Review: Louder Than Bombs (2015)

Director: Joachim Trier

*****

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

Louder Than Bombs is a ghost story. Throughout director Joachim Trier’s English-language debut, the presence of war photographer Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert) is only ever felt from a distance. Three years after her death, she speaks from the afterlife in flashbacks, remembrances and voiceovers. Louder Than Bombs is a beautifully constructed collage of these elements; it’s a determinedly impressionistic work, using fragments from the people broken by Isabelle’s death to put together a mosaic of a woman they may never have fully known. This arrangement of memories plays out without recourse to big drama or hysterics; this is less a emotional display than an emotional dissection.

Like all ghosts, Isabelle is overseeing the completion of unfinished business. She left behind a lot more collateral damage than just the car she was driving when it ploughed head-on into a truck. Three men are still reeling from her passing. Her husband Gene (Gabriel Byrne) is struggling to forge a connection with their son Conrad (Devin Druid), whilst older son Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) has just become a father for the first time. Their grief after Isabelle’s death, restrained as it is, means their lives feel fragmented, occurring in individual moments. Sometimes, in the middle of an action, they just leave to zone out of the moment. Failing that,  memories of their wife and mother intrude on the narrative. The film opens with Jonah holding his newborn child; the infant clutches its father’s finger in a poignant Malick-ian close-up. The moment only lasts so long, however, and Jonah leaves his wife’s (Megan Ketch) bedside in search of coffee as an excuse for an escape. It sounds harsh, but Louder Than Bombs is rarely less than truthful in its portrait of sublimated grief.

The themes and narratives of Louder Than Bombs are explored with such a level of detail and restraint that it feels like a film only Trier could have made. Even though this is his first English-language feature, Trier brings a confidence and professionalism to the film straight out of his previous works, Reprise and Oslo, August 31st. Teaming up once more with regular collaborators like cinematographer Jakob Ihre and composer OIa Fløttum does help, but even without them, or the decidedly European tones of Huppert and Byrne, the film benefits from an introspectiveness more closely associated with French or German cinema. There are few moments of explosive anger or revelation. Instead, truth comes home in the tenderness of the smallest familial moments. The precious memories that Trier and co-writer Eskil Vogt weave in and out of the narrative say more about why these men grieve than any outburst. Conrad falls asleep on Isabelle’s shoulder on a car journey. Gene shares a laugh with her about a colleague’s smoking habits. Jonah recalls a visit she made to him at his college dorm. There is humanity both in these moments and in their insistent interjection. When we want to escape the present, we remember the best of the past. Trier and Vogt find a poetry in the script that sees moments and lines get repeated in completely separate contexts. Over the course of the film, all three leading men find their love lives being complicated by professionalism (Gene starts dating Conrad’s teacher Hannah, played by Amy Ryan), old passions (Jonah reconnects with an ex (Rachel Brosnahan) and social strata (Conrad’s crush on classmate Melanie (Ruby Jerins) goes unrequited out of shyness). Throughout these travails, echoes of dialogue and direction remind us that these men have similar approaches to the women in their lives. By nature, nurture and the gift of a layered screenplay, they are inescapably each other’s kin.

The narrative drive in Louder Than Bombs comes from a proposal by Isabelle’s colleague Richard (David Strathairn) to write a column about her for the New York Times ahead of a retrospective exhibition of her work. This forces Gene and Jonah into a quandary about whether or not to come clean to Conrad about her death. The film flits between the equal possibilities of Isabelle’s death being either an accident or suicide. It’s a question that derails what fragile momentum these men have maintained in the three years since, but all three actors sell the pain quite admirably. Eisenberg gives his most compellingly confident turn yet, maintaining a high-wire act between likeable and all-out jerk without nervous tics or bumbling limbs. Relative newcomer Druid boasts an impressive degree of necessary restraint to sell Conrad’s hidden turmoil, and Byrne’s burdened melancholia is a pleasant reminder of his top-notch work on In Treatment. Huppert helps Trier maintain a distance between Isabelle and everyone else with a turn of inscrutability and silent despair. She’s unknowable, almost to the point that she seems clichéd. Yet this is exactly Trier’s point; the image we get of Isabelle is always through a lens of grief and memory. We only ever see her husband and sons’ recollection; they knew so much about her, and yet it’s never the whole story. A shot of Huppert in close-up looking at the camera is given a violet tint, suggesting she’s behind a pane of glass. Her character’s choice of profession is not random; Louder Than Bombs is all about the images we capture of those closest to us, whether in photographs, memories or on film. We can see every freckle on Isabelle’s face, but she’s only a ghost. Our memories introduce a nebulous filter to obscure the full picture.

Decisions like that pane of glass contribute to a deliciously detailed film. Trier fills the film with camera moves, positions and framing devices of such potential that a second viewing will be required to unpack it all. Scenes will unfold twice over, but from different angles, in order to bring clarity to these fragmented moments. They unfold with style in isolation, but they gain new power in the bigger picture. Louder Than Bombs does a remarkable thing; it observes its characters with a focused and unobtrusive eye. Trier allows the characters to make their own decisions and mistakes, and to be their own judges. This in turn allows you, the grown-ups in the audience, to draw your own conclusions. Trier’s got too much respect for his characters and audience to talk down to them.

Review: Cold Souls (2009)

Director: Sophie Barthes

**

image

Directors and actors often carve stylistic niches for themselves, but it rarely happens to screenwriters. However, no-one does better Charlie Kaufman scripts than Charlie Kaufman. No-one must have told Sophie Barthes, as she plunges into the cerebral depths of Kaufmanesque neuroses to unearth Cold Souls, a bizarre little film that toys with some fascinating ideas only to mash them up into a disappointing plot that belongs in another film altogether.

In the first of many overly-clever touches, Paul Giamatti plays Paul Giamatti. Yes, the character is named Paul Giamatti (stop, my sides!). He’s starring in a production of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya and the emotional strife of his character remains with him after rehearsals end. To rid himself of this misery, Paul goes to a clinic run by David Strathairn’s Dr. Flintstein. The clinic specializes in removing souls for storage until the client wants it back. This premise would be enough material to construct a rather serious film around the nature of the soul and emotion. Instead, Barthes squanders the chance to make something thoroughly thought-provoking by introducing a plot strand about Russians smuggling souls back and forth across the Atlantic. When Giamatti discovers his soul has been stolen, he takes off for Russia to get it back. This is the point when the film descends into farce-cum-buddy-pic as Giamatti teams up with Dina Korzun’s ‘soul mule’ to get his soul back. This shift in plot only distances the audience from the characters as the premise gets more and more unlikely. We go from debating the purpose of the soul to chasing after Russian traffickers without suggesting any answers for the debate of the first half, leaving intriguing ideas flapping in the wind.

Giamatti does his trademark sad-sack routine, which suits this film just fine. Dina Korzun offers a sympathetic performance, but Emily Watson is wasted as Giamatti’s wife. The whole film is shot in chilly blues and whites, distancing the audience even more from the already elusive ideas introduced in the first half of the film. Cold Souls deserves praise for some intriguing and original ideas, but will ultimately disappoint for boxing these ideas in an unoriginal plot.  A textbook case of a missed opportunity.

Review: The Tempest (2010)

Director: Julie Taymor

**

The Tempest opens with an image of a tidy little sandcastle crumbling underneath a rainstorm. It’s an apt image, as The Tempest frequently threatens to crumble underneath director Julie Taymor’s overambition. Not even William Shakespeare’s beautiful prose can save it.

The castle is actually being held by Miranda (Felicity Jones), and the rain comes from the tempest being conjured by the mischevous spirit Ariel (an eerie Ben Whishaw), as ordered by Miranda’s sorceress mother Prospera (Helen Mirren). In the play (Shakespeare’s last, before his death in 1516), Prospera was Prospero, a man, but the gender change is justified by a fiery performance from Mirren. Prospera conjures the storm to sink a ship carrying some of the Milanese royalty that banished Prospera and Miranda to the island they call home. The Milanese, royalty and servants alike, are washed ashore separately. Miranda finds Prince Ferdinand (Reeve Carney) on one shore, and falls for him immediately. Jones is forgettable, but Carney is deathly dull, thus rendering their romance feeling more like Twilight than Romeo and Juliet. On another part of the island are found King Alonso (David Strathairn), Gonzalo (Tom Conti), Sebastian (Alan Cumming) and Antonio (Chris Cooper). All are great actors, so to see them forced to act off against each other with too little screentime is a great waste of their talent.

On another part of the island, servants Trinculo (Russell Brand) and Stephano (Alfred Molina) are washed up and encounter Prospera’s slave, the scarred and warped Calaban (Djimon Hounsou). Brand and Molina’s giddiness provide a much needed boot up the backside to the pace, which threatens to grind to a halt at times. Meanwhile, Hounsou gives the best performance of all the cast, a wonderful mix of spleen, naivete and outstanding make-up. The Tempest’s production design is immaculate to a fault. Sandy Powell’s Oscar-nominated costumes and Mark Friedburg’s sets are a little too polished, lending The Tempest a stagey, artificial look. Despite Stuart Dryburgh’s beautiful lensing and Elliot Goldenthal’s punk-like score, there’s little to dispel the idea that these are sets on a studio backlot.

Taymor’s script barely deviates from Shakespeare’s text, which makes the film feel all the more staged. Flashbacks and exposition are all well on stage, but film thrives on kinetic fizz. Whilst Taymor clearly relishes the freedom of the screen, her visual flourishes are so over the top that you find yourself wishing for something more tangible. Taymor’s adaptation of Titus was allowed to be OTT by virtue of being an OTT stageplay, but The Tempest demands a slightly more subtle touch. It’s both visceral and vacuous, neither straying from the text nor adding anything to it. The Tempest has too many well-placed elements to be an out-and-out bad film, but it’s definitely an underwhelming one.

Review: Howl (2010)

Directors: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman

***

Whoever controls the media, the images, controls the culture.
– Allen Ginsberg

The Beat Generation defined itself by free expression emotionally, sexually and in a literary sense. Encapsulating the freedoms and liberated ideals that the Beatniks stood for, Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ became a defining piece of work for this generation from the moment it was first published in 1956. Other defining works of the period have either already made it to the screen (Naked Lunch) or are on the way (On The Road), but how to adapt a poem like ‘Howl’ for celluloid?

Writer/directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s approach is to examine how ‘Howl’ came to be. Dedicated to Carl Solomon, a man Ginsberg met in a mental institution, the three-part epic poem is a treatise on the devaluation of the post-war generation. Its stark sexual references (particularly the overtly homosexual references) led to the publishers of ‘Howl’ being tried for obscenity in 1957. Howl divides its time between the obscenity trial, interviews with Ginsberg (played by James Franco) and Franco reading the poem aloud. Following on from 127 Hours, Franco delivers another engaging performance, investing all his natural charisma in Ginsberg and effectively capturing his laid-back charm.

The three-pronged narrative approach taken by Epstein and Friedman is both a blessing and a curse. On the downside, it could be argued that Howl lacks a clear focus. The focus on the obscenity trial could be scene as an excuse for injecting a little salaciousness to proceedings, as state prosecutor McIntosh (David Strathairn) is reduced to uttering ‘obscenities’ to illustrate his argument whilst smooth defence lawyer Ehrlich (Jon Hamm, in full Don Draper mode) looks on. Howl may be a treatise on the poem, but the courtroom scenes feel dropped in to serve as a reminder that it’s full of naughty words!! Still, it does give Strathairn and Hamm a chance to flex their muscle, as well as drop in some neat cameos (from the likes of Mary-Louise Parker, Treat Williams and Jeff Daniels). The sections featuring the reading of the poem are accompanied by vivid animations, but they serve equally to illustrate and distract from the poem. Surely the words are enough to make a point. Still, there’s no shortage of visual beauty here, and the whole film, whether in bright Technicolor or black-and-white is beautifully shot by Edward Lachman.

Like Ginsberg himself, Howl boasts a distinct sense of mischief. However, despite Franco’s best efforts, the film periodically forgets that there’s meaning beneath the profanity. Howl brings the style of Ginsberg’s work to the screen, if not quite all the substance.