Monday, 27 July 2015

The Idiots - Lars von Trier - 1998

The second film to officially adopt the principals of the Dogme 95 movement – eschewing all technical gimmickry to make films purely on locations with natural light – Lars von Trier’s The Idiots follows a group of residents from a private mental home to challenge social perceptions of the mentally ill and those who are do not conform to the norm. Von Trier follows the group both at home and on various excursions in a succession of scenarios – selling homemade Christmas decorations, welcoming possible new neighbours – which are often cringingly awkward as the wealthy middle-class react crassly or patronisingly towards the group but make very pertinent points about societies' prejudices against the mentally disabled, simply by adopting a handheld documentary approach to observe the characters without utilising narration to enforce a particular opinion from the audience. What makes the film uncomfortable to watch though is that the group are not ill at all but simply pretending, taking it in turns to act as carer whilst the others go out and ‘spass’ in public in order to find their inner idiot. Under the loose leadership of the volatile Stoffer (Jens Albinus) the group’s motivation remains unclear making the antics the audience are forced to watch difficult at best and offensive at worst. Its clear that there are important points to be made here but in choosing to raise them through a group of people pretending to be mentally ill, it often feels as if von Trier is simply mocking them, leaving a nasty taste in the mouth for audience’s unprepared for the film’s many excesses. Von Trier is not so foolish though as to just try and offend people without cause. Introducing the group through the lonely Karen (Bodil Jørgensen) who stumbles into their closeted world and finds refuge there, the camera spends as much time observing the characters bickering in their squat as it does watching them ‘spassing’, in public and the gradual revelations about their own insecurities do not justify their actions but at least help make some sense of the them. Stoffer gets angry about wealthy middle-class attitudes but has no direction and purpose beyond vaguely proving a point. He is happy to use the group’s apparent disability to attack local officials but also as an excuse to indulge in some eye-wateringly graphic group sex. Others are there simply to have fun or to escape mundane jobs whilst Karen herself has a tragic secret that eventually clashes with Stoffer’s demands to devastating effect. Deliberately never painting ideas and motivations in black and white, The Idiots perhaps suggests that everyone is a little different or troubled on a level deeper than labels like ‘spastic’ or ‘idiot’ and so although the film is incredibly uncomfortable viewing there maybe a point to be made for anyone who can withhold judgement.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Dogville - Lars Von Trier - 2003

Danish director Lars von Trier was one of the founding members of the Dogme 95 movement and although Dogville breaks several rules of its Manifesto, it is arguably one of the most effective examples of the movement’s basic principals, casting aside technical gimmickry to focus on character and theme. By setting his entire film in a large studio in which the township of Dogville is marked out with lines on the floor, Von Trier immediately abandons the Dogme demands that film be shot entirely on location and with no artificial light but instead tells his story utilising the distancing effect pioneered by German theatre practitioner Bertolt Brecht. This idea sought to constantly remind the audience that they were watching a play in order to prevent emotional engagement with the story and rather provoke an audience into thinking about the ideas raised and recreating a small American town in this way certainly helps Von Trier to be provocative. The director is famously anti-American to the extent that he has never visited the country but the film starts out suspiciously mildly with elegant classical music and the mellifluous voice of John Hurt introducing the eccentric inhabitants of Dogville as they potter about the white lines that mark out their houses on the floor of the stage. Into this closeted environment runs Grace (Nicole Kidman), a beautiful woman fleeing from mysterious men in dark cars, and Von Trier spends the next three hours delicately picking apart the initially welcoming society of Dogville, clearly a microcosm of American society at large, and probing at the dark underbelly he sees underneath. With no visual stimulus the film is undoubtedly hard going particularly since Von Trier is in no hurry to move the story along, happily spending lots of time with Grace just getting to know the town’s inhabitants and going off on tangents to discuss the beauty of the light or other abstracts we can never see, but the distancing effect does work. Forcing audiences to pay closer attention to the township’s changing perceptions of Grace over a long period its very hard to engage with anybody emotionally, even Grace, but the moment when tensions finally do explode and a brutal rape occurs whilst other people calmly wash their hands, the distance makes it all the more shocking. From there the film becomes increasingly harrowing but what makes it more disturbing is that Von Trier never changes the mood or pace; whatever atrocities are committed, the music remains elegant, Hurt’s narration is still meandering but polite and the characters go about their business with largely the same amiable indifference that they did before. When the credits finally roll with photos of poverty stricken Americans scored to Young American by David Bowie its never clear exactly what point Von Trier is trying to make but by displaying such a casual attitude to the violence he clearly perceives to be imbedded in American culture, the director has created a provocative film that is certainly Dogme in spirit if not entirely in practice.

Manderlay - Lars von Trier - 2005

The sequel to Lars Von Trier’s controversial Dogville and his second film to adopt Bertolt Brecht’s techniques for distancing the audience, Manderlay continues the director’s critical probing of American society, focusing this time on the dangerously polemic subject of race relations. Fleeing the township of Dogville after the events of the last film, the heroine Grace (now played by Bryce Dallas Howard) fetches up outside the imposing estate of Manderlay in the Deep South where she is shocked to discover that slavery is still enforced and impulsively decides to stay and enforce its long overdue emancipation. From here the film meanders forwards at an inevitably plodding pace with the mellifluous voice of John Hurt once again turning the mundane into the absurdly poetical as the new life of Manderlay unfolds over the seasons and Grace slowly discovers the consequences of her actions. In this context Von Trier seems to be using Grace’s character to comment on the naive attitudes of white people who sweep into an oppressive environment and impose their interpretation of 'freedom' on the inhabitants with little or no understanding of the people they believe they are saving. Grace’s intentions are certainly honourable in the beginning but Von Trier finds little blackly comic moments where she cannot tell two of the former slaves apart, or begins delivering patronising lectures on what it means to be free, to suggest that in her own way, Grace is just as ignorant and racist as the slave owners that she has overthrown. When her attitudes are further complicated by a growing sexual attraction for one of the former slaves, Von Trier provokes Grace, and through her the audience, to question whether her quest to improve the lives around her has any higher motivation at all or whether at heart everything we do is driven by baser desires. Howard is magnificent in the role, possibly even better than Kidman was in Dogville, investing wholeheartedly in Von Trier’s process to make Grace’s personal journey an intense and occasionally disturbing experience that adds another level to the social issues at stake. Von Trier's depiction of the black slaves that Grace frees is even more complicated and will make difficult viewing for anyone with a rigid concept of the meaning of freedom. The idea that instant freedom, although a noble ideal, does not on a practical level make a man’s life better but can make it at best more complicated and on many levels far worse, is upsetting for anyone to consider, but by obliging his audience to watch the slow disintegration of life at Manderlay under Grace’s care, Von Trier challenges us to consider these alternatives. Continuing the Brechtian production style he boldly adopted for Dogville and creating the whole estate on a wooden soundstage with only props, furniture and tape marks on the floor, Von Trier does not allow anything to distract visually from the characters and the dialogue and so however provocative and uncomfortable his ideas maybe, there is no escape and Manderlay succeeds in raising questions about race relations that few films have before or since.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

The Island - Michael Bay - 2005

The films of Michael Bay are known and loved for many reasons but rarely does anyone go to see his latest blockbuster in search of a good story, which makes The Island a pleasant surprise. For the first hour, the film is set entirely within a luxurious containment facility populated by white jump-suited drones and follows the careful investigations of suspicious drone Lincoln-Six-Echo (Ewan McGregor) whose insatiable curiosity gradually tears open this carefully constructed reality. Though played as much as a conspiracy thriller than out-and-out sci-fi, the intelligent yet frightening ideas that are slowly revealed behind the scenes make the story far more fascinating and engaging than most of Bay’s standard action fare, crediting his audience with an intelligence that the director does not normally allow for. After the intrigue of the first half it is almost a shock when Lincoln goes on the run with a friend (Scarlett Johansson, unsurprisingly shot to perfection) and Bay returns to what he does best: huge explosions, bigger car chases, and mass destruction all looking gorgeous without much concern for little things like the laws of physics. At times this does feel like Bay has run out of ideas – the collapse of a glass skyscraper with the stars hanging on the side would be repeated in every subsequent Transformers film – but he sustains the pace well enough to ensure the film never gets dull; a highway chase complicated by runaway train wheels is a brutal highlight that puts The Matrix Reloaded to shame. Crucially though the opening hour of intelligent plot raises the stakes and makes the subsequent action more gripping, thanks in no small part to McGregor and Johansson who willingly through themselves into the action headfirst without ever loosing the little touches of humour that makes their two lost drones – essentially grown-up children discovering the real world for the first time – sweetly believable. McGregor in particular relishes the chance to play against himself in the final act, pitting naïve innocent against cocksure wise guy with impressive assurance. The finale that brings the whole film full circle runs out of steam a little before the end but an emotive musical cue from Steve Jablonsky (since used on hundreds of trailers) leaves the film on an satisfactory high proving that even Michael Bay can create something with more than just a glossy finish.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Transformers: Age of Extinction - Michael Bay - 2014

Three years after the sporadically entertaining Dark of the Moon, Michael Bay returned with a fourth instalment of the robot action franchise that nobody cared about anymore. Abandoning for the first time all the human stars of the original trilogy (inevitable after Shia LeBeouf’s very public meltdown), Age of Extinction teams the Autobots up with Texan mechanic Chuck Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) for more long and repetitive action sequences linked together by a predictably convoluted plot that, four films in, no longer sustains audience interest. Wahlberg is a solid presence in the lead but his characterisation is perfunctory to say the least and after half an hour of tedious bickering between Chuck and his teenage daughter (Nicola Peltz in the obligatory ‘sexy legs’ role) he has little to do for the remaining two hours other than sulk about his daughter’s boyfriend and race to keep up with Optimus Prime as he dashes round the world trying to save the day. Again. Titus Welliver has some hilariously ridiculous lines as a government assassin tasked with hunting down Optimus and Stanley Tucci has fun playing megalomaniacal defence contractor Joshua Joyce – a close-up of Tucci using a straw is probably the funniest moment in the film – but other than them the human cast are instantly forgettable. These issues inevitably leave the emotional heavy-lifting to be done once again by the robotic characters but an early Autobot death has none of the shock factor of Ironhide’s demise in Dark of the Moon and as Optimus Prime gears up to once more rally his surviving troops for yet another last-ditch battle to save the world even he struggles to raise enthusiasm for a fight that we have all seen before. Megatron is also side-lined for a mid-film plot twist leaving villain duties to bounty hunting Transformer Lockdown, whose origins and purpose remain frustratingly unclear for anyone attempting to make sense of the plot, leaving him little to do but lurk menacingly in a giant black spaceship wherever our heroes head next. Come the final battle Bay does introduce fan favourites the dinobots (Transformers that turn into dinosaurs, because plot) giving us the undeniably thrilling sight of Optimus Prime riding a giant fire-breathing robot dinosaur waving a giant sword, but sadly the director fails to make any real use of them in the fighting and so the excitement rapidly wears off. Age of Extinction is not as offensively bad as some blockbusters and it certainly puts every penny of its vast budget on the screen but it is so relentlessly derivative and unimaginative in terms of story and action that it’s hard to see the appeal for anyone other than diehard fans.