Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Review - Brothers (Brødre)

After the acclaim which greeted her 2002 Dogme feature Open Hearts, Susanne Bier has widened her viewpoint with her follow-up. Brothers is another brilliantly performed, emotionally tough and honest film set in Denmark, but it also takes place in Afghanistan and looks at the effect a war in a foreign country can have on domestic life.
Michael (Ulrich Thomsen) is a soldier in the Danish army who has just received his orders to fly out to Afghanistan and take part in the war on terror. Before he leaves he has to collect his brother Jannik (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), newly released from a six-month jail sentence, and have a goodbye meal with his family, including his wife Sarah (Connie Nielsen). The meal is a tense affair, with the brothers’ father (Bent Majding) making no effort to hide his disappointment in Jannik, especially compared to the dedicated family man Michael.

Michael leaves for Afghanistan and is sent out immediately on a search-and-rescue mission. However, his helicopter is shot down and all the soldiers on board are declared dead. Sarah is inconsolable but she remains strong for her children and is helped through this difficult time by Jannik, who matures and manages to partially fill the void left by Michael’s death. Jannik and Sarah are just starting to drift closer when Michael is discovered alive, being held prisoner in Afghanistan. But he returns a changed man, his actions while captive having left a deep scar, and he is not impressed to see Jannik moving in on his wife.

This plot may sound a touch formulaic and melodramatic, but then so would a basic description of Open Hearts, and the joy of Brothers is the way the film manages to constantly surprise and engage the audience. Director Bier has once again teamed up with screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen and the pair have delivered another supremely confident, compelling and moving film. The main reason for Brothers’ success is the brilliant characterisation; these individuals appear as real people and act as if they’ve been together all their lives.

Giving her first performance in her native tongue, Connie Nielsen is simply a revelation. She has the ability to depict Sarah’s strength and vulnerability, and switches between moments of lightness and pain, with breathtaking subtlety and skill. It’s a stunning performance which is all the more extraordinary for being in a language she had to relearn almost from scratch after all her years inn the US. The ever-excellent Ulrich Thomsen (veteran of such films as Festen and Arven) is superb, convincingly displaying Michael’s pain and, like Nielsen, able to portray the slightest shifts in character with ease, and Nikolaj Lie Kaas gives another superb performance, intense and sympathetic, as the third part of this complex relationship.

Like The Deerhunter (though thankfully nowhere near as long or self-important), Brothers is strong at depicting the psychological damage which warfare inflicts and how that trauma can impact on family life. Michael is haunted by one of the acts he is forced to commit by his captors (which we see in a truly horrific scene) and returns a distant, aggressive person who snaps at his children (both wonderfully natural performers) and lashes out violently and unpredictably. These sequences are unsettlingly realistic in their depiction and, once again, Bier shows her incredible ability to wring the harsh emotional truth from any situation without stepping over the line into melodrama.

There are certainly flaws apparent in Brothers, a film which would probably seem more fresh if Bier hadn’t already produced the outstanding Open Hearts. The main disappointment is the one-dimensional portrayal of Michael’s Afghan captors, who are little more than savages, a means for Michael’s shift in character to occur, and this jars with the complex and believable characterisations on show elsewhere. Also, the film may have benefited from the stripped-down Dogme approach of Open Hearts, as Bier is occasionally guilty of over direction here. She throws in a couple of unnecessary montages and often seems compelled to create parallel sequences featuring Sarah and Michael which simply prove distracting.

Still, those niggles aside, this is absorbing, intelligent and deeply moving filmmaking. Brothers is a multi-layered psychological and emotional drama which grips like a vice throughout. It displays an acute awareness of family dynamics and features a number of the finest actors in Danish film at the top of their game. It also confirms Susanne Bier as one of the most interesting filmmakers in contemporary cinema, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Review - Tarnation

The boundaries between cinema and the audience have been broken in recent years with the wider availability of video cameras and accessible home editing software allowing anyone to make their own movie. Jonathan Caouette started early; at the age of 11 he got his hands on a super 8 camera and began obsessively filming himself, his family and everything they did. Twenty years later, Caouette has produced Tarnation, a film made up entirely of the video footage he shot, family photographs and scenes from the films which influenced the young filmmaker. The film tells the story of Caouette’s entire life.

Much of the footage Caouette shot is of himself, and he’s an interesting character whose desire to perform is clear from the start. At the age of 11 we see him doing an impersonation of a battered trailer-trash wife, at 13 he was dressing in drag in order to gain access to gay clubs and at 15 he staged a musical production of Blue Velvet at his high school. However, despite often focusing the camera on himself, the real meat of Tarnation concerns Jonathan’s relationship with his troubled mother. The film opens with him getting news of her lithium overdose and closes as he tries to deal with the aftermath of it. In between, he tells a tragic tale.

Caouette’s mother, Renee LeBlanc, was a former child model who had been temporarily paralysed in a fall at the age of 12. Her parents were encouraged to subject her to unnecessary electroshock therapy twice a week for two years, which left her mentally unstable, and she subsequently visited over 100 psychiatric hospitals between 1965 and 1999. Renee got married and gave birth to Jonathan, but her husband had already left her by the time he was born. She decided to leave Texas but after being raped in front of Jonathan she lost him to Social Services. Jonathan was then placed in numerous foster homes, and abused in many of them, before finally being adopted by Renee’s parents in 1981. It’s here that he first picked up a camera and started shooting.

This is a fascinating story and Tarnation is a passionate attempt for this young man to make some sense of it all. Caouette doesn’t provide any narration for Tarnation, opting to have subtitles accompanying the images in which he refers to himself in the third person. Clearly, this film has been a cathartic process for the director, and there is no doubt that watching it is a fascinating, if weirdly voyeuristic, experience. Much of it is difficult viewing, not least the scene when Jonathan confronts his grandfather over his mother’s claims that he abused her, or the sequence when Renee, brain-damaged by her lithium overdose, sings incoherent, childish songs into the camera. Most sons, seeing their mother in such a state, would turn the camera away but Caouette sustains the shot long after the scene has become uncomfortable. Like last year’s Capturing the Friedmans, it seems his only response to adversity is to keep filming.

Of course, a film with subject matter such as this should be difficult viewing, but Tarnation is not hard to watch just for that reason alone, Caouette’s approach to the material also makes this something of a chore. At the age of 12, Caouette developed a depersonalisation disorder - the sensation of being outside yourself, as if living in a dream - when he smoked two joints laced with PCP. Watching Tarnation, you’d be forgiven for thinking he suffered from Attention Deficit Disorder. Caouette cuts between different scenes and film elements with bewildering speed and inconsistency, and he throws in endless graphics and visual trickery for good measure. It doesn’t help that the footage is often repetitive and unfocused, and Caouette’s avant-garde approach robs the film of much of its emotional impact.

Edited on a home computer for a total cost of little over $200, Tarnation is an intensely personal, unflinchingly truthful account of a troubled upbringing. It’s also staggeringly self-indulgent, narcissistic and, to be honest, not an easy film to watch. However, there are some arresting moments, it benefits from a well-chosen soundtrack and the director is clearly a creative and talented individual. It will be interesting to see what Caouette, after completely exposing his life on screen, will do next. He may well go on to make more films, but I doubt he’ll ever find a more interesting subject matter than his own family.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Review - Palindromes

With only three pictures to his name, Todd Solondz has forged a reputation as a director unafraid of tackling big issues. Indeed, he seems to revel in it; making unpleasant characters sympathetic and taking a frank approach to such controversial subjects as paedophilia, racism, rape, murder and homosexuality. With his fourth feature, Palindromes, Solondz ventures into even murkier waters.
His film is the tale of Aviva, a 13 year-old who is determined to have a baby. She has sex with a local boy, becomes pregnant and runs away from home after being forced into an abortion by her parents (Ellen Barkin and Richard Masur). She hits the road still determined to get pregnant and calling herself ‘Henrietta’, the name she would have given her terminated child. Along the way Aviva has a one-night stand with a trucker named Joe (Stephen Adly Guirgis) and finally ends up with a Christian group run by Mama and Bo Sunshine (Debra Monk and Walter Bobbie). Here she meets up with Joe again and becomes involved in a murder attempt on a local abortionist.

Palindromes may divide viewers even more so than any of Solondz’s previous work. Some viewers will applaud the director’s bravery and his original approach to this touchy subject matter while others will be offended and angered by the film. A few months after seeing Palindromes, I’m still not sure what to make of it.

The most interesting aspect of Solondz’s approach is the use of multiple actresses, and one actor, of varying age, size and colour to play Aviva. This approach may be intended to depict Aviva as a kind of ‘everyperson’, a character we can all relate to, or perhaps it’s a safety net for Solondz, to protect him from charges of exploiting a young actress. Either way, it doesn’t really work. The casting trick is strange enough to keep the viewer interested while also keeping them at a distance to the film. I never felt engaged with Aviva’s progress because she never came alive as a character for me.

The final actress to play Aviva is 41 year-old Jennifer Jason Leigh and her sad-eyed, defeated performance suggests that Aviva’s journey has taken its toll. This might have been an interesting idea for Solondz to explore, making the actors change appearance according to Aviva’s experiences on the road. But the actors change places with no rhyme or reason, as if the director himself was unsure of what point his gimmicky casting was trying to make. Solondz fills his supporting cast with oddballs, not least in Mama Sunshine’s hypocritical Christian retreat, but the director typically takes a sympathetic stance instead of mocking them and gets strong performances throughout.

But what is Solondz trying to say here? I’m not sure. In fact I don’t think he’s trying to say any one thing. Solondz uses Palindromes to explore the extremes which a touchy subject pushes people to and questions whether a child caught in the middle of these conflicting viewpoints can maintain their humanity. It’s also an extension of Solondz's favourite theme, unhappy souls searching for hope in a loveless world. Palindromes is a film to provoke discussion, to get a reaction, but it doesn’t add much to the abortion debate and it must be classed as a failed experiment.

This is a more interesting film than Storytelling, but it withers in the shadow of Solondz’s magnificent Happiness. That film showed how adept he is at handling difficult moments with subtlety and skill (paedophile Dylan Baker’s confession to his teenage son is one of the most powerful film sequences I’ve seen in recent years) and nothing here comes close. The lack of emotional involvement in Palindromes is hugely disappointing given the emotive nature of the subject matter.

So where does Solondz go from here? He’s a filmmaker who’s full of ideas, writes witty scripts and handles actors well but he hasn’t really advanced much from Happiness, and all of his subsequent efforts will inevitably suffer in comparison to that film. Palindromes remains a thoughtful, daring, shocking and often hilarious film but it feels tired and unfocused, and a underwhelming offering from one of American cinema’s most distinctive voices.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Review - The Assassination of Richard Nixon

The first thing that strikes you about The Assassination of Richard Nixon is the title. Assassination? Did I miss something? As we all know, the President of the title was never assassinated but, according to this movie, things could have turned out very differently for Tricky Dicky.
In 1974 a frustrated, disillusioned salesman named Samuel Byck planned to hijack a commercial plane and crash it into the White House, killing the president of the United States. The fact that this story is so little known gives some indication of how his plans turned out. First-time director Niels Mueller has taken Byck’s story as the basis for his debut film. He attempts to imagine what happened in the year previous to Byck’s botched hijack and tries to present his character as a victim of the American dream.

Mueller’s film is ‘inspired’ by this story rather than ‘based on’, and he has made a couple of changes to the facts. Here, the lead character is renamed Sam Bicke (Sean Penn) and we first see him standing dishevelled in his apartment, speaking into a tape recorder. He is recording his story, explaining why he has decided to assassinate the President. These tapes, which also form the voiceover for the film, are to be sent to his idol Leonard Bernstein because Bicke thinks the composer is the only man he trusts to tell his story to the world.

Mueller then jumps back to one year previously. Bicke works in a furniture store but he hasn’t really got the smooth patter which makes a successful salesman. More to the point, he can’t bring himself to lie in order to succeed as he hates the dishonesty which other people seem so comfortable with. His smooth-talking boss (Jack Thompson) gives him plenty of confidence-building tapes and books but Bicke doesn’t want to be like them, why can’t an honest man be a success? In fact Bicke has been a failure at pretty much all aspects of his life. His wife (Naomi Watts) took their children and left him a year ago but Sam still harbours ridiculous hopes of a reconciliation.

Understandably, Bicke is an unhappy man, and he needs someone to take his frustration out on. When his boss points at Nixon on a TV screen and says “He is the greatest salesman in the world, he sold the country on himself - twice”, the die is cast. Bicke sees the President as the root of all the country’s problems and decides that killing him is the only way he can make his life count.

So we have a lonely individual, shunned by the woman he loves, marginalized by society and drifting towards a political assassination; no wonder Mueller’s film reminds the viewer of Taxi Driver (even the name Sam Bicke recalls De Niro‘s Travis Bickle), a comparison which does it no favours. While Scorsese’s film was a genuinely disturbing look into a twisted state of mind, this effort simply has nothing new to say. It is certainly skilfully constructed and features quality performances across the board, but Mueller and his screenwriter Kevin Kennedy never manage to get to the heart of their main character’s malaise.

Instead of convincingly charting Bicke’s downward trajectory we have a collection of odd scenes which never really adds up to a whole. Many of these sequences are excellent, Bicke’s well-intentioned visit to the HQ of the Black Panthers and the enforced shaving of his moustache are highlights, but they don’t take us anywhere. Mueller has latched on to his obvious message of “America shits on the little guy” and simply repeats it ad nauseam.

Holding the movie together is a powerhouse performance from Sean Penn. He disappears inside the skin of Bicke and produces an edgy, detailed character study which is both scary and sympathetic, even when his behaviour becomes increasingly bizarre. It’s a remarkable display which surpasses his recent work in Mystic River and 21 Grams and makes even the most barren stretches of the film watchable. Don Cheadle offers excellent support as Bicke’s laid-back best friend and Naomi Watts is effective in her underused role.

But nothing manages to cohere and the flat direction and lack of subtlety is grating. When the climactic hijack finally arrives it is tense and extremely violent, but it’s also hysterical and seems to come in from a different movie. The story of Samuel Byck is a fascinating one but this ponderous, muddled film never delivers on the promise of its subject matter.

The sad footnote of the tale is the fact that Byck’s planned assassination, the one that would seal his place in history, has now been almost completely forgotten. And, despite the bravura central performance from Sean Penn, I can envisage a similar fate for The Assassination of Richard Nixon.