Sunday, November 27, 2011

MELANCHOLIA (2011)

Written & Directed by Lars von Trier


Where & When: AFI Fest, Chinese 6 Theaters, Hollywood, CA. November 8, 2011  3:15PM



"Melancholia", the latest film by Lars von Trier, one of cinema's  most controversial figures, opens with an eerie but breathtakingly beautiful slow-motion montage of highlighted moments from the film set to Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde". It plays, in many ways, like a music video  that perfectly conveys a sense of the impending doom that is to follow this segment.

The film is split in to two parts with the first focusing on Justine (Kirsten Dunst), a young bride who is arriving very late to her own lavish wedding with her future husband, Michael (Alexander Skarsgard). It is being held at the mansion of her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who is annoyed but hardly surprised while her boorish husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland) feels the need to repeatedly remind Justine how much he spent paying for this affair.

After the couple are finally married, the reception begins with plenty of booze, dancing and drama. Justine's jovial father (John Hurt) toasts the newlyweds but his bitter ex-wife (Charlotte Rampling) puts a damper on the party by proclaiming that she doesn't believe in marriage while the wedding planner (Udo Kier) refuses to look at Justine any longer since he feels that her tardy appearance ruined his wedding.

Justine has been secretly behaving like the happy bride throughout the evening but when able to sneak away from the festivities, she takes a bath, then retreats in her usual depressed mood, while struggling to find a way to maintain the smiling facade for the sake of her marriage.

The second half deals with Claire as she brings her sister to her home to live with her husband and young son months after the wedding. The reason is that Justine has fallen in to such a deep, catatonic state that she is not able to find the strength to even get in to a bathtub.

Claire has become anxious herself due to a giant planet, called Melancholia, that appears to be heading on a collusion course straight in to Earth. Her husband, who is a self-proclaimed expert on astrology, assures her that it will miss hitting our planet but she is not completely convinced. His prediction turns out not to be accurate as Melancholia slowly moves closer to our planet. As the end seems to draw near, Claire is inconsolably panic-stricken, fearing for her son's life but a sense of calm and inner peace falls over Justine as she finally has a clearer understanding of the meaning of her life.

I have never been a big fan of the films of Mr. von Trier as I find his vision to be daunting, extremely challenging and unpleasantly dark with not much of a payoff in the end, which was certainly the case of his last film, 2009's "Antichrist" but "Melancholia" is his most accessible and conventional film to date with even a surprising touch of sweetness that managed to sneak it's way in. While it is still uneven with moments throughout that feel random and overlong but the film is a thrilling visual wonder, most especially the conclusion which offers an ending that is disturbing, terrifying and yet so completely captivating that it actually left me speechless in my seat.

Since her major breakthrough at the age of ten in "Interview With a Vampire" in 1994 , Ms Dunst has not been given many opportunities to showcase her full range as an actress although there were a few roles that hinted at her potential, such as the films, "The Virgin Suicides", "Marie Antoinette" and last year's, "All Good Things" but in "Melancholia" she's finally has the chance in a brutally, raw performance that takes her on a full range of deep and complex emotions. Ms Dunst won the Best Actress Award at Cannes this year and she certainly deserves an Oscar nod for her work here.

Ms Gainsbourg, who herself won the Best Actress Award at Cannes for her performance in "Antichrist", is equally impressive as the caring and protective older sister whose steely exterior crumbles as she is overcome with fear and hopelessness as our planet approaches it's final end.

One thing that can be said about Mr.von Trier is that he is certainly a polarizing figure with just as many film audiences finding him a daring, cinematic genius as those who find his work unnecessarily fractious and misogynistic. He has also been called a manic-depressive, who desperately needs to seek additional help due to some comments he made at this year's Cannes Film Festival before a screening of "Melancholia" that made him seem like a Nazi sympathizer (which may or may not have been his attempt at humor) and as a result, caused him to be banned from the festival.

It 's clear that von Trier thoroughly enjoys provoking, shocking and using his own painful experiences to create work which will explore his bleak world view while stimulating conversation by expressing ideas that will most certainly make members of the audience agitated and uncomfortable. While he is still very much an artist who is troublesome, excessive, provocative and somewhat juvenile but with "Melancholia", Mr. von Trier has found a way to restrain some of these impulses to create a film that will allow viewers to see that he is also capable of creating a sublime film that is remarkably poignant, reflective and touching. "Melancholia" is a film that will linger in your mind for a long while after seeing it.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (2011)

Written & Directed by Sean Durkin


Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA.  October 25, 2011  7:30PM


The three names in the title of "Martha Marcy May Marlene" refers to only one person but each name represents three separate and turbulent times in this young woman's life.

Elizabeth Olsen plays Martha, which is her actual birth name, who has just called her older sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulsen) that she's not made any contact with in two years. Martha has been in upstate New York where she had been living in a cult-like commune and just recently felt she needed to sneak off and escape.

Lucy decides to take Martha to her summer home in Connecticut, not too far from the commune, that she shares with her new husband, Ted (Hugh Darcy). Although he's not thrilled with the idea of having Martha with them, since he wanted to spend some quiet time with his wife, but he's more than willing to try and help her out.

Listless and unmotivated, Martha doesn't want to do much more than sleep but Lucy insists that she get out and enjoy the sunshine. As Lucy spends more time with her sister, she begins to realize, which we see through a series of flashbacks, that the years in that place has taken it's toll on Martha. She is shocked and disturbed by how much Martha has changed as she no longer aware of proper etiquette in middle-class society such as wearing a bathing suit while swimming in public or crawling in to bed with her while she's in the middle of making love with her husband. Although Martha had some issues long before she joined the commune but the unconventional environment didn't help her in any way.

We can understand the initial attraction for Martha to this group as the leader, Patrick (John Hawkes) is soft-spoken, charming and seductive. He renames Martha, "Marcy May" since he feels that it suits her better and she happily accepts, in some way flattered, that he has taken the time out to notice her. Life on the compound begins calm and idyllic as it provides Martha with a family structure in which she seems to have been searching for but soon the situation slowly grows darker. It begins small with the women are not allowed to eat until after the men have finished to larger problems such as the dangerous methods used for collecting money to live on to the depraved and disturbing way Patrick takes advantage of the new female followers.

Martha becomes increasingly confused, having difficulty being able to distinguish between reality and her troubled past as well as fear that Patrick and his cult are watching her and waiting for an opportunity to take her back.

"Martha" won writer/director Sean Durkin the Best Director prize at last year's Sundance Film Festival and this feature film debut expands upon his short, "Mary Last Seen" which was also about a young girl trying to cope with life after leaving a cult and that won Best Short Film at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. This quiet, little film is beautifully shot with cinematographer, Jody Lee Lipes creating a delicate, dream-like quality with Mr. Durkin getting fine performances from his terrific cast but I had difficulty becoming fully engaged in the film. I realize that the main focus was on Martha's struggle to find her way after her involvement with this group but I was distracted by the many questions that were left unanswered that made it hard to understand or connect with the victim such as what was the actual attraction or motivation for any of these people to devote their lives to Patrick so completely, most especially since the film made it a point to avoid any religious reason and what exactly happened to fracture the relationship between the sisters and push Martha in to the clutches of this group?

Ms Olsen, the younger sister of the twin child actors (TV's "Full House") turned powerful, media moguls, Mary-Kate and Ashley, is quite impressive in her first leading film role and actually the main reason to see this film. At only twenty-two, she is gifted with a natural ease in front of the camera and a compelling presence as she perfectly captures her character's uneasy attempt of trying to rediscover who she is. "Martha" is a superb showcase of Ms Olsen's potential as a major screen actor.

"Martha Marcy May Marlene" is an admirable first film that delivers well-executed film making and solid performances and while it authentically shows us the harrowing ordeal of this young woman's but it's just too vague in the details of what exactly contributed to her complete wiliness to get involved with this cult. While the film is not a complete success but director, Sean Durkin along with his very talented leading lady, Elizabeth Olsen show true promise.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

2011 AFI FEST AWARD WINNERS

This year's AFI Fest Presented by Audi has ended. It was the first time I volunteered to help out with this festival and I had a great time. I only got a chance to see only one film, "Melancholia" but it was something I was really looking forward in seeing and it was well worth getting the opportunity to see it early.

This really is a terrific festival dedicated to world cinema and a wonderful experience. If you missed it, please be sure to check it out next year.

Here is a list of all of the award winners:

AUDIENCE AWARDS

The Audience Awards were announced at a special ceremony at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel on Thursday, November 11, 2011:

World Cinema: (Tie) JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI (David Gelb) and KINYARWANDA (Alrick Brown)





New Auteurs: BULLHEAD (Michaƫl R. Roskam)



Young Americans: WUSS (Clay Liford)



Breakthrough: (Award accompanied by a $ 5,000 cash prize) WITH EVERY HEARTBEAT (Alexandra-Therese Keining)

JURY AWARDS

The New Auteurs Critic's Jury (Justin Chang, Mike Goodridge, Mark Olsen and Jean Oppenheimer) awarded prizes to:

Grand Jury Prize: THE LONELIEST PLANET (Julia Loktev)

Special Jury Prize: ATTENBERG (Athina Rachel Tsangari)



Acting Award Prize: Matthias Schoenaerts BULLHEAD

In addition, the Shorts Jury (Barry Jenkins, Gerardo Naranjo and Kim Yutani) announced its winners, which qualify the films for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' annual Academy Awards.

Grand Jury Prize – Live Action Short: FROZEN STORIES (Grzegorz Jaroszuk); Honorable Mention: BABYLAND (Marc Fratello)

Grand Jury Prize – Animated Short: THE EAGLEMAN STAG (Michael Please); Honorable Mention: THE VOYAGERS (Penny Lane)

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

LIKE CRAZY (2011)

Written by Ben York James & Drake Doremus


Directed by Drake Doremus


Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA. November 1, 2011 5:30PM


Do you recall the first time you saw someone across the room, your eyes meet, sparks fly and there is some sort of sense of a deep, magical connection from just that initial encounter?

The film, "Like Crazy" attempts to recreate that special moment but the results end up being uneven and not exactly as moving and thrilling as you might remember.

Anton Yelchin plays Jacob, a cute young man attending college in Los Angeles who wants to design furniture. Felicity Jones is Anna, a pretty, British young lady who is attending the same college to become a writer. They notice each other in class but barely speak so, Anna boldly leaves a note on Jacob's car asking him out on a date. Intrigued and certainly attracted to her, Jacob accepts her offer. The two connect almost immediately as we see the romance blossoming through a series of dates and intimate moments.

Anna's student visa expires at the end of the school year which means she is supposed to return home but now she's hopelessly in love with Jacob and can't bear the thought of leaving him. After a romantic, farewell getaway to Catalina Island, she decides to stay throughout the summer to spend more time with the man she loves.

Anna later returns home to England with the intention of returning quickly as a tourist. However, a complication arises when she arrives in Los Angeles and she is denied entry because of her previous visa violation. Jacob and Anna try to maintain their relationship long-distance for a while but the difficulties of the time-difference, jealousy and frustration causes the couple to separate.

Jacob starts a successful design business and begins to date his employee (Jennifer Lawrence) while Anna works writing for an Internet blog as she goes out with her handsome neighbor (Charlie Bewley) but their feelings for each other never change. They soon reconnect with Jacob visiting England and Anna's family hiring an immigration lawyer to help untangle the legal matter but will this couple be able to survive the stress and strain of trying to hang on in order to keep their love alive?

"Like Crazy" has received plenty of critical praise and has won several awards including the Best Actress and Best Film Grand Jury Prizes at last year's Sundance Film Festival but I just don't get it. There is strong camera work by cinematographer, John Guleserian and the performances are well done but I didn't see anything particularly special or inspiring about this film to get so worked-up about.

Now, I realize it has been many, many years since I've been caught-up in the throws of young love and perhaps my memory is now just a bit foggy but I can't imagine it ever being this emotionally flat and uninteresting. There have been a large number of films that have documented the incredible highs and terrible lows of falling in love so we need to see something that strongly takes on a creative or inventive variation of this theme as much as possible and "Like Crazy", while it is a well-made, is lacking in that area. The apparently fresh idea that the major obstacles standing in the way of their happiness is their different nationalities and bad judgement is pretty thin and less than engaging.

Director, Drake Doremus and co-writer, Ben York James put together a sixty page outline with the lead actors improvising much of the screenplay and while the two young actors are able to bring some realism to their characters but with Yelchin at only the age of twenty-two and Jones at twenty-seven, there isn't a lot of life experience to be able to add compelling and meaningful dialogue.

Despite the efforts of a talented cast and crew, "Like Crazy" never rises above a fairly, standard love story and at only ninety minutes, feels stretched-out and tedious.