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***

Mia Hansen-Løve’s fifth feature film as a director plays out a little like an archetypal country-and-western song: our hero (in this case, Isabelle Huppert’s Nathalie) loses a succession of the most valuable things and people in her life, yet somehow gets by, and even gets stronger. It works as a fascinating companion piece to Elle, Huppert’s Oscar-nominated film from last year, in which her character put on a brave face following one of the most wretched traumas a human being may be put through. Here, the traumatic events are more mundane, but her resilience is similar. She smiles at fate.

Nathalie is a Parisian philosophy professor, and her philosophical approach to life seems to be the film’s raisin d’être, for it otherwise eschews a lot of dramatic practice, and a lot of drama. Life happens to Nathalie, but the ramifications aren’t necessarily going to be contained within the movie’s brisk hundred and two minutes. You might call it a character study, or a slice of life, but it’s a bit more than that. Nathalie’s resistance to self-pity is quietly inspiring, and her advocation of philosophy and intellectual engagement to deal with life’s blows – its unfairness – is good advice in troubled times.

Huppert plays Nathalie with her customary brilliance and sense of detachment. She’s become invincible and so, it seems, have her recent characters. The chink in her armour may be her interest in a past student of hers, Fabien (Roman Kolinka, tall, handsome, and so perfectly cast that you’d swear he was off to a discussion on radical thinking the moment he leaves any frame.) Fabien has taken Nathalie’s philosophical teachings to heart, and taken them further; he’s moving  with a group of like-minded young people onto a farm, where they continue a post-graduate academic lifestyle of self-sufficiency and revolutionary ideas. In this context – Nathalie visits the farm twice – she is visibly old and bourgeois, stuck in the comforts of academia. To her, the students may seem comically idealistic, or they may be living the dream; her attitude to Fabien is similarly conflicted, and the film’s most tantalising question is, of course, whether the relationship is going to take a sexual turn.

Hansen-Løve shoots sunnily; Nathalie’s Paris is relatively calm and spacious, with a glorious riverbank which she takes her students to occasionally. Watching this group of smart young people discuss philosophy on the banks of the Seine will scratch your Francophile itch, c’est pour dire. Whether the film scratches your dramatic itch depends on how much you need; Things to Come is, like its protagonist, hardly prone to hysteria of any kind. It is based directly on Hansen-Løve’s mother, and observes the casual reality of life.

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*** (out of five)

Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire is an odd experiment that doesn’t quite come off. It’s absolutely entertaining and I completely recommend it, but, dare I say it, I was hoping for more – perhaps too much.

I’ve been expecting too much from Wheatley ever since I saw Kill List (2011), a wild, incredibly satisfying work of auteurist cinema. Terrifying, supremely confident and wholly original – while acknowledging fascinating forebears – Kill List instantly put Wheatley on my own, exclusive list of directors whose films I will always see as soon as I can. Sightseers (2012) kept me completely on board, while I brushed off 2013’s mystifying A Field In England as an allowable indulgence. But last year’s High Rise, while chock full of superb elements, went haywire in its storytelling, essentially replacing the second act with a montage of hysterical imagery. Indulgence indeed. Still, I love the cut of the man’s jib – I feel like he makes the kind of movies I want to see – so I went into Free Fire looking forward to something… well, I was hoping for astonishing. It isn’t that.

The experiment is simple: Set up a big arms deal in a contained location with a group of dangerous men (and one woman), get some fun characterisations going, then chuck a spanner in the works, get them shooting at each other – and don’t stop. Finish at ninety minutes.

For the experiment to really work, it needs to fulfil a few criteria. We should be entertained the entire time. The gun battle should have an interior logic allowing us to follow it. We should care, at least a little, about the characters and the situation. It should be fun.

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The good news is, it’s definitely fun, and we do care, at least a little, about the characters and the situation. The first, shortest act of the film is the set-up, and a batch of really good comic actors get to strut out some terrific oddballs in very deft strokes. Sharlto Copley gets the juiciest ham as Vernon, the purveyor of the fine firearms; he gets to use his own South African accent to terrific comic effect. Cillian Murphy plays one of those small, good-looking IRA guys – he’s buying the guns – who just have a killer vibe about them despite their build. Armie Hammer, looking really tall amongst this bunch, plays a super-cool middle-man – he actually lights up a joint and gets high later on, as the bullets are flying – and Wheatley regular Michael Smiley plays the Michael Smiley role (on the IRA side). Brie Larson’s the chick (unfortunately not likely to get her another Oscar) and along the way, some more greasy thugs come to the deal, with terrifically icky turns from Jack Reynor, Sam Riley and Enzo Cilenti. Babou Ceesay, as Vernon’s more level-headed offsider, stabilises things a little, at least for awhile. Oh, and it’s set in the late 70s, so everyone looks groovy, with facial hair, big lapels and leisure suits aplenty.

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So far, so Reservoir Dogs (and we wouldn’t have Wheatley if we didn’t have Tarantino). Unfortunately, once the bullets start flying, the film stumbles a little in achieving its goals. Despite stupendous technical care – Wheatley planned out the hour-long-or-so gun battle on models, in storyboards, and on Minecraft (!) – we still lose track of who is where and when, who’s shooting at whom, how wounded everyone is, and what’s generally going on. The situation is confusing for the characters but when it is so for us, we can drift, and I certainly did. In its long second act and into its third, it’s a very easy movie to tune out of, because – hey – you know what’s going on: a gun battle. All you’re really sticking around for is to see who survives at the end.

I still have Wheatley on my list. I’m glad he’s playing with form. Good on him and more power to him. But accepting Free Fire’s flaws remind me that Wheatley’s most obvious modern influence – Tarantino – has never put out a film that is anything other than masterful. Tarantino takes his time. Wheatley is in a fertile, prolific, hyper-productive period. Perhaps if he slowed down, his films would be more polished… but there would be less of them. Not a bad dilemma for those of us who love cinema to have.

BS_Poster*** (out of five)

Opens April 20th in Australia

Movies where disturbed men imprison women actually began on the A List, with 1965’s The Collector, directed by William Wyler from John Fowles’ novel. Starring Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar, it was nominated for three Oscars. Since then, the idiosyncratic sub-genre – call it the “Female Captive Movie”, perhaps – has taken a stroll into more exploitative territory, through such diverse fare as Boxing Helena (1993), Black Snake Moan (2006) and Captivity (2007), the last one being a definite B Picture. (Last year’s excellent Room cannot be considered part of this sub-genre; it doesn’t focus on the captive/captor relationship, nor does it follow many of the genre’s primary tropes).

Australian director Cate Shortland gives the subject the A List treatment with Berlin Syndrome, and in doing so highlights its limitations. Impeccably directed, shot and acted, there’s no denying that the script is just another take on an unhinged man who kidnaps an attractive woman and holds her captive; it is tense and suspenseful but really has nothing new to say.

As a thriller, though, it’s great fun. Clare (Teresa Palmer) is a solo tourist in Berlin. She gets picked up on the street by Andi (Max Riemelt) and, after a promising and very sexy start, things go very, very wrong. There’s not much else to say about the plot – if you know the genre, you know the story. But the execution is above average for the material. Palmer is terrific; she paints Clare in more colours than the script would seemingly allow. From the moment we meet her, we suspect Clare has more going on beneath the surface than most poor backpackers taken hostage in Europe; it feels like she’s trying to escape some sadness or tragedy, though, if so, it’s never made explicit. Once a captive, Palmer is vividly proficient at all the stages of Clare’s terror, desolation and resolve, but the actress brings even more than that, creating a physicality of fear that brings to mind Mia Farrow’s performance in Rosemary’s Baby (1968) – and that’s high praise indeed. Riemelt is a strong presence too, although his character’s mental imbalance calls for him to present as dispassionate and immoveable, which limits his performance.

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Shortland uses the camera well, creating some beautiful images, but she continually falls back on her favourite trick, which is to fall into a dreamy, slow-motion montage with over-reliance on an increasingly intrusive soundtrack by Bryony Marks. If you’ve seen Shortland’s debut feature, Somersault (2004), you’ll know the technique; it’s ill-used here, interrupting and slowing down the narrative and contributing to its significantly overlong running time of 116 minutes. In trying to elevate her lurid material, Shortland ignores one of its basic demands: she drops the tension. The result is an entirely watchable movie with some excellent elements, but which is an uncomfortable fit, a square peg straining to squeeze into a round hole.

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Their Finest Hour and A Half
Directed by Lone Sherfig

Preview Screenings in Australia over the Easter long weekend; opens April 20th

*** (out of five)

Lone Scherfig loves to fetishise Britishness. In her masterpiece, An Education (2009) she presents a fabulous and slightly fantastic 60s London; in The Riot Club (2014) she gets right into the taffy and the toffee at the snootiest club within Oxford University. Now she gives us a dreamily romanticised London under the blitz. It’s suitable for a romantic and slightly ludicrous drama – as this is – but one can imagine the matte painted bombed-out streetscapes and central-cast Old Londoners With War Relief Tins seeing Ken Roach, Danny Boyle or any one else with a penchant for grit or realism puking in the aisles. Bombings – and bombing victims – are rarely this pretty.

That said, the subject of Their Finest is filmmaking, and, during the course of the film, we see plenty of instances of the craft’s artifice, so perhaps that of the film we’re watching is highly deliberate. Indeed, there were a few times, as we watch a film get made and then that film (that “film within a film”), that the film (this one!) seems to be going deliberately meta – but one cannot be sure, since the tone of the film itself seems unsteady; it is rocked off its hinges by a brutal shift in the third act.

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Directed by Lone Sherfig

Until then it’s a very enjoyable romp through familiarly enjoyable territory. Catrin Cole (lovely and very period-friendly Gemma Arterton) is a Welsh cartoonist drafted into screenwriting for the Ministry of Information. She ends up writing “the women’s dialogue” (and, of course, much more) for a propaganda picture first designed simply to boost morale, then elevated to being used as a direct entreaty to get the US to enter the war. The power of cinema indeed! Unfortunately for her, the film, and us, she also has to navigate a love triangle, which is completely unnecessary and stretches the film at least twenty-five minutes beyond breaking point.

It’s a pity, because much of the film, and certainly the premise, is great. Watching how digestible propaganda was made at the highest levels of the British war effort is fascinating, and one doesn’t doubt the authenticity of all of the scenes involving that activity’s nuts and bolts. It’s the love story that doesn’t ring true.

Incidentally, Bill Nighy gives yet another perfect performance as a British actor. Loverly!

Their Finest Hour and A Half
Directed by Lone Sherfig

 

Personal Shopper 2

**** (out of five)

Kristen Stewart is now Olivier Assayas’ muse, and he is now her most important director. They collaborated for the first time on 2014’s excellent Clouds of Sils Maria; Stewart took home the César Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as the personal assistant to a film star played by Juliette Binoche. Now Stewart plays the assistant to another powerful and celebrated European celebrity – not entirely defined, but either a model or a bigwig in fashion – but very much takes the leading role in Personal Shopper. She’s in every scene, and the movie is all about her. It’s her finest performance to date and the film is the equal of Clouds, and up there with Assayas’ best work.

The movie is great value, because it’s at least three films in one: ghost story, American-in-Paris workplace drama and vaguely “Hitchcockian” thriller. We first meet Stewart’s character Maureen (such an intriguing, old-fashioned name for someone so young and hip; Stewart wears it beautifully, and a touch ironically) as she spends the night in a secluded house in order to see if it’s haunted. This scene, played straight – and with a ghost! – seems almost shockingly, literally “genre”; is Assayas really going there? The short answer is, he is, but he’s going other places too, and the movie keeps shifting gears with highly-engineered precision. When Maureen leaves the haunted house and returns to her job, shopping for high-end clothes and jewellery for the aforementioned fashionista, the film slides securely back into territory we’re familiar with from Clouds, and Maureen could almost be Stewart’s character from that movie; it would make sense, to leave Binoche and find a new, younger and more distant boss to service, and, if Assayas had made this a sequel, I would have bought it.

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Halfway through, the third element – the thriller – enters the fray, and infects both the exotic workplace and the haunted house. The effect this shift has is electrifying, and the extended sequence on the Eurostar, where Maureen is stalked via text, will be deservedly admired and discussed for years to come. Stewart’s complicated emotional and psychological response to this series of events represents new levels of intimacy and vulnerability in her work, which some critics, in the past, have found cold and remote.

Assayas and his cinematographer Yorick Le Saux shoot Stewart, Eurostar, Paris, Europe, everything magnificently. Nobody shoots daily contemporary urban life like Assayas, with its bustling beauty, havoc and disparity. You don’t necessarily notice the camerawork – it’s not like a Scorsese picture – but the moves and, in particular, the framings are quiet perfection.

I will be telling my filmmaking students to see this movie, not only for its general quality, but specifically to appreciate its approach to ambiguity. Easy answers to any of the film’s threads are not readily apparent by the end credits, yet the whole is immensely satisfying. It is a rich and hearty stew, nourishing for mind and soul.

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colossal-poster2*1/2 (out of five)

Perhaps trying to be edgy, alternative, hip, cool – anything other than Oscar-winning for singing a brutally beautiful song in Les Miserables – Anne Hathaway has made a spectacularly misguided career decision in agreeing to star in Colossal, a rampaging misfire of a movie. What may have seemed like a deliriously different project on paper emerges, on screen, as a sullen, weirdly dated anti-date flick, a film for no-one with a message no-one wants.

It starts like any old (emphasis on “old”) chick-flick rom-com; Hathaway’s Gloria, being out of work in The Big Apple, is drinking too much, has been tossed out of her groovy loft by her dapper English boyfriend (Dan Stevens) and has headed back to her old house upstate to get her shit together, where she meets old school friend and now handsome and nice and very available Oscar (Jason Sudeikis). Then things get weird, but weird-bad, not weird-cool.

Spoilers, I suppose, ahead.

So far, so rom-com. But the first act turning point sees Gloria discover that she’s responsible for the huge sea lizard that’s recently begun terrorising poor Seoul. When Oscar discovers he’s responsible for a similarly malignant giant robot, the stage should be set for a really quirky romance. But no… instead, the film takes a very nasty turn and becomes not romantic but an honest-to-goodness war between the sexes film, including physical fisticuffs, man on woman. Sudeikis, I suppose, shows range, but Oscar becomes reprehensible, and the entire second half of the film is a morose examination of his relentless – and increasingly boring – bullying of Gloria. Including, as I’ve said, physical violence. There’s no kiss and make-up in the stars for these two. This isn’t 50 Shades of Grey; more like The Burning Bed.

It’s also not Arrival. I had a lot of problems with that film, but one thing it did extremely well was try to be realistic about how the world would react to an alien arrival. Colossal makes no such attempt, and, even though it’s not a “monster movie” per se, the lack of effort to even be a little believable shows contempt for the audience. There are a million plot holes, inconsistencies and logical absurdities, the biggest being that the good citizens of Seoul – and their authority figures – make no attempt to stay safe – such as by avoiding eating noodles and drinking coffee at exactly the time and place the huge beasts keep appearing and stepping on people.

The film is obviously using the monsters as metaphors for alcoholism and domestic violence – the emphasis here being obviously. This is really ham-fisted, nail-hammering, on-the-nose stuff – as clunky and over-emphatic as this sentence. And when it all ends, the final line reveals a Gloria who may have learned nothing at all. Making us the fools for wasting nearly two hours with her and her mean, awful, misogynistic friends. Salut, indeed.

 

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*** (out of five)

Like Land of Mine, François Ozon’s new film, Frantz, examines, among other things, the nature of vengeance, recrimination and forgiveness in the aftermath of a world war – this time, the first one. But whereas Land Of Mine is urgent, with a contemporary feel, Ozon’s film, reaching further back in time (essentially a century), chooses to celebrate its story’s sense of the past with formal construction, gentle pacing, and, for the most part, a monochromatic (black and white) palette. The images are often very, very striking; Ozon and his cinematographer Pascal Marti use strong contrast to achieve the blackest blacks, evident in the mourning clothes of the central family. And, occasionally, the film slips dreamily into a faded colour, like that of early colour photographs. It appears, for the first act at least, to be Art Cinema with a capital A and to be approached as such.

It’s partially a remake of an Ernst Lubitsch film from 1932, Broken Lullaby, itself based on a 1930 play by Maurice Rostand whose title I won’t mention, as it gives something away in the context of the present film. The material must have seemed pretty pungent at the time, when war wounds were still raw and distrust between France and Germany was still very much on the boil (now hopefully down to a simmer).

Anna (Paula Beer) is mourning her fiancé Frantz, who was killed fighting in France (the name is obviously loaded). She lives with Frantz’s parents in their small German town, and she dutifully visits Frantz’s grave. One day, she notices a young man (Pierre Niney, a man of big face) laying fresh flowers there – and not only does he turn out to be French (not a good thing to be in a small German town at this time) but he seems to have a mission, and it involves her.

The play and Lubitsch’s film ended one way; Ozon adds, essentially, a second half. He also completely shifts the point of view; the original material followed the young Frenchman, but this is Anna’s story. It’s intriguing, in a stately fashion, but cold; the material and its telling is resolutely tasteful and formal and almost completely lacking in passion. Ozon is still young, but for some reason he’s gone and made an old man’s film, that is very very pretty, with little to say. It feels, to a degree, like an exercise in style, made more to satisfy an urge of Ozon’s own rather than that of any contemporary audience. About halfway through act three, he references one of the most famous scenes from Casablanca (1942), and I realised what I’d been watching all along: a good ol’ fashioned war-flavoured romantic melodrama – and in black and white, no less.

PS: Hope you liked last Saturday’s review of MY BODYGUARD, published on April 1st. April Fool from Film Mafia!