Oct 24, 2009

24FPS at LFF: Day 4

DIR: Bong Joon-ho
CAST: Kim Hye-ja, Won Bin

When mentally disabled Yoon Do-joon (Won) is arrested and charged with the murder of a schoolgirl his mother (Kim), convinced that her son is innocent and the confession coerced from him by the police is false, turns private detective, vowing to find the real culprit.

With acclaimed films like The Host and Memories of Murder, Bong Joon-ho has shown himself to be something of a genre buster. Mother is his fourth film, and it continues to show that Bong is ploughing the same furrow; combining serious dramatic events with slapstick absurdity. Whatever the qualities of this film, it suggests that Bong is something of a one trick pony. That said, Bong is clearly a filmmaker of some considerable talent. Mother looks great, and several of the less serious moments really stand out, memorable by their sheer strangeness. One of the most striking of these is the opening, which sees a very serious looking Kim Hye-ja standing in the middle of a field, and then beginning to dance for no apparent reason. It’s totally out of step with the film, and seems to have no relevance to the character at all, but it’s so weird that it stands out.

While Bong’s style is sometimes slyly amusing, it doesn’t really mesh with the more noirish thrust of the story. Both styles are fine in and of themselves, but watching Mother can be a schizophrenic experience. The problem with the film’s detective story is pretty simple; the answer is obvious and predictable. Bong does lead us down a couple of blind alleys, but they are pretty easily spotted.

The one thing that really stands out about Mother is the acting. Whatever critics have so far had to say about the film as a whole, they’ve all fallen over themselves to praise Kim Hye-ja. I’m not going to break with that tradition. Kim is brilliant as the panic-stricken, over-protective mother who must focus herself and try to find a way to help her child who can’t help himself. It’s a performance that begins with a maternal warmth, but slowly and credibly the character becomes colder, more ruthlessly focused until, towards the end of the film, ice appears to run in her veins. It’s a nice, subtle, piece of character acting and Kim carries the entire film on her shoulders, elevating something that without her would be entirely unremarkable.

For his part, Won Bin also does fine work as Do-joon. It’s a smaller part than you might expect, and for an hour in the middle of the film he all but vanishes. When he’s on screen though Won gives good account of himself, with a performance that suggests he’s put a lot of work into studying the behaviour of adults with profound learning disabilities. The way he, panic stricken, keeps playing with his phone at a vital point, not knowing whether or not to call his mother, is an especially well-acted moment.

It’s not that Mother is a bad film, it just feels very clunky. The gear changes don’t work, and the mystery at its centre just isn’t mysterious enough to sustain the interest. It is barely 24 hours since I saw the film, and already it has all but completely slipped from my mind. However, Kim Hye-ja is so good that to write it off entirely would be a shame.

DIR: Atom Egoyan
CAST: Julianne Moore, Amanda Seyfried,
Liam Neeson, Max Thieriot

Remakes are everywhere, but this one seems to have ducked in under the wire, without the internet baying for blood. This is perhaps because Anne Fontaine’s Nathalie, on which Atom Egoyan’s film is based, is neither a horror film nor an avowed classic.

I haven’t seen Nathalie, so obviously I can’t compare the two films, but for the first hour of its running time I really thought Chloe was going to be great. It really is a crying shame that as the film enters the home stretch that is its third act the wheels fall off in rather spectacular fashion. The basic story sees Catherine (Moore) beginning to suspect David (Neeson), her husband of twenty years, of having affairs. To test him she hires Chloe (Seyfried) to approach him, and report back to her on what David does. As Chloe relates the affair that she’s begun with David, Catherine also finds herself drawn to the beautiful young woman.

Six or seven years ago you could probably have fairly described me as one of the world’s biggest Julianne Moore fans. It wasn’t hard to imagine why; between 1993’s Short Cuts and The Hours in 2002, Moore was on a winning streak as big and impressive as any in film, giving brilliant performance after brilliant performance, and seeming like a totally different person every time she stepped in front of a camera. Since then, a very brief cameo in Children of Men apart, it’s just been awful. The succession of turkeys, and the laziness of the performances by an actress so obviously gifted, is staggering. See, or don’t, such films as Laws of Attraction, Freedomland, Trust the Man and Next for proof of how the mighty can fall. It’s been a rough few years as a Julianne Moore fan. Fortunately - finally - Chloe marks a proper return to form. For the first time in a very long time not only did I not feel like I was watching Julianne Moore, rather than her character, I couldn’t hear the wheels turning. There’s nothing here that feels calculated or contrived (not, at least, in Moore’s acting). Every nuance, every flicker of emotion is out there for us to read on her face, and yet she’s not actorly, she’s not over-emoting; she squares the circle of making Catherine an open book to us, but closed off emotionally to the other characters. This is fantastic, detail-oriented work. Welcome back Julianne. I missed you.

When Julianne Moore is on this sort of form it’s a big ask of any actor to hold their own against her. Liam Neeson, by virtue of the script rather than his performance, largely blends into the background, but he and Moore play off each other well, and the slight chill and distance between them creates a believably strained relationship such as you might expect between a couple drifting apart after 20 years together. The film was finished after the death of Neeson’s wife Natasha Richardson, and it’s a testament to his talent and professionalism that you can’t see that join.

The younger performers are more problematic. Max Thieriot flounders in what, to be entirely fair to him, is both an underwritten and a cliché laden role as Moore and Neeson’s surly teenage son. Amanda Seyfried has a demanding role, and initially she does well. There’s an effective unknowability about her Chloe, and a harsh, dispassionate tone that means that you feel Catherine’s hurt as Chloe relates her encounters with David, especially when, in a hotel room, she describes to Catherine the sex she’s just had with her husband.

Unfortunately, though it is also very much the fault of the screenplay, Seyfried’s performance is much of the reason that the film falls apart in its last half hour. There is a key shift in Chloe’s character and Seyfried just doesn’t have the chops to pull it off, which renders many late scenes, particularly one in Moore’s office, laughable.

With his last couple of films the normally rather austere Atom Egoyan has embraced on screen sex with some gusto. Where the Truth Lies was eventually notable almost solely for its sex scenes. That’s not the case with Chloe, but you can bet that when it opens many column inches will be devoted to the copious nudity and to the brief, but pretty explicit, sex scene between Moore and Seyfried. It has to be said that the two women have fantastic chemistry, right from their first scene together there is an undercurrent of barely repressed sexual tension between them, and when it boils over at the end of act two it does so in a scene as memorably sexy as the much remarked upon lesbian sex scene in Bound. It’s refreshing to see such an uninhibited take on sex in a relatively mainstream American film. Like many of his other films, Egoyan’s work in Chloe has a very designed feel to it (Christine and David’s house, for example, always feels like a set, as does Christine’s glass walled office). There’s little naturalistic here, but it’s hard to complain much about that when Egoyan’s shots are as beautifully designed and well thought out as they are here.

In the excellent first hour of the film there’s only one real issue, and that’s that there’s nobody to root for. Catherine, David and Chloe all come off as fundamentally self-serving and unsympathetic, but you forgive the film because you get sucked into both the fine character driven drama and the sexy erotic thriller undertone. Unfortunately, in the last half hour, the film goes bonkers. Suddenly the measured, almost cold, pace and tone of the film is gone, the ending of the script we’ve so far been following seemingly replaced by the last 40 odd pages of generic erotic thriller 2b. Julianne Moore remains excellent, and if she notices how silly things have become then she doesn’t show it, the same can’t be said for everyone else. Seyfried goes from giving a decent performance to being hilariously bad, and for his part Egoyan trades his artistically composed frames for some jaw-droppingly stale clichés straight out of the how to shoot a straight to video erotic thriller handbook. It’s a terrible shame, and undermines what really should have been, if not an especially original film, a notably high quality and truly adult drama. Still, see it for Julianne Moore.

Dir: Catherine Corsini
Cast: Kristin Scott-Thomas, Sergi Lopez, Yvan Attal

Though she’s flirted with the mainstream, and had large roles in such popular fare as Four Weddings and a Funeral and The English Patient when you mention the name Kristin Scott-Thomas you’ll mostly see blank faces staring back at you. That’s a terrible shame, because she’s among the best actresses working in world cinema.

Like last year’s I've Loved You So Long, Catherine Corsini’s film finds Scott-Thomas acting in flawless French. As Suzanne, an English woman married for some 20 years to Samuel (Attal), but now embarking on an affair with Spanish builder Ivan (Lopez), leading to a messy and bitter divorce, Scott-Thomas is just brilliant. Her dialogue is beautifully delivered, and filled with expression and meaning. This, of course, is an actor’s job, but so frequently when they are working in a second language their performances can seem rote and bereft of expression, that’s absolutely not the case with Kristin Scott-Thomas. That isn’t all that makes her performance special though. Great actors are great listeners, and when you watch her reacting to what other people say there is such richness, such emotion in her silent reactions. This is a performance played as much in the physicality of its relationships and in what plays behind the eyes as it is in the dialogue, and that’s what makes it truly special, a real, three-dimensional portrait.

I’ve seen Sergi Lopez act in three languages now; his native Spanish, French and English, and in each he’s been outstanding. He’s an actor who seems to change completely in each role. It’s genuinely difficult to connect Ivan with Capitain Vidal from Pan's Labyrinth, or with Harry from Harry, He’s Here to Help. Lopez has often played bad guys in the past, but though Ivan is an ex-con (we never discover what he did) he’s no villain. Instead Lopez plays him as a very genuine, very normal man, largely driven by circumstance - that circumstance being that he and Suzanne have fallen in love. It’s tough to play very ordinary people, because they don’t tend to have the operatic notes that it’s rather easy to reach in acting. Instead roles and films like this demand smallness, subtlety and intricacy, and Lopez delivers beautifully.

These two outstanding performances tower over the film, and that’s probably a good thing, because frankly Catherine Corsini’s screenplay and direction, though there’s nothing wrong with them, are pretty generic. We’ve seen this tale told a thousand times, and we know pretty well where it’s going to end up (though Corsini doesn’t help that with a structure that opens proceedings with a moment that takes place about five minutes from the end of the film).

Scott-Thomas and Lopez also threaten to drown out Yvan Attal’s performance. Samuel isn’t as well written as Suzanne and Ivan, and Attal ends up having to spend most of the film playing a single note. He does it well, but the character is just too thin to really register. However, when the focus is on Suzanne and Ivan, as it is for much of the 85 minute running time, Leaving is strong stuff. The chemistry between Scott-Thomas and Lopez is electric; their sex scenes pulse with energy, and whenever they share a scene once their relationship has begun you can feel that hunger for one another, especially in Scott-Thomas’ last few scenes in the film.

Leaving certainly isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty well made on the whole, and though it is short it doesn’t feel compromised by its length. The characters are strong and individual (even if Samuel isn’t the most rounded of characters) and the ending is near perfect, leaving us on a note of some ambiguity, rather than spoon-feeding us for an extra 10 minutes. The film is only really lifted out of the ordinary by the two leading performances, make no mistake though, those two performances make Leaving a must see.

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