Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Russian Dolls

Russian Dolls are those wooden toy dolls, which can be opened to reveal another doll, and opened again to reveal another, until you reach the final, tiny one. That in essence, is the movie's message on love and relationships. How do you know that the person you're with, is that final soulmate, the final tiny Russian doll at the end of the chain? Or are you still stuck in the process of searching, and breaking up, and perpetually wondering and keeping a lookout for that someone else perceivably better? A sequel to The Spanish Apartment, you don't really have to watch that in order to enjoy Russian Dolls, even though most of the characters come back in this one. The protagonist is Xavier (Romain Duris), a down-and-out writer who's looking for his next big break, no matter if it's a cheesy love story that he's tasked to work with, or ghostwriting memoirs of celebrities. We follow his journey as he seeks his dolls, most of whom were encounters in the Spanish Apartment.
First we have Martine (the lovely Audrey Tautou), his ex-girlfriend who's now a single parent, and who still holds a candle for him, but only when she's feeling lonely and needy. Don't you just feel that sometimes you're being made use of, but you're a nice guy and is accommodating to that ex? But no worries, there's always that buddy to rely on, and Xavier's buddy happens to be a lesbian Isabelle (Cecile De France, that tough as nails cookie in High Tension), a smart financial analyst. Friends like these must have OK? They'll even go all out to be out of character just to assist you in situations, providing you with accommodation, and dressing up so femininely (she's a butch by the way) to be your pretend-girlfriend.
In between, Xavier tries to get back to the dating game by hooking up with store assistant Kassia (Aissa Maiga), but as you know, the ex always gets in the way, somehow. So another potential relationship, ended up broken before it even had a chance to get started.
But the final two proved to be most challenging of the lot. Business brings Xavier and Wendy together (Kelly Reilly, in a lot of movies lately, like Mrs Henderson Presents, Pride and Prejudice), and love blossoms between the two, despite initially starting off as platonic, and Wendy still being stuck in a relationship that she doesn't have the strength to walk away from. But their relationship is put to the test when Xavier, through business, also gets the opportunity to hook up with up-and-coming model Celia (Lucy Gordon). Ah, a beautiful celebrity, that unattainable perfect being, the object of everyman's desire and lust, now within reach. Which would he choose? Which would you choose? The down to earth person, or the party girl surviving in that barbie world that last only as long as their looks do? The movie suggests many known thoughts and ideas on romance and relationships, such as loving someone meaning loving their flaws, that there's no such thing as the perfect person, just only being able to love someone because their flaws don't drive you up the wall. And the eternal question of when will you stop looking? Temptations abound, but at the end of the day, do you cross the line, or who do you return to? It might seem that the story's the usual of love, finding love, losing it, and all the clichés of a romance flick, but with an added punch.
It's also interesting to note the different apartments that Xavier encounters, from his ex's home, to Isabelle's bachelor pad, from an ordinary London home in Wendy's, to the luxurious French suite of Celia's. There're also plenty of country hopping, between England, France and Russia (Moscow, St Petersburg), where their friend in common William is getting married. And yes, Apple laptops sure looks sexy! Probably I had it easier to identify with this movie, given I'm the targeted age group of those approaching the big-three-oh, wondering about stuff like these occasionally. Peppered with plenty of comedy to keep the going interesting, especially its techniques of juxtaposing reel-reality with reel-fantasy, Russian Dolls is a truly contemporary, chic, and sassy film standing on its soapbox with a mouthpiece touching on modern relationships.

The Spanish Apartment

The pressure to land a good paying job and have "security" is so prevalent among young people that many never discover what they really want to do in life. Cédric Klapisch's film L'Auberge Espanole is about one young man who had the good fortune to discover new possibilities about himself. Promised a steady job in the French ministry if he would learn Spanish and study the Spanish economy, Xavier (Romain Duris), a 25-year old French economics student applies for the European exchange program known as Erasmus. After fighting through a maze of bureaucracy, he travels to Barcelona, Spain for one year of study, leaving behind his devoted girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou) and his bohemian mother (Martine Demaret).
In Barcelona, Xavier stays with a French neurosurgeon and his wife Anne-Sophie (Judith Godreche) but soon finds an apartment with a contingent of young people from various parts of Europe: Wendy from Britain (Kelly Reilly); Tobias from Germany (Barnaby Metschurat); Lars from Denmark (Christian Pagh); Soledad from Spain (Cristina Brondo); Alessandro from Italy (Federico D'Anna); and Isabelle from Belgium (Cecile De France). Similar in theme to Bertolucci's The Dreamers but much lighter in tone, L'Auberge Espanole explores the growth of a once bland student when exposed to people of different cultures who are unrestrained in their zest for life.
There are the usual fights over doing the dishes, space in the refrigerator, and politics in the new Europe. One of the funniest parts of the film is the arrival of the Wendy's brother from the UK (Kevin Bishop). He turns everyone off with ethnic slurs but redeems himself after he covers up his sisters affair with a boorish American so that her just arrived boyfriend doesn't find out. Much of the action centers on relations with the opposite, or in one case, with the same sex. Martine visits him but their relationship becomes strained when she is uncomfortable having sex in a crowded apartment and does not relate well to the other students.
A new housemate, Isabel, a lesbian, teaches Xavier about the moves and touches that most appeal to women and he tries them out on Anne-Sophie, the neurologist's wife who eagerly submits to his advances. The film, however, has a larger theme: learning to discover our true self, not the one parents or teachers expect us to be. The experience allows Xavier to get in touch with his own creative energies and reminds him of his childhood longing to become a writer. While L'Auberge Espanole never explores any character in much depth and the camera tricks can become tiresome, it has intelligence, fun, and exuberance and, with Barcelona scintillating in the background, rekindles the time when life was an adventure of discovery.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Seven Psychopaths

There is a definite subtleness about Christopher Walken's dialogue delivery mechanism. He lets them out like honey flowing out of a pot onto ice-cream. He's the few actors in the years of bygone cinema, who could look equally menacing and docile at the same time. Here is one septuagenarian who knows his place in the screen and makes sure he's not easily forgotten, while never for once screaming for attention. I'm not sure how many critics are fond of his famous face-to-face dialogue sequences, but as far as I've known, they are legendary, starting from his Russian-roulette scene in The Deer Hunter, to his Pulp Fiction conversation with the little kid, the one with Frank Abnagale Jr. in Catch Me If You Can, the magic that took place when he came face to face with Dennis Hopper in True Romance, and now, he sits as Vincenzo Coccotti before Woody Harleson, psychopath, talking about crochets, moments after he shot Coccotti's wife in cold blood. Technically, the two have no clue as to who the hell is the other. But we know; and Walken knows we know, and he uses that on us, to convey without words that he knows who the man sitting in front really is.
Such are the intricacies with which Seven Psychopaths astonishes us, the same way In Bruges did, a couple of years back.
In sequences so incidentally similar to In Bruges, Martin McDonagh surpises by showing us two henchmen, out to kill someone.. being shot dead by a masked 'psychopath'. In Bruges started out by killing off a young kid. You don't know how or what brings about this killing. It's just as random as watching Donnie Darko turning to his side and finding an alien-like rabbit watching a movie with him. Your attention is grabbed. You're thus riveted to what's to come for the next one and a half hours.
When Hollywood scriptwriter Marty (Colin Farrell) finds himself struggling to write his new screenplay, for now only figuring as a plot less title "Seven Psychopaths", his best mate Billy (Sam Rockwell), whose day job is stealing rich people's dogs together with his partner Hans (Christopher Walken) and then returning them to their owners to collect a finder's fee, decides to aide him in his efforts. Apart from throwing in an occasional story about multi-layered psychotic individuals, he also runs an ad for psychos to call in and tell their life stories, collects articles about a serial killer whacking off mobsters as well as brings Marty into close contact with a maniacal crime-lord Charlie (Woody Harrelson), who is obsessively devoted to his shih-tzu. When Billy steals the minuscule dog he initiates a bloody spiral cat-and-dog chase, which culminates into an unexpected fashion. In the meantime Marty is delivered first hand access to a plethora of psychopaths with both Hans and Billy chipping in to the creative process with their ideas...
 Surprisingly "Seven Psychopaths" has received nowhere near the interest and focus as "Pulp Fiction", not to mention that of the intellectually inferior "Django Unchained", whereas one could expect a similar level of praise and furore given just how consequential and delightfully satisfying a picture this is. And Tarantino is probably the best person to compare McDonagh too. Both are incessantly drawn to violence in cinema, but whereas the American film aficionado uses it to create full length feature movie jokes, homaging various genres to the glee of likewise minded freaks, McDonagh manages to use the inherent flaws, expectations within a given type of movie to pose questions and draw attention to various issues. Whereas dialogue overflows in the work of both men, McDonagh's actually has a point of reference, an underlying goal, not just talk for talk's purpose. For example, an essential discussion occurs when Marty, Billy and Hans are driving to escape the wrath of Billy. Here Marty confides about the real movie he would like to make, where the initial violence introduced to the movie in the guise of psychopaths would peter out having the later half of the story focus on the protagonists idly sitting, waiting and holding philosophical disputes in the middle of the desert. And this is exactly what transpires for most of the remainder of the movie (enhanced by calm, brightly saturated lensing), albeit Billy is intent on a more explosive ending with an epic stand off as the denouement, thus doing his best to guarantee that the plot isn't mired down into a bunch of guys sitting around a fire and talking.
Billy is the audience, the target group, whose expectations inadvertently influence the writer's decisions, thus mindlessly choosing to sabotage any chance for a contemplative ending. Hans brings a certain balance (the thoughtful viewer?) suggesting content with meaning, where his concept of a psychopath has ulterior motives and goals, making his actions almost sacrificial in nature, accepting that necessity requires blood, but it need not be senseless violence, such as that proposed by the more Tarantinesque belligerent Billy, whose focus is primarily on the bloody shoot out and its effectiveness, not at the reasons or consequences.
Built around a story with surprising coherency and not overly diverting away to meta-analysis, McDonagh manages to fuse together the more contemplative side with some stark entertainment and wry dark humour. Fronted by a phenomenally well-rounded cast, who manage to keep within their character boundaries, despite the self-referential filmmaking contextualisation (especially in regards to Christopher Walken who treads a fine line between auto-parody and delivering the most substantial impact on the story). 

Safety Not Guaranteed

Safety Not Guaranteed is a potent and quirky picture; a film with such a lasting charm that to explain it to someone who hasn't seen it is a definite challenge. A challenge I'm willing to accept. Being that many of the film's high-points are heavily nuanced, imagine trying to describe this film like one would describe the beautiful engravings of a rare coin over the phone to someone whose knowledge of coins to begin with is very slim.
The film is lead by Aubrey Plaza, but a majority of it is stolen by Mark Duplass in a difficult, fearless role. Plaza plays Darius, a directionless magazine intern for a Seattle magazine, who is given a job, along with two others, to investigate a man who put a strange ad in the classifieds section asking people to contact him if they were interested in traveling through time.
The ad reads something like this: "WANTED: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed." The two others Darius goes with are smartass Jeff (Jake M. Johnson) and awkward Arnau (Karan Soni), providing effective comic relief to the story. The three of them, not totally excited about working together, slog through this assignment by first tracking down the man, named Kenneth Calloway, to befriend him and make him believe that they will be traveling back in time with him. When Jeff winds up upsetting Kenneth, played by Duplass, Darius assumes the role of approaching the thirty-year-old, who happens to be stocking shelves at a local grocery store. Instantaneously, Kenneth finds something about her, whether it be her stunning bluntness, her unique behavior, or just her impeccable beauty, he finds something and gives her about as much of his trust as he can give to a person he just met. For the remainder of the film, we watch as these two quirky, yet vulnerable human beings (not characters) build up a stable relationship, as Kenneth trains Darius for the event of time traveling.
While Kenneth painstakingly puts Darius through endurance tests, Jeff decides to look up a formal flame, who is not chubbier yet still packs a wholesome wallop, while at the same time, harasses poor Arnau, a young college student who is a virgin, taking the job of a journalist because diversity looks good in college. Even in only eighty-one minutes, writer Derek Connolly manages to gives every characters his or her own little dimensions to build off of, never limiting everyone's story in the process.
But it's the performances that remain nuanced in this sea of eccentricities. Aubrey Plaza has a wonderful Emily Blunt-like screen persona, playing the straight-shooting girl, equal parts sassy and lovable, while Duplass gives arguably the best role of his short career (which is beginning to pick up in the year 2012, with already two films he co-directed and five films he has starred in). He embodies the awkward stiffness, the bottled energy, the reclusive strangeness, and the plethora of fragile instincts of Kenneth without hesitation. This is a character who is either deeply disturbed or quietly brilliant, and the film is smart enough to fuel arguments for both propositions.
Safety Not Guaranteed is a winner in terms of story and performances, but a grand-slam in terms of its modestly nuanced style and its bleeding gums characters, who give us truly compelling substance with their checkered life stories. It also gives us enough information about time travel to effectively label it, among many things, a film about time travel, yet I'm sure many who enjoy those kinds of films wouldn't be too fond of this, mainly because it explores the idea with stunning seriousness and logic rather than contrivance and silliness. Yet another thing it nuances in with its kinetic whimsy and incandescent charm.