Here are some of the things I've been watching lately. For some reason I've started swearing (I think it's for attention), so if that's likely to offend, don't read on. Otherwise, buckle up for the destruction of planet Earth...
CINEMA: Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011) – We start at the end – the end of the world, and a series of surreal, dreamlike images, set to Wagner, depicting the possible final moments of two sisters, a young boy, a few dozen birds and a horse. One sees Kirsten Dunst's Justine with her hands pointing skywards, spindly tassles of electricity crackling from her fingers – among the most arresting moments of the year. Another, which shows Charlotte Gainsbourg's legs disappearing into a golf course, is less successful. You imagine these passages will also close the picture, but they don't – they seem to belong to a parallel universe. This is a von Trier film after all, and he's a contrary bastard. He's also got a handheld camera fetish, and no sooner has he wowed us with those painterly, uber-ambitious snapshots, than he snaps back and we're in firmly Dogme-ish territory.
The first half – titled "Justine” – is set at the character's wedding, where the fantasy nuptials are interspersed with her decidedly erratic behaviour. The napping, sobbing and selfishness nails the banality and crippling exhaustion of clinical depression, but while there is no rationalism in mental illness, a sex scene with a stranger in a golf bunker seems fraudulent and thrown in for attention. The director's barbs at the PR industry, amusing as they are, also distract from what should be the focus: the relationship between Justine and her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who suffers from depression's own stressy sister: anxiety. All in all, the wedding contains several very powerful scenes, including a heartbreaking sequence in which Dunst unthinkingly abandons a symbolic gift from her husband, but also too many plot threads that lead nowhere and a general feeling that we've been here before – not at the end of the world, but at the wedding of a troubled young woman (Breaking the Waves), peopled by a family that hate each other's guts (the superb Festen). This lengthy set-piece is anchored by an impressive performance from Dunst. I don't think she's perfect – for one thing, there's a gaping chasm between her tremendous visual expressiveness and her vocal delivery, which is passable at best – but the dialogue-light screenplay suits her, and the manner in which Justine's mask slips and then evaporates is poignantly, effectively realised. Like George Cukor and William Wyler, von Trier is a great director of actresses – Emily Watson, Björk and Nicole Kidman have all done their best work for him – and Dunst's meaty characterisation is an eye-opener, if not a complete triumph. He also draws a fine, though less showy, performance from Gainsbourg, and while John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling are a touch underused (neither is on top form anyway, so perhaps that's no great loss), there's some unexpectedly strong work from Kiefer Sutherland as Gainsbourg's wealthy, secretly fretful husband.
The second half – "Claire” – is like a Bergman film, if Bergman had a thing about horses and was a Neanderthal, though the often uninspired domestic wranglings are lifted by strong acting and a handful of masterful scenes: Justine beating her cherished stallion to within an inch of its life, a harrowing, realistic sequence in which her depressive is flatly terrified of taking a bath, and a neat bit of gimmickry that sees the approaching Melancholia looming large over a homemade "are we all going to die?” device. Yup, looks like it. Whatever flaws the film has, and there are clearly many, they're compensated for by a final 15 minutes that's extremely memorable, and a final 10 seconds that might be the most extraordinary thing I've ever seen in the cinema: the incoming planet dominating the horizon, dwarfing the three figures in the foreground, before a wave of fire rolls in, obliterating the land and finally swallowing up the screen. Not a great film, then, but a film with truly great moments. (3)
*LOTS MORE SPOILERS*
CINEMA: Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011) – With its neon credits, synth-led song score and obscenely hip lead performance from Ryan Gosling – another movie psychopath from whom we can all take fashion tips – Drive is an instantly iconic film. It’s also a near-classic, a potent fusion of actioner, crime flick and doomed romance that needed just a stronger script to nudge it into that top bracket. Gosling is a Hollywood stunt man and getaway-driver-for-hire whose lonely life is changed by a chance meeting with neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan). He falls for the doe-eyed waitress and develops a cosy rapport with her son, Benicio. But when her husband comes home from prison and finds he’s still in debt to some bald gangsters (one of whom looks really like White Power Bill from Arrested Development), Gosling decides the only way he can protect the woman he loves is by going vroom-vroom for the hoods. Fuck me, that’s a good set-up. The comparisons to Shane have been made, but there’s another obvious parallel with Taxi Driver – seemingly referenced in the poster – as it slowly dawns on us that this guy we’ve been driving around with is a bit unhinged, and the plot also borrows from ‘70s classic Charley Varrick, another film in which our anti-hero accidentally swipes laundered money and finds that the mob is quite annoyed.
Drive is a great experience – with a matchless feel, a killer performance from Gosling (simply the best actor around today) and fine chemistry between him and Mulligan. It intelligently mirrors his shifts between coldness and warmth, while containing frenzied bursts of the old ultra violence – I’d never seen anyone offed with a knife and fork before. But the film is undermined by its comparatively uninteresting subplots featuring Bryan Cranston (who’s good in a clichéd part), Ron Perlman, Albert Brooks and Christina Hendricks, and the central character’s muddled code of ethics – bleeding into bloodlust – which can make him hard to side with, even when he’s chewing that toothpick in such a cool way. But if it’s not quite the masterpiece I was greedily anticipating, it’s still one of the year’s best and another key credit for an actor who’s proving to be infallible. All together now: “A real human being, and a real hero...” (3.5)
CINEMA: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (David Yates, 2011) – I only just caught up with the series and missed them all at theatres, so I hopped on a train to see the last one on the big screen. In 3D. On my own. My first solo cinema trip ever, I think. I'm not sure it's as streamlined or as adept at juggling the disparate elements as Azkaban or The Order of the Phoenix, but it offers one excellent set-piece after another and considerable emotional clout thanks to Rowling's touching plotting and some fine work by Rickman, Maggie Smith and Ciaran Hinds. Asked to carry the piece, Radcliffe oscillates between profundity and am dram-level scowling – what a strange actor he is. Fiennes fiennally gets it right as Voldemort (though the way he holds his wand above his target has always been a ingenious little detail - nailing the character's arrogance, contempt and malice, and making him look that bit more threatening). For all its flaws, I've got a lot out of this series. Including a free poster. Go me. (3.5)
Harry Potter: Films 1 to 7 (Various directors, 2001-2010) - I never saw these, as I didn't want my imagination colonised by the films before the books had all come out. A few thoughts:
- Chamber of Secrets is underrated as both a book and film.
- Using Ron as a kind of idiot comic relief in the earlier movies is a hideous error of judgement that completely undercuts the central friendship.
- All the kids playing Riddle do a fine job.
- Azkaban is the best both on page and screen, though Kloves excises several of the most potent passages and ideas.
- Richard Harris is a fantastic Dumbledore. Gambon is lacklustre in the role - a weakness as the series progresses.
- Order of the Phoenix is the second best picture, but hampered by a fucking ridiculous giant that looks like it's been made out of plasticine.
- Half-Blood Prince is a poor adaptation but a very good film.
- Radcliffe and Watson turn into halfway-decent actors; Rupert Grint doesn't. He does, however, turn into Mickey Rooney when he's fed a love potion.
- Oldman and Thewlis are both pretty good, belying the notion that they were replaced by replicants in 1993.
CINEMA: Crazy, Stupid, Love (Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, 2011) - I really enjoyed this. Don't be put off by the terrible title, it's probably the best mainstream romantic comedy since Just Like Heaven (shut up, you are wrong): funny, romantic, surprising and with a knockout performance by the mighty Ryan Gosling as a womanising slickster who decides to teach the cuckolded Steve Carell - also excellent - how to pick up girls. Is there anything Gosling can't do? Apparently not. (3.5)
CINEMA: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011) - Well, it's not as multi-layered (or as good) as the TV series, but then how could it be? Well, they could have cut out all the footage of Smiley just walking around, which is still in there. The good news: Gary Oldman has remembered how to act! Repeat: GARY OLDMAN HAS REMEMBERED HOW TO ACT. He underplays brilliantly, then cuts (slightly) loose in three wonderful scenes. Best of the lot: his monologue about meeting Karla, employed less effectively as a flashback on the small screen. All in all, it's an extremely well-directed thriller with a deliciously chilly atmosphere. The only real shortcomings: Tom Hardy's curiously wooden performance as Ricki Tarr, changing Connie's line about Empire to something about WWII (oh look, there's the point all the way over there) and an explanation of the culprit's motivations that's far less memorable than in the series. A high (3).
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Niels Arden Oplev, 2009) - An unforgettable character study channelled into a gripping mystery, as the eponymous figure (Noomi Rapace) - a damaged young woman with myriad gifts - helps a crusading journalist re-open a 40-year-old murder investigation. The whodunit is interesting and cleverly uncovered (even if the culprit is a tad too obvious for fans of the genre), but where the film really excels is in Rapace's phenomenal characterisation. Her portrait of a woman plagued by unstinting mental anguish is shockingly real. She entertains, enthralls and beguiles, while emerging as perhaps the strongest symbol of female empowerment ever to grace the screen. It's a while since I was so shaken up by a performance. If only they'd rolled the credits as she exited the prison - the coda seems to have wandered in from Oceans Twelve or something. Still, I'll be getting hold of the sequels as a matter of urgency. (4)
William + Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet (Baz Luhrmann, 1996) – The central premise – updating the setting while keeping the dialogue – works well, DiCaprio is dynamic (I don't think he has ever delivered on the promise of his '90s work, despite being taken more seriously nowadays) and once more Claire Danes displays that wonderfully idiosyncratic, unselfconscious acting style, exploding in moments of sudden and complete emotional expression. She's a terrific actress. In other news: Mercutio is shit until he stops dressing as a woman, at which time he becomes quite good. That speech about the hazelnut is still utter drivel, but it was early Shakespeare, so we'll let him off. Luhrmann overdoes the stylistics to begin with, then settles into a more steady, less distracting pattern, making the later concessions to bombast much more effective – particularly DiCaprio's dash to the church, which is fantastic. Good stuff. (3)
American: The Bill Hicks Story (Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas, 2009) - The odd unearthed clip aside, this documentary is a strangely unilluminating affair, utilising a pretty amateurish effect that brings old photos to unconvincing life. You'd be better off reading the Cynthia True book and picking up the records and DVDs of Hicks' act instead. His routines are still pretty damn great; well, when he's not babbling on about subjective consciousness like a stoned adolescent. The film itself isn't bad, just kind of ordinary. (2.5)
My Fair Lady (George Cukor, 1964) - Distressingly mediocre rendering of the Lerner and Loewe musical (based on George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion), with an artifical atmosphere, unimaginative staging and a critical absence of heart. Rex Harrison makes a good Professor Higgins and a couple of the best numbers remain largely unscatched (Wouldn't It Be Loverly, On the Street Where You Live), but Hepburn is completely miscast - the dubbing of her vocals is infuriatingly distracting - and Stanley Holloway, who I'm usually rather fond of, is unbelievably irritating as her dad. Still, while I'm Getting Married in the Morning might be the most boring and annoying thing I've seen this year, the biggest letdown is I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face, an absolute gem of a song that's just tossed away. I shouldn't imagine I'll ever sit through this again. Not while there's the glorious Howard/Hiller Pygmalion out there. (2.5)
Step Brothers (Adam McKay, 2008) - I have no idea if this is any good. Probably not. Adam Scott provides most of the the best moments - he really is a wonderful comedian; Ferrell offers a few laughs. John C. Reilly's not very funny. It's all a bit too nasty and stupid and unfocused. (2), or something.
The Aristocrats (Paul Provenza, 2005) - Shit joke, shit film. (1)