Tag Archives: Cannes 2013

2013 in review – What’s up? Docs!

Where did 2013 go? It seems just yesterday we were gearing up for Spielberg to walk away with all the Oscars; and like that, it was gone.

2013 was a mixed bag of tricks. The young masters of world cinema and the heroes of the American indie scene did not disappoint their fans, but Hollywood choked on a phlegm of sequelitis and rebootulosis and dumped the worst serving of misguided blockbusters and bland comedies we’ve seen for years. You can’t have your cake and film it.

But you ignore the lows, because you forget about them; your Star Trek Into Darknesses and your final acts of Man of Steel. You remember that this is the year the Coens brought out Inside Llewyn Davis, that Woody Allen made Blue Jasmine, that Martin Scorsese released his best film since Goodfellas.

Gravity showed us that there is still spectacle in cinema, and things we have never seen or experienced are out there to enthrall us. Elsewhere, Oblivion proved that sometimes it’s nice to see all the things you’ve already seen but rearranged in different orders.

More than any in recent memory, 2013 was the year of the documentary. Largely due to Netlfix Instant and HBO Go, docs have become common viewing for a much wider range of audiences, and in many ways the form is developing away from the cheap manipulative techniques that reality TV has coveted and coopted. From The Act of Killing and Stories We Tell, to simpler but affecting films such as Blackfish, the documentary has proven itself the genre (is it a genre? Is it a medium unto itself?) of 2013.

Television changed also. Netflix reinvented the boxset by releasing whole seasons of brand new shows at a time, starting with House of Cards, before bringing out Hemlock Grove, Orange Is the New Black and the lazarused Arrested Development. Thankfully the big players kept up, with the year’s biggest show, Breaking Bad, drawing itself to an all-too-tidy but utterly satisfying conclusion. As rumours flit that Steven Spielberg is to turn the unrealised screenplay of Napoleon begun by Stanley Kubrick into a TV miniseries, the question of how quality television and cinema separate themselves may become the key one of the next few years. Although compare Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD to Iron Man 3 and you can see we’re still not quite there yet…

Twice this year I found myself aboard an airplane bound for dramatic new adventures in cinephilia. The first came in May, when I attended the Cannes Film Festival on behalf of Film Ireland (full reenactments of that event can be found here). There I forged some new friendships (and solidified formerly Twitter-based ones) and bathed myself in film and espresso. If that was a life-defining trip, my next was a life-changing one. Packing my bags once again for America, I returned to New York City where I enrolled (and according to my grades remain) in the Moving Image Archiving and Preservation programme at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. I have committed myself now to my passion for film and its history, and the maintenance of its cultural and historical relevance. And here I stay. On the side I kept up my work for Film Ireland while expanding my writing by scribbling for NextProjection.com. I also increased my podcasting presence with several more recordings for The Film Show. OK, so maybe the Cannes thing was the highlight…

In terms of my non-contemporary film viewing, 2013 was not my most successful year. Certainly I finally watched some greats, including Kwaidan, Los Olvidados, Sansho the Bailiff and Short Cuts, while finally finishing off the Dekalog and binging on the entirety of the Fast & Furious franchise, which had utterly escaped me until this year. On the big screen I caught The Age of Innocence, Les Amants, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, and The Great White Silence, as well as a joyous screening of Miami Connection. I discovered a heretofore-unknown passion for seeing films in cinema theatres with names related to the film – catching Julie Taymor’s Titus in MoMA’s Titus 1, and Creature from the Black Lagoon in Film Society’s Gilman Theater. On Ozu’s 110th birthday (and the 50th anniversary of his death), I ripped some time out of a bloated schedule to see Equinox Flower on the big screen. It’s the little things, really.

Making my top 20 was difficult this year. As in previous years, my splitting my time between two sides of the Atlantic complicated matters in terms of release schedules. Cannes also complicated matters given the number of often excellent films I saw there, although I have chosen not to include any of these films that did not see release in either Ireland or New York before December 31st. Big films I missed include Fruitvale Station, Her, The Grandmaster, and Museum Hours.

As an aside, whereas the last three years I have awarded 5 out of 5 to a strict average of four films, this year six made that list, making my top six very easy to iron out. The rest was complicated. Near misses include Reality, Wreck-It Ralph, Prisoners, McCullin, Nebraska, Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Beyond the Hills. Special note should be given to a number of formally impressive or experimental films that impressed hugely but let themselves down too greatly in terms of acting, dialogue or coherence, particularly Spring Breakers, Stoker, Escape from Tomorrow and Upstream Color.

Now, on with the show.

20. Caesar Must Die

The grand old brothers of Italian cinema, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, have produced one of the most troubling docudramas in recent years with Caesar Must Die. Blending fly-on-the-wall documentary techniques with reenactments of rehearsals and performance of Shaespeare’s Julius Caesar, but within a maximum security prison and by the inmates, Caesar Must Die looked at life imitating art and the healing powers of performance and creativity. Lines blurred between reality and fiction, and natural angers and sadnesses leaked from these terrible men in a manner you could hardly expect to witness elsewhere.

19. I Wish

Not the last film on this list by Hirokazu Koreeda, perhaps the most talented filmmaker working today, I Wish looked at the world through the eyes of two young boys, played by real-life junior comedian brothers Koki and Oshiro Maeda, who each choose a different parent to live with when their mother and father separate. Simple, but utterly to the point, it revelled in the joys of childish dreaming.

Full review

18. Drug War

A truly unexpected gem of a movie, in the style of classic Michael Mann, Johnnie To’s Drug War teamed a do-anything-to-survive meth manufacturer with an impossibly resourceful top cop to take down a drug empire. The resulting stings and double-crosses, combined with shoot-outs that were so oddly choreographed they felt chaotically believable, made for a tight, twisty and utterly entertaining thriller.

17. Iron Man 3

The only summer blockbuster on this list, Iron Man 3 finally got the right balance for the character of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jnr.). This time we found him in the aftermath of the superb The Avengers, suffering PTSD from his near-death experience in its finale while also falling victim to an enormous ego-crushing at realising all his science smarts were nothing in a universe of gods and aliens. The villain was relatively typical, although in Ben Kingsley’s the Mandarin writer/director Shane Black found a hugely inventive number 2, the girl got to wear the super suit for a change, and Stark had to deal with being just an ordinary (brilliant) man in the second act with some superbly judged comedy and drama. The final action sequence was messy, but the ideas were all in the right place.

Full review

16. Blue Jasmine

Woody Allen, working of late in critical peaks and troughs, hit the highs again with this crafty reworking of A Streetcar Named Desire for the post-psychiatry age. Cate Blanchett dominates the screen as the tragic Jasmine, whose bipolar personality echoes the two poles of her life, as she falls from Manhattan socialite Bay Area unemployable when her unfaithful husband (Alec Baldwin) is revealed to be just as big a financial cheat. Allen’s script was loaded with delicious ironies delivered by Blanchett, while also creating a host of juicy supporting roles for solid character actors such as Sally Hawkins, Louis CK, Bobby Cannavale and Michael Stuhlbarg.

15. Gravity

A pulse-pounding disaster movie like none other, Gravity took inspiration from 2001: A Space Odyssey and recent first-person video games to create an out-of-world experience that was truly thrilling and suitably dizzying. With a remarkable sound design and (mostly) unobtrusive score, Alfonso Cuarón’s film used the most astonishing special effects (and 3D effects) ever seen on screen before to invoke the terror of a storm of metal ripping through orbiting space stations. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney gave fine performances as the unfortunate space travellers, but it was the script – its clumsy dialogue and infantile religious metaphors – that denied this incredible production the title of modern classic. A near masterpiece, but a remarkable film nevertheless.

Full review

14. Le Passé (The Past)

Following on from his sublime A Separation, Asghar Farhadi’s Le Passé looks at the drama that arises in the years following a similar divorce and emigration case. Here an Iranian man returns to France to finalise proceedings with his soon-to-be ex-wife, where he becomes embroiled in her relationship with a new man while reconnecting with her children, his one-time step kids. It’s an untraditional tale of familial secrets and lies, told with remarkable restraint and with a knock-out ending. In the lead roles, Ali Mosaffa, Bérénice Bejo and Tahar Rahim all elevate the material to greater heights.

13. To the Wonder

Lesser Malick is still better than most. The Texan philosopher brought his lens from the overcast steps of Mont St. Michel to the sunlit fields of Oklahoma, taking in suitably stunning imagery in airy, sweeping movements. Drawing an excellent performance from Olga Kurylenko as a woman torn apart by love, the film failed to reach the heights of Malick’s earlier works. While it neither bore the dramatic punch, nor laid out the same emotional depth of say The Tree of Life, it remains a startling and beautiful work to behold. It made spinning look as wondrous as Gravity made it look terrifying.

Full review

12. Cutie and the Boxer

Some times documentary filmmakers get lucky with their subjects as events shift the focus of the story, but this can hardly count against the filmmaker. Zachary Heinzerling got very lucky with this film about New York-based Japanese artist Ushio Shinohara and his underappreciated wife and unknowing muse Noriko. Being able to tell the story of their tragicomic relationship through Noriko’s art, which is newly reemerging just as Ushio enters his autumn years. A retrospective of his work allows for introspection of their selves and their relationship, as Noriko is given a coinciding exhibit of her own. Astonishingly personal and poignant filmmaking, featuring perhaps the greatest scene played over by the closing credits ever.

11. Before Midnight

Richard Linklater’s romantic odyssey continued the tale of Jesse and Céline another nine years after we last saw them probably turning their lives upside down to be with one another. Now together, with two children, and with his success overshadowing hers (recommended double-bill with Cutie and the Boxer), the couple has a make-it or break-it day during a holiday in Greece. The writing is as natural as it was in Before Sunset, with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy once more giving superb, believable performances. It doesn’t hit with quite the same punch as Sunset, largely due to an inconsistent visual aesthetic, but it’s a wonderful and powerful follow-up that shows that romance doesn’t die as couples get older, but it becomes much, much harder to fight for.

Full review

10. Inside Llewyn Davis

One of my worst experiences of 2013 was waiting in a press queue at Cannes to see the Coens’ latest, only for us to be denied access to the over-subscribed show. The heat and sweat and crushing were unbearable, but worse was the thought of not getting to see the film. OK, in fairness I saw it two days later and the U.S. didn’t get it for another five months, but anyhow. A melancholy mixture of many Coen themes shot in haunting, dispiriting winter greys, Inside Llewyn Davis is somewhat of another masterstroke by the brothers. Oscar Isaac gives a remarkable lead performance, backed by a fine assemblage of Coen oddballs, and the character’s introspection is carried beautifully, accompanied by music perfect for capturing that spirit of early ’60s Greenwich Village. Only the semi-successful literary flourishes stand against it, and even then only barely. A bleak but powerful drama.

Full review

9. The Wind Rises

“The wind is rising, we must try to live.” Hayao Miyazaki’s supposedly (and undeniably suitable) final film is an ode to the reasons the artist creates, in the mold of Andrei Rublev. The film animates the real life story of Jiro Horikoshi, a flight-obsessed young man whose weak eyes would never let him fly, so he turned to plane design, ultimately creating the Zero fighter, the pride of the Japanese airforce during World War II. A film as much about love and loss as it is about art and war, The Wind Rises is a gentle, gorgeously drawn film that never patronises its audience or its characters. It overstays its welcome in the closing 20 minutes, but it remains a tremendous feat by the greatest living master of animation. In addition to the visuals, the sound design is astonishing – when an earthquake tears through Tokyo the soundtrack is of a guttural chant, as if the earth itself was groaning an assault on the people of the city. A remarkable work.

8. Frozen

Teaming Tangled’s director Chris Buck with Wreck-It Ralph’s writer Jennifer Lee proved a glorious victory for Disney, who have suddenly snatched back the animation crown from their underlings at Pixar. Retelling Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen with remarkable flair, superbly composed (and lyricised) songs, rich humour and a female-dominant storyline, Frozen was one of 2013’s biggest (and most successful) surprises. The animation was not always flawless, but when it looked its best (during the unsurpassable showstopper ‘Let it Go’, for example) it was beautiful to behold, and the film’s energy was electrifying. It also managed to make an animate snowman not only work dramatically and comically, but actually warm the heart too. Some movies are worth melting for.

7. The Wolf of Wall Street

Hitting harder than Ushio Shinohara at a canvas, Terence Winter’s screenplay, based on the autobiography of Jordan Belfort, is an hysterical and terrifying ride through the corridors of financial scheming and market manipulation. At times fuelled as if by the drugs its antiheroes consume, this Martin Scorsese picture may lack the visual flourish we expect of the director, but he has rarely handled a cast this efficiently, and never been so assured in his use of Leonardo DiCaprio, who gives the performance of his career thus far. At times unbearably nasty and perhaps a little enamoured of its subject’s gusto (if not his actions), it has a hell of a lot to say about American greed and the cruelty of the capitalist system at its very worst.

6. A Field in England

One of the most exciting and consistently surprising filmmakers around today, Ben Wheatley brought out his most challenging work to date in 2013, an English Civil War drama that went right through the looking glass. A demonic Irishman forces a motley crew of Englanders to dig for unspecified and uncertain treasure, only for reality and minds to split to asunder. Startling monochrome cinematography, viciously black comedy, and utterly game performances made for a psychedelic whirlwind of a picture. Screenwriter Amy Jump created a ferocious villain in O’Neill, and in the character of Friend, one of the greatest idiot savants in modern fiction.

Full review

5. The Gatekeepers

“In the War on Terror, forget about morality.” This is the defeatist mantra by which the former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s counter-terrorism unit, barely excuse themselves. This incredible documentary probed the founding of the Shin Bet and its execution of some incredible assaults on terrorist cells (including some monumental failures). Interviews with six former heads of the agency, each clearly affected by their time with the finger on the button, gave unprecedented insight into the difficulties faced by these men, and assertively questions the decisions they have made. Accompanying footage of atrocities, riots and counter-terrorism methods in action are more troubling than anything Hollywood has yet produced on the subject.

Full review

4. 12 Years a Slave

The story of Solomon Northup, an educated black man in the 1840s kidnapped and sold into slavery in the American South, was brought to life with the extraordinary visual assuredness of Steve McQueen and his cinematographer Sean Bobbitt. The period detail falls secondary to the extraordinary camerawork, gently filming the lakes and cotton fields that surround the plantation, or making a steamboat’s paddlewheel appear more threatening than any imaginable horror. An unending hanging is shot from a restrained distance, and life is seen to carry on as normal behind it; an astonishing comment on the system that existed in the South. Eschewing explosive Hollywood drama in favour of natural terror and human cruelty, 12 Years feels as painfully real as it looks beautiful. In the lead role, Chiwetel Ejiofor proves himself a remarkable talent, but it is McQueen’s judgement of each scene that truly propels this film towards greatness.

3. Like Father, Like Son

Hirokazu Koreeda’s most recent inspection of a family in crisis is perhaps his most melodramatic, with a plotline that could be taken from a made-for-TV movie. Two families, one upper-middle class, the other working class, discover their six-year-old sons were switched at birth; spurned on by traditional Japanese values they agree to swap boys on a trial basis. The film views the whole gentle tragedy from the point of the middle-class dad (Masaharu Fukuyama), torn between biological assumptions and shame at the breakup of his family. Koreeda judges every scene to perfection, revelling in the spontaneous performances of his child actors (Keita Ninomiya and Shôgen Hwang), gently tracking his camera alongside the painful human drama. As touching as any film could hope to be.

Full review

2. The Act of Killing

Perhaps the most formally inventive documentary ever shot, director Joshua Oppenheimer dared to challenge the perpetrators of war crimes during conflicts in Indonesia in ’65-’66 to make short films based on their experiences. These hero gangsters, icons to many contemporary Indonesians, are exposed to be deeply haunted by their acts 50 years ago, no matter how steely their dispositions. Blending camp fantasy with gory reenactments, the film is never better than when it films Anwar Congo, sitting with his grandson in the comfort of his own home, watching a film of himself playing one of his own torture victims, and revealing the collapse of an ideal in the lines of his face and the tremors of his voice. What it says about the conflict, the victims and killers, is unfathomable. But what it says about cinema and its ability to heal and bruise and cleanse is somehow even deeper still.

1. Blue Is the Warmest Colour (La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2)

Nothing hit harder this year than the life of young Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), whose doe-eyed and trepidatious questioning of her sexuality in her teens leads her into a long-term relationship with confident lesbian artist Emma (Léa Seydoux). Through Abdellatif Kechiche’s astonishingly sensitive direction, we see the blossoming and embittering of this young woman, her pains and simple dreams lightly drawn on her barely-an-adult face. Exarchopoulos excels beyond any lead performance one could hope for, while the camerawork and pacing create an epic of simple humanity, first love and sexual awakening. Kechiche understands that the moments when life seems to slow down are when the camera should hang in the air, only watching, incapable of intervening. No coming-of-age tale in a generation has been this exceptionally well-measured, this powerful or this gorgeous to behold.

Full review

Vive l'Adèlevolution!
Vive l’Adèle-volution!

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OK, and now what you’ve really been waiting for, my five worst films of 2013. I missed many supposedly awful films this year, such as Movie 43, Getaway or A Haunted House. But I certainly saw my share of poor movies. There were many I disliked or even hated, such as Django Unchained, Star Trek Into Darkness and Only God Forgives, that despite the ire they raised in me were far too competently made to be numbered amongst these bottom of the barrel films. Which are…

5. The World’s End

No film in 2013 was as appallingly misjudged as this struggling comedy from Edgar Wright. Closing a trilogy comprised also of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, The World’s End failed to do anything new with the sophisticated humour and cutting of those films, rehashing visuals and delivering predictable gags that felt like they were coming off a conveyer belt. Irredeemably nihilistic (it revels in the exploits of humanity’s most disgraceful member) and haplessly genre-meshing, it failed to be any of the many things it wanted to be. It can only be applauded for its ambition.

Full review

4. 21 & Over

The writers of The Hangover team up to direct a campus comedy full of racism, disregard for mental health issues and accidental circumcision. Enjoy!

Full review

3. A Good Day to Die Hard

The fifth installment in the once-unmatchable saga of John McClane became a muddied mess of James Bond cliches and anti-Russian propaganda. A dire villain, nonsense dialogue and absent chemistry between unstoppable dad and superspy son made this humourless entry in the series an agony to watch.

2. After Earth

Will Smith pimps his charisma-struggling son in a shockingly bland action movie that features killer monkeys, instantaneous plummets in temperature and giant eagles that comprehend human sacrifice. It may often look good, but the dialogue and drama are so haphazard and clumsy that not even a spear that can be reassembled into different shapes with the push of a button can save it. Perhaps M. Night Shyamalan’s worst film.

Full review

1. Hyde Park on Hudson

After being masturbated by his cousin, President Roosevelt proceeds to solve a political storm in a teacup with the use of a hotdog. Features perhaps cinema’s most insipid narration. This film is exploitative dirt.

Full review

Until next year…

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Blue Is the Warmest Colour – A study in teal

Pride of place: Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux

Pride of place: Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux

Where to begin? This three-hour opus took Cannes by storm in May, making an unrivalled play for the Palme d’Or. Tunisian filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche has crafted a beautifully intimate film that introduces us to one of the most perfectly defined characters to appear in a movie in recent memory. Blue Is the Warmest Colour (aka La Vie d’Adèle) displays some of the most confident acting and storytelling imaginable.

Revelatory newcomer Adèle Exarchopoulos plays Adèle—named for the actress—a melancholy French 15-year-old dealing with the everyday pressures of being young and alive. She has awkward flirtations with boys, endures the teasing of friends, struggles with philosophy classes despite being an avid reader and suffers tedious, silent dinners with her working class parents.

Things start looking up for Adèle when a handsome older student asks her out. But it’s while walking to their first date that she passes a ravishingly beautiful blue-haired lesbian, forming electric eye contact as their faces turn to one another, and then glance back and meet once more after they’ve each passed by.

Adèle is shaken by the uncertainty the encounter presents her with, but presses ahead with her date. That night, she is startled to find herself visited by the teal-tinted stranger in her sleep; a passionate, graphic sex dream that leaves Adèle utterly confused and heartbroken.

Things go from bad to worse for Adèle; her first boyfriend soon provides her first breakup and schoolyard cattiness starts to get very ugly as her friends react shamefully to her budding sapphism. Soon however the blue-haired stranger reenters her life, and is introduced as aspiring painter Emma (Léa Seydoux).

They flirt and chat and hang out, but soon their cosmic chemistry erupts in a passionate relationship, which the film follows over several years. The ups and downs are presented honestly and fluidly, and we see both Adèle and Emma grow in the relationship, and grow apart as Emma’s art career takes off and Adèle pursues her dream of becoming an educator.

Exarchopoulos, not yet 20 years old, is a divine discovery on Kechiche’s behalf, and remains a hypnotising presence for every one of the film’s 187 minutes, in which she is almost never off screen. Her puppy fat cheeks and always slightly agape mouth root her in a state of adolescence she is ready to escape. When she is happy her face lights up with a cheeky sexuality, and her mess of brown wavy hair falls down to her shoulders. But she is even more adept at conveying her character’s despair and heartbreak; when she wells up to cry you cannot help but cry with her.

Seydoux is similarly excellent as the confident, sexy Emma, who is appreciable as both flawed human being and angelic object of desire. The chemistry between the pair is like nothing else seen before between two women on camera. There is an awkward moment in one of their first rendezvous where they must part but can neither bring themselves to leave nor to kiss one another; the camera lingers, the space between them pulses with energy and their faces say more about passion and desire than any words ever could. It is perhaps the most sexual moment ever captured on film.

Romantic tension: Seydoux and Exarchopoulos in the calm before the sexual storm

Romantic tension: Seydoux and Exarchopoulos in the calm before the sexual storm

When the pair first kiss, the film makes its first dramatic time leap to Exarchopoulos and Seydoux in bed together, in what turns out to be a ten minute sex scene. Nothing is left to the imagination as the actresses fully embrace one another’s bodies and sexualities. It is hardly pornographic, but a powerful scene of lovemaking earned by the remarkable performances and Kechiche’s rich layering of the sexual tension in the preceding scenes.

The film is so full of depth and meaning that it will be the subject of countless articles and theses to come. The repeated theme of oral fixation is notable; one of our first scenes with Adèle sees her messily eating spaghetti, leaking sauce all over her mouth and chin. Later Emma teaches her to get over her fear of eating oysters, a metaphor for cunnilingus the film openly acknowledges. The actresses’ lips play as important a role in the film as their contrasting hair colours.

The lovers are gloriously lit by Kechiche and his crew, and shot in a gently wavering movements that recalls the documentary feel of The Class. You never quite feel like you’re watching a film, but experiencing someone else’s life, and are powerless to alter their actions. It is this mesmeric quality of the film and how it is shot that makes its daunting running time vanish into brief, beautiful moments.

The script, co-written by Kechiche and adapted loosely from a graphic novel by Julie Maroh, is truly incredible, with powerful dialogue that is often as witty as it can be laced with pain. The understanding of heartache, brought so magically and terribly to life by Exarchopoulos, is second to none, and anyone who has ever been through a breakup will find this difficult, familiar viewing. The fact that the couple are both women is, for the most part, irrelevant.

The writers have also ingeniously chosen to eliminate that great satan of modern script writing — technology — removing almost all mobile phones and computers from the film. Blue Is the Warmest Colour is set in the anytime, a world where storytelling comes first, stories that are honest to emotion, even if they are not honest to the trivialities and props of everyday life.

It is an astounding work; heartbreaking, erotic, utterly true-to-life. The performances throughout are faultless, and its script burns with human feeling and passion.

The film’s French title, La Vie d’Adèle, is subtitled “Chapters 1 and 2”. It seems we may meet Adèle again in another life. Who knows who she, or we, will be then.

5/5

(originally published at http://www.nextprojection.com)

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Like Father, Like Son – When Nature Vs Nurture Calls

Dad'll do nicely: Masaharu Fukuyama struggles with fatherhood

Dad’ll do nicely: Masaharu Fukuyama struggles with fatherhood

Hirokazu Kore-eda was never going to walk away from Cannes 2013 empty-handed. This year Steven Spielberg headed the jury, and if there’s any director who has demonstrated more skill at harnessing the remarkable depths of child actors than the director of ET, it’s Kore-eda. His latest took a well-deserved third place in the competition.

Building on his previous venture I Wish and taking its themes in darker directions, Kore-eda once again examines children torn apart by parents. In I Wish he looked at two brothers (played by real-life brothers) who opted to live with opposing parents after the breakup of the family. Here the idea is far more complex and distressing; a well-to-do family learn that their six-year-old son was swapped at birth with the son of a lazy hardware store owner, who with his wife now has two additional children they can barely afford to support.

Touching from the outset on class issues, parental pressure, family secrets and the eternal nature versus nurture debate, Like Father, Like Son is bursting at the seams with ideas. Played as tragicomedy, Kore-eda, doubling as usual as writer, looks at how the revelation tears both families apart, while pausing for gentle moments of sweetness and comedy, mostly provided by the sensational child actors.

Early on we see workaholic dad Ryota Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama) attempt to help his son Keita who is struggling with his piano practice – their hands beautifully mirror each other on the keys. But they are not mirrors of one another in a biological sense, and once the truth is revealed to Ryota he becomes obsessed with the loss of a blood connection to his son, using it to explain “deficiencies” in his son’s character. Worse still, he blames his wife (Machiko Ono) for not showing the maternal intuition to know the infant in her arms was not her own.

The interactions between Ryota and his wife and the ad hoc parents of their actual child, Ryusei, provide some awkward moments of comedy and soul-searching, culminating in an astonishingly restrained scene of furious frustration timidly unleashed when Ryota suggests that he and his wife could afford to take custody of both boys. The Saiki family (father and mother played by Lily Franky and Yoko Maki respectively) may not be well-off like the Nonomiya clan, but they are good parents, paying as much attention to their children as possible. But while Keita is seduced, making art in class for both Ryota and his real dad, his dramatic foil Ryusei is less impressed with his new old parents.

Heart-strings are delicately clawed at when the Nonomiyas and Saikis experiment with “sleepovers”, essentially swaps to test the waters of how the children might cope in their “natural” surroundings. It is painful to see logic triumph over right, and yet the film steers clear of melodrama. There are no wild repercussions, and nothing as extreme as the conclusion of Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows, just humans failing because they know no better.

Gorgeously shot in a series of mellow pans and tracking shots, Like Father, Like Son bleeds soul from the screen. Kore-eda, the last great humanist of Japanese cinema, has crafted a film so delicately judged that it manages to bring its audience to tears one moment and put them in thralls of laughter the next.

The performances are all stellar, especially those of the four children, but Fukuyama raises the film aloft, swinging naturally from anger to confusion, from despicable snobbery to painful self-realisation. He represents the worst and best of men and fathers and also, as we see in his interactions with his own parents, of sons.

Selecting a more upper-middle class setting than his previous family dramas, Kore-eda makes great use of technology in his film. While pampered Keita is hooked to his Nintendo Wii, Ryusei toys enthralled with an original Donkey Kong Game & Watch, a veritable antique hand-me-down in terms of gaming. A digital camera becomes evidence of a talent that any father could be proud of, no matter whose blood flows in their veins.

Ending on a bittersweet, ever-so-slightly ambiguous yet utterly dramatically satiating note, Kore-eda has produced another masterpiece, that could even rival Nobody Knows, Still Walking and even his opus After Life. It feels every one of its 120 minutes, but there is so much story and transformation here that it is impossible to fault cuts that have not been made.

This is an absorbing, heart-wrenching film that should impact hugely on anyone who has ever known a father. And that means you, and everyone you know.

5/5

(originally published at http://www.nextprojection.com)

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Only God Forgives – A Fistful of Nothing

Tabula rasa: A picture of a cardboard cutout of a robot designed to look like Ryan Gosling

Tabula rasa: A picture of a cardboard cutout of a robot designed to look like Ryan Gosling

Nicolas Winding Refn finally broke out onto the international stage with Drive, his ultra-slick stripped-back thriller that won him the best director award at Cannes in 2011. For his latest, another violent thriller so stripped back its veins are oxidising, Refn has reunited with Drive star Ryan Gosling and the results are… troubling.

Turning his attentions to Thailand, Refn’s film puts Gosling’s kickboxing promoter/drug dealer Julian on a collision course with corrupt sword-wielding supercop Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) – a man so terrifying he cleanses himself after torture sessions with a relaxing bout of karaoke – after his morally base brother dies in his custody.

The man who made a supervillain out of Albert Brooks (without having to use animation), Refn here transforms Kristin Scott Thomas into the ultimate controlling gangster mother, a Lady Macbeth by way of Animal Kingdom’s Smurf. Thomas’s Crystal is the driving force behind the revenge plot against Chang, and her grotesquely Oedipal manipulations of Julian provide as much spine-shudderingly nasty moments as Chang’s array of pointy weapons. She gets all the best lines, but then there aren’t that many lines to get.

Only God Forgives is almost more of a remake of Walter Hill’s The Driver than was Drive, with its cool-as-a-cucumber “hero”, unswayable villain cop and seedy manipulative sexpot. But draining dialogue and backstory only works if your characters are likeable, and Refn’s story fails at this first juncture. Gosling comes off vacant, sometimes bored, as if the audience is meant to relate to him purely for being Ryan Gosling. The Driver in Drive had endless cool, here all Julian has is a neat waistcoat and a worrying case of mummy issues.

Back behind the camera is Bronson cinematographer Larry Smith, whose eternally red-stained frames are stunning to behold, lighting the dangerous dark of Bangkok with a tense neon glow. It’s a gorgeous work, but the content is never as interesting as the lighting and framing deserve, while the choppy, esoteric editing aims for Nic Roeg but winds up lacking meaning or punch.

The music by Cliff Martinez thumps along suitably, but it is run-off from his Drive score, and at times sounds frustratingly like the work of Philip Glass.

What’s truly lacking here is any sense of Thailand. There is no cultural context, no feel for the city, its history or society, and the film feels like the work of someone whose only understanding of Bangkok was a viewing of Ong Bak and a Lonely Planet guidebook.

In the end Only God Forgives is neither satisfying nor entertaining. It’s often quite boring really. But it’s not exactly bad, just a stunningly composed slip-up in Refn’s career. It’s characterless and verging on plotless; style beating substance across the face with a hot wok. The Oedipal subplot would be laughable if it weren’t so busy making your soul throw up.

The preposterous levels of gore will ensure more than enough walk-outs, while the lack of character and drama will take care of many of the rest. The remainder can absorb the scenery, ponder the emptiness of the project and laugh if they can manage whenever Kristin Scott Thomas says a naughty word.

Drive fans are gonna be pissed.

2/5

(originally published at http://www.nextprojection.com)

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Byzantium – All boob and no bite

"Eh, my eyes are up here": Clara (Gemma Arterton) is interviewed as a vampire

“Eh, my eyes are up here”: Clara (Gemma Arterton) is interviewed as a vampire

Neil Jordan returns to cinemas for the first time in four years with this neo-gothic vampire tale, just as that particular genre begins to sink below the zeitgeist waves. We are now post-Twilight, with True Blood and The Vampire Diaries in their second death throes.
But there’s life in the undead dog yet. Jim Jarmusch’s revisionist vampire art-house romcom Only Lovers Left Alive just received deserved praise at Cannes, and while Jordan’s work is flawed, it’s an admirable piece of cinema nevertheless. And why shouldn’t Jordan latch on at the last moment? – his 1994 take on the myth, Interview with the Vampire, is as much responsible for the vampire boom that flowed from Buffy to Twilight as any film.The film stars Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan as a wandering mother/daughter vampire team, Clara and Eleanor, constantly on the move to evade those who would uncover their true identities, and those who already know it. A moral pair, they work as sort of Angels of Death, only feeding on the terminally ill or the extremely elderly – a form of vampiric euthanasia. Clara, eternally voluptuous, trades on her body to keep the duo in housing and out of trouble. Eleanor, eternally 16, searches for meaning in her never-ending life, tortured internally by the things she has seen and done.

Their wanderings bring them full circle to the sleepy English seaside town where their story began some 150 years earlier, prompting a series of fractured flashbacks that give us a glimpse into their pasts. Clara’s being condemned to imprisonment in a brothel in her earlier life is echoed as she turns a run-down hotel in the present, named Byzantium, into a whorehouse with herself as madam. Eleanor starts at a new school where her creative writing assignments draw suspicious glances and her relationship with sickly classmate Frank (Caleb Landry Jones) causes her cursed heart to skip a beat.

A gorgeous production, shot in some curious locations, Byzantium looks as good as anything Neil Jordan has made before. Ever-reliable cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (Hunger, Shame) excels in lighting the dark and murky streets of modern Britain, while sadly bringing little life to its nineteenth century counterpart. Perhaps the most in-your-face achievement of Byzantium is the remarkable varieties of ways the crew have found to light and shoot Gemma Arterton’s cleavage. Jordan has never been one to shy away from sexuality, but here the obsession with Arterton’s bosom is beyond distracting, the centre point of far too many frames. In one of the film’s most dramatic sequences, a vampire’s birth is heralded by a Shining-like cascade of blood, in which Arterton bathes, her cleavage overflowing with blood. Her cups literally runneth over. In spite of scene-stealing competition from her cleavage, Arterton holds much of the film together with an impressively committed performance. Ronan is ever reliable as a disenfranchised youth, and her sighs and longing glances carry her character’s tragedy. Sadly, she remains utterly unconvincing in romantic roles, and paired with the zombified Jones, sporting a Danish (?) accent that is baffling to the ears, makes for some very awkward drama. Johnny Lee Miller minces amusingly as the Victorian villain, while Control’s Sam Riley is horrendously underutilised in a supporting role.

Child of the night: Saoirse Ronan as Eleanor

Child of the night: Saoirse Ronan as Eleanor

One of Byzantium’s great saving graces is its lightly sketched mythology, introducing its vampires as an underground cabal of male vampires who do not approve of females amongst their ranks, and forbid them to be makers. The idea of an ancient sect of fundamentalist chauvinists throws up cute allusions to the Catholic Church, although despite their intimidating presence it is hard to suppress a guffaw when they introduce themselves as ‘The Pointed Nails of Justice’.

Lovely to look at for the most part, adequately acted and with an impressive score by Javier Navarrete (Pan’s Labyrinth), Byzantium will not be one of Jordan’s best remembered films, but it is a welcome return to the gothic for the Irish filmmaker. While the ending feels rushed and features one excessively under-explained character reversal, there is enough in the film to keep the attention throughout.

A mobile phone vibrating in a puddle of blood, for example. There’s something we haven’t seen before.

2/5

(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)

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Me and You – Adolescence and sensibility

Getting to know you: Jacopo Olmo Antinori and Tea Falco

I like to imagine Bernardo Bertolucci and Roman Polanski have had fist fights over who likes apartments more. While Polanski is probably the master of the apartment-set almost-a-play film, Bertolucci has a similar passion for such intimate surroundings, playing them more for familial or romantic drama than the psychological thrillers of the paranoid Pole.

In his latest film, his first since 2003’s The Dreamers, Bertolucci once again looks at apartment-bound siblings, thankfully steering (narrowly) clear of the incest that helped undermine the prior film.

Me and You follows frustrated, angry 14-year-old Lorenzo (Jacopo Olmo Antinori), who feeling unhappy at school and over-mothered at home, decides to spend some time in isolation to stew in his adolescent ire. When a school skiing trip leaves for a week, he tells his mother he is going on it, but secretly moves himself into his family’s storage room in the basement of his building.

Lorenzo is enjoying his pressure-free time of reading, listening to music and gazing at an ant farm when his estranged half-sister unexpectedly shows up needing somewhere to stay. A sexually charged artsy 20-something, Olivia (Tea Falco) still harbours a grudge against Lorenzo’s mother for “stealing” their father away from her and her mother. She is also coming down from a serious heroin addiction, and decides to use Lorenzo’s closet of solitude as her cold turkey pit stop.

As the two demi-siblings bond over their shared confinement and interests in music, Lorenzo must help Olivia as her condition worsens. He begins to go stir crazy, acting like a caged armadillo he saw in a pet shop, while the ants escape their confinement following an accident. Soon however, both brother and sister learn important life lessons about facing up to your demons. If only a week were all that took…

Drawn out but never quite boring, Me and You is held together by its two strong performances. Antinori in particular deserves credit for both playing and looking like a believable teen. His spot-riddled face and grungy would-be moustache make him look like an everyday reality almost never seen on-screen. His body language – bowed head and hunched soldiers – is utterly convincing.

The film however is not as convincing, and while the slightly flirty relationship between brother and sister never escalates beyond horseplay, the lingering threat that it might makes much of the film more uncomfortable viewing than it might have been in the hands of another filmmaker. It looks great throughout (although the repeated establishing shots of the building to let us know if it’s day or night frustrate), and the soundtrack (The Cure, Arcade Fire, and David Bowie track sung in Italian) make a pleasant accompaniment.

A film about the prisons we find ourselves in, literal or figurative, self-inflicted or otherwise, Me and You is a passable drama that hardly scratches at the greatness of Bertolucci’s best work, such as The Conformist. The ending, with visual echoes of Les Quatre Cents Coups, suggests Bertolucci and co-screenwriter Niccolò Ammaniti felt this was a far more important project than it has proved to be. With Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor rearing its head once more at Cannes this year in a new 3D restoration, Me and You is unlikely to register in the director’s canon. Sadly it’s clear to see why.

2/5

(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)

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