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.


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.