Archive for November, 2011

Melancholia & Take Shelter – Teaser

Friday, November 11th, 2011—Film

Melancholia (Denmark/Sweden/France/Germany 2011, Drama/Sci-Fi), Writer/Director: Lars von Trier

Take Shelter (USA 2011, Drama), Writer/Director: Jeff Nichols

After a client rescheduled this afternoon’s meeting at the last minute, I found myself with some unexpected free time. I opened up the file for a new script I’m working on, but whether from mental fatigue or creative drought or simply procrastination, I found myself thinking instead about a couple completed films I’m excited to see. So I decided to write a teaser, as I haven’t done one of those in awhile. Plus, these films are likely already playing—or about to be released—in a city near you, so hopefully this post will get you geared up for some great cinema.

Melancholia and Take Shelter will both be showing at the ByTowne this November and December, and I’m taking the leap and pre-recommending each of them. I’ll make sure I get to Take Shelter, and if I make it to both films, I’ll see if it works to compare and contrast them in a joint post. The potential seems to be there.

Each of these movies features a writer/director combo—Danish Lars von Trier for Melancholia and American Jeff Nichols for Take Shelter. Having the same person fill those pivotal roles often yields the best results, because the film’s mastermind truly understands its original vision and is closer to it than anyone.

I haven’t seen anything by Jeff Nichols, who just broke onto the directing scene in the past few years, so I can’t comment on the creations of his mind. But I saw and very much liked two of von Trier’s previous films, Dancer in the Dark and Dogville. Both were dark and took creative risks that, in my opinion, really paid off. It’s been too long since I saw Dancer in the Dark for me to talk specifics, but I remember it being harrowing, moving and bold, and featuring a very brave and raw performance from Björk. (She won Best Actress at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, where the film also picked up the prized Palme d’Or award.)

I rented 2003’s Dogville more recently and was impressed with its production concept. The film, which stars Nicole Kidman and the ever-extraordinary Chloë Sevigny, among others, is shot on a very minimalist soundstage, a feature it proudly hides in plain sight. But the excellent actors play the location—standing in for a small mountain town—very straight, and the effect is incredibly convincing. The characters are pretty twisted, and lure the plot into some dark alleyways. But I’ll leave it at that for now; Dogville definitely offers enough for a post of its own.

All that to say, von Trier productions work very effectively, having been written and directed by the same mind, and I’d expect the same from his latest venture. Melancholia explores the struggles faced by a young newlywed woman (Kirsten Dunst, in the role that won her Best Actress at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival), who is grappling with depression, and impending apocalypse due to a mysterious, fast-approaching planet that is expected to collide with Earth. The film also stars Kiefer Sutherland, and the alluring Anglo-French actor/singer Charlotte Gainsbourg, from Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There and Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep.

Nichols joins in on the apocalyptic fun and games with Take Shelter, this time from the point of view of a small-town Ohio man tormented by a series of paranoid visions about the end of the world. Like Melancholia, this film stars some terrific actors: Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road) and the incredible Jessica Chastain (The Tree of Life, The Help, The Debt and a slew of heavy-hitting films coming down the pipes).

What interests me about Melancholia and Take Shelter—besides the talent behind them and the outstanding reviews they’ve garnered—is that they both deal with impending apocalypse and psychological disturbance, and they both seem to blur the line between the two, prompting questions about how much is really out there and how much is in our minds. And, given that the experience of reality is always so skewed by individual perception, when does it really start to matter?

The Ides of March

Thursday, November 10th, 2011—Film

The Ides of March (USA 2011, Drama), Writers: George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Beau Willimon; Director: George Clooney

I haven’t been paying enough attention to George Clooney as a filmmaker. He’s very good. I saw and really liked Good Night, and Good Luck, and heard great things about Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, both of which Clooney directed. But I guess his standout performances in a range of solid films, including Syriana, Michael Clayton, Up in the Air, Fantastic Mr. Fox (an incredible animated film) and the Ocean’s flicks, overshadowed his reputation as a director. They have for me, anyway. But no more.

From its opening shot through to its closing one, The Ides of March makes it clear that Clooney has a strong appreciation for the tools of cinema. And he wields them well, delivering a finely polished product that features a few neat twists and crevasses—if not in its story, than in its telling.

It’s hard for me not to compare The Ides of March to Drive, another film released this autumn that stars the phenomenal Ryan Gosling. While The Ides of March isn’t as inventive, creative or daring in its direction, it’s still far and away more sophisticated and on pitch than most studio fare, and suggests even greater work to come from Clooney.

The film spends a few pivotal days in the life and career of young Stephen Myers (Gosling), a press secretary—“the best media mind in the country,” in fact—working for Governor Mike Morris (Clooney), who’s running in the Ohio presidential primary. Stephen quickly finds himself in the thick of political scheming and scandal, involving the Governor, intern Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the opponent’s campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), and aided and abetted by reporter Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei). His character is put to the test, and it isn’t long before he graduates from loyal idealist to vengeful cynic.

The Ides of March is based on the Broadway play Farragut North by Beau Willimon. (In one production, Chris Noth played Hoffman’s role.) I can see how the premise would work well on stage, but Clooney veers away from being overly theatrical by making full use of the cinematic mechanisms at his disposal. In the opening scene, in which Stephen preps the stage for one of the Governor’s speeches, Clooney highlights the showmanship involved in politics without betraying the platform of realism (as opposed to theatricality) that he establishes throughout the film. You’ll need to see the film to appreciate what I’m saying, but through the lighting, cinematography and editing, Clooney brings the viewer onside with Stephen in a moment that could be interpreted as fantasy, and then cleverly reveals how it fits into his everyday reality.

As is frequently the case when good actors direct, The Ides of March features fantastic work from exceptional performers. Tomei in particular creates a very thoroughly etched, interesting character. Hoffman and Giamatti are always great, and Gosling’s star just seems to keep soaring higher with each film he shoots. He’s so very good at hitting the nuances of every character he plays. I find him utterly mesmerizing to watch, much more for his craft than his admittedly handsome features. There’s a scene at the campaign headquarters, just after the fun hits the fan, when Stephen strides into the building and summons Molly into his office. Everything about him—from how Gosling walks, or moves his eyes, or even lifts a pen—perfectly captures the character’s motives, feelings and intentions. Great acting is in the details, and Gosling is impeccable.

But back to Clooney… Watching The Ides of March, I got the sense that he’s building to something pretty great. Not only is his filmmaking growing stronger, but he’s using it more and more as a means of voicing his own political leanings—a good thing, in my opinion. Critics of The Ides of March have argued that it doesn’t cover any new ground, as far as the ins and outs of politics. Perhaps not. But it does showcase exceptional talent—on the part of everyone involved, cast and crew alike—and is surely an important step along the way to many of its players perfecting their games. That makes it newsworthy in my books.