Crimson Peak (2015)

Having this year been watching almost solely the output of female directors, I’ve become used to seeing on screen a certain level of budget (something nearer to the $0 end of the spectrum, let’s be fair). And then you watch something like this, just a grand, gorgeous staging with the sets! and the costumes! and the art design so elaborate and intricate you worry it’s all going to get in the way of, oh, the acting, the characterisation, that kind of thing. (I gather some critics feel that it has.) Now, I don’t deny any of Guillermo del Toro’s talent; he’s clearly done a lot of legwork to get to the stage where he can make something like this, and I think his great films like Cronos and El laberinto del fauno have given him a peerless sense of what works filmically. Because that stuff comes effortlessly here, especially when he’s marshalling all the tropes of the horror genre — the depth of field in staging shots, the creepy sound design, flashes of spectral presences, and then the full-on gory costumework. Because yes, there’s a lot of gore here, whether explicit or suggested: much of the latter part of the film is set in a house whose walls and foundations seem to literally ooze blood. Within this, it seems like a canny choice to go for actors like Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain and Tom Hiddleston, all of whom have previous in this kind of enterprise — portraying doomed lovers in a period setting — so all of them look quite at home in what is a Victorian-era gothic romance hat-tipping visually to Hammer horror as mcuh as to Italian giallo, not to mention a bit of Kubrick’s The Shining too. It does in the end all feel a bit oppressive, and it should of course, but it’s a bravura piece of filmmaking and it hits all the right notes, honouring its sources without condescending to them.


© Universal Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Guillermo del Toro | Writers Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins | Cinematographer Dan Laustsen | Starring Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain | Length 119 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Saturday 31 October 2015

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The Kids Are All Right (2010)

It can be easy to write reviews of films which are a bit rubbish for whatever reason, but sit me down to try and set out my thoughts about a well-made, well-acted and enjoyable low-key drama in a naturalistic mode, and I’m a bit stumped. That’s the case with this film about the children of a lesbian couple looking for their donor father. It’s an excellent ensemble cast (with Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo, as ever, standing out as being particularly good), and it doesn’t feel false, not least because the director, Lisa Cholodenko, seems to be drawing from aspects of her own life. Ruffalo’s Paul is living a bachelor life running an organic food shop and restaurant, when Joni (Mia Wasikowska) gets in touch via the sperm donor centre on behalf of her younger brother Laser (yes, that’s his name apparently and no one seems to find it particularly silly; played by Josh Hutcherson), who is curious as to his parentage. The film is trying to get at what it means to be a parent, articulated most clearly by Annette Bening’s character Nicole, a doctor and somewhat controlling mother figure who doesn’t take particularly well to Paul’s appearance in their family life. I liked the characters, I felt I could identify with them (maybe that’s a middle-class aspirational thing) and believe in their motivations. but beyond that I can’t really be any more helpful. A fine piece of work.


FILM REVIEW
Director Lisa Cholodenko | Writers Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg | Cinematographer Igor Jadue-Lillo | Starring Julianne Moore, Annette Bening, Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson, Mark Ruffalo | Length 107 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Monday 24 August 2015

The Turning (2013)

The source for this film was a collection of short stories by the Australian writer Tim Winton, so the producers took the decision to make it a collection of short films, each directed and written by someone within the Australian arts world. Therefore you wouldn’t really expect it to hang together so well, but somehow — perhaps thanks to the strength of the underlying short stories — there’s definitely a thread that connects them all, not just thematic but in tone, too. There’s a sort of understated elegiacal atmosphere, of pregnant pauses and long lingering shots of the sky: this is a film very much invested in a vision of its part of the world, with laconic and weary characters. Each shares a story that deals with some kind of turning point in their lives, quite often young lives, but not exclusively. And despite the number of different works, there’s nothing that really stands out as particularly weak or out of place, given that sense of unity I mentioned earlier, though there’s one brief animation that opens the film (“Ash Wednesday”), a contemporary dance piece towards the end (“Immunity”) and another short film takes the form of almost documentary-like testimonies rather than acted scenes per se (“Boner McPharlin’s Moll”). It adds up to a strange, compelling view of Western Australia, though one that runs rather long.


© Level K

FILM REVIEW
1. Ash Wednesday (director/writer Marieka Walsh); 2. Big World (director/writer/cinematographer Warwick Thornton); 3. Abbreviation (director/writer Jub Clerc, cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson); 4. Aquifer (director Robert Connolly, writer Justin Monjo, cinematographer Denson Baker); 5. Damaged Goods (director Anthony Lucas, writer Kris Mrksa, cinematographer Jody Muston); 6. Small Mercies (director/writer Rhys Graham, cinematographer Stefan Duscio); 7. On Her Knees (director/writer Ashlee Page, cinematographer Miles Rowland); 8. Cockleshell (director Tony Ayres, writer Marcel Dorney, cinematographer Germain McMicking); 9. The Turning (director/writer Claire McCarthy, cinematographer Denson Baker); 10. Sand (director Stephen Page, writer Justin Monjo, cinematographer Bonnie Elliott); 11. Family (director Shaun Gladwell, writer Emily Ballou, cinematographer Jeremy Rouse); 12. Long, Clear View (director/writer Mia Wasikowska, cinematographer Stefan Duscio); 13. Reunion (director Simon Stone, writer Andrew Upton, cinematographer Andrew Lesnie); 14. Commission (director/writer David Wenham, cinematographer Andrew Commis); 15. Fog (director/writer Jonathan auf der Heide, cinematographer Ellery Ryan); 16. Boner McPharlin’s Moll (director/writer Justin Kurzel, cinematographer Andrew Commis); 17. Immunity (director Yaron Lifschitz, writer Circa Contemporary Circus, cinematographer Robert Humphreys); 18. Defender (director/writer Ian Meadows, cinematographer John Brawley) | Writers as above (based on the short story collection by Tim Winton) | Length 172 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 3 May 2015

Maps to the Stars (2014)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at UGC Ciné Cité Les Halles, Paris, Friday 4 July 2014 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Entertainment One

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.


CREDITS || Director David Cronenberg | Writer Bruce Wagner | Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky | Starring Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Robert Pattinson, Olivia Williams | Length 111 minutes

Tracks (2013)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Saturday 27 April 2014 || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© Transmission Films

I don’t really understand why the concept of ‘spoilers’ and the avoidance of them has become such a big issue nowadays; I’m quite sure it wasn’t this way when I was younger. It feels to me like an extension of that infantilising idea that people need things signposted, as if they can’t be trusted to figure out by themselves that their coffee will be hot or that a review of a film might disclose some plot points. I won’t for example let you in on what happened in the last episode of Game of Thrones, suffice to say that having intentionally spoilered myself as to what happens, I could still enjoy (or, you know, not enjoy) the staging of the events, because most of the power of filmmaking (to me, anyway) lies outside what actually happens. In any case, this is all a rather roundabout way of saying that Tracks, an Australian film about a woman walking across the country’s desert, isn’t really about what happens and is by its nature pretty resistant to the idea of spoilers. I feel confident in fact that I could tell you how it ends (I won’t) without it affecting your enjoyment of the film, because it really is — as the title suggests — all about the journey.

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New Releases: Under the Skin / The Double / Twenty Feet from Stardom (2013)

I must concede at this point that though I still go to as many films, I cannot necessarily work up the enthusiasm to post full reviews of all of them. Some may be good and others may be disappointing, but for whatever reason there’s nothing that grabs me and makes me want to write them up at length. Therefore I present below some short reviews of some recent releases.


Under the Skin [15] || Director Jonathan Glazer | Writers Walter Campbell and Jonathan Glazer (based on the novel by Michael Faber) | Cinematographer Daniel Landin | Starring Scarlett Johansson | Length 107 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Wednesday 19 March 2014 || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© Studio Canal

I relish how strange watching this film must be to mainstream cineplex cinemagoers, because it’s the kind of strange and uncompromising object you usually only get at festivals. It’s had a decent release (at least over here in the UK) on the strength of its marquee name star and the interesting work of its director Jonathan Glazer — some notable music videos and two feature films, including Sexy Beast (which coasted in on the crest of the trend for geezerish British gangster films, but managed to stand out from that fairly bland crowd by virtue of its excellent performances). And yet it’s got such an odd sensibility. For a start, Scarlett Johansson is the only really recognisable presence in the film; the rest of the cast is made up of local extras and a few small, fleeting roles. Its style, too, is laconic — not just in the paucity of dialogue, but in its reluctance to reveal much of anything. It’s not a flashy film, and it can seem quite slow at times, but it at least seems very clear about what it’s doing. Stylistically, it starts strikingly with a series of close-up images that are hard to make out, but suggest something smooth and machine-like and, as it turns out, otherworldly. Once the first humans appear, images and faces loom out of the Stygian darkness, and there’s a bleak, dreich Scottish overcast to everything: this is not a film that makes Scotland look like a tourist destination, but the film finds a certain groundedness in the elemental forces of nature. Partly that’s a balance to its protagonist’s apparently alien origins, and the harvesting of human victims (for this is at heart a horror story) is presented as oddly theatrical, Johansson luring them by undressing into a black room, where they sink into an oily murk. The drama comes as she starts to have reservations about her mission, though nothing is so overtly stated in the laconic script. As I said at the outset, it’s quite unlike very much else out there, and if for that reason alone, is worth watching, although it exerts an oneiric, uncanny hold over the viewer at times.

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Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)


ADVANCE SCREENING FILM REVIEW || Director/Writer Jim Jarmusch | Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux | Starring Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska, Anton Yelchin, John Hurt | Length 122 minutes | Seen at Odeon Leicester Square, London, Thursday 6 February 2014 || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© Sony Pictures Classics

The new Jim Jarmusch film starts on a turntable as a vinyl record spins, before cutting to matched shots circling first Tilda Swinton and then Tom Hiddleston from above, with them sprawled in poses of narcotic ecstasy in their respective homes. These are the doomed lovers of the title, Eve and Adam, and it’s a fitting start, putting us straight into the dizzying, woozy whirl of their lives. They move around a lot — he is based in Detroit, she in Tangier — but little really changes for them, for they are trapped in the eternal purgatory of being vampires, subsisting on packs of blood sourced from reliable local hospitals. It’s a film of beautiful textures — visual and sonic — and it feels almost autobiographical after a fashion, for the vampires are nothing if not artists, preying on millennia of culture as much as on blood.

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Stoker (2013)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director Park Chan-wook | Writer Wentworth Miller | Cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon | Starring Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode | Length 99 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Tuesday 5 March 2013 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Fox Searchlight Pictures

I like strong visual directors, I cannot deny that, but I’m not as massive a fanboy of this director as perhaps some critics are. Park is still best known for the stylish and violent Korean film Oldboy (2003), part of his ‘Vengeance’ trilogy, but perhaps this film will change that. Stoker too is undeniably stylish, and stylised. The look of the film — the costumes, the decor, the hairstyles — is firmly set in the past, a version of the 1950s it seems, despite the occasional appearances of modern technology. This is fitting for a story about a family which is stuck in a violent past, apparently doomed to repeat it.

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