reason it reminded me of Killing Jessica Stein (US. 2001), which is indisputably female-orientated.

The Lighthouse (Canada-US, 2019)

Lost in the fog

The Lighthouse seems to have been trailed for months and its monochrome look, and stars Dafoe and Pattinson, made it intriguing. Most of the critical response seems to have been glowing as well. The image above is misleading as the film is shot in a Movietone ratio of 1:1.19 (new to me); this dates back to the 1920s and was an early attempt at synchronising sound on film. The monochrome and almost square aspect ratio reminded me of Bait (which has the slightly wider 4:3) though the films use the archaic form (monochrome and aspect ratio) to signify different things: for Bait it was authenticity; The Lighthouse, the 19th century.

Another reason why Eggers may have chosen the narrow frame, which ‘forces’ composition to be vertical, is it meant close-up shots of a character’s head would fill the screen and so emphasise the likelihood that the events we are watching are the product of strained minds.

I didn’t get far into writer-director Robert Eggers’ debut, The Witch (Canada-US, 2015), as I was put off by the clangorous soundtrack telling me to be scared when there was nothing happening on the screen that was scary. The Lighthouse (co-written with his brother Max), too, is a horror film but initially presents itself as arthouse with its slow paced narrative in addition to the unusual aspect ratio and black and white cinematography (brilliantly done by Jarin Blaschke). The low-key lighting, no fill light making the shadows on faces deep, adds to the portentous atmosphere.

The narrative, two blokes stuck on a rock, is certainly not multiplex fair even with its stars. Dafoe has always took on non-mainstream roles and Pattinson is pursuing the same route. However, as the film develops it becomes more of a genre piece and, for me, it falls apart.

This isn’t because I’m anti-genre, or anti-horror, just that the two elements are not combined in a convincing fashion. The script plays around with the fact that maybe the events we see aren’t really happening but are the product of a disturbed mind (we are with Pattinson’s Ethan/Thomas for most of the film), but events become too random (the severed head in the lobster basket) to cohere. There’s nothing wrong with keeping an audience guessing about the veracity of what we see, and we know mermaids don’t exist, but the balancing act of the ‘fantastic’ (is it real or not?) is delicate and The Lighthouse falls over too often to convince.

Eggers’ background is as a set designer and Craig Lathrop’s production design is a magnificent piece of Gothic detritus. I only wished I cared for the characters more. Ethan/Thomas has a back story, hence he has two identities as he seems to have lied about who he is, which is never clearly elucidated; similarly Dafoe’s Thomas may be not who he claims to be. The doubling of names suggests doppelgängers but again this isn’t fully worked through. The obtuseness has the arthouse about it but didn’t, to me, seem to have point: obtuseness for its own sake.

The sound design (Damian Volpe) is superb: the grinding of cogs that run the lighthouse are enough to drive its inhabitants mad even without the moonshine liquor. But, but, but… should’ve had a better script.

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.

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.