Saturday, 20 December 2014

Gremlins (15) | Film Review


Gremlins, dir. Joe Dante, wr. Chris Columbus, st. Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Hoyt Axton, Polly Holliday

It's a sobering reminder revisiting this holiday classic to see just how nasty Dante's little critters are, and as progressive as movie-making has become in the thirty years since Gremlins, it's hard to imagine this kind of film packing out the movie theatres with families of all ages seeking out some Cinematic festive respite. Here in 2014, the multiplexes yuletide offerings are Paddington and The Hobbit, great films in their own right, but positively bloodless by comparison. And apart from all the death, this is a Spielberg move through and through. Inventor Randall Peltzer (Axton) happens across a cute pre-Gremlin Mogwai ("monster" in Cantonese, linguists) in an old antiques shop in Chinatown - the perfect gift for his son Billy (Galligan). The Mogwai comes with three cardinal rules however, that warn against the triple threat of bright light, water proximity, and post-midnight feeding. Inevitably the rules are broken, the Gremlins are birthed, and Zach's town of Kingston Falls (aesthetically twinned with Hill Valley) becomes the little devils' playground. There's heaps of nostalgic fun to be found here: Chris Walas' (whose Brundlefly was set to gloriously disgust movie-goers two years later in David Cronenberg's The Fly) creature designs are alternately cute and creepy, Hollywood veteran Jerry Goldsmith's score bubbles exuberantly along with lashings of impish mischief, and most importantly, director Dante summons the same kind of abandoned spirit of adventure he later conjured for Explorers in 1985, and Innerspace two years after that. Like all fairytales though, it's the darkest ones inspire the most, and Gremlins remains the perfect antidote to traditional movie-sweetness toothlessness.

The Film Exciter's Top Five Films Of 2014 (In No Particular Order)





5. Interstellar - Christopher Nolan's space-opus had the hype machine firing on all cylinders from the off, even if in the end Interstellar turned out to be a relatively straight-forward sci-fi drama. The screenplay and logic creaked and groaned, but the abyssal chasm of deep space and time, wonderfully realised by an armada of animators, technicians and mathematicians, all under Nolan's undeniable mastery, proved too literary a premise to ignore.

4. Honeymoon - This little independent movie from first-timer Leigh Janiak re-wrote what the vast and often tired horror genre was capable of, namely to use the established tropes and conventions to tell an intimate story with real heart and longing. A real exploration of post-marital contentments and anxieties, Honeymoon gave us two richly drawn protagonists (intelligently played by Rose Leslie and Harry Treadaway), and probably the most heartbreaking relationship of the year.

3. Ida - I'm really, really tempted to call Paweł Pawlikowski's film flawless, well aware of the critical corner one can find oneself painted into on using the word. But the truth is I can't find any evidence to the contrary. Agata Trzebuchowska gives the most beautifully understated (and indeed the second most iconic) performance of the year as a novice nun in 1960s Polish People's Republic who along with her hedonistic aunt, seeks to discover the fate of her parents who died during WWII.

2. Under The Skin - The director of Sexy Beast directs Scarlett Johansson as a Glasgow-traversing, organ-harvesting alien on the brink of an existential crisis in this highly-stylised art-cum-found-footage movie, his third in a decade and a half. Oh, as Glengarry's Blake might say, have I got your attention now? Wholly absorbing and re-delineating the acceptable boundaries of mainstream Cinema, Glazer's film is an absolute, undeniable marvel.

1. Enemy - the more successful of the two films this year that took inspiration from the Dostoyevsky novella The Double (the other being Richard Ayoade's), Denis Villeneuve's deeply unsettling film was underpinned by an extraordinary two-role performance by Jake Gyllenhaal, forever banishing into the ether any doubts regarding his status as one of the greatest actors of his generation. Enemy also incidentally wins 2014's award for the most ruminative and (cardiac) arresting closing scene.


WORTHY MENTIONS:

Spike Jonze's HerScarlett Johansson (again) played a husky-voiced Siri we all believed we could fall in love with; J. C. Chandor's All Is Lost - a deeply meditative, dialogue-free chamber film about a man (Robert Redford) adrift on the open seas; Richard Linklater's Boyhood - an acclaimed, experimental drama in which we all became surrogate parents to Ellar Coltrane's Mason, watching him grow up over eleven years; the Australian psychological horror The Babadook written and directed by Jennifer Kent, about a mother, her son, and his terrifying pop-up book; and Dan Gilroy's Nightcrawler, featuring probably the performance of the year (and possibly of his career) by Jake Gyllenhaal as an unctuously ambitious burgeoning video-journalist.


Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Calvary (15) | Film Review


Calvary, dir/wr. John Michael McDonagh, st. Brendan Gleeson, Chris O'Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Domhnall Gleeson, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran

The location for Calvary's Northern Irish barony might very well have been twinned with Lars von Trier's small American town of Dogville, such are the venal characters that reside within. But whereas the inhabitants of Dogville are undone by their own wretchedness, there's no such retribution in McDonagh's film, only a mirror held up to reflect a darkness that probably resides in most communities. Standing like a beacon through all this is Gleeson's Father James, a quiet, humble figure who's told one day at confession of his impending demise at the hands of one of his parishioners who suffered priest-inflicted sexual abuse as a child. Killing a good man, the voice behind the latticed screen says, would reverberate more violently through the Catholic Church than killing one who's unjust. Father James later admits he knows which one of his flock the voice belongs too, but continues to attend his parish regardless. His one companion is his daughter Fiona (Reilly) who visits from London and upon whom he impresses a need to look beyond sin and to the virtues that are often overlooked in people - above all, prizing forgiveness as the most important. McDonagh's film isn't an explicit re-anactment of the fourteen Stations of the Cross, but the intent is clear. James, played with Gleeson's endearingly hang-dog cragginess, but with fleetingly caustic slivers of wicked humour, carries the weight of the community's ills on his back, unflinchingly. It's often heartbreaking to observe. Reilly and Gleeson make a handsome double-act, but it's the supporting turns by Moran and O'Dowd, great comic actors, here dampening the soul in a pair of astoundingly near-nihilistic performances, that truly shine.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Ida (12A) | Film Review


Ida, dir. Paweł Pawlikowski, wr. Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Paweł Pawlikowski, st. Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska, Dawid Ogrodnik

Quietly making its way onto all and sundry's Best Films of 2014 list, Paweł Pawlikowski's Ida awes with a minimalist beauty thanks to a balletic interplay between director, with his startling eye for composition, and his muse Agata Trzebuchowska as the titular Ida, near mute, but exceptionally, infinitely watchable. In 1960s Poland, before committing herself to a life of servitude before God, young nun-to-be is advised by her prioress to go and visit Wanda Gruz (Kulesza), Anna's aunt and last remaining next of kin. Cruz is a high court judge, but out of chambers indulges with wild abandon in men and liquor. Indifferently she informs Anna of her real name - Ida Lebenstein - and of her Jewish ancestry, whose parents were murdered during World War II. As in most road movies, this mismatched pair soon form an alliance of sorts and begin the investigative process of uncovering their bleak shared family history. 

Shot with painterly delicacy in 4:3 ratio and in immaculately balanced black and white by cinematographers Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski, nearly every shot of Ida is a thing of immense wonderment. Context being as it is the root of all Dramatic argument and conflict, Pawlikowski repeatedly shoots his actors towards the edges of his lens, italicising the deeply troubled nature of his characters, dwarfed by the formidable immensity of their surroundings. For a film whose weight hinges so emphatically on the authenticity of the history in which it's based, we are never allowed to forget where and when we are. But there is a secondary story here too, intertwined with the procedural element of Ida and Wanda's explorations. For every mile the pair cross in Wanda's beat-up old motor car, so Ida too crosses in her own coming of age. When Wanda asks Ida if she ever has sinful thoughts, carnal thoughts, and Ida replies with a smile yes to the former and no to the latter, Wanda tells her it's a shame. "You should try. Otherwise what sort of sacrifice are those vows of yours?" 

The relationship between these two is intriguingly layered and ever-shifting. Wanda's interest in Ida oscillates between fond emotional investment and cold indifference (we learn that she could have come for the child Ida at the convent, but didn't), and Pawlikowski and Trzebuchowska keep us guessing as to where Ida's true sensibilities lie. Despite being an overtly meticulously orchestrated film, Ida never feels contrived or overwrought, and a subtly anempathic beatnik-jazz score courtesy of Ogrodnik's sax-player the pair pick up en route, with its shifting, shuffling patterns, provides the film with a cultural melodic fingerprint with which to centre the action, especially in lieu of much dialogue at all. Ida is a film that brims with a kind of haunting, near-supernatural tension and grace, utterly compelling, yet defying of true categorisation. It may very well be one of the best films this year, but I'd go one further and suggest it's the most essential.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Feuchtgebiete (Wetlands) (tbc) | Film Review


Feuchtgebiete, dir. David Wnendt, scr. David Wnendt, Claus Falkenberg, based on Wetlands by Charlotte Roche, st. Carla Juri, Christoph Letkowski, Marlen Kruse, Meret Becker


The Buzzfeed quote in cool-net vernacular dominates the English-language poster of David Wendt's movie: "The most wtf, nsfw movie at this year's sundance film festival..." it reads. Coupled with Carla Juri's V-sign/cunnilingus gesture it's clear what the movie's being sold on and actual content be damned. Which is a shame because if nothing else, it's horribly misleading. Wnendt's film is explicit in many ways, certainly as culturally taboo as its successful source material, but always as a function of serving the narrative, never at its expense. The film follows 18-year-old Helen (Juri) and her colourful odyssey in which she collates, documents and experiences the various pleasures and sensations provided by bodily effluvia. As a skateboarding, punky, closet-feminist she eschews the binaries that traditionally segregate the sexes, embracing her femininity one moment, throwing out social norms the next. Excitedly and eagerly she masturbates with a whole fridge-load of veg while extolling the virtues of natural scent over and above what she derides as mythological fantasies regarding feminine hygiene. She's as obsessed with the various bodily viscosities found within as she is in forging her own singular path through life, refusing to exist in any particular prescribed emotional or physical state. We discover, via an eye-watering home-shaving accident and subsequent hospital visit, that Helen's modus operandi might be the result of quasi-repressed childhood trauma, but actually, less psychiatric than that, a simple burning desire to see her separated parents reconcile once more. Wnendt's film deftly sidesteps sensationalism and, worse, gratuitous exhibitionism and manages to uncover real drama in the narrative, and in Carla Juri's sincerely brave performance, a protagonist you actually root for and warm to rather than find repellant. Keeping things the right side of playful is Enis Rotthoff's electro-bounce soundtrack and Jakub Bejnarowicz' high-contrast cinematography, but the real feat is in Wnendt's direction, precisely locating all the right tonal shifts with surgical precision and never allowing the film to become the unclean, unpalatable disaster it so nearly might have.

Nightcrawler (15) | Film Review


Nightcrawler, dir/wr. Dan Gilroy, st. Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton

Forget Will McAvoy's mission to civilise as currently seen on Aaron Sorkin's dream of media utopia The Newsroom, writer/director Dan Gilroy's film is rooted firmly in the gutter of network news, where amoral scavengers sell disturbingly intrusive footage of crime and human tragedy to salivating news stations for cash incentives. The plot is in fact eerily reminiscent of a current Newsroom  storyline in which the network's new CEO insists on giving the power of investigative journalism back into the hands of anyone with a smartphone and Twitter handle. Lou Bloom, played with a an alarming, unhinged intensity by a gaunt and wide-eyed Jake Gyllenhaal, bears all the hallmarks of a sociopath hiding in plain sight. Erudite and self-educated via the net, we first see Bloom trying to make ends meet stealing construction site wares and selling it on to a scrap metal merchant, unceremoniously bludgeoning a patrolling security guard in the process. One night, on seeing a freelance film crew screech up to the site of a traffic accident and begin the process of documenting the unfolding drama, Bloom gets inspired. There seems, on the face of it at least, nothing more in his eyes than naked ambition at this point, an admirable spirit of entrepreneurship even. A desire to rise above, to make something of himself, to have a name. Bloom's lack of concern at the sensationalist feeding-frenzy he's becoming part of is one thing, it's when he tuns up at a crime scene and proceeds to tape money shots instead of helping the young family shot down within that alarm bells really start to sound. And like all the best cinematic psychopaths, there's rarely any demonstrative violence on display, only the underlying threat within a softly-spoken and precisely-constructed sentence - the kind of quiet, subversive, endearing intellect so keenly observed by Gyllenhaal's Robert Graysmith in David Fincher's Zodiac, here cleverly inverted and chillingly magnified. Gilroy also has great fun in charting the cyclical through-line of manipulation; Bloom's intern, a guileless drifter named Rick (an extraordinary Ahmed) is systematically coerced by Bloom, who in turn is co-opted and encouraged by Rene Russo's monstrous news director Nina, who has no qualms in selling us, the public, tales intended to divide and panic, and all the while Gilroy sells this murky tail as triumph over adversity, an almost high-spirited yarn of rags to riches, complemented by an electro-Martinez-like score from James Newton Howard that mischievously and deceitfully italicises for us when our hearts should soar. The screenplay alas creaks and groans through the last reel and sadly much of the snap-tight menace is lost in what feels like a concession to satire, especially the predictable near-hokey ending, but Nightcrawler, if nothing else succeeds on an exceptional performance by Gyllenhaal, an assured and hypnotic portrayal of everyman lunacy.

Life After Beth (15) | Film Review


Life After Beth, dir/wr. Jeff Baena, Aubrey Plaza, Dane DeHaan, Molly Shannon, John C. Reilly, Anna Kendrick, Cheryl Hines, Paul Reiser

There seems to be something of a resurgence (or reanimation, if you like) of zombies on our screens. Trailblazed undoubtedly by AMC's The Walking Dead, now in its fifth year (and renewed for a sixth), we've had many, many variations on a theme; like vampires, zombies' similarly undead counterparts, there's great pathos to be rung from creatures caught between two realms. Baena's film vaguely treads Edgar Wright's Shaun Of The Dead path, a romzomcom that could easily be an April Ludgate dream-sequence in an extended episode of Parks And Recreation. The flimsy plot concerns Zach (DeHaan) grieving over his girlfriend Beth's (Plaza) death at the fangs of a snake whilst out hiking. But a few days later, Beth is back at her parents' house, breezy and hazily-memoried about recent events. Zach, who was having doubts about their relationship pre-bite, now feels conflicted at having his girl back and with it, another chance at happiness, but suspicious of her somewhat changed temperament. The set-up is the best part of the movie with some genuinely provocative musings on grief's screaming heartache and the morality of accepting the unnatural to assuage such pain. But the film seems less content on exploring Beth's ebbing humanity (something even The Walking Dead hasn't successfully confronted - yet) and instead descends into tired comedic armageddon of the sort we've seen many times before. Plaza, whose ever nimble-footed Janus-face can go from heart-meltingly adorable to the most bloodless of death-stares in a fraction of a heartbeat, enjoys a persuasive transformation as the darkness takes over, and DeHaan, so memorably nuanced in his psychosis in Josh Trank's Chronicle, barely has much of a character arc with which to truly make an impact. Too weak-lined for a comedy and too toothless for horror, Life After Beth too finds itself trapped in a netherworld of uncertain identity.

The Mothman Prophecies (12) | Film Review


The Mothman Prophecies, dir. Mark Pellington, scr. Richard Hatem, based on The Mothman Prophecies by John Keel, st. Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Will Patton, Debra Messing, Alan Bates

Okay so not traditionally regarded as a Christmas film, but given it's the season when our thoughts turn heavenwards and to mythical beings in the sky, why not go hog-wild and include the Mothman in that little cavalcade. Plus, the film's denouement takes place on Christmas Eve so there's that too. But if you do fancy something a little less heartwarming this festive holiday, something more commensurate with the hyperborean climate outside, you could do a lot worse than subject yourself to Mark Pellington's atmospheric exploration of the popular Mothman legend - a real account of a giant, winged creature purportedly seen over Point Pleasant in West Virginia between 1966 and 1967. Driven by tomandandy's super-intricate score - a more melodic but equally disturbing version of Mica Levi's recent score for Under The Skin that fuses all manner of scraping, grating and atonal imbalance into a cohesive atmos-track - and Fred Murphy's lens-bending, focus-shifting cinematography, Wellington's film, although light on narrative and characterisation (Mulder and Scully could, you feel, have solved this in 45 minutes), lays on the menace and dread with overwhelming conviction. At times, yes, there are one too many music video tropes present in the film's visual style (an extensive part of Pellington's director background), but the eeriness and general feeling of malaise he conjures is palpably real, aided by Point Pleasant's rural backwater setting and focus on its unremarkable townsfolk in the grip of either mass hysteria, or something more unearthly. 

Sunday, 7 December 2014

I Origins (15) | Film Review


I Origins, dir/wr. Mike Cahill, st. Michael Pitt, Brit Marling, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Steven Yeun, Archie Panjabi

Closely echoing the format and formula of Cahill's 2011 meditative Another Earth and even Zal Batmanglij's Sound Of My Voice from the same year (and also starring Marling), I Origins takes another hi-concept hypothesis - this time, that the soul is indeed real and lives on in others as evidenced in matching iris patterns - and wraps it in a beautifully shot and thoughtfully helmed lo-fi feature. Pitt plays student scientist Ian Gray, a man set on discrediting creationists by proving that eyes have evolved and are not part of an intelligent design. At a Halloween party he meets the bewitching and bemasked Sofi (Berges-Frisbey), and flirts and photographs her before she vanishes in the blink of an eye, whisked away by a cab into the night. After fate transpires the pair meet again, they begin a passionate and intense relationship, whilst back at his lab, Ian continues with his research with fellow scientists Karen (Marling) and Kenny (Yeun). Soon, Karen finds the primer she's been looking for, an organism without sight, but with the genetic coding for vision dormant within it. This discovery sets off a linear chain of events that sees Ian travelling halfway around the world to prove his theories. Whilst not as immediately gripping as Another Earth, I Origins isn't any less invested in asking the bigger questions, and like Another Earth, Cahill by now masterfully knows his way around a style that playfully and thoughtfully interpolates different genre elements into a cohesive and visionary whole. It's a shame then that the eminently watchable Marling takes a backseat to Pitt and Berges-Frisbey's story, as at times, Karen's singular drive to hunt through hundreds of thousand of species in search of the elusive eye origin DNA promises an irresistible yet frustratingly unfulfilled storyline that threatens to plausibly locate the science in the science-fiction. As it is, we get the underwritten but often persuasive sentimentality of Ian and Sofi's romance, and their conflict of science over spirituality. For a movie that hinges upon the epic, unsettling hope that loss can be assuaged by the dubious claim of reincarnation, the love story never quite hits home in the way you hope it might, but as a smart piece of cinema with lofty, thematically existential ambition, I Origins is wholly triumphant.

Tusk (tbc) | Film Review


Tusk, dir/wr. Kevin Smith, st. Justin Long, Michael Parks, Haley Joel Osment, Génesis Rodríguez, Johnny Depp

Douchey Wallace Bryton (Long) and his pal Teddy Craft (Osment) host an increasingly popular podcast in which they take a wry and often savage look at viral videos and general memology called The Not-See Party (try saying it in an American accent). When Wallace flies to Canada to interview  internet star the Kill Bill Kid (think the Star Wars Kid but with more amputation), he arrives to find the star of The Not-See Party's next show has taken his own life with the very same samurai sword he wielded in his infamous video. Undeterred, and determined to come away from Manitoba with a story for the podcast, Wallace sees an ad that promises high tales from a man who calls himself Howard Howe. On meeting Howe, he regales Wallace with stories of shipwrecks and unlikely flipperéd saviours, although Wallace is unaware Howe's been looking through the Tom Six book of Arts and Crafts. Although Smith's - let's call it 'horror' - film treads a path worn to its very foundations, there is still an undeniably high level of discomfort elicited from the thought of irrevocable decision-making, when characters in the genre set down a road from which there is no return. It's a staple trope, but as time can testify, yet an effective one. Tusk is also a movie that plays with the idea of karmic retribution; Wallace undergoes an enforced transformation from his conceited self into something altogether more primal; it's almost as if by initially judging Wallace from our armchairs, we're sanctioning the events unfolding on screen. It's debatable whether a throwaway subject for an informal podcast (Smith's own) could ever contain the weight or tonal shifts necessary to sustain a full feature, and Tusk does indeed lose its way once the full hokey extent of Wallace's surgery is revealed (in this regard, remember how subtle the original Human Centipede VFXs were) and Depp's bumbling cop Guy Lapointe is introduced, seemingly beamed in from another movie entirely. Tusk is a curiosity for sure, but for such an audacious premise, curiously hollow. 

Saturday, 6 December 2014

The Muppet Christmas Carol (U) | Film Review


The Muppet Christmas Carol, dir. Brain Henson, scr. Jerry Juhl, based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, st. Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, The Great Gonzo, Michael Caine, Frank Oz

The Muppet Christmas Carol, now a staple of background Christmas teeveeing, and made (prepare to feel well old) a staggering twenty-two years ago, was the first Muppet movie to feature felt interaction with real human characters - and alas it shows. Caine's Ebenezer Scrooge is a drab affair, but it's Ebenezer's first love Belle's song When Love Is Gone, performed by Meredith Braun, that'll really have you out of your seat - and out of the room, foraging for that tube of Milkybar buttons with which to pass the time until the real stars of the show come back on screen. Thankfully, TMCC is packed with otherwise memorable songs, singing fruit 'n' veg, cute families of cheeseless mice, gags that alternate between the groan and grinsome, and not least a fabulous pair of narrators in the form of Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat (in the guise of Charles Dickens and, erm, Rizzo the Rat) who slide in and out of the action at will Pirandello-like. Even the Kermit-Cratchit family might have you laughing off an undeniable lump in your throat, and Robin as Tiny Tim might very well have you sniffling into a decoy clementine. In other words, a low-cal, guilt-free Christmas treat. Apart from the Milkybar buttons.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Short Term 12 (15) | Film Review


Short Term 12, dir/wr. Destin Daniel Cretton, st. Brie Larson, John Gallagher, Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Rami Malek, Keith Stanfield

The delicate renovation and sustainability of trust is what lies at the heart of director Cretton's semi-autobiographical drama about the supervisors of Short Term 12, a way station for troubled teenagers. The film follows Grace (Larson) and her small team of staff that provide the young residents of Short Term 12 with routine, stability, and the foundation for rebooted respect - for others as well as themselves. Grace is also in a long-term relationship with co-worker Mason (The Newsroom's Gallagher Jr.) but has difficulty opening up to him emotionally. When Grace discovers she is pregnant, her anxieties flourish. She can't imagine bringing a life into the world, especially one that produces the shattered lives of those it's her job to curate. Destin's film is a wonder, an economic chamber-piece of resonance and warmth. Larson and the predominantly young cast dextrously explore the fragile bond that exists between guardian and ward, and Destin gently provokes the relief at seeing such selfless nurturing of the needful young by those whom we forget may be in great pain themselves. The unfolding narrative from the director's own hand is allowed the space and time to develop, and it's surprisingly funny too, given the weight of the subject matter. Brett Pawlak's near-sepia cinematography lends the movie an alluring timelessness, and his shots are measured and beautifully composed, as is the restrained score from Joel P West. But this is undeniably Larson's film, who imbues the movie with an honesty and compassion that oxygenates a potentially claustrophobic and restrictive storyline.

Deux Jours, Une Nuit (15) | Film Review


Deux Jours, Une Nuit, dir/wr. Luc Dardenne, Jean-Pierre Dardenne, st. Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione

After suffering from a debilitating bout of depression, solar-panel factory worker Sandra returns to work to find that her sixteen colleagues have been coerced by their team leader into the realisation that her workload may be efficiently managed between them, and senior management has offered them all a €1000 bonus if they vote to make Sandra redundant. On challenging the methodology of the process, her boss gives her the weekend - the titular time span - to convince her co-workers to change their vote; a majority win in her favour will allow her to stay, but the workers will forfeit their bonus. I suspect it's no accident that the Dardenne brothers have placed their heroine within a factory manufacturing products whose target consumers are those who can afford to lead ethically greener lives, and it's similarly interesting to note their primary function chimes with Sandra's 48-hour Herculean task - to harness the light and offer it to her teammates as an alternative way of living. There are no villains (or indeed a score) present here, only the spectre of economic decline and its effect on ordinary souls. Cotillard has always been an artist with consummate control over every aspect of her performance. The urgency with which Sandra hastily visits each of her coolio-workers in turn is tempered by a leaden spirit, the lethargy and disconsolate funk of abject despondency Cotillard wears like a millstone, and whose presence is felt even through fleeting smiles or the few transitory moments of hope in the film. There is a murkier theme present in Deux Jours, Une Nuit, one of unscrupulous and opportunistic management - as Margin Call's CEO John Tuld proclaims on the eve of the imminent financial collapse, "There's a lot of money to be made coming out of this mess", but the film compellingly gives us a singular protagonist to champion, and Cotillard's Sandra is a memorable cypher for the tenacity and unrelenting spirit of the disenfranchised.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 (12A) | Film Review


The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1, dir. Francis Lawrence, scr. Danny Strong, Peter Craig, based on Mockingly by Suzanne Collins, st. Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutchinson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour-Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland

How fitting that Jennifer Lawrence, still very much in the eye of the storm concerning ever-fracturing privacy in the media, commands a film that primarily concerns itself with branding, propaganda, and the dissemination of (mis)information between warring factions. The Hunger Games: Mockingly - Part 1 thankfully diverges from the repeated structure of the first two films, and instead of the breathless, yet tiring spectacle of the Capitol finding ever ingenious ways to murder self-destructive battle-weary kids, we have here a volley of exchanges between the leaders of the rebellion based in District 13, and the Capitol dictator President Snow. Even though both sides can (and do) utilise their arsenal of bombs and bullets, the war is being fought primarily over the airwaves rather than battlefields. Electioneering has never been about policy or intention, but about public image; who's looking too smug or too weak, who accidentally said what and to whom. The public seize upon and judge every look, every word, every misguided tweet. And on the face of it, Mockingjay pits two sizeably matched opponents against each other. In one corner we have Hunger Games emcee Caesar Flickerman (Tucci) interviewing a violently deconstructed and reassembled Peeta Mellark who's been coerced into denouncing the uprising, and in the other, a fatigued and disillusioned Katniss Everdeen who's being groomed and re-marketed by Heavensbee and President Coin (Seymour-Hoffman and Moore) as an enduring symbol of defiance. Lawrence is much more restrained this time around, a picture of drained discontentment. Similarly, Moore is on uber-subtle mode as well, ostensibly fighting the good fight against oppression, but potentially proving as suspiciously manipulative as her aggressors. Of note too is the decidedly darker tone this third instalment takes on. Katniss' journey back to her District 12 home reveals the true extent of President Snow's capacity for the horrific violence inflicted upon his own citizens. It's a grizzly but potent reminder of just what's at stake in the fictional Panem, but there are undoubtedly silent allusions to war-torn lands that exist outside the cinema that reinforce the idea of humanity's necessary and fundamental non-negotiables.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Grand Piano (15) | Film Review


Grand Piano, dir. Eugenio Mira, wr. Damien Chazelle, st. Elijah Wood, John Cusack, Tamsin Egerton, Kerry Bishé, Alex Winter

Firmly rooted at the heart of Mira's opulent and dizzyingly bombastic hi-concept thriller is Spanish composer Victor Reyes' full-length concerto that swirls, spins, dives and swoons with every balletic move of cinematographer Unax Mendía's restless camera. I can't remember a time when a movie score was so integral to the very fabric of the narrative. Reyes' symphony has the film's protagonist Tom Selznick (Wood) literally playing for dear life, as an unseen assassin hiding somewhere in the concert hall has his laser sight trained on his him and his wife; one wrong note, he informs the young pianist via a concealed earpiece, and the evening's encore will basically involve a chaotic, stampeding audience and copious amounts of carpet shampoo. But why? It's a little excessive for a lowly Rachmaninoff fan surely. What commences as nonchalant curiosity at whether such histrionic theatrics may be sustained over ninety minutes soon gives way to an undeniably delicious and utterly absorbing fascination. It transpires Selznick froze some years previously, live on stage, attempting to play an "unplayable" piece - Le Cinquette. Additionally, the success and public adoration of his movie star wife Emma (Bishé) might very well be the source of dormant resentment Selznick harbours deep within. Director Mira might not be a recognisable name but there's some confirmation of pedigree at seeing Buried and Red Lights director Rodrigo Cortés' name as a producer credit. Mira's technique is certainly an audacious one, throwing in just about every visual trick in the book, his camera making full and immersive use of every conceivable plane. Where De Palma and Hitchcock's ingenuity ended and inelegance began is, of course, a matter of taste, and opponents of such stylised cinematic hyperbole surely won't be sated by the fevered urgency of Mira's methodology. But despite its shortcomings, Grand Piano is a hallucinatory marvel, albeit a derivative one. The film's payoff might be fundamentally unable to compete with the process, but a solidly panicked performance by Wood, whose fingers frenetically and convincingly skitter and glide over the keys, as well as the sheer ingenuity of the aforementioned score, credit the film much of its conceptual stability. 

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Interstellar (12A) | Film Review


Interstellar, dir. Christopher Nolan, wr. Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan, st. Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Casey Affleck, Matt Damon, John Lithgow

When I showed a non-movie-literate friend the cast of Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, they genuinely exclaimed, "My God! It's full of stars!", which as you can imagine practically made my brain go supernova.

McConaughey plays Cooper, an ex-NASA test pilot, who, like many professionals in this decaying Earth in the midst of a worsening global cataclysm, have turned to farming in order to feed seven billion people whose crops are ever-blighted by severe dust storms. Most of the planet's funding has been diverted away from warfare and science in order to concentrate on feeding humanity; even classroom textbooks are being rewritten to promote the moon landings as an exposed hoax in order to crush any enterprising spirit of adventure children may have. Things are bleak indeed. Cooper lives on the edge of one of his cornfields with his children Murph (a wonderful Mackenzie Foy), Tom (Timothée Chalamet), and his father-in-law Donald (Lithgow). The precocious Murph, a geek before her time, is convinced her room is plagued with poltergeist activity, a phenomenon tentatively borne out one day when an open window mid-duststorm reveals sheets of sand falling in binary patterns on her bedroom floor. The discovery, interpreted as co-ordinates, lead Father and Daughter to the rag-tag remains of NASA and scientist Brand (Michael Caine), whose dream it is to save mankind, and it's not long before Cooper accepts the offer to pilot a last-ditch attempt at finding humanity's new digs beyond the stars.

If all this plotting sounds rather clunky, or portentously hokey, or both, well, it kind of is. But Christopher Nolan has always committed so fully to the preposterous, one often cannot for one's life help but be swept along by the gravity of his protagonists and the paths they journey down. In the case of Interstellar, wormholes and singularities excite the inner space-nerd in all of us, possessing as they do the ability to whisk us off to strange new worlds, but also carry with them the accepted scientific theories of Einstein's general and special relativity - the idea that time runs at different speeds in different parts of space. This opens up whole new possibilities for emotional investment; when Cooper tells young Murph he'll be back but he knows not when, he's not talking figuratively.

But the incomprehensible fear of travelling into the unfathomable darkness of infinite space is truly heart-pumpingly palpable. Many won't be qualified to confirm the accuracy of the science, but the details such as the unglamorous and cramped quarters of the protagonists' shuttle and moreover, the human cost of the mission, are terrifyingly persuasive. One particularly powerful scene has Cooper watching messages from his children back on Earth, relayed to his craft through that awful unending darkness of space and time. The fragility of connection and how it can cruelly and perpetually stretch without being severed, is uncompromisingly heartbreaking. 

Of course, this being a Christopher Nolan production, everything is meticulously assembled. Hans Zimmer, these days worryingly close to pastiching his own oeuvre, accompanies Interstellar with a restrained lyrical classicism that occasionally out-Richters Max Richter, whose work was just recently lauded for HBO's The Leftovers; organs sequence, arpeggiate, and swirl around delicate strings and piano, electronics are pared back, and there seems to be less of a desire to recompose gen-epic trailer music. The VFX, by British computer animation company Double Negative, are predictably jaw-dropping; the animators actually worked extensively with theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, collaborator and friend of Hawking and Sagan among others, and upon whose work much of Interstellar is based, to translate his blackboard equations into three dimensional renderings. Again, such authenticity is, of course, hard to qualify, but the resulting CGI depictions of astronomical anomalies are certainly magnificently realised. As expected, such visual scope and grandeur results in human performance being inevitably edged out by the technical proficiency on display. It doesn't have to, but it often does. McConaughey, Hathaway, Damon, Caine, Affleck - they all have the chops to convince you of themselves and their relationships with each other, but it's not their characters you'll come away with. They're there to sell the grander ideas Interstellar posits, and they've all been more far more compelling in other projects.

With his warmth, compassion, and winning ways of imbuing the most rigerous astronomical academia with a rich, emotional resonance, Interstellar is the kind of film Professor Brian Cox might have made housesitting Hollywood for the weekend. Part Sagan seminar, part apocalyptical Americana drama, the film's ambitious storyline seeks to take us from dustbowl farmstead to infinity and beyond. Tired comparisons with Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey have been rife, but in the sense this is now the standardised shorthand for any existentialist science fiction, accurate. It also doesn't help that many cues from Zimmer's elegant score end in Zarathustra-aping major-chording organ that wilfully seems to actually encourage the connection. Interstellar is as novel or predictable as anything Christopher Nolan has ever created before. Detractors who can't get over Nolan's glossing over of inconvenient plot truths will find themselves suffering once more, and the film pays visual and textual homage to a whole slew of sci-fi gone before, from Robert Zemeckis' Contact, to Brad Anderson's Event Horizon, from which one scene that demonstrates how wormholes work with a pencil and paper is unashamedly lifted wholesale. But Nolan has already addressed wayward cinematic plot logic. He did it in 2006 via John Cutter's dissection of the Magic Trick in The Prestige. "Now you're looking for the secret," he says. "But you won't find it because of course, you're not really looking. You don't really want to work it out. You want to be fooled." And here's the thing: Interstellar is a reminder of the kind of successful film that belongs to a very small faction of cinematic experiences in which, indeed like an airlock in deepest space, is only concerned with what occurs in its own runtime. Even last year's Gravity, from which Interstellar rather mercilessly borrows - complete with a pixie-cropped Hathaway, and numerous scenes of chaotic nauseous centrifugal spinning - was guilty of this. Such films may not stand up to structural scrutiny away from the auditorium, but the idea of any cinema is surely to plant seeds. And in the days that followed my viewing of Interstellar, I can safely say, boy do some of these transcendental notions concerning our place in the universe take root.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Lake Mungo (15) | Film Review


Lake Mungo, dir/wr. Joel Anderson, st. Talia Zucker, Rosie Traynor, David Pledger, Martin Sharpe

It's been a good year for decent horror movies. First there was Leigh Janice's Honeymoon, then last week I reviewed Jennifer Kent's The Babadook - both doozies in the genre. Of course, this means that statistically, I've had my quota for the time being and can be expected to be disappointed at the next fifteen to twenty horrors I watch. I'm counting, in my successful run, somewhat cheekily, this mockumentary from 2008 which somehow passed me by. The Australian Lake Mungo isn't so much directly seated in the found footage camp (although that device does spookily play its part), but rather wouldn't be out of place as part of Channel 4's Dispatches series, looking at grief and the vulnerability that accompanies it. Lake Mungo succeeds primarily because despite Chris Morris' best intentions, most exposés, no matter how serious the subject, still insist on much the same format - one that seeks to ramp up the drama by using emotion-conjuring non-diagetic scoring and overly-narrational scene structuring and editing, telling rather than objective and less hysterical showing. One example of where the latter triumphantly succeeds over the former was in David Gelb's Jiro Dreams Of Sushi. There's a calming, mesmeric way that things unfold. The difference between letting the current carry you and powering downstream in a motorboat. However, nigglings aside, Lake Mungo's tale is an effective one; we get Mum and Dad June and Russell Palmer (Treynor and Pledger) and their son Mathew (Sharpe) recounting for the camera the day they all went swimming at a dam in Ararat when the family's daughter Alice (Zucker) tragically drowned. Soon after, the surviving three experience strange occurrences at their home. Is Alice trying to make contact with them from beyond the grave, or is there a more terrestrial explanation? Writer and director Anderson's blend of slow tracks and dollies provide elegant counterpoint to the film's wow and fluttery VHS archive recordings where faces and figures may lurk within the grain, but can't resist leaning on the ghost story when possibly a more foot-of-the-gas approach might have been more effective. Its bearing on contemporary documentary filmmaking technique ultimately proves its potency, and as I touched upon in reviewing Kent's film, we need more horror that gets under the skin rather than superficially scratches the surface.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

The Babadook (15) | Film review


The Babadook, dir/wr. Jennifer Kent, st. Essie Davis, Noah Wieseman


Whilst horror films are nothing like busses, I'm keen to use the idiom here: a few weeks back I waxed lyrical about Leigh Janiak's Honeymoon, how most horror has been diluted down to nothing more than a series of Gotcha! scares. Honeymoon was a rare exception, nuanced and possessing of real substance. But although critical reception for Janiak's film might have been whispered, media outlets are currently going nuts for a film by Jennifer Kent that started life as Monster, a German Expressionism-influenced short. That nine-minute film has been gloriously upcycled into The Babadook, this time jettisoning its source-material betraying black and white cinematography for a wider, albeit muted colour palate, but more importantly, giving time and space for menace and dread to propagate. The Babadook tells the story of Amelia and her son Samuel. Six years previously, Amelia's husband died in a car accident as he was rushing her to hospital to give birth. Now, their only son has grown up deeply traumatised by the violence surrounding his entry into this world, and Amelia has to struggle with tantrums, paranoia, and neediness that borders on the inappropriate. Matters are exacerbated however when one night, Samuel pulls a book seemingly at random off his shelf for his mother to read to him as he falls asleep. The Babadook (a most masterful example of fearful prop-making) is the pop-up book Tim Burton might have written had he not had a decent upbringing. In it, a long-robed, top-hatted antiquated type of figure promises trouble now the book has been opened, and the words within, like some ancient incantation, have been uttered. Later, Amelia studies the book more closely. No publisher, author, or press details. The book just is. Noah, who has already turned to magic and illusion as an attention-seeking coping mechanism, falls for the threat of the monster hook, line and sinker, but bravely steps up to the challenge of defeating it. Or perhaps there's no monster at all, and Noah, whose birth after all represents the death of Amelia's husband, is an ever present living manifestation of Amelia's grief.

I wrote a few years ago about the wonders of Lars von Trier's Melancholia, whether the presence of the great Earth-ending planet is causing Kirsten Dunst's Justine's depression, or whether her depression is reaching out to the planet, calling it nearer through the cosmos. There's a similarity here. The film unfolds in such a disturbingly stilted way, like The Ring's Samara reverse-stop-motioning towards us, it's difficult to know whether any of it is real at all. But that's precisely why The Babadook succeeds so triumphantly. There are shocks, but there's also an insidious unease that pervades the movie. The Babadook comes at night, but the following daylight offers little joy, only the promise of another night yet to come. The film absolutely works as another tale of supernatural unrest, but it works better as a psychological drama. There's nothing scarier than a mother and child, whose bond has been held up as the most absolute of absolutes, slowly playing a part in each other's unravelling.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Lucy (15) | Film Review


Lucy, dir/wr. Luc Besson, st. Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Amr Waked, Choi Min-sik

Luc Besson becomes the latest director to have a stab at the old we-only-use-a-fraction-of-our-brain chestnut in this globe-trotting actioner piloted by Scarlett Johansson and Morgan Freeman. The film follows Johansson's Lucy, a gangster's moll who becomes embroiled in a Taiwanese drug trafficking ring. Only the substance being moved is CPH4, a kind of highly concentrated Red Bull in crystalline form that tickles in small doses, and alters cellular design in large. Lucy soon (accidentally) quaffs the lot and starts to access more and more of her brain with gun-toting results. There's something reassuring about sitting down to a Besson movie - something about Eric Serra's dustbin-down-a-liftshaft percussion that feels reassuring. They're like a warming bowl of movie carbonara. So why is it then that Lucy, replete with grand allusions to Kubrickian existentialism, fails to satisfy? Possibly because of that very reason; its breadth of subject matter spreads it to thin to do it justice. There's an amount of disengaging pleasure to be had, and Johansson makes for a watchable if derivative superhero, but cheering a heroine whose powers grown exponentially godlike gets tiring very quickly. This is especially distressing given the fact that this is the same man that gave us 1990's extraordinary Nikita, nominally the same movie minus ILM VFX and $32m. Nikita and Lucy are virtually identical cyphers. They are both anonymous bottom feeders whose skills and abilities are thrust upon them, responsibilities they reluctantly accept. But where as Nikita earns hers over the course of half the movie's running time, Lucy acquires her superpowers with a swift kick to the abdomen. We feel Nikita's every breath and bruise; Lucy sends foes flying with an ESPd flick of her elegant wrist. But immortals are rarely fun. Even Zach Snyder's extensively backstoried Dr. Manhattan is hardly a barrel of laughs. Another key flaw is the cutting to Freeman's Professor Norman to give us lengthy TED-style lecturings on the nature of evolution. He doesn't meet up with Lucy until the second half of the movie and I can't help but feel there was a more fruitful relationship to be explored had Norman engaged with her earlier. Besson's film then exhibits more like a frolicking network TV pilot, the kind of opening salvo that sets the scene and establishes, but promises further perceptive development down the road. As a standalone movie, it just dulls the senses. There's no concern about using your brain to capacity here.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Gone Girl (18) | Film review


Gone Girl, dir. David Fincher, scr. Gillian Flynn, based on the novel Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, st. Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon

Timeout once perceptively summed up their review of Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct with "trash, but watchable trash", and indeed there's plenty to compare with Fincher's adaptation of Gillian Flynn's 2012 novel beyond the quote. Both films thematically centre around potentially tawdry subject matter that's elevated by a director with a keen eye for both technical aesthetic and a canny knack for eliciting wholly persuasive performances from his leads. Such subject matter would surely be mere TV-movie fodder for less accomplished filmmakers, yet Fincher's skill, rather like a popular fruit-titled electronics company, resides in being able to sell us something we never knew we had an interest in - in Fincher's case, remakes, CEO biopics, Brad Pitt aging backwards.

Affleck and Pike play Nick and Amy Dunne whose story is charted from courtship to marriage to the woman in white's titular disappearance on the couple's fifth wedding anniversary. Nick, alternately hangdog and smarmy, fields the predictable media frenzy that engulfs smalltown North Carthage, gossipers natter, and television pundits sign up for their pound of flesh. To unravel any more plot would be to fundamentally undo this Rube Goldbergian tale, but once again and true to form, Fincher delights in every flourish of misdirection. But the content is only half the story as you suspect Fincher is having way too much fun dissecting pulp convention and structure; there's surely only one way to take Kim Dickins' Rhonda Boney, the detective running point, holding up one of Amy's breadcrumbs - an envelope with "Clue One" written on it - proclaiming, "Looks like we've found our first clue!" These little details stretch credulity at times, reinforcing the artifice of what you're watching, but for a narrative that indulges the imprecision of recounting, retelling and reporting, it is entirely apt. Additionally, the film rigidly sticks to the tested Three Act formula - actually more a construct of its source material than anything - and in the process, neatens and organises a potentially wild and unkempt story. Again, like Sharon Stone's Catherine Tramell, Pike's Amy is all cut-glass and glaciers; stoic, shrewd, and similarly, you wouldn't imagine Affleck's hapless Nick is beyond such a sartorial blunder as Michael Douglas' shirtless V-neck. Fincher's movie also comments on, rather than obsesses over, the nature of gender representation during all the media attention; the blonde-haired, ivory-skinned "amazing" Amy seems to convict her poor husband from the revelation of her publicity image alone. But ultimately, this is a film about trust between partners. Not necessarily the overtly Machiavellian and excessively Hitchcockian deception featured here, but rather secrets and regrets we bite down on rather than share. Fincher fans will welcome the familiar greys and browns that make up longtime Fincher cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth's palate, and Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor return to imbue the movie with more synth sterility, but this is as good a film as the director has ever made - smart, slick and eminently watchable. 

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Why Leigh Janiak's "Honeymoon" Is The Genre Movie You've Been Waiting For | Feature


Honeymoon, dir. Leigh Janiak, wr. Phil Graziadei, Leigh Janiak, st. Rose Leslie, Harry Treadway, Ben Huber, Hanna Brown

So here's the thing: how did a film that begins as yet another lost-in-the-woods frightener end up as one of the most tender, moving films I've seen all year? Or to put it another way, how did Honeymoon, nominally marketed as a horror film, manage to pull off a subversive ending without cheating?

Actually, it's amazing that there are as many successful horror movies as there are. The whole way the genre is machined sets it up for failure come the closing act. Dramatic conflict (or in the horror genre's case - tension) arises from the discomfort of mystery. What are we seeing? Why is this happening? Is it demonic possession? A trans-dimensional anomaly? Is it imaginary or the Devil himself? Is the guy in the mask just a guy in a mask? The tropes have been worn down to their bluntest nubs, used, reused, discarded, retrieved, plundered and pumped for every last nutritional atom. This has ultimately resulted in two things: First, that we the audience have become adept at second guessing the provided signposts, and two, that the films therefore have no choice but to either awkwardly invert expectation in order to avoid exposure, or continue headlong into the grim realm of predictability, 'cos hell, why not? It's just a movie. And when people exclaim that getting there is half the fun, they're not wrong, it is. Half the fun. Movies - especially horror movies - need a payoff. This is not the same, I might add, as closure. Some mysteries are effectively better left as. But these kind of endings need to be earned and not employed as one might chuck some Jeff Buckley over a montage for cheap and instant emotional gratification.

Which brings us to Leigh Janiak's Honeymoon (and spoilers), a low-budget thriller that stars two gifted actors of contemporary television - Game of Thrones' Rose Leslie as Bea, and Penny Dreadful's Harry Treadway as Paul. Newly married, the pair head off for their titular romantic getaway in the family cabin situated deep within a secluded wood. Not long after their arrival, Paul finds Bea naked and disorientated in the woods, and soon after that Janiak introduces the manifestations of weird. Bea tries to make french toast without batter and coffee with unground beans, and out in the woodland, at the spot where Paul found Bea, he discovers her shredded nightgown and a strange viscous substance. Bea repeatedly insists her increasingly erratic behaviour is nothing to worry about despite the strange markings on her legs (that she insists are nothing but bug bites), her repetition and odd turns of phrase, and in one particularly eerie scene, Paul secretly witnessing her practice a convincing excuse to herself in the mirror, one she later recites when he tries to initiate sex. So far, so formulaic; the woods, the strange lights, the clearly dodgy neighbouring restaurant owner and his skittish, wide-eyed and mousey wife who tells them they have to leave. But even at this stage, before the scene that changes everything, you suspect Janiak wasn't really ever in the business of constructing a horror film at all.

Maybe it's as a newlywed myself I was more acutely susceptible to such provocation, but I couldn't help shake the feeling Janiak was trying to tell us something about marriage and parenthood. A year into my marriage, I love my wife more than I have ever loved her before. I lie awake, my head buried in the back of her neck, genuinely amazed at what I've discovered, and my heart similarly lurches every time I fear she's in any kind of pain. She's my entire life and it would utterly destroy me to watch her disintegrate in front of my very eyes. In addition, we too are navigating the rocky coastline of starting a family - both on the same page, luckily, but it's a tricky bit of sailing all the same. So Paul's reaction to Bea's irregular behaviour is chillingly familiar. The rising panic you try and suppress, the wild fiction you try to abate with rationalism. But Bea's change of temperament could also be read as a symptom of anxiety at starting a family of their own. When Paul quips about her "resting (her) womb" because of the previous night's frenetic lovemaking, Bea questions the precise use of his language. A careless and throwaway gag is just enough to give pause to the couple's easy chemistry. Is this the source of Bea's unease? One begins to think how Janiak's horror-film conventions might merely enrobe a deeper discourse concerning the permanent reality of marital relationships, how, in her own words, "Even small moments can drive a wedge between people."

But then, after a film that's been heavy on atmosphere and menace, but light on any real scares or visceral jolts, comes a scene that gives credence to our suspicions that Bea may have been violated that night in the woods. Clearly Bea's erractic behaviour is set up to echo the trauma that follows assault, and we see a few times in the film where Janiak takes pains to illustrate Bea and Paul's intense and loving sexual attraction to one another. After confronting her and begging for an explanation he's convinced she's keeping from him, Bea locks herself in the bathroom and proceeds to perform some kind of self-abortion on her own body. On breaking into the washroom, wide-eyed and disbelieving at the sight of his beautiful bride so violently mutilating herself, once again, Bea jumps up and begs Paul to forget what he has seen, and for the two of them just to return to bed. When the struggle between them turns violent, Paul uses a length of rope (the same rope he had previously playfully teased Bea with in the film's first act) to secure her to the bed. It's a disconcerting scene indeed. In one sense, we see a husband desperately attempting to restrain his newly-feral wife from further self-harm, and in another, given that we suspect the nature of Bea's trauma, we see Paul assume the role of Bea's aggressor. Certainly, it's the only time we've actually seen Bea come into harm's way. This unease is further compounded by Paul making his way up Bea's trussed body, slowly, delirious and tear-stained, feverishly asking what she's done with his wife, why she looks like her, but isn't. It's framed as a criminal act as invasive as the one he suspects has befallen Bea. And then he touches her and asks her how it feels and his hand comes away from between her legs with a placenta-like membraney substance, and she asks him to help her.

By now there's no doubting the correlation between the anxiety, the threat almost, of consensual pregnancy and enforced gestation. As he pulls the umbilical-like spore from her, Paul looks on with a mixture of dissociative shock and immense sadness. But critically - and this is where everything changes - Bea is ok. There doesn't seem to be any pain. And she explains, finally, regretfully, what happened to her in the woods that night. The dark figures implanted something within her, something that's slowly changing her. Her consciousness is being slowly erased, ever diluted, being replaced with the entity's drone-like, worker-bee biology - and worst of all, Bea can feel all of this happening. She has always known what was to be. In many ways, this reveal is the polar opposite to that 1995 episode of The Outer Limits, Quality of Mercy, which stands as a perfect representation of this kind of nefarious misdirection. In the future, humanity is at war with an alien race when a soldier, Major John Skokes is taken prisoner. Soon, a young female cadet called Bree is thrown into his cell with him. The aliens periodically take her away, ostensibly to tortuously experiment on her with alien-skin grafts. At the episode's end, when Bree is on the verge of physically and mentally losing her humanity, Skokes confides in her one last bit of hope she might take with her to her demise: Earth is not lost; their near-collapse is a ruse that will lull the aliens into a false sense of victory before humanity attacks with a concealed fleet of ships. The alien guards enter and Bree calmly walks towards them. He doesn't understand, she tells Skokes. "They're turning me back."

Whilst this sucker-punch twisty ending carries with it its own nihilistic satisfaction, it's a great example of the duplicity inherent in such characters. They seek, like the Devil himself, to distort and confuse. Their mission is to subvert, to lure and persuade for their own diabolical ends, and everything in Honeymoon points to Bea perfectly inhabiting this mould. We are certain the reveal, when it comes, will be of this nature. Bea is concealing the darkest of agendas. Her pleas for reconciliatory calm are no different to Bree's feints of fear every time the guards enter the room. But actually, Bea's confession to Paul changes all of that. She knows what the entities were doing to her, she could feel herself slipping away from him, the man she loves with every fibre of her ebbing being, and she lied and denied just so she could spend the last few days together with him, her soul intact. She just wanted their honeymoon. Janiak's film isn't actually a horror film at all; it's a love story. The subterfuge perpetuated by Bea wasn't, in fact, a device to promote dread in the minds of Honeymoon's audience as in the case of most characters of her ilk. Honeymoon isn't even about alien abduction. Rather it's a story about two lovers whose time is up.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with straight genre films. I'm not alone, I suspect, in wishing there was more original narrative creativity and less form-over-content underhand endings that seek to breathe life into a dying saga by illogically undermining our expectations. But what Honeymoon does so perfectly - so audaciously - is to ask us to consider our own expectations and assumptions about genre. It lays out a conventional horror story and then tells us it doesn't matter because there's something more important at stake that we've failed to notice - something that's there right under our noses from the opening reel; the immutable and incorruptible bond of total devotion.


Friday, 5 September 2014

Good Will Hunting (15) | Film Review


Good Will Hunting, dir. Gus Van Sant, wr. Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, st. Robin Williams, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Stellan Skarsgård, Minnie Driver

Looking back, it seems perfectly obvious that longtime Tim Burton collaborator Danny Elfman should score this acclaimed 1997 drama, turning in a score chock full of his lofty choirs and snowflake strings. For what is Good Will Hunting if not a fairytale? For all his celebrated mania, I have to admit that I much prefer this quieter, more contemplative Robin Williams. Performances like this one, as well as his Walter Finch in Christopher Nolan's remake of Erik Skjoldbjaerg's Insominia, were always infinitely more intricate, alluding to, rather than explicitly showing, the near-uncontrollable kineticism within. From their own script, Affleck and Damon created a film that touched on everything from stagnant social mobility to class confliction, trust, trauma, aspiration, education, and everything in between. Damon plays Will Hunting, a closet genius listlessly barrelling his way through life, who prefers fighting to Fermat, but who's found himself nonetheless drawn to a janitor job at the prestigious MIT where he impulsively completes corridor maths problems Professor Lambeau (Skarsgård) has set for his class. Unable to ignore such a gross waste of extraordinary talent, Lambeau rescues Will from inevitable incarceration on the condition the pair work theories together in class, and weekly visits to a therapist. Will reluctantly agrees because, well yeah, the world can go fuck itself, but anything's better than jail, right? After hiring a slew of shrinks, Lambeau begs his old college friend Sean Maguire (Williams) to take a shot, but Sean isn't as easily taken down as his predecessors. Having set up its mythological parameters, it's not too hard to guess what comes next. The result should, by rights, be schmaltzy and wearing, but thanks to an incessant parade of winning turns - Affleck as Will's best friend Chuckie, resigned to his fate, but deeply invested in that of his friend,  Driver, eminently watchable as Skylar, a soon ex-Harvard pre-Stanford student who falls for Will, Skarsgård as the tunnel-visioned professor, and Damon and Williams whose scenes together feel like a duet of immeasurable beauty and complexity - Good Will Hunting emerges as a compelling and rather wondrous cinematic experience.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Good Morning, Vietnam (15) | Film Review


Good Morning, Vietnam, dir. Barry Levinson, wr. Mitch Markowitz, st. Robin Williams, Forest Whitaker, Robert Wuhl, J. T. Walsh

The chaos and delirium of the Vietnam war provides the perfect backdrop for Levinson's legendary war comedy, a place where chain of command seeks to counter the insanity of the battle via Mantovani and dulcet, truncated and redacted news reports. The 'one man rallying against the system construct' is of course, as old as the hills, but persists because even in good old progressive 2014, there are still plenty of global systems still standing to rally against. Robin Williams' largely improvised Armed Forces Radio Service madcap broadcasts provide the troops with some much needed levity and distraction from obsessing that each second that passes in this alien land may very well be their last. But the powers that be, particularly uptight Sergeant Major Phillip Dickerson (J. T Walsh, who's the CO of this kind of dickishness), insist the boat not be rocked and protocol is carried out. This is the United States Marine Corp, don't you know, not a circus. What we know is that laughter is about more than releasing endorphins and boosting the immune system; it's the ultimate skeleton key. And Robin Williams was the ultimate liberator.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 | Film Review


The Amazing Spider-Man 2, dir. Marc Webb, scr. Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, James Vanderbilt, st. Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan

Whatever may be happening offscreen with Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, their light and affecting chemistry continues to be the primary draw of these new Webb-era Spider-Man reboots, despite this sequel's tendency for overstuffed storylines at the expense of character development. Indeed, at almost two and a half hours, no wonder poor Shailene Woodley's Mary Jane Watson got axed. The stereo-villain threat from Max Dillon's Electro (Foxx) and Parker-Pal Harry Osbourn's Green Goblin (DeHaan) is poorly handled, with, in particular, an obfuscated, barely discernable reason for them to team up against Spidey other than for the screenwriters to stack the odds. I'd actually be happy to watch Garfield endearingly mumble his way through any attempt on his life completely sans costume or web-slinging, and this is certainly the goofiest we've seen Spider-Man - something that recaptures the early camp - but once again, it seems this latest attempt at the franchise has been reduced to theme-park POV thrills and spills.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Non-Stop (12A) | Film Review


Non-Stop, dir. Jaume Collet-Serra, scr. John W. Richardson, Chris Roach, Ryan Engle, st. Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Scoot McNairy, Michelle Dockery, Nate Parker

Who's sending hard-drinking Air Marshall Bill Marks (Neeson) threatening messages on a non-stop New York to London flight? Is it the only other A-lister on board, Julianne Moore's nervous Jen? What about the captain played by Bruce Wayne's dad? And that guy from Monsters looks well shifty. Maybe it's Patsey from 12 Years A Slave? Oh look, there's Peter Russo sitting in Economy! Like some all-star(ish) cast from an Agatha Christie adaptation, Collet-Serra piles on the suspicions and serves up enough complimentary red herrings from his hostess trolley of plot to keep us satisfied for the entire long-haul. By now, Neeson can do this shit in his sleep. No one does ageing avuncular action-heroes better. And like most bottle-episode movies, a conclusion that has the writers having painted themselves into a corner is inevitable. Like the restricted and claustrophobic set, there is literally no where to go. Much like Robert Schwentke's Flightplan, the intriguing set-up eventually gives way to a hysterical ending. Collet-Serra uses this first act to deliciously ramp up the tension, applying fancy on-screen graphics to show us Bill's menacing SMSs Sherlock-style. Amusingly, at one point a screen-shattered but still operational device shows us the text, noisy and glitchy, the cracks obscuring a few F-bombs. The $50m/$200m budget to box office ratio speaks volumes, and any film that manages to unashamedly cram an unwieldy, inspirational crowd-rousing speech into proceedings and keep a straight face is surely worth of a little admiration.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Antiviral (15) | Film Review


Antiviral, dir/wr. Brandon Cronenberg, st. Caleb Landry Jones, Sarah Gadon, Malcolm McDowell

Definitely his father's son then, as Brandon Cronenberg's Antiviral serves up the kind of opaque and stylish film that has typified his dad's body of work. This is, to date, Cronenberg Jr.'s only film, and what it lacks in pace and structure, it makes up for in scope of ambition and design. Some time in the future, or in an alternative present, private clinics harvest illnesses and infections from willing celebrities intent on marketing themselves to the full. For $500, you too can be infected with an A-list disease comprising cells from the original superstar host. One clinician, Syd March (Jones), makes a bit on the side by injecting himself with his company's pathogens in order to sell them on the black market. The film boldly envisages a world beyond Heat magazine, where celebrity makeup endorsements, clothing-lines and perfumes have only fuelled the public's appetite to be as close to their objects of desire as possible. It's a bit of a stretch to believe celebrity obsession might stretch to wanting to share the same debilitating bug, but stranger things have happened in the real world in the name of delusional star-striking, and I was reminded of Andrew Motion's claim in 2002 that inducing illness was conducive to a sudden burst of creativity. But the film not only resonates with the idea of a public infatuated with the rich and famous, it also concerns itself with the idea of celebrities themselves being complicit in what has become just another lucrative marketing tool; in addition to the registered clinics, Antiviral shows punters queuing up at a butcher's, eager to get their fix of superstar meat - beige-coloured stem-celled muscle tissue injected with celebrity spores. Imagine your local Morrisons deli selling Brad Pitt sausages, Zayn Malik burgers, Tulisa Contostavlos steaks. The film is also partially indebted to Andrew Nichols' Gattaca in its depiction of pinsharp-suited Wall Street-like lab technician employees and their antiseptic working environment. Dad would undoubtedly be proud of his son's ability to explore new avenues in body-horror and make the most of his meagre budget, but ultimately, Antiviral collapses under the weight of its own lethargic heft, the story having run out of places to travel.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Enemy (15) | Film Review


Enemy, dir. Denis Villeneuve, scr. Javier Gulón, based on the novel The Double by José Saramago, st. Jake Gyllenhaal, Mélanie Laurent, Sarah Gadon

If Richard Ayoade gave us a typically absurdist tragicomic and Ayoadean version of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel, then Villeneuve's take on the story takes us somewhere altogether darker and infinitely more disturbing, which is ironic given Ayoade's perpetual gloom of the cramped Gilliamesque office cubicles and high-rise apartment blocks, and the expanse of Villeneuve's sepia-tinged Toronto. To be fair, a direct comparison isn't just, as Villeneuve's film is based on the José Saramago novel The Double (or more accurately, The Duplicated Man, which literal Portuguese title perhaps better befits the film), and not the Dostoyevsky book. Saramago's book does however speak to the same themes of identity and individual existentialism, but personalises and modernises the protagonist's woes to take in the dread of fidelity and commitment anxieties.

Gyllenhaal plays Adam Bell, a college lecturer who endlessly cycles through days of teaching the same patterns-emerging-through-chaos seminar, and emotionally dislocated sex with his girlfriend Mary (Laurent). On watching a movie rental one night, he screengrabs a fleeting shot of an extra who appears to be his doppelgänger, and on tracking him down, discovers that indeed the actor Anthony Claire is his exact double, tidier, kempt, and expecting a child with his wife Helen (Gadon), but physically the same right down to their hands and scars. So is Adam manifesting a neurological condition or, as the translated title of the source novel suggests, is this just a biological anomaly? Villeneuve scatters the breadcrumbs via a series of covert audio, visual and scripted cues, but unravelling the mystery plays second fiddle to the actual journey down the rabbit hole. With one part Hanekered menace and one part Cronenbergian surreal discomfiture, Enemy elegantly unfolds its story, aided by Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans' Giallo-inspired score and cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc's burnt oranges and hazy yellows. But the film is Gyllenhaal's in what I'll wager to be his finest in a whole slew of nuanced and eclectic performances that stretches right the way back to 2001's Donnie Darko. There's a terrible inclination for such high-concept storytelling to completely derail if not anchored by credibility, but Gyllenhaal gives a persuasively haunted performance in his portrayal of a man teetering on the edge of madness. Enemy completes a triptych of films from Villeneuve that couple utterly compelling narratives with uniquely distinctive production aesthetics; his heart-breaking and shocking Lebanese Civil War-set Incendies in 2010, and last years Hugh Jackman-led abduction drama Prisoners offered similarly accomplished and unforgettable cinematic experiences. His next project, next year's Roger Deakins-lensed Sicario starring Emily Blunt and Benicio del Toro shows all the potential to being his fourth nigh-on perfect film on the trot.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Saturn 3 (15) | Film Review


Saturn 3, dir. Stanley Donen, scr. Martin Amis, story by John Barry, st. Farrah Fawcett, Kirk Douglas, Harvey Keitel


Scientists Adam (Douglas) and Alex (Fawcett) live on Saturn's third moon as colleagues and lovers dutifully researching alternative food methodologies for a rapidly overcrowded and under-resourced Earth. Their idyllic existence is shattered with the arrival of Captain Benson (Keitel) - actually not a real captain at all, but a psychopathic murderer who we see dispatch the original Benson and assume his identity. Neo-Benson brings with him a distinctly un-Robbie like robot - Hector, grandly labeled as a "demi-god" - who appropriates Benson's psychosis and lust for the lithe Alex. Many of the miniatures and optical special effects haven't really stood the test of time, and suffer the additional humiliation of belonging to a film released three years after the pioneering Star Wars (which director Barry production designed), and one year after Alien - both of which are clearly aped here. But there's a claustrophobic and efficiently told story, and while the characterisation is slender, the intrusion into the protagonist's lives by a malicious force is as potent a home invasion scenario we've seen hundreds of times before. Elmer Bernstein provides an eerie electro-acoustic score and cinematographer Billy Williams, who was to win an Oscar for his work on Gandhi two years later, makes the most of the shadowy, foreboding corridors and sci-fi-laboratorial lighting.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Divergent (12A) | Film Review


Divergent, dir. Neil Burger, scr. Evan Daugherty, Vanessa Taylor, based on the novel Divergent by Veronica Roth, st. Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ashley Judd, Zoë Kravitz, Kate Winslet, Maggie Q, Miles Teller, Jai Courtney

Neil Burger's previous effort, the Bradley Cooper vehicle Limitless, may have peddled the old ten per cent brain use limit chestnut (both as the film's concept and as commentary on how to approach the movie as an audience member), but at least it provided us with something of a sensory overload that was commensurate with the film's thematics. Here, Divergent, based on the highly popular young adult fiction series by Veronica Roth, should in theory hold infinite more storytelling potential in its depiction of a future society segregated and categorised. There's certainly an engaging and prevalent core idea that concerns adolescents having to choose once and once only what sociological camp to set up in - Abnegation that houses the civil servants, Amity the charity workers, Candor the lawmakers, Dauntless the soldiers, and Erudite the scientists. Students have enough trouble choosing their GCSE and A Level subjects - imagine if what they chose at that age irrevocably determined their life path. Yet there's precious little plot on offer and even less of a commitment to decent storytelling, which is particularly galling given the film's near two and a half hour running time. It's seventy minutes before we encounter any kind of meaningful narrative, the first half of the movie primarily concerning itself with much first-day-at-school soul searching.

Woodley, currently accumulating plaudits for her role in Josh Boone's The Fault in Our Stars, plays Beatrice Prior, the daughter of a high-ranking council member. Once of age, she is subjected to a mandatory aptitude test - a form of drug-induced lucid dreaming - which will reveal to the individual which social order they should be a part of, kind of like a dystopian Sorting Hat. Thereafter, a public Choosing Ceremony sees the kids choose their fate in front of their peers and family. They sever all ties, and begin their induction. Beatrice, now going under the slightly less bully-baiting Triss, joins Dauntless despite her aptitude test being inconclusive (labelling her the "divergent' of the title), a bunch of parkour-obssessed spring breakers who confuse making YouTube viral videos with character-building orientation. She soon uncovers a plot led by tropey ice-queen Jeaninine Matthews (Winslet) to turn the Dauntless into her own private army via a mind-controlling serum, and lead a coup against the Abnegation overthrowing the government. But this is where things really start to unravel and things stop making a whole heap of sense. Why, for example, is Triss' divergence such a threat to the status quo as we are frequently told? And what makes her different from the "factionless"- society's disenfranchised and homeless undesirables? And what about Matthews nefarious machinations - a plan so clumsy and unwieldy as to eliminate any credible sense of real menace? Many have compared the Divergent series akin to that other popular YAF-du-jour The Hunger Games, but that is to do a considerable disservice to Suzanne Collins' books. As flawed as Jennifer Lawrence's films are, they contain enough plausible threat and gravity to offer compelling drama of sorts, and Katniss embodies a spunky ambition and purpose that is sorely lacking in Triss. Divergent is supposed to be a chilling and persuasive suggestion of what a post-apocalyptic socio-political landscape might resemble, but ends up as anodyne and dead-eyed as the world it depicts.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

The Signal | Film Review


The Signal, dir. William Eubank, wr. Carlyle Eubank, David Frigerio, William Eubank, st. Laurence Fishburne, Brenton Thwaites, Olivia Cooke, Lin Shaye


There's more than a little Blomkamp in William Eubank's hi-concept science fiction episode The Signal. Maybe it's the dusty, arid setting and close-quarter framing, or perhaps it's the way that its hyper-modest budget is cleverly employed to make it look like a movie ten times its stature. One thing's for certain, there are a hell of a lot of ideas on offer here, not all of them as confidently executed as others, but enough to illusionistically suggest you're watching something greater than the sum of its parts. We catch our protagonists - MIT students Jonah, Nick, and Hayley - mid road-movie as the boys are in the process of shuttling Hayley to California. On the way, we learn they've been track an internet hacker known only as "Nomad", and that their route allows them the opportunity to drop in on the location his IP signal is emanating from. After some Blair Witch remote shack-investigating, things go very bad indeed and Nick wakes up in what is seemingly an underground research facility, possibly Area 51, and possibly having contracted some kind of pathogen judging by the hazmat-suited team that staff the area. The rest of the movie is given over to unravelling the enigma-wrapped riddle, and Eubank has great fun in establishing an eye-rubbingly strange environment in which everything seems just a bit off. Of course, well-versed sci-fictioners will have seen the ending coming a mile away, and there's just a mite too much super-glossy slo-mo that really belongs in an Audi advert, but Nima Fakhrara's squelchy score keeps the mood bubbling along, and there're some elegant VFX that realise the film's lofty ambitions.