Room (2015)

As with The Babadook a year or two ago, I’m again prompted to wonder how this film plays to parents and whether it doesn’t allegorise some of the fears and traumas involved in parenting. I open this way because of all the things the film touches on, it seems to me that the experience of being held captive by a rapist (which is, after all, sadly a real-life torn-from-the-headlines occurrence) is relatively low on the film’s list of interests, though it probably covers more of a realistic emotional arc than, say, the TV show The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. But I get that this is largely because the real-life cases are sensationalised media events, and Room is more interested in how that experience captures an (admittedly dark) side of both being a mother and, to a certain extent, being a woman within a society that empowers this kind of emotional (here literal) imprisonment.

So, yeah, it’s pretty bleak to watch — for all that it eventually opens out a bit — but most of what’s good about the film is in the script and in the acting, especially Brie Larson as the ‘Ma’ (her name is Joy, it turns out). It’s just that in the telling there’s an insistence to certain elements of the directorial style. It’s not merely that I dislike voiceovers (here, it’s the childlike wonder and naïveté of Jacob Tremblay’s Jack who does the duties), but in distancing itself from the kind of domestic horror that The Babadook or We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011) did so well, it layers on rather too thickly a sweeping orchestral score and questing camera movements. The film ends up pushing emotional buttons as voraciously as González Iñárritu, which is to say I imagine it’s going to win quite a few awards, but for me that undermines what it’s trying to achieve in the script. Perhaps I just expected a bleaker and nastier film, but then if this is a film about the fears of parenthood — of inevitably having to let your children into an understanding of the worst of human experience — it’s a film about warmth and security too.

Room (2015)CREDITS
Director Lenny Abrahamson; Writer Emma Donoghue (based on her novel); Cinematographer Danny Cohen; Starring Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Monday 18 January 2016.

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The Forbidden Room (2015)

It might be possible to recount the plot of Guy Maddin’s latest work (made with co-director Evan Johnson, presumably as compiling all this material must have been an exhausting task), but it would probably not be advisable. It’s a series of nested narratives, little fragments of stories as if rescued from some ancient decaying store of early cinema nitrate footage, stitched together with perfunctory transitions, which loop into and out of an almost dream-like consciousness taking in mystery, thiller, adventure film, romance and more. It feels like a pastiche of silent film serials overlaid by noirish pulp fiction and a hefty dose of Canadian wintery surrealism, that will probably be more rewarding to those viewers who are somewhat au fait with early cinema or already know the film work of Guy Maddin, and so have a fondness for his scratchy, grainy, alternately washed-out and hyper-coloured, stylised images. If it feels by the end a little long, it’s never short of inventiveness, and there’s a parade of guest actors, all introduced by a title card as they enter the narrative, without anyone really taking centre stage. Cinematic narcosis writ large.

The Forbidden Room film posterCREDITS
Directors Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson; Writers Johnson, Robert Kotyk and Maddin; Cinematographers Stéphanie Anne Weber Biron and Benjamin Kasulke; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at Arthouse Crouch End, London, Wednesday 16 December 2015.

Brooklyn (2015)

This blog has been a fan of young Irish actor Saoirse Ronan since we (ahem, I) first encountered her only a short couple of years ago in Byzantium (although of course her career stretched back some time before this, as I’ve been belatedly catching up with). It would be difficult to claim any of the films in which she takes a lead role as particularly great (I remain fond of How I Live Now, but perhaps I’m in a minority there), but these — and even the ensemble casts she’s been amongst — have all been enlivened by her facility for getting inside a character. Her latest character is Eilis, an impoverished small-town girl in early-50s Ireland who moves across the Atlantic for a chance at a better life. It’s an immigrant’s story, told with generosity and affection, as she is torn between the new life she’s making for herself and the old country. A friend of mine calls the film “low-stakes” in the sense that it becomes clear that things will work out for Eilis whatever happens — at a story level, she has a choice between two good, decent men (Emory Cohen in New York, and Domhnall Gleeson in Ireland) — but from the character’s point-of-view these choices are pretty critical, and the very fact that men and matrimony should play a central part also reflects on her society and its limitations on her own aspirations. That said, she works hard to achieve a career in book-keeping, and the film’s focus remains on Eilis and her own future, meaning it’s far from depressing. It’s also curious the extent to which it avoids any overt sentimentality (orchestral score aside, though even that is a lot more sympathetic than it could have been in the wrong hands), achieving a rich emotional register without being melodramatic. To that we can credit screenwriter Nick Hornby, a dab hand at this sort of thing, as well as director John Crowley, and the glorious images conjured up by cinematographer Yves Bélanger. But most of all, we can credit Saoirse Ronan, an actor who can improve even the patchiest of source materials, and this source is not patchy at all.

Brooklyn film posterCREDITS
Director John Crowley; Writer Nick Hornby (based on the novel by Colm Tóibín); Cinematographer Yves Bélanger; Starring Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Julie Walters, Domhnall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Tuesday 10 November 2015.

Criterion Sunday 33: Nanook of the North (1922)

It’s canonised as a progenitor of the documentary film, but I think it’s also now well-known that director Robert J. Flaherty made compromises in committing this story to film, ones that later documentarians would try to avoid — things like staging scenes, manipulating reality for filmic ends, even changing the names and relationships of the people seen on screen — making it more of a documentary-based drama. The story deals with “Nanook”, living in northern Quebec with two women and a daughter, as he builds an igloo and forages for food, trapping seals (an almost comic scene, if it weren’t so brutal) and hunting a walrus. There are a number of cute little vignettes — staged, of course — like him being introduced to a phonograph by a local trader, but the film is at its strongest when it depicts the simple act of living within nature that Nanook and his fellow Inuit must daily practise. Even if Flaherty has them using spears rather than (more accurately for the early-20th century) guns, it still depicts a way of life that’s far beyond the comprehension and comfort of most Western viewers.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Robert J. Flaherty; Length 79 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 24 May 2015.

Criterion Sunday 21: Dead Ringers (1988)

David Cronenberg’s films can be difficult to classify, and this certainly applies to Dead Ringers, involving as it does elements of horror and psychological thriller, as well as being a character study of a pair of twin gynaecologists, the Mantle brothers. In this role, Jeremy Irons is superb, managing to convey a distinct personality for each, meaning it’s (almost) never unclear which one is which, despite their largely similar look. The set design maintains a sort of creepy anonymity, as the film takes place in a series of almost indistinguishable blue and beige rooms, with the only really bold colour being the crimson red capes that the brothers wear in the operating theatre, recalling the garb of a 15th century cardinal (or perhaps even a plague doctor). The film manages a masterfully controlled slow build of tension and creepiness, as a famous actor (played by Geneviève Bujold) is pulled into their increasingly fraught orbit. There’s some dense ideas about individuality in there, but they never get in the way of the story. A film worth revisiting.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director David Cronenberg; Writers Cronenberg and Norman Snider (based on the novel Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Greasland); Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky; Starring Jeremy Irons, Geneviève Bujold; Length 115 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 25 January 2015.

Mommy (2014)

There’s a scene towards the end of this excoriating French-Canadian family melodrama in which Diane (Anne Dorval), the mother of the title — after a fashion, which I’ll explain later — imagines the possibilities for her tearaway teenage son Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon) as he grows up. As a scene, it’s beautiful and uplifting, shot in a hazy nostalgic glow, and yet utterly heartbreaking, because it lands after about two hours of coming to grips with Steve and all his emotional problems, and by this point we realise that it’s an impossible dream.

Xavier Dolan, the director of Mommy is only in his mid-20s, but this is an utterly assured and properly cinematic film, filled with the kinds of juxtapositions and coups de théâtre that only the most accomplished of directors could pull off. It starts off with one such, as Diane’s car is sideswiped at a busy intersection, and the film doesn’t let go from then on. The square framing is another flourish, which almost seems to trap its characters, but at a key later moment it dramatically opens up, all too briefly, to suggest a hope that the film’s events don’t always bear out.

The film’s primary focus is on the home that Diane (“Die” for short) makes with her angry son, just returned from a stint in juvenile detention, and with their neighbour Kyla (Suzanne Clément) they form a mutually-supportive and slightly askew family unit. Diane is Steve’s mother, but the title refers to a piece of bling that Steve acquires for her — in a bravura scene that seems to vacillate moment to moment from tenderness to violence — naming a role that is as much in Steve’s imagination as within Diane’s ability. Certainly, Steve has what one might call ‘issues’ that are at times uncomfortably Oedipal, but for the most part the film is resolutely focused on the mother figure Diane, who starts out as a hectoring bully but ends up being a multi-faceted character that we genuinely feel warmth and understanding towards.

Mommy is one of the stand-out films I’ve seen so far this year. It heralds the further maturation of a prodigious cinematic talent, and is well worth checking out.

Mommy film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Xavier Dolan; Cinematographer André Turpin; Starring Anne Dorval, Antoine Olivier Pilon, Suzanne Clément; Length 138 minutes.
Seen at Hackney Picturehouse, London, Tuesday 24 March 2015.

Enemy (2013)

I forget sometimes how weird and creepy Canadian films can be. There was a period in the 90s, on the back of Atom Egoyan’s festival successes, when a bunch of them made it to cinemas, but aside from David Cronenberg’s singular oeuvre, there have since then been only occasional examples that have made it through — most recently for me, 2012’s Upside Down. This film, too, is written by a Spaniard (based on a Portuguese novel), but thankfully it’s far better, while still retaining that brittle sense of cabin fever that so many Canadian films inspire, as if created in reaction to the blandly reassuring mainstream cinema from over the border (there’s a similar quality to New Zealand cinema, too, sometimes, which is where I grew up).

The central conceit, like last year’s The Double, concerns a person who meets their doppelgänger (both here played by a bearded Jake Gyllenhaal), but where that film (disappointingly for me) toyed with black comedy, Enemy is far more insidious. The film wastes no time in plunging us into a strange dreamlike world of alienation and dread dominated by an unsettling spider metaphor, so after those initial sequences have passed, there remains something a bit existentially bleak about our hero Adam’s life as a Toronto university lecturer delivering lectures about fascism and control to his students.

The introduction of his double Anthony, an actor, allows for a bit of back-and-forth between them, but aside from one dust-up, this is mainly a sort of psychic transference, as they begin to covet one another’s partner (Sarah Gadon and Mélanie Laurent, also superficially similar in appearance), while each starts to lose control and the two identities become less clearly differentiated. The film toys at a formal level with the doubling theme, repeating scenes, and looping back on itself a little, but always presents itself with a cold aloofness signalled by its yellowish colour filters and series of bleak, modern locations. The spider metaphor continues to reappear through the film, and results in an uncanny final scene, without which the film might have passed from my mind quicker, but its very opacity and inscrutability (as well as the suddenness with which it takes place and then ends) makes it something of an unexploded mine within one’s mind, and so the film sticks with me a week later, as I continue to ponder what it all means.

Enemy film posterCREDITS
Director Denis Villeneuve; Writer Javier Gullón (based on the novel O Homem Duplicado by José Saramago); Cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc; Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Sarah Gadon, Mélanie Laurent; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Saturday 10 January 2015.

Upside Down (2012)

I saw this as the closing film of London’s Sci-Fi Film Festival in May, and I was hoping to write about it earlier, but what I can say, it took me some time to come to terms with what must surely rank as the silliest film I’ve seen in the last year. There is quite a lot to enjoy in the film, especially at the level of set design, special effects and cinematography. Sadly this doesn’t extend to the script, with its ridiculously improbable physics and reliance on creaky plot devices that would have seemed cliched in a romantic movie of a hundred years ago and which lack the classic timelessness that perhaps the writer/director hoped for. It probably doesn’t help that the young leads — an English actor with whose work I was not previously familiar, and the perky Kirsten Dunst — don’t really have the charisma to make these lovers fully believable. However, the chief issue is also the central premise of the film: that there are two planets so closely interrelated that buildings can be constructed between the two, but between which characters are not allowed to travel (it’s the classic upstairs-downstairs class-based scenario). In some ways it’s a productive metaphor, this idea that different classes literally live on different planets which are nevertheless so close that they can be seen from one another. The two central characters thus only meet because they’ve managed to find a secretive mountaintop that brings them almost within touching distance — a mountaintop, it must be said, that only they appear to know about and which they seem to be able to reach at very short notice. And then there’s the way the gravitational pull of each planet exerts itself only over those who are from that place, along with an extra kicker that you gradually burn up the longer you spend away from your home, meaning our male protagonist must weight himself down in order to visit his beloved on her planet and can only be with her for a short time. Oh and the writer has added a bit of selective amnesia for the heroine. The more one thinks about these plot manipulations, the more one’s head hurts, but it’s never really possible to overlook them or excuse their stupidity, no matter how compelling the film can be in other respects. A noble failure, then, perhaps.

Upside Down film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Juan Diego Solanas; Cinematographer Pierre Gill; Starring Jim Sturgess, Kirsten Dunst, Timothy Spall; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at Stratford Picturehouse, London, Sunday 4 May 2014.

Maps to the Stars (2014)

Whenever I visit Paris, I seem to get the opportunity to see an English-language film somewhat ahead of its release elsewhere in the world, and my experience has been that these films have probably been a bit too weird to find mainstream success. Such was the case with Anne Fontaine’s Adore (aka Perfect Mothers, 2013), and it’s certainly the case with this, the latest David Cronenberg film. It’s not the setting and the atmosphere that are unusual — this vision of family dysfunction amongst the hermetically sealed-off homes and egos of Hollywood is familiar from films like Robert Altman’s The Player (1992) and, more recently, Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring (2013). Nor is it strange for the way it seems to share a spiritual kinship with that other twisted North American David’s Mulholland Dr. (2001) at the level of its unsettling atmospherics. What’s most disconcerting about the film (admittedly partly the reason it brings Lynch to mind) is in the melodramatic dynamics that are in play amongst the film’s protagonists — ageing diva Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), infomercial guru Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), his neurotic wife Cristina (Olivia Williams) and their brattish movie actor spawn Benjie (newcomer Evan Bird), and mysterious stranger Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) with her enigmatic burn scar and initial apparent fascination with Hollywood homes. It’s all beautifully and antiseptically shot, and it’s one of those films that impresses with the density of its ideas upon later reflection, but the experience of watching it is odd and unsettling enough that I remain unconvinced. There’s a recurring incest metaphor that expresses itself in the arc of several characters, primarily the bond between Havana and her mother Clarice, who died many decades earlier, while still in the bloom of youth. We see some (rather unconvincing black-and-white) footage of one of Clarice’s films, and she appears as a waking nightmare to Havana at several points, as do other dead presences to other characters. But this is only one way in which the past haunts the present characters. The strangest is the repetition throughout the film of a poem by French symbolist Paul Éluard. It’s spoken in the old film of Clarice’s, it’s recited as a mantra, it’s even being memorised by Benjie in his trailer. The poem, “Liberté”, was written in 1942 as a riposte to the Nazi control of France, which already loads it with a history to which the film doesn’t always seem equal. But this is, after all, a film in which characters are trying (not always with great success) to free themselves from the burden of the past. If it sets itself out to be a map of the interrelationships between these Hollywood players, then it’s clearly one that people should be wary of following.

Maps to the Stars film posterCREDITS
Director David Cronenberg; Writer Bruce Wagner; Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky; Starring Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Robert Pattinson, Olivia Williams; Length 111 minutes.
Seen at UGC Ciné Cité Les Halles, Paris, Friday 4 July 2014.

Last Night (1998)


FILM REVIEW || Director/Writer Don McKellar | Cinematographer Douglas Koch | Starring Don McKellar, Sandra Oh, Callum Keith Rennie, Sarah Polley | Length 95 minutes | Seen at home (VHS), August 2000, and at home (DVD), Saturday 6 July 2013 || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© Lionsgate

When I first started going to the cinema seriously in the 1990s, Canadian films had a particular arthouse cachet, most likely due to Atom Egoyan, whose elegantly interwoven narratives had become quite the hit on the festival circuit. As a result, a number of Canadian films reached cinemas that decade, even ones as far afield as New Zealand, where I was living. I remember trying to pin down then what was distinctively ‘Canadian’ about them — there was something to the wry, dark humour that might be related to being an ex-colonial nation dwarfed by a larger neighbour (or at least, so it seemed to me in New Zealand). Certainly, though, a lot of those 90s films (like earlier films by the veteran director David Cronenberg) shared a dark subject matter — whether, for example, the necrophilia in Kissed (1996), or the deaths of miners in Margaret’s Museum (1995). So, Last Night, with its frank acceptance of the end of the world, seems a natural fit with this morbidity.

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