Archive for April, 2015

Of late, Norwegian, Danish and Swedish television and film has – deservedly – received a lot of attention and adoration. The countries have their masters in crime, drama and comedy genres, yet few of us would know their names. Hopefully with Force Majeure, the name Ruben Östlund will start to become commonplace, and the rest of his career will continue to impress.

Force Majeure [Turist] is an example of very high-class filmmaking, elegant yet simplistic. Whereas some films use the medium to present vistas of sheer beauty, others choose to quietly tell a tale. This is a mixture of both, focusing on a family holidaying in the French Alps, experiencing some drama once an avalanche incident spotlights some shaky parenting. östlund brought the film to Cannes 2014 where it was awarded the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize – it got many critics talking (and laughing), proving its worth before general release. It looks terrific and centres on some fantastic performances.

To explain the story would spoil the pleasure in watching the scenes unfold naturally. It is, to synopsise it as briefly as possible, a look at a family dynamic eroding after a distressing event. Much like Funny Games, there is a twisted glee to seeing a WASP family lose their dignity over something they never expected. Johannes Kuhnke as the father Tomas is simply wonderful. A very handsome, intelligent father, he looks like the perfect role model. When our perception of him changes, as it does for his wife (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and kids, you can see him play on that external judgement. It is a gradual alteration, spanning over the 120 minute runtime, but it is judged perfectly. The time elapses without many superfluous elements felt, concluding eloquently, with a very realistic (and comedic) presentation of a domestic dispute having preceded it.

Chapters [Ski Day X] are punctuated by the controlled explosions of the Alps, set to the frantic violin of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons III. In many respects it’s an obvious artistic play to show tension and outbursts – common tropes of the film – yet it also links to the playfulness all round. There is a beauty to the film, but at its core, it is a low-budget black comedy. So, it uses symbolism in due part, still preserving its domesticated, grounded heart. The drama that pulsates through the film is so recognisable for anyone who has had some familial outburst on holiday. And so you watch on with heightened attention, curious to know how things will be resolved, and entertained by the hurdles that impede Tomas and his wife and children.

It is not a film that has any twists or spoilers to wow the audience (and even though this review reads like it wants to detract you from knowing much, it is only to keep the film fresh upon viewing), but it is constructed around very stark images and themes. Force Majeure will stay with you – tickling you or itching at you (depending on how you react to the neuroses on show). Whatever your perception may be, you will certainly remark on the superb talent– cast and crew – able to make such an unadorned movie laden with insightful, enjoyable moments.

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The story of Kurt Cobain is a well trodden one, immortalised several times in the film medium – such as Nick Broomfield’s murder investigation Kurt And Courtney (1998), Gus van Sant’s semi-ficticious imagining of Kurt’s Last Days (2005) and AJ Schnack’s more faithful documentary in About a Son (2006) – as well as in biographies, as people remain endlessly fascinated with the enigmatic front man and one of American rock music’s key icons. One would ask what, in 2015, a whole 21 years after the singer-songwriter of Nirvana’s suicide, is left to say about the subject, but the answer in Brett Morgan’s Montage of Heck, is that this is the first fully authorised account, with full access and backing from wife Courtney Love and daughter Frances Bean Cobain who serve as executive producers and in the case of the former, as an interviewee.

Much like Kurt’s posthumously published diaries, this instantly contains a pretty questionable situation in whether it is right to invade the privacy of a dead person, regardless of their celebrity status, especially when said person struggled so publicly with being launched into the brightest of media spotlights. One of the clearest things we ascertain from Montage, if it wasn’t well known already, is that Cobain struggled massively with being heralded as some sort of voice of a generation, when he largely hated the generation he was supposed to be leading, which is displayed through archive footage of his awkward interviews and glib sound-bytes. So one can’t help but wonder that the reclusive artist would most likely not approve of having his life sprayed out on a screen, but in death it was perhaps a sad inevitability.

Moral questions aside, Montage of Heck is a questionable piece of film making in style and form, let alone in problematic, potentially invasive footage. To it’s credit, the film introduces Kurt’s upbringing excellently through home video footage and interviews with his parents and first girlfriend, scored by a sweet, lullaby version of Nirvana’s classic “All Apologies”, giving us Cobain’s difficult childhood and adolescence with great, interesting detail. This gives us an interesting context which, again, while perhaps not that surprising to anyone, paints a well rounded picture of what growing up in Aberdeen, Washington was like.

But once the film moves towards the success of Nirvana, context and narrative more or less goes on the window. While Morgan does well to avoid martyring Cobain, and with it his biggest problem with becoming a celebrity, he instead relies way too heavily on the idea of using Kurt’s diaries as a gateway to his genius. In the film’s way too long second half, a staggeringly wasted amount of screen-time is devoted to visualising Kurt’s scribblings, be they lyrics, phrases or drawings, as some sort of explanation for Nirvana’s against-the-odds world conquering music. This happens to the point of tedium, especially as the disappearance of context or a narrator to guide us through these tormented images. While I respect the choice of excluding a narrative voice for fear of wanting to impose a direction of thinking upon his audience, Morgan loses almost all impact by just simply relying on re-creating Cobain’s “Montage of Heck” (which we learn is a audio collage he created during his early days as a musician and artist).

This means, returning to the questionable personal footage, by the time the big reveal of Kurt and Courtney’s home life is given to us, there’s little to no effect left to be had, so exhausting is the endless animations or out-takes of music videos and sound-checks, sound-tracked by saccharine, operatic covers of the band’s most famous songs. While there are some revealing moments; largely that a couple addicted to heroin still seem mostly legitimately happy and stable bringing up a child, the general effect of this is pretty numb by the time it arrives on screen.

In the end, Montage of Heck, fails to leave much of an impression as an original piece of work. The film’s best moments are generally found in already familiar footage, the place where Nirvana and especially Kurt Cobain always looked his most comfortable; on stage, performing. There is amusing and enjoyable archival footage to be had from the band’s interviews, as well as some revealing answers from present-day Courtney Love and Kurt’s mother, but in the end, the focus of Montage of Heck does not highlight how the band came to be such an influential force, changing the face of rock music forever, but on the sad mental condition of the genius artist Kurt Cobain.

While there is nothing wrong with focusing with the band’s (at the time) easily most recognisable member, the idea that we are supposed to gain entry to man’s mind from endless animations of his notes is ineffectual when very few of us ever really knew the man himself. While Cobain comes off as sympathetic and humane in the footage, his whole ethos (as highlighted by the film) is not to be concerned with his creative process, but to appreciate and relate and judge his published work only, which this film is frustratingly at odds with.

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A brilliant portmanteau picture from Argentine director Damián Szifron (exec produced by Almodovar), Wild Tales is consistently thrilling, hilarious and horrifying throughout its numerous unrelated (but thematically linked) sections that make up the complete film. Built out of short stories that would traditionally provoke shock, the film finds a dark humour in numerous outrageous circumstances, to crowd-pleasing and simultaneously disturbing effect.

Wild Tales is at its finest when playing to the most relatable, cathartic circumstances. In one early section two drivers on a remote, mountainous road, square off against one another; one is a suited city-slicker (Diego – played by Leonardo Sbaraglia) in an expensive car, the other a rural tough guy (Mario – played by Walter Donado) in a beaten up old banger. After an exchange of insults, the city dweller experiences a flat tire. Unsurprisingly, he is dealt less than charitable gestures from his partner in road rage.

In perhaps the most frustrating, and simultaneously liberating sequence, a demolition expert called Simón Fischer (Ricardo Darin) finds himself dealing with local government bureaucracy as he attempts to make his way home to his daughter’s birthday party. After a series of run-ins with the law, his specialist training begins to seem useful in ways that do not line up with the imposed social order of which he is an unwilling participant.

The film’s most gloriously outrageous sequence, however, is a more personal affair. Taking place at the wedding of a particularly sickly pair of people, the wedding party is treated to a display from the most excessive, attention seeking kind, when the wife suddenly discovers news of her new husband’s infidelity. The scene is staged extravagantly, with an enormous ballroom, loud music, strobing lights and hundreds of guests and locations throughout the rest of entire venue (including the roof) for the staging of various memorable, sordid moments.

The film’s weaker segments suffer only slightly from excess dialogue – for example, an amusing, but somewhat lengthy legal scenario, in which a wealthy businessman attempts to convince his employee to take the fall for his son’s hit and run accident – and yet on the whole, Wild Tales is a hugely successful tragi-comedy.

As the anthology format goes too, this is also a rare triumph, due to the dramatic promise and satisfying closure of each section. With moments of sheer horror in spite of the laughs Wild Tales is certainly not a film for the faint-of-heart, but for those with the stomach for it, it’s a wild ride indeed.

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