Sunday, 5 October 2014

Maps To The Stars (2014, David Cronenberg)

David Cronenberg doesn't just make films, he continues to add to a career-wide project that builds on the same fabric from his body-horror debut Shivers in 1975, with his latest Maps To The Stars (his 21st feature film) fitting in seamlessly to this ever expanding 'Cronenberg-project'. But that doesn't mean it stands tall.

We're taken through the interwoven tales of multiple characters set across the backdrop of Hollywood; they're all either dealing with success or striving for it with even with the most privileged feeling trodden on by the system, and in some way dealing with buried past horrors that seem destined to replay. There's the central figures of the Weiss family with John Cusack as the self-help guru father, Olivia Williams as the managerial matriarch who are both steering their 13yr old child star son (Evan Bird) through rehab. The standout Julianne Moore plays fallen starlet Havana Segrand who's struggling to secure a comeback role while living in her dead mother's shadow. Limo driving and aspiring writer/actor Jerome (Robert Pattinson) and his last pick up of the day (shown in the film's opening) a heavily scarred LA newcomer (Mia Wasikowska) who links all these lives together.

One never goes into a Cronenberg film expecting to sit comfortably but here it often puts you on edge for the wrong reasons in that it's baffling how such a cerebral, insightful filmmaker has settled on material such as this. When outwardly commenting on Hollywood and the studio circus that verges on satire (it never really gets there) the film feels ultimately juvenile and out of date if only by a few years. In this ever quickening media frenzied world the finger needs to be right on the pulse if successful satire is desired but here even a 2010 release may have helped this feel fresher. Hollywood and all its players have become increasingly transparent over the years due to newly abused social platforms and so it seems strange that anyone thinks that in an ever gossip obsessed culture that a film can still breakdown any walls to surprise us anthropologically.

Some of the more positive praise for the film describe Maps as a "Hollywood take down" - isn't Hollywood doing that by itself at the moment and existed long enough for us to make our own fun and register it as a long running joke? We certainly don't need a filmmaker of this calibre armed with a half-baked out of touch script to enlighten us that the industry is cut-throat, shallow, abusive, and absurd to the point of hilarity and/or horror. 

The Weiss family circle at the heart of the film marks most of the story's twisted reveals and it's here that when focussed that the film works best - but it soon becomes clear that this aspect would be better transposed away from this Hollywood setting. Within this are themes and actions we've come accustomed to the 'Cronenberg project' but even with the recent shift in his work where he seems increasingly interested in individuals consumed or altered by their environments, this LA back drop is rendered useless. When the showbiz aspect is left on the back burner for sections the story it works best as a noirish nightmare of obscene familial secrets and lies. Sunset Blvd will be cited in comparison here but there are shades of noir The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers here, too.

Perhaps it's best to view the film metaphorically as most of Cronenberg's work should be. He paints the film industry as incestuous, always borrowing from the same genes and never evolving or giving life to new material. This is relatable in a time where tent-pole franchises talk and artistry mostly walks. But this is never really the forefront. Even as the incestuous circle at the film's centre cries to be broken it unnecessarily paints privilege as grotesque as if to bring monstrosity below that of the viewer and this is something that Twitter can do on its own now, highlighting further the material being below this director.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Two Days, One Night / Deux Jours, Une Nuit (2014, Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)

Money is a vulgar subject; it's something that affects everyone in someway, permeating our lives, happiness, and outlooks no matter how much we try to renounce its influence. The Belgian Dardenne brothers have never been the soapbox for the downtrodden or the poverty stricken but tellers of simple human struggles. They take scenarios that to any viewer could consume and devastate but in this day and age would seldom be acknowledged as worthy for a cinematic venture. Like the post-war Italian neo-realists to the radical Iranian filmmakers of the 80s and on such as Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the Dardenne brothers tell of simple human struggles with Two Days, One Night tracking a woman's mission to convince her colleagues to choose her continued employment over their annual bonuses.

Told in a series of long held shots, Two Days, One Night unfolds largely as the same scene played over and over as Sandra (Marion Cotillard) visits each colleague over a weekend to fight for her stay. So what makes this utterly compelling instead of risking monotony is not only the fantastic performances on display but the dramatic pendulum of Sandra's mental health. Though specifics are not muttered it's made clear that Sandra has entered this dilemma on the verge of returning to work after a spout of depression, making her plight all the more difficult to prove her worth. The defeatist weight of depression hanging over this recovering individual and the support from her husband (Dardenne resident Fabrizio Rongione) means each meeting and plea is either one step closer to the light or to breaking point as this family is put under increasing strain. 

So why should audiences care about the employment of a middle-class mother as she honourably asks others to give up their hard earned bonuses, of which they will use for house extensions and tuition fees? Well as always with the Dardennes this is interesting on a purely moralistic, anthropological level despite the political undertones of the work. Nearly everyone in the film is given a choice; whether it be to help a neighbour or to help themselves, or to fall in line with the group or remain an individual. Everyone approached by Sandra has to question whether their actions will mean anything in the greater picture and all this with the propagandist discourse used by an authority figure in the work place who's hell bent on slandering Sandra's efforts. 

Marion Cotillard is beyond impressive as she always seems to be in her native tongue (I'm still yet to see her used well in Hollywood save for The Immigrant) and reminds again how she is one of the most talented actresses working today. For Sandra she is stripped down, weak, almost anaemic, ready to be destroyed either by her colleague's cold cynicism or a strong wind. The Dardennes have never worked with an actor of Cotillard's stature and there's certainly something refreshing for both sides on this pairing, yet despite a full array of strong performances throughout I couldn't shake the feeling that this international actress was leaving the rest in the dust.

Have the Dardennes ever made a bad film? No, and they may not be capable of either, but for all of Two Days, One Night's wonderful poetic realism, for all its layers under a modest setup, and the raw power of Cotillard, this wasn't the top tier offering from two of the greatest living filmmakers I was led to believe it would be. These Belgian brothers are a miracle of modern cinema and their canon of humanist dramas is one of the finest bodies of work imaginable in which their latest sits comfortably. It just didn't stir like Rosetta, haunt like La Promesse, or grab at a gut level like The Kid with a Bike did. 

Saturday, 6 September 2014

The Rover (2014, David Michôd)

Whilst nesting by an open fire one night there's a mid-point in The Rover where Guy Pearce's jaded former farmer contemptuously asks Robert Pattinson's southern half-wit why he's telling him a rather inconsequential story involving an elderly couple he knew when he was younger. The reply is both tender and human - that it was simply his memories and that a story doesn't have to have a purpose.

This is a revealing moment in David Michôd's exceptional follow up to Animal Kingdom; not only an artistic statement regarding cinema and The Rover's place in it, but one that encapsulates the film's questions of humanity and what it means to be survive even in the harshest conditions.

Taking place in Australia 10 years after an economic collapse, the film follows Eric (Pearce), a hollow survivor like so many just getting by day-by-day in a highly volatile and desolate world. Opening with two lingering shots; the first of a gaunt, unfilled vista, the second of Eric's face in profile as he stares into nothing. Both shots are equally empty, lacking any remnant of life. In a couple of moments, however, Eric's world will soon once again be given purpose as once he exits his car and heads to a nearby bar for a drink (as if it'll be his last) his vehicle is stolen by a gang escaping an unseen bloody massacre. What ensues is an almost comical obsessive game of cat and mouse as Eric hunts down his car - this theft has given him a mission, a purpose in a world devoid of emotion.

Animal Kingdom showed Michôd looking at the primal aspects of a crime family, showing the moral depths involved to that subterranean world of sorts. With The Rover he goes further in exploring the extent of humanity's decline; asking at what point of despair does life die beyond the psychical act of survival?

Guy Pearce as the central Eric brings this theme out tremendously as this great actor continues to do what great actors can; by showing internal torment and the mechanics of a character's thoughts without expressing vocally. At times Pearce allows Eric's cynical beaten mask to slip, revealing dormant compassion. His eventual double act with Robert Pattinson's Rey - the discarded, assumed dead brother of one of the men who hijacked Eric's car - brings this aspect out even more due to the juxtaposition provided by that characters childlike naivety. A simple minded quality that is both endearing and hazardous on their journey.

Post-apocalptic settings by default regress their characters and explore the human condition in the harshest lights and in this share the same thematic concerns as any film set in pre-civil times. For this it's then noticeable how much The Rover has in common with, let's say, The Proposition, that also stars Guy Pearce. One showing the dawn of civilisation while the other charting its decline. Antony Partos's score highlights this in the background with his music combining electronics with aboriginal sounds - modernity and the past collide. As if a western Michôd shoots in perfectly composed wide angles akin to the equally savage landscapes of Leone or Peckinpah and carries the primal screaming pain of the latter's Straw Dogs or Bring Me The Head Of Aldredo Garcia.

The Rover is a tight and compelling film that uses its emptiness to ponder mankind's ability (or inability) to fill an abyss. A road movie, a western of sorts, yet another post-apocalyptic thriller, this rises above expectation on its confidence of themes and the conviction of its very talented cast that also includes Scoot McNairy as Rey's less bumbling sibling. Michôd has delivered not only another solid film that transcends its simple nature on the page but has also bettered his attention grabbing debut to further hint at a possibly great filmmaker for the future.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Calvary (2014, John Michael McDonagh)

John Michael McDonagh's Calvary is a mixed bag of ideas and executions; on one hand it's a higher reaching and higher serving film than 2011's The Guard yet the simple pleasures of its predecessor are lost here in a conflicting battle of existentialism and broad humour.

At one point Brendan Gleeson's priest - Father James Lavelle - says to another offended priest, "you just don't have integrity, that's the worst thing you could say to someone". Integrity is certainly something McDonagh and his brother Martin don't lack but here is an example of a filmmaker trying to have his cake and eat it. We know the brothers' penchant for the crass, but they're also capable of great pathos (most expertly shown in Martin McDonagh's In Bruges). To quote another famous priest - Robert Mitchum's Robert Powell in The Night Of The Hunter -  is a clear battle of "right-hand-left-hand". On one hand is the introspective, brooding cinema of Ingmar Bergman, the transcendental formalism of Robert Bresson, and the equally formalist Carl Theodor Dreyer. On the other is an onslaught of obvious humour that offsets this drama asking what it means to be a priest today and what place God has in modern society.

Brendan Gleeson carries the film as effortlessly as one would expect. He makes Father James instantly recognisable and gruff, a man generally liked by the community and yet ostracised for his collar. His recovering daughter (Kelly Reilly) comes to stay with her family in this small Irish community as she gets over an attempted suicide. We never see the arrangement of her staying yet she is embraced with the calmness you might not expect from a father who's nearly lost his only child; we later find out they have lost their wife and mother, respectfully, in the past. Loss has permeated both their lives in different ways and so when death hangs above them they remain neutral as if in the company of a strange local in a dark pub. There's something beautifully serene and yet unsettling about this.

It's accurate to say that Calvary begins and ends with its most powerful and poignant scenes; the opening - a shocking confessional filmed with Gleeson in tight close up - is a straight faced and threatening scene as a formerly clergy abused child now adult vows that the Father will die in 7 days. The Guard had a sense of an impending showdown yet here the tone here is increasingly grave from the offset. The closing scene is a profound sweep over the lives of the film's players and their problems brought forward by the unfurling drama that shows the necessary impact of someone like Father James, believer or not. 

Calvary ends up being two films trying to operate simultaneously and never really gelling. The comedy even when on target (it's not always) feels more like comic relief for the films larger overarching themes. On one hand it brings to mind Bergman's Winter Light and of Bresson's Diary Of A Country Priest - yet the drama omitted form these clear reference points are diluted and off-set by the periodic crass humour, never really allowing the film to fully consider its comedy or more importantly its questions of faith and its placement in the world today.

Out of the two films it tries to be, the one that works really works. John Michael McDonagh has followed in his brother's footsteps in that he's made a rather conflicted second feature, however unlike his brother there are elements within this follow up that take this beyond his debut. Some more direction might be needed for his third feature as the talent up on screen is undoubtable, though hopefully next time making a film with a clear path instead of making two films concurrently. 

Noah (2014, Darren Aronofsky)

The Western genre is generally seen as the most 'out of date' or 'wavering' genre - a consistently unfair viewpoint as each decade harbours enough examples of such a film often complete with progressive artistry. The western as a maintaining populist genre? No, but relevant none the less. The Biblical epic, however, certainly can't be professed as such things at all. Interesting is the room in this sub-genre for reinvention on such a sweeping, fantastical stage. Even more interesting or rather baffling (for positive reasons none the less) is that this $180 million film exists in an arguably increasingly secular society where forwarding technology and social mores are suffocating artistic freedom in cinema.

Awe inspiring in its beauty and bare brutality, Noah is a cinematic experience unlike any other. At times a marvel and at others confounding in its ambition, Darren Aronofsky's long gestating take on the Old Testament's parable of a man missioned by God to undertake his destroying of creation doesn't hang together as a whole but holds within it sequences of sheer astonishment. Some of the most beautiful sequences of film to contest any example before it.

Beginning with a thumping musical introduction that's almost comical with intimidation, the story of Man's fall is glided through with the first murder of Abel by brother Caine. More fleeting is the murder of a young Noah's father, also by Caine (Ray Winstone), that begins an intertwining battle between the fallen brother and an adult Noah (Russell Crowe). Given the short nature of the source material - the story of Noah is a mere four paragraphs - Aronofsky and his team have endless room for artistic licence in bringing the pre-flood Earth to life. Characterisation is at a minimum with the film feeling very much like an adaptation of a parable (Noah is simple described as "righteous" in scripture without further divulgence) and so the players of the film exist more as archetypal figures than fully drawn ones. This certainly adds to the often direct style of acting brought by both Crowe and Winstone, however when the film reaches for higher emotional notes others, such as the brilliant Jennifer Connelly as Noah's dedicated wife feel out of sorts with the film, of course not to their own detriment.

The world building and visuals are without doubt the strongest element of Noah, with this desolate landscape coming somewhere between Middle Earth and science fiction - think Game Of Thrones by way of David Lynch's Dune. Angels cast down by God are consumed by the Earth and live tortured existence as hobbling rock creatures, these fallen rock angels help defend Noah and his family in the Ark against the sinful army of Caine. This is one of the wild moves in the film that have to be seen to be believed.

There is a certain elliptical style to the film that doesn't lend itself to the gruelling, cumbersome challenge of building an Ark of such grandeur. Aronosky's central characters have nearly always been characterised by an achilles heel, an ambition that pushes past the realm of the physical that enters them in the arena of impossibly realised dreams. Here is the first time that through divine intervention (God is referred to as The Creator throughout) the impossible can and is achieved. It's in the psychological despair, or rather guilt, of mass genocide and of this chosen family's survival that the film's dramatic arc (sorry!) hangs on and it does so well with a paranoia bringing to mind early Polanski.

Noah's apocalyptic visions are fantastically realised as he drowns in his sleep surrounded by the souls of a thousand 'sinners'. But it's in the waking reality of these visions as they come to life before him that truly strike a chord; such as the harrowing screams of those clung to rock faces just outside of the floating vessel, Noah's family know they could help save some one but their father dismisses any such action. He knows what he's been destined to carry out and Crowe's wearing eyes project the torment.

Aronofsky's films have always had a weakness in how direct and undiluted they are, yet this dually has also marked his main strength as a filmmaker too; honing in on a theme and intensely gripping it without losing sight. This has made for a career of brash and rather blunt films made majestically operatic thanks to a long lasting collaboration with composer Clint Mansell. One must never forget that despite his subjective viewpoints and often surreal nature, Aronofky is a director of melodramas. Here, Aronofsky and his team have settled on an ecological message that sits well against a parable of destruction and mankind's inability to change. This clear righteous message may frustrate many viewers more than the fears of a religious story; Noah certainly has strong explorations of faith, especially during the film's strongest sequence aboard the arc where the family fall apart due to Noah's unwavering loyalty to what he believes his mission is. Overall it is undoubtably the work of a team of non-believers but also the work of someone clearly passionate about a timeless, boundless, story that has found its way into just about any culture on the face of the planet.

Noah is hindered by being bookended with its weakest scenes and the regularly visceral Aronofsky is obviously working in 'safer' territory than before given the source material and the biggest budget of his career. This results in a slightly awkward film that although never shying away from the inherent darkness of such a story, never quite feels like it can let loose despite the sheer levels of ambition and vision on display. It's a miracle this film exists.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014, Wes Anderson)

Wes Anderson's film have nearly always harboured in them a sad sense of loss, a melancholic glance at an enterprise and/or person fallen from great heights and majesty. Just think of the departed mothers and fathers of Rushmore and The Darjeeling Limited, the flailing dynasty of The Royal Tenenbaums, and Steve Zissou tragically looking to regain past glories, literally cast out in a sea of bereavement. Anderson's latest further looks into these themes while divulging once again the director's fascination with the art of storytelling, entering further into his own painfully designed fantasy world perhaps more than ever before. 

Spanning many decades but largely told over the span of two fictional versions of the First and Second World Wars, the story centres around the fine Grand Budapest Hotel and its concierge - Mr. Gustav H - played by Ralph Fiennes on barnstorming comical form. The happenings of the once legendary hotel and its passionately loving high servant is told from the aged eyes of Mr. Zero Moustafa, once a young lobby boy trained under the scrutinous command of Gustav. But that's not all, as even the frail Moustafa's account of his youth is recounted by a young writer (Jude Law) who goes on to publish a book on these memoirs. The film opens with the older author (Tom Wilkinson) reading from his praised work of the man's life he was once lucky enough to have access to. Anderson's penchant for theatrics and the joy of storytelling has never been felt more than here in this multilayered recounting of a past-era and a man whose greatness lies in the memory and heart of a once young upstart.

Mr. Gustav H is a professional at heart and in the hands of these storytellers is held up as if the greatest concierge whom ever existed; his work treated like a dance as he swans from room to room, seeing to needs before they've even arisen in the guest's minds. But he's not quite the professional one presumes from the start, he harbours a 'playful' streak that involves the seduction and obtained adoration of the hotel's various rich (and elderly) female clients. It seems innocent enough through the light nature of Gustav's charms yet this dark vice, or materialistic streak of his, is never fully explored and is merely a subjective footnote we're left to mull over.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a strange mix of tones and it's in the marvellous use of shading that marks its biggest success. The wafer thin plotting of a will left by one of Gustav's matrons and the subsequent war waged by her enraged son goes hand-in-hand with the audacious Python-esque slapstick humour. This is counterbalanced by the cut aways to the aged Moustafa as he recounts the events, his love and loss of both his loves - Gustav and the spritely young baker, Agatha (Saoirse Ronan). Such moments are rife with mourning and become the film's most anchoring scenes that make for the heaviest moments in what from the offset could have been Anderson's lightest outing yet. The humour is pitch perfect, largely thanks Fiennes's turn in a truly inspired character such as Gustav (his effortless reciting of poetry throughout never loses its comic hold) yet this is again neutralised by the oppressive darkness brought by the murderous hitman Joplin (Willem Defoe) who's out for Gustav's blood. This brutal turn from Defoe's hitman and the swan song like recital from Moustafa are harmonised in the arrival of a Nazi-like militia that casts a shadow over the golden years told thus far. This malevolent force destroys this way of life personified by Gustav and buries it forever much like the fallen aristocracy in Visconti's The Leopard (1963).

With an ensemble cast to rival all casts assembled before it The Grand Budapest Hotel is an uneven affair due to its vast attention span but one that manages to retain a dark and sad resonance thanks to a finely built mythology weaved in throughout. And, of course, the ghost of Kumar Pallana, the Anderson regular and dear friend who was sadly lost last October who's lack of presence looms over this tale of pain and awe. 

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis (2014, Joel & Ethan Coen)

Joel and Ethan Coen have always been accused of lording it over their characters with a disdained manner, jeering at their shortfalls and downwardly spiralling lives thanks often to their creation's common stupidity. Whereas their plots do often deal with failure, this critic doesn't share such an opinion and it certainly doesn't apply to their Inside Llewyn Davis that follows the daily trials of a talented (yet sour) New York folk singer in the cruel pursuit of success. The film feels like a swan song thanks to the dedicated, morose central performance of Oscar Isaac as Llewyn, and its steely,withered photography matches the harshness given and received by its titular anti-hero. In fact, and this depends entirely how you want to look at it, the film is actually one of hope as with history on its side we know that the folk boom is just around the corner in 1961. All out of hope, can Llewyn continue the good fight and not compromise with this musical shift so near? Perhaps settle on mediocrity, or a more morbid fate hinted at throughout.

History is of course on our side in this case and not on Llewyn's, which is what makes most of the film such a gruelling experience as what little resilience on his face at the start is wiped off through constant hardship. Like Lebowski's 'The Dude' we have another man out of step with his time - the product of another era. Here however, unlike 'The Dude', Llewyn is a step ahead of the game in the Universe's grand plan yet is perceived by the music business as dated; as a producer says coldly after one of Llewyn's heartfelt renditions, "I don't see any money in it".

Llewyn is a prickly character and it can be argued is responsible for much of his detriment, whether that be in his personal or professional life. Though within this tale and with much thanks to Isaac's complete understanding of his character he is also a sympathetic man; he takes a beating for heckling another act without much complaint, receives a bombardment of vitriol from a past lover, Jean (Carey Mulligan), because on his face you can see he agrees with her, and upon upsetting a dinner party hosted by a couple who've been his biggest supporters, realises he overstepped the mark and does indeed apologise later. His caring for a neighbour's cat which he managed to get locked out is also endearing as well as redeeming and reminds of the touching relationship between man and dog in Vittorio De Sica's Umberto D. (1952). Here is a man who will continue to apologise his entire life because he will continue to upset people - why? Because he cannot and will not change, though this is softened by his acceptance of what an"asshole" he can be. 

With the 60s in its infancy, still blooming and with these players inside the eye of the storm and without a removed perception of this developing counter culture, Llewyn is rebelling against the bourgeoisie (despite resting on it when he really needs a sofa) and either stifles or enriches himself because he refuses to dilute or add others to his act. This is a film about integrity but not only that one about loss and grief too.

Bruno Delbonnel's photography brutally and yet beautifully captures the unforgiving winter, the smoke filled bars where the folk acts play - most famously The Gaslight. You're able to feel these places, taking and placing you in the comfort of the front row or in the blistering cold as Llewyn embarks on a surreal-tinged road trip to Chicago, accompanied by a near mute Garrett Hedland and a Jazz informed John Goodman. The look captured by the Coens and Delbonnel is almost anaemic, with the image seemingly drained of life to match Llewyn's doleful gaze; a dolefulness explained by the suicide of his musical partner and friend, Mike. Much is explained in this loss, this man who wasn't there hangs over the film and torments Llewyn who struggles to carry on alone.

It can be argued that since 2007's No Country For Old Men, Joel and Ethan Coen began a new elegiac chapter to their career that seems natural given as the duo are approaching their sixties; even the rather spritely Burn After Reading dealt with marital breakdown and midlife crises amidst its broad strokes. This has continued through their True Grit which also dealt with a loss of innocence and the passing of time, a touching story under its steely heroine. With their latest feeling like a funeral procession of sorts despite its sporadic moments of hilarity and a soulful soundtrack that will surely go on to rival even O' Brother Where Art Thou?

A typical Coen protagonist tends to be one of pretension, or one who misjudges their station. They also tend to be passive, or at least ignorant to the consequences of their own actions. Inside Llewyn Davis presents us with another man who gets whipped by fate and boxed by life due to his unfortunate action, or lack of it. It presents us with questions and avenues of which Llewyn could head but leaves us to answer them for ourselves in the same way the similarly pitched companion piece A Serious Man did. 

It's 1961 and the situation in Vietnam is escalating, Bob Dylan is about to burst the folk scene open, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy not too far off in the distance; will America ever get over that loss? Will Llewyn ever get over his? For a man who can't seem to think ahead by barely a day no one can see what's actually around the corner. So whether Llewyn reenlists as a seaman, continues his plight as a musician (untainted or not), or follows a similar fate to his partner Mike, we're left to ponder. Life's unknowable nature is at once petrifying and yet in its infinite possibility should be more exciting and hopeful than we ever give it credit for, the cynic in us so often wins. If only we could view our own lives like we view Llewyn Davis's existence, a fantasy if there ever was one.

Head over to Kubrick on the Guillotine for part one, two, and three of my Coen Brothers career retrospective.