Thursday, February 25, 2016
After The Wedding, Susanne Bier’s Best Foreign Film Oscar nominee from 2006, is a complex and riveting story with numerous dense layers that unpeel like an onion. The narrative comprises so many surprising - yet ultimately logical - twists that it’s difficult to provide even a cursory synopsis without giving away vital secrets. Suffice to say that if you enjoy mystery, suspense and emotional intensity, you will find After The Wedding a highly satisfying watch.
The cast, at the time largely unknown outside of Denmark, are in tiptop form. Mads Mikkelsen and Rolf Lassgard, playing polar opposites, have a fascinating chemistry, and their slow simmering conflict will have profound effects half a world away. Sidse Babett Knudsen, who would find stardom in the TV series Borgen, is the film’s keeper of secrets, and serves as the story’s fulcrum. But equally impressive is Stine Fischer Christensen as the newlywed daughter who, just as she about to begin her life, finds its underpinnings swept away. Christensen is capable of transmitting deep emotion with a minimum of physical technique, and here’s hoping she lands a breakout role soon.
If After The Wedding can be said to have a weakness, it would have to be Bier’s unnecessary epilogue, which ties everything up a tad too neatly. The film’s aftermath had been clearly foreshadowed in the final act, and it seems Bier lost a little faith in the sophistication of her audience. In recent films, Bier also appears to have lost her artistic mojo with the dreadful Love Is All You Need (2012) and the troubled Serena (2014) failing to find any traction with audiences. She is currently directing the miniseries The Night Manager, a spy thriller premiering on AMC this April. Let’s hope Susanne Bier finds her way out of this winter of mediocrity, and returns to the elegant, clever storytelling of After The Wedding.
Thursday, February 18, 2016
Griff the Invisible is a moderately entertaining attempt to graft a superhero movie onto a quirky romantic indie – a sort of 500 Days of Batman. But as the film rolls along it seems to lose confidence in its own conceits and, after an intriguing and lively beginning, writer/director Leon Ford decides to impose logic in the later reels and ends up sabotaging the film’s slight and fragile charms. The movie works awfully hard to arrive at an empty and obvious allegory, and Ford’s desire to resolve his story in a neat, shiny package feels like glib manipulation. To top it off, Griff the Invisible breaks one of the cardinal rules of scripting: its assortment of odd characters gets less interesting the more we learn about them.
Dreamy, doe-eyed Ryan Kwanten – who you may remember from HBO’s True Blood – stars as the title character; a meek numbers-cruncher lost in a vast sea of gray cubicles atop a skyscraper in
’s bustling downtown. Among Griff’s battery of coworkers – this particular corporate hole seems as overstaffed as NBC’s The Office - is a vainglorious jackass called Tony (Toby Schmitz), who badgers Griff with a constant barrage of demeaning practical jokes and enough falsetto-voce gay innuendo to justify legal action in the real world. Sydney
But Griff offers little protest to Tony’s catcalls, for he has a dark secret that must be shielded from the world’s prying eyes. When darkness descends on the mean streets of
, and the criminal detritus of humanity emerge from their squalid lairs, Griff dons the mysterious, skin tight union suit favored by masked vigilantes. From a computerized command center hidden within his modest flat, Griff keeps a steely eye on the city’s miscreants and its seemingly endless supply of young women who think going for a solitary stroll down a dark alley at midnight is a fine, healthy pastime. When one of these plum lasses finds herself in a pickle – a common occurrence – the mighty Griff springs into action and, before long, gangs of would-be muggers and rapists are scattered about the pavement in forlorn, crumpled heaps. Without breaking a sweat, Griff has beaten the snot out of them, and disappeared into Sydney ’s inky ether before the hapless, but eternally grateful, victims ever had a chance to thank him. Sydney
Providing the film’s romantic counterpoint is a willowy strawberry blond named Melody (Maeve Dermody), nominally the girlfriend of Griff’s beleaguered brother Tim (Patrick Brammall), who finds herself increasingly drawn to Griff’s sullen and secretive nature. A sort of unemployed slacker scientist, Melody is engaged in her own furtive hobbies, including an ongoing attempt to realign her molecules and temporarily dematerialize. However, Griff finds Melody’s molecules sheer perfection in their current order, but dare not indulge his feelings for her because of that old romantic conundrum that eternally plagues superheroes; the babe-alicius must be resisted at all costs, for they will surely become targets of
’s evil empire. Sydney
Ford assembles a reasonably good simulation of the visual stylistics of franchise superhero fare, rendered with amusing, low rent tongue-in-cheekness. The raw material for Griff’s utility belt of crime fighting gadgets is chiefly limited to what he can find at the corner hardware store, but our hero achieves impressive results from rustic ingredients. But the film loses its way when Griff becomes obsessed with the idea adding invisibility to his arsenal, and Ford ultimately opts to explain his script’s flights of fancy with a tired, mealy mouthed plot device. A similar rationalization was used in Gerald McMorrow’s underrated Franklyn from 2008, but in that film the gimmick felt organic and revelatory, but in Griff the Invisible it all seems like a cheat.
Having declared much of his previous construction inoperative, Ford proceeds with the rom-com portion of the projection, which is overworked to the point of weary, drained emptiness. Kwanten and the charming Dermody bravely soldier on, and Griff and Melody go through a wide array of emotional changes – the bulk of them at a rushed pace during the film’s closing minutes – but the film has given us little reason to actually care. As the world’s soaring divorce rate attests, romantic comedies have become as unmoored from reality as swashbuckling superhero epics. Yet, in this film, Griff’s costumed heroics require leaps of blind faith while burgeoning love affairs can exist only in the world of the blandly familiar. Perhaps a more accurate title would be Griff the Miscalculated, since this film underestimates both its hero and its audience.
Saturday, February 13, 2016
Attention cinematography geeks! Check out this roundtable discussion with Robert Richardson (The Hateful Eight), Alwin Kuchler (Steve Jobs), Danny Cohen (The Danish Girl, Room), Linus Sandgren (Joy), Masanobu Takayanagi (Black Mass, Spotlight) and Mandy Walker (Truth). Show your love for the unsung heroes of cinema.
Check out the director of Room Lenny Abramson's 10 Favorite Films. He must have good taste, because his list is similar to mine!
Netflix and Amazon wrote a lot of checks this year at Sundance. Get all the new films and distribution deals here.
And finally, here's a guy in Sydney who proves you don't need a big, expensive drum kit to pound out a glorious rhythm. Watch his right hand about 1:10. It's amazing.
Thursday, February 11, 2016
Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound is an aptly named motion picture. Recently released on blu-ray by Fox, this David O. Selznick produced thriller features twists and turns aplenty, and audiences will find themselves entranced by the time all is said and done. From the crisp formality of its acting, to the famous Salvador Dali designed dream sequence, Spellbound often seems to exist in a dimension other than our own. While the rational mind attempts to impose order on Hitchcock’s tantalizing clues and fragments, the narrative quietly expands to surprising proportions and pursues unexpected avenues, creating a sense of the hypnotically surreal.
But today’s viewers will not be mesmerized to the point of overlooking the story’s issues and inconsistencies, and there are a lot of them. Spellbound is at heart an amnesia melodrama, and we all know how dicey those can be, especially circa 1945, when screenwriters were besotted by the narrative possibilities of pop psychology. The film opens at an idyllic country hospital, where a beautiful young psychiatrist (Ingrid Bergman) spends her days attending to a variety of deeply troubled, but well groomed and fashionably dressed, schizophrenics.
The hospital is abuzz with anticipation; its new director (Gregory Peck), a respected leader in the field of mental disorders, is due to arrive for an inspection. But soon – the minute he walks through the door, in fact – it becomes clear the new honcho has a couple of loose screws himself, and Bergman’s casual description of a new swimming pool sends Peck into a near frenzy. Despite a strong physical attraction, Bergman begins to suspect her new boss is either an imposter or insane, possibly both, and eventually the pair embark on an adventure to solve the mystery. Along the way they’re branded as fugitives, pursued by the police, hide out in Rochester and go on a ski holiday complete with laughably unconvincing process shots.
It’s a testament to Hitchcock’s skill that he could hold the film together despite these overwrought and overplotted impediments. Fortunately, he assembled a gifted supporting cast, well versed in classical technique, and they approach their roles with total conviction. John Emery, a prolific character actor who died relatively young and has been forgotten by history, shines as the wolfish Dr. Fleurot, a psychiatrist whose practice consists mainly of looking down Ingrid Bergman’s lab coat. Rhonda Fleming, as a patient with what passed in 1945 as a nymphomania, is cleverly and effectively used early in the film to establish Bergman’s empathy and the hospital’s overall legitimacy. The quiet command of the great Leo G. Carroll enhances a pivotal role with dark and intriguing plasticity, while Michael Chekov, who received one of the film’s six Oscar nominations as Bergman’s eccentric mentor, provides heroism and comic relief in equal measure.
These superb performances make Spellbound an enjoyable film to watch, providing one can tolerate its frequent stretches of implausibility. Somehow, Bergman and Peck are able to avoid detection by New York’s Finest even though, among Grand Central Station’s squalid masses, they are the most beautiful couple to ever walk the Earth. The disastrous skiing sequence, in which the pair swoosh down an expert slope clad in elegant eveningwear, is intended as a dramatic, climactic epiphany, but it’s simply ridiculous. When an unseen character, introduced late in the film, takes on critical importance there’s a feeling of unfairness and rushed conclusion, as though even Hitch was getting a little fed up with the proceedings. But the gorgeous dream sequence, in which a Dali painting comes to life, is truly worth the price of admission, and ultimately prevents the film’s complete fall from grace.
Bergman and Peck try mightily, but the script gives them little to work with but platitudes and thankless situations. This is a standard trait of Hitchcock thrillers; his leads tend to be cluelessly uncynical, appalled that humanity or, in the case of The Birds, nature could be so cruel to them. Their shock causes them to be several beats behind the unfolding nefarious events, and the rest of the film is a game of catch up. Bergman appears much more comfortable in this scenario than Peck; his chiseled man-of-action persona counter intuitive to the role a confused victim. Much of the dramatic weight defaulted to Ingrid’s sublime shoulders and, fortunately for viewers, she put this fragile film on her back and carried it.
Despite its narrative convolutions and conveniences, Spellbound remains a worthwhile entertainment due to strong performances and some imaginative imagery. Fans of the golden age of Hollywood will find the film a textbook example of the aesthetics of a bygone era, while those interested in the art of visual storytelling will marvel at Alfred Hitchcock’s controlled and deliberate execution. Casual viewers will likely find the film intolerably hokey and frankly, that’s wholly understandable. Spellbound ultimately receives a guarded recommendation, geared toward enthusiasts of Peck, Bergman and Hitchcock. If you liked the film in standard def, you’ll love it in blu.
Tuesday, February 9, 2016
Essay by David L. Wilkins
From the first frame and first bar, one thing I find most effective about ‘Taxi Driver’ is the Bernard Hermann score. Like columns of steam rising from the street, bog of urban humidity and scenes of decay, the score gives form to a desperate and nullified world. Equal to Scorsese’s filmmaking, Hermann opens a door to the world of Travis Bickle and leaves it ajar for a couple of hours. Relief is offered by walking away afterward, and few of us would linger in the depicted world if given the option.
Sometimes desolation and peering over the precipice can lead to something worthwhile. When the array of images formed in Schrader’s head, he worked feverishly, completing what was for the most part ‘Taxi Driver’ as we know it, within ten days.