Archives for the month of: January, 2014

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“What is there to see?”

Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier, known for his realistic controversial films and association with the Dogme 95 movement collaborates with Icelandic electronica singer-songwriter Björk to present something I’ve been incredibly moved by. I can’t get over how Trier as the director and screenwriter takes the musical genre and removes a lot of what you’d typically expect. For me, it was beyond beautiful and beyond brilliant. It’s real art in the deepest of forms.

Trier as an auteur is known for his different trilogies of films and Dancer in the Dark is no exception. As the final film of the “Golden Heart trilogy”, it’s set in rural America in the early sixties and focuses on Selma (Björk), a Czech immigrant in poverty who works in a blue collar factory with her friend Kathy (Catherine Deneuve). To escape her struggles, Selma imagines her life as an all singing all dancing Hollywood musical. However, Selma is going blind and becomes desperate in saving money for an operation for her son in suffering the same fate, all whilst tragedy insures and Selma’s life begins to slip more and more out of control.

Dancer in the Dark from the beginning offers so much, it appears to be very optimistic and pretty. The overture introduces various colourful images flowing against each other. I may be ghastly wrong, but personally, I felt the images were very dream like and reflected the dreams of Selma as an isolated person desperate for escape. The cinematography, lighting and sound like a lot of films from the Dogme 95 era is very natural. It’s shot in a similar way to documentary and made me feel like a contributor rather than a viewer. Robby Müller as cinematographer and Trier frequently use hand held cameras which constantly zoom and pan into the drama that Selma and the community face in their everyday lives. The natural appearance along with the use of only diegetic music through Selma watching musicals at the cinema (or more touchingly, Kathy dancing her two fingers along Selma’s palm to convey the beauty shown on the big screen) is heavily contrasted to when Selma begins to dream. These dreams are so different both visually and musical and is first introduced in the factory which conflicts its gritty and realistic atmosphere as the workers suddenly move to the beats.

As a fan of Björk’s music, the fantasies clearly sounded like what I’d expected, all the songs begin with loops from reality such as factory machines, trains and steps. Visually the dreams are very beautiful because of their unrealistic nature, the cinematography features multiple cameras which employ no motion whatsoever and the movement of the music and narrative is now provided by the editing. Although the music is very strange, I couldn’t help but be mesmerised by it. The soundtrack feels misplacing in a way to what you see visually due to the setting but it works so well in terms of lyricism and tone. Timbre wise, besides sampling and other electronic sounds, it features the classic sounds of orchestra but rejects traditional structure of musical numbers and instead Björk asks the audience to really listen to the sonic experimentation and arranging. The colour is also astonishing, instead of looking bleak and grey; the colour in Selma’s dreams is so much more fuller and vibrant that it made me feel like being there like witnessing a beautiful and peaceful world.

Björk offers a marvellous and extremely strong performance. She conveys a powerful sense of emotion despite not being a trained actress, her portrayal clearly presents someone whose only joy in life besides her son is American musicals. However, although American musicals have provided with a sense of optimism; America in reality has offered her nothing in return, instead she lives a life of poverty and despair further emphasising her struggle as a strong willed single mother. Many of the songs offer so much beauty and meaning to Selma’s character such as “I’ve Seen It All”, in which Selma persuades her would-be admirer Jeff (Peter Stormare) that she really doesn’t care about going blind and there’s much more to life than seeing great wonders. The supporting cast in turn offer fantastic performances. Veteran French actress Catherine Deneuve delivers a solid supporting role whilst David Morse and Cara Seymour portraying Selma’s neighbours provide another sense of desperation as Bill (Morse) is angered at his wife’s (Seymour) materialism and constant spending.

All and all, Lars Von Trier offers a stunning film which is so different from most musicals I’ve seen. I will warn it is of course very unusual take of the musical but I highly recommend it. Deserved winner of the Palme d’Or and Best Actress at Cannes (despite receiving a lot of criticism), Dancer in the Dark is a challenging, touching and innovative film which is unlike any other film you will see. Highly recommended!

5/5

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“I always have a wonderful time, wherever I am, whomever I’m with.”

In this very touching film featuring one of the all-time greatest actors, James Stewart, is a tale of friendship, care and tolerance. In Harvey, Stewart portrays the eccentric Elwood P. Dowd whose best friend is an invisible six foot tall white rabbit named Harvey. His sister Mae (Josephine Hull) has clearly had enough and decides to commit him to an institute. However, a comedy of errors begins to insure because of Elwood’s charming personality!

James Stewart without a doubt offers a superb performance as a very unusual yet extremely loveable gent. This gent is of course very different from most average American men as said before but is always capable of providing a warm face round town who always insists on new faces to come round his for a meal or a drink and constantly offers them his card and so on. Elwood’s mannerisms around Harvey such as his arm out in front out the public and the chatter in the tavern are beyond brilliant that it felt like I could see Harvey sharing a smooth glass of Martini with his fond drinking pal. Josephine Hull in turn creates a highly beautiful performance as Mae, implying obvious desperation for pride and superiority. Having been in the original Broadway production of Harvey, Hull shows strong determination in her role as an embarrassed yet concerned and loving sibling who really just wants Elwood to move on from his quirky lifestyle of drinking and constant chatter with an invisible rabbit.

The script written by Mary Chase, who based the film on her Pulitzer Prize winning play of the same name offers a hilarious satire of keeping up appearances along with the notion of respect towards others which I found to be intriguing. The most important thing I could say about the film is that its very straightforward. It isn’t at all complicated, jumbled or something to really focus on for deeper meaning. It’s quite a simple film which was made to be enjoyed by all, the humour throughout really worked for me and personally found it touching and all the more enjoyable for its message. Although some can be put off by the idea of watching a film in black and white due to it being made generations ago; to them I’d say “Watch Harvey, you won’t regret it!”.

All together, Henry Koster as director of Harvey provided me with a lovely film on the importance of imagination and love, being good towards all and acceptance! A heart-warming film with real character and very pleasing performances.

5/5

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“What does a scanner see? Into the head? Into the heart? Does it see into me? Clearly? Or darkly?”

Richard Linklater, director of the classic School of Rock, takes us on a very unusual journey of identity, paranoia and surveillance amidst the backdrop of a dystopian L.A. where the war on drugs has failed. A Scanner Darkly follows Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), an undercover detective who tries to find out more about the rise of ‘Substance D’ via his drug addicted friends James (Robert Downey, Jr.), Ernie (Woody Harrelson) and Donna (Winona Ryder). Bob never really gets up to much, considering all his friends really do (especially James) is have long paranoiac conversations, so, when at the police station he wears a ‘scramble suit’ which constantly changes his appearance and is code named ‘Fred’. However, Bob becomes heavily addicted to Substance D which makes him unaware of who he really is as he is told to investigate into himself more…

The film is visually outstanding. Linklater has previously used the Rotoscope technique in his heavily philosophical art-house film Waking Life. In A Scanner Darkly, he takes it to a whole new level in a very artistic world. For those who don’t know, the Rotoscope technique is when live action footage is traced over and animated, giving a very unusual and interesting effect. Shane F. Kelly as the cinematographer does a very good job presenting the constant fear that addicts of Substance D go through such as a close up of Bob hallucinating that James and Ernie are giant bugs. All the cast offer very good performances, Keanu for once puts a fair amount of effort in his acting in contrast to some of his poorer performances (hint hint, Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula). I personally think this is one of Robert Downey, Jr.’s best roles because he perfectly suited the eccentric style of James and reminded me in a way of his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes due to the selfishness and drug addictions in both characters.

However as much as I liked the film as a very good adaptation of Philip Kindred’s novel, I felt disappointed in that the plot was very confusing at times and in a way I felt a lot more could have developed. A Scanner Darkly as a film portrays beautifully the experiences of addicts very much like what Philip intends in the novel since it’s based on his experiences as an addict of amphetamines and dedicates it to “some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did”, in this case, his friends who suffered from various physical and psychological effects. Philip even goes as far to include himself in the list, “Phil” – a victim of permanent pancreatic damage.

On the whole, a good adaptation of a classic sci-fi story. However, prepare to be lost in a very radical and colourful world of deception as the story moves quite quickly and in a very puzzling way, so be sure to pay attention to Bob and the gang talking a lot of meaningful nonsense! An interesting film with a strong message, A Scanner Darkly is one of more stimulating Philip Kindred adaptations I’ve seen in a while but it’s ever so slightly disappointing due to a confusing plot. All in all, I still recommend watching this film because of the good performances and of course the fantastic visuals. It doesn’t beat School of Rock but it’s still a trippy adventure into the future that’s worth tuning into!

3/5

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‘A day or a lifetime’ 

One of the Coen Brothers lesser known films in contrast to such great films such as the 2007 Academy Awards Best Picture winner ‘No Country For Old Men’, cult classic ‘The Big Lebowski’ and of course the very popular and critically acclaimed ‘Fargo’ which brought them popularity compared to their other great films in the past like ‘Blood Simple’, ‘Raising Arizona’ and…’Barton Fink’! Out of all the Coen Brothers films I have seen, ‘Barton Fink’ is definitely one of their best, and as usual they bring together so many aspects of film, one minute ‘Barton Fink’ felt like a Hitchcock film, then Kubrick, then a splash of noir, then comedy and even a spark of horror! 

The film is set in 1941 and stars John Turturro as the title character, an acclaimed playwright from New York who writes about and for “the common man”. He is then hired to write scripts a film studio in Hollywood, checks in the fading Hotel Earle and begins to suffer from writer’s block as he develops a friendship with his very friendly neighbour Charlie (John Goodman). There’s so much to this film which makes it so special. The many themes emphasised throughout are repeated over and over such as the dark contrasts between Hollywood and Broadway in that Hollywood is a much more manipulative place which obsesses over creative control over the notion of creating art. The Hotel Earle as an example of justification clearly presents that Barton wants to live somewhere “less Hollywood”. The Coen brothers frequent D.O.P. Roger Deakins provides beyond beautiful cinematography who creates an atmosphere within the hotel which I found profoundly unsettling such as the camera frequently returning to close ups of Barton stressed over writing his wrestling epic to his encounters with mosquitos and of course, returns again and again to the peeling wallpaper in Barton’s room which has a texture almost like decomposition. John Turturro gives an outstanding performance as Barton who clearly suggests the desperation of creating important art, not only that, but Turturro significantly implies that Barton can’t be a slave to a place like Hollywood. Frequent collaborator of the Coens, John Goodman portrayal of the common and larger than life Charlie is also very well played, providing a character who clearly has much less than Barton but seems to be the kind of guy who loves taking interest in people and helping someone in anyway he can. An astonishing piece of cinema and deserved winner of Best Director, Best Actor and the Palme d’Or at Cannes, I highly recommend watching if you’re love the work of the Coen Brothers or a fan of various genres of film. Enigmatic, disturbing and very funny!

5/5