Wednesday, 26 October 2011

[514] LFF Reviews: Like Crazy, We Have A Pope and Bernie

[Cross-posted from Den of Geek]

We’re into the final few days of the London Film Festival, so here is the first round-up of our findings so far. Read on for crazy lovers, crazy popes and crazy morticians.



Like Crazy



A big hit at Sundance, where it took home the Grand Jury Prize for drama, Like Crazy tells the story of Anna (Felicity Jones) and Jacob (Anton Yelchin), two students who meet at university, but find their relationship strained by distance once Anna has to return to the UK after graduation.

Drake Doremus shoots this transatlantic tryst mostly with a handheld, intimate aesthetic, getting the viewer under the skin of Anna and Jacob’s moody, broody romance. The couple’s stares are full of longing, their days are graced by Californian sun, and their murmurs of affection are in turns affecting or off-putting, depending on how much you believe that messy, complicated love is somehow more pure than the regular, clean-cut kind.

However, the decision to use the US Immigration Authority as the lovers’ complicating action - as Anna decides to violate her student visa, and is therefore barred from re-entering the States - is rather odd, as not only does it give the film an easy logistical barrier to the realisation of love, but it further gives this navel-gazer an air of First World Problems.

Once Jacob starts his own furniture business, and Anna becomes a trendy lifestyle ‘blogger’ for an upmarket London magazine, we see their lives developing separately - especially so once new significant others come on the scene. However, we’re led to believe that the intense university relationship leaves a lasting impression, but besides a couple of small moments - a late-night text conversation here, a tentative, subtext-laden visit there - Doremus doesn’t really twist the knife in a similar way to Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine. The leads, for their part, are youthful, charming and lost, but the representation of their relationship just isn’t raw or wry enough to be compelling.


We Have A Pope



Italian actor-writer-director Nanni Moretti’s latest film starts with the election of a new pope and ends with the undermining of the entire Catholic faith. However, its mixture of cardinal comedy and papal drama is a little discordant.

An opening sight gag is priceless, where close shots of the papal conclave weaving through the Vatican’s tight corridors give way to reveal a veritable media circus just out of reach. Likewise, the assembled clergymen, pencilling in their ballots, are shot like schoolkids taking a test. They’re easily distracted, bored, and sneak looks at each other’s slips of paper. It also becomes clear that none of them want to be Pope, so the holy responsibility falls to a cheery, dopey old sod played by Michel Piccoli, who, just before making his first public appearance before the congregated Catholics in St Peter’s Square, suffers a breakdown and does a runner.

While Moretti finds much fun in this chaotic situation, especially once an irreverent psychoanalyst (played by the director himself) starts to concoct various schemes to keep the cardinals from leaving the Vatican, the ensuing ‘walkabout’ plot, with the Pope sojourning around Rome to perchance find himself and his lost faith, is bloated and directionless.

There’s conflict here not only between two types of film - that of comedy and drama - but two kinds of commentary. The satire, that the church is full of ineffectual, petty, old men, has some bite to it, but the dramatic broadside, where the central tenets of divine right meet human psychology, is lacking something, even if the potential resignation of a Pope has apocalyptic implications. This results in a film which isn’t entirely damned, but offers little salvation.


Bernie



Richard Linklater has spent the last decade darting between independent projects and mainstream movies, notably with the enormously successful flick School Of Rock, which starred an energetic Jack Black just before his loudmouth rocker schtick got old.

Eight years later, Black and Linklater have re-teamed for Bernie, where the actor plays the title character, a rather eccentric funeral director in small-town East Texas. Immensely popular with the locals, Bernie’s reputation is so strong that when he kills a rich spinster (Shirley MacLaine), the district attorney moves the murder trial to another town, so as to find an unbiased jury.

The fact that this is based on true events, and adapted from a newspaper article should give some indication that this isn’t the most straightforward of comedy-dramas, but Linklater adds another twist to the film. Actual residents of Carthage, Texas appear both in talking head interludes, spouting gossip and reminiscences about the protagonist, and in the main plot, playing themselves. This brings much heart to the film, as while Black is surprisingly restrained and meticulous in creating Bernie, he is blown off-screen by some of the real-life characters, who have much more warmth, wit and personality than the actor at his best.

However, the film fails to find a balance between the artistic licence of fictional filmmaking, and the commentary of documentary. Linklater and Black seem unwilling to explore Bernie’s complexities, leaving the story rather light and shallow, and are equally unwilling to hand over the telling of the tale to the friends, foes and facts themselves, which effectively botches any claim to truth. Bernie, therefore, sits squarely in the middle of Linklater’s indie-mainstream spectrum - an experiment in marrying drama and documentary, which inevitably satisfies neither.

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