Friday 24 April 2015

A Pigeon Sat On A Branch
Reflecting On Existence

Swedish writer / director Roy Andersson has been reflecting on existence for over fifteen years now, at least in terms of his three films probing the depths of humanity's most banal but defining aspects; whether or not he's been doing it from the comfort of a branch remains sadly unconfirmed. The trilogy's final entry shuffles awkwardly into cinemas seven years after part two, and when you first find yourself gawping incredulously at Andersson's largely static, colour-drained tableaux you wonder what's taken him so bloody long.

Look closer, though, and it becomes obvious: every scene, every character, every line, every frame has been agonisingly and meticulously crafted to within an inch of its life. And life is Andersson's obsession, one with which he seems to have been preoccupied for so long that he's now involved in a violent love / hate relationship with it. Most of his characters live in the perpetual torment of anger, frustration and bewilderment with life and its persistence on getting in the way of happiness, but that's not to say that A Pigeon... is a depressing experience: Andersson mines the everyday drabness of his vignettes for a seam of dark humour - some of which you suspect might be particularly Swedish, but all of which betrays his fascination and affection for the human condition.

Like its predecessors Songs From The Second Floor and You, The Living, A Pigeon... comprises around forty scenes filmed in Andersson's trademark long takes and wide shots in full, deep focus, and set mostly in the boxy rooms that seem to represent the regimented featurelessness of 21st century living. The action, such as it is, takes place on multiple planes within the frame, and - as with real life - the more interesting stuff is often found happening in the background. It takes a few scenes to get used to, but once you're in, you're in for good; nobody else is making cinema like this, and it would be worth celebrating for that reason alone if it wasn't also so hypnotically enjoyable.

A Pigeon... breaks somewhat from Andersson's routine, in that it has what could loosely be described as lead characters - Sam and Jonathan, two useless travelling salesmen who attempt to sell feeble joke shop fare in a manner more becoming of funeral directors. Like Pulp Fiction's Jules and Vincent with the contrast and brightness turned down 50%, they struggle and bicker despite an obvious mutual devotion to each other. There's also an injection of blatant darkness here that was absent from the first two films, but on the whole this is a more upbeat affair than the insidious, crushing despondency of You, The Living. Elsewhere it's business as usual, the main course of sharply-observed, exquisitely-realised slivers of humdrummery served up with a side order of surrealism, this time in the shape of a modern-day bar inexplicably visited by Sweden's King Charles XII en route to his failed attempt to invade Russia in 1708.
To reveal any more of A Pigeon...'s singular inhabitants would probably constitute serious spoilers, since almost every scene could be described in a few words. It's Andersson's unique approach that's harder to articulate though, given that it's so purely cinematic: like his near-namesake Wes, his fastidious stylings might not be for everyone, but they are about everyone, and that's as good a reason as any to join him in his latest bout of branch-sitting and existence-reflecting.

Monday 13 April 2015

Force Majeure

In an ongoing and fruitless attempt to make The Incredible Suit look like some kind of semi-professional outfit despite all evidence to the contrary, I do generally try to publish film reviews before the film in question is released. Often, though, through tragic oversight on the part of a PR firm or my own staggering laziness, there are films I don't get to see at press screenings. Force Majeure is one such film, and in actual fact I was totally unaware of its very existence until I saw a trailer last week. Sitting down to watch it in the comfort of my own underpants this weekend though (it's on VoD, I didn't go to Cineworld in my grundies), I realised after about half an hour that I was going to have to vomit up some words about it because Force Majeure is easily the best film I've seen this year so far. So apologies for the lateness of all this, although I'm pretty sure that if I hadn't banged on about it for a whole paragraph nobody would have batted an eyelid.

Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund's latest opens with a family being unwillingly coerced into posing for a photograph while on a skiing holiday in the French Alps. It's a tableau that's repeated in skewed versions throughout the film, but each time its meaning has changed dramatically and irrevocably. If the first is a little uncomfortable, it's just the tip of an iceberg of awkwardness that's gradually revealed as the story unfolds.
When a controlled avalanche looks like it might engulf Tomas, his wife Ebba and his kids Harry and Vera, his patriarch status comes under more threat than the lives of his family. It's a terrifying moment (made more so by Östlund's refusal to move his camera or cut away throughout the whole scene), and the relief that nobody is physically hurt at the end of it is palpable. But that relief soon gives way to unease, as if the cascade of snow uncovers a long-buried truth that's been festering for years. "Suddenly it was clear that now something is terribly wrong," Ebba says while describing events in a later scene; she's talking about the avalanche, but the real meaning behind her words is barely disguised.

I may be over-egging the dramatic pudding here; the heart of the story is less sinister and more prosaic than you might be imagining, but Östlund tells his tale with such masterly control of atmosphere that your absorption in Tomas and Ebba's world is total and complete. Stunningly framed long, static shots and near-imperceptibly slow tracks and zooms are paired up with a soundtrack which combines the clanks of ski-slope machinery with the stabs of the final movement of Vivaldi's Summer concerto to menacing effect. Ebba is often shot from behind, yet her mood is never less than entirely clear from everything else in and around the frame.
As the cracks in the family unit widen and discord spreads to other characters like an infectious disease, Östlund's humour - dark as coal against the pristine white snow - transforms his film from sombre chamber piece to wicked black comedy: a cleaner in the family's hotel repeatedly pops up at inopportune moments like a harbinger of disharmony; the sudden appearance of a toy drone in the middle of a tense dialogue scene is rattlingly bizarre, and a scene outside a bar nails the fragile vanity of the fortysomething male with hilarious, excruciatingly-observed accuracy. Even Tomas wailing loudly at his own pathetic impotence elicits an unavoidable snigger.

Told with a measured, deliberate rhythm and an unusual formal approach for such an emotionally charged story (the first closeup comes 45 minutes in, during a painfully private moment for Ebba), Force Majeure is as beautiful and laden with deadly power as the avalanche that triggers its events. It's a sharply incisive examination of modern masculinity - or at least one interpretation of it - and the natural instincts of human beings in survival situations, and it does it with ineffable style, unbearable anxiety and perfectly-pitched LOLs. It's a touch overlong, with perhaps one finale too many, but rarely has being stuck in the uncomfortable claustrophobia of a decaying relationship been quite this enjoyable.

Wednesday 8 April 2015

Lost River

It's knocking on for a year and a half since Ryan Gosling last graced our screens, in 2013's undisputable best film Only God Forgives. What's he been doing since then, you might ask? Directing a film, I might answer. More accurately, though, I might instead answer: dicking around with a camera, some chums, Nicolas Winding Refn's leftover neon lights and a script he knocked out while shifting a stubborn poo one rainy lunchtime.

In doing some half-hearted post-viewing research on Lost River, I came across the following question in the film's IMDb forums:
The question was posted, in all seriousness, by a "charles-richardson1", although I would not have been remotely surprised to find its true author was "BabyGoose80" or similar because "Lynch-inspired student film" is uncannily close to what Gosling has quacked out with his debut feature. Having clearly spent his downtime on the sets of Refn's films watching his friend weave his dreamlike magic, Gosling has thrown together a woozy, faintly surreal film which appears to be about nothing, with no characters to give a hoot about and nothing of any substance to grab hold of. It's Refn-lite: fluorescent lighting and moody electronica abound (Johnny Jewel scores the film; his side project Chromatics provided the iconic Tick Of The Clock for Drive), but with none of the precision, wit or imagination on display in Drive or Only God Forgives.
As Billy, a cash-strapped single mom in a near-deserted, almost post-apocalyptic town, Christina Hendricks is forced into various indignities by bank manager and pantomime villain Ben Mendelsohn. Her son Bones (Ian De Caestecker) wants to help, his girlfriend Rat (Saiorse Ronan) babbles on about a curse that must be lifted to stop the bad things happening, and meanwhile a miscast Matt Smith roams the streets declaring himself king of the world and doing unspeakable things with scissors. As the nominal bad guys, Smith and Mendelsohn are the only things worth watching Lost River for, although without anyone else interesting to play off they're cast adrift; characters without a story.

While none of this is especially painful to sit through, there just doesn't seem to be any point to it all. If Gosling has one, he's failed to articulate it in either his script or direction, and the tragedy is that there's nothing to suggest that any further forays into filmmaking would be any more worthwhile. Obviously I love Ryan Gosling more than life itself, and I wish him all the best in whatever he chooses to do, but I think the best thing we can do is to erect an invisible wall in front of all the cameras on his films and make sure he stays on the brightly-lit side of it.

Wednesday 1 April 2015

Seven films I'll be giving a shit about in


Wait, there's a film about a middle-aged childless married man who hangs out with people younger than himself in a pathetic effort to hang on for dear life to the last remaining tatters of his youth? Where the fuck are my royalties? (3rd)

I was in the Black Bear on Whitchurch High Street when I found out Kurt Cobain had died. I was wearing faded black jeans that didn't fit me and one of those collarless grandad shirts that everyone wore in 1994. I was drinking a snakebite and black and I had precisely 209 millilitres left of it. The temperature was 19.4 degrees inside and 11.2 degrees outside. The relative humidity level was 38%. Anyway this documentary looks good. (10th)

I'll be honest, I know nothing about this film except it's got Keanu Reeves in it and he kills everyone because they killed his dog, which is a revenge motive sorely lacking in today's action films. The next Die Hard should have John McClane disembowel a terrorist because they thought the ghoulash he cooked was a little too salty. (10th)

We all know Ryan Gosling is the greatest human being alive right now, so what could possibly go wrong with his directorial debut? I mean there's no way it won't be brilliant, right? How can it not be? How? How, I ask you? How? (10th)

Tom Hardy! Noomi Rapace! Gary Oldman! Paddy Considine! Vincent Cassel! Joel Kinnaman. (17th)

Never heard of it. (24th)

The maverick scheduling of this against The Avengers is going to split audiences right down the middle. Are you Team Joss or Team Roy? (24th)