Monday, 24 October 2011

Perfect Sense, dir. David Mackenzie, wr. Kim Fupz Aakeson, st. Ewan McGregor, Eva Green

That such a moving and memorable film as this failed to secure a wider release simply defies all logic, especially when you see the dross that hogs screens nationwide in its place. Dem's de berries alas. And so I urge you to seek out this affecting drama about love at the end of the world as soon as the discs are pressed. Perfect Sense takes a basic premise - a man and a woman meet, begin to fall in love - and frames it against another - what happens when humanity starts losing its senses one by one? What starts as a 28 Days Later-style lo-fi hi-concept drama, slowly builds on primal fears, the knowledge of how how fragile our senses are that bind everything we hold dear to us in place, and culminates in an astonishingly heartrending final scene. It's the second time this year a film's ending has stayed with me with such resonant vibrancy. If there's one complaint I have, it's that the weight and suggestion of the central conceit seem to overwhelm the way in which the film is constructed; there's some wayward scripting that might have been tightened as well as some questionable direction, but Green and McGregor ground their chemistry in realism a million miles away from Hollywood romances that have come, gone, and are yet to be. Max Richter's score lends a complimentary poetic solemnity. A poignant, sweetly sorrowful love story.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Contagion, dir. Steven Soderbergh, wr. Scott Z. Burns, st. Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, Gwyneth Paltrow

Like some extended episode of Horizon, Soderbergh's Contagion lays on the Drama of Science complete with sexed-up montages, college-cool bio-babble, and an urgent, pulsating electronic score (from Cliff Martinez). For such a star-studded show, there's a dearth of plot or characterisation. Deadlines are set up and met with predictability and, ironically given the film's death toll, it feels like there's precious little at stake. There's a low-key but wonderfully touching relationship set up between Fishburne's Ellis Cheever and the office janitor, played with grace and humility by John Hawkes, that riffs nicely on the idea of social ranking and the triumph of human morality, but elsewhere we're in familiar, hackneyed territory: never trust politicians or pharmaceutical companies, even at the point of Armageddon. Winslet, Fishbourne, and Ehle are perfectly serviceable, Paltrow less so, and Jude Law, well, I imagine him giggling all the way to his local Santander, fee in hand, guffawing at how people still think he holds any kind of box office draw. Without really having any central character anchors with which to personalise the narrative, unlike Fernando Meirelles' Blindness or David Mackenzie's more recent Perfect Sense that deal with the same viral concept but on a more intimate, human level, Contagion leaves you feeling somewhat under the weather.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

We Need To Talk About Kevin, dir. Lynne Ramsay, scr. Lynne Ramsay, Rory Stewart Kinnear, based on the novel by Lionel Shriver, st. Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller

When Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan came out last year I was defending to the hilt its schlocky and B-movie allusions in the face of accusations that the horror somehow polluted the picture's cerebral thematic thrust, and I think that film remains a polarising one. I find it odd then that I sit here and accuse WNTTAK of pretty much the same thing, for it shares much of Black Swan's DNA. WNTTAK comprises one part Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (no-one believes her child is evil) one part Joseph Ruben's The Good Son (child undoing the family) and one part Adrian Lyne's Fatal Attraction (child undoing the family with added pet-slaying) and it plays just as melodramatically. You soon realise that the film's title is its greatest misdirection - no one actually talks about Kevin, and I'm reliably informed (though I haven't read it) is all the book does. My main issue is this: if you're seeking to do an insightful character study on the debate of nature versus nurture, if your aim is to say, look, here's the mother of this child that's done this terrible thing, what's making her tick, then for heaven's sake don't package it up as a kind of Video Nasty from the  90s, because then the feeling is that it starts to feel less like it's informing and more like it's entertaining. I was expecting something solemn and meditative and I felt I kind of got hokum. 

Sleeping Beauty, dir/scr. Julia Leigh, st. Emily Browning, Rachael Blake, Ewen Leslie

Sleeping Beauty is a breathtaking, hallucinatory directorial debut from writer/director Julia Leigh. The narrative, such as it is, follows Lucy, a student who drifts through her studies and numerous jobs with boundless apathy, pausing only to pick up businessmen for casual sex, and provide a kind of tender, semi-platonic homecare therapy to an ailing alcoholic friend. When she answers an ad in the student newspaper, she finds a new, darker outlet for her unscrupulous sexual appetite, and one that's willing to pay to boot. The only catch is, in this particular Kubrickian gentleman's club, she's required to surrender to the madam's potions that render her comatose whilst the clients go about their business. It makes for a troubling, esoteric watch, deliberately cryptic and chock-full of fairy-lore references. Browning, all but buried under the landslide of abuse for Sucker Punch, here shows proficient and delicate skill as an actor, giving a, yes, muted and understated, but far from hollow performance. Much of the praise must be given for the way in which for once the objectivity and sexualisation of women is shown in such a clinical and referential manner; this may feel to some like an aimless cop-out, the make-of-it-what-you-will carte blanche of artistic integrity, but actually, through the detachment, the film manages to conjure intelligent, contemplative, sobering drama.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Captain America, dir. Joe Johnston, scr. Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, st. Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell

One superhero isn't cool, you know what's cool? A billion superheroes! Well, four actually. Yes, the ultimate in nerdgasmic mashups, The Avengers, has Thor, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man and Captain America standing shoulder to massively broad shoulder in a bid to save the world. Each character has been given his own movie with which to rake in the dollars lay down the character's thematic foundations before the shared sequel next year, presumably with an eight hour running time and a budget of a kasquillion dollars. Cynicism aside, Captain America, like its predecessors, is actually something of a fairly decent good-going romp. It does drag in the second half, and strays dangerously close to Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow territory with its heavily CGd backdrops and steampunk-Nazi-chic production design, and it's getting increasingly hard - very hard - not to think of Marvel Comics as just another JD Sports in the London Riots of Hollywood source material archives, but there's an undeniable earnest heart at its centre. Chris Evans plays the titular captain, who transforms from short-arse to superstar, and armed with only his signature shield and Hayley Atwell's mellifluously plummy accent, sets about killing Germans and rescuing GIs. It's fun, but set your brains to Eco mode. 

Monday, 17 October 2011

Mildred Pierce, dir. Michael Curtiz, scr. Ranald MacDougall, William Faulkner, Catherine Turney, based on the novel by James M. Cain, st. Joan Crawford, Ann Blyth, Jack Carson

What the recent HBO adaptation of James M. Cain's novel does over five hours, slowly and intricately, and with a multi-layered performance from Kate Winslet, this film does in ninety minutes. It's a great example of noir melodrama of the time; sub-plots and characterisations have been truncated, and a murder plot introduced to get round Mildred's daughter Veda's affair with her step-father - an aspect of the original story that would never have made it past the Motion Picture Production Code in force at the time. Crawford is an arguably less sympathetic Mildred than Winslet, or rather, we see less of what makes her tick; where Winslet is a confused mass of repressed sexuality and impetuous maternal instinct, Crawford is measured and manipulative, still pining for her daughter's unconditional love, but simultaneously stoic and detached. But for all its studio-enforced censoring, Mildred Pierce is still shocking in its main thematic thrust of familial disloyalty; in fact, its remarkably bleak all round, pretty much everyone is selfish, self-serving and generally unpleasant. A contemporary audience may balk at the idea of an absolute morality, and we know real-life isn't as black and white, but the film achieves a candour in its closure rarely matched in modern cinema.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Les Géants, dir. Bouli Lanners, wr. Elsie Ancion, Bouli Lanners, Matthieu Reynaert, st. Paul Bartel, Zacharie Chasseriaud, Martin Nissen

Les Geants is a softly affecting tale of boyhood abandon both figurative and literal; brothers Seth and Zak have been deserted by their mother - in what way she is afflicted, whether medicated or depressed we never find out - and in this vacuum of parental absence set off on a Twain-esque adventure through rural Belgium. Much like Rob Reiner's 1986 film Stand By Me, its tone meanders from beguiling coming-of-age to darker dramatic territory once the adults appear and, with one beautifully observed exception, proceed to bully and manipulate the boys. It's hard not to feel the whole thing is a little aimless, the film comprising more of individual- albeit wonderfully realised - vignettes rather than chapters marking out pieces of the cohesive whole, but it all builds to a genuinely moving closure culminating in a gloriously graceful glide over the Belgian rivers and woodlands - what looks like a supremely accomplished physical shot no amount of CGI Middle Earth-swooping can match. A brief search on the internet reveals that this is unlikely to see anything other than the thinnest of releases in the UK, but like all cinematic hidden gems, the effort to track it down reaps rich rewards. 

Thursday, 13 October 2011

17 Filles, dir/wr. Delphine Coulin, Muriel Coulin, st. Louise Grinberg, Juliette Darche, Roxane Duran

When 16 year old Camille falls pregnant after a one night stand, her friends in an act of solidarity, or personal disaffection with their own teenage lives, decide to dutifully follow suit. Beyond the usual adolescent ennui on display, there's precious little exploration into the psychology of the leads - which is a shame, as Louise Grinberg as Camille, in particular shone in a way that reminded me of Katie Jarvis in Andrea Arnold's Fishtank. Sadly 17 Filles seems to stall in the second act; an unsettling sense of Virgin Suicidal, hive-minded weirdness promises to take root, but never manages to provide the impetus needed to storm the last third. The girls are great though, giving honest and natural performances, and there's a palpable sense of the small-town seafront community and the sense of isolation you imagine the young experience, but I kept wishing the Coulin sisters would tell me less, and show me more.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Midnight In Paris, dir/wr. Woody Allen, st. Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard

Midnight In Paris plays as Woody Allen's playfully whimsical love-letter to Bohemian Paris in the 20s - a simmering hotbed of literary and artistic creativity, and a time that Gil Pender (Wilson) romanticises as unrivalled in its abundance of enlightened writers, poets and musicians. Sadly his wife (McAdams) and her vile parents refuse to, or simply cannot share this passion, choosing instead to treat the Parisian streets as just another themed boutique. It would be easy here to succumb to pretension and so much rests on evoking a believably alluring bygone Paris that goes beyond its beatnik picture-postcard reputation, however Allen has assembled a wonderfully eccentric troupe of troubled artistes - Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald and a great cameo from Adrien Brody as Dali - that add a much needed levity and never allow things to sink into an all-consumming self-important quagmire. I've never been a fan of Wilson, and McAdams does the most with her functional role, but the real treat is Cotillard as Pablo Picasso's mistress Adriana; exuding a sad fragility, she too feels she's too late for her time, and so she and Gil come together, a lost pair lamenting as one. The film's arguably a touch too slight and the ending's a shade contrived, but that's actually okay, for nothing could harm this beguiling fantasy more than leaden reality.

Friday, 7 October 2011

The Skin I Live In, dir/scr. Pedro Almodóvar, based on 'Tarantula' by Thierry Jonquet, st. Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes

It makes sense for Pedro Almodóvar's familiar obsessions with family, gender, sex and death to culminate in something so richly audacious, for here the envelope is indeed pushed further than ever; The Skin I Live In is a truly harrowing film-noir, with its two leads - Banderas and Anaya - riffing on their real-life sex-symbol status to unsettling effect. There are literary references to Shelley's Frankenstein most obviously, but it also reminded me of Juan José Campanella's The Secret In Their Eyes in its depiction of just how far someone is willing to go in order to right wrongs, to overturn an injustice cruelly imposed upon them personally, their loved ones, or from a simple desire for good to triumph over evil. For such a macabre and unwieldily plot, there's a Romantic lyricism at work here, from Alberto Iglesias swoony score to Almodóvar's use of light, colour and direction, or choreography might be a better word, as he conjures all manner of balletic shapes from Anaya, clad for the most part in a skin-tight, flesh-coloured body-stocking - the very image of a human maquette. Calling this a foray into the horror genre seems to me to  unfairly burden this film with the suggestion of style over content, when nothing could be further from the truth; this is smart psychological drama at its finest and most academic.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Rubber, dir/wr. Quentin Dupieux, st. Stephen Spinella, Roxane Mesquida, Jack Plotnick

Pretty much from the off, the parameters of the genre are laid down, explicitly, straight to camera; "You probably never gave it a thought, but all great films, without exception, contain an important element of no reason". Dupieux's film, about a rubber tyre that merrily rolls along a deserted dusty highway, pausing only to obsess over Roxane Mesquida and telekinetically explode heads in a Scanner-like fashion, claims to be a homage to this 'no reason' philosophy, and is largely successful whether we like it or not. Watching Rubber doesn't make for an especially cohesive experience, but that's not to say the film is a muddled bore, in fact for such a gleefully boastful stylistic premise, the chaos is orchestrated in a rather linear, if not absurdist way. There are a number of neat little Beckettian and Pinter-esque nods; fourth walls are broken down, and meta-theatricality is explored as we see an on-screen audience handed binoculars and instructed to observe the unfolding action, the idea of film-within-a-film. As you would expect with this kind of experimental film-making it's more about the form than the content, there's not much else to get your teeth into, but if you have a spare 80 minutes and want to see something unlike anything you're ever going to willingly see again, you could do a lot worse than give this a go.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Melancholia, dir/wr. Lars Von Trier, st. Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland

Melancholia is a metaphysical, Solarisian slice of sci-fi, predictably poetically realised by Von Trier. In tungsten night-time coppers and over-exposed blues he takes us through this exploratory journey from crippling depression to all-out armageddon, or is it the other way around, for here, we are introduced to the apocalypse itself, before the people facing it. Kirsten Dunst gives an absorbingly persuasive performance as Justine, whose melancholia may be either the cause, or effect, of the vast astral body in threatening proximity to Earth. It's a term that's bandied around with little care, but Von Trier is a true visionary director; there is a fanatical level of detailed intricacy in his composition and framing that result in truly breathtaking sequences, be it the film's hyper-slo-mo introductory montage of cataclysmic events set to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde or the finale's astonishing moment of annihilation, these are the moments that stay with you. Less successful is the more human side of the drama, in which once again, Von Trier asks us to buy into extraordinary characters within ordinary environments - it never quite rings true and only serves to bring us out of the world he so painstakingly creates. Exquisitely shot and adroitly performed by a uniformly excellent ensemble cast, Melancholia is a bewitchingly sombre treat.