1-minute reviews: Melancholia, Baaria and The Devil’s Double

In this post of “1-minute reviews” I analyze three films that I have seen over the last couple of weeks: Melancholia, Baaria and The Devil’s Double.

Melancholia (Lars Von Trier – 2011)

If judged from a purely visual standpoint, the latest film by Danish director Lars Von Trier is as stunning as anything you will see in theaters on this or any year. The large mansion, the expansive landscapes and the endless skies all serve to build a cinematography that is elegant and captivating, setting the stage for extremely detailed characters that express a plethora of emotions that range from complete and utter desperation to a quiet sense of resignation.

At its core, Lars Von Trier’s take on Armageddon is profound and personal. Instead of focusing on chaos and destruction like many action films have, Melancholia chooses to focus on its characters, giving them freedom to go through a series of depressive states that are as varied as they are fascinating to watch. For Von Trier, it is a subject that is close to home, having struggled with depression for most of his adult life, to the point where it almost brought his career to a halt.

The cast is superb. In the lead is a surprising Kristen Dunst who has finally matured as an actress, leaving well behind her Spider-man years and earning the prestigious Best Actress Award at Cannes Film Festival. Ms. Dunst delivers the performance of her career in a role that is extremely complex. She goes through several mental states that are perfectly captured by her increasingly troubled eyes and body language. There is a lot of silence in this movie which allowed Ms. Dunst showcase a range that is exceptional in a role that suited her both mentally and physically.

Almost as impressive was the performance of Charlotte Gainsbourg. The chemistry between her and Dunst is as complex and realistic as anything you will see in theaters this year. Last but not least is the small, yet important role of Kiefer Sutherland who brings a sense of security to his role that is completely at odds with the tragic turn his life suffers as a result of the impending planetary calamity.

Despite all of these accomplishments, Melancholia fails to reach us at a deep personal level. The film is somewhat dry and distant, without the reach of Von Trier’s previous directorial efforts. Perhaps Von Trier made it too much about his own struggle, forgetting about his audience, never providing a moment of true emotional power that would make the film feel important in our hearts and minds. The first half of the movie which focuses on Justine’s wedding almost feels like an unnecessarily long and increasingly obnoxious prelude to the much more captivating second half. Unlike the second half of the film, Justine’s wedding feels like an over stylized, overworked attempt at portraying a depressed woman go through the “ordeal” of marriage while sensing the proximity of an unavoidable disaster. We do not feel sorry or relate to Justine, we only hope she can get over all of her issues and show some appreciation to the people that love her.

For all of the interesting nuances of the storyline, it is hard to truly connect with the characters even if we are in awe of the mystical world Lars Von Trier presents to us.

Rating: 3 out of 5 (above average)

Note: 5 out of 5 (visuals and acting)

Baaria (Giuseppe Tornatore – 2009)

For movie-goers unfamiliar with the work of Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore, “Baaria” may strike you as an endlessly charming, though confusing, piece of film. Having watched the wonderful Cinema Paradiso rather recently (of which Tornatore was also director), Baaria feels like a grander, more ambitious film as a whole but that, unlike its predecessor, does not hold up upon closer inspection.
Baaria’s weakness is that despite its generous budget and running time (2.5 hours long), it offers nothing memorable in return. To blame is its lack of focus, with sequences that move forward in time but that don’t lead the story anywhere. In fact, Baaria comes across as the longest trailer ever produced, as if it is showing us an endless collection of sneak peeks of a mini-series about a small town in Sicily. There are moments of crescendo that seem to lead to a memorable place only to fizzle out before it makes its point across. Baaria constantly shifts pace, slowing down or speeding up in a manner that does not seem to follow any logic. The film’s lack of thematic center and long running time left me unable to remember at least 90% of what I had just seen a day before.

There is, however, a lot of good in Baaria. If we judge it solely based on its title, the film comes across as endearing tale about a small Italian town that encapsules all of Italy’s charms and struggles as a nation that continues to fascinate the world.
There is also plenty of comedy that, without being laught-out-loud funny, helps us forget the film’s constantly shifting narrative and that brings a smile to our faces due to its intrinsic Italian charm and originality.

Rating: 3 out of 5 (above average)

The Devil’s Double (Lee Tamahori – 2011)

For the life of me I can’t come to understand how many users enjoyed this film at IMDB. Director Lee Tamahori gives us a rather unremarkable film that only superficially grasps the terror of a historical period in Saddam’s Iraq. The characters are flat, the story seems rushed, the chemistry between the actors is almost non-existent and, to top it all, the action sequences are not very believable, more fitting in a B-movie from the 1980s.

The portrayal of Saddam Hussein by Philip Quast is one of the film’s greatest sins, leaving us with an easily forgettable image of one of the most significant (and fascinating) figures in world politics of the last 50 years. The double role of Dominic Cooper as Uday Hussein and Latif Yahia is, at times, effective and exciting to watch, although it comes off as a bit flat and unrefined as a whole, much  like the rest of the film.

It is a shame that “The Devil’s Double” was not a better film. After all it starts rather promising with a well-crafted trailer, a very good title and an even better film poster that rivals some of the best.  It is truly disappointing because Uday Hussein’s personality and position within the Iraq dictatorship seems like a fascinating story that was well worth exploring.

Rating: 2 out of 5 (bad)

Niels

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