Thursday, 28 March 2013

Do You Wanna Trance? - Trance Review

Danny Boyle is a director unafraid to take risks, albeit calculated ones. He has a budget cut-off of £20 million, when his Academy Award-winning clout could see him command considerably more, because he maintains that working on a smaller-scale grants him a creative freedom of concept and approach that would be unavailable in the big leagues. And his pictures are typically aimed at the youthful, male demographic that dominates cinema attendance: there's sex, violence, and central roles for the young and the beautiful. He has said that cinema is irrevocably a young man's medium, and he seems less bothered by this than many other acclaimed filmmakers.

That being said, he's still the man most responsible for expanding modern British cinema outwards from the kitchen-sink realism that has often been clung to less out of artistic merit than cowardice and lack of imagination. Back in the early 90s he embraced youth subcultures, before moving on to introduce a virulent new strand of zombie horror to these grey shores, and then produce what has been called the first 'global' blockbuster, Slumdog Millionaire.

His latest, Trance, is seemingly an attempt to discombobulate the conventions of the psychological thriller, taking cues from glossy romps like Basic Instinct in its mix of mental sparring and erotic seduction.

Obviously, like any sleight of hand, the magician relies on you not knowing all of the cards in his deck, so to give away too much of the plot would spoil the film's only real purpose: to surprise. Suffice it to say that James McAvoy stars as a fine art auctioneer who acts as the inside man and masterminds the heist of a multi-million-pound Goya painting with a gang of London criminals. When the canvas goes missing, the gang assume that McAvoy has double-crossed them, but the out-of-his-depth auctioneer has sustained amnesia from an injury to the head and can't remember what he did with the desired object. Despairing of cracking his memories by force, head criminal Vincent Cassel drags McAvoy off to a hypnotherapist, played by Rosario Dawson, hoping that she can dredge up what he has forgotten by inducing the titular state. Instead, the therapist becomes increasingly involved in the lives of the conspirators, and a twisted power dynamic develops as they inch closer to the inevitable revelations.

It's fair to say that an act of goodwill is necessary to sustain disbelief in the daft plot. In the mould of many thrillers, the solution is both simple and hopelessly contrived, with the filmmakers' need to tie up every loose end demanding an entire spaghetti bowl's worth of implausible connections. But that shouldn't downplay the mischievous fun that the film has: Whilst it would perhaps be going too far to say that it subverts any genre tropes, it certainly shakes them up. The biggest surprise turns out not to be the mystery as such, so much as the way that the film cleverly wrong-foots the audience's sympathies at the very start before slowly challenging them to reconsider or even despair of deciding whose side they are on come the end.

Aside from the screenwriting skill then, the able performances of the three leads should also be singled out for praise. McAvoy, in particular, shifts effortlessly, and somewhat disconcertingly, from cheeky likeability to sleazy, skin-crawling creepiness. It's quite a brave part to accept, especially when one considers that he could probably be taking a series of undemanding roles as the brooding, gorgeous romantic hero. And Rosario Dawson makes those Basic Instinct comparisons really hit home, with her updating of the femme fatale archetype. She has the ability as an actress to convey both innocence and wisdom, perfect for playing a woman who appears to be the victim of a male plot only to emerge as the smartest player, albeit a wounded one.

Predictably, being a Danny Boyle movie, one of the few unqualified successes of the film is the way it looks. Its feverish rendering of chrome and glass London cityscapes, distorted by trauma and deception, recall the nightmarish palette of his debut, Shallow Grave. Everything - faces, bodies, objects - are constantly in your face, as if every one of the film's burnished surfaces is coated in cocaine and the camera is an enormous nose trying frantically to snort it all up. The incessantly glamorous locales and flattering, neon lighting might make it look as if a mystery drama has spontaneously broken out in the middle of a car commercial, but for a film all about superficial impressions and the lure of greed it's totally appropriate and an unapologetic feast for the eyes.

It's very unlikely to enjoy the same level of success or lasting cultural impact as Boyle's best work, but as a follow-up to and a reaction against his choreography of the 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony, it demonstrates Boyle's enviable talent for making something stamped with his own brand of creativity from even the most diverse of materials. And thankfully there's no cameo from Mr Bean this time out...

Monday, 25 March 2013

Directing Your Attention - The Ten Best Filmmakers Working Today Pt. 2

6. PT Anderson

I'm really not sure how he manages it in the stiflingly corporate world of Hollywood, but the breathtakingly talented writer-director Anderson seems to occupy the same enviable position as Kubrick once did: he can wield relatively large budgets and high-scale production values to paint intensely individual, impressionistic visions.

He's an actors' director, but never in any predictable sense of the term: Magnolia is a three-hour epic of intertwined lives in downtown Los Angeles, supplying its cast of consummate character actors (Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H Macy, Julianne Moore, and a little known bit-parter called Tom Cruise) with more grandstanding dramatic moments than most performers are lucky to receive in their entire careers. There Will Be Blood takes the opposite tack, paring away extraneous detail from its rigorous, invigorating study of ruthless oil prospector Daniel Plainview. Both films are studies in different types of excess; both are high-wire feats of filmmaking brio, Anderson demonstrating for his audience his seemingly boundless control over even the most intimidating of subject matter.

Tarantino might get the lion's share of the press, but Anderson is clearly less concerned with celebrity than with cementing his reputation as the most accomplished and fearless director of his generation. 

Must Watch: There Will Be Blood (and everything else)

7. Bong Joon-ho

There has to be one luminary from the recent explosion of South Korean cinema, and since Chan-wook Park's (Oldboy, Thirst) latest, Stoker, turned out to be somewhat underwhelming, I've plumped for the equally virtuoso Joon-ho instead.

The deranged brilliance of South Korean cinema, particularly that of Joon-ho, lies in its gleeful, devil-may-care ramping up of genre tropes, whilst at the same time imbuing well-worn story ideas with uncommon emotional and psychological weight.

The Host takes the B-movie premise of a mutant creature, created by man's pollution of his environment, wreaking havoc and death on a city, but uses it to foreground a very modern family dynamic: a single parent, multi-generational household fronted by a hopeless man-child forced to grow up under the pressure of extraordinary circumstances.

Memories of Murder is even better: a police procedural detailing a homicide department's seemingly impossible quest to uncover a serial killer terrorising a rural community. One can see the ever-present threat of North Korea's military hostility in these pictures: the characters' are made aware of their own vulnerability, and their own political and moral weaknesses, when suddenly threatened by outside forces beyond their control.

This year Joon-ho will deliver his first international production, Snowpiercer: a post-apocalyptic tale of survivors travelling across an icy wasteland in a train powered by a sacred perpetual-motion machine. With stars like Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton, it appears Joon-ho has harnessed the might of Hollywood, but hopefully he won't lose his quintessentially Korean identity.

Must Watch: Memories of Murder

8. Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Short on story, big on mood, Turkish former photographer Ceylan makes movies in the bloody-minded mould of Bresson and Antonioni. Men are at the centre of his cinematic universe, albeit men whose own centres appear to be missing.

Uzak (Distant) coolly observes the burgeoning dislike between a young factory worker and his older, affluent relative, when the former moves into the latter's apartment in Istanbul whilst looking for a job. Both men are lost: the younger cannot secure employment and spends his time following women; the older seems directionless and dissatisfied with his own successful career in photography. In one beautifully observed scene, the photographer stubbornly watches Tarkovsky whilst his uneducated relative is around in order to alienate him, only to switch over to the porno channels the second he goes to bed.

Iklimler (Climates) is again about a photographer, this time played by Ceylan himself, opposite his real-life partner. The fictional husband and wife drift apart, and the husband wanders aimlessly away to other women, seemingly unsure of what he wants. His latest, Once Upon A Time in Anatolia, features an all-male ensemble in its engrossing study of 24 hours in the life of a murder investigation, and unearths the seeds of despair that they nurse inside themselves.

His characters are psychologically opaque, and yet Ceylan's rigorously dispassionate camera yields terrible insights about the male psyche: Its conceits, its wounds, and its blindness to its own faults and unnameable longings.

Must Watch: Once Upon A Time In Anatolia

9. Christopher Nolan

Aside from Spielberg and Tarantino, Christopher Nolan is the only director whose own name carries sufficient pulling power to attract mainstream audiences. It's easy to see why: just like The Beard in the 70s and The Chin in the early 90s, Nolan (should we christen him The Quiff, perhaps?) has exerted a profound influence on the direction of popular culture.

His re-envisioning of the Batman franchise as a narrative with the potential for pop-Shakespearian interrogations of public morality has informed the mode of the superhero genre ever since. And his forays into psychological and science-fiction terrain with Memento and Inception have given birth to a new era of event movies driven by plot and concept. Just look at the roster of big-budget, hard sci-fi films lined up for this summer - Oblivion, Elysium, last year's Looper - and try to deny his once-in-a-generation impact.

Next up he's due to replace Spielberg on the mysterious, intergalactic space odyssey project, Interstellar. The news couldn't really be any more symbolic, could it?

Must Watch: The Dark Knight

10. Lars Von Trier

He has been labelled a genius and a charlatan. The uniqueness of Von Trier is that he seems to have found a way to be both! From murky beginnings making experimental features across Europe, the Danish iconoclast achieved fame and notoriety by spearheading the Dogme 95 manifesto, wherein a collective of bright young filmmakers laid down the ground-rules for a new way of making movies emphasising raw naturalism and pioneering the use of digital cameras.

Although Von Trier has conformed to the aesthetic in works like Breaking The Waves and Dancer in the Dark, he's more notable for wildly deviating from it, and indeed the movement has been derided as merely a means of self-publicity - something at which Von Trier excels! But you can't argue with the consistently provocative subject matter he has seized with both grubby, impish hands: impersonation of the mentally disabled; racism; misogyny; genital mutilation; and, in the upcoming Nymphomaniac, we're promised hardcore celebrity sex scenes.

The aforementioned audience-dividing tale of disability impersonators, The Idiots, is perhaps the definitive Von Trier movie. The perpetrators defend their behaviour as a means of challenging the prejudiced, borderline-Fascist mentality of some of their countrymen, and despite their obvious narcissism, the film never lets us condemn them outright. On the contrary, the film asks whether the collective are ostracised for their insensitivity, or because they have exposed a latent intolerance in Denmark, and perhaps all modern, middle-class European societies.

Beneath its seemingly exploitative surface, the film reveals Von Trier's deeply moral and serious engagement with troubling, taboo issues most filmmakers aren't brave enough to go anywhere near.

Must Watch: The Idiots, Dogville

Others who deserved to be on this almost entirely arbitrary list:

Michael Haneke, Quentin Tarantino, Terrence Malick, the Coen brothers, Carlos Reygadas, Cristian Mungiu, Guillermo Del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron, Ben Wheatley, Danny Boyle, the Dardenne brothers, Werner Herzog, Tomas Alfredson, Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Andrew Dominik, Cate Shortland, Abbas Kiarostami and many, many more...

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Directing Your Attention - The Ten Best Filmmakers Working Today Pt. 1

There’s been a lot of argument recently by the likes of Will Self, David Thomson, Geoff Dyer etc, that cinema is a dying medium. One can’t deny that its cultural dominance has waned since the last decades of the 20th century. But those who would insist that there’s less and less stuff to get excited about are simply being lazy, not thinking to look beyond the upcoming screenings at their local multiplex, or consider the enormous wealth of cinema produced elsewhere in the world, often in countries where the movies continue to enjoy a level of prestige and importance they have lost in the UK.

Here, in no particular order, is the first part of the list of the ten contemporary filmmakers I think are most worth getting excited about:

  1. Apichatpong Weerasethakul

A soldier is chased through a steaming jungle by the spirit of a shaman, in the form of a tiger. A princess receives cunnilingus from a carp. Everyday people relive their past lives, and experience the same lives over again in different parts of the world... 

Weerasethakul (who calls himself Joe to help us poor tongue-tied Westerners) makes films that share something of their worldview with David Lynch: packed with inexplicable incident and abrupt, rug-pulling shifts in narrative mode and style. Both Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century morph entirely at the halfway point: the former switching from a gay love story to the aforementioned, mysterious jungle-set fable; the latter recasting the rural hospital staff who form its subject as similar, but not quite identical counterparts (reflections? rebirths?) in a city medical centre.

Aside from this dazzling experimentation with cinematic form, his films are also distinguished by their deeply humane and compassionate treatment of life: sexuality, the tension between tradition and progress, and, especially in the Palme d’Or winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, the political turmoil of Thailand’s recent past. Of all the filmmakers on this list, his are perhaps the most purely and good-naturedly enchanting.

Must Watch: Syndromes and a Century

  1. Lynne Ramsay

Making headlines recently for dropping out of the Natalie Portman western Janie Got A Gun at the last minute, Ramsay is renowned for her uncompromising approach to making movies: Previously attached for many years to Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, she bailed when the book became a surprise smash and the producers decided that they wanted a more faithful adaptation than the one she had planned. Having seen Peter Jackson’s woeful (and very loyal) screen version, it’s impossible to doubt that Ramsay would have made something far less insipid out of it.

All of this integrity and vision obviously comes at a price in the cut-throat world of film financing, particularly when you’re a woman in an inflexibly male-dominated industry, and she has only been able to complete three feature films in over ten years. But each of them is a marvel: Her dynamic and extremely visceral visual sensibility, every bit the equal of Danny Boyle or Ridley Scott in his heyday, is apparent in all of them, and most recently on display in her BAFTA-winning short Swimming, commissioned for the 2012 Olympic games.

Morvern Callar and We Need To Talk About Kevin are constructed around strong and genuinely complex female protagonists, the likes of which are rarely seen in English or American cinema. These women fight for the freedom to define themselves away from the impositions of men and society; they are intelligent, maybe even a little bit ruthless because they need to be. It’s tempting to see something of Ramsay herself in them.

Must Watch: We Need To Talk About Kevin

  1. Leos Carax

There’s something of a pattern emerging: Like Lynne Ramsay, Carax has had similar struggles getting his singular ideas realised on the big screen, with only three features to his name in the last twenty years. Of course, when you watch a Carax movie or hear some of the stories about his productions, you begin to understand why the money-men might get cold feet whenever he enters their offices. For all their brilliance, Carax makes movies that are wilfully un-commercial.

He subverts the conventions of storytelling or rejects them outright: his latest, Holy Motors, has the thinnest of skeleton plots about a man being driven around in a limo who must impersonate different characters, on which Carax hangs a series of staggering set pieces encompassing slapstick, sci-fi, social realism, and the musical, as a love letter to the endless possibilities of cinema and a satirical commentary on what might be termed the medium’s inherent ridiculousness.

He has flirted with outrageous subject matter: incest in 1999’s Pola X, and homelessness in 1991’s Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, which provocatively depicts living on the streets as one part urban hell, one part Broadway spectacular, and yet somehow, miraculously, comes off as sublime instead of tasteless. The latter highlight of this most recklessly creative of director’s remarkably freewheeling career was the most expensive French movie ever made at the time, costing its private backers a small fortune and dying spectacularly at the box office. Long may he continue to wreak the same kind of chaos.

Must watch: Holy Motors

  1. Asghar Farhadi

The first Iranian to win an Academy Award in any competitive category, one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in 2012, and on the verge of releasing his first picture made outside of his home country – it’s fair to say that Asghar Farhadi’s career is on the rise. It’s well deserved: his taut, claustrophobic domestic dramas cum minimalist thrillers are increasingly masterful. Both About Elly and A Separation use genuinely gripping plots and dramatic conflict to probe the tensions in Iranian society.

As a screenwriter, Farhadi’s uncanny ability to plumb the abyss of human emotions and relationships, and depict them in such a way that his stories become microcosms of all humanity, has earned him lofty comparisons with Ibsen.

Must Watch: A Separation

  1. Ang Lee

Of all the directors on this list so far, Lee is closest to becoming a household name. In a sense, and despite the fact he’s worked in both English and Chinese language cinema, he’s an old-school Hollywood filmmaker. Instead of drawing his projects from his obsessions and dreams, or seeking to establish himself as an auteur-ist presence in his own cinematic canvases, Lee seizes upon whatever great material comes his way and uses his artistry to make something exceptional out of it. By this point, he’s pretty much done it all, and yet his choices remain consistently surprising. There are the indisputable classics (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain), the challenging adult dramas (The Ice Storm, Lust, Caution) and even a few duds (Hulk, Taking Woodstock).

Most recently, of course, he captained the adaptation of Life of Pi, about a young Indian boy and a tiger cast adrift at sea together. His consummate marshalling of the special effects and performances ensured that Pi was one of the most mesmerising films I’ve seen at the cinema in years, (especially the second hour). What’s more, in its sensitive treatment of the book’s theme of the kinship and the impassable gulf between man and animals, it passed into the realm of the profound.
Must Watch: It’s tough, because there’s a lot, but Crouching Tiger and Life of Pi are the standouts for me. Go on then, Brokeback Mountain too…  

Sunday, 17 March 2013

He whips their hair back and forth - Maniac Review

It can no longer be doubted - Video Nasties are back. Franck Khalfoun’s remake of the notorious 1980 Slasher flick Maniac is a genuinely grisly piece of cinema that will appeal only to the most iron constitutions. For those that can take the pain, this latest foray into the mind of a killer is a solid, if overdressed exercise in the genre that functions largely as a figurehead for the bloody gore revival currently occurring in horror cinema.

 Written by Splat Pack member Alexandre Aja, Maniac is a loose adaptation of William Lustig’s similarly titled feature, retaining the central figure’s love for women’s hair and mannequins to disturbing effect. In this instance however, the overweight landlord Frank Zito is now a youthful Elijah Wood, an impish loner who is struggling to recover from his mother’s (America Olivo) absence. Frank lets off steam by tracking down whichever woman of the day has taken his fancy, and...”inviting” them to join his range of antique dolls, perhaps in the hope of finding his mother again amongst them. However, when photographer Anna (Nora Arnezeder) takes an interest in his collection, Frank sees a new avenue for companionship that is at odds with his night-time tendencies.

 So far, so textbook – this is the same old story we’ve seen a thousand times over from the likes of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer down to Psycho. Aja’s work as a scriptist has never been exactly groundbreaking, but, as in the case of former Khalfoun / Aja collaboration P2, the intrigue comes about in the execution of what is an otherwise formulaic approach to the genre. Taking place in a poverty-stricken, trash-soaked Los Angeles, Maniac is told almost entirely from the point of view of Frank himself, as he drives around the city and hides within its dark corners.

 For the most part, this first person approach offers an interesting new angle on the Slasher film, as we are forced to watch Frank first identify, stalk, and then murder his victims, tracking them down as they try to hide away and outwit him. Quite whether this is intended to offer a criticism of horror and its voyeuristic tendencies is debatable, for whilst much of the film’s material is punishingly graphic (it’s the first film I’ve seen where audience members walked out in disgust), in other areas it offers lewd gratification for those joining Frank on his stalk-spree. It’s an uneasy mix that at least manages to avoid the worthy didacticism that normally accompanies such post-modern efforts in the genre. Nevertheless, by the fourth killing it was all beginning to get a little dreary. Thankfully, the plot takes an about-turn shortly after as we begin a nasty race to the bottom for the climactic showdown.

  Maniac  threatens to buckle under its derivativeness in other areas, borrowing more than a little of its stylistic edge from last year’s hit genre mash-up Drive – particularly in its opening credits. This threat is allayed however once Raphael Hamburger’s soundtrack moves beyond the Kavinsky-like synths into its own, guttural beast. Hamburger’s ambient tracks offer an ideal companion to Khalfoun’s lingering shots on the unwanted corners of LA; the places and the people best swept under the carpet. Shots of roadside tents and drifters in particular linger, helping evoke a Reagan era city in the 21st Century. It’s a thread I hope to return to more generally in an upcoming post. Elijah’s take on Zito is suitably memorable, treading a line between pathetic loner and deranged killer with ease – it’s nice to see the actor return to the vicious places that inspired his turn in Sin City. Like that film, Maniac is largely a show of style over substance, but similarly lingers after viewing. It’s hardly a pleasant experience, but it’s a well-crafted one, and a nice sign of the continued (sick) health of new horror after last year’s dearth.


Little Women and the Big, Decade Long Hug

Gillian Armstrong’s take on Little Women has enjoyed almost two decades of being regarded as a contemporary classic in both the family drama and Christmas feel-good departments, offering arguably the most complete adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s American novel. Released to rave reviews and sizeable box office returns, this tale of the March family is perhaps the strongest due to its modernity – not merely owing to its relative youth and (almost) relevant cast, but due also to an injection of critic-appeasing feminism in its treatment of headstrong protagonist Jo March (Winona Ryder). However, struggling against this progressive take on the rise of the New Woman in the second half of the 19th Century is a melodramatic streak that, in its own way, is also deeply rooted in ‘90s cinema. Released slap bang in the middle of the 90s, Little Women, bringing together a cast of actors usually associated with works far removed from the traditional period drama, now offers itself up as a strong representative of 90s Sentimentalism – a reaction against the cinema of the ‘80s that would come to define the period and, in turn, be countered by the late ‘90s push for a sincere cynicism.

 The film charts the critical years of the March family girls, as they grow into womanhood against the backdrop of the American Civil War. There’s the beautiful Meg (Trini Alvarado), the aforementioned Jo, sweet-natured Beth (Claire Danes – in her first major role), and childish Amy (Kirsten Dunst / Samantha Mathis). Whilst the film is ostensibly a Ryder vehicle (we’ll come to that later), it by and large does a good job of developing this family of strong characters and creating a nest from which the family’s interactions with the likes of young Laurie (Christian Bale) and Aunt March (Mary Wickes) feel multi-faceted. It is this play between strong character actors that gives the film its charm, ensuring that it will remain a favourite at Christmas time for many years yet.

 For the most part then, each of Marmee’s (Susan Sarandon) daughters is depicted as an individual, being well realised in script and always strongly portrayed by their respective actress. Except, of course, for consumptive ol’ Beth. Whilst the Beth of the original novel was as fully developed as any of the other sisters, here, Danes’ role is merely that of a cipher, thrown into the story with little evolution so that, by the time of her death, she can merely trigger the necessary tear-jerking climax that allows us to instead better empathise with her poor, put-upon sisters – particularly Jo. Danes’ Beth is the strongest example of how Alcott’s novel has been ever so slightly re-fitted to appeal to a growing trend in this period’s cinema for calculated sincerity. For comparison’s sake, Forrest Gump was released in the same year.

 It might seem a little odd then that Winona Ryder should choose to be the starring actress in a film so obviously intended for the family market, when her career up until this point had been defined by roles in edgier fare. Ryder’s Jo stands apart from earlier portrayals however due not only to an increased focus on her character, but also in enforcing stronger feminist echoes in her interactions with the film’s male cast. Her relationships with both Laurie and Professor Bhaer (Gabriel Byrne) are defined by her push for equality in treatment, with Jo later tackling the intellectual debates of her day with ease. The script’s treatment of this ranges from well-focused development (Jo’s discussion of Transcendentalism with Friedrich Bhaer) to clear shoe-horning (Jo’s discussion of women voting upon her arrival in New York City), though it becomes clear why Ryder was considered a good fit for the role after all.

 Interestingly, Ryder’s other big feature in the year 1994 was none other than Reality Bites, now considered something of a cult classic in the vein of Richard Linklater’s work in the period. On the surface, Little Women and Reality Bites couldn’t be further removed, targeting different audiences entirely. Yet Ben Stiller’s directorial debut plays with that same manipulative “sincerity” that marks Little Women, offering up a story centred on disenfranchised videographer Lelaina (Ryder) and her group of slacker friends. Stiller and writer Helen Childress’s approach is smart in ostensibly attacking the values of ‘90s media, presenting The Real World-era MTV as a controlling PR machine that nevertheless fails to crush Lelaina’s earnest principles. It’s a clever move that quickly falls apart under scrutiny; the film is a sugar-coated approach to twenty-something existence designed to appeal to The Real World audience. Throughout, Ryder, Ethan Hawke et al grapple with what it means to stay true to yourself against a backdrop of Gap commercials and AIDS that pulls at the right chords without ever shaking up the status quo. It’s a problem I’ve always had with the film, and one I touched upon in my article on the so-called ‘Boomerang Generation’ back in 2011. 

 In many ways then, Little Women is ironically more sincere than Reality Bites, operating within a melodrama that is expected within the genre – look at where Sentimentalism began. Note also that, in around five years’ time, Election and The Matrix will be the endpoint of Nineties cinema, and in 2000, Christian Bale will have his major breakthrough in a film that counters both ‘90s Sentimentalism and the ‘80s Individualism that birthed it. Little Women is quite rightly regarded as a fine example of family cinema from the period – it’s interesting to note just how far that representative status extends.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

The Reel Deal: That Obscure Object Of Desire, 1977

Luis Buñuel was one of the principal architects of Surrealism, and this, his last and one of his greatest films, testifies as well as anything to the explosive political power of that enduring 20th century movement.

In it, wealthy bourgeois Frenchman Mathieu (Fernando Ray) recounts his infatuation with the much younger Conchita, a working-class dancer who has cast an erotic spell over him, to a group of fellow travellers on a cross-country train. In a series of extended flashbacks, we witness Mathieu's unending struggles to possess her using his money and position, as she repeatedly eludes his grasp in ever more outlandish manners.

It might not sound like a film with the theme of revolution at its heart, but, as with Conchita, looks can be deceiving. Ah yes, did I mention that Conchita literally changes bodies during the course of the movie? The film is probably most renowned for Buñuel's inspired decision to cast two actresses (Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina) in the role of this ultimate femme fatale, alternating between them from scene to scene, without anyone in the world of the movie seemingly noticing. As a metaphor for our failure to grasp one another, it is perfectly apt. For Mathieu and us, Conchita can be construed as autonomous, manipulative, free-willed, sinister, innocent and psychotic, and our reactions are likely to vary from minute to minute.

But the casting decision is also a bravura example of metaphorical fluidity, where different objects of desire are substituted for one another and assume a unified, destabilising meaning. It's a very Surrealist gesture, as practised for instance by Georges Bataille in his notorious pornographic work Story of the Eye, where globular objects - an egg, a bull's testicle, and finally an eyeball - are substituted for one another as erotic toys in successive episodes of sexual transgression. Bataille and Buñuel both play upon the way in which this fluidity and traversing of boundaries, where inanimate items and persons can share the same shifting identity - is itself both intensely erotic and politically potent. Indeed, elsewhere Bataille defines eroticism as the transgression of limits, and Conchita's repeated, protean transgressions therefore make her not only a supremely erotic object of desire, but also an actively erotic force of disturbing power.

Conchita's shifting persona is the most prominent of the film's surrealist touches. In the film's grammar, it becomes allied with the irruptions of terrorist activity Mathieu happens upon in metropolitan France as he goes about his imperturbably horny quest of conquering his beloved. We witness car bombings and dead bodies in Parisian streets, but Mathieu passes them by almost obliviously. Buñuel never lets us know the cause of this revolutionary ferment, but the juxtaposition with Mathieu's aloof, privileged bourgeois lifestyle suggests class warfare. If nothing else, by placing Mathieu's odyssey in this context, Buñuel is clearly mocking the disengagement and apathy of the closeted, arrogant middle-classes that Mathieu represents.

And within this context, Conchita comes increasingly to resemble an exterminating angel (to borrow from the title of an earlier Buñuel film) of the political and social forces amassed against Mathieu in his smug, sealed-off little world. Her evasion, and the surrealist methods with which it is evoked, emerge as a means of resistance to and a weapon against the capitalist order Mathieu signifies.

In his final work, then, Buñuel reaffirmed the uses of surrealism that he had helped to shape in his youth: Once again, the ideology's destabilisation and traversing of boundaries acts as a necessary affront to the complacent and terrible order of the accepted world. 

Friday, 8 March 2013

My Bloody Valentine: Live at the O2 Birmingham

My Bloody Valentine can safely lay claim to producing the world’s loudest ephemeral haze. It is impossible to describe to someone how loud an MBV concert really is. It starts off loud ear bleedingly loud and then the volume increases steadily so that every five minutes or so you catch yourself thinking “I simply didn’t know it was possible for sound to be this loud”, and realise about how naive you were five minutes previously.

Fresh from shows in Japan and playing their first UK date in support of their first new album in 20 years, tonight sees the band on fine form. Opening with a few songs from Loveless, one of the most critically acclaimed albums of all time, the band is clearly happy to give people exactly what they paid their money for.
However, it’s actually the songs on their latest release that soar to the highest heights. Whereas Loveless works best through earphones, the new tracks are clearly designed with the live setting in mind and gel well enough with the old material to form a fitting whole.

As the gig continues, MBV begin to weave in a little of their pre-Loveless material. Most of the crowd knows where this is leading. MBV are famous for ending shows with a version of the song You Made Me Realise extended to include a section known as “the holocaust”, a wall of squalling feedback lasting up to twenty minutes so loud that the mind is supposed to combat the sheer volume by creating melodies of its own inside the listener’s head.

I knew that this was coming but nothing could really prepare me for it. I simply didn’t know that guitars could make a sound like that. The only way thing that I can think of to compare it to is the sound of a jet engine. As the volume levels peaked it became less of a sound, and more of a feeling pulsing through my entire body. Even wearing earplugs it was almost unbearable.

Finally the wall of sound ended as the band broke spontaneously back into the song. I’m not sure if it was because of what came before it, but it was the sweetest sound I’ve ever heard.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

The Burden of Family: iViva! 2013 Coverage

by Nick Pierce and Tom Dunn

Returning for a second year (see iViva! 2012 coverage here), Spectrum's resident film critics offer their review of Manchester Cornerhouse's iViva! Spanish and Latin Film Festival.

Family (specifically the collapse of the familial unit), and 21st century media figure largely in much of the programme for this year's iViva! Festival, the Manchester Cornerhouse’s annual celebration of Spanish and Latin American cinema. Now enjoying its 19th year, this latest edition features the usual eclectic mix of comedy, drama and documentary, though the inclusion of Cannes Un Certain Regard 2012 winner, Después de Lucia, acts as something of a lynch pin for much of the itinerary. 

Arguably the most well known of the titles featured this year, Después de Lucia (After Lucia) has already enjoyed critical success for its portrayal of bullying and loneliness, covering as it does the victimisation of Alejandra (Tessa la Gonzalez Norvind) at the hands of her supposed new friends, and her subsequent attempt to protect her widower father José (Gonzalo Vega Sisto) by staying silent. Michel Franco’s tale looks at the impact of bullying in a post-internet world, where Alejandra is able to gain sudden, widespread infamy through the filming and distribution of a prívate act, and the separation of this world, from the stability she attempts to maintain in the security of the home. Whilst ostensibly a focus on bullying, the film’s focus on a family’s fractured state, social media, and Michel Franco’s use of a naturalistic mode of cinema are all currents that run through much of the iViva! programme. 

Indeed, many parallels run between this story of silent abuse and writer-director Dominga Sotomayor Castillo’s study of familial breakdown, De Jueves a Domingo (Thursday Till Sunday). Filmed in a discompassionate, voyeuristic manner, Castillo’s film traces a four day road trip undertaken by two young children with their parents. Amidst hopeful talk of a holiday in the north of Chile, older sibling Lucia (Santi Ahumada) begins to piece together – along with the audience – that the purpose of the trip is not quite what it seems, even as Papa (Francisco Perez-Bannen) makes promises of an inherited plot of land to be found. Castillo’s camera catches extended snatches of the family as they sit, cramped and bored, in the car, only to occasionally break out for a minor episode of camping or play, the family’s disconnect made physical in the camera’s wide shots, lacking any focal point as multiple actions occur between different family members simultaneously. It becomes all too apparent, however, that mother and father are keeping up appearances for the sake of the children, and so Lucia witnesses what will be the last days of her parents’ marriage. Occasionally too languorous in its disinterested approach to the events it documents, De Jueves a Domingo is nevertheless an able partner to what is perhaps the festival’s centrepiece. 

Yet Maria Novaro’s Las Buenas Hierbas (The Good Herbs) has perhaps more in common with Michael Haneke’s recent effort, Amour – perhaps to the detriment of current audiences. Nevertheless, Novaro’s semi-improvised, low-budget feature has an earnestness to it that cannot be found in Haneke’s more devastating work, focusing as it does on the relationship between alternative radio host Dalia (Ursula Pruneda) and her herbologist mother Lala (Ofelia Medina). Free spirits who share a love of alternative medicines, the pair’s tight relationship is pushed to the brink upon Lala’s diagnosis of alzheimers, which takes an immediate, destructive effect upon her mind and body. Ursula Pruneda captivates as Dalia, giving the character an authentic sincerity that carries the film through its more wandering moments. Lala’s encyclopaedic knowledge of potions and remedies come to be locked away within a corner of her mind that neither her nor her daughter can access, and so Dalia comes to find that all of their curatives are ultimately, and tragically, useless in the face of death. The film’s other, somewhat disparate sub-plots, offer a more comprehensive overview on the fleetingness of life – and youth particularly - that suggest some influence from Almodovar. 

It’s not all doom and gloom at iViva!, however, with Gustavo Torretto’s Medianeres (Sidewalls) offering a rather more endearing look at modern, isolated life, and how it can still be overcome by gold old fashioned chance. Subtitled ‘Buenos Aires in Times of Virtual Love’, Medianeres follows the lives of two strangers, Martin (Javier Drolas) and Mariana (Pilar Lopez de Ayala), both young loners with their own quirky hang ups, struggling in jobs that aren’t quite as rewarding as they’d hope for, as they navigate the vast city of millions that surrounds them. Torretto’s film may be more than a little obvious in its message, but the delivery is twee in (almost) all the right ways, utilising smart cuts and thematic links to tie together the lives of its protagonists, who, we know, will eventually come to meet and have a chance at combating the mercilessness of city living. Torretto’s film may not be a classic of the romance genre, but what sets it apart amidst the current stable is its smart, embedded approach to online communication in the real world, often put forth in a wry manner.

It is Alex de la Iglesia’s La Chispa de la Vida (As Luck Would Have It) however, that offers the most biting criticism of how insidiously the media pervades our worldview, in a rather daft satire of the working man’s plight. Famed Spanish comic Jose Mota plays Roberto, a once-respected advertising exec who has now fallen on hard times. Over the course of an increasingly ridiculous day, Roberto attempts to validate himself through getting a job, reinvigorating his marriage to Luisa (Salma Hayek) and bring some respect to his name – opportunities that all come together when Roberto impales his head to a spike. Fully conscious, Roberto uses the subsequent live news coverage to book advertising space, hoping to earn his family money and prove his own worth. Iglesia’s film has a rather anarchic tone that, whilst suited to much of the arch cynicism at work, leaves viewers bemused when the script suddenly strives towards a sense of gravitas. The result is a rather confused affair that struggles to define itself, flitting between harsh criticism of the mercenary world of publicity (both private and public), and lazy one-note jokes that get repeated far too often. Honestly, what child would willingly be a Goth in this day and age?

Els Nens Salvatges (The Wild Children) is a contemporary re-telling of the old biblical admonishment that the sins of the fathers will be visited upon their children. Depicting the lives of three troubled adolescents in the weeks leading up to one of them committing a terrible crime, it explores how parental tyranny, indifference and blindness contribute to a final, brutal loss of childhood. It’s most remarkable for the totally convincing performances of its young cast, all of whom succeed in conveying the first painful sproutings of adult desire, resentment and regret. As a cautionary tale reminding viewers of the importance of compassion, Salvatges makes its points clearly and with a minimum of fuss, albeit without a very original or compelling approach. Sadly, such a worthy subject matter can easily fall into off-putting didacticism and writer-director Patricia Ferreira doesn’t entirely avoid this pitfall. Despite its resonant and universal subject matter, the story barely develops past its initial positing of intergenerational alienation, instead rehashing the same confrontations between adults and youths again and again until the concept begins to feel too slight to sustain another feature. Another problem is the mishandling of the tragedy to which it builds, the film finishing before either its prelude or repercussions can be satisfactorily delineated. As a result, it has an air of melodramatic overstatement, awkwardly belying the narrative’s prevailingly naturalistic register.

Una Vida Sin Palabras (A Life Without Words) similarly deals with the ways in which adult and childhood worlds can painfully overlap, although this time in documentary form. Director Adam Isenberg records the lives of siblings Dulce Maria and her brother Francisco, born deaf in rural Nicaragua, and never taught any means of spoken, written or signed communication. Although technically adults – both are in their twenties – without language they have been deprived of the learning others take for granted and remain isolated in a childlike world, living at home with their parents and only capable of the most rudimentary household tasks. The film goes on to follow the attempts made by a similarly deaf aid worker to teach them language, which may prove to be impossible.

Isenberg’s work recalls the profound documentary excursions of Werner Herzog in its complex examination of what it means to be human. Like that legendary filmmaker’s work, the complex and disturbing Palabras shows us a place where familiar concepts like language and family have been turned on their heads or exist in broken-down form so as to challenge what we believe we already understand about them. As events slowly unfold, questions keep multiplying. Is the sign language the aid worker brings really a means of liberating her two students, or do the lessons devolve into party tricks with little effect outside of assuaging social guilt? Was the parents’ decision to remove the children from education in their infancy a way of protecting them and thus a sign of love, or an example of irresponsible abuse? Impressively, Isenberg manages to tease these issues of family, personal and social responsibility, and human interaction out of a story far removed from most of our experiences, and yet makes the questions feel relevant to each of us.

Violeta Went To Heaven is a moving dramatization of the tumultuous and extraordinary life of Violeta Parra, a Chilean singer and folklorist iconic in her native country but little known in Europe today. For those with no prior knowledge of Violeta’s life and work, the biopic was a more than serviceable introduction. Director Andrḗs Wood moves confidently and often lyrically between the definitive points in her life and career; from her poverty-stricken childhood, through her pursuits in ethnomusicology and artistic recognition in Chile, her struggle to gain long-term acceptance in the prejudiced environs of Europe, a love affair with Swiss flautist Gilbert Favre, and her eventual suicide at 49, it appears that little is left uncovered. One particularly remarkable discovery is the fact that Parra had the first public exhibition of her tapestries at the Louvre, after taking up the discipline relatively late in life and feeling sure enough of her abilities to approach the gallery’s administrators.

But the real achievement is the filmmakers’ and actress Francisca Gavilan’s portrait of Violeta herself. Their efforts yield a rich and complex characterisation that evokes Parra’s spirit with all the vibrancy and humanity of one of her own tapestries. We’re shown a living, breathing, hurting individual shorn of the tinsel and embellishment often given to such cultural figures in the stories of their lives. She’s alternately an iron-willed and uncompromising visionary, determined to pursue her creative genius and preserve her nation’s heritage, and a lonely, vulnerable egotist, insensitive to the needs of others. At one telling moment, she reacts in fury to a patronising host’s suggestion that she have something to eat in the kitchen after having performed at his soiree for the French upper classes, instead of joining the other guests. We’re not quite sure whether she’s more angry at the way her nation’s voice, invested in her, has been ignorantly co-opted as dinner music for the wealthy, or at the personal slight to her own feelings of importance. Indeed, the truth is probably a little of both, and it’s this unsentimental approach to the undiminished humanity of its protagonist that makes Violeta a success.

Los Lobos De Arga (Game of Werewolves) is an altogether more frivolous example of horror comedy, a genre growing increasingly in vogue in Spain after the recent crossover success of Juan of the Dead. It’s the story of a wannabe writer returning to the village of his youth, only to discover it harbours a werewolf summoned by an ancient curse and that he is to be sacrificed by the superstitious locals as a means of bringing the black magic to an end. In the pantheon of blood-soaked black comedy, Lobos is closer to the knockabout silliness of the Evil Dead franchise than George A Romero’s satirical bites at contemporary society. There’s the same evident love of slapstick, tastelessness and knowingly camp performances, with the cast ably gurning and grimacing their way through the frequently funny set-pieces. The movie’s depiction of country dwellers as a largely irrational gang of violent, drunken sheep-shaggers would seem more than a little unfair, but it’s obvious from the beginning that Lobos is aiming for the broadest, daftest tone possible. As such a piece of no-frills entertainment, it serves up a prime, throbbing cut of claret and belly laughs, even if it fails to bring anything very original to its rapidly expanding sub-genre. An enjoyable, lightweight finish to a festival with more than its share of gravitas.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Don't get too stoked - Stoker Review

Park Chan-wook thundered onto the international movie scene in 2003 with his breakout, Grand Prix-winning Oldboy. Championed by Tarantino and embraced worldwide by fans of extreme Asian cinema, it became an instant classic, and notorious for its scenes of live-squid-eating and father-daughter incest.

Whilst his first English-language feature, Stoker, plays with similarly incestuous material, it falls far short of the transgressive, blackly comic and genuinely disturbing achievements of his previous work.

It's the story of India - played by the waifish Mia Wasikowska - troubled daughter of the wealthy Stoker clan. Living in a secluded farmhouse with her widowed mother (Nicole Kidman), she becomes ever more introverted after the mysterious death of her beloved father, until his brother, Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), enters their lives. Mia, who was unaware of her uncle's existence until his sudden arrival on the scene, reacts to Charlie's presence with a mix of resentment and burgeoning sexual interest, although she starts to suspect that this surrogate father and potential lover harbours predictably darker secrets than at first he lets on.

Chan-wook might be seen as South Korea's answer to David Fincher, in that he's also a purveyor of challenging and smart dramas for adult audiences with a coolly stylish visual sensibility. And like Fincher, often the quality of the screenplays with which he works determines whether the finished article is either a chocolate cake - dark, rich, and delicious - or a chocolate mousse: frothy and insubstantial.

Stoker is a chocolate mousse of a movie if ever there was one, and the fault largely lies with Prison Break actor-turned-screenwriter Wentworth Miller, working under the pseudonym of Ted Foulke. Without giving anything away, the ostensible mysteries on which the plot hinges (who is Uncle Charlie? whatever happened to daddy Stoker?) will prove barely mysterious to all but the most uninitiated of filmgoers. When the 'revelations' do come, they'd struggle to raise an eyebrow let alone a heartbeat.

This needn't have been such a problem, however. Miller was clearly influenced by Hitchcock's underrated Shadow of a Doubt, another Gothic tale of the appearance in small-town suburbia of a malevolent uncle, likewise named Charlie, and the erotic spell he casts over his adolescent niece. In both films, there is little attempt to conceal the uncles' shady pasts, with the filmmakers choosing instead to dwell upon the turbulence caused by their presence in contained and repressed communities.

But whereas Hitchcock reliably colours the premise with satirical flourishes and simmering sexual undercurrents, watching Stoker is like being bludgeoned about the head with a moth-eaten copy of Freud's complete works. For every moment of palpable sexual tension, such as a stand-out sequence of seduction during a piano duet ending in near-orgasm, there's another that crudely smothers the atmosphere in obviousness, reaching its nadir when Wasikowska masturbates in the shower whilst recalling a murder to which she was witness. In the end, it leaves you wondering whether Hollywood is getting more patronising, or if audiences are becoming less perceptive and in need of ever-larger narrative signposts to follow what's happening.

In truth, Stoker isn't half as clever or penetrating as it thinks it is. It's weighed down by stilted, corny dialogue, and a tone that takes itself far too seriously even as it veers ever further into camp. Imagine The Addams Family with all of the jokes excised and you're pretty much there.

Luckily, it's enlivened to an extent by the actors' knowingly-arch performances, especially Matthew Goode's raffish, poised turn as Uncle Charlie, clearly relishing the opportunity to play the whole thing as sinisterly as humanly possible. And Chan-wook's inventive framings have survived the transportation intact, ornamenting every scene with baroque touches and a sensual use of bold colours to signify the characters' churning desires.  

With its mix of sex amid implausibly attractive people, and gruesome yet artfully-composed death, Stoker perhaps works best as a date movie. Beautiful but empty, sporadically fun but finally unsatisfying, and despite its pretensions of depth, it's unlikely to endure for long as very much else.