Review: Neruda (2016)


Proclaimed by its director an “anti-bio”¹, Neruda presents a semi-fictional account of poet Pablo Neruda’s flight from the Chilean authorities after an arrest for his communist ideas and ideology. Not only does Neruda follow the poet’s hiding and running, but it also focuses on Don Pablo’s opponent, Oscar Peluchonneau, the inspector hunting the poet down. Neruda turns into a brilliant rant against narrative clichés and a nostalgic hommage to classic cinema.


Rating


Biopics often present a problem of narrative. A recent example of a biographical film falling for common mistakes of the genre (if I may call it that) is Trumbo (2015). Jay Roach’s cinematic account of the communist screenwriter Dalton Trumbo’s life shows thematic similarities with Neruda, but in terms of cinema they unmistakably differ. Trumbo has many great qualities – acting, cinematography, costumes and background are all better than decent – and these make the film’s demise all the more painful. Biopics often suffer from a misplaced collage-ness; a crumbling narrative. Life is not a narrative, and often when a biopic is intended to imitate real life as much as possible, the film suffers from this rather obvious fact. The intentionally ‘true’ story is seldom capable to correspond with the film’s narrative value as well as real-life length, and so the story becomes fragmented and ultimately unsatisfactory.

But not this time, director Pablo Larraín (NoEl Club) must have thought. As he now gladly explains, he and writer Guillermo Calderón (El Club) were well aware of the inherent traps of paradox that biographical films lay out, and decided not only to introduce fiction into Pablo Neruda’s story, but to make the film as filmy as film gets. I mean, Neruda seems to be cinema at its healthiest; it’s full of references to classic cinema, it’s cross-genre, humorous, exciting, self-reflexive, aesthetically pleasing and most of all: it presents us with a well rounded narrative.

 

 

With the fictionalization of such an important figure as Pablo Neruda comes great responsibility. Instead of apologizing to the audience or warning the people that they will not be shown actual events, Neruda‘s makers produce a story that is about storytelling and the human tendency to introduce narrative into real life. Thereby Neruda reflects on its own non-fictional connotations and fictional nature. In the cat and mouse game that inspector Peluchonneau and Pablo Neruda play, they fight for their narrative role rather than for their lives, they fight for fame, for legendary status and for agency in their own story. When Delia del Carril, Neruda’s loving partner, speaks to the inspector and tells him that he is only an invention in the story of Neruda’s escape story, a supporting character to the heroic Don Pablo, inspector Peluchonneau stops hunting Neruda and starts seeking his own heroic personage in the hunt. Both characters are romantic figures, and they become intertwined in an egocentric struggle for power over the narrative.

This complex manhunt plays out as comedy, drama, classic noir and modern western, and shifts between these genres so fluently that the film still maintains its unity. All this is given the atmosphere of classic 60’s and 70’s cinema through obsolete cinematographic qualities, while some absurd editing techniques give Neruda an unprecedented subtle surreal character. Along with genius performances by leading cast members Gael García Bernal and Luis Gnecco and an wonderfully exciting plot, Neruda is one of the best and most interesting films to come out in 2016.

 

Even more
(4/5) Benjamin Lee for The Guardian: “Neruda takes a lot of wild chances and, like the poet whose life acts as inspiration, it’s unwilling to play by the rules. Dizzily constructed and full of more life and meaning than most “real” biopics, it’s a risk worth taking.”

(B+) Eric Kohn for Indiewire: “At first, Neruda reeks of artificiality that lends the distracting air of a tired melodrama. But that’s all part of the plan for Larrain, who gradually transforms the story into a self-aware gamble.”

 


¹ Dargis, Manohla. “Why the Movie ‘Neruda’ Is an ‘Anti-Bio’“. The New York Times. May 18, 2016.


 

Review: L’Avenir (2016)


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L’Avenir (Things to Come) tells the story of the philosophy teacher Nathalie Chazeaux (Isabelle Huppert), who has grown to be an intellectual mediocrity. The times that she identified as a communist are over, and today she is dispassionately living her ordinary life; teaching, raising her kids, having a divorce and caring for her sick mother. After her mother dies and her husband leaves her, Nathalie must get used to her newfound freedom. 


Rating


The film looks great, Isabelle Huppert is a great casting choice and the development of the story is good – it might even have been a joy to watch, if it wasn’t for the fact that L’Avenir never transcends its rather uninteresting story and never decides to show something out of the ordinary. It tries to mask its everyday reality with philosophical quotes, allusions to Rousseau and Levinas (etc.) and talk about marxism and idealism, but these themes never quite catch on. What remains is a film about an middle-aged woman trying to find her way, and not much more.

 

 

L’Avenir takes place in Paris, an immaculate Paris that is, for we exclusively meet high-class snobbish philosophy students and teachers. The film doesn’t criticize this setting at all, it even wears it with pride, showing a world in which some philosophy students start an anarchist collective somewhere in the mountains (and survive just by writing academic papers) and practically no-one ever gets bored of obsolete philosophers. In this barely mildly interesting context of rich philosophers, L’Avenir makes a vain attempt to festoon everyday life in the western world with badly aimed excerpts from philosophical works.

Hansen-Løve’s fifth feature film features a popular device in arthouse: realism. Often this stylistic choice is what makes this type of independent cinema so powerful; there is a certain probable intimacy between film and audience, the lack of dialogue creates suspense, the assumed possibility of the scenario allows identification. However, the realism in L’Avenir doesn’t quite hit the spot, not because its use is wrong, but because the narrative may simply not be interesting enough for the device. This approximation of reality in L’Avenir only concludes that what we see is everyday life, which doesn’t come across as profound as is being feigned by the film.

However, L’Avenir is not horrible. As I’ve said before, the cinematography is, though predictable, very watchable and the performances of the actors are to be applauded. The film has been given a lot of praise this year, mainly for Huppert’s appearance, and director Mia Hansen-Løve received the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival – it must be said, there are some things to like in L’Avenir, but it never manages to reach something deviant. L’Avenir is not necessarily a bad film, it’s just a film, and perhaps this mediocrity is worse than being grotesque.

 

Even more

The Guardian: “Huppert delivers a note-perfect warm and wry performance as a philosophy teacher whose life is defined by ideas rather than circumstance, a woman of substance – intellectual, emotional, financial – who faces unexpected constraints and freedoms when the assumed certainties of her domestic life unravel.”

Telegraph: “As a portrait of existential crisis, it might all register as po-faced, if it weren’t for the moments of human comedy Hansen-Løve strews across Nathalie’s newly uncertain path.”

Variety: “At once disarmingly simple in form and riddled with rivulets of complex feeling, this story of a middle-aged Parisienne philosophy professor rethinking an already much-examined life in the wake of unforeseen divorce emulates the best academics in making outwardly familiar ideas feel newly alive and immediate […].”


Review: P’tit Quinquin (2014)


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Rating
rating-5


Bruno Dumont’s P’tit Quinquin is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It denounces anything that is in line with your expectations and still has the ability to satisfy like no other. P’tit Quinquin disguises itself as a proper narrative, but simultaneously bravely fights its medium. Well, I say ‘fights’, but rather: it attacks, because narrative hardly seems to fight back.

P’tit Quinquin is a miniseries, which is another way of saying that it is a film that will test your patience and butt muscles. The miniseries lasts 206 minutes, and, honestly, nothing really happens.

Its story revolves around a small French coastal town, where small bits of human corpses are found in dead cows. Commandant Van der Weyden (Bernard Pruvost) and Lieutenant Carpentier (Philippe Jore) are the detectives that are put on the case, and the two do an extraordinary job of failing horribly. Van der Weyden, with a tic that is noticeable every second of his appearances in the movie, strolls around the town, briefly questioning its mostly rather strange inhabitants, often in a manner for which Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks was most likely the inspiration. Carpentier, his humble sidekick, follows him around while voicing pseudo-philosophical claims about the nature of evil, often borrowed from the French writer Zola (although I could never finish Nana and must trust Carpentier on this). Furthermore, Carpentier has a passion for driving their car rather recklessly, and his dream is to get it on two wheels.

Apart from these two detectives, both quite unfit for the job they’re doing, one more character takes a large role in this grand anti-narrative: little Quinquin himself. Quinquin is a young farmer’s boy, who, accompanied by his two friends and his self-proclaimed amour, follows the strange events in town and faces the town’s mysteries and ethnic minorities.

 

 

P’tit Quinquin is a challenge to watch, not only because of its length and lack of significant events, but also because some themes that sometimes reach the story’s surface are quite painful. The film gives its audience hints of necrophilia and bestiality, and explicitly shows heavy racism. But P’tit Quinquin shows these controversial themes so easily and renders them so empty, that the entire film seems indifferent about the atrocities it brings to light. P’tit Quinquin takes on a lumpen attitude, and it finally dwindles into an atmosphere of frightening nihilism, settled onto a layer of simple comedy of everyday life.

Yes, it’s all pretty awful, but simultaneously P’tit Quinquin is very entertaining, very humorous and very refreshing. In the end, its nihilism transforms into comedic scepticism, and from the start the miniseries warns its viewers through absurdity and ridiculousness to not rely on anything the film claims. P’tit Quinquin holds no beliefs and no morals, it revolves around nothing. so any horrifying themes it exhibits present nothing in themselves. The absence of meaning is actually what makes the film hilarious. The balance between disgusting and laughable content is perfect, and the 206 minutes are all entertaining and enthralling.

The absurdity of P’tit Quinquin is only increased by the unnatural acting of the entire cast. Bruno Dumont is known to recruit inexperienced actors for his films, and in P’tit Quinquin this becomes as obvious as can be as some actors stare dispassionately to the horizon when reading their lines. As Dumont claims in an interview with The Guardian: “[…] I like putting very ordinary people in the spotlight. Walk down any street, you’ll see plenty of people who are pretty singular looking”. The cast, indeed, often resembles ordinary people, and most of us, though in shame, even laugh at the guise of some of these actors. However, Dumont’s style demands the use of non-professionals; it fits perfectly.

P’tit Quinquin is a pile of tasty, absurd and hilarious scenes and its unconventional presentation is as refreshing as it is weird, and it is very weird. It’s one of the best ways to spend your spare three and a half hours.

 

Even more

366 Weird Movies: “Bruno Dumont’s sprawling (206 minute) longform Gallic mystery is quirky and ominous in about equal measure, with an ambiguous non-conclusion that adds to the weirdness while also making the entire enterprise feel strangely incomplete”.

Roger Ebert: “Pruvost looks like Albert Einstein and has a facial tic that causes his face to move involuntarily in very noticable ways, meaning he delivers something like four reactions for every stimuli and sometimes more”.

The Hollywood Reporter: “[…] by contrasting what the investigators are trying to uncover with the youthful adventures of the children, Dumont seems to suggest that the world of adults, despite appearances, is so rotten that it can only be stomached and perhaps even saved by two things: laughter of the tragicomic kind and a child-like innocence that somehow needs to be maintained into adulthood”.


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Review: Suburra (2015)


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Rating

rating-4


Suburra is an unstoppable film, with a thoroughly thought-out plot about political corruption, small crime, large crime and a lot of people. I mean: a lot of people, loads of people, and none of them can be called the main character, or perhaps any one of them can be. As we all know, ensemble pieces (or network narratives) are a dangerous practice, and films with a vast amount of important characters can either be disastrously bad or absolutely divine. Suburra is probably on the better side of this modest spectrum.

Suburra’s first twenty minutes are rather confusing, for a film with as many characters as this one must take some time to introduce every one of them. I must say, the film does this in a clever manner, but the inevitable heap of unrelated scenes at the start is hard to sit through without questioning Suburra‘s choice of narrative. However, the film does come with some stunning visuals and a nice slow electronic and M83 soundtrack (which will both probably remind you of the Refn’s Drive and The Neon Demon). When the main plot line starts showing itself, it gives us very exciting and clever connections between all characters, and that is precisely what makes this type of films so attractive. Apart from offering its audience a nice detailed story, ensemble pieces like Suburra are in itself a puzzle. With the complicated political events that make up the plot line the movie gives us a nice opportunity to ‘figure things out’. The spectator must continuously think of how each character is related to the others, and the film must provide us with some surprising and rewarding answers. Suburra shows this virtue, and ‘rewarding’ is the proper word to describe the way this Italian pearl reaches its viewers.

 

 

Perhaps we could even call Suburra a real crowd-pleaser. It’s clever, it’s visually amazing and it gives us as much drama as we are willing to take. That’s nice. It’s an entertaining movie, it really is. Not in the comedic sense, of course – Suburra’s plot is rather heavy – but the film gives us precisely what we need: dramatic plot lines, interesting characters and, most pleasing of all, redemption for the right people at the right moment. Revenge is a great tool to move an audience, and even with its great number of characters, each of them anti-heroes, Suburra manages to render most of its characters sympathetic and let its audience feel pretty good when the credits announce the film’s end.

Suburra is a film that knows its audience, and it doesn’t abuse this knowledge. It shows brutal violence, great melodrama, a cast that does a pretty good job and its visual brilliance is something that is hard to forget. Suburra keeps on giving, never standing still, but somehow it also takes the time to produce detailed characters and a very thorough plot.

Even more

The Guardian: “This is straight-ahead mob action, a vision of crows pecking each other to death when they’re not feasting on the corpse of “Bunga Bunga” Italy. It’s carried off with a great deal of flair”.

Independent: “…involving abduction, blackmail and vicious canines that would make Game of Thrones villain Ramsay Bolton feel ashamed”.

Empire: “By comparison, Se7en’s incessant rain seems more like an April sprinkle”.

Cineuropa: “The film by Sollima […] is nonetheless a flawless piece, blunt in style, without rhetoric or moralism…”.


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Review: Vampire’s Kiss (1988)


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Rating

rating-4


“A vampire, you idiot! Nosferatu! Christ! The tortures of the damned!” Peter Loew cries to a man who is entering the house of God. Loew is drenched in the blood of his last victim. Hallucinating, tortured by daylight and holding a wooden stake to relieve himself from his brand new miserable existence, he roams the streets of Manhattan.

It seems like a strange start to dedicate Filmfroth’s first review to the actor that made us curl up and laugh in agony  more often than any actor should, but we might as well call it a glorious genesis for the site. Let’s talk Nicolas Cage, in all his bloodsucking, vampiric post-coital, neon cross fearing majesty. Let’s talk Vampire’s Kiss.

Robert Bierman’s Vampire’s Kiss is in itself a not-so-strange movie about a literary agent who thinks he is slowly turning into a vampire. Add Nicolas Cage to that formula and you get one of the most intriguing films in the history of moving pictures. Vampire’s Kiss has become a notorious classic because of Cage’s performance, but beneath this hard-to-look-past one-man’s extravaganza is a film with strengths that are worth noting.

 

 

Nicolas Cage’s facial expression in one scene has become a rather overused meme all over the internet. The film stills that are turned into memes are often violently pulled out of their context and given a radical new meaning. However, this might not be the case with the famous Cage face. The tricks Cage pulls off with his eyebrows are in no way essential to the plot and thus in themselves heavily defy their context. This might be said for the whole of Cage’s presence in Vampire’s Kiss: his overly present over-acting is raging on an entirely different level than his surroundings. The way he aggressively recites the alphabet in front of his psychiatrist, the way he roams Manhattan screaming inaudible things, the way he heroically throws back his annoyingly arrogant hair after fighting off a bat is just… well, it’s all pretty weird. And that’s what makes it so amazing.

And so Vampire’s Kiss becomes a Nicolas Cage ordeal. We would like to see the film for what it is, but we can’t hear its logic when the noise of Peter Loew’s smug accent rages on top of it. However, underneath is a film that is actually trying to tell its viewers something. I don’t think Vampire’s Kiss is trying to teach us a lesson, it’s just too weird for that. What the film does is deliver a rather coherent and actually clever narrative, about a young professional who is losing his mind or actually turning into a vampire.

Indeed, the young Peter Loew has reasons galore to go insane, which the film implicitly and sometimes explicitly shows its viewers. First there is the very obvious Kafkaesque nightmare Loew’s career is forcing him into, which he in turn forces upon his secretary Alva. Both are plagued by an untraceable contract hidden deep within the archives, which seems to be one of the main events driving Peter insane. Surrounded by women and tortured by his sexual drive, he drifts between his regular yuppie existence and his new life as a vampire.

Vampire’s Kiss‘s opening credits consist only of shots of Manhattan’s skyline, accompanied by unsettling shitty 80’s music, and after Loew has put in his plastic fangs and has gone to sleep in his provisional coffin (an upside-down leather couch), the film continues with a one and a half minute long montage of a day in Manhattan, showing buildings and traffic with shitty 80’s music again. It’s rather clear that Peter’s concrete hometown oppresses, even agonizes him. After his transformation, whatever it may signify, is complete, Loew desperately stumbles through Manhattan, having a daydream fantasy about his psychiatrist being very casual about the fact that Loew is a murderer and presenting him with, presumably, the love of his life.

The mental background of Vampire’s Kiss main character delivers us from Cage’s hollow but fantastic performance, and so the division between Cage and the plot results in a film that is highly enjoyable and still gives its audience enough to care about behind Cage’s confusing eyebrows. A word of advice: enjoy Nicolas Cage in all his glory, and try to treasure this disastrously hilarious film for what lies beyond Cage’s performance.


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