Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Two Days, One Night: Deux jours, une nuit

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the figureheads of Belgian cinema, returned to Cannes this year with their latest: political redundancy drama Two Days, One Night.

Sandra (Marion Cotillard) wants to return to her job in a workshop making solar cells after overcoming a serious depression. Times are tough however, the financial crisis has hit the company hard and there is not enough money to take her back. As a result, the sixteen other employees are given a choice: if they agree to give up their yearly bonus (1,000 euros apiece), Sandra can stay. In a first poll, fourteen votes fell against her and now she has two days to convince her colleagues to change their minds.

Taking place over a single weekend, the Dardennes stretch to feature length what other filmmakers would portray in a short montage. The bulk of the movie consists of her encounters with her co-workers, all of whom she visits at home. Every one of these confrontations is shown in its entirety: we see her walk up to the door, ask the children/spouse where the sought-after person is, recite her rehearsed lines and hope to convince them. By repeating this scene over and over with varying results, the Dardennes ask us the same question time and time again: would you give up 1,000 euros, money which you may desperately need, in order to help out a colleague? It is a terrible dilemma to be confronted with and one without a correct answer.

Above all towers (or rather cowers) Marion Cotillard giving the best performance of her career to date. Leaving behind all the glamour and glitz of her Hollywood appearances and going even further than in Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone, here is a woman who has all but given up. Not fully believing in her own plea, feeling guilty for begging for her friends’ pity, you always get a sense of a strong inner conflict. We never really know whether she really wants to keep her job or whether she only tries at the insistence of her supporting husband. Cotillard transformed her entire body language for this complete performance. Her shoulders slumped, walking clumsily, avoiding eye contact; she has a completely different way of holding herself. She looks like she is in constant pain. This goes into the minutest details: the way she opens a bottle of water, the way she eats an ice-cream cone, the way she pays for a bottle of water; everything she does lacks conviction or self-belief. Her discomfort is emphasized by the brilliant cinematography. There are close-ups, but the camera generally keeps an awkward distance.  

I did however have a couple of issues with the film. First of all, a couple of reactions from Sandra’s co-workers, both positive and negative, felt overplayed, melodramatic and were frankly unbelievable in the highly realistic context of the film. This is partly due to the actors failing to convince, but also to the contrived nature of the screenplay. My biggest problem with the film is moreover that one crucial and extreme action, about an hour into the film, which changes everything we know about the Sandra, is simply brushed over and forgotten about. There seem to be no consequences whatsoever to this, which made me feel a bit uneasy.

Two Days, One Night remains an intriguing watch elevated by the masterful Marion Cotillard, who is touted for the best actress award in Cannes.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

They don't make them like this any more: The Two Faces of January

Hossein Amini’s directorial debut (he is an Oscar nominated screenwriter) The Two Faces of January is gloriously old fashioned. It is not a movie; it is a picture. The Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley) adaptation takes its cues from 1940s film noir, Hitchcock and particularly René Clément’s 1960 take on Ripley, Plein Soleil.

The year is 1962. Oscar Isaac plays Rydal, a shady American tour guide operating in Athens who spends his time hustling rich tourists and seducing pretty ones. He encounters and somewhat befriends a wealthy couple, Chester and Colette MacPharland (Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst), who turn out to be even shadier than him. After the past catches up with them, they find themselves on the run from the law and Rydal steps in to help them.

The biggest pleasure in watching The Two Faces of January is the style. It is a very handsome film, and I’m not just talking about Viggo Mortensen here. The locations are stunning; it could easily have been financed by the Greek tourist board. The weather is relentlessly sunny and hot; not a single cloud is to be seen. The period setting adds glamour and class: cream suits, sunglasses, hats and cigarettes. Smoking was after all still cool in the sixties.

While the emphasis is on the style, there is just enough substance to keep it interesting. All three main characters are fascinatingly ambiguous. You are never quite sure what their motives are. Why does Rydal decide to help the MacPharlands? Is Colette in love with Rydal? What exactly are Chester’s intentions? The relationships between them change quicker and more often than a politician’s opinions, but the characters always feel real and believable. One minute they’re friends, the next Viggo sucker-punches Isaac. With the exception of a heavy-handed, unnecessary plotline about Rydal’s unloving father, the plot is tight and simple.

The Two Faces of January will hardly become a classic, but it is a solid, enjoyable throwback to a kind of filmmaking that doesn’t really exist these days, held together by three superb performances.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Frank goes to Hollywood

Plot: Loosely based on comedy character Frank Sidebottom (whom I am not familiar with), Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank tells the story of an American avant-garde band, whose front-man (Michael Fassbender) wears a giant fake head. He never takes it off and no one knows what he really looks like. When the band’s keyboardist dies in a bizarre gardening accident attempts to drown himself in the ocean, they recruit wannabe musician Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) and retreat to Ireland to record their new album.

Review: My first reaction after seeing Frank was slight disappointment. It was not what I expected. It is a much darker and pessimistic tale than anticipated, containing big ideas, which need to be digested. One of my initial problems with the film was that its main character is essentially an awful person. Maybe it’s because he is played by Domhnall Gleeson who seems to be such a nice bloke, but for some reason I felt like I should like him. I was wrong. He is very much the villain of the piece and on top of that he is annoying. Constantly seeking attention, desperate to be recognized for an artistic talent he clearly doesn’t have; he is the kind of person who tweets the hashtag #nomnomnom. Once I realised this, I was able to think about the film differently.

Being creative is not easy for most of us. Jon is desperate to be creative, but he simply isn’t. Sometimes ambition and even hard work are simply not enough. The most interesting thing about Frank is this interesting observation on what it means to be creative. It is not necessarily all about recognition. Frank is a natural talent, able to write a song on the spot. Yet he does not seek the spotlight, he won’t even reveal his face to his most intimate friends. An absolute perfectionist, he will tinker with his work until it feels right, even if it takes months. The idea of being liked intrigues him, but he is also frightened and it holds him back. Jon’s prime objective on the other hand is to share his music. It’s not about money or even fame, it’s about respect. He is selfish and basks in Frank’s talent to compensate for his own ineptitude. The film does very well to pitch these two characters together and eventually against each other, building an interesting relationship. Between them stands Clara (Maggie Gyllenhall), an intimidating woman who is protective of Frank’s fragility.

Frank is nevertheless a flawed picture. Much like the avant-garde music Frank and his band create, the film doesn’t really have any rhythm or structure. In other terms, like the music, Frank has a rhythm that takes getting used to and will rub some people the wrong way. As a result, it feels much longer than its modest 95 minute running time. It also seems that Lenny Abrahamson couldn’t quite decide whether he was making a comedy or not. There are some really funny moments, particularly in the first half, but they become increasingly rare as the film goes on and sometimes sit uncomfortably next to the more serious themes of mental illness and violence. The issue is not that this subject matter and humour are incompatible. The problem is that the film lacks the confidence to go for the gags, but feels the necessity to make them. Borrowing one of the best jokes from The Big Lebowski was not a great idea either, even though they do put a new spin on it.

Despite these issues, Frank is a worthwhile effort which stayed with me longer than most films. It isn’t really a comedy; it isn’t particularly moving; it is an intriguing exploration of what it means to be creative. The well-observed ending is the most sentimental moment and provides an earworm which I could not get rid of for days. Who knew the Micheal Fassbender had such a good singing voice?

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Blue is the coldest colour: Blue Ruin

Violence has consequences. Too many films forget this these days. Jeremy Saulnier’s unusual indie Blue Ruin, which has appeared out nowhere, fortunately hasn’t. Defying expectations, Blue Ruin is a revenge thriller for people who don’t really like revenge thrillers (and for those who do).

Our hero, if you want to use that word, is called Dwight. He is brilliantly played by Macon Blair whose presence grounds the film. Dwight did not use to be a cop; he is not ex-military or secret service. He does not possess a “very particular set of skills” or a gravelly voice. On the contrary, he seems to lack some very basic skills when it comes to human interaction. When we meet him, he has no place in society. Since his parents were murdered, he has been drifting through life; his home is a derelict old car. One day, the past he is trying to escape catches up with him. A policewoman stops by and informs him that the killer has been released from prison. Rather reluctantly, as if he has no other choice, he decides to take his revenge. This not only confronts him with a murderer, but his entire gun-crazy redneck family.

Blue Ruin is a rather impressive piece of filmmaking, building palpable tension. There is a constant air of dread and danger, rounded off by a dark sense of humour. The camera rarely stands still, slowly creeping forward, backwards or sideways, bringing certain restlessness to the film. The beautiful, rural locations give it a sense of place and build the atmosphere. Everything looks used and there seem to be guns everywhere. Advancing at a slow pace, Saulnier takes the time to develop his characters and asks interesting questions about the nature of revenge. It may be a dish best served cold, but once consumed, it can leave you hungry for more. Or it can inspire others to start cooking up a nice pot of vengeance of their own. Violence leads only leads to more violence.

The brutality feels real and ugly. Crucially, it is never easy. There are no elaborate car chases or unrealistic shootouts. There is no macho hero who saves the day by killing a bunch of bad guys. What we have is something much more interesting: an insecure, inexperienced everyman who faces some incredibly difficult decisions. The brutality is always necessary and never glorified. Injuries are like real wounds, not movie wounds: they hurt. You might want to cover your eyes when Dwight pulls an arrow out of his leg.

It may be a little rough around the edges, but Blue Ruin is not afraid to grapple with big ideas while delivering an interesting twist on the revenge thriller. Bleak, tense and entertaining, it establishes Jeremy Saulnier as a filmmaker to watch.