Lars von Trier’s Melancholia begins with a series of tableaux that, like the opening of his previous film Antichrist, could be a demented perfume ad.  This time around, however, he’s putting his cards on the table at the very start.  The images reflect both the mental state of its two main characters and a portent for things to come. A bride is being ensnared by limbs and roots, a woman runs frantically across the 19th green of a golf course clutching a child, the bride is peacefully sinking into water like Millais’ Ophelia, and so on and so on.  Never one to hold back theatrical bombast, this is all set to a piece from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.  It ends with nothing less than the destruction of earth as a significantly larger heavenly sphere smashes through it.  This prologue is both beautiful and almost laughably overblown, but it is also turns out to be an incredibly useful mood-setter for events to come.  Read the rest of this entry »

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The Princess of Montpensier

November 12, 2011

Bertrand Tavernier’s The Princess of Montpensier is as impressive for the things it doesn’t do as it is for things it does.  A high medieval romance set against the backdrop of the French Wars of Religion, the desire to heighten the drama with bodice-ripping passion or play up the epic scope with huge battles is wisely suppressed for something more intimate in scope.  On the other hand, the painterly, unsentimental distance of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon or the sparse, directorial opinions of Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac are also missing – though the latter feels evoked from time to time in its matter-of-fact approach. Read the rest of this entry »

Terri

November 3, 2011

Azazel Jacobs’ Terri has all of the elements you’d expect from a reasonably low-budget American high school outsider indie.  Many of these films are content to trade out the mainstream tropes for slightly more alternative ones, using non-commercial elements and treating them with an honest sensitivity to give us a slightly more “realistic”, but hopeful, ending.  In fact, recounting the basic elements of Terri, one can have a pretty good sense of where it’s going to go.  The main character is an overweight high school student that lives with his clueless and goofy uncle.  There’s an awkward but well-meaning assistant principal, a strange and annoying skinny friend, and a pretty blonde with problems.  Even incident wise, there’s nothing particularly radical about it.  Difficulties with bullies, an unexpected connection with a crush, and a night of alcohol and drug induced self-discovery are all present.  As ever, it’s in the execution that this type of film will succeed or fail, and Terri succeeds to such a surprising degree that it might just be one of the best films of the year.  Read the rest of this entry »

Perhaps the most significant and heated discussion in the film blogosphere this year was spawned by Dan Kois’ article in the New York Times Magazine about ‘cultural vegetables’ – i.e. the deliberately paced (read: slow) art films so venerated by critical culture that one who runs in that circle might feel nervous about expressing dissent toward the prevailing consensus.  Inspired by Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, Kois saw fit to take swings at the narrative-forgoing Treme, Derek Jarman’s deathbed work Blue, and the contemplative (or dull, depending on your viewpoint) films of Tarkovsky and Antonioni.  Blogs and selected twitter feeds lit up in anger from both sides, and several months later, the dust still hasn’t entirely settled.  Even I contemplated entering the fray, though with the certain knowledge that nobody of influence would actually read it, but I abandoned it to the recesses of my hard drive for no particular reason.  I didn’t like Kois’ article – his broadsides against film critic snobbery were just another form of snobbery after all – but it does bring up an interesting quandary in a roundabout way: how do you judge a film that isn’t meant to be straightforwardly entertaining?  Meek’s Cutoff is, no matter if you liked it or not, intended to be slow and even boring and repetitive at times.  One of the features of the trek across the Oregon Trail it wants to highlight is the mind numbing tediousness of it all.  It isn’t fun, but it isn’t supposed to be.  There are lot more facets to that film, and I’m not here to talk about it at length, but if you’ve seen it, you hopefully understand my point.  It took less than ten minutes of Ronald Bronstein’s 2007 debut Frownland for me to start reaching for the remote, anxious to turn it off.  It wasn’t just that it was remarkably unpleasant, though it certainly was, but also I could tell it was never going to get any better.  This was the film Bronstein wanted to make, and I’m reasonably sure it was never intended to be enjoyable in the slightest for the viewer. Read the rest of this entry »

Margin Call

November 2, 2011

The recession is becoming the new Iraq for Hollywood.  It hasn’t taken as long for people to get in gear to deal with it (everyone agrees that Wall Street acted irresponsibly) but the results have so far followed a similar route.  Overdone dramas with Tommy Lee Jones (In the Valley of Elahi, The Company Men), the reduction of complex issues to fall into standard Hollywood fare (Green Zone, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), HBO films based on non-fiction books (Generation Kill, Too Big to Fail), and Charles Ferguson documentaries that put everything else to shame (No End in Sight, Inside Job).  J.C. Chandor’s indie Margin Call isn’t the probing character study that The Hurt Locker was, but neither is it a tedious autodidactic lecture a la Lions for Lambs.  To labour the analogy beyond its limits, it’s closest to a Stop-Loss, only significantly more entertaining.   Read the rest of this entry »