Sunday, November 28, 2010

#41-Antichrist (2009)


What is there to be said about Lars von Trier's Antichrist that hasn't already been said. A film so much about misogyny it might become misogynistic? A nasty little shocker designed to make us talk? A look at the emotional core of Pain, Despair, and Grief? Or simply a coping mechanism the director made for himself? Whatever the answer is up for each individual to decide for themselves, but all I can say about Antichrist is that it will certainly leave you thinking, and is more of an emotional test and experience than it is an actual film. Antichrist can go down in history as one of the few films that left me physically shaken.

The plot of Antichrist is actually somewhat simple when giving a synopsis. One day a husband and wife (credited only as He and She) are making love and not paying much attention. Their young toddler wakes up climbs out of his crib, and accidently falls out a window and kills himself. She blames herself and is in the hosptial for a month befor He -a therapist- decides to make her his own patient. They retreat to a cabin named Eden in the middle of the forest in a hope to escape. When He learns that She's biggest fear is nature and 'the woods' around Eden in general, he thinks best to stay in the situation that frightens her the most in hopes of overcoming her fear, which of course proves to be a fatal mistake.

Before we get into the complications of Antichrist what cannot be denied is the sheer quality of the filmmaking. Whether or not you agree with what von Trier put on the screen, it simply impossible to not be astounded by how beautiful these shocking images are. The opening shots, extreme slow-mo, high contrast, black-and-white are simply breathtaking, as are many shots in the film that have interesting effects applied to them. The direction, as per usual, is pitch perfect in general. Von Trier has always been great with actors and actresses, getting them to do things on screen they usually wouldn't, and this is no exception. Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg (as He and She respectively) give the performances of a lifetime, bearing it all, and easily putting their careers on the line, to give top-notch performances. This especially applies to Gainsbourg who has to do some of the most terrible things you could ever ask an actress to do, does them with great conviction and flare.

Another aspect to be complimented is how absoloutly creepy, and unsettling the whole experience is. The lighting and sound design reminded me of some of David Lynch's latest work, most notably Inland Empire. The sound design is eerie, and creepy, and just makes you squirm in your seat, while the lighting is some of the most horrifying, and yet beautiful, at casting and playing with shadows. Add in the nature aspect, lots of fog and mist, and you get a shot of tree with shadows rolling on the branches, with the simplest music, and it makes a single scene that is scarier than most modern horror films can claim to be in their entirety.

"The three beggars aren't here."

However, there is the part of Antichrist is that is the only thing that most people the care about. The shocking, brutal, realistic, graphic sex and violence. While I won't go into any detail about the violence just know, as someone who is totally comfortable with violence in cinema, and someone who can easily sit through the Saw films, and the Hostel films, Antichrist just plain made me uncomfortable. It is notorious for two scenes in particular, and even knowing what was coming I still was incredibly shaken after watching them. Now for me this is both good and bad. While I can't applaud von Trier for putting these things on screen, I can applaud him for not letting the MPAA have a say in his work. He made the film he wanted to make, and the film stays unrated for good reason. It would easily have gotten, and maybe even surpassed (if they do that) an NC-17 rating.

But, this is also where the film falls apart. The scenes are brutal and disgusting and graphic, so much so that it actually draws you out of the film a little. The same can be said for the sex, which for awhile seemed like von Trier just giving the finger to the film industry standards, but in the end just becomes gratuitous and boring. It felt very reminiscent of -again- David Lynch's film about psycho-sexual awakening Blue Velvet, which had not nearly as graphic sex, but still enough to make it almost annoying. My theory as to the actual purpose of the film Antichrist is this: It seems like von Trier wanted to put us in an emotional place where we hadn't been before. A place that made us incredibly emotionally uncomfortable, and then wanted us to stay there and think about it. So it seems to me, had came up with a few scenes that would put us in that place, and then he built a film around them. And as such, so many scenes have so much more emotional impact than the others that the film feels very uneven, and sometimes rather clunky. To try and give the film meaning, and therefore justify what he did, (and maybe even cover himself a little) he then threw in the surreal images, the hard to find messages, and confusing imagery, which would make it appear to be more than it really was. A nasty little shocker, that was designed to put us in a place where we would feel uncomfortable, and makes us talk.

In the end, I think thats all that Antichrist really is. Does the film have a message that is hidden somewhere deep within the confusing imagery and surrounded by chaotic violence? Maybe it does, maybe it does speak some truth about Grief, Despair, and Pain, but I don't think that was Lars von Trier's goal in the long run. He wanted see how far he could push the human psyche, and he wants people to talk about it. That being said, I cannot say what he did is truly justifiable in anyway, because it doesn't need to be justified. Do the Saw films need to justifiy themselves for what they do? No, because they are designed to do what they do, and I think Antichrist is too. The surreal imagery, and the attachment of Lars von Trier's name make us think that it is something more than it is, and I think von Trier did this on purpose, but it doesn't mean anything. It's there to make you think that it has some meaning. However, of all the nastly little shockers I've seen (and there have been plenty) Antichrist is easily the best. The superb performances from two great actors, and perfect direction of some of the most disgusting scenes ever put to the screen make it incredibly hard to watch, as it should be. The cinematography, lighting, and sound design make it one of the scariest movies in recent memory, and of all time and therefore I do think Antichrist suceeds. If at nothing more, than being a good scary movie.

I Give Antichrist A:

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

#40-The Nines (2007)

The Nines

Previously known for his writing collaborations with Tim Burton on films like Big Fish, the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory remake, and Corpse Bride, John August takes his first step into the director’s chair with The Nines. A psychological thriller comprised of three short films, all of which star the same actors as different characters, with often overlapping stories. It brings up challenging questions about author and character, actor and role, creator and creation and is like a riddle in that the question is the answer: “How does it all add up?”

The film has three principal actors, all playing three different characters as the film progresses: Ryan Reynolds plays Gary, Gavin, and Gabriel, Melissa McCarthy plays Margret, a fictionalized version of herself named Melissa, and Mary, while Hope Davis stars as Sarah, Susan and Sierra.

Gary is a troubled actor living under house-arrest in someone else’s home, who is described as “a TV writer away on work.” While there he only befriends two people, his P.R. assistant Margret, and his neighbor Sarah. As he spends his time in the house he sees different versions of himself in the building, as well as finding the number nine in everything he does. People leave the writer telephone messages about “looking for the nines” while playing backgammon, he continually rolls only nines, and even the baby monitor left by Sarah speaks of the nines during the late of night.

Gavin, the second character portrayed by Reynolds is the writer spoken about above, who is currently trying to get a new television show off the ground and into the hands of a studio. Meanwhile he recruits Melissa to play the lead actress, and is assisted by studio executive Susan. The third and final set of characters is the creation of Gavin, as we watch his TV show. Father Gabriel takes his wife Mary and their child to the canyon for a weekend getaway, but after the car battery dies Gabriel is sent to look for help, which may or may not come in the form of Sierra. Sierra is both a blessing and a curse as she continually drugs Gabriel, but also cryptically tires to convince him to “come back to reality.”

The performances by all three here are stellar. Reynolds, McCarthy and Davis all have the keen ability to play different characters all at once, and give each one of them their own personality and persona, and quickly and smoothly transition between multiple creations in the same scene. However the showstopper comes in the form of Melissa McCarthy who easily steals the spotlight when she enters frame. All of her characters are fun and sweet, and bring an emotional sense of gravity and humor to an otherwise dark film.

Though it was released by an independent studio, and had a rather small budget, the film has great production values. From a technical standpoint the film looks great. It was shot on video rather than on film and uses the limited color pallet to perfection, and computer color correction capabilities to its advantage. The first film looks really sharp and crisp, while the second looks grainy and washed out, and the third with a light tint of grey that covers each shot. The score by Alex Wurman enhances the films dreamlike quality, and it has a rollicking soundtrack guaranteed to perk the ears of viewer. Editor Douglas Crise uses the films non-linear story structure to his advantage, with editing that keeps things lively and cool, the same can be said for cinematographer Nancy Schreiber who uses the camera as a quirky way of communicating ideas and emotions to the viewer, without beating us over the head with unnecessary amounts information.

What’s most important about The Nines is its story. John August has crafted is smart, witty, and fresh creation. His dialogue is snappy, fun, and quick, full of references and little anecdotes that make it sound very real. His use of non-traditional narrative structure keeps the pacing of the film lively and never does it slow down. However, the film ends on a rather odd note, and though it gives us hints and clues along the way that allow us to piece together what is going to happen, what is happening, or what has happened (depending on your perception of the film), you’re never quite sure how it will all connect together. By the end of it you learn that the film has it’s own strange theology about the world, and questions the morality of humans, and if we can indeed transcend to become higher beings or if we are forever forced to be in a traditional human form. The ending is guaranteed to divide audiences, some are going to just say “What?” and feel cheated, and others will embrace it as a sign of the modern age, and the pain that sometimes come with it, I fall into the latter category and feel that the film is perfectly tuned into it’s audience and time period. While John August certainly is an excellent screen-writer, he defiantly shows even more potential behind the camera, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

I Give The Nines A: