Archive for April, 2012

This was always going to be a mess. An Italian arthouse darling directing. An American road movie. Egomaniac Sean Penn playing emomaniac Robert Smith. Talking Heads. And Nazi hunting. The question was, is this going to be a glorious mess, or just a mess?

Let’s attempt to form some kind of a narrative out of the film. Cheyenne (Penn) is a bored rockstar living a hermitic existence in rural Ireland with his doting firefighter wife Jane (Frances McDormand). Yes, that’s right, she’s a firefighter. Deal with it. His numb life is interrupted by the news of his estranged father’s impending death in America. Too late to reconcile, Cheyenne discovers his late father’s career as a Nazi hunter, and seeks to resume his father’s search for the last remaining persecutor.

It’s at this point that This Must Be The Place morphs into it’s more conventional road movie structure, as Cheyenne mopes through the great American landscape, meeting a typically offfbeat range of characters along the way. In an obvious nod to Wim Wender’s superlative road movie Paris, Texas, Cheyenne meets a luggage designer played by Harry Dean Stanton. The two films share something in common; two respected European auteurs making the flight over to their beloved America, idolising it’s vast open spaces and neverending roads, it’s rock music and it’s sense of adventure. Let’s be clear though, This Must Be The Place is Paris, Texas’ muddled, wayward younger brother and no match for the real thing.

One of the most polarising aspects of the film comes in the form of our big haired, black strewn anti-hero Cheyenne. Sean Penn seems to veer between acting giant and worthy irritant with all the ease of  a yo-yo, so for him to play a version of The Cure’s frontman is, at best, an intriguing proposition. At worst, it’s cringeworthy. Penn, evidently unaware of Smith’s actual blokiness, adopts a Michael Jackson style high pitched voice and childlike demeanour. There are moments when Cheyenne makes an uncharacteristic joke, and exhales a little giggle, and the audience sits in silence, as if a car crash is in motion.

Paolo Sorrentino’s direction is uniformly stylish, his camera gliding over squash courts, airports and even golden fields. The editing is, like his other films, snappy and slightly offbeat. Yet, you get the sense that his singular style worked so much better within the confines of his earlier mafia thrillers The Consequences of Love and Il Divo. Those two films in particular elevated him to the accolade of perhaps European cinema’s most stylish director, though he feels a little bit like a fish out of water here. However, This Must Be The Place is often visually striking, with the cinematography capturing the vivid blue skies with a childlike relish that must be an outsiders.

This Must Be The Place has moments of terribleness. It has moments of bewilderment. But it has more moments of offbeat joy and beauty. If it was to be deconstructed by the rules of Hollywood screenwriting, it would undoubtedly be torn apart. There are too many locations, too many subplots, too many themes. It feels like Paulo Sorrentino and his writers have brainstormed everything they love in the world and thrown it into a blender. It is not a great film, but destined to be a cult oddity. And that’s quite alright with me.

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In delightfully ironic fashion Aki Kaurismäki, Finnish director and purveyor of the cynically comical, arrives with a French set film that just might be the most heart warming movie of the year. Le Havre tells the story of Marcel Marx (André Wilms), an ex-bohemian artist turned shoeshiner who lacks cynicism as much as he lacks earning potential – that is to say he lacks both a great deal.

When Marcel’s devoted wife Arletty (Kati Outinen) becomes seriously ill, Marcel is none the wiser. On Arletty’s request the doctors tell Marcel that there is nothing to worry about, so he continues his life in a state of boyish innocence. Marcel’s routine consists of earning nothing all day shoe-shining, stealing food from local shops and spending any money he can find at the local pub.

One day Marcel encounters a young African boy called Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), an illegal immigrant. When Marcel realises the authorities are hunting for the boy he decides to help him, since his house is otherwise empty (his trusty dog Laïka aside). Suddenly Marcel switches gear from silly old fool to quick witted protector of innocence, as he locates Idrissa’s family in London, by fooling the authorities with the claim of being “the family albino”.

And so Kaurismäki’s ability to create deadpan hilarity ensues, but his expert storytelling has us rooting for Idrissa’s cause as well. The film is constructed simply, but brilliantly with Kaurismäki’s eagle eye for comic dramatisation captured by simple but effective camera setups. Traditional to Kaurismäki the style of Le Havre recalls directors including Jean-Pierre Melville and Yasujiro Ozu, whose different but distinct styles meld perfectly into arty-comic-noir.

The characters in Le Havre feels like they are of another, more innocent time. This is emphasised by Kaurismäki’s use of noir archetypes and Marcel Marx himself, who seems to live in the 1960’s despite existing in the modern world. The contemporary world is amusingly evoked by police squads in excessive gear, cold hearted shoe shop owners and a truthfully absurd newspaper headline connecting the innocent but foreign Idrissa with terrorism.

Throughout Le Havre Kaurismäki’s wit is cynical and sharp, but his love for his characters affords the film a cheerful tone. In fact the film is joyous, particularly when Marcel Marx stages a concert by French rock band Little Bob, to raise funds for Idrissa’s travels. Despite Little Bob being ancient rockers there is a youthful air to them and this air pervades the film.

Kaurismäki’s latest film is not only unashamedly nostalgic, but it is interested in miracles too. It pokes fun at the modern world where doom and gloom takes precedence over hope and dreams. Le Havre tells us not to take life so seriously and for the duration of this film you can be damned sure that you wont.

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Scandinavia is ‘in’ right now. For the past couple of years, audiences have been besieged by numerous TV crime dramas such as The Killing and Wallander, while the silver screen has seen the emergence of the Stieg Larsson franchise the ‘Millenium‘ trilogy. Wooly jumpers, inexplicably angular features and glib criminality are the new black. Or should that be icy grey.

The latest sensation being heralded is Jo Nesbo, whose novel has been adapted for the screen here. The story follows Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie), a slick ‘headhunter’ who seems to have it all, with a beautful wife named Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund) and a flashy minimalist apartment. Quite why a Norwegian man is called Roger Brown is anyone’s guess, but pretty much standard fare for this film. His wife, an exhibition curator of sorts, demands a lavish lifestyle, and more pressingly a child. In order to sate these needs, Roger has a rather far fetched sideline as an art thief. Well, these are tough economic times.

In the first scene we observe Roger stealing into an apartment and helping himself to a valuable painting on the way out. Mildly intriguing, but isn’t this just Hustle with sharper cheekbones? The plot clicks into gear with a meeting with Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a prospective new partner for Roger’s legitimate company. Handsome and smarmy, Clas has designs on Diana and furthermore, an extremely rare German painting lurking in his apartment. I could be wrong here, but I think we may have found our antagonist.

Inevitably Roger conspires to steal the painting, but when his accomplice in the dastardly deed is found near deaths door, things start to get a bit Jackson Pollock. Clas, it so happens, is a deadly ex-army tracker, and so ensues a game of cat and mouse. Frankly, this is a very silly and uneven film.  While the first half errs towards a slick, but ultimately humdrum corporate heist thriller, the second half veers wildly towards Coen-esque absurdist hijinks. It is this section which saves the film from banality, particularly a bizarre sequence featuring a tractor, an impaled dog and lashings of excrement. Possibly the wildest and most fun scene I’ve witnessed so far this year.

To be fair, Headhunters is fairly entertaining, and Aksel Hennie provides an empathetic character with a good line in puppy dog eyes. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau also fares well as the slimy Clas, but make no mistake, this is not high drama. The direction by Morten Tyldum is efficient and the pacy editing moves the film along quickly. The projects downfall is probably down to the source material more than anything, a fairly silly concoction to start with.

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Few contemporary directors walk the line between the sublime and the ridiculous as closely as Tarsem. Mirror Mirror sees the artsy Indian director, whose previous credits include The Cell, The Fall and Immortals tackle the potent but unsettling fairy tale Snow White (which tells the story of a young princess, cast out by her vein stepmother only to be saved by a group of dwarfs and the prince she loves) with a campy sarcastic comedic style; a welcome approach given the story’s old fashioned subtext, hinging on the value of pale skinned youthfulness.

Combining laughs with Tarsem’s meticulous surrealistic aesthetic might seem a little odd, but it works surprisingly well. However, the film gets off to a something of an uneasy start with the narration by the evil Queen (Julia Roberts). Tarsem plays with the idea of whose story Mirror Mirror actually is, the Queen’s or Snow White’s (Lilly Collins). The Queen insists the story belongs to her, but we all know it is Snow White’s – this gives us a feeling akin to starting off on the wrong foot.

As soon as the Snow White character is established though Tarsem gets the storytelling on track. Lilly Collins, for what its worth, is charming as Snow White and refreshingly she doesn’t possess a sickly facade of innocence – this bolsters the film’s self-knowing irony. Collins also plays counterpoint to Roberts’ vein and frankly annoying Queen, giving the dynamic an essential sense of balance.

In line with his tongue in cheek interpretation Tarsem turns the ‘prince saves the princess’ cliche upside down; Collins’ Snow White becomes the motivating hero of the story, saving Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer). This is a significant choice as it undermines Snow White’s beatific innocence and makes her a much more robust female lead. This creates substantial laughs for the female section of the audience, at Armie Hammer’s expense.

Despite its sardonic modern wit Tarsem’s take on Snow White still leaves us feeling slightly uneasy, as we remember that the story’s ultimate horror is to become anything but youthful and pale skinned. It is strange to see that the film doesn’t tackle the plot conclusion with ridicule, while the majority of the film is gladly tongue in cheek. With this said the film does end on a slightly bizarre and unexpected high with a fun Bollywood-style credit sequence – a unmistakable nod to Tarsem’s Indian contemporaries.

Feeling like a mashup of slapstick comedy, Bollywood excess and surrealist pastiche Mirror Mirror is a film that just about comes together stylistically. However, in its treatment of the Brothers Grimm’s irrefutably dark story it would have still benefited from a more acidic kind of wit. It will be interesting to see how this film compares to Snow White and the Huntsman, Rupert Sanders’ darker cinematic take on the same story, due for release in the summer.

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