Posts Tagged ‘USA’

French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée has found a great deal of success in the past two years with his Oscar-nominated pictures Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, so it is a little bit of a surprise to see him so unfocused here. He has a more than capable cast at his disposal with the ever enticing Jake Gyllenhaal leading the charge, as a man who discovers his life has been something of a lie – after his wife dies in a car crash, which he survives.

Initially Davis Mitchell (Gyllenhaal) has what many would consider the perfect life: a beautiful, smart wife, a highly lucrative job in investment banking and a nice house in the New York state suburbs. While penning a therapeutic letter to a snack vending machine company – who are responsible for a machine that doesn’t dispense the requested sweets – Mitchell realises in mourning that his life has no substance. He admits that he barely understood his wife, his job was earned on “pure nepotism” (as the CEO is his father-in-law) and due to its nature there was never “anything physical you could hold in your hands” other than the profits made. Furthermore, Mitchell realises that he has merely coasted through life, not really paying attention to anyone and living purely through material objects.

So his newfound focus on “everything being a metaphor” is a believable, if not entirely original, conceit as this widower begins to see the world differently; he pays more attention to the world around him and finds the titular act of “demolition” particularly cathartic, especially when he destroys his own marital house. Gyllenhaal too does a decent job of showing the once fairly shallow Davis transforming into a more attenuative character.

The problem comes when Davis begins practising this in the real world. His new found freedom makes him a far more sympathetic character, but there’s no real progression of this idea throughout the film beyond: wife dies, realises stuff, makes some concessions at the end. It is claimed in the film that “total honesty is your thing” about the new-born Davis, which even he jokes about, as if this is a reason to explain the film’s spotty narrative.

Elsewhere, the film lacks much focus or direction. After a while, his continued letters to the vending company gets a response from a mysterious blonde. Eventually, they cross paths on Davis’ commuter train, and it turns that she is Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts) who let Davis into her life in a plutonic relationship, mostly out of sympathy for his soul through his letters. The film then becomes a dark, romantic comedy and for Karen’s son Chris (Judah Lewis), a coming of age tale which half-heartedly deals with his potentially burgeoning homosexuality. Troubling is Karen’s addiction to Marijuana and her boyfriend and boss Carl (C.J Wilson) who is a gun-toting “good guy” apparently.

While Davis is a more than polite guest in Karen and Chris’s lives, it is a problematic relationship that tries to make some slightly ill-conceived comment on class differences. The main point seems to be that the rich are a bit selfish, until someone dies and that the working class are not good at looking after themselves, but are more creatively expressive.

It’s a shame because Demolition – despite throwing several half-baked ideas at the screen – does has some genuine warmth to it. Gyllenhaal makes the best of a bad situation, delivering a strong performance that ranges from genuinely humorous, to emphathetic, to sad indifference. Lewis is excellent as the conflicted teenage son, but none of this really means anything without a properly realised narrative to back it up. One feels there is a great film rattling around in Demolition somewhere, it just required more care to truly realise it.

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Joachim Trier follows his highly regarded Oslo, August 31st with his English-speaking debut Louder Than Bombs, which received mixed reviews in Cannes and Toronto before arriving here in Glasgow. Featuring an impressive cast including Gabriel Byrne (The Usual Suspects, Millers Crossing), Isabelle Huppert (Amour) and Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network, The End of the Tour) Trier directs with skill, regardless of the new challenge of a second language.

Louder Than Bombs opens with a striking image of life – a newborn holding the hand of its father Jonah (Eisenberg) – shortly followed by a reveal of the death of Eisenberg’s mother Isabelle (Huppert), although this has already happened by the birth of Jonah’s son. This becomes a staple technique of the film, jumping forward and backwards in time, revealing a bit more detail each time, or viewing the same scene from a different character’s perspective. As a result, the dead mother Isabelle remains a living, breathing character in the film’s narrative, either due to flashback or premonition.

As for the rest of the family, the film deals with their varying attempts to cope with the grief of losing their mother including the sensitive windowed Husband Gene (Byrne), the aforementioned Jonah – who is more similar than his secretly suffering mother than he realised – and the younger teenage son Conrad; expertly played by Devin Druid, previously only known for playing teenage Louis C.K in his eponymous show. Conrad’s character is particularly fascinating, as while he appears to be the hardest hit of all, he shows the greatest deal of optimism in the film.

As well as family grief, Louder Than Bombs is very much about the words and feelings that go unexpressed between close family members – and the gap in understanding that this creates. Jonah’s character goes in the opposite direction of his younger brother: at first seeming capable of saving his family’s problems, but soon emerging as repressed and neglectful.

While the premise may sound fairly depressing, there is plenty of emotional depth found in this film. Louder Than Bombs retains a sense of humour and is playful enough with its form to keep it from being a “Capital D Drama” as Trier has put it. While the film examines the universally difficult subject of family grief, it doesn’t fail to show the warmth that these characters exert; even if often misplaced – as shown in several attempts by the father and sons to engage with the opposite sex – with varying degrees of success and conscientiousness.

On top of this, Trier plays with not just narrative structure, but with realism and filmic self-awareness, including lots of fun references to influential films (Vertigo, being one.) He also uses the imagination and dreams to represent the characters’ consciousness on screen. The greatest example of this is Conrad listening to a female classmate he is crushing on. As she reads aloud a classic text, he starts imagining her words visually; his mind takes over and she begins narrating the scene of his mother’s death and what thoughts might have gone through her mind, when she realised she was about to die. It is a truly thrilling scene and a technique that Trier explores throughout this intriguing film.

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To audiences outside of North America and Russia, the “Miracle on Ice” won’t mean much save for those few who watched Disney’s adaptation of the Miracle ten years ago. Yet to those countries, this hockey game, which took place during the Lake Placid 1980 Winter Olympics, has such stratospheric importance that Sports Illustrated named it “The Top Sports Moment of the 20th Century”.

While this is arguably an exaggeration, the “Miracle” did capture the imagination of a whole generation of cold war indoctrinated Americans, at a time when tensions between the two nations were at an all time high. Played during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Americans would soon rule to boycott the 1980 Moscow summer Olympics, after decades of tensions came very close to boiling point.

This is the picture Gabe Polsky (an American born of Soviet immigrants) paints early on in his debut feature Red Army to contextualise a familiar world crisis, which can be still universally recognised even 35 years on. What is unique about his film however is that, after all this time, not much is actually known about the formidable “Red Army” hockey team who dominated the sport throughout the 60s and 70s and were the heavy favourites going into the USA match; a team made of college students and amateurs.

Thus Red Army explores the massive socio-political implications of the Soviet’s ice hockey team, who were a tremendous source of pride to the state and seen as intrinsically important to the strength of the USSR both socially and internationally, and its effect on the players and staff involved.

The film focuses on the team’s most decorated and celebrated player Slava Fetishov: regarded as one of the best defensive players in the history of the sport, he grew up in the Soviet academy during their dominance, played in the infamous “Miracle” game, captained during the Soviet’s two 80’s golds and finally defied the oppressive Soviet state to become a successful NHL player in the 90s. While his list of honours may provide something of a spoiler for unaware viewers, Fetishov is a remarkable talent who builds a tantamount rapport with Polsky on screen, creating great moments of escalation and desperation, while reminiscing about his and his comrades’ careers.

Through archival footage and interviews with the players, Polsky shows us the brutal training regimes that ensured the Soviet system was the best. It is hard not to sympathise with these supposed “bad guys”, as they were frequently estranged from their loved ones for almost 12 months a year, and had to fight so hard to be the best as the sport they loved. Yet, to see the bonds formed from this band of brothers is truly inspiring; we see that even in the highest pressure scenarios in sport or politics, friendship can carry people through.

Unfortunately however, there is something that feels frustratingly out of reach in Polsky’s film. While he creates excellent, well contextualised timelines, with some earnestly emotional responses from his subjects (especially Fetishov), Polsky is penchant to glossing over some details a little too easily. Admittedly Polsky packs a lot of weight into the film’s relatively slender 85 minute runtime, but it is does mean that the film’s emotional impact dissipates in personal moments, as too much attention is focused on the might of the team and state.

While emotionally involving documentary filmmaking is always a very difficult task, one feels Polsky is just a little bit restrained at times in respect of his subjects, which makes this otherwise charming story suffer. [Spoiler warning:] The final reveal of Fetishov’s current role in Putin’s government being left unquestioned or largely unparalleled to the past is a particularly interesting oversight, but perhaps like certain details left out from the Soviet era, it is a bit too close to the top to be expressed for now.

Despite this, Red Army is a fascinating look at a team generally regarded as faceless enemies and succeeds in humanising them both as great athletes and normal humans. While the “Miracle” may be met with hostility (ESPN’s recent documentary Of Men and Miracles is a good example of this), there is no denying this intriguing insight from behind the Iron Curtain.

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In the great Westerns of Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More) and Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven) a man always comes to town. The man in question – like Eastwood’s Man With No Name in Leone’s films – is an imperfect protagonist (or anti-hero) who brings retribution to an also corrupt society. The brilliance of the documentary Welcome To Leith is that is also revolves around a man who comes to town, yet he is no hero, but a frightening real-life antagonist.

Leith, North Dakota was founded in 1910 and is one of America’s smallest cities, with a population of 16 as of the 2010 census. After the railroad was abandoned in Leith in 1984 it became deeply isolated, yet there is a close-knit community within the city. In 2012 Craig Cobb, the notorious white supremacist, rather anonymously moved into the town and quickly and easily began buying up land from the locals. Things became scary when he started moving neo-nazis into the town, stocking up on weapons and patrolling the streets.

Welcome To Leith picks up this story, initially from the point of view of the long-term locals, who become aware of Cobb’s plans to grow the town into a majority white supremacist enclave and endeavor to kick him out by any legal means necessary. While the film does deal with the legal aspects of this standoff, the real thrill of watching the film comes from the way in which the tension between Cobb and the town boils over into physical action. Much like a Spaghetti Western, the opposing forces frequently come into direct conflict, which makes the ideological struggle very real.

The film also offers Cobb and his supporters screen time, which sheds light on their perspective and builds tension, but it never plays in their favour (as the British TV documentary The Battle for Barking also didn’t for the BNP.) To hear Cobb’s views from the horse’s mouth leaves no doubt that this recalcitrant man offers a senseless vision of division, chaos and hopelessness. Only those whose political leaning comes from a place of irrational prejudice, entitlement and anger could be convinced.

Directors Nichols and Walker do well to create a real sense of isolation in Leith; beautiful cinematography of the sweeping landscapes outside of the town shows just how cut-off this community is. There is a vital sense in the film that Leith is really the frontier between a compassionate and accepting American way of life and a despair ridden white nationalism. Ultimately the film’s open ending leaves a sense of frustration in the viewer – perhaps there’s room for a sequel – but also a crucial sense of vigilance towards this ongoing struggle.

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