Thursday, July 23, 2015

Film fest viewing notes, Day 2

Clouds of Sils Maria 

I've never understood the rabid hatred for Kristen Stewart. But then again, my introduction to her work was not Twilight. The first time I remember registering Stewart was in a little indie called Speak, in which she played a shy teenager who is rendered-near mute after she is raped. She is amazing that movie, and ever since I've been waiting for her to show off her chops again. Clouds of Sils Maria is that movie.

Truth be told, Stewart and Juliette Binoche are both great. Their double act, as a veteran actress and her young assistant/confidant, is the engine of the movie. The movie itself is an interesting variation on the old 'veteran actress vs. young ingenue' premise.

Binoche plays celebrated actress Maria Enders, who is about to begin working on a new production of the play which made her a star back when she was 18. The play involves the relationship between an older woman and a young secretary who brings her down. Now playing the role of the older woman, Enders experiences a serious crisis of confidence as she finds herself unable to shake off her perception of the role from back when she played the younger role. Stewart plays her increasingly unsettled assistant, who finds it increasingly difficult to keep up with her employer/friend's process. Chloe Grace Moretz pops in as the up-and-coming Hollywood train wreck (think Lindsay Lohan) who has been cast in Enders' old role.

There are a lot of themes bouncing around here, relating to age, creative processes, public and private performance, reconnecting with (or being imprisoned by) the past, and most importantly, the subjectivity of the audience. All juicy stuff, which becomes the foundation for some great tête-à-têtes between Binoche and Stewart as they run lines ahead of rehearsals.

If I have any gripes, the first is that some of these arguments come off a little forced. Some of the dialogue clunks as the characters start to work over themes which should be subtext, but which just become text. My other gripe is Chloe Grace Moretz. This is a personal peeve, but I have never really been able to take her seriously. She always comes off as simultaneously too young and too mature for her years. It's the same thing I had with Dakota Fanning and Natalie Portman. Moretz just comes off as too intelligent and in control to convince as a Hollywood party animal.

Overall however, I enjoyed this movie a great deal. It feels like a good bet for a re-watch, and I might give it another look when it comes out for home viewing. Definitely worth a look.

'71
I love a good John Carpenter movie. Since he's too busy watching gridiron to make movies, it's good that a generation of up-and-coming filmmakers have adopted his style and themes for their own works: films like Attack The Block, The Raid, and my own favourite, Dredd, have taken Carpenter's lo-fi, urban claustrophobia and made it relevant again.

'71 shares a number of Carpenter tropes -- sustained takes; wide angles of darkened rooms and hallways; a pulsating electronic score -- but has the intelligence and imagination to use them in a way that serves the story and does not feel like mere homage.

The premise is simple: a green British squadie (Jack O'Connell, great) arrives in Belfast in the middle of the 'Troubles.' He is separated from his unit during a riot and has to make his way back to barracks through the city's backstreets, while dodging the provisional IRA, ordinary citizens and ostensible allies, the Ulster militia.

Unlike Carpenter, who reduces his antagonists to pure images of evil, the makers of '71 go to great pains to colour everyone in shades of grey, reinforcing the confusing, complicated alliances, deals and grievances underpinning the situation in the city. This historical realism serves to increase the tension, as O'Connell finds that friends can be as dangerous as the supposed enemy. In the end, '71 is less one 'good guy's' triumph over adversity, and more like a drowning sailor being tossed and turned by forces outside his control.

It's early days yet, but as it stands, '71 is one of the best films I've seen this year, and definitely the highlight of my Festival experience thus far. Catch it when it comes out on home video and streaming services. It is amazing.

The Lobster
Going in, I had no idea what this was about. I read the synopsis, saw the above picture of Lea Seydoux scowling at a pig, became wonderfully confused and immediately booked a ticket.

I am still wonderfully confused. I mean, I think I get what this film is about -- I can follow the plot, I can tease out a theme or two, I enjoy the performances -- but I cannot really grasp what it is I have just seen.

The plot goes something like this: In the future(?), society has undergone a transformation of some kind(?). Oh Christ. Uh, so basically you have to be in a couple if you want to be a part of society (hetero or gay, doesn't matter as long as you got a ring on it). Colin Farrell's wife has left him for another man, so he has to go to this hotel in the country where he has 30 days to find a new 'partner' or he will be transformed into an animal of his own choosing (i.e. a lobster). His other option is to hide out in the woods with Seydoux's quasi-Colonel Kurtz and her un-merry band of 'loners', who let you do whatever you want as long as you do not pair off with anyone. Great options all round!

There is something off about this movie. It has a really dark sense of humour that I liked, but there are certain bits where the deadpan does not quite land. Most of problems have to do with the voice-over by Rachel Weisz -- her performance in the movie is great, but her narration is so flat and over-explanatory that it kind of bogged down the early part of the movie.

Apart from that, I liked the performances. Colin Farrell does well as a mild-mannered milquetoast, Ben Winshaw is his usual reliable self and Seydoux makes for a surprisingly effective antagonist (to be honest, most of the characters in the movie are terrible people, but her character takes it up a notch or 10). I have always found Seydoux's gloomy countenance somewhat unsettling (whether it's a Woody Allen movie or Mission: Impossible, she always looks like she's about to stab somebody for killing her cat) and it is put to good use here.

Overall, I recommend it just on the basis of it being both really weird and oddly watchable. I don't know if it succeeds at what it is trying to achieve, but it is pretty enjoyable. If you are in the mood for watching familiar faces (Ashley Jensen, Olivia Coleman and John C. Reilly turn up) doing weird stuff, or just want to watch something a bit different, maybe you will like this. I certainly won't forget it.

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