Sunday, 18 October 2015
There is a forewarning, if one must view it such a way, from central character Edith Cushing about her unpublished novel not being a ghost story but rather a story with ghosts in it. It feels like a knowing side-glance to the audience to prepare themselves for a certain type of horror film; one which is drenched in sadness, loss, and longing and relies on the tortured adult souls on display to be explored through the metaphor of ghosts i.e. the past, a metaphor again brought to attention. For anyone knowingly walking into Guillermo Del Toro's new film, they shouldn't be surprised by his approach here for it covers similar ground to his Spanish Civil War-set ghost story The Devil's Backbone (2001) and offers similar thrills and pains, whether they be physical or emotional, and feels part of a lineage concluding said film and the sensational Pan's Labyrinth (2006).
Crimson Peak follows the story of Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) who after meeting and falling for the charming industrial inventor Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) is taken to be married and to live with her new husband and neglectful sister-in-law Lucille (Jessica Chastain) in their rotting family home in England. Edith probably wouldn't have left New York if it wasn't for the mysterious death of her father, which after the untimely death of her mother when she was a little girl has left her alone without family. The headstrong young would-be Mary Shelley is disarmed as the film follows her gradually being dominated by the two headed dragon of Thomas and Lucille who harbour a grave secret that is revealed gradually throughout the story.
Crimson Peak is as visually stunning as anything you're bound to see this year; every frame saturating the film's palette lifting the colour as if from the screen and for a film so cloaked in death it is also so alive, so vitalised by the joy of just being. The family mansion of Lucille and Thomas Sharpe is so magnificent yet a building that aches with pain and seems to cry and howl endlessly as a character quite rightfully unto itself. The candles held by Edith as she wonders through her new home, her yellow hair juxtaposed against the cold moonlight and the crimson mass of the resident ghosts. This is eye-popping cinema in a similar vein to the technicolor films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and reminds how rare it is to be visually stimulated in such a way by an American studio film in recent times.
This vitality comes from the ever passionate Guillermo Del Toro - a filmmaker who shoots with his heart firmly on the lens. His childlike fondness for the wonders of cinema is one that is utterly endearing however I found this affectionate naivety being lost on this particular story. Whereas before I have accepted this storyteller and have admitted to being lost, in awe, and needing a guide out of Pan's Labyrinth, I found myself almost immediately aware of how to exit Crimson Peak's maze.
Much as the film's characters are shackled to the past in pure gothic fashion, so is Crimson Peak by design; this is a film that in many ways echoes the studio films of the 1940s, which is at times a joy to see a filmmaker creating such a stirring picture of the past but one that verges on homage to the point of disruption. The story beats of Hitchcock outings Rebecca, Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious, and Psycho come with pleasure much like the other gothic reference points that come in abundance, but by the end it's doubtful how much Crimson Peak offers to this lineage.
I admire and am still in awe of Crimson Peak by the sheer nature of its design, its tenderness regarding a sub-genre of horror rarely explored anymore, of its bravery and exuberance to showcasing emotion in every frame helped through by Fernando Velázquez's sweeping score and Dan Lausten's baroque cinematography, yet I'm unable to shake off the feeling that something has been lost in the mix here. I was expecting Del Toro to hit me in the gut or to pull at my heart strings like he has managed in the past (even his Hellboy films evoke an emotional response) but this never came. Crimson Peak is a great throwback to classical horror (classical in the literal sense) and there is pleasure to be had in that but for all the film's success in recreating this strand of cinema it winds up being a present that should be viewed and not touched where the temptation to tear it open and enjoy it is all too overwhelming.
Wednesday, 28 January 2015
Hulking bodies and broken psyches drive Foxcatcher, Bennett Miller's fourth film and fourth based on a true event. This is an unrelenting American horror story in which misplaced longings build to unbearable levels, giving way to upmost tragedy.
Combining the cold blooded nature of the killings centred upon in 2005's Capote and the sporting world of his last film - Moneyball - Foxcatcher tells the torturous relationship between self-appointed wrestling coach John DuPont and the talented Schultz brothers who he came to manage. Manage, not by talent but through sheer wealth and an illogical determination to mend his once great but now flailing country to make it prosperous and proud once again.
DuPont means to do so by training a team of talented young wrestlers to compete and win the 1988 Seoul Olympics. This team would be headed by star player Mark Shultz who won Olympic gold in '84 who after had been thrown on the junk pile. Shultz, played here by Channing Tatum, is a towering neanderthal like man with a pronounced lower jaw, hunched shoulders, and hanging arms. There's a big heart to match his other large muscles here but he's a broken childlike man looking for a place in the world. Introduced by making ends meat, Mark attends schools to motivate youngsters with his accomplishments, being paid small cash to do so, then returning to his grim lodgings to eat packeted noodles - hardly the food of champions. One day, like a scene out of some classic noir, he receives a mysterious phone call beckoning him to the DuPont residence where he's offered his place in team Foxcatcher. Coaxed by the words of patriotism by John DuPont in person, Mark inevitably succumbs.
Unlike his younger brother, David Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) isn't as impressed and decides to decline despite the teaming of the two brothers being what DuPont really desires. It's here that the brother's nomadic upbringing comes into the picture as from an ever moving broken home, David has settled with a family and has used this to overcome his childhood while Mark is still living it, remaining tortured by its lack of parental figures and roots. This also reveals the gravitational pull of DuPont's influence on Mark as he's week, looking for a purpose and love beyond his brother.
Steve Carell is almost unrecognisable as John DuPont and against the golden boy wrestler he's the antithesis of a man built for such a sport: he's meagre and bird like in appearance, as if his bones would shatter like glass. He speaks in broken sentences that only hint at the broken man behind the words. It's a remarkable performance, like an amalgamation of Travis Bickle and The Simpsons' Mr. Burns, and like Tatum is a performance largely built around physical idiosyncrasies that would be too easy to fall into caricature but feel truly lived in by these actors.
It's mostly in the silence of the film that Bennett and his actors allow for the story to develop. Take for instance the first time we see the Schultz brothers training together, which is also the first time they share the screen; it's one of the film's opening scenes and in it Ruffalo and Tatum convey such a wide spectrum of emotions that you realise early on you're in the company of a team of filmmakers at the top of their game.
Too call Foxcatcher a film about wrestling would be accurate as long as you were referring to the wrestling of demons throughout. Ultimately this is what E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman's screenplay boils down to - an exploration of the collateral damage from such demons with the innocent suffering the largest casualties. DuPont's choice of wrestling in the first place is odd given his naturally fragile demeanour and being the future of an elite American dynasty, as his mother (a wheelchair-bound Vanessa Redgrave) refers to the sport as below her son in one of many examples her looking upon her only offspring in a mixed look of icy bafflement and disappointment. This venture into the world of wresting makes sense when looking at it as a defying gesture to a controlling matriarch, however the homosexual subtext that the film has garnered thus far seems misplaced. While it's true there are moments of uncomfortable master/slave like power shifts between John and Mark (Hitchcock's Marnie came to mind several times) this is a film, I believe, that explores DuPont's venture as one seeking intimacy of any kind and not the sexual variety. By using the same means that destroyed his childhood, DuPont uses wealth to get what he wants and buys players for his games instead of developing any kind of interpersonal skills and relationships. From a man who found out at the age of 16 that his best friend had been paid all along for his services, this tragically maladjusted millionaire uses the sport as a means to be close to others, whether that be on the mat individually or part of a team. The most striking example showing DuPont administering the same parental behaviour that corrupted him in the first place is best shown comparing two scenes that lodge in the memory. The first is a beautifully shot sequence in which John releases his mother's horses from their stables soon after her passing; a moment of simple subtext as a son lets go of his emotional baggage except we soon learn that letting go for John is impossible as he's cursed to being consumed by it instead. The second scene contain a simple framing of Mark as he's visited by brother David in his outhouse located on Foxcatcher Farm; Mark is framed in his doorway - a stable door in which the top section is opened so he can converse with his brother, his hulking top half sticking out indeed like that of a horse. Kept on the farm like the other wrestlers, DuPont merely collects people like his mother's precious horses and like the many antiques of the main house. Kept for their function and aesthetic purpose but stored either at a distance or on display. His view of human companionship beyond this purpose is alien to him.
Foxcatcher appears overly loose and meandering at times and on reflection could be argued to needing tighting - however this is also the film's key to power as the taunting and misdirection almost cancels out the suspension (though never the tension) before hitting a deathblow. Unlike those in Foxcatcher Farm who failed to notice the warning signs, we the audience have foresight into the tragedy unfolding before our eyes and the signposted deterioration of DuPont as he grows increasingly detached and erratic. His love of guns becomes unruly and his day-to-day demeanour more subdued perhaps by his cocktail of drugs along with his eroding psyche.
Like his Capote, Bennett Miller has a real knack for creating an atmosphere of dread and manages to give his films a quality in which you're taken back to these moments, no matter how mundane or painful they are, there's a sheen to his biopics and yet they're beautifully balanced with the candid. Foxcatcher sees Bennett go three for three in his feature films so far and while it's a draining and bleak venture this time, it's becoming somewhat of a joy to see this filmmaker's take on seismic moments of American history, even as each subject appears more esoteric than the last.
Wednesday, 5 November 2014
One may not have expected a whole lot from the directorial debut from the writer of The Bourne Legacy and Reel Steal, which are two of Dan Gilroy's most recent credits. Such superficiality will easily be discarded after witnessing Nightcrawler; a tale of human depravity in which Jake Gylenhaal's Louis Bloom hunts crime like a storm chaser and reveals to having nothing in common with the living but rather the dead as he at first observes and then constructs like a conductor of controlled chaos.
Throughout this nightmare-of-a-noir it brought to mind the likes of Scorsese's Taxi Driver and even more fittingly The King of Comedy, of Cronenberg's Videodrome and Crash, and at times with its finger on the black button of comedy - Mary Harron's American Psycho. But Nightcrawler manages to retain its ideas and executions and becomes a great piece of cinema instead of just evoking the kind of great cinema embedded in its DNA.
All of these evocations stem mostly from the central performance of Gylenhaal rather than stylistic choices elsewhere in the film. This is the type of character rarely seen in modern 'empathetical' cinema in which a film's enjoyment is too often measured on how relatable the characters are. Lou Bloom is a sociopathic bottom feeder from the beginning as a copper wire, bike stealing hood just barely making a living; his presence looms and consumes every scene and as his transformation into crime 'reporting' turns into a lucrative financial path, he becomes more vampiric as he feeds off of the dead with his wide unflinching eyes acting like a Satanic CCTV system awaiting the next dose of carnage.
Perhaps the most revealing moments in Nightcrawler come when Gilroy goes out of his way to delay his cuts from scene to scene - a decision that adds a strange extra space to Gylenhaal's performance that is driven on ticks and minute details. He is unforgettable here and his gaunt appearance and shark-like ambition is more night-terror than crawler. In one of the most tense sequences - a shootout in a highway diner - Lou truly begins to meddle and treat his job as an act of creation rather than observation; his commands and vision equating him with the likes of a film director a la Peeping Tom (1960). It's at this point in which the film takes a shattering turn as its monstrous roots sprout and take on new horrific life.
Moments such as Bloom having a meltdown at his own reflection after a rival coverage team get the scoop before him haunts long in the mind. So does the monologue delivered with eerie calculated precision at Rene Russo's News Director of whom he delivers to and is paid by. His manipulation of anyone and everyone around him, especially her, is sickening on a level with the depravity in their line of work. It would be easy to feel sorry for Russo's Nina Romina if she wasn't Bloom's enabler - a factor that bites back at her as she must lower herself to him in perverse ways only hinted at - and that she is happy with the product gained at the end of it. Romina is unflinching, remote, and steel - a figure of modernity and an armoured product of her cynical surrounding.
Gilroy gives his film a retro sheen and shoots in an old-fashioned muscular manner using effective framing devises to tell so very effectively this story both so modern and yet drenched in Gothic hallmarks. Robert Elswitt's expected sublime photography certainly encompasses the vision of the film as he balances the levels of darkness and neon highlights, as does James Newton Howard's score that blends modernity with eighties guitar-licks.
Nighcrawler is a stunning piece of work on almost every level; It's a neon drenched horror film about a man feasting off the dead of the night, a monster movie as well as a character study, a black comedy verging on satire with a perverse meta-sense of cinematic blood letting that hangs over it. It delivers one of the most unsettlingly memorable performances of the year and leaves us with one hell of a closing line, arguably a punch line, backed most scarily of all with a confident smile. But after spending this much time with Lou Bloom - how could we expect anything else?
Sunday, 5 October 2014
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
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
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
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.