Thursday, March 31, 2016

Ain't Them Bodies Saints (USA; David Lowery, 2013)


     Despite what the film's title might lead one to believe, there aren't any saints to be found here, but rather morally conflicted characters whose dreams for domestic peace always lead to a violence born from plans that were intended to make them come true. When southern sweethearts Ruth and Bob (Rooney Mara & Casey Affleck) end up trapped in an abandoned shack and engaged in a shootout with Dixie cops following a botched robbery, Bob takes the blame for wounding the officer (Ben Foster) that was actually shot by his pregnant wife. With her being acquitted and him being found guilty, we jump about 6 years later when Ruth is told (by the officer she shot) that her husband and little girl's father has escaped from jail to finally begin their life as a family. However, not only will Bob have to outsmart the law and lay low to even contact Ruth, he'll also have to deal with a patriotic protector (Keith Carradine) warning him to stay away from her and the gang of trigger-happy rednecks whose money he robbed. Not to mention the formerly-wounded officer who has taken a liking to Ruth and aspires to fill the masculine void in her life; the influence of which, the audience can't help but think, might be better on the little girl in the long term than that of a jailbird on the run. But girls do love that bad boy...

     Beautiful to look at and filled with engaging sequences fueled by solid performances from a terrific ensemble cast, Ain't Them Bodies Saints is welcome addition to this new wave of crime pictures that seem more concerned with the circumstances and motivation of the perpetrators than the crime itself (Killing Them Softly, The Drop, The Place Beyond the Pines come to mind). Furthermore, the fact that it takes place in the South adds a poetic touch to the sudden brutality and romantic futility displayed on screen, not too mention all the beautiful settings. In fact, the smooth, over-lapping editing, quick narrative jumps and sporadic use of voice-overs (mainly when reading lovers' correspondences) somewhat recalls Terrence Malick before he went all esoteric on us (which I'm not saying is necessarily a bad thing). I kept thinking that this felt like his first film Badlands if Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek were apart during the whole movie. Standing out on many cinematic fronts, Saints manages to imbue traces of hope in what is ultimately a tragic southern tale of love gone wrong. 



Friday, March 25, 2016

Brooklyn (Ireland/UK/Canada; John Crowley, 2015)

  There are so many facets of  Brooklyn that distinguishes it from most of the formulaic films being released today that it's hard to find a place to start. Perhaps most striking of which is that there are practically no bad guys in the picture. Even when the prospect of one seems to be introduced (Jessica Paré as the department store boss come to mind), they are quickly redeemed by their inherently compassionate humanity. The absence of external agents of misery permits Crowley to focus on the hardships that take place within Ellis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) rather than without, her internal conflicts in the face of an unknown land, new love and familial estrangement setting the stage for a seemingly simple tale that explores the complex idiosyncrasies of the heart. 

     While ultimately a love story (to paraphrase James Ellroy, "All drama is boy meets girl."), Brooklyn is also an exploration of the mid-20th century immigration experience as seen through the innocent eyes of a young Irish lass sent away across the Atlantic by a sister who wants a better life for her. Leaving home against her will, Ellis' progressive adaption to her new homeland is increasingly positive, a gradual change that, in a clever use of mise-en-scène, is visually attributed to her jacket color. Upon her arrival, she is always wearing a green jacket, making her stand out from the crowds in the street and emphasizing her sense of alienation, the color literally suggestive of her home country and the fact that she's still 'green' when it comes to becoming an American. Once her home sickness has passed, her jacket turns red when her eyes are opened to the true Irish condition in America and she becomes fired up in her will to succeed. This fire leads to her meeting Tony Fiorrello (Emory Cohen), an Italian boy who attends Irish dances because he like Irish girls and who falls head over heels for her. When their relationship is cemented, Ellis switches to yellow blouses and cardigans, which she mainly wears throughout the rest of the film. Even when a tragedy brings her back to Ireland and threatens to tear her and Tony apart, she keeps wearing yellow in a possible illustration of her continued subconscious loyalty to her Brooklyn beau. 

     When Ellis returns to Ireland, the concept of home is tested as everything and everyone around her seems to be begging for her to stay, going so far as setting her up with a handsome Irish gentleman in an attempt to get her to settle back down on the Emerald Isle. While she keeps mentioning that she's heading back to America, her actions don't particularly reflect any real hurry. Eventually, she comes to discover the undeniable truth of the age-old proverb proclaiming home to be where the heart is. 

     I sporadically kept thinking of Betty Smith's book A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as they both deal with the blossoming of young women in Brooklyn (the fact that Ellis is admittedly older makes one possibly see her as Francie Nolan all grown-up). More than that, both texts treat their titular borough as a character in itself, an entity that seems to have more influence in shaping their protagonists' emerging womanhood than those she meets in flesh and blood.

   Speaking of characters, a venerable nod must be given to Julie Walters (Mama Mia, the Harry Potter series) who is just unrecognizable and brilliant as the head of Ellis' boarding house, Mrs. Keogh. She steals every scene she appears in, rendering the dinner scenes some of the film's most memorable sequences, if only for bringing lightening humor to a film that is definitely a mixed bag of heavy emotions. 


Sunday, March 20, 2016

To the Wonder (USA; Terrence Malick, 2012)

   As his extensive yet enriching use of voice-overs may testify, Terrence Malick is well known for having a deep interest in observing the introspective perspective of his characters. He has the distinct gift of being able to create a symphony of words, images and sounds through which he is often able to capture the internal, tumultuous essence of what they are feeling, using the unique nature of cinema in a literal attempt to make emotions tangible. With Tree of Life, however, Malick additionally seemed intent to try to recreate the process of memory, arguably the deepest form of introspection possible. The same could be said about To the Wonder. While the story is (somewhat) more linear than Tree, he continues to eschew clear narrative connections by favoring a wandering style of editing and prioritizing poetic, narrated texts (and beautifully invasive music) over spoken dialogue, the presence of which is minimal (or inaudible) throughout the film. 

   Taking our emotions for a hectic ride, Malick possibly comes the closest I've ever seen to capturing and illustrating the conflicting inner joys and turmoils of being in love. Fairly limited narrative-wise, the film instead attempts to establish the main intimate moments of pain, passion and pleasure that make up the doomed relationship of Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko). With his signature stunning photography and flowery narration voiced by Marina, Malick conveys with engaging clarity the illogical nature of love, a nature rooted in instinctual feeling and accumulated moments of intimacy rather than practical rationality. This notion can be felt in his choice of denying the audience an understanding of Neil's perspective, leaving his actions to speak for themselves, making us wonder why the hell Marina is so in love with. He's distant, afraid of commitment and overall kind of a prick, breaking the hearts of two women in the process. The answers lie in Marina's outspoken emotional process and the oneiric treatment of the intimately telling moments she shares with him, culminating in the constant fluctuation of primal emotions that is both the curse and the blessing of being in love. Marina's reasons behind her feelings are essentially seen as being irrelevant, the important part being that they exist in a powerfully undeniable way. 

    Another perspective adopted throughout the movie is that of Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a parish priest that is slowly losing his faith in response to the evident futility of his social interventions, which include dealing with the faith of prisoners on death row. While his presence may seem somewhat incongruous at times with the rest of the movie, it serves to establish a link between love and faith. Some critics interpreted this as Malick stating that belief in God is necessary to make love work. Rather, I see it more as him equating faith to love, both of which are born within and require a certain amount of blind belief to go on existing. And whether you believe in To the Wonder or not, you will certainly feel something for it, even if only awe for the magnificent feast for the senses a new Malick film always promises. Because, much like love itself, his films are all-encompassing experiences that stay with you forever.


Thursday, March 17, 2016

'71 (UK; Yann Demange, 2014)

   On his first day on the job, British soldier Gary Hook (Jack O'Connell) is assigned to a patrol of Belfast at a time when the Troubles are in their chaotic peak. Left behind by his troops while he and another soldier are getting beaten up by rioters, he soon finds himself on the run when a rebellious IRA youth suddenly shoots his colleague in the face. After running into a young boy sympathetic to English cause, he stumbles onto a secret Army faction planning on using the IRA's own explosive methods against them. When incompetence detonates the bomb prematurely, Hook finds himself additionally injured. What follows is a twisted game of cat and mouse in which all the top cats aren't what they seem. Both the IRA and British army are looking for him, and unfortunately, it's for the same fatal reason.   

   One of the most interesting aspects of '71's approach in its treatment of the Troubles is how it doesn't position any of the opposing organizations in terms of moral absolutes. While either the IRA or the British government are typically portrayed in such films as being faceless, omnipresent forces of oppression and destruction, the enemy here is considered to be the conflict itself. In choosing to have a British citizen as a protagonist (the Irish perspective is generically prioritized, except maybe for The Long Good Friday, but this gem is one of a kind and stands alone within the thematic canon), Demange forces the viewer to abandon his or her preconceived notions regarding which side might be right or wrong, focusing instead on the social repercussions related to this brutal civil strife. He further blurs the lines of morality by establishing both groups as being plagued with inner-conflict. Individuals of both sides disagree among themselves as to what must be done with the wanted soldier, cementing even harder the idea of instability regarding the rooted ideology behind the cause of it all.

   Violence is integral to the subject at hand, a fact that Demange understands yet doesn't exploit. While sporadic in appearance, the violent segments are swift, unflinching and unforgiving, painting Belfast in 1971 as a place where death comes unexpectedly fast. One shot, one bomb, one stab. Death is a given. It's death's aftermath that is of interest here, the effects of which are perhaps best illustrated in the heartbreaking post-bomb sequence where one realizes that no one is immune to its impending possibility, especially youth... And the final shootout is perhaps the most aesthetically gratifying display of sudden brutality since L.A. Confidential


Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Wild Tales (Relatos salvajes) - (Argentina; Damián Szifron, 2014)

   I'm not usually a big fan of anthology films (although whether this is actually an anthology could be cause for debate seeing as all segments here are written and directed by the same individual as opposed to being part of a collaboration between various filmmakers) but this one really takes the cake (no pun intended.. well maybe a little). The singular directorial voice present throughout all six short segments connects them in a way that feels like episodes of distant family members rather than completely separate narrative events. With sweeping camera movements, breathtaking photography and darkly effective humor, Szifron links these disparately desperate characters together in a world where revenge is the norm. Pushed to the brink of their psychological limits, these outrageously riled up characters all end up giving themselves up to the slumbering darkness that exists within us all.

  Whether it's a daughter reluctantly getting even with the man who ruined her family's life, a scorned man taking everybody who ever wronged him down with him, two drivers who can't deal with their road rage, a man standing up to the abuses of municipal government, a father feeding his son to the wolves over financial complications regarding covering up his crime or a bride transforming her wedding into a twisted danse macabre after learning of her husband's infidelity during the actual wedding, there's never a dull moment in these wild tales of human irony. 

  Laughing or cringing, it's impossible to remain indifferent to these surprisingly powerful stories. Furthermore, you never know where they'll ultimately end up as they constantly go beyond the realms of expectations even though they all start off feeling as if conventional genres were about to unfold. The detailed yet subtle storytelling is a joy to behold, where careful attention to each shot (such as whether a little girl laughs or not at a birthday party) rewards the viewer later on for his scrutiny.
Szifron's beautifully crafted images and narrative choices go a long way in making us feel the emotional heaviness of each character's predicament. Whether you're delighted or disgusted, it's just simply impossible to look away, which is the ultimate testament to the undeniable talents of a storyteller at the top of his game. 

Monday, March 14, 2016

Carnage (France/Germany/Poland/Spain; Roman Polanski, 2011)

    Distancing himself from the typical cinematic manipulations for which he is renowned with films such as The Tenant, Rosemary's Baby or even  The Pianist, Polanski here mostly (and appropriately) hands over the reins of the storytelling duties to the actors and their script. Adapted by Polanski and Yasmina Reza from her play Le Dieu du Carnage, it tells the simple tale of two sets of parents (Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly & Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz) who meet up one afternoon to discuss the implications of a violent altercation involving their sons. Seemingly trapped in this endless discussion that always manages to endure just a little longer, tensions escalate to a point where all four ultimately rip each other to shreds with words of repressed contempt. While loyalties never last long among the members of the group, beginning with each couple's loyalty to each other, passing through a shift into a temporary gender alliance to finally culminate in a raucous state of everyone-for-themselves chaos, the one that does survive belongs to the absent characters around which this entire shit-storm revolves: the children. 

   Bared down to its bones, Carnage is a simple illustration of how once someone becomes a parent, the child's existence becomes the main object of attention, even it their absence. To paraphrase Michael Longstreet (Reilly), kids drain the life out of you and suck you dry. While obviously extreme in wording, the reality of its essence is partially acknowledged here. The influence of their actions drive the parents to the brink of insanity even when not dealing with them directly, dominating their lives on a daily basis. Furthermore, the two book-ending sequences in which we actually see the boys in question (one where the assault happens and the other showing them having supposedly made up) seem to suggest that this parental bickering is practically useless as kids will, in their own way, eventually deal with the problem themselves. 

 While the themes observed aren't necessarily fresh, the abundant amount of performing talent and unexpected narrative situations that are strangely easy to relate to make this a engaging portrait of domestic deterioration. In a way denouncing the possible self-aggrandizing dimensions of parenthood, the film shows how the pretext of child concern may sometimes mask true intentions of self-concern. Specific references to the children in question are relatively few and far between, even though they are the initial focus that brought all four together. The subject of conversation quickly shifts to the parents themselves. And then the scotch comes out...

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Gainsbourg: Vie Héroïque (France; Johann Sfar, 2010)

  Apart from his notorious reputation of being France's most iconic musical bad boy, I didn't know much about Gainsbourg's life, or his music for that matter, before screening this exhilarating take on the essence of his life. Having heard his name many times during musically-themed conversations, I was aware that he had quite a following even here in Quebec,and so was curious to see what was so appealing about this deep-talking nicotine fiend.

   At the end of the film, just before the credits, the director quotes himself saying the he has too much respect for Gainsbourg to attempt a realistic approach; and that in any case, it's not Gainsbourg's truths that interests him, but his lies. This statement is greatly reflective of the film's overall tone and atmosphere as the real world is constantly being intruded upon by life-sized marionettes, animated alter-egos and spontaneous musical numbers that serve to externalize the inner world of this multi-talented, eccentric artist who constantly marched to his own, destructive beat. While some of the outer-body exchanges between Gainsbourg (Eric Elmosnino) and his various forms of consciousness sometimes appear tacky and thus hard to take seriously (the four Keystone Cops in Teletubby suits especially come to mind here), the overall result is an effective portrayal of a life that seems to be more concretely rooted in fantasy than reality, including when perceived by the singer himself.

    Women... One can't talk about this polished of piece of entertainment without mentioning the driving force behind Gainsbourg's tumultuous life. Whether he's trying to manipulate his mother into buying him a gun or attempting to get a woman almost 20 years his senior to take her bra off for a portrait under pretext that he can't draw them yet, he is shown to be a fervent fan of women from very early on. 12 year-old Kacey Mottet Klein is brilliant in his portrayal of a cocky Gainsbourg who knows he's going places, and wants to take every women with him on the way there. While the film is primarily interested in exploring his two main relationships, with Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta) and wife Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon), his appreciation for the female form and presence is portrayed as being equaled only by his love for cigarettes, a fact evidently well-known to all those familiar with his often sexually implicit songs. The scene in which he and Birkin present the demo of Je t'aime... Moi non plus to a shocked producer is priceless. 

 While sometimes suffering from a unsteady screenplay, this fable-like biopic quickly makes up for it with a terrific cast, a deep respect for its subject and a capacity to immerse the audience into Gainsbourg's internal universe; a universe filled with smoke, music and body heat... 
Not a bad way to spend a Saturday night.