Melancholia represents notorious director Lars Von Trier’s latest attempt at messing with his audience’s minds. Von Trier; equally adored and loathed across the globe has a knack for getting under peoples skin. His films, like 2009’s confronting Antichrist and the divisive Dogville, are as loved and praised as they are hated and criticized. I struggle to think of a current filmmaker who polarizes moviegoers as much as the controversial Danish director. Melancholia however is Von Trier’s most accessible film to date, beautifully shot, superbly acted and containing some of the most powerful scenes and images this year. It is the perfect film for Von Trier skeptics to revisit his work. Even so, it just might be a little too dumbed down for his supporters while still not accessible enough for detractors.
The opening minutes of Melancholia are some of the most memorable of 2011 and are almost gripping enough to sustain its audience for the remaining two hours. Visceral, abstract images are accompanied by Wagner’s haunting Tristan and Isolde. Combined, these elements make for a particularly striking opening sequence, which perfectly prepares the films audience for the deep insight into its characters minds that follows. One particular mind whom some may argue reflects the filmmaker himself.
After the mesmerising opening the film struggles to maintain audience attention through two distinct acts named after sisters Justine (a remarkable Kirstin Dunst) and Claire. The first of which depicts a wonderfully realised dysfunctional family on what should be the happiest day of Justine’s life, her wedding night. The second explores a closer dynamic between Dunst’s character and her sister played by an equally impressive Charlotte Gainsbourg on what might be the most important day of both their lives. The first act starts with Justine, all smiles, on the way to her wedding reception with her new husband, but as the night goes on more and more cracks begin to show in Justine, thanks to Dunst’s quite outstanding performance. Dunst, especially in this first section, walks the tight rope of joy and hopelessness and does so with an overwhelmingly ominous calm that reflects the films tone. We are never really sure where Von Trier is taking us but there is always the unsettling feeling its not somewhere good. It is painfully clear to the audience that there is more to Justine than meets the eye, and certainly more to the film.
Unsubtle metaphors aside, Melancholia is at its best when exploring Justine’s descent into depression during her wedding reception and her family’s attempts at understanding, resenting or coping with her erratic behaviour. In the second act Von Triers vision and the prologue become much clearer but regardless of the compelling subject matter, the pace drags. However thanks to the exceptional performances of the female leads the audience is able to remain invested in Melancholia until its powerful finale that perfectly compliments the films opening.
Verdict: Worth seeing.
Melancholia requires some patience but features two deep performances from its absorbing leading ladies and is ultimately a rewarding experience at its memorable climax.
Director: Lars Von Trier
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland
Run time: 136 minutes
Film Review: Booksmart
Booksmart is the wonderful story of complicated, messy but hopeful and joyous young adulthood
Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut Booksmart has had a rough time at the box office since its release a few weeks ago. Pundits have placed blame on poor marketing by Annapurna Pictures (the studio releasing it) but in truth, the film just isn’t a big cinema flick. But there’s nothing wrong with that because, in every sense, Booksmart is a brilliant film. It’s funny, it’s smart, it’s wonderfully written, well-directed, and filled with stories that are relatable across generations. But box offices are intrinsically built on those first weekend numbers, it is why it exists, and it is a shame the team behind the film has made a big deal out of the lack of box office draw instead of building on what will surely make it a cult classic- word of mouth.
The film tells the story of Amy and Molly, two high school seniors who have spent their high school careers being great in class, but not so great socially. The day before graduation they realize that their plan of spending their high school careers buried in books, getting straight A’s, and then transcending into the upper echelon of higher education is thwarted when the very people they thought they were escaping, have, in fact, accomplished the same. The difference is that they all had fun during high school while Amy and Molly didn’t. What ensues is a smart pastiche of college humor comedies and high school coming-of-age flicks that have been a staple of cinema across generations. Taking cues from Superbad and the recent Blockers, Booksmart takes raunchy humor and gross-out jokes but injects them with contemporary social dynamics. Universal stories of high school joy, friendship, and heartbreak are told with the kind of relatable charm that is rare- relatable regardless of age, gender, or sexuality. Its inclusivity has been praised not because it is gratuitous or forced, but because it feels genuine and heartfelt.
The two leads, played by Beanie Feldstein (Neighbors 2) and Kaitlyn Dever, are brilliant. If you watched the sitcom Last Man Standing you always knew that Dever was destined for greatness, so it’s no surprise that Booksmart is a great vehicle for her and Feldstein to show their talents. They both act with enough nuance when it is needed, but both sizzle with chemistry when they need to be riotously funny- the screen becomes their canvas and it is hard to escape their presence. Dever and Feldstein are flanked by an assemblage of funny people- Lisa Kudrow, Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, Jessica Williams, the funny kid from Santa Clarita Diet– who all contribute to the film’s balanced characters. It is only at times that a few of them seem a little too much like a cartoon that it detracts from the film (still not sure what Billie Lourd’s character is about).
Wilde’s first turn at directing has proven that she’s got a keen eye for it. Booksmart does all the basics right and when Wilde wants to shoot outside of the box, they get that right too (the scene in which our leads are trippin’ daisies on hallucinogens, in particular, comes off as both funny and well done).
Its strengths, aside from the leads, is the writing and the seemingly truthful way in which the film depicts teenagers (in this case, teenage girls) living through that period of high school transitioning off into college and the so-called ‘real world’. Much has been said about its authenticity, and even if you can’t directly relate, you can still feel and understand the emotions and the relationships. And that is something that is hard to do, and the writers, the cast, and Olivia Wilde have accomplished that.
So what exactly is the problem with Booksmart? And why haven’t people flocked to see it? It still feels like a “small” movie, hindered perhaps by its very Netflix-like production. It doesn’t have that big-budget, must-see-at-the-cinema demeanor that films like Superbad or even Blockers had. Even films like Neighbors and its sequel felt much bigger in scope. Booksmart just FEELS like a television movie, even if it’s not.
Poor box office runs haven’t been the death knell for small-budget, indie successes. There have been plenty of critically acclaimed films that have been dwarfed in the numbers by superheroes, cartoons and sinking ships. Hopefully, ones that fuel conversation (like Booksmart), will keep studios making them. It’s a shame that a lot of the news has relegated Booksmart to “box office failure” because it deserves more. In time, with good word of mouth, and as more and more people see it and realize its resonance, it surely will. It has to because the heart of this movie, the way in which it tells the story of complicated, messy but hopeful and joyous young adulthood will not let it die without a fight.
Booksmart is in US cinemas now and opens in Australian cinemas June 27.
Directed by: Olivia Wilde
Written by: Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, Katie Silberman
Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Lisa Kudrow, Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, Jessica Williams
Released by: Annapurna Pictures
Runtime: 102 mins