Three films I've seen recently. I spend so much of my time criticising things in a negative way that I thought I'd try and present some things that I really liked.
The Beaver (2011)
Epiphanies are the worst kind of bullshit. This film neatly swerves every opportunity of an easy out, a simple way of thinking everything's going to be all right again. Which is refreshing, because it's about depression.
Those of us who have gone through depression ourselves - or have had to deal with the awfulness of someone who is prone to depression - will know that the simple structure of a story doesn't always do justice to the reality of a chronic illness. You don't just feel rotten, then realise everything's OK, then stop feeling rotten. That's not how it happens - but that's not easy to get across in a medium where there are certain expectations of what should be happening when.
That's why I like The Beaver. It sets up opportunities to go and become several different films. When Mel Gibson first puts on a beaver glove puppet and changes his personality, that could lead you to think the Beaver's going to be a hero, and he'll cure his depression by talking through the puppet. When that goes wrong, you think that might be his epiphany - but it isn't either. And the truth is, there won't be an epiphany. It's not going to happen, and I rather liked that.
But there I go, not even dwelling on Mel Gibson's performance, which is rather compelling. It's tempting to think that the kind of tortured misery we see in the character is Gibson himself staring into the abyss after his recent public troubles; but it could just be good acting, the kind that he's been capable of in the past. Whatever it is, it works. Gibson keeps a lid on his performance, even given the outrageously odd conceit of trying to be a man with a Ray Winstone soundalike glove puppet on his arm as a splinter of his own ruined personality. It's quite subdued at times, quite viciously horrible at others. It's really rather good.
I suppose this was never going to be a massive hit, given Gibson's standing and the fact it steadfastly refuses to offer you a happy ending (giving instead a confused, muddled, complicated kind of bleak redemption that seems much more satisfying, ultimately). As well as that, there's that word, whose double meaning I've struggled not to bring up until now. But suppress those childish giggles, this is a very grown up film from its director Jodie Foster. Perhaps one of the most sympathetic and stark portrayals of mental health problems you're ever likely to see in mainstream cinema.
Nobody Knows (2004)
I'm continuing here with a film without any epiphany, any rescue, any resolution. It's a testament to the acting of the home alone children that you want the film to break out from what it is - a rather stark, rather bleak, rather inevitable trundle towards a certain kind of tragedy - and rescue itself. You don't want things to carry on as they are, but they do.
It's the pace of this Japanese movie that I enjoyed the most, desperately slowly at times, the bored children stuck at home in a life without parents, waiting for a mother to return who probably won't ever return. It's not Lord of the Flies and it's not Home Alone, it's just the drudgery, the ordinariness, the tedium that washes over you. So little changes, and everything stays the same, even though the children are getting gradually older, and learning.
This is a world without magic, in which the children do their best to fend for themselves, and the reality of the situation catches up with you the more that you're sucked in. It's all so beautifully barren and terribly sad, but not beyond the realms of what could really happen, given that it's based around real-life events. Somewhere, there are children this really happened to.
Nobody Knows doesn't have a particular narrative arc, and again there's no epiphany, no resolution, no finality. It just is a space of time, a few years in these young people's lives, that no-one ever knew about, where they disappeared away from society completely, and lived on the edge of a huge city, in an anonymous suburb, seen by no-one and known by no-one. It really is an amazing thing.
Troll Hunter (2010)
You can't really watch this without comparing it to Blair Witch Project or any of the more well-known 'found footage' films but this has a few elements that lift it above the ordinary and make it a whole lot more fun.
The set-up is pretty much the same as Blair Witch - here are some students making a film about poachers, and entering into the wilderness away from their comfortable lives. But then it veers off, rather pleasingly, into darkly comic territory.
The scene depicted in the picture above, where the eponymous 'hero' attempts dresses like a cross between Ned Kelly and Dusty Bin to lure a troll under a bridge with three bleating sheep and a giant bucket of a Christian believer's blood, takes a lot of getting to. You don't just start there: you have to create a verisimilitude in order to allow disbelief to be slightly suspended, and that's done by the film crew's pursuit of Otto, the matter-of-fact Troll Hunter who allows the students to film him at work. The spectacular Norwegian landscape keeps you occupied while it's all being set up.
I shouldn't spoil too much, except to say that I have a new word for people who really piss me off in comments under blogposts: Jotnar.