Sunday, July 25, 2010
5. Head First
7. Shiny And Warm
8. I Wanna Life
The fifth studio album from Goldfrapp, the English electronic duo of Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory, sees them venture firmly into the world of 80s synth pop. What's worked with the 80s pop revival for the likes of Delphic, Chew Lips and La Roux lies firmly in the fact that they've made it their own. Whilst their work is distinctly eighties in feel and sound there is an element that clearly identifies it as modern and of far more substance than the majority of the eighties synth pop, which lay firmly in the initial world of electronic discovery. Melodically, lyrically and vocally each of the aforementioned acts have brought something new to the table, which has meant their contributions to this 80s revival have been noteworthy. For Goldfrapp, the act one might expect to make a better fist of this foray, very little works as Head First amounts to a whole that seems lacklustre comparative to their other work. Head First sounds merely eighties rather than inspired by it and ultimately sounds like a bunch of original covers.
The first single, 'Rocket', is typical of Head First. With the recognisable breathy vocals of Goldfrapp and the eighties beat and distinct synth sound there is a general lack of meatiness amidst the track's 3:53 runtime. It's a whispiness that plagues the whole album, which sounds surprising considering that in fact it was what made their previous album, Seventh Tree, a triumph. Here it merely sounds gutless.
That ethereal quality to Seventh Tree did in fact evoke a quite angelic feel to what was going on but here it leaves the listener wanting more than what is delivered. Lyrically, Track 2 'Believer' sums it up best, "A cupid on the go, no arrow and no bow."
There are enough bits of interest to stop Head First from being a complete waste of time, particularly in the likes of the referential 'Dreaming', which harks to the seventies and eighties hey day of Fleetwood Mac and the Björk-ish sounding 'Voicething', but they're few and far between. Head First is but a blip on the music canon of Goldfrapp and a murmur in the discussion of music in 2010.
Monday, July 19, 2010
Gore is nothing new either but with the developments in make-up design and CGI effects so did the gore intensify. Gone were the days of fake blood and guts. Here was as close to the real thing as one could get and audiences seemed to lap it up. Entire franchises began to spring up, again not a new thing, but where the focus was on the horror villain in the past such as Jason or Freddy Kreuger now it had become on the killing that was taking place.
Saw took horror to a completely different level. Upping the ante on the gore and beginning the torture-fest trend of noughties horror, it made over $100 000 in a two-month release. It also began a franchise that currently sits at six films whilst in turn making it the biggest-grossing franchise within the horror genre. Ever. Whilst it kept up the tradition of having a central character at its core, in this case Jigsaw, other films that followed in its path tended to merely focus on the gore and the finite detail in how the film's victims were killed. The Hostel films followed as did the Americanised versions of the Asian horror films that had so creepily and eerily thrilled audiences in Asia for years.
This shift in tone of horror has been examined by many and identified by some as a direct result of September 11, however, that aside it cannot be argued that audiences aren't still lining up for it with each new film that opens. The barrage may be over but its mark has indelibly been left. For the reality of the gore has seeped its way into even more mainstream and arthouse fare. Television has even been impacted as the crime-scene genre upped the gore relative to their usual fare. Tempered when compared to cinema, it has still, it could be argued, been as a direct result of audiences' willingness to accept the gore that it has become more common fare on the big screen.
So what to make of it when one of the world's premiere arthouse auteurs plays his hand? Lars von Trier, one of the original Dogme 95 practitioners, had up until Antichrist made films about females with edge. From Breaking The Waves to Dancer In The Dark to Dogville to Manderlay, his films given major releases were controversial and for the most part divisive. Whilst the focus was more often than not on the technical side of his films with criticism coming from traditionalists towards the Dogme rules, it wasn't until Antichrist that the controversy shifted wholeheartedly towards his subject matter. Sure, Dogville and Dancer In The Dark raised interesting questions about his treatment of his female characters and numerous rumours about his mysoginistic attitudes towards his female cast members always fueled conjecture about his personal life and attitudes, however, it was not until the sheer graphic nature of Antichrist that people seemed to completely get up in arms. Von Trier was not a foreigner to the potential of graphic film either. The Idiots featured strong depictions of sex and Dogville a quite appalling suggestion of rape, however, the sheer ferocity of some scenes in Antichrist seemed to shock some viewers far beyond the line von Trier had previously led them.
Antichrist tells the story of a married couple, He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) on the verge of irreparable breakdown after the death of their son, Nick. Beginning with a stunningly shot black and white sequence of the couple having sex in the shower, the film shows its hand quite early on with what appears to be actual shots of vaginal penetration. Whilst this isn't shocking in itself what is is the inclusion of the shot within the sequence being shown. Is von Trier trying to provoke? Is he trying to be controversial? These are criticisms all labelled at the film but what those criticisms don't negate is the fact that this scene in effect has significant power. And that's where von Trier seems to get past the controversy. For later on even further acts of sexual activity, including a scene of a hand job after a horrendous act of violence, don't seem to take away from the sense that this is a family in absolute decay. The power is palpable.
But what is he trying to say? Who knows? might be the best answer but as his talking fox divulges, "Chaos reigns," and that may in fact be the biggest clue as to what indeed von Trier is trying to say. For as a whole Antichrist is a horror film of sheer domestic chaos. From the manipulation of He as the psychoanalyst to the infliction of significant violence by She as the patient Antichrist turns into one absolute hell-hole of unanswered questions. For whilst the suggestion is there that She could have stopped the death of their son and that in fact she was behind it all along, the shoes scene is significantly telling, what the hell has the genital mutilation scene got to do with anything? Is the idea of castration punishment? Is von Trier suggesting that the sensation of pleasure being removed is the personal consequence deemed appropriate by She as she nears the film's conclusion?
Whatever was going on in von Trier's head, what can't be argued against is that the man knows how to make a movie. Antichrist is a visual splendor. It's the most beautifully shot film he's made and he illicits two brave turns from his leads. In the end, however, the questions far outweigh any answers he gives and one is left wondering if indeed he is merely pulling tricks left, right and centre to shock for the sake of shocking.
Pulling tricks left, right and centre lies at the heart of the Swedish adaptation of the late Stieg Larsson's best-selling novel, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. The first film of the trilogy arrives ahead of the inevitable American version with all guns blazing and a searing grubbiness that sets it apart from the majority of other crime thrillers.
Following Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) and his fight to clear his name of a libel case against a wealthy industrialist, the story shifts gear and begins to tell that of Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) a twenty-something tech genius who works as an investigator and fights too for her own rights as she battles a welfare system that has kept her in care for the majority of her life. Disturbed and insular, Lisbeth is a firecracker, and as dangerous, as she hides behind a peculiar beauty and a huge potential to explode.
The first of the connections between the two arises when she is hired to investigate Blomkvist who has been chosen by another man of wealth, Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), to investigate the disappearance of his great niece decades earlier. Blomkvist, facing prison time, is convinced to partake and so begins the messiness of the convoluted but utterly gripping plot.
A potential who-done-it thriller sounds far from the world of horror but what quickly becomes clear is that Sweden, in this view, is a dark and sinister place. For Lisbeth is brutally raped in a scene that is incredibly difficult to watch and the griminess and evil at the centre of the investigation that becomes clear, will leave many with acrid tastes in their mouths. Why would we want to see this on screen? Well, the answer is clear and it lies in the heart of the matter and that's the fact that it's a ripper yarn told with clarity and a tight hand and eye of a solid director, Niels Arden Oplev. The narrative is intriguing and the sense of place intoxicating as Blomkvist and Salander journey together on this tale of something far darker than we were perhaps initially made to believe.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a nifty little film that wil leave the Americans behind the remake potentially shaking in their boots. They've a substantial amount up to which to live.
Never once troubling anyone to even consider remaking it, M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening is an absolute mess of ideas and execution that fails on almost every level. Telling the story of Elliot (Mark Wahlberg) and his family as they try to escape from a bizarre environmental payback that causes victims to kill themselves when they come into contact with a particular neurotoxin, Shyamalan opts for that twist-in-the-tale structure and quiet sense of tension he used so effectively in The Sixth Sense. What goes wrong here is his absolute disdain for the audience's ability to follow sensical plot developments in favour of style. It completely lacks substance.
Shot beautifully, the film looks grand up on the big screen but that does nothing to circumvent the fact that stuck in the middle of this picture is a big fat turkey. Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel, two idiosyncratic actors who are just wrong for this tale, struggle monumentally to convince that they are in fact not bad actors and Shyamalan's ending, to suggest it's going to happen all over again in another place, is a kick in the head for anyone who already checked out about an hour earlier.
At only just over an hour and a half the film still feels long, which goes to suggest that perhaps this environmental allegory might have made a significantly better short film. If he hadn't proved it before, he has here. Shyamalan's a one-trick-pony and that pony is lame. The horror here lies purely in the fact that The Happening is as bad as many suggest.
It's a similar horror in Peter Jackson's adaptation of the massively successful Alice Sebold novel, The Lovely Bones. Taking what is a pretty harrowing and evocative source material, he dumbs it down in favour for imagery losing what it is at the very centre of the piece that makes it such an affecting read.
What should be a horror story of the real kind turns out to be a story far from that as he fails to get under the skin of either of the parents (Mark Wahlberg, again miscast, and Rachel Weisz, strangely ineffective) or that of the kidnapper/killer (a wrongly Oscar-nominated Stanley Tucci who has been far better in other places). Hell, he even loses sight of his protagonist, Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) which is a feat in and of itself considering how wholeheartedly Ronan throws herself into the role.
What causes the film to derail so badly is Jackson's complete misread of the emotional side of the story. He stops any traction that might take hold, particularly within Jack's storyline, and whilst humour is important to lighten the mood he uses it inappropriately with the introduction of Susie's grandmother, Lynn (Susan Sarandon).
The visual effects abound as Jackson focuses on the fantasy elements of the film but this too has disastrous impact on the emotional gravitas of the story being told. This should be a harrowing tale and in the end it is not. It's neither an uplifting one or even an interesting one as the story parts are left to flounder singularly amidst a whole that just doesn't gel together very well.
It is frustrating to see a film that should have been great turn out not bad but simply mediocre. At least with a bad film you could blame incompetency or blatant misinterpretation. In this case it just seems to be as a result of an auteur who simply may have got far too big for his boots. The Lovely Bones ain't that lovely even in the horror sense.
Far more shocking than most of what the modern horror genre can produce is what lies amidst the 109 minutes we see of the life of Claireece Precious Jones in Precious: Based On The Novel 'Push' By Sapphire. As played by newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, Precious is a quiet, insular shell of a young woman, illiterate and pregnant with her second child to her own father. The victim of incestuous rape and constant beatings at the hands of both of her parents, her mother ironically named Mary (Mo'Nique), Precious suffers in a self-imposed silence as she lies deep within the morbidly obese frame of her body.
Forced from her school she begins lessons in a learning centre for troubled teen girls where she receives tough love from the gifted teacher employed at the centre, Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), and begins to realise that there is more to herself than what she is told, particularly by her mother.
This isn't a new story. In fact it's a story seemingly built upon what could be viewed as a series of cliches, however, it's the treatment it is given by the cast that sheds new light. For the honesty and sheer courage of the performers is so raw and real that as an audience it is hard to deny that Precious's life is relatively close to hell on Earth.
Sidibe is a revelation in her first ever role as she moves through this horror-filled life and she's supported wonderfully by fierce performances by Mo'Nique, Paula Patton, Sherri Shepherd who again proves she has the potential to be a far better dramatic performer than a comedic one, Lenny Kravitz and a surprisingly effective Mariah Carey as Precious's counsellor, Mrs. Weiss. The supporting cast in the school - Stephanie Andujar, Chyna Layne, Amina Robinson, Xosha Roquemore, Angelic Zambrana and Aunt Dot - also add depth to a section of the film that could have, and in fact sometimes does, delve into far less interesting territory à la Dangerous Minds, Sister Act 2: Back In The Habit, or Mr. Holland's Opus as the treacle is laid on thick. The film turns towards something far less brave and strangely far less honest in this section, which does unfortunately bring a ring of falsity at some points, however, director Lee Daniels never forgets where this story is set and where it is headed and using Sapphire's novel, 'Push', as its source material he somewhat clunkily redirects it in a way we sadly know the film needs to go for it to be truly authentic.
This is a story of hope, barely, but it is a story given power due to the integrity of its components. There is an undeniable belief on screen that this is a story of a young woman that needs to be told and, it's true, it brings forth an element of 'our' lives that sadly seems to be being waylaid for the troubles of celebrity and the false grandeur that surrounds it. What truth is there in something that is at its core fake? Precious: Based On The Novel 'Push' By Sapphire subtly looks at the world to which we have suddenly given creedence and respectfully and wholeheartedly gives it the middle finger. For what more of an honest answer can one give than a telling of the truth? No matter how ugly it is. Precious is tough and at times torturous but it's a pain worth dealing with as is usually the case with any reality-check.
Lars von Trier
Denmark ׀ Germany ׀ France ׀ Sweden ׀ Italy ׀ Poland
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO
Niels Arden Oplev
Sweden ׀ Denmark ׀ Germany ׀ Norway
M. Night Shyamalan
USA ׀ India
THE LOVELY BONES
USA ׀ UK ׀ New Zealand
PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL 'PUSH' BY SAPPHIRE
Saturday, July 17, 2010
- Clarion Call
- This Momentary
- Red Lights
The cover of Acolyte, the debut album from four-piece electro-pop Delphic, suggests quite clearly the airiness and atmosphere that lays hidden within its fifty-odd minutes of playtime. Hailing from Greater Manchester, the quartet - made up of Richard Boardman, Matt Cocksedge, James Cook and Dan Hadley - are an exciting by-product of the noughties electro-synth revival that is severely and unapologetically throwing back to the eighties but with gusto and a clear sense of reform.
What seems to be differentiating the onslaught of the work being produced now is a reliance on tightly written lyrics and an understanding that what is being said is in most cases now more important than ever. Sure, the sentiment of love lost and growing up maybe the same but there's a sophistication present now that really only graced the work of a few during the eighties pop scene, particularly in the UK. As the Internet makes accessibility to work easier the smaller and more alternative artists are finding their work being noticed and whilst there is an absolute deluge of crap soaking the airwaves there are those little gems that seem to be getting the airplay that may have, in the past, eluded them.
Delphic's debut LP is a prime example of that in there really is no scene-stealing, top-charting single amongst the ten tracks, however, what mixes together is a lovely bunch of truly beautiful and atmospheric odes to growing older and to young love in this generation of mass communication and media. From the shifting beat and lovely introduction of the electronic sounds that soak Acolyte in the first track, 'Clarion Call', Delphic do one thing well and that's not to distract from the melodies they've done wonders in creating. The electronic beats only add in the case of track 1 helping build it to its climax. It's a killer start and with an anthemic lyric line running through it, "A call to all. A call to arms. A call to everything you wanted. It's your life. It's your life. It's your life," it's no wonder why Delphic seemed to be getting responses from their fans.
Track 2, 'Doubt', lays testament to the cleverness of their writing too as it begins with the sounding out of the vowels in a prelude to a barrage of energetic questions that really in the end, as they suggest, do leave nothing but doubt. Other tracks that hit the mark, such as 'Remain', 'Counterpoint' and 'This Momentary', rely on their lyrical strength but it's when they combine perfectly with the music as is the case in the album's two best tracks, 'Red Lights' and 'Halcyon' that Delphic hit paydirt. Neither offering an indictment of their generation or of young love, 'Red Lights' is a mere representation of the single-mindedness that seems to be helping their generation to get what it is that they want. If saying, "I wouldn't stop for red lights. I wouldn't come up for air," isn't clear enough, what is?
That leaves other questions to be asked but in this case they're irrelevant. It'll be interesting to see whether Delphic address them in their future. If Acolyte is anything to go by we can only hope that they do and in much the same way they have here. Acolyte is a cracker.
It's beyond the contemplation of a film to begin to even understand the ramifications of the actions of September 11 or to even try to explain them from either side of the argument but what one can understand is the sense of true anguish acts of terrorism cause. From within and without the sense that the act itself is in its warped way a conciliatory event cannot be denied. For whilst there is a danger and complete disregard to life in most acts of terrorism against humanity there is the undeniable breakdown of everyone's humanity involved. It is usually how quickly that humanity recouperates that unites, particularly within the group against which the act has been committed. What though of the group committing the terror?
There have been films and documentaries examining the construct of terrorist groups for decades. From the Munich incident in 1972 to the Symbionese Liberation Army abduction of Patty Hearst in 1974 to the IRA attacks throughout the seventies and eighties film viewers have been given insights into both sides of the story. The Baader Meinhof Complex takes this approach in examining the Red Army Faction (RAF) in Germany from the late 60s to the late 70s. Whilst it spends the majority of its time with those involved with the RAF the film never panders to the fact that perhaps there will be those who see the perspective of terrorists as being glorified when examined. It's a brave stance to take as it will be seen to be a legitimate criticism of a film when the humanity of a terrorist is presented. Many will argue too that that is in itself an impossiblity, however, the question has to be asked that is it not the very humanity within one committing acts of terrorism that needs to be looked at to allow one to understand how the act can be committed in the first place? For is it not as we follow Martina Gedeck's portrayal of Ulrike Meinhof that we truly understand how the breaking down of this person is in itself what has caused her to be able to commit the very acts in which she ends up being a participant? Isn't empathising the only true way to understand? It's not condoning or even understanding. Is it not merely searching for an explanation to minimise the future of carnage in the future?
The Baader Meinhof Complex interestingly steers clear of moralising in any way. Victims from both sides are ruthlessly killed and as the era of the seventies, in particular, is evocatively recreated the sense of unease and unrest is constantly present through this edgy sense of the tangible. At two-and-a-half hours the film is, however, surprisingly, at times, lacking in depth. Beyond merely retelling the actual events, motive and sentiment are left by the way as the too-many characters interweave in this world of hysteria and counteraction. Having said that The Baader Meinhof Complex, deserving of its Oscar nomination, is an intriguing puzzle-piece of a film that without doubt has merit as an inclusion to the canon of film on the topic of terrorism and civil-unrest. The more we talk, it could be suggested, the closer we get to being on the same page at the same time.
It's funny because being on the same page is eventually what the soldiers of the German and British fronts were during World War I in Beneath Hill 60. This Australian film from Australian actor turned director Jeremy Sims tells of the story of the Australian soldiers charged with the digging of a series of tunnels to literally undermine the German enemy. Using a variety of skilled experts, the film tells of the social hierarchy at play during the war and particularly between the soldiers of immediate British descent and those from the colony of Australia.
As the story progresses, the focus shifts to that of Captain Oliver Woodward (Brendan Cowell) and his recollection of the development of the battle as well as of the relationship with his future wife, Marjorie (Bella Heathcote). For a film trying to discover the truth of the sheer isolation of being underground, Beneath Hill 60 lacks a real tension. There is never any doubt as to where this story is headed, which is a bizarre fact considering the actual story of the Hill 60 mob is little known.
Whilst both sides of the story are treated with respect, some of the better performances are from those actors playing the German underground soldiers (David Ritchie, Kenneth Spiteri and Marcus Costello), the film itself does nothing to actually differentiate itself from the huge catalogue of war films already in existence. Performances are uniformly sound though Cowell struggles to convince as a lead and the production values adequate, however, in the end one wonders whether the real heart of the matter is lost at the expense of trying to spin a good yarn. Experience tells us that good storytelling requires little else and in this case that is the core of the problem. The storytelling in the end is far less brave than the soldiers presented on screen. As a whole, Beneath Hill 60 is a major disappointment.
Avoiding the realms of disappointment but belonging firmly to the land of utterly messy is the Tilda Swinton vehicle, Julia. Directed by Erick Zonca, it tells of Julia (Swinton) who is at the precipice of destruction as she battles alcohol and the ramifications of random sex. Through a chance meeting with a fellow AA meeting-goer (Kate del Castillo), Julia embarks on a plan to kidnap the woman's son from the boy's grandson.
What begins as a case in the improbable or at least unlikely soon begins to rattle along as Julia decides to follow through on the plan after originally resisting. This is where the film succeeds because whilst every ounce of common sense within the viewer is questioning all that is going on it is still flagrantly obvious that Julia is a woman in a state far from common sense. As she endeavours to escape with the boy she encounters further problems as the boy is in turn kidnapped by professional Mexican kidnappers. What to do as Julia, so wracked with guilt, begins to question the sense that this may in fact be like what it is to be a mother.
Zonca's film is an utter mess. It's a mess of narrative and plot that fails to question any sense of lack of reality, however, in doing just that it lets that tale of the improbable end up ringing true. This is largely due to the performance of Swinton who proves, once again, what a fantastic actress she is on screen. Absent of the traditional movie-star looks or persona she is an enigma on screen and once again proof of the differential there can be in mothers on screen. We've seen her in this parental-drunk fierceness before in The Deep End and watched the determination present even when representing something borderline between what is morally right and wrong in Michael Clayton, however, we've not seen her so wholeheartedly and honestly disappear on screen. She is uniformly both mother and slut, killer and caretaker, provider and taker and ultimately perhaps the most human we've seen her.
It's not simply the Swinton show, however, as she is given ample support by a career-best Saul Rubinek as her friend, Mitch, and let loose by Zonca who trusts and understands what this story is about. In the end Julia is all over the place as far as movies go but, oh, how glorious an experience it ultimately proves to be by the time it is finished.
Less glorious and more of a mess is the Michael Mann-helmed Public Enemies, telling the story of famed bankrobber, John Dillinger. Reproducing the 1930s, Mann sets a miscast Johnny Depp as Dillinger up against a by-the-numbers Christian Bale as Melvin Purvis, the agent from the Bureau set the task of ending Dillinger's crime spree.
It's interesting that Mann takes on this story in the glossy way he does as his better films, Heat and The Insider for example, tend to lie themselves in a much more earthy and lived-in tone. Here, he fails to find the connection between his audience and the story leaving no one really looking far beyond the surface. It's this failure to get beneath the skin of Dillinger that truly lets Public Enemies down. One only has to look at the modern Animal Kingdom, a crime film similar in narrative, to see how the relationships and thinking of the main protagonists can be equally investigated and felt without giving way to sentimentality or at the expense of plot.
Another fine turn from Marion Cotillard as Dillinger's lover, Billie Frechette notwithstanding, there is very little to recommend from this watchable but, most damningly, forgettable Mann vehicle.
Certainly far from forgettable is Spike Jonze's interpretation of the seminal children's picture book by Maurice Sendak, Where The Wild Things Are. Written with Dave Eggers, Jonze has produced the exact feeling of being ostracised as a child without sentiment or any hint of patronisation. For here is a boy, Max (Max Records), who is at war with his world. It is a world betraying him as he uses what he knows, his anger and his ability to express his anger, to fight back and let anyone and everyone know that not only is he unhappy but he is afraid.
As he fights back against the fear associated with a potential new parental figure in the boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) of his mother (Catherine Keener) entering the scene, Max finds himself escaping to the world of the Wild Things. Encountering the social interactions of the constantly bickering yet somehow co-existing Wild Things Max begins to introduce rules and suggestions as to how the Wild Things live after they name him king. Voiced beautifully by a wonderful supporting cast (James Gandolfini, Paul Dano, Catherine O'Hara, Forest Whitaker, Michael Berry Jr., Chris Cooper, Lauren Ambrose and Jonze), the Wild Things are perfect creations and the lovely attention to the costuming and the detailing of the sets suggests that the filmmakers were aware how important the reality of the piece was in a world so already unreal. By limiting the impact of the visual effect, Jonze has in effect let Max create his world himself.
The film wouldn't work if the performance of Max Records wasn't up to par but his turn is a beautiful mix of spirited anger and baleful stares. His understanding of Max, the character, appears well beyond his years. Using effective music and voicework from Karen O from Yeah Yeah Yeahs and letting this simple story of loneliness speak for itself, Jonze has created another fantastic work for a small but nearing brilliant personal catalogue of film that already includes Being John Malkovich and Adaptation.. He is a real danger to create a serious masterpiece within his career and that's a danger of which noone should be afraid.
THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX
Alexandra Maria Lara
Jan Josef Liefers
Germany ׀ France ׀ Czech Republic
BENEATH HILL 60
Steve Le Marquand
Mark Coles Smith
Kate del Castillo
France ׀ USA ׀ Mexico ׀ Belgium
Emilie De Ravin
WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE
Michael Berry Jr.
USA ׀ Germany
Monday, July 12, 2010
Mental health is a significant issue in the Western World. Whether the diminishment in human resilience is based upon a lack of narrative lesson through one's childhood or due to the barrage of image and sound from the mass media which dilutes one's own sense of self is not certain, however, what is known is that for many it is debilitating and potentially fraught with significant dangers. William Styron noted in his small biography, Darkness Visible, of the seeming meaninglessness of the term depression but what he did not note as meaningless was the depths to which one can be dragged downwards. It's without certainty too what the best or most definitive course of action is to cater for depression, which makes it all the more difficult to understand and comprehend.
What is known though is that it can affect people in a multitude of ways and through a multitude of causes. The HBO series In Treatment takes a look at one of the methods of treatment for mental health issues in that of counselling given by a trained professional. In this case the professional is the psychiatrist, Dr. Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne). Season 1 of the series follows his sessions with five patients over a period of nine weeks as he helps them deal with a gamut of circumstances from erotic transference to suicide to marriage problems to the weight of expectation. Originally shown throughout the week the structure of the show could be seen as gimmicky, however, when viewed in its DVD format the structure more or less becomes irrelevant. The only significance given the timing of the piece, noted in each episode's title, is the fact that they help identify Paul's state of mind as his week progresses.
The first patient of Paul's week, for the most part, is always Laura (Melissa George). About to turn thirty, Laura is a doctor in a hospital. Recalling a series of sexual exploits, she confronts Paul very early on in her sessions with a secret that may potentially have significant impact upon Paul's life. Laura is an annoyance of a character. She seems contrived, however, it's the very nature of her as a person which makes the viewer feel that. In essence that is what she is. She is a contrivance. Attention-seeking in the worst form she's an intelligent woman seemingly lacking the control of her body or her emotions as she battles the scars from a childhood in no way close to being balanced. The brilliance of this particular storyline lies within the casting of George. The Australian redhead is usually a loose cannon on screen. She's really done nothing of significant merit that would suggest she'd be capable of the depth she presents here. It's a telling performance that suggests, perhaps she truly understood the goings on within Laura's head.
Laura's Monday sessions bring forth Paul's Tuesday sessions with Alex (Blair Underwood). A returned navy pilot, he is dealing with the burden of parental and familial pressure all whilst trying to come to terms with the fact that he is finding it very hard to feel anything with regard to the innocents he killed in a mistaken bombing in Iraq. Alex too is a contrivance of sorts. He's a character of arrogance waiting to be broken down to allow Paul exactly where he needs to be to get to the truth of the matter. Hints are given to Alex's true motives but what emerges as the season progresses are a few twists and turns that suggest therapy doesn't always end up where one might initially expect.
As is the case for Paul's Wednesday sessions with a sixteen-year-old Olympic hopeful in gymnast, Sophie (Mia Wasikowska). Another Australiana mongst the cast Wasikowska presents Sophie as a both fiercely intellectual and feebly childlike emotional mess. Attending therapy at the insistence of her mother and an insurance company battling claims over the authenticity of the 'accident' that has left her significantly injured, Sophie must come to terms with the pressures of her sport and the breakdown of her parents' marriage. Hers is a telling tale amidst the five being told throughout the week for Sophie is a contradiction. She is at times both on the verge of breakdown and breakthrough. She argues and yet she falls apart. Wasikowska is perhaps the true revelation of the piece. She gets completely under the skin of Sophie mimicking the essence of a teen whilst truly understanding what it is that has got her to this place she is in. It's a wonderful, lived-in performance.
Paul's counselling relationship with Sophie is followed up by his continued difficulties to get anywhere close to both Jake (Josh Charles) and Amy (Embeth Davidtz). A married couple on the verge of separation, they present again a relationship formed with the concept of what it is that makes one happy and committed crashing heads with the reality of the situation. Questions not asked prior to the matrimony now bear their ugly heads and in so doing present both of them with dilemmas neither are equipped to handle. This is perhaps where the first fault in the piece arises as Charles struggles in the early stages to convince of the authenticity of Jake as a character. He is borderline caricature as the incessantly trustless Jake in their first session. Nuance gives way to obviousness so much so that one wonders what on earth Amy would see in him in the first place. This shifts about midway through their sessions as if it were either a change in the direction of Jake as a character or that Charles finally clicked into what it was that got Jake so close to delivering on his anger-filled exhaltations.
Anger too is what in the end forces Paul into a conversational liaison with former colleague Gina (Dianne Wiest). Also a psychiatrist, Gina acts as mentor and therapist to Paul as he is faced with his humanity as he struggles to deal with the goings-on of his current patient workload. The relationship that exists between Paul and Gina is made all the more real by the chemistry between Byrne and Wiest. Both are formidable actors but onscreen, together, they are a complete dynamo. Their sessions are uniformly the strongest and as they progress to include Paul's wife, Kate (Michelle Forbes), and discussions of his three children, Ian (Jake Richardson), Rosie (Mae Whitman - very good) and Max (Max Burkholder), one begins to understand how personal history impacts upon those trained to listen and question as much as those who seek those skills.
In the end In Treatment is a masterclass in television drama. It envelops and engages all whilst shedding light on what it is to be human. It may not all work as some of the episodes, particularly those early on, seem a little in the vein of Psych 101, however, by midway through, the beginnings of a season of fantastic drama unfold and firmly take hold. In treatment? Yes, this viewer certainly has his place on that psychiatrist's couch.
Saturday, July 3, 2010
What makes this sojourn into Edwardian England as bitingly funny as it is, is the sheer honesty with which O'Toole delivers his curmudgeonly Fisk Senior. He is, with every flick of his eyebrow and turn of his tongue, a sharp and cranky old miser who complains about but eventually longs for, as does his housekeeper Mrs Brimley (Judy Parfitt), each Thursday spent with his son.
Entering the tale at this point are the questionable Dean Spanley (Sam Neill) and Wrather (Bryan Brown) who through a series of concocted plans become an integral part to the story as the Dean shows a peculiar reaction - he seemingly turns into a Welsh Spaniel from a past life - when drinking a rare wine. Fraser's film is a hodge-podge of sinister and silly antics but it all works, largely due to the lovely production design and the performances from the hugely experienced cast. O'Toole completely steals the film but he's followed closely behind by Parfitt who is again wonderfully droll in a potentially thankless role.
Again, what sets Dean Spanley apart from other recent attempts at comedy is its acceptance that at its heart there is natural humour present. There is no intent to force the humour and in effect no need to wring it for all its worth. Dean Spanley is a lovely one-hundred minute ride.
At one-hundred and five minutes and just as lovely, for the most part, is the Paul Rudd vehicle, I Love You, Man. Mining the rom-com genre for what it's worth but slightly turning it on its head as it focuses on a bro-mance, this silly but energetic comedy leaves pretension at the door and sails along quite nicely on the coattails of its star.
Never quite achieving the success Clueless seemed to promise him back in the mid-nineties, Rudd has hit all the home bases here using his cute puppy-dog-looks and innate ability to be kookily funny without being odd. The story is nothing new as a man searches for a best man for his wedding and the inclusion of Jason Segel (I just don't get him) is slightly wearisome, however, what the film amounts to is an easy-to-watch love fest of the friend order that soars at times - Rudd's dancing is charming - but crawls along the sewer ground at others - dog poo jokes! Really? - leaving one as satsified as they might be surviving on a diet of Jatz and cheese, that is full but yearning for some greens.
By its end Rudd manages to succeed in making you forget what it is you've been digesting. He's an actor who should be in more than he is and one would hope that perhaps this might afford him and cinema-goers more opportunities to bear witness to that.
What one might also bear witness to more of is the animation work of Tatia Rosenthal, an Israeli-born New York resident who co-wrote the screenplay for $9.99, an Israeli-Australian co-production, with Israeli writer Etgar Keret.
Set in a Sydney apartment complex it focuses on the life of Dave Peck (Samuel Johnson), an unemployed twenty-something who searches for the meaning of life through a book sold for $9.99 rather than through the experiences going on around him. Featuring a vulgar angel (Geoffrey Rush) and a bevy of beautiful men and women, some bizarrely de-boned after quite graphic sex, this exercise in the bizarre is a unique and odd experiment in stop-motion animation. Lovingly created with some ingenious production design and designed with an artist's eye $9.99 doesn't answer many of the questions it asks but it does take one on a smirk-worthy journey through the unexpectedly sweet.
In the end, man bean-bags and all, $9.99 is a feast for the eye of any animation fan who is even remotely interested in seeing what's beyond the world of Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks and even Studio Ghibli.
And interest in the remote is what has made the Coen boys the household names they are within those households, anyway, who have a bent towards the unusual. Somehow the Coens have, over their long career, been able to find the utterly strange in the everyday and transport that to our screens with both vision and wit. Whether it be the insanely idiotic desperation of a scamming husband in Fargo or the maniacal murderous ways of a cross-country travelling hitman in No Country For Old Men or the scheming vengeance of a barber in The Man Who Wasn't There, the Coens have delivered in one way or another in just about every film they've made. So what to make of the much-closer-to-home events in A Serious Man?
Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor at a college struggling with his wife's infidelity, a conniving student, his son's foray into drugs, his daughter's preoccupation with non-Jewish facial features and a racist, ground-stealing neighbour is a man in the midst of mayhem. Add in other problems such as his burgeoning desire for his neighbour's sun-baking wife, a car accident and a series of unhelpful rabbis and you have a sheer life of disaster on your hands.
In the Coens' hands, however, the film is a masterpiece of humour very black in kind. For Stuhlbarg's Larry is a mess of a man finding it hard to stand up for himself and finding it hard to resist temptation as a result of his very weaknesses bringing him the grief in the first place.
The performances are all top-notch with Richard Kind, Sari Lennick, Fred Melamed, Aaron Wolff and Jessica McManus particularly good as Larry's family, however, it's the supporting performances of Amy Landecker, David Kang, Alan Mandell, Peter Breitmayer and Adam Arkin among others that lend an authenticity to the goings on that make A Serious Man work. Even the prologue of an arguing Jewish husband and wife works with Allen Lewis Rickman, Yelena Shmulenson and Fyvush Finkel hilariously on point in their brief screentime.
However, the film belongs to Stuhlbarg. A virtual unknown, his is a lived-in performance highlighting the mannerisms and nuances of his character which have contributed to him being literally walked over by everyone in his life. It's a bravura and wonderful comedic turn.
Performances aside, the Coens know how to make a film. A Serious Man is beautiful to look at, neatly edited and tightly scripted. It is obvious that this is a film with a lot of their past in it. The Jewish experience has rarely been seen so funnily presented on the big screen. One only has Joel and Ethan Coen to thank for that.
New Zealand ׀ UK
I LOVE YOU, MAN
Israel ׀ Australia
A SERIOUS MAN
Ethan Coen ׀ Joel Coen
Allen Lewis Rickman
USA ׀ UK ׀ France