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Manuel de Layet [Celluloid 04.14.15] thriller drama fantasy arthouse avant-garde

"Once upon a time, in a devastated country blighted by an indomitable curse and ruled by evil warlords, a brave knight goes on a dragon killing quest to save his princess and lift the dire spell off the land." Believe it or not this is the main narrative arc of Lost River. Two smaller story arcs are branching, a turf war and some Grand Guignol, mainly here to disguise the simplicity of the main plot and confuse the viewers. The actual setting of contemporary post sub-prime crisis suburbia is just smoke and mirrors. What we have here is a bona-fide fairytale, albeit one written by a bucolic Clive Barker, or a drunken Neil Gaiman.

I remember Tim Burton once saying he liked listening to The Cure as their music made him feel like he was underwater. This movie imparts the same effect without the smudgy makeup and ridiculous hair. Of course not everything works, and some scenes could have been shortened to better effect, but none is superfluous; the actual boring or cringe worthy parts are just here to mess with you, an old trick if there is one. Let the viewer distance himself with a lull in narration so the next part will benefit. Make the predictable hit you in the face because you were distracted. Not what one should call brilliant film making, but a pretty efficient one.

Where there is actual brilliance nonetheless is in the photography, Benoit Debbie (Calvaire, Innocence, etc,.) is a genius. Not an epithet I often use, but saying it's deserved is the understatement of the month. You can pick any shot and frame it in your living room. The way the light plays on each and every surface transcends the subject into a higher quality abstraction of itself, transcending the mundane into the sacred. Rundown buildings become sacred ruins, burning houses towering pillars of liquid light. The light here is everything, defining the characters themselves.

On the topic of the character design, never cast as "mother and son" actors with so few years between them unless you really want to exploit a seedy incest vibe regarding the second, extremely younger, sibling. A missed opportunity here… But more infuriating are the supposedly colorful encounters with colored extras... It's "Harry Potter background crowd" level in its mewling PC stance. I can imagine the brain trust at Warner going "cast is all white, so extras will be colored or else it'll show and we might get sued or something, we are pretty sure to make a loss on this one but still..."

Speaking of the cast, I'm pretty sure a lot of geeks cum-starched their pants at the thought of it. All are doing a way better job at this than I believed it possible, but the one that really amazed me is Matt Smith. I should be ashamed to actually write this but I mostly knew him as the bowtied, fez wearing time traveler. And sadly after that kind of long lasting impersonation I tend to pigeon-hole actors, not that I am the only one doing that mind you, the average producer is as guilty as I am. But here... wow. I have stated once that " fuck you and the mustache you rode in on!" from Knights of Badassdom ruined every dramatic performance ever from Peter Dinklage, well Lost River did the reverse with Matt Smith, I'll never be able to see him play anything even remotely funny without hearing "has anyone ever touched your rat?".

If you need one reason to see this film let it be him.

An other layer of added value beyond the cinematography is the soundtrack. Actually managing to carry the whole to greater heights, instilling a longing for some illusory eighties and the ghosts of yesteryear, and this is something I can't explain since my experience of the eighties is not nostalgia worthy and moody synthpop wasn't exactly in the equation.

What makes a movie worthwhile in the end?

Obviously the result should be greater than the sum of its parts, and it is here to a point where I think Gosling should fare better as a director than as an actor, given he keeps working with the same team. There is an other criterion, surely a more personal and less quantifiable one, the movie should stay with you afterward.

I lost count of movies absolutely entertaining, wow-ing, and delighting me during their course only to be already vague once the credits rolled out and completely forgotten on the way home. And while I know we are in an era of instant gratification, I still can't force myself to admit that this kind of movie is Art. For a cruder simile, a burger done with kobe beef is still junk food.

And then, once in a blue moon, there's a movie that stays with me long after I've seen it, which images I can still recall at a whim, which music still rings into my ear at the thought of it, where scenes are irrevocably lodged in my memory. There is Art, there is something to be cherished, promoted and lauded beyond measure.

I'm the first one astonished that Ryan Gosling managed to direct one of those, but once you realize this is a fairy tale, most if not all the flaws, inconsistencies and the actually horrendous character design are smoothed away at the back of the brain and the ride becomes something else, a slice of time, more vivid and bleak through this prism, preserved forever.

Recommended Release: The Company of Wolves

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7ape (5 years ago) Reply

I thought it was a wonderful film and agree with many of your points, but have to say I didn't think there was a problem with the ethnicity of the supporting characters, in fact with the first old black man who speaks to the protagonist about leaving, I got the impression that maybe he was a non actor who had done the same thing and escaped from Detroit himself. The faltering way he spoke and delivered his lines added another level to that scene for me.

Apart from that, some great performances and some truly outstanding shots and fantastic music from Jonny Jewel (I'm listening to the OST as I write this!)

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