24 February 2012

Motifs in Cinema 2011: Marriage and Other Romantic Pursuits

I was recently asked to contribute something to Motifs in Cinema: 2011, a multi-site themed blog collaboration of 11 writers looking at 11 motifs from films last year. I selected ‘Marriage and Other Romantic Pursuits’ from the list. Although marriage obviously figures, the romantic pursuits part is slightly hazy at best. I thought I’d perhaps, for the most part, leave that bit out. There’s been spotlight on plenty of wedding-based movies which champion the love side of things. How about five examples of anti-matrimonial movie-making?

Here's Andrew Kendall's (whose idea it was) intro to the project: "Perhaps because it’s one of the youngest artistic forms, cinema is often assessed in much different manner that literature, or the visual arts. We discuss it in terms of genre, not in terms of thematic offering. Comparing, for example, Corpse Bride and Up because they’re both animated leads to some dubious discussion especially when – like any art form – thematic elements examined in cinema and the way different filmmaker address them make for some stimulating discussion. Motifs in Cinema is a discourse, across eleven film blogs, assessing the way in which various thematic elements have been used in the 2011 cinematic landscape. How does a common theme vary in use from a comedy to a drama? Are filmmakers working from a similar canvas when they assess the issue of the artist or the family dynamic? Like everything else, a film begins with an idea - Motifs in Cinema assesses how the use of a single idea changes when utilised by varying artists."

Anti-Matrimony Movies: Five Films About Marriage and Other Romantic Pursuits

1. Young Adult (Jason Reitman)

The star of Young Adult, Charlize Theron’s youth fiction ghost writer Mavis Gary, doesn’t really have any truck with marriage. It’s more of an obstacle than a personal goal or a project. She disregards its constitutions in a uniquely novel way: Mavis tries to single-mindedly win back her now-married college sweetheart (Patrick Wilson) by any means necessary. Glamming up and putting on the hard sell are just the start; masses of alcohol, oblivious intrusion and convoluted manipulation are thrown in for good measure, too. It’s a brave and uncommon film, one which allows us to plainly see how deluded its lead character is, yet compassionately shows respect for her. Films which position the once popular, now tragic figure of the comeback prom queen as worthy of sincere attention (especially over “normal” folks) don’t roll around every week. Mavis was unapologetic in her quest, and the film itself never says sorry on her behalf. Young Adult, in its own particular way, is a caustically welcome little spike in cinema’s marital armour. It’s a sly wakeup call, a sharp reminder to never become too complacent. I’ll take Theron’s flipside marriage assault over any Katherine Heigl/Anne Hathaway/Jennifer Lopez bridal snoozer any day. To paraphrase mavis herself: I mean, have you seen those movies, like, up close?

2. Marriage Material (Joe Swanberg)

The couple in Marriage Material, one of Joe Swanberg’s (many) new films, are a decent, everyday pair, lending a hand to their new-parent friends by babysitting for them. In a brief 55-minutes the film shows the couple engaging with their experiences of what it’s like to care for a child – before they think of embarking on conjugal bliss and rearing a sprog of their own. They ooh and ahh at the baby, do a spot of work, chat with each other and friends, and do some gardening. Relatively little happens. The camera observes the placid couple in a straightforward, fuss-free way. No great truths about married life are revealed or denied. This is a study in miniature of practice parenting, practice grown-up life. Future hopes are clearly outlined, with little need for any extraneous dialogue. But so, too, are the telling silences. It’s an amiable, refreshing take on the relationship movie. A small glimpse at life for a couple prior to the tying of any knots.

3. Another Happy Day (Sam Levinson)

Another Happy Day is another bespoke wedding-day tragedy-fest in the style of Margot at the Wedding (a somewhat piercing take on the theme) and Rachel Getting Married (a somewhat invidious take on the theme). These three would make a great triple-bill of ‘jumping the broom followed by jumping off a cliff’ movies. These kinds of films suggest that wedding days are the very best times to let the relation-directed pain out. Every family hurts sometimes, they say. Ellen Barkin, as a divorced mother hauling her kids along to an extended family’s wedding celebration/therapy session, does plenty of teary actressing. So does matriarch Ellen Burstyn and trophy wife Demi Moore. (The less said about Kate Bosworth’s ropey moping the better.) They all vent their relative woes in one way or another; it's all about bottled up emotion uncorked in timely splurges at this blissful time. Huge thanks and sweet relief, then, for Diana Scarwid and Siobhan Fallon. As a pair of cocktail-drunk, gabby and, thankfully, lively aunts, they add catty, characterful commentary to every situation. Sometimes wedding ceremonies (and their accompanying lead-up or fall-out) are best spent with the people on the periphery, those who carry on being engagingly captivating or comically cutting on either side of the aisle.

4. Melancholia (Lars von Trier) and 5. Bridesmaids (Paul Feig)

In the space of a few months last year, both Melancholia and Bridesmaids (which I wrote about just a week ago) became two of my favourite ever wedding-themed movies. Both displayed a marked cynicism (one slightly healthier than the other, you might say) about an institution that gets so often lazily or tediously rendered on screen. With Melancholia, Von Trier banged one out for the misanthropes of the world with his gloomy, doomed interplanetary heart puncher. Bridesmaids director Paul Feig, star Kirsten Wiig and company had the uplift, inspired comic experimentation and sheer energy. Not that it’s all plain-sailing there either. Both, however, portrayed women actively downtrodden by the pressures of nuptial engagement. Confetti was in short supply for Dunst. Congratulations were hard-won for Wiig.

Dunst was one of cinema’s most reluctant brides ever, with her depressed and introverted Justine; and Wiig, as head bridesmaid (well, for a spell), daftly spoke up for the maid's side, for the unsung heroines of wedding celebrations. 2011 made for a Kristen vs. Kirsten female acting smackdown; they were equally transfixing from different ends of the matrimony scale. Both shone brightly in entirely different ways as wedding-movie anti-matter. Their performances were vividly riveting and just anarchic enough. But each made some kind of stand for restraint and understanding when things became a little too falsely happy on the “Big Day”. With just one line each – Kristen with, “There’s a colonial woman on the wing of the plane!”, in the throes of turbulence, and Kirsten with, “Life is only on earth – and not for long,” in the throes of turmoil – they hilariously or wrenchingly summed up their predicaments perfectly. It's all rather ridiculous. Enjoy it while iut lasts.

17 February 2012

Top Ten Films of the Year 2011 #4: THE MESSENGER

The Messenger (Oren Moverman/USA/113mins)

Although The Messenger was filmed in 2008 and received its US release in 2010 (then going on to nab two Oscar nods: Best Supporting Actor for Woody Harrelson and Best Original Screenplay for its director-writer Moverman and co-writer Alessandro Camon), it didn’t arrive on UK screens until July 2011. For a highly praised film concerning timely, contemporary themes, the distributors took their time. But it was worth waiting to see: I was enthralled by it as soon as it finished. Rebellious staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), recently back from a tour of duty in Iraq after an injury, is tasked alongside stern, ex-alcoholic career soldier Capt. Tony Stone (Harrelson), to deliver the news of recently deceased soldiers to their families under the army’s Casualty Notification service. Will starts a tentative affair with one soldier’s spouse, Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton), in between learning home-turf survival lessons from Stone. It’s a film acutely attuned to the tread of everyday life – though marked by exceptional, unfortunate circumstances – and how alien it is to people unused to it.

It's a film willing to scrutinise and observe its characters; it’s unafraid to let them merely be, talk, and function in curious or messy ways without a significant amount of obvious baggage tying them to typical or easy traits. (The near-silent ten-minute scene between Olivia and Will in her kitchen is a masterpiece of loaded emotion.) Each of the three central characters has grievances and issues. That we coherently understand them is due to the effective simplicity of Harrelson’s, Foster’s and Morton’s nuanced performances. Foster gave the year’s best male turn; he embodied a familiar role without resorting to cliché and took it in a complicated, fascinating direction. Harrelson dug deep to relay cocksure wisdom flecked with sour regret; together they turned a pair of reluctant grief peddlers into awkwardly engaging people. And Morton believably turned the sorrow inherent in particularly tragic death on its side; she made thoroughly material one woman’s fraught life. Many of us may not have been in these people’s positions, but Moverman and co. convey their experiences in credible ways. Hearing news of a loved one’s death hurts deeply. And taking the brunt of a stranger’s crushing desperation or calm acceptance, having delivered them death on their doorsteps, comes with its own hopeless pain, too. Through this idea Moverman ensures we develop concrete bonds with the people we are watching. He’s a compelling filmmaker and The Messenger is a rich and thoughtful film.

15 February 2012

Top Ten Films of the Year 2011 #5: BRIDESMAIDS

Bridesmaids (Paul Feig/USA/125mins)

Whilst it largely follows a set template for many American comedies of recent years, Bridesmaids is much more than a standard comic concoction. It’s more layered and subversively anarchic than it being just a female-centred take on a riotous rom-com. It got lazily labelled as a female The Hangover, or a Knocked Up-style reply from an opposing viewpoint, but these assumptions, while only partially founded anyway, miss what made it so refreshing and actually rather caustic. It’s not an average My Best Friend’s Wedding (or similar) comic-romance affair either. Here, the usually inviolable “girly” movie setting of a bridal boutique is soiled with shit and vomit. Better than simply an instance of scatological folly, it’s evidence that Bridesmaids is staging a distrustful and playful assault on marital etiquette and tradition. (And it’s performed with great sense of timing and care of character.) More than these moments being just a case of the girls out-grossing the boys, it shows the men just how much weak sauce they’ve been dealing in over the years. The plot may have been erratic and episodic – yet formed out of humorous experiment – but it revels in all the pleasures of the improvised set piece with naturally hilarious abandon. In fact, the loosely arranged and comically piecemeal nature of, say, the drunk-on-the-plane sequence or the bridal party ‘speech-off’ set Bridesmaids apart. It followed a pattern, but wasn’t afraid to skip off on a daft path when required. The humour escalates farcically, but through joyful endeavour and the crucial sharpness of a cast of talented women, it feels loopily immersive and wonderfully unlaboured. It’s both a cynical swipe at wedding mores and an affectionate acknowledgement of them; it has its wedding cake – and destroys it. Seemingly deluded yet compassionately drawn characters aren’t often so singularly spotlighted in such films the way Annie Walker is here. (For me, Kristen Wiig gave the performance of last year, though Rose Byrne, Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, Wendi McLendon-Covey and Ellie Kemper all shine in the main roles.) Annie's behaviour, mostly uncommon in the genre, was realistically awkward and – in my healthily cynical mind – entirely defensible. She was all about the connection over the pomp. And good for her. Director Feig, Wiig and (co-writer) Annie Mumolo play the wedding game beautifully. They champion togetherness, but equally pride daft misanthropy as worthy of comic exploration.

14 February 2012

Top Ten Films of the Year 2011 #6: 13 ASSASSINS

13 Assassins Jûsan-nin no shikaku (Takashi Miike/Japan, UK/126mins)

It goes without saying that a Takashi Miike film is always worth watching. I’d gladly spend time in front of any one of his films, whatever the subject, however vast or abrupt the length. His output is variable, sure, but the proliferation of his filmography means that there are some absolute gems and several definite great works. 13 Assassins is certainly one of his finest films. Compelling and unceasingly relentless for two-thirds of its running time, and starkly austere to begin with, it’s a tension-fuelled and kinetically forceful retelling of Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 black-and-white original of the same name. It sets the story up: the samurais of 1840s Japan are on the slide. To stop the tyrannical Lord Matsudaira Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki) before he climbs the political ranks, a band of thirteen samurais, lead by Shimada Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho), are gathered together to ambush the Lord. As far as movie ambushes go, this one steal rolls all competition flat. After an intriguing, persuasive and determinedly low-key set-up, two words usher forth a prolonged, all-out assault: TOTAL MASSACRE – a blood red statement of intent scrawled across a taut banner on top of a dividing gate, soon to be blown apart by intense battle. Miike’s direction haemorrhages full-bodied action. Rain, mud and the rapidity of fiercely serious swordplay dominate the remainder of the film; 45 continuous minutes’ worth of swiftly-delivered carnage. It’s engrossing to watch. Miike doesn’t let characterisation diminish, though. Each of the characters is allowed moments and actions in which they rise or fall. It’s enriched by Nobuyasu Kita’s fluid photography and edited with crucial skill Kenji Yamashita. Miike’s direction, needless to say, is first rate.

12 February 2012

Bafta 2012: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

It's Bafta time again. The 2012 Film Awards take place in London this evening. I'll be rooting for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to hopefully sneak off with a few awards. I wrote a piece, below, celebrating the film, championing it as a worthy Best Film winner.

Like last year (as with my Black Swan write-up), I was asked to contribute a piece on the film for the official 2012 Bafta brochure. You can read it by clicking on one of the links below. It's available to view as an eMagazine, so click on the cover you like the most, or the film you're rooting for, and read on...

Here is the link for the Film Awards 2012 page (which includes the brochure). Alternatively, here is a link directly to the page of my Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy piece. Also, the other four films nominated have fantastic pieces written for them: Nev Pierce on The Descendants, Mark Kermode on The Artist, Siobhan Synnot on The Help and Jamie Russell on Drive.

And below is the wonderful cover illustration by Eda Akaltun, who designed and illustrated all five Best Film nominees.

5 February 2012

Top Ten Films of the Year 2011 #7: JULIA'S EYES

Julia's Eyes  Los ojos de Julia (Guillem Morales/Spain/112mins)

A house at night: a basement, a noose, a blind woman; a figure lurking in a dark corner. A street-wide power cut both abruptly halts the action and cranks up the tension. Then, a cut to an observatory elsewhere. Mystery follows – and what mystery. It’s all about looking, not seeing and what is or, possibly, isn’t there. The opening scenes of Julia’s Eyes were a gripping exercise in how to draw an audience in with swiftly orchestrated suspense. Guillem Morales’ stylish, efficient horror-thriller, produced by Guillermo del Toro, succeeded in evocatively adding a shot of pure high drama, amid the ink-dark imagery, to one of 2011's best horror films. The premise (a woman with a degenerative eye disease battles real and/or unreal terrors in the hope that she doesn’t befall the same fate as her twin sister) may have felt slightly shopworn, something from the likes of The Eye (2002) and 1994’s Blink, but instead of strictly following narrow genre patterns Morales crafted his story after themes found in much earlier horrors: ‘70s and ‘80s gialli by Dario Argento, Sergio Martino and Co. (There’s a whiff of Brian De Palma, too – and of course Hitchcock.) The need to discover what’s behind the mystery takes hold incrementally through a series of memorable scenes (a creepy chase in the underbelly of a building, lit only by the glare of a mobile phone; a tense escape attempt in a shower room full of blind women; an archetypal – yet still unnerving – close-up of a knife edging toward an unseeing eye) and rarely lets the tension cease. It played like a film equivalent of an addictive pot boiler: a moody, gripping tale that hinges on one intriguing plot turn after another; each one adding more intensity before veering off down unexpected avenues toward an increasingly wrought and gloriously delerious finale. Belén Rueda gave a strong, fearless performance as Julia. You experience each sting and jolt alongside her every step of the way. And Lluís Homar, Pablo Derqui and Julia Gutiérrez Caba provided fine support. I look forward to more within the horror genre from Morales. He's got the style and the smarts for career longevity.