Tuesday, 29 October 2013

6 Great Food In Film Moments | Feature

Anyone who’s been watching the recent NBC TV show Hannibal developed by Bryan Fuller, will have witnessed the significant impact that food has on the unfolding narrative. Doctor Lecter is, as the Thomas Harris novels have illustrated, a man not shy of cobbling the odd gourmet recipe together – usually from the harvested parts of his victims. Using lung, kidney, marrow and brain, Lecter flips and flambés his way through post-Michelin star repasts, making Hannibal as compelling as a Dexter/Masterchef: The Professionals spin-off.

Hans Laube’s Scentovison (a process developed whereby different smells that coincided with the action onscreen would be piped in under audience’s cinema seats – which made it’s grand opening and grand closing during Jack Cardiff’s 1960 film Scent of Mystery) has been the only real attempt at cashing in on cinemagoers’ other senses in an attempt at total immersion into the world of the screened film, but more recently, films have managed to use different foods and our associations with them in increasingly clever ways. Here are six great usages of foodstuffs in films.

1. Buffalo 66, 1998. Food: tripe

Poor Layla (Christina Ricci). Having been abducted from her dance class by the shy, sensitive and sociopathic Billy Brown (Vincent Gallo), and forced to pose as his wife for the duration of a super-awkward visit to Billy’s folks’, vegetarian Layla then has to suffer the indignation of eating cow’s intestine in order to sustain the subterfuge. Is Billy grateful? Like heck. “Isn’t that what you said was your favourite?” he asks. “Take a big… bigger bite.” Tripe is of course the perfect choice of meal for this odious family – the sports-obsessed Jan (Angelica Huston), the sleazily avuncular Jimmy (the late Ben Gazzara), and of course Billy himself, who goads and provokes Layla relentlessly. It also helps that Gallo deliberately chooses a lo-fi and muted colour palate for the film; the house has all the appeal of a tobacco-stained, badly composed snap from the 70s.

Read the rest of the article over at Spindle

Monday, 28 October 2013

Después de Lucia (15) | Film Review

Después de Lucia, dir/wr. Michel Franco, st. Tessa Ía González Norvind, Gonzalo Vega Sisto, Tamara Yazbek Bernal, Hernán Mendoza

Recipient of the Un Certain Regard prize at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, Después de Lucia (After Lucia) finds writer/director Franco crafting a subtle and often brutal portrayal of familial grief and adolescent bullying. Following the death of his wife in a traffic accident, Roberto (Mendoza) moves with his 17 year old daughter Alejandra (Norvind) to Mexico City, and a new start. With a background in cooking, Roberto attempts to hold down a job at a local restaurant but finds his young sous chefs' trifling banter, unenthusiasm, and lack of experience wholly dispiriting. His daughter meanwhile, enrolling at a new school, seems to have been absorbed into a new friendship clique, but a rather foolish indiscretion on a weekend away with them leaves her a social pariah, and the subject of increasingly savage bullying. This visceral ordeal Alejandra undergoes is in sharp contrast to her Father's apathetic mourning. Mendoza plays his character as fatigued and listless, a man for whom life lumbers on rudderless. But it is the incessant needling of his daughter that's the most discomforting thing here. Franco reminds us that, as frustrating as Alejandra's detached inaction in the face of her tormentors is, for many, this is the reality of persecution. As an audience we sit in front of screens watching the action unfold, urging the crumbling protagonists we see to galvanise themselves. It's easy to assume certain narrative directions just wouldn't happen, or that certain characters would be more proactive in the face of their own desolation. Yet Después de Lucia manages to build upon, up to and including its shocking climax, the banal and unassuming way in which life unfolds with mathemechanical indifference.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Screencap Of The Week

The Village, M. Night Shyamalan, 2004 @1hr03m19s 

Ivy Elizabeth Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard), the blind daughter of The Village's chief elder, prepares for the perilous trip deep into the heart of the woods as she seeks out medical supplies for the injured Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix).

If 2002's Signs signalled the beginning of M. Night Shyamalan's downward-spiralling trend, The Village surely cemented over the remains of his reputation. Considered "a colossal miscalculation", "witless" and possessing of a premise "so transparent it would be laughable were the movie not so deadly solemn", The Village was critically mauled. Yet there are moments of great beauty in the film; James Newton Howard's fluttering score, a solid and impassioned lead performance from Howard, and impressive production design from Tom Foden.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Captain Phillips (PG-13) | Film Review

Captain Phillips, dir. Paul Greengrass, wr. Billy Ray, based on A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea by Rich Phillips and Stephan Talty, st. Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Catherine Keener

His supposed heroism may have been recently denounced, but there's nothing particularly heroic about a man forcibly bundled into steel sarcophagus-like lifeboat and carried off by Somalian pirates. Though astute and resourceful, Richard Phillips, captain of the US container ship MV Maersk Alabama, hijacked back in 2009, is shown to be rather brusque to his crew in the film's earlier moments. If anything, the extraordinary scene that closes the movie, in which a shell-shocked Phillips is medically assessed by the Navy, and the immense wave of sympathetic relief and cathartic resolution it evokes, forces us to consider heroism-by-survival. 

Equally astutely, the man responsible for putting us through the wringer is Paul Greengrass, a director who has made a career from crafting this very kind of skittish thriller. 2006's United 93, based on that ill-fated 9/11 flight, showed us, from a technical standpoint, what he could achieve with two hours and a reconstruction of a claustrophobic plane fuselage interior; here, he has the whole open sea to play with. And indeed, with his journalist's eye, his trademark restless camera and the ocean's rolling surf do not make for an easy watch. However, the efficiency of the US military response, and the speed and complexity with which they execute their rescue mission is terrifying in its scope and hardware. This is the film's real trump card - the chaotic balletic choreography of the pirate skiffs pursuing the vast shipping freighter like big cats attempting to fell an elephant, or Swiss Army knife-bowed frigates bearing down upon the bright orange escape-pod - achieve a near-unimaginable fluidity and orchestration. 

But the big let-down is what could have been the film's most powerful conflict - not the morally ambiguous clash between the desperate Davidian pirates and technologically superior Goliathic US military  - but the struggle between Phillips and lead marauder Muse (Abdi). Hanks, who portrays the defiant captain, certainly historically has the chops to carry off what might have been a richly complex and knotty meeting of minds as the two attempt to figure each other out, and newcomer Abdi summons an eerily authentic performance as the Somalian captor, just another guy, like Phillips, who must answer to a higher power, but Captain Phillips never truly delivers the contrapuntal scenes of intimacy needed to offset the large-scale nautical maneuvering that dominates the film. There are brief, snatched moments that play out the beginnings of such a relationship between the two, but the anxiety of the other three pirates in the lifeboat - a wide-eyed and panicked helmsman, the fearful and injured juvenile, and the trigger-happy muscle, riling Muse for leadership - crowd any opportunity for meaningful communication. Of course, we must assume this is how all it happened.

Certainly, Captain Phillips, like the leviathans of iron and steel featured in the movie, is rigorously conceived and robustly engineered, and Greengrass navigates with an innate, almost extra-sensory feel for pace and pressure. Sadly, after the 120-minute adrenaline-injectioned kineticism, there's a nagging feeling the rush was all there is.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Gattaca (PG-13) | Film Review

Gattaca, dir/wr. Andrew Niccol, st. Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Jude Law, Loren Dean, Gore Vidal, Xander Berkeley, Alan Arkin

Before writing The Truman Show, a film in which its lead character begins to sense an emerging conflict between the gnawing sense of aspiration and purpose in his soul and the artifice of the meticulously constructed world around him, Andrew Niccol wrote Gattaca, a film that shares The Truman Show's central thematic motif of a protagonist imperceptibly imprisoned within his own environment. But whilst Truman's gate-keepers are employees paid to keep the secret and toe the line, actively promoting the subterfuge, Ethan Hawke's Vincent Freeman is betrayed by his own DNA. He plays a 'God-child', a human born without the aid of the genetic selection which has facilitated an unofficial class divide. His parents are told at his birth of the statistical probability of his many defects, yet as he grows, Vincent develops an insatiable passion for the cosmos and enrollment at the Gattaca Aerospace Corporation - a kind of Wall Street-ian NASA - much to the chagrin of his Father, and in particular, his younger 'valid' brother Anton (Dean), naturally possessed of a smug entitlement at the very thought of the superior blood that is pushed around his body. But enroll Vincent does with the help of Jerome Morrow (Law), an athlete and a perfectly engineered specimen until a car accident consigned him to a wheelchair. With the help of Jerome's tissue samples, and in his new guise of a 'borrowed ladder', Vincent edges ever closer to heading out amongst the stars. 

Gattaca is ostensibly a very simple triumph-over-adversity tale the likes of which cinema has given us a thousand times over. The genre endures because their films are quite literally escapism at its purest. Not escapism to a twilight world of heroes and daredevils, but escapism from ourselves. And indeed we need not even look far into our own world to recognise the poignancy of one that has to carry around the cause of one's own exclusion. The allegorical allusions are profound, but Niccol grounds us firmly within Gattaca's utopian cosmopolis with a Noir-y aesthetic that makes great use real-world locations such as Antoine Predock's futurist CLA Building and Frank Lloyd Wright's modernist Marin County Civic Center, as well as smart details that range from the hum of the 60's-styled motor cars, to the double-helix-inspired staircase in Jerome's appartment, to the sepia-tinged colour-grading by cinematographer Sławomir Idziak. It's also an ideal vehicle for Law, whose stoicism and tonally anemic performance is a perfect fit for a disillusioned character such as Jerome, a man who was destined for so much only to tragically achieve so little. Aside from its wryly anempathic colour palette, there is little warmth to be found in Gattaca. Naysayers of the film will accuse it of as much. But where it does manifest itself, in small pockets, like the scene in which a pre-infiltratee Vincent and his cohorts of 'in-valids' clean Gattaca's roofs whilst the elite-carrying ships blast off from the nearby launch site, or the fleeting notes and phrases of longing composer Michael Nyman coaxes from his minmalist score, it suddenly reveals itself to be a movie that's so much more than the sum of its precision-engineered parts.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Stoker (18) | Film Review

Stoker, dir. Park Chan-wook, wr. Wentworth Miller, st. Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Nicole Kidman, Dermot Mulroney, Jacki Weaver

What a deliciously seductive cast of creatives - Oldboy director Chan-wook in his first English-language feature, a script by Prison Breaker Wentworth Miller, the combined talents of Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode and Nicole Kidman, a complex and ornate score from Clint Mansell, and the brothers Scott on board as producers. Predictably, Stoker is supremely nutty, but it's also sumptuously assembled, opulently shot in chalk-pastel tones by Chan-wook's regular cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon, and with a reference-quality sound design by Chuck Michael and John Morris that captures every woodland creak, eggshell crack, spider-leg patter and refrigerator hum with a hyper-real crystal clarity. Stoker - a name that, as Miller has explained "came front-loaded with obvious gothic connotations" refers to the Stoker family comprising off-balance Mother Evelyn (Kidman), stoic and eerily prescient daughter India, and dear Uncle Charlie Stoker who suddenly appears on the scene upon the death of Dad Richard Stoker (Mulroney). Ah yes, dear Uncle Charlie, played with such disarming courtesy by Matthew Goode, occasionally out-Lectering Lecter, and proving that one may smile, and smile, and be a villain, and his impressing himself upon the Stoker household and his casual in-law flirting with both Evelyn and India soon emerges as the film's primary narrational thrust. 

If this all seems familiar, then maybe that's because Stoker liberally borrows stacks of the ambient menace of Hitchcock's 1943 thriller Shadow of a Doubt, a film that features another Uncle Charlie, who similarly seeks amnesty within his niece's glowing idolisation. Chan-wook, of course, manages to penetrate the deeper recesses of the characters' pathologies more than Hitchcock was ever permitted to do. In Shadow of a Doubt, the more carnal aspect of Teresa Wright's Charlie Newton's attraction to her Uncle is kept firmly in check thanks to the Hay's Production Code of the time, but had it been made in an alternate era, scenes in Stoker that juxtapose India's near-rape at the hands of a classmate, her subsequent and violent rescue by Charlie, and the ensuing moment of sexual-remapping she initiates when later recalling the incident, might very well have come from Hitchcock's lens. Then there's the film's centerpiece, a technically and artistically bravura stretch of filmmaking in which Charlie non-contactedly seduces India during an impromptu duet seated at the family Steinway, Chan-wook's steadicam pulling back and swooning in, Mansell's neo-classical score playfully ostinatoing back and forth. It's dizzying to watch, exhilarating in its heady and immersive qualities.

Highly stylized films tend to be, of course, highly polarising, and Stoker will madden in certain quarters just as it delights in others. Chan-wook delights in presenting a visual aesthetic that places the world of Stoker in anything from the 1920s to the 2020s. It is a world at once both instantly recognisable and blearily recalled from the night before. But there's also reservation in what he's prepared to divulge in the way of thematic material that riffs on nascent violence, genetic sociopathy, repressed sexuality. And Stoker, like India's perpetual mask of restraint, is all the more beguiling for it.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

After Earth, dir. M. Night Shyamalan, scr. Gary Whitta, M. Night Shyamalan, story by Will Smith, st. Jaden Smith, Will Smith, Sophie Okonedo, Zoë Kravitz

At the risk of incurring unfathomable derision from my fellow critics, After Earth isn't half as bad as you might have heard. It has faults numerous and unaccountable, but it also faintly carries the same stillness and swimmy off-key narrative that I have enjoyed in Shyamalan films past. Watching movies from his back catalogue is an unsettling experience. What others have interpreted as misstepped performances or inelegant dialogue I've always felt lent a sort of parallel-dimension mesmerisingly unearthliness to his films. From a Dramatic point of view his often non-naturalistic dialogue and offbeat characters have often added to the layering of interpretation and meaning, not diminished. That wonderful scene in the much maligned The Village, in which a junior security guard snaffles medical supplies from his guard hut, right under the reflected image of his superior (played by Shyamalan himself) is a great example. Of course he would have been seen. Of course the conversation between them is deliberate and unnatural. Like some kind of alien entity taking on the incommodious human form, there's a discomfort, a conflict, a disruptive clash of aesthetic that jars and unnerves.

After Earth does misfire spectacularly though, but again, I would suggest that the mistake is Smith's (Sr. not Jr. I hasten to add) and Smith's alone. As with the underperforming The Last Airbender, this is the second time Shyamalan has directed a film he hasn't conceptualised - and it shows. Narratively, After Earth stinks. Or rather it has no discernable odour whatsoever, and that's the problem. Overbearing Dad Cypher Raige (geddit? Raige? As in 'rage'?!) takes his real-life son Kitai (Jaden Smith) on a deep-space training voyage, but their astral-bonding-montage is cut off before it's even begun when they crash-land on an Earth humanity left many moons ago due to environmental instability. With the spaceship debris spread over a 100km crash-path, Kitai has to trek to the ship's tail end, brave the new world, and activate a homing beacon before Cypher's severed femoral artery kills him. So far, so video game. But it's worse than that because there's an Ursa after him - a nasty creature that hunts by sensing fear-omones. Overbearing and stoic Dad. Distant family tragedy revealed. Scared Son in need of encouragement and love. You can probably see where this is going, and indeed where the film ends up. But had this vanity project been tamed by Shyamalan, this might have ended up a very different beast. The story is engaging enough, and there are hints of that M. Night magic I referred to earlier; in one early scene, a shaken Kitai explores the ravaged crash-landed ship while a defective automated medical screen continuously wipes and pulls back across the screen. And while Cypher and Kitai's dysfunctional relationship is never given the prologue or coda it deserves, there's (weirdly) an interesting lack of warmth and empathy between the two that's enigmatic and frustratingly underdeveloped. 

Not one of Shyamalan's finest then, but After Earth will, distressingly, I suspect, prove the final nail in the coffin for a director who's been on the path to irreconcilable dismissal since 2002's Signs (incidentally my favourite M. Night movie). He needs to write something new, something that has that same disconcertion and conceptual spookiness of Unbreakable or The Village. It would be a great shame to lose this innovative and visionary director to bloodless films like this.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Screencap Of The Week

Martha Marcy May Marlene, Sean Durkin, 2011 @0hr28m39s 

Cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes) uses one of the collective's play-and-share sessions to serenade the group's newest addition - Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) - who far from discomforted, watches transfixed.

Marcy's Song, written by Jackson C. Frank and performed so memorably in the film by Hawkes, is the perfect sonic version of the hypnotist's swinging pocket-watch. It's a scene of immense conflict - the sincerity of the performance, the silent emotional transaction between Patrick and Martha, the free-range bohemian setting. The use of the song as the indoctrination's prologue is at once beautifully captivating and deeply disturbing.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

The Possession, dir. Ole Bornedal, wr. Juliet Snowden, Stiles White, st. Natasha Calis, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Kyra Sedgwick, Matisyahu

Produced by Sam Raimi (what self-respecting horror flick isn't these days?), this run-of-the-mill supernatural chiller bears little of its potentially impressive Scandi-credentials due to Danish director Bornedal, or indeed much imaginative storytelling at all, preferring instead to repackage ostensibly the same trope-marked features of similar supine spinetinglers. Dean Morgan and Sedgwick play Clyde and Stephanie Brenek, going through a messy divorce, and forcing their kids to timeshare between the two. At a local car boot sale near Dad's new house, daughter Em (Callis) comes across an ornate wooden box, seamless and rattling. In classic eye-rolling tradition, Clyde allows his precious girl to keep the box, even though he recognises it looks like it was designed to keep something locked away never to be opened, and it's not long before little Em is coughing up moths, speaking in tongues and in one of the better - alas trailer-spoilt sequences - finding fingers emerging from her throat as if someone or something is trying to claw their way out from inside her. Bornedal might have conceived The Possession as an allegory on divorce, but don't be fooled by the higher-brow aspirations, there's nothing here that's particularly illuminating in that department. Which is a great shame, as apparently, the notion of a 'dybbuk box' - essentially a DIY Ghostbusters-style ghost trap - is based on a very real item that has a genuinely disturbing past according to those that have been in possession of it. But as usual, in a bid for commercial success that involves the bleaching of every new movie of this genre free of innovative features that set it apart from its competitors, The Possession falls wearily back on hoary cliché that is more likely to elicit sighs rather than shrieks.