Friday, 26 October 2012

LFF: Family Matters...(pt2)

A grim tale of familial and psychological breakdown comes under the spotlight of part 2 of Family Matters...

Like storm clouds on the horizon, a sense of foreboding hangs heavy over Joachim Lafosse's 
family centred drama Our Children. This fatalistic air is instilled via a prologue sequence during which a hospitalized woman tells a nurse that 'they must be buried in Morocco'. Flicking back in time we see the aforementioned patient, Murielle (Emilie Dequenne), in the warm glow of a blossoming love affair with Tahar Rahim's Mounir. The adopted Algerian son of Belgian doctor Andre (played by Niels Arestrup, Rahim's co-star from Jacques Audiard's A Prophet), Mounir romances Murielle all the way down the aisle, into the house he shares with Andre and into a marriage that will eventually lead to the horrific events hinted at in the opening scene.

A downbeat vision of a seemingly happy marriage blessed with bright, healthy children slowly unravelling under the weight of familial, economic and cultural pressures, Our Children takes in post-colonial guilt, gender expectations, parental responsibility/neglect and emotional/physical abuse as Murielle's deteriorating mental health becomes the film's central focal point. While Dequenne's portrayal of Murielle is excellent, with Rahim and Arestrup providing A grade support, Our Children suffers from a lack of balance that ultimately takes the emotional sting out of the film's bleak climax. Where the incremental changes to Murielle's emotional and mental states are handled with detailed care, Mounir and Andre's increasingly agitated, cold and outright aggressive attitude towards her aren't given the same focus. Though told over a number of years, the change in Mounir, from affable and caring to distant and hard, comes about too suddenly. Similarly, Andre's shift from proud father-in-law and grandfather to oppressive tyrant is more of a lurch than a gradual drift, throwing the overall narrative out of whack. 

By focusing on one side of a failing marriage Lafosse fatally undermines what should have been a gut-wrenching dénouement, stripping it of the impact strived for. By rendering two thirds of the adult members of this family in superficial tones, thus making them the 'bad guys' to use a crude phrase, no emotional investment is forthcoming at precisely the time it is most required. This leaves Our Children a hollow exercise in miserablism when it could have been one in fostering deep empathy leading to crushing sadness. 

Saturday, 20 October 2012

LFF: Family Matters...(pt1)

Quite coincidentally, the three films I managed to catch at this year's BFI London Film Festival - 
Jacques Audiard's Rust and Bone, Joachim Lafosse's Our Children and Leonardo Di Constanzo's The Interval - between them take a microscope to contemporary 'family' life. Whether biological, surrogate or criminal, the families on show in these movies - all European, all leaning towards the arthouse end of the spectrum - offer some indication of the pressures felt across the generations, genders and social classes in the modern world. The ties that bind these disparate characters together more often the cause of anguish rather than comfort. Not without their flaws, some bigger than others, Rust and Bone, Our Children and The Interval overwhelmingly portray a pessimistic outlook on modern life, but there is some hope amidst the gloom.

After firmly establishing himself as one of France's, if not Europe's, leading directors, Jacques Audiard returns to our screens after a three year absence with the engrossing if, at times, credibility stretching drama, Rust and Bone. Expectations were high for Audiard's sixth feature following the awards winning The Beat That My Heart Skipped and A Prophet, and Audiard is clearly directing with confidence, enthusiasm and a finely honed auteur's eye in his latest venture. Starring Marion Cotillard (as hot a property in the film world as there currently is), and Matthais Schoenaerts, Rust and Bone throws its two central protagonists, Stephanie and Ali, into a turbulent, offbeat and touching relationship that encompasses issues of parental responsibility, disability and economic survival on the margins of society.

Ali,  a roughly hewn bull of a man, finds himself staying under his sister's roof, a sibling he shares a fraught relationship with, with the son he has previously barely taken an interest in now  in his less than adept care. Eking out a living in security and then as a bare knuckle boxer, Ali's chance encounter with the seductive but troubled Stephanie, when he escorts her home after an incident she's involved in at a nightclub, proves to be the beginning of an emotional, spiritual and romantic journey that sees as many crushing lows as it does ecstatic highs.

Audiard largely avoids sentimentality and worthiness, an achievement of note given that a major plot point revolves around a work accident, as bizarre as it is horrible, that leaves Stephanie a double leg amputee. Her job as a whale trainer, the cause of her catastrophic loss, brings nature - its forces and its taming - into symbolic play. There's an earthy feel about Rust and Bone; physicality, flesh and the body (it's power and the loss of it), keeping the narrative's flights of metaphorical fancy anchored to the ground they are periodically in danger of escaping. Two sides of a coin battered and tossed about by life's experiences, Ali and Stephanie undergo opposing changes during the course of the movie's two hour running time. Stephanie toughening up and Ali discovering a hitherto untapped strain of nurturing compassion, with both of them adapting to fluctuating fortunes with the spirit of survival they share as a common bond.

A bold and unique attempt to de-schmaltz what is in essence a familiar tale of love against the odds, and one that would fall apart in a lesser director's hands, Rust and Bone does stray into improbable territory towards its denouement, a climactic incident straining a little too hard to make its symbolic point. In the end, though, Audiard's vision of the coming together of an ad hoc family is likely to linger in the memory; its emotional pull as strong as the composition of its imagery.

To Be Continued...

Monday, 15 October 2012

Watched - no32: Basket Case Trilogy (Frank Henenlotter)

To mark the 30th anniversary of the release of Frank Henenlotter's cult horror Basket Case, Second Sight have put together a three disc DVD and Blu-ray package containing the original, parts two and three and numerous extra features for release on October 22nd. Released between 1982 and 1992, with part two coming out in 1990, the Basket Case trilogy sees the law of diminishing returns borne out, with the memorably ugly seediness and psychological horrors of the original giving way to the forgettable broad comedy of parts two and three.

A tale of conjoined twins separated against their wishes, Basket Case sees Duane (Kevin Van Hentenryck) and his basket dwelling, deformed brother Belial (a Hebrew term originally meaning worthless), pitch up in the pre-gentrification New York of the early 80s intent on tracking down and killing the surgeons responsible for the operation that has left them physically and mentally scarred. Released in the pre-CGI era, this is a nostalgic trip down a memory lane filled with prosthetics, puppetry and stop-motion animation, before tangible cartoon violence was replaced by its much less effective animated equivalent. 

Lo-fi, grimy and tinged with a pathos that undercuts the black humour and violence, the strength of Henenlotter's original lies in it's blending of grotesques; the fantastical, twisted form of Belial with the actual collection of drunks, working girls, sleazy cops, thieves and addicts that reside in and around the bottom of the barrel hotel Duane and his brother check in to. This is a New York populated by the lost, lonely, mentally unbalanced and corrupt, and Henenlotter, either consciously or otherwise, evokes sympathy for his murderous central figures by placing them in the midst of such rotten, debauched company. Throw in a budding romance between Duane and a doctor's receptionist, an element that causes tension between the telepathically linked brothers, and you have the recipe for a bloody (and at times bloody funny), eyebrow raising take on familial angst, revenge and body horror. 

By the time of Basket Case 2 the budget was higher, the finished product glossier and the effect much less striking. Jettisoning the sleaze of the original, the first sequel sees Duane and his volatile brother seeking refuge from the cops and the media in the sanctuary of a private refuge for other physically challenged outcasts. This time romance blossoms for both of the brothers, Duane with the granddaughter of Granny Ruth (Annie Ross), the institute's grand dame, and Belial with Eve, similar in looks but opposite in temperament. The refuge's other guests are a wildly over the top collection of grotesques that are neither horrifying or amusing, and that's the great weakness of the movie. Henenlotter misfires by ramping up the physical grotesqueness on show to levels that are just plain silly.

Horror-comedies (or is it comedy-horrors?) the trilogy may be, but the darkness of the original was what made it such a cult favourite in my eyes, the sequels blow it by opting for slapstick farce over gruesome black comedy. Although featuring one of the most hilariously wrong sex scenes ever committed to celluloid, Basket Case 2 fails to hit the demented high of its superior predecessor.

By the time of Basket Case 3: The Progeny, the joke was wearing very thin. Actually far more graphic in terms of violence than either parts one or two, Henenlotter piles on high camp (there's even a musical number), a half-baked narrative revolving around Belial and Eve's multitudinous offspring and comedic skits that belie the sleaze and palpable psycho-drama of the trilogy's gutter-level origins. In the space of three movies, Duane and Belial become banal parodies of what were once interesting characters, as happened to Freddy Krueger and Jigsaw in the A Nightmare on Elm Street and Saw series' respectively. That it happened in so short a time points to the fact that though Henenlotter struck gold first time out, he subsequently forgot to sieve the shit out of the pan in his eagerness to capitalise on the deserved fondness afforded Duane and Belial's initial appearance.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Eye For Film review

Out today from Melbourne based Monster Pictures is the whopping five hour plus collection of zombie themed short movies Ultimate Zombie Feast. Unfortunately, it's almost uniformly dreadful. Check out my review for by clicking on the link below.