Category Archives: Comment

Films for Girls – Thoughts on Melancholia and The Future

The extremity of difference between Melancholia and The Future cannot be stressed enough; one, a catatonic display of cosmic madness, and the other, a superficial break-up story narrated by a cat. At first glance there is nothing remotely similar between Lars Von Trier and Miranda July’s films. But upon closer inspection, they join a growing list of films which represent women in daring new lights. Dividing the film between sisters Justine (Dunst) and Claire (Gainsbourg), Von Trier examines the intensely acute anxieties faced by women, questioning the practicality of love and the fatuous intelligence of men. July’s film expresses a fear of the eponymous future using a similar experimentation with time and space, laughing nervously in the face of biological clocks and mid-life crisis’.

The opening of Melancholia has been praised for its impressionistic montage; a series of excruciatingly slow sequences depicting the gloomy end to Justine and Claire’s secluded world. It has been claimed that it offers an artistic promise that the rest of the film fails to deliver on. But this abstraction serves to hint at more complex suggestions made later on in the film about women’s apprehensions with life. Justine, wearing a beautiful white wedding gown, has become entangled in roots from the surrounding trees.  Claire, clutching at her child, trudges knee-deep through the turf of a golf course, her face contorted in a gasp for air. We cannot yet see what they are running from, but they are clearly weighed down by two signifiers of femininity; the wedding dress, and the child.

What else is interesting about Melancholia? Claire’s husband believes in science and absolute certainty, whereas Claire is cautious, relying on instinct. Despite the siblings’ major differences, it is Justine who sums up the women’s higher level of awareness, ‘life is only on earth, and not for very long.’ Dunst’s character won’t just resound with those who have suffered with mental illness. Justine also has a general lethargy towards modern pressures. She is not desirous of her new husband, she lacks passion for her high-flying job, and makes it seem okay to not feel completely satisfied. Life is no fairy tale, and Justine more than embraces the end of the world as an antithesis to that concept.
In The Future, flighty Sophie (July) returns to work at a kids dance studio and bumps into two friends. Alarmed to see that they are both heavily pregnant, she cannot believe that time has passed so quickly since she last saw them. They tell her that being pregnant is ‘a drag, but it’s also amazing.’ A series of cuts reveal the families grow old before Sophie’s eyes, whilst she remains stuck behind the reception desk. ‘It’s kind of a drag,’ Sophie remarks. ‘But it’s amazing?’ offers her friend. ‘Not really…’ (Watch it here) Sophie shows no desire in the film to bear children, nor to marry her boyfriend Jason. But here, a melancholy falls over her, as if disappointed with her lack of connection with their full lives.

Despite feigning a happy suburban existence for a short while, Sophie quickly becomes confused as to who she is trying to be. She can either live out the image of a ‘grown up’ existence, with her older lover and their weekend barbecues, or, she can return to Jason, where ‘growing up’ is the elephant in the room, brought to light by a sick cat. Either way, Sophie can’t find happiness. She is followed to her new life by a yellow t-shirt, which she used to stroke for comfort. It haunts her, reminding her of the child-like way she used to live, but also of the reassurance that life brought. In a bizarre but touching sequence, she climbs inside the t-shirt, stretching it out and zealously eating up its promise of protection. Her new partner looks on in admonishment.

The surface features of a Miranda July film may seem twee and stylistic, but given enough time, her saccharine soundings actually resonate much more deeply. Me and You and Everyone We Know is a more endearing and ‘together’ piece of work, but The Future is mature and less simpering. The Future conveys a timid uncertainty about relationships and life, but there is a confidence in July’s assertions which make her out to be a whole lot smarter than her cat voice would lead you to believe.

Both films take time to reflect on the opposite of sex, although hardly in a positive light. For Melancholia‘s Claire there is nothing worse than the thought of her life ending; but for her husband, there is nothing worse than the thought of being wrong. Jason in The Future admits he just wants another ‘normal, boring day’, despite the threat of losing  the love of his life. Justine and Sophie are the types of characters usually sidelined in films; the baddies, guilty of usurping the natural order of romantic love. But here they are the anti-heroes in two films very much about, and for, girls.

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Considine shows Fiennes how a directorial debut should be done

They come from stratospherically different acting backgrounds, one a bardic pin-up, the other a working man’s hero; but Ralph Fiennes and Paddy Considine have each just released their directorial debut. The films, Fiennes’ Coriolanus and Considine’s Tyrannosaur, are as unalike as one might expect. The surprise comes though that Considine, a young turk of sorts, has come up trumps against UK acting royalty.

Watching Coriolanus, Fiennes’ modern-day Shakespeare adap playing last weekend at the London Film Festival, felt like a return to the days of quality filmmaking. Fiennes has taken a heralded text, stuffed it with a stellar cast (Brian Cox, Vanessa Redgrave) and high production values, and served a stodgily indulgent prestige piece dressed up as a relevant political drama. It feels like the kind of film the UK industry has made an admirable effort to move away from in recent years. Although Fiennes’ direction demonstrated an adept eye, the whole piece feels showy and dated.

Considine on the other hand has plumped for the other side of mirror. Sombre and earnest, Tyrannosaur follows a faltering friendship between Joseph (an incredible Peter Mullan) and Hannah (an equally standout Olivia Colman). Joseph, a middle-aged drunk whose demons are tugging at his trouser leg, takes refuge in Hannah’s Christian shop. Although Joseph berates her demonstrative faith and middle-class standing, it appears that Hannah’s own violent crisis places them on a par with one another. Some reviews have cautiously warned of the film appealing exclusively to the chattering classes, with a kind of poverty porn. It draws comparisons with Oldman’s Nil by Mouth, but Tyrannosaur’s creators are stringent in avoiding charges of ‘social realism,’ a genre Considine and Mullan have criticized. The film doesn’t ‘tsk’ at the ‘state of society’; instead, the camera flits indiscriminately between the lower and upper-middle, holding back any judgement calls.

Redundant debates aside, Considine caught the breath of the whole cinema and refused to abate until the credits rolled. Something which, amongst the disbelieving sniggers of the Coriolanus audience, Fiennes failed to do. Simplistic indictments of class or social commentary discredit the scale of Tyrannosaur, a success for representational UK cinema, and a snub to the tastes of the past.

 

 

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Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester: The Original Way of Nature and Grace

Undoubtedly a unique cinematic vision, The Tree of Life is an artistically realized consideration of life and death, which reaches far beyond the usual ambitions of a film starring Brad Pitt. One of the films key metaphysical concepts compares Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt’s husband and wife, in an exploration of ‘the way of nature, and the way of grace.’ This spiritual paradox carves out two ways of living; either as Pitt’s stormy authoritarian (nature) or Chastain’s saintly nurturer (grace). However, the divine characteristics embodied in Mr and Mrs O’Brien are not as original as, say, the atomistic timeline of humanity complete with dinosaurs and distant galaxies. The newly adapted version of Jane Eyre, by Cary Fukunaga, uncovers the early blueprint for the ways of nature and grace in Wasikowska’s unshakable Jane and Fassbender’s cold Edward Rochester.

In Malickian style, Jane is positioned fragilely in window frames, staring wistfully out onto the vast rolling landscapes ahead of her. Her puritanical disposition is constantly fringed with sunlight, giving her a verisimilitude against the unreadable Rochester. Rochester’s comparatively shadowy appearance brings with it a frenetic energy to the usually serene Thornfield, much like the silent tension which haunts the family home whenever Mr O’Brien is in residence. Jane has a natural affinity with children, where Rochester scorns them and is completely unmoved by their presence. Mr and Mrs O’Brien are also divided in their approach to raising children; the camera follows Chastain dreamily as she frolicks with the boys, where Pitt strikes tangible remorse in each of their hearts. Jane takes comfort in her painterly surroundings, a place free of fear and servitude, but Rochester takes to destroying them, shooting the birds one morning in an act of frustration. Whenever Jane disappears into the mist-laden fields, we feel unnerved, unsure of her safety. But when Rochester does the same, he blends in with the grey cruelties of the landscape, as if returning to its fold.

Although The Tree of Life is an altogether grander piece, with Malick’s reflections spanning the breadth of existence, there are striking similarities between the ethereal characters of both films. The stoical Jane and Mrs O’Brien embody the ‘higher’ order of the way of grace. They might yearn for lives which better reflect their gentle temperament, but they weather the storms of nature and provide a moral center to both of the films.

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2011: Year of the Documentary

Here’s a taste of my feature for New Empress Magazine. Go here to read the rest, and to check out their conveniently handbag sized publication…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reportedly, whilst speaking at the increasingly extolled Sheffield International Documentary Film Festival this year, filmmaker Steve James hailed a ‘golden age of documentary film-making. 2011 has already witnessed an epoch-inducing influx of documentaries with the subjects just as diverse as their creators. The last time the box-office experienced a surge in documentary films was between 2004 and 2006. Films such as Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and Super Size Me (2004) all featured a discernable moral tone but this year’s breakout titles, from Senna (2011) to Pina (2011), explore a range of themes which couldn’t be further from the heavy politics of past successes. Morality is still present of course; Countdown to Zero and Project Nim are just two of the more probing projects to hit cinema screens this year but there is no denying that the documentary genre is diversifying.

….continued

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In Praise of…Amanda Peet

She mastered the art of playing the bitchy hot girl in Igby Goes Down, and now Amanda Peet’s done it again, as the bitchy hot girl in Nicole Holofcener’s latest , Please Give. There’s certainly more to Peet than her shallow characters let on, and for that she has her agent to thank. Her choice of films over the past decade demonstrate a penchant for quirky US indie’s, paired with decent titles that have helped pay the mortgage (Gulliver’s Travels and 2012 excepted).

Peet has portrayed some memorable women in her short career, such as bad girl Emily in A Lot Like Love. She’s also worked with female directors at the top of their game, with Nancy Myers in Something’s Gotta Give, and as already mentioned, Holofcener’s Please Give. Just a glance at her filmography proves she’s not interested in fame or fortune, but rather becoming recognized as a leading character-actor.

It’s this attitude that’s led to her working with the two directors in America who have recently been cited as the only two for whom any actor would give their left arm to work with. Peet has already performed for Woody Allen in Melinda and Melinda, and she’s now lined up for the Untitled Terrence Malick Project (2012). Peet isn’t selling off her limbs to find work, she’s a director’s actor who could be on the brink of Catherine Keener-style acclaim.

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Is Bridesmaids a feminist comedy? Sorry, I was too busy laughing…



Some critics have tried really hard to deride Bridesmaids, the latest Apatow vehicle with a woman in the driving seat (no jokes). Total Film summed it up by stating  ‘it’s uneven, unwieldy and overlong…’, after awarding it four stars. Yes, Bridesmaids is far from the usual nauseating chick flick wedding extravaganza (see 27 Dresses, and the guiltily enjoyable Bride Wars), but is it truly the first feminist film comedy? Below is a rigorously scientific ‘yes’ and ‘no’  tally, designed to uncover just how feminist Bridesmaids really is…

YES

  • Annie (Wiig) and Lil (Rudolph), the two central characters (and one a bride, no less) are scared of commitment
  • The actors are genuinely funny, the punchlines are theirs for the taking and they bounce off one another without the ‘need’ for a male lead
  • It’s a film about female friendships, more than it is a film about romance or men
  • The opening bang-athon between Annie and Ted (Hamm) is blisteringly honest about women and sex

    The elation a wedding brings is reversed in Bridesmaids - captured in Wiig's expression

  • You groan at antagonist Helen (Byrne), whose sugary sweet fashionista lifestyle would usually comprise the rom-com heroine
  • A derisory attitude towards relationships and commitment runs through the film
NO
  • Annie’s ambition is to bake
  • ‘The fat girl’ (McCarthy’s Megan) is the butt of the joke
  • It’s still about a wedding
  • The guy and the girl drive off into the sunset
So, is it or isn’t it feminist? I became so whipped up by the sheer entertainment of the film that I forgot I was trying to trip the film up. Fart jokes, the dreaded C-word and shitting in a wedding boutique, and all from the connoisseur of the ‘modern man’s’ filmmaker. However, given his previous borderline feminist characters, it becomes less surprising that this anti chick-flick came from Apatow.  From Catherine Keener’s ballsy cherry-popper in The 40 Year Old Virgin, to the knowing gender gags in Anchorman, Apatow flicks are less about the comradary of the ‘guys’ than they are about the politics of the gals, too. Bridesmaids was clearly just waiting in the wings.
There may be cupcakes and puppies, but Kate Hudson is nowhere to be found. Bridesmaids is a groundbreaking film, not just for it’s fem credentials, but for being a comedy which actually delivers genuine belly laughs.

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The Lost Art Of Simple Storytelling

In Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques, an emotionally racked wife and her husband’s mistress dump the body of their oppressor into a swimming pool. Days later when it is emptied, the body is nowhere to be found. Watching the masterpiece this weekend for the first time, the simplicity of the plot was a revelation, particularly given the refined tension and wrought atmosphere it emits. Les Diaboliques proves to today’s debutants that the secret to a classic comes not from convolution, but the simplicity of a great idea.

There are two recent trailers which stand out as having no discernible plot. Chris Hemsworth’s norse God Thor, aside from having locks worthy of a John Frieda spot, appears to be an angry body builder exiled by other angry men, into the arms of none other than Natalie Portman. A dream to many, but to Thor this has caused some distress. It may be something to do with a stolen hammer, but the shiny sets and special effects were quite distracting. Meanwhile, another tanned blonde runs into trouble in The Green Lantern. When a mystical ring is handed over to a ‘chosen one’, I wondered whether I was actually watching a previously unseen trailer for The Hobbit.  As the trailer reaches its crescendo (a constipated looking Ryan Reynolds hovering in front of the sun) I realized I had absolutely no idea what The Green Lantern was all about.

X-Men: First Class, another recent Marvel release, uses three or four long winded narrative strands to tell a straight forward story. But Marvel aren’t the only party guilty of contrived plots. From Limitless to Unknown, Inception set the wheels in motion for other copycat mind-benders. The concept of travelling in dreams, or pills that allow superhuman abilities, are a far cry from Clouzot’s simple conception of a missing body. Surely though, nothing can match the dire Priest 3D. Despite achieving the honorable status of first cyberpunk-vampire film, it was a bewildering genre-hopping mess.

Clouzot’s stripped down plot allows the image and sound to take over, and the suspense at times is truly unbearable.  The film lets the imagination run wild, rather than clouding it with blockbuster fodder.  Hollywood only knows how to indulge in big budgets and CGI centerpieces, none of which are to be found in the rarer, and truly cinematic indulgence, of Les Diaboliques. 

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