Saturday, 14 June 2014

All Is Lost (12A) | Film Review

All Is Lost, dir/wr. J. C. Chandor, st. Robert Redford

You know Chandor's film is going to be a veritable corker from the moment you ear-glimpse the faintest refrain of composer Alex Ebert's score that glides and shimmers like the refracted light off Redford's ocean. By Hollywood standards at least, it's mixed daringly low down in the overall sound design, at first a seemingly deliberate ploy to avoid empathic signposting, then later, as Our Man's chances flicker and dissolve, becoming hallucinatory commensurate with being abandoned by humanity at sea. As Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity proved with considerably more pomp and fanfare, there is an audience on hand willing to engage in high-concept, extended-scened, dialogue-light survival movies, though this film is infinitely more nuanced. Just listen to how high Steven Price's score is mixed in Curarón's film. It's hard to imagine anyone else playing the part of our reluctant sailor. Redford's ever-expressive features have no problem convincing us this is someone who's been through the mill a few times. All that we learn about him is through the way in which he reacts to Chandor's surf-churning plot, and even then, some things are left deliberately ambiguous. What's he doing out in the middle of the open seas anyway? My innate feeling, maybe spurred by Redford's brief opening message-in-a-bottle voiceover, was that he was running away from something. Of course, this being a movie all about survival, juxtaposing man's biological desire to live with the nagging feeling this particular man only wanted to float away with the tide in the first place, presents a deliciously inviting scenario. Things soon go from bad to worse for Our Man, as storms claim first his vessel, then his equipment, before finally his spirit, but interestingly, the classically structured states of tension fall instead of rise, with things becoming more serene as hope ebbs away. It evokes what they say about drowning, a welcoming heaviness of sleep that descends. There was a kind of heroic desperation in Dr. Ryan Stone's atmospheric re-entry in the Soyuz. Here, Our Man's last-ditch attempt to attract the last passing ship that may come to his rescue contains the kind of immeasurably peaceful sadness that the Cinema rarely allows.

Friday, 13 June 2014

The Game (15) | Film Review

The Game, dir. David Fincher, wr. John Brancato, Michael Ferris, st. Michael Douglas, Sean Penn, James Rebhorn, Deborah Kara Unger

As thousands of students nationwide breathe a sigh of relief as they arrive at the end of their exams with nothing but the wild abandon of Summer stretching before them, it may be a good time to remind those too heavily invested in the outcome of their results of this cautionary tale about the importance of lightening up. People tend to forget (or at any rate disregard) this little thriller from David Fincher from 1997, but it's a brain-noodling tease of a movie that starts off as a great little puzzle before slowly dismantling the very framework that had you contextualising it as such in the first place. Douglas plays Nicholas Van Orton, a filthy rich investment banker whose extensive fortune is matched only by his detachment from empathic society. For his 48th birthday, his younger brother Conrad (Penn) gives Nick a voucher from Consumer Recreation Services - a kind of Red Letter Days experience on steroids. And acid. As we have come to expect from Fincher, the art designs and cinematography, as meticulous and painterly as always, play second fiddle to the intricate character study that always accompanies them. This is a film about a man who uses his isolation and routine to process the world around him, and what happens when that world is forcibly reshaped. A man who penitently keeps his Father's ghost at his side. Douglas is the perfect lead here. No one does condescendingly affluent and empowered quite like him, yet he's also adept at playing chaotically panicked once the wheels start to come off. The film as as much a game for us as it is for Nick. Fincher ties us up in Nick's predicament. How much can we both take? How many red herrings until we implore the heavens that we don't want to play any more? Many, I suspect, bowed out before the end, but those of us like Nick who saw the game through, know how glad we are to have had the opportunity to play.

The Piano (15) | Blu-ray Review

The Piano, wr/dir. Jane Campion, st. Holly Hunter, Sam Neill, Harvey Keitel, Anna Paquin

If you've never seen The Piano, Jane Campion's multi-award-winning, wind-swept love story from 1993, Studiocanal might just have put an end to your excuses with a new, lovingly assembled disc that features an impossibly beautiful high-definition print, and Michael Nyman's soul-caressing score restored within a 5.1 DTS lossless Master Audio track.

Commonly cited as the definitive art house/mainstream crossover movie, Campion's film that claimed the Palme d'Or at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, and a triumvirate of top-band Oscars the following year, is a dreamy foray into foreign lands, symphonious sounds of rain, crackling woodland and the sweet notes of hammered strings, and the violently sonorous meeting of Victorian restraint with unbridled desire. Holly Hunter plays Ada McGrath, a young woman who's sold into marriage, and packaged off to a remote corner of the world to live with her new husband - frontiersman Alisdair Stewart (Neill). Deposited on the New Zealand beach, Ada is surrounded by the domestic trinkets and fripperies that have accompanied her, but two possessions she prizes above all else; her nine-year-old daughter Flora (Paquin), and her piano. Both serve as Ada's mouthpiece, for as we are told in an opening monologue, Ada has not spoken since she was six. We are also introduced to Baines (Keitel), another Westerner on the island, an ex-sailor who has immersed himself in Māori culture and custom, and who in Stewart's stoic formality and lack of empathy, spies an opportunity to win Ada's heart by rescuing her beloved instrument abandoned on the sands by her new husband, and sell it back to her key by key in return for daily visitations - ostensibly music lessons - of carnal embrace.

Together, Ada and Flora make a formidable team, the former emphatically signing to her brood when frustrated, and her offspring translating with furious attitude to those around her bewildered by her elemental temperament. So woven is Hunter's performance into the very fabric of this film, impressive details that tell of her role as Paquin's on-set sign-language teacher, or inform of her actual on-screen piano-playing dissolve into the air. She inhabits her character with such intensity and persuasion through one page of dialogue and ninety nine of impassioned and delicate physicality. Rarely has Sam Neill been better too, an actor who has always achieved more by doing less. His Stewart isn't the villain the film's Blubeard allegory would have you believe, and indeed, forces us to ruminate upon those around us who are unable to take pleasure in or comprehend the delight of food, music, art, companionship, beauty - whatever it may be. That we would presume those kinds of people are somehow deficient in some way is troubling. Although Campion interestingly juxtaposes Stewart's dour pragmatism with the possibility of literal impotence in the same way she frames Baines' communicative patience with his mastery of eroticism.

All the while, surging and churning around the action, is Michael Nyman's now-ubiquitous score, a heady mixture of 19th Century Salon music Romanticism, and the minimalism of Nyman's 20th Century signature style, music that provides the backdrop for everything from the vast New Zealand vistas lovingly captured by cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, to Ada's most intimate and fragile utterances. And in Ada, Campion has created one of the great cinematic heroines; a woman who loves and lives with awesome ferocity, who conjures and creates with almost supernatural grace and artistry, and who forges a path for herself and her child in the face of impossible human and elemental adversity. All the more impressive considering she never says a word.