The Artist (2011)

There’s a certain poetry in the fact that a black and white silent film – which features nary a full sentence of audible dialogue – has been eliciting hollers and hooplas of delight the world over. Because that’s exactly what The Artist, a rare and exquisite production, has been receiving. Not because it pushes boundaries or breaks any rules, but because it’s an opportune reminder of just what filmmaking is all about.

Yes, The Artist is a silent movie. And yes, it’s in black and white. But in this era of overblown CGI and audience-baiting 3D, it is the perfect antidote to the technology-gone-wild filmmaking that has taken modern cinema hostage. With his sweet, even-tempered ode to classic picture crafting, director Michel Hazanavicius has proven that while James Cameron and ilk are championing in-yer-face 3D thrills, there’s nothing better than a simple story told well.

And boy does The Artist tell it well. Dipping into timeless themes that extend beyond its 1920s setting, The Artist stars Jean Dujardin as George Valentin, a silent movie actor who finds that the advent of ‘talkies’ means he’ll either have to change with the times or get swallowed up by the onset of flash new technology. Meanwhile, bright young thing Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) is just breaking into the biz, and finds herself swept into the movie industry as its breakout pin-up – not least thanks to a fateful encounter with Valentin.

It’s not hard to sympathise with George. In The Artist’s opening moments, a panic not dissimilar to George’s mistrust of ‘talkies’ sets in. “What’s this?” an inner voice whimpers. “An entire film with barely a single line of dialogue, nor a solitary explosion of diagetic sound?” Such fears are quickly quelled, though, in the presence of director Hazanavicius’s confident moviemaking. Brisk, flirty and hilarious, The Artist is a breath of fresh air in an arena increasingly crowded out by big budget brutes.

Why the denial of a sound five stars? Well, while The Artist garners giggles and well-earned affection in its opening two acts, its third suffers through unmistakable slumps. Early scenes are playful and buoyant, but as the comedy dissolves into noirish drama, The Artist stretches itself a fraction too thinly. Meanwhile, a final scene development works thematically (just watch those changes roll in), but fails to achieve the undying classic status it’s clearly reaching for.

In this era of technology gone mad, though, The Artist is a joyful, rousing reminder that not everything on the big screen need have cost the same as Madonna’s latest 50 acre pad. Exhilarating and super-smart, The Artist is quite possibly the film of the year. And that’s really saying something. 4/5

Weekend (2011)

There are certain things that pretty much all gay men agree on. Cher used to rock. The metrosexual male is a confusing creature. And coming out is one of the defining moments of your life. That last topic is broached early on in director Andrew Haigh’s sexy, agreeably gritty romance, though Weekend isn’t content with simply retreading the same beaten path as so many ‘gay movies’ – it’s a film packed with emotion and honesty.

Mostly it’s about love. Can two people fall in love in just two days? Russell (Tom Cullen) and Glen (Chris New) meet in a bar on a Friday night, and end up spending the entire weekend together. They’re fundamentally different – Russell’s a damaged realist who hasn’t fully accepted his sexuality; Glen’s a fiery dreamer, actively controversial and championing gay equality – but that’s exactly what draws them together.

“You want everyone to think independently, but you want them all to agree with you,” Russell challenges Glen at one point. It’s just one of numerous stand-out moments in a film that never rests on its laurels. Weekend is constantly searching; exploring what it means to be gay in the modern world, and demonstrating how two people who are often (derogatively) reduced to a single adjective – queer – can be so utterly different, and so utterly perfect for one another.

Shining an intense light on Cullen and New’s relationship, Weekend’s shabby-chic aesthetic keeps it from devolving into a glossy gay romcom. And despite its themes, to call Haigh’s film a romcom would do it a disservice. With its naturalistic leads, frank sexual encounters and candid discussions, Weekend achieves that most important of filmic ambitions – relatability. In that way, it echoes My Beautiful Laundrette, centring its love story in a recognisable present where gay identity is ever evolving. If only all films about gay men were this good. 4/5

Via Out In The City

Melancholia (2011)

Danish director Lars Von Trier courted scandal at this year’s Cannes Film Festival when he coughed up Nazi soundbites (“I understand Hitler”) during a calamitous press conference. But it’s to Trier’s credit that the film he was over there promoting didn’t get lost in the ensuing, raging squall – Melancholia’s lead lady, Kirsten Dunst, pocketed the festival’s Best Actress award, ensuring the great Dane’s genre-blending oddity stayed defiantly on the event’s radar.

Controversy is clearly Von Trier’s bread and butter (anybody who saw his last film, Antichrist, can attest to that), but if anything, Melancholia is the filmmaker’s most accessible and mainstream movie yet. For a start, it has a linear plot – a mammoth planet, dubbed ‘Melancholia’, has appeared in our solar system, and is fast approaching Earth. But will it collide with us, or drift quietly by? Facing that quandary are sisters Justine (Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The former’s getting married (to Alexander Skarsgård’s Michael), but her growing apathy regarding the ceremony has Claire becoming increasingly irate. And that’s before the invading planet disrupts their lives.

Poignant and punchy, Melancholia has all of Von Trier’s trademarks dialled up to 11 – stark imagery, raw emotion, violent sexuality. Most impressive is the film’s opening 10 minutes, an arresting montage of painterly shots that echoes Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It sets a suitably operative tone, and the following intertwining of dark humour with a creeping sense of dread gives Melancholia a purposeful prowess.

Other plus points include Dunst’s joyful abandonment of her usual teen comedy perkiness to deliver something truly dark and interesting, and one heck of a finale that reverberates right through the film’s closing credits. Melancholia is opulent melodrama at its most memorable. 4/5

The Guard (2011)

Crass, belligerent and tart, the hero in this delightfully vinegary Irish black comedy really puts the ass in asinine. Not exactly your typical law enforcer, Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson) is the titular guard, going about his business with world-weary indifference, interfering with crime scenes and hiring prostitutes for hotel-based fun. When a cocaine ring appears to be doing business out of Galway, though, Boyle is teamed up with straight-laced FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) to round up the dealers.

More than just a case of good-cop-bad-cop, The Guard is a refreshingly witty chuckler that throws irony-laced jibes at its audience like hot potatoes. Gleeson (best known to mainstream cinema-goers as Mad-Eye Moody in the Harry Potter franchise) is a hoot, clearly revelling in playing up Irish clichés (“I thought black men couldn’t swim?” he deadpans) with all the pokerfaced delivery of a seasoned card player. He’s more than just a stroppy baboon, though, sharing heart-warming moments with on-screen mum Fionnula Flanagan, who’s fighting a losing battle with cancer.

And Gleeson’s not the only one having fun. Cheadle’s uptight American is the straight man to Gleeson’s clown, but grabs just as many guffaws. Meanwhile, Mark Strong – ever the Brit baddie – gets some great lines as a drug dealer frustrated with the ineptitude of the Irish cops he’s in league with.

Shot almost entirely in the countrified surrounds of Galway, The Guard has a grubby aesthetic that lends it a cool, understated vibe, while its iconic, blow-out climax is pure cinema gold. Though nowhere near as hardcore or deliriously hedonistic as Nicolas Cage’s 2009 Bad Lieutenant, it offers the same guilty pleasure in watching an authority figure so blatantly playing with fire – and mostly getting away with it. 4/5

Via Out In The City

Incendies (2010)

When the feeling’s gone and you can’t go on, it’s tragedy. Never were the Bee Gees more insightful, and you can bet your life that if Incendies had been a musical, that shrewd ‘70s classic would have been its powerhouse theme tune.

Instead, Incendies (meaning ‘Fire’ in French) is a grim, involving drama that plays it straight. Canadian twins Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) have just lost their mother. In her will, Nawal (Lubna Azabal) leaves her children two letters – one for the father they believe is dead, the other for a brother they didn’t even know they had.

It’s Nawal’s dying wish that these letters be delivered by Jeanne and Simon. As they set out on a seemingly impossible mission to the Middle East in search of their roots, the twins’ travels are mirrored with the story of their mother’s origins – the devastating events that shaped her into the distant, troubled woman her children grew up with.

Set against the backdrop of a fictional – but devastatingly familiar – civil war in an unnamed region, Incendies plays with massive themes on a heart-wrenchingly intimate scale. While evocative images of broken buildings and bombed-out buses stoke the anti-war flames, it’s Lubna Azabal who burns the brightest. As a mother who’s suffered through unimaginable trauma – and been unable to explain it to those closest to her – Azabal is a revelation. She plays both the younger and older versions of her character, and drives the narrative with a fiery passion; we feel every trembling lip, every pang of uncertainty as Nawal pitches from one disaster to another.

True, the film’s second half loses energy without her; as the story shifts to focus on her children’s increasingly bizarre expedition, the pacing begins to slow. But in the place of Nawal’s dramatic backstory stirs a far more disturbing exploration of her children’s origins, as the twins learn truth after devastating truth about Nawal’s tragic upbringing.

It’s a downer, to be sure. Credit must also be attributed to director Denis Villeneuve, then, who ensures that his slowly unfolding mystery is carefully measured out, and lifted by across-the-board terrific performances. The result is utterly absorbing, revelling in dusty visuals and intimate framing. Crucially, Incendies never falls into the trap of becoming just another movie about the futility of war, refusing to overtly comment on the heartbreak of conflict, while letting its upsetting content speak for itself.

Only the film’s final sucker punch revelation threatens the melodrama barometer, relying as it does on really unfortunately coincidences for its power. By then, though, you’ll be too wrapped up in Nawal’s story to really mind. As tragedy goes, it’s hard to bear – but it’s definitely worth it.

Anticipation
Oscar-nominated drama that had Roger Ebert’s backing. Must be good. 4

Enjoyment
Harrowing, beautiful and disturbing, though the second hour drags. 4

In Retrospect
Elemental and expertly directed, Nawal’s story haunts long after the credits have rolled. 4

Via Little White Lies

Bridesmaids (2011)

Weddings get a bad rep at the movies. Thankfully, any concerns that Bridesmaids would stumble down the same desolate aisle as the likes of Bride Wars and Runaway Bride are quickly dispelled in its opening moments. As Kristen Wiig thrashes around in bed with Mad Men’s Jon Hamm, then spars with roomie Matt Lucas before getting catty with her engaged BFF’s snooty new BFF, it’s clear that Bridesmaids is no Sex And The City 3.

For a start, it has Wiig. As Annie, she’s miserable in the wake of her business’ bankruptcy – but Annie’s life is further complicated when best friend Lillian (Maya Rudlph) gets engaged and asks her to be maid of honour. Making that nearly impossible is Lillian’s prissy new moneyed friend Helen (Rose Byrne), who competes with her for the bride’s attention/affection in the run up to the big day.

Unlike the glut of Hollywood comedies that rev out of the holding bay before quickly running low on fuel, Bridesmaids is the gasser that just keeps going, getting progressively funnier, wilder and more delightfully disgraceful as its journeys ever onward. It’s undeniably Wiig’s show, and the Saturday Night Live actress is more than up to the task, gluing together a string of increasingly hilarious set pieces that include a calamitous dress-fitting session and a riotous plane journey to Vegas. But the secondary characters are more than frosty cake bunting, eliciting big laughs courtesy of shrewd characterisation and some truly devilish gags.

Add to that an ending straight out of a John Hughes movie, replete with frilly frocks and nostalgia-laced pop anthem, and Bridesmaids is as near a perfect summer comedy as we’re ever likely to get. People will call it the female Hangover, but Bridesmaids is better than reductive comparisons. Messy, rude, warm and laugh-out-loud funny, it earns every one of your jubilant cackles. 4/5

Via Out In The City

Apocalypse Now (1979)

“I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” Few films have drilled so deep into the collective consciousness that a single line elicits both unanimous recognition and a chill right down the spine. Apocalypse Now is one of those films, and it’s packed full of lines like that.

The magnum opus of director Francis Ford Coppola, his essay on the Vietnam War is legendary for its tortured production, its unflinching, grunt level approach to combat, and that magnificent, menacing turn by Marlon Brando. The latter’s renegade officer only crops up in the film’s final act (though to Coppola’s credit, his sinewy presence is felt the entire way through), but when he finally emerges, boy does he tip the scales.

Not to short change Martin Sheen, who’s haunted (and haunting) as Captain Benjamin Willard, a veteran officer sent straight into the heart of the Vietnam War in search of Walter Kurtz (Brando). A decorated Special Forces officer, Kurtz has gone rogue in Cambodia, ruling like a God over the natives there – and it’s up to Willard to stop him, or die trying.

Painting his landscapes like they’re part of the Sistine Chapel, Coppola approaches the thorny subject matter at the crux of his story with uncompromising grit and gall. Though tackling the war in a variety of ways – through snatches of dialogue, the actions of his characters, and heart-stopping violence – Coppola’s most impressive commentary comes in the form of his penetrating visuals.

Blushing the rich hues of the jungle with tangible atmosphere, Apocalypse Now is the kind of movie that makes you not only see the rain, but feel it as well. Most memorably, Coppola lenses Willard’s journey up the fictitious Nung River as a trip into the bowls of hell, including a nightmarish encounter with soldiers who fire blindly into the night as the ground quakes and flames light the smog-choked sky.

In light of the on-going ‘War On Terror’, Coppola’s film takes on a new kind of power. Though broad comparisons are flawed (but inevitable), it’s not difficult to draw a line between the arrival of US troupes in Vietnam (and the subsequent deaths of over one million Vietnamese people) and the US’ landing in Afghanistan.

What is power? Coppola asks. And how should we use it? Bloody, elemental, poetic, the director’s war on war impeccably captures the confusion and injustice of conflict. The resultant experience leaves your head spinning and your guts aching. “The horror… the horror,” Kurtz mumbles in the film’s closing moments… 5/5

Rabbit Hole (2010)

“Does it ever go away?” whispers Becca (Nicole Kidman) towards the end of John Cameron Mitchell’s wrenching, enriching testimony on grief. Those who’ve ever lost a loved one will feel her pain. Cocooned in a house groaning with memories, Becca’s shell-shocked, exposed, drifting – her young son has just died in a road accident, leaving her and husband Howie (Aaron Eckhart) alone to pick up the pieces. Each cope differently – Becca goes inward, her flinty interactions concealing deep ache. Howie goes outward, searching, hoping.

If all this sounds like an A-list episode of Hollyoaks, it isn’t. Helmed by Shortbus and Hedwig director Mitchell, Rabbit Hole represents a U-turn in form for the openly gay filmmaker. Reigning in the explicit sex and power wigs, Mitchell directs deftly, quietly, creeping into the lives of our pugnacious couple and watching without judgement.

All the best indie buzz words apply: restrained, poignant, moving. But Rabbit Hole isn’t content to be just another indie film with an A-class cast and Big Issues. As it tracks Becca’s journey, it wraps her brittle experiences in mordant wit, ensuring that what could be a drab, maudlin slog is as vibrant as the flowers over which Becca so affectionately fawns.

Vitally, Rabbit Hole’s musings never ring false. Beautifully adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire from his own stageplay, Kidman rises to the demands of his vivid script, leading an impeccable cast that betrays no weak links. Eckhart exudes soul and Sandra Oh elicits sniggers, while Oscar winner Dianne Wiest as Becca’s mother is nothing short of miraculous – both kind and knowing. Amidst them all, Kidman remains coarse, frail and sincere in her finest turn since The Hours. Rabbit Hole is emotional, raw stuff managed with warmth and poise, and we wouldn’t be surprised if it ended up on the Academy Awards short list. 4/5

Via Out In The City

Blue Valentine (2010)

Sex sells, especially in the movie world – but not if nobody actually gets to see your movie. Saucy clinches shared by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine stirred up a scandal in America this year, where the MPAA decided that the film’s raunch factor warranted an NC-17 certificate – basically, a film version of the kiss of death.

Sit down with Valentine, though, and there’s little apparent reason for the controversy. A grown-up account of two people falling in – and then devastatingly out of – love, it’s a bleaker version of last year’s eloquent (500) Days Of Summer. “It’s like when you hear a song and you just have to dance,” explains young Dean (Gosling) of his feelings for glacial beauty Cindy (Williams). Luckily, she feels the same. But fast forward five years and she’s getting frumpy, he’s got a thinning crop, and there’s a five year old stampeding around the house. The strain’s showing; when will things snap?

Played out via elegantly crafted flashbacks, director Derek Cianfrance’s sophomore feature is a dreamy, painfully honest examination of a stagnating relationship. Torturously teasing apart the threads in Dean and Cindy’s marriage, Cianfrance’s documentary experience pays off in hand-held, tightly-shot vignettes that will feel horribly familiar to anybody who’s dallied in a duff liaison. And yes, there is sex, but it won’t upset anybody but grandma. Even she probably won’t find it particularly riveting.

Because while the sex is what’s made the news, it’s Gosling and Williams’ fearless dramatic turns that mesmerize. It’s their efforts that ensure Valentine becomes a beautifully poignant slice of filmmaking, albeit a spectacularly depressing one. And what of the US rating quarrel? It’s all been ironed out after a painfully protracted appeal, the MPAA awarding the film a far more reasonable R. Love hurts, and you better believe it. 4/5

Via Out In The City

Bad Lieutenant (2010)

After some sample dialogue from Nicolas Cage’s latest big screen bust-up? How about: “Shoot him again… His soul’s still dancing.” Or: “I’m the last person in the world you want me to be.” Then there’s our personal favourite: “You’re the fucking reason this country is going down the drain!” That last screamed in the craggy face of a decrepit old dear whose air supply he’s just curtailed, and whom he’s bullying with gunpoint brutality.

Is this really the same chap who just last year lent his larynx to throwaway kiddie crap like Astro Boy and G-Force? All we can assume is that there was something in the water around the time that the scripts for Bad Lieutenant and recent comic-book caper Kick-Ass slapped down on his doormat.

In Bad Lieutenant we discover a Cage clearly tapping a new, electrifying energy. Gone is the man who gave face in dreck like The Wicker Man and Ghost Rider; this is a tougher, charged, wilfully defiant actor cherry-picking risky roles like a mad man dancing on gunpowder with a match in his hand.

And they don’t come much riskier than Bad Lieutenant, a riff on Abel Ferrara’s 1992 crime thriller of the same name. Shrugging into the role of Terence McDonagh, Cage plays a lieutenant injured in the line of duty. Six months later we encounter him again, now a hunched, hallucinating mess, snorting cocaine at crime scenes and sticky-fingering any substance (‘MJ’, crack, heroin) his wandering, glazed eyes spy. Yep, he’s vice with vices.

Though steered by renowned boundary-flouting director Werner Herzog, this is entirely Cage’s show. Co-cop Val Kilmer barely gets a look in, while love interest Eva Mendes looks dazzling but does very little besides. Only scene-stealing support from improv queen Jennifer Coolidge refracts the glare of Cage’s glowing turn.

Alright, so Cage’s crippled Quasimodo is good. What about the rest of the film? Truthfully, it’s a mixed bag. Scattershot in tone (though perhaps that’s the point), it’s deadly serious one moment, then hysterically histrionic the next. Herzog milks the ravaged, post-Katrina setting for all its worth, soaking the streets in a moody blue, neo-noir blush, while inflating William Finkelstein’s by-the-numbers, cat-and-mouse drug-busting script with the flourishes of his own eccentric ego.

The result is a picture precariously poised on the cliff-edge of absurdity (lingering close-ups of various animals foster near-hysteria; McDonagh’s extreme actions seem to exist in a universe all their own). But it’s Cage’s plucky, peerless performance, seamlessly paired with Herzog’s ambient landscapes, that anchor proceedings in a queasy, wildly entertaining hyper-reality. In short? Cage does bad so good. Here’s hoping he keeps the crazy coming.

Anticipation: After Kick-Ass, this looks like a rowdier, riskier, un-caged Nic. Can Herzog deliver? 4

Enjoyment:
Nic goes nasty with a fearless routine that is equal parts hammy, radiant and hilarious. Film’s too long, though. 3

In Retrospect: The script’s all over the place and Herzog indulges his ego to a fault, but Cage is brazen and exhilarating. 3

Via Little White Lies