Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Realist Cinema: Another Year

Another Year by Mike Leigh, 2010

I don’t find myself in any way qualified to review a Mike Leigh film. The man is a legend for his variety of films mostly focusing on the British working-class and his well-known improvisational techniques used to get the very best out of his performers. Although they may lack the gritty texture of other realist films, an exception being Naked, his films are the epitome of realist cinema and it is always a privilege to watch his work.

Leigh’s latest, Another Year, centres on Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a tremendously content older couple living out their peaceful lives in London. The two have a beautiful home, a loving son and grow fresh vegetables in a communal garden outside of town. Tom works as an engineering geologist and Gerri as a councelor at a medical clinic. They frequently have guests over for dinner, during which most of the film’s drama takes place.

The aforementioned guests include the alcoholic Mary (Lesley Manville), a coworker of Gerri’s who is always looking for reassurance that she is either satisfied with being alone or that one day she will find Mr. Right. Then there is Tom’s friend Ken (Peter Wight), an overweight bachelor whose love of food may just be a suppressant for his own sadness. As the guests wine and dine, conversation eventually turns to tears and Tom and Gerri are there to console.

As I watched Another Year, I became more and more frustrated with Tom and Gerri, which I took as a sign of me not liking the film as much as I had hoped. They appear to be the loveliest couple in the world, so I am supposed to like them, right? But I don’t think Leigh meant for the film to be that black and white. This couple isn’t perfect, and like Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky, a person’s good will creates different reactions in different people – we cannot help everyone. Tom and Gerri continuously harbor these sad cases, even though they don’t look like they are enjoying themselves while doing it. For whatever reason, whether it is pity or genuine concern, they bring these people back into their lives and I found myself annoyed that they did so. But then I realized that maybe this annoyance is granted, and might just be a suitable reaction to Leigh’s work here. The film isn’t simply about good people helping other people in need, but the variety of reasons they do such things and how they come together to interact. Also a rumination on loneliness, the film has various layers to speak of.

The performances in the film are all-around wonderful. Ruth Sheen and Jim Broadbent are believably in love, and stolen glances here and there show true feelings behind their warm smiles. At first Lesley Manville’s Mary appeared to me as an unbelievable eccentric, but I came to respect Leigh and Manville’s choice to throw her quirks in our face. Mary may seem a bit erratic and strange, but the performance is one that becomes well rounded for it. Anyone else might have gone for something subtler, so it was refreshing to watch a true character creation. A cameo from Imelda Staunton at the beginning of the film is also fantastic.

Another Year's simple construction (the film's events take place over the defined four seasons of one year) can take away from the free-flowing elements of the dialogue and story, but it also allows Leigh to do what he does best: develop intricate characters and relationships, and give us the treat of watching said events unfold.

4 out of 5

Monday, January 10, 2011

Realist Cinema: Blue Valentine

Blue Valentine by Derek Cianfrance, 2010

After months of waiting, it finally came. After months of working through the acknowledged, acclaimed, and critics-groups-awarded films of October, November and December, Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine has reached the cinemas of Toronto. After months of only having a charming ukulele dance scene to view on Youtube, I was able to sit down and watch one of my most anticipated films of 2010.

Blue Valentine stars Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling as couple Cindy and Dean, and follows the evolvement of their relationship over time in a fractured narrative style. We are first introduced to their characters at a particular stage where Cindy and Dean are in their early thirties, married and with a child named Frankie. Dean drinks beer in his undershirt and jokes and tickles his daughter, a cigarette hanging on his lips. Cindy appears to play the adult role in the family, preparing their daughter’s breakfast while Dean and Frankie make a mess of it. Petty arguments ensue. There are obvious strains in their marriage.

Cut to years back. Cindy and Dean have not yet met. The world is a sunny place, fuller of hope and possibilities. Dean is hired as a mover, while Cindy is studying medicine. When Dean sees Cindy for the first time during a move, it is love at first sight.

The film is edited to great effect in this past and present style. Arguments in the present about specific subjects become clear when the past is revisited, while the juxtaposition of the two makes the central romance and its decay that much more meaningful. What was once something bright has become dull and painful and the attempts made to renew that love fail in comparison to the ease at which it began. The cinematography also aids in the juxtaposition, with the past shot in a carefree, handheld documentary style, and the present more controlled, with icy blue overtones evident in the picture.

Although the various reasons behind the central relationship's deterioration are never fully realized, Blue Valentine is a work of honesty because there are no simple answers and no one person is at fault. A documentary-style, observational drama, Cianfrance's approach smartly makes the film realistic and relatable. Certain events may be uncomfortable to watch, but are never that out of the ordinary, and although one may feel the film lacks cinematically because of its lack of narrative extremities, I think it is better for it. When the film does move in that direction, such as a particularly explosive scene at Cindy's work, it tries too hard to be more interesting, and instead pulls away from what was already interesting enough - the dialogue, and lack thereof, between the central characters.

Williams' and Gosling's performances are spectacular, their chemistry filling the frame. While I feel the character of Cindy is a bit too cold in what is considered the present, with her constant angry demeanor threatening to comprise her other layers, Michelle Williams is wonderful at subtlety and body language. Watch her neck tense as Gosling's character attempts a rendezvous in the shower. Similarly, Dean's character in the present may at times verge on being a white-trash cliche, but Ryan Gosling creates a likable and complicated man. Dean's mood swings and his charm vary in an instant. He is wonderful to watch.

Derek Cianfrance has created a complicated modern age relationship drama about a generation that is more often than not portrayed in silly, sexualized comedies. It is refreshing because of its seriousness and realism, and Cianfrance should be commended for the risks he takes here. If a cinema verite-styled ukulele scene is one of the most touching scenes I have witnessed this year, he must be doing something right.

4 out of 5