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: Night Moves (2013)

Director: Kelly Reichardt

****

This review originally appeared on Scannain.com

Hands up all of those who think Jesse Eisenberg is a one-trick pony.

Aha! We saw those hesitant limbs. Deny it not: it has been a common accusation (and indeed, misconception) that Eisenberg doles out the same Jew-fro’ed, nervy geek in every film in which he stars. Playing similar characters in quick succession is a risk for any actor; in Eisenberg’s case, it’s an additional misfortune that he played two nerds forced to come out of their shell in two films concerned with Lands in quick succession. Aside from pursuing Adventure and the occasional Zombie, check his back catalogue. He can be withdrawn (Roger Dodger), confident (The Social Network), all-out charming (Now You See Me) or gratingly motormouthed (30 Minutes Or Less, which was about 60 minutes too long). He proved his mettle most pointedly this year in The Double, in which he played two characters with the same face and body but distinct personalities. It’s no Dead Ringers, but Eisenberg (both of them) held the rest of the self-important Gilliam rip-off in place. Even if the claims of Eisenberg’s samey performances have died down, his discomforting turn in Kelly Reichardt’s masterful Night Moves ought to put the kibosh on them for good.

Unlike Eisenberg, most people know what they get with Reichardt, namely character and turmoil. Her two previous works exemplify her approach. As unlikely as it seems, she deals in danger. Threat comes from real life, be it economic (Wendy and Lucy) or purely survivalist (Meek’s Cutoff). For all the hardship, the pace is calm, almost distantly so. Danger usually entails urgency, but it can be just as powerful when far-off and unseen; the perception of danger is all that is required. With Night Moves, Reichardt ups the immediacy and the paranoia, to show that even the best laid plans of mice and eco-terrorists go oft astray. Within the confines of a solid three-act structure is a canvas for drip-feed excitement and intelligent thrills.

Based on/ripped off from Edward Abbey’s 1975 novel ‘The Monkey Wrench Gang’ (The argument progresses through the courts, but we have the film regardless), our focus is on Josh (Eisenberg) and Dena (Dakota Fanning, leaving behind the thankless roles of her younger years for something with a bit more thought put in to it), two members of an Oregon environmentalist commune specializing in growing organic produce. All well and good, except they’re cooking something up besides puy lentil broth. From early on, Eisenberg’s brooding stillness and Fanning’s distant intelligence suggest malicious intent. The first act establishes the plan; with the help of veteran Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard, bringing that smile to new heights of superciliousness), they aim to bring down the Green Peter hydroelectric dam with the help of several hundred pounds of homemade explosive. Supplies are sought. Explosives are constructed. A boat is bought. Confidence is aplenty. There is never any doubt in this trio’s minds that they are doing the right thing, with Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond’s script giving them enough rope with which to hang themselves later on. The homemade nature of their endeavour doesn’t inject an overbearing realism to proceeding, just enough believability to suggest this could happen. For a thriller, that suggestion is plenty.

Act Two is all in the execution. Classic character building leads to a date with destiny, as our Oregon Three take the boat, the ominously-named Night Moves, on to the Santiam river with its dangerous cargo. There is no established guarantee; the fear on all three faces is justified, and we are right there with them. All movie plans are foolproof, but Reichardt milks the tension. Is everything in place? Have they forgotten something? This is the high point; at its best Night Moves is stupendously riveting. Reichardt puts her protagonists through the ringer with ease; the segue from characterisation to no-frills tension is the work of someone operating at peak powers. It’s a scenario in which Eisenberg could have gone twitchy and Fanning could have become shrill. They are still, calmly quaking. Whether the bomb goes off or not, you will be on edge to find out.

All this leads to a third act that pales in comparison with the second, if only because the execution of the plan is just so tense. The fallout of the SS Night Moves’ final journey slowly but surely takes its toll on Josh. Harmon and Dena manage to keep their heads down, but Eisenberg puts a human face to their actions. Try as he might, cracks slowly appear in Josh’s façade, and the stresses will only lead to yet more extreme measures. If the lesson of the cost of idealism is nothing new, Night Moves at least puts a price tag on that cost. Cash in all comfort and prospect of happiness, and you’ll come out with change. The final shot of Eisenberg’s face shows a man who has paid said cost, although whether it was paid gladly remains up for debate. The efficiency and class of Night Moves, on the other hand, is undeniable.

Review: 30 Minutes Or Less (2011)

Director: Ruben Fleischer

***

If Al Pacino had had his wits about him in Dog Day Afternoon, he would have coerced someone else into doing his bank robbery for him. That’s exactly what Dwayne (Danny McBride) and Travis (Nick Swardson) do; they strap a homemade bomb vest on to pizza boy Nick’s (Jesse Eisenberg) chest, and present him with an ultimatum. If Nick doesn’t rob $100,000 for them from a bank, he explodes. It’s an ingenious scheme, but it’s about as clever as 30 Minutes Or Less actually gets. Dumb is often welcome in comedy, but this is not altogether one of those times.

Dwayne and Travis’ intention was to find a perfect idiot to run their criminal errand, and Nick’s reaction to his predicament indicates they might have found their man. With the bomb around his midriff, he goes to the school where his friend Chet (Aziz Ansari) teaches. In a typically hilarious exchange between the two, Chet berates Nick for bringing a bomb to a school, then agrees to help. Ansari and Eisenberg’s bickering is the best thing about 30 Minutes Or Less. Whether beating each other up over unfortunate sexual encounters, or discussing pseudonyms to use during the bank robbery, they are hilarious. Ansari is all high-pitched, wide-eyed panic, whilst Eisenberg’s nervy stoner should repel some of the accusations that he plays very similar characters in his films. It’s a good thing that these two have such chemistry, because McBride and Swardson are complete charisma vacuums. Their presence on screen is the complete antithesis of Eisenberg’s and Ansari’s. They are not sympathetic, they are not charming and (crucially) they are not funny! Dwayne and Travis are a loathsome combination of unlikeable characters and crass dialogue, human embodiments of fingernails on a blackboard.

Director Ruben Fleischer brings the same giddy energy to 30 Minutes Or Less that he brought to Zombieland, delivering car crashes and big bangs aplenty. However, this does mean some awkward shifts in tone, as silly banter switches to car chases and blood in a flash. As time goes on, the plot becomes more and more convoluted; Michael Diliberti’s script mistakes multiple plot strands for intelligence, which just isn’t this film’s forte. Thus, we get Dwayne’s father (Fred Ward), a stripper (Bianca Kajlich) and her hitman boyfriend (Michael Peña) jostling for screentime. It’s utterly chaotic in its plotting, but 30 Minutes Or Less gets a pass because it manages to elicit enough stupid belly laughs, and at 83 minutes it doesn’t outstay its welcome. Just be prepared to overcome some substantial obstacles to get to the funny.

Review: The Social Network (2010)

Director: David Fincher

*****

Facebook is no longer a website; it is a ridiculously-proportioned phenomenon. In terms of population, it’s almost twice as big as the United States, is used in over 200 countries and has made its (co-)founder Mark Zuckerberg the world’s youngest billionaire. The fact that a film was made about the foundation of Facebook indicates that this was not a clean-cut example of brave and noble entrepreneurship. If the events in the film (as charted by Ben Mezrich in his book ‘The Accidental Billionaires’, the basis for the script) are to be believed, Facebook came about as an act of revenge by a dumped boyfriend against his ex.

(Relationship status: It’s complicated)

The opening scene of The Social Network sees Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara, soon to be seen sporting a Dragon Tattoo) discussing how Mark can get into the prestigious clubs at Harvard University. Sick of his sycophancy to these monied dweebs, she dumps him there and then. This one scene encapsulates the entire film perfectly; Zuckerberg wants to make friends, but his efforts to get people on his side actually drive them away. Eisenberg’s portrayal makes Zuckerberg a determined wannabe looking in at the beautiful monied people in the clubs. As one character observes, “You’re not an asshole, Mark. You’re just trying too hard to be one.”

(Interested in: women, men. Looking for: friendship)

The break-up sets off a chain of events that leads to Zuckerberg setting up a college networking site called ‘thefacebook.com’ with the financial backing of his best friend and site co-founder Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield). With the site growing all the time, the urge to expand the site gets the attention of Napster founder Sean Parker (a wonderfully arrogant Justin Timberlake). His machinations lead to a shift in the power structure at the newly-retitled ‘Facebook’, leading to Zuckerberg’s and Saverin’s friendship souring. Indeed, the film cuts back and forth between the actual creation of Facebook and the lawsuits taken against Zuckerberg by Saverin and a group of Harvard students (Max Minghella and twins played by Armie Hammer) who claim Zuckerberg stole their idea.

(Education and work: I’m CEO, bitch!)

David Fincher can now lay a claim to being one of the few filmmakers who can capture the zeitgeist of any given time on film. His exploration of the need for social status in the last few years in The Social Network is similar to his analysis of materialized emasculation in the late ’90s in Fight Club. Our need for human connection has been exploited on the Internet, and we are now at a stage where our online selves are so important that we forget about our connections in reality. Zuckerberg and Saverin’s falling out is testament to this. The former needed to succeed so badly with his online project that the latter, his best friend financier, gets left behind. These are not good-guy/bad-guy ciphers; they’re victims of their own intelligence and ambition. As a flipside to Eisenberg’s isolation, Garfield displays warmth but is never naïve. His friendliness leads to his exploitation but he’s also willing to fight; no wonder he’s the new Spider-Man.

(Status update: FML!)

Aaron Sorkin’s script positively dazzles with wit and intelligence. Putdowns and one-liners are exchanged with excessive speed, whilst the plot machinations gear up to crush all and any characters that try to defy them. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score is full of pep and energy, whilst Jeff Cronenweth shoots Harvard in blues and beiges, as warmth is sapped by sterility. In other words, the characters are reflected in the design and look of the film. After the interminable boredom of Benjamin Button, Fincher has delivered an exciting and relevant drama. The Social Network is a rare thing: it is a probing examination of the times we live in, and will remain as a defining chronicle of the last decade. It will endure long after Facebook has ended because, unlike the website that inspired it, The Social Network has something important to say behind the hype and bluster. Zuckerberg liked the initial idea of Facebook because it was cool. The Social Network remembers to be cool, but never forgets the warmth.

(Status update: OMG just saw the best movie! Love it soooooo much LOL 😉 )