Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Film Review - THE HEAT and FRANCES HA

Traditionally, the summer movie season isn’t overly generous to female-oriented films. Although hits like The Devil Wears Prada and Bridesmaids sent multi-hundred-million-dollar wake up calls to the industry, change has taken its damn time. However, standing out amongst this season’s rampant run of testosterone-fuelled blockbusters are two surprising new releases of very different pedigrees; the Sandra Bullock/Melissa McCarthy joint The Heat and Noah Baumbach’s indie return-to-form Frances Ha. Each offers plenty of value to both the fairer sex and anyone looking for smart, funny, well-crafted entertainment.

Fresh from the uproariously brilliant triumph of Bridesmaids, director Paul Feig’s XX-chromosome buddy cop comedy The Heat is a refreshingly breezy blast of free-wheeling comic energy that manages to make a tired routine shine. Featuring Bullock as a prissy, career-oriented FBI agent who’s reluctantly paired with McCarthy’s foul-mouthed Boston police officer while hunting a mysterious drug kingpin, the film blows dust off its reliable genre tropes by exploiting the off-beat chemistry of its headliners. Beginning as insufferable misfits, the characters’ unlikely friendship and professional bond - like the picture itself - starts off kinda rough before gradually finds its footing and confidence.

Working from Katie Dippold’s (Parks and Recreation, MADtv) quirky screenplay, Feig knows the central plot isn’t that interesting or important and instead, like his last film, focusses on staging hilariously bizarre diversions for his actresses to run wild with. Chief among these highlights are extended sequences including a drunken night at a dive bar populated by senior citizens, a run-in with a restaurant choking victim and multiple volatile encounters with McCarthy’s heavily-accented white trash family. It’s these masterfully-exploited sidesplitting scenarios that really energize The Heat, and bring out the cast’s best.

It also never hurts to boast two of Hollywood’s most endearing comediennes at their most nutty and committed. Channeling her Miss Congeniality protagonist, Bullock exudes rigid crazy cat lady intensity. It’s fun to watch her torn from her comfort zone, fighting to control a cyclone of chaotic lunacy. McCarthy takes some getting used to – her early scenes are a little too gratingly obnoxious – yet once she has a partner to play off of, she hits her stride. Unequivocally courageous in her willingness to sell a gag at any cost, she’s brash and unexpectedly sweet, charming Bullock and the audience in equal measure. They’re such a winning team that, frankly, the idea of watching them solve more cases in the future isn’t an entirely unwelcome prospect.

If Bullock and McCarthy skillfully deliver the broad laughs, Greta Gerwig, in Baumbach’s remarkable Frances Ha, does something even more difficult: she makes us chuckle knowingly (and occasionally uncomfortably) at our own very human inadequacies and fears. Her Frances, an aimless down-on-her-luck New York dancer, flits through her existence with all of the direction of a Ping-Pong ball in the wind. Growing apart from her best friend/personal rock (Mickey Sumner), she leapfrogs haphazardly from one eccentric roommate to another, abandoning her lackadaisically-pursued dreams of success and devolving into an “undateable” lost cause.

Beautifully capturing the aimless frustrations of the current late-20s/early-30s generational experience, Gerwig and Baumbach’s script walks a genuinely fine line with the title character. As hopelessly loveable as she is maddening in her apathy, Frances is a character we can’t help but root for because we’ve all felt, at some point, exactly as she does. Wearing a mask of cheery, insecure fragility, the actress has never been more mesmerizing. It’s a very special performance in a very special film.

Visibly influenced by vintage Woody Allen (predominantly Manhattan) and the French new wave, Baumbach thankfully tones down the snark that overwhelmed his last two efforts, Greenberg and Margot at the Wedding. And in doing so, he allows us to relate to the unconventional characters, achieving, in the process, something richer and more truthful. Frances Ha isn’t just witty and perceptive, it’s leaves you absolutely beaming.

The Heat: 3.5 out of 5
Frances Ha: 4.5 out of 5

*Originally published in BeatRoute Magazine.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Film Review - LORE and THE FLAT (VIFF 2012)

Arguably, no historical moment in time has proven more influential in cinema than the Nazi occupation of Europe during World War II. Horrifically unfolding during the early days of Hollywood’s game-changing Golden Age, this dark era has inspired several of the medium’s most intensely profound achievements, such as Shoah, Schindler’s List and Das Boot. It also continues to attract the attention of today’s artists who continue to both explore the human experience of living under the Third Reich and valiantly attempt to make sense of the utterly senseless.

Among the most exciting entries at last year’s 31st annual Vancouver Film Festival were two extremely personal works that sought to examine the lingering wounds felt by descendants grappling with complex ancestral ties to Nazism. While both films – Cate Shortland’s coming of age drama Lore and Arnon Goldfinger’s intimate family documentary The Flat – tackle the issue from very different perspectives, each provides a compelling and moving portrait of the struggle to make peace with the sins committed by loved ones. Neither picture provides easy answers. Rather, they leave us with tough, intriguing questions to chew on as we emerge from the theatre.

Lore, named after the resourceful teenage protagonist played by commanding newcomer Saskia Rosendahl, is the more stylish of the two; a haunting narrative of discovery cloaked in ominous, vaguely mystical Herzogian atmosphere, leisurely delivered through seemingly distant flickers of long ago memories. Charged with escorting her three siblings to distant Hamburg after her Nazi parents vanish in the wake of the Fuhrer’s defeat, the tough-edged Hitler Youth soon finds herself having to brave not just the chaos of the country – where violence, hysteria and rape are widespread – but her own internal struggle with her indoctrinated teachings as well. This exhausting trip is complicated by the appearance of a slightly threatening, mysterious traveller (Kai Malina – a little too male model-ish for the role), with tightly held secrets of his own.

Working from her own adaptation of Rachel Seiffert’s novel "The Dark Room," Australian director Shortland adds an impressionistic Malick-like touch to the proceedings, capturing the serene beauty and suffocating danger of the natural world. Almost post-apocalyptic in tone – appropriate, given that Lore and her charge’s secure world has completely disintegrated around them – there’s an omnipresent sense of dread to the picture’s defeated Germany, punctuated by the occasional suicide victim corpse or encounter with a imposing stranger. It’s an uncomfortable environment, damp, suffocating and gloomy, that subtly mirrors our heroine’s journey as she slowly crawls out from underneath the manipulative fog of Nazi ideology towards a new life at her grandmother’s cozy country farm some 500 miles away.

The movie often feels as aloof and matter of fact as its lead, drained of the sentimentality and melodrama one might expect from the material. Ultimately, Lore is s a quiet film of transformation; mapping a girl’s maturation into womanhood and a brainwashed puppet of the state’s slow development towards free-thinking independence. And when the wonderful final image comes, a small angry act of defiant destruction, it explodes with symbolism and hope for a better tomorrow.

By contrast, Israeli documentary The Flat may be more modest in construction and intent, yet it is nonetheless an engrossingly funny, touching and powerful chronicle of one man’s investigation into his own intentionally buried familial history - not to mention, one of the very best pictures of 2012. The film opens with Goldfinger and his extended relations preparing his grandmother’s Tel Aviv flat for sale shortly after her passing, cheerfully reminiscing as they go about navigating the mundanities of dismantling the physical space she so lovingly created. Things take a turn for the unexpected, however, when our narrator discovers a Nazi propaganda newspaper featuring photos of his grandparents with the article’s author Baron Leopold von Mildenstein, a pro-Zionist Nazi, and his wife. Following the disconcerting trail of crumbs, Goldfinger travels to Germany to meet with von Mildenstein’s accommodating daughter Edda, who isn’t quite as interested in the potential implications of their two relatives’ relationship.

 To reveal any more of The Flat would be a disservice, as the real pleasure of the picture is watching the pieces of the puzzle gradually come together, and how each of the participants in the documentary (Goldfinger’s mother and Edda’s husband also feature prominently) deals with the information. One of the most admirable strengths of the film is how even-handed it is in portraying its participants; it likes them, regardless of their personal stance, and wholeheartedly respects their emotional stakes in the matter. And in Goldfinger’s interactions with them, there’s so much warmth, intelligence and good humour that it’s a joy merely to spend time in Edda’s comfy, cluttered suburban house or Grandma Tuchler’s refined former apartment.

Of course, there is indeed a bombshell to be dropped, and Goldfinger, to his credit, seems more troubled to be doing the deed than gleeful. He’s not a showman or a condemning judge. His sole concern is wrapping his head around why his loved one made the choices in life she did. And he raises fascinating points regarding the generational disparity in how WWII is acknowledged, with older Germans programmed to not ask questions while their modern offspring thirst for answers. Perhaps The Flat’s most resonant message, though, is that the responsibility of the individual is not necessarily to understand or forgive their ancestor’s transgressions, but rather to accept that they indeed happened.

Lore: 4 out of 5
The Flat: 5 out of 5

*Originally published in Converge Magazine.