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.


Crimson Peak film posterCREDITS
Director Guillermo del Toro; Writers 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.

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.

The Kids Are All Right film posterFILM REVIEW
Director Lisa Cholodenko; Writers 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 (Netflix 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.

The Turning film posterCREDITS
1. Ash Wednesday (dir./wr. Marieka Walsh); 2. Big World (dir./wr./DoP Warwick Thornton); 3. Abbreviation (dir./wr. Jub Clerc, DoP Geoffrey Simpson); 4. Aquifer (dir. Robert Connolly, wr. Justin Monjo, DoP Denson Baker); 5. Damaged Goods (dir. Anthony Lucas, wr. Kris Mrksa, DoP Jody Muston); 6. Small Mercies (dir./wr. Rhys Graham, DoP Stefan Duscio); 7. On Her Knees (dir./wr. Ashlee Page, DoP Miles Rowland); 8. Cockleshell (dir. Tony Ayres, wr. Marcel Dorney, DoP Germain McMicking); 9. The Turning (dir./wr. Claire McCarthy, DoP Denson Baker); 10. Sand (dir. Stephen Page, wr. Justin Monjo, DoP Bonnie Elliott); 11. Family (dir. Shaun Gladwell, wr. Emily Ballou, DoP Jeremy Rouse); 12. Long, Clear View (dir./wr. Mia Wasikowska, DoP Stefan Duscio); 13. Reunion (dir. Simon Stone, wr. Andrew Upton, DoP Andrew Lesnie); 14. Commission (dir./wr. David Wenham, DoP Andrew Commis); 15. Fog (dir./wr. Jonathan auf der Heide, DoP Ellery Ryan); 16. Boner McPharlin’s Moll (dir./wr. Justin Kurzel, DoP Andrew Commis); 17. Immunity (dir. Yaron Lifschitz, wr. Circa Contemporary Circus, DoP Robert Humphreys); 18. Defender (dir./wr. Ian Meadows, DoP 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)

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.

Tracks (2013)

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.

That journey is one that took place in 1977, as Robyn Davidson resolved that she would walk from Alice Springs (in the centre of the country) across the desert as far as the Indian Ocean, a journey of several thousand miles. I might try to ascribe this quest to a certain directionlessness in her life, except that she is very single-mindedly focused on achieving her ambition, whatever vague reasons she may have for it (her parents had taken similar journeys, and there are teasing hints throughout the film, via flashbacks and memories, that she is still processing and working through the death of her mother). In any case, having made this resolution, she puts it into action and spends a few years in Alice Springs, acclimatising herself to the desert and working at camel farms learning how to train and ride camels to accompany her on the journey.

Some of the posters prominently feature Adam Driver as National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan, but his role is fairly minor in the scheme of things — he drops in and out of Robyn’s life during her nine-month trek — and the relationship between him and Robyn is hardly dwelt upon. This is not a story about two people in love, and very thankful we can all be for that. If anything, it’s Robyn’s faithful dog which provides the more compelling relationship and provokes rather more pathos than anything Rick does (even some of the camels have more personality, though I don’t mean to demean Driver’s performance: he does well within the limited context of his scenes).

The trailer I’ve seen (and that gratuitous King’s Speech namedrop on the poster), too, seems to present this as some feelgood story of Outback camaraderie and local colour — the kind of sentimental angle that would usually raise alarm bells with me, fears that we’d get a dose of ‘magic realism’ and the spurious new-age spirituality that often accompanies stories of white people moving amongst native cultures. Yet, again, none of these fears are realised, and though Davidson’s peripatetic journey does indeed bring her into contact with a wide range of people, it’s all presented in an uninflected matter-of-fact way. There’s still a fundamental decency to all the supporting characters, even under the solitary prickliness that some of them exude, and if I do broadly find these interactions heart-warming, after a fashion, it’s never melodramatically forced.

No, this is very much Mia Wasikowska’s film as Robyn, about a woman who decides to do something, for her own reasons, by herself, and achieves it. Wasikowska is an actor I’ve grown to really enjoy over the last couple of years, as she’s made a name for herself in films, and this film really highlights all the wonderful subtlety of her acting. So much of her journey is internal (again, the kind of thing that could go so wrong in a film, but which is well-handled here), that you need an actor capable of conveying that and Wasikowska is exactly right. I should say a few words about the director too, whose only previous film I’d seen was his debut, Praise (1998), which got a release in New Zealand when I was a young film student and which made a few waves over in that part of the world for its frank depiction of grungy young directionless lives with a vibrancy that belied its depressing themes. As I hope I’ve conveyed already, Curran has found exactly the right tone here for material that could have been pulled in all kinds of inferior directions (whether feelgood shmaltz or bleak loneliness of the soul), even if the journey itself is filmed in a fairly straightforward way. Then again, perhaps you don’t need narrative tricksiness when you have this kind of expansively beautiful setting.

For a film that could easily have been boring or plodding, or have tried to melodramatically force in some kind of spiritual awakening or overdetermined meaning to the journey, Tracks is never dull. It’s a heartening corrective to so many macho stories of journeys of testosterone-fuelled bravado. The character of Davidson never allows herself to be forced into conventional gender frameworks; this is a human story of determination, served best by its excellent central performance.

Tracks film posterCREDITS
Director John Curran; Writer Marion Nelson (based on the memoir by Robyn Davidson); Cinematographer Mandy Walker; Starring Mia Wasikowska, Adam Driver; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Saturday 27 April 2014.

Three New Releases: Under the Skin, The Double and Twenty Feet from Stardom (all 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.

Continue reading “Three New Releases: Under the Skin, The Double and Twenty Feet from Stardom (all 2013)”

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

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.

Jarmusch’s style is particularly well-suited to these characters, because he’s never really been interested in plot so much as in atmospherics. Here the lack of momentum in the narrative is perfectly suited to characters for whom time is largely meaningless, a constant miasma of experiences that all blend into one another, even over centuries. They occasionally reminisce about the past, casually mentioning classical composers or feuds from the 16th century, and indeed one of their compatriots is Christopher Marlowe (a wizened John Hurt), which at least allows for some amusing Shakespeare gags.

There’s a constant undercurrent of deadpan black comedy that threads through their encounters, Eve with Marlowe, then Adam with the excitable wannabe Ian (Anton Yelchin), who helps him out with his artistic pursuits by sourcing vintage instruments and the like. Ian, like all the other non-vampires in the film, is a “zombie”, the term Adam and Eve condescendingly use to refer to mere mortals. They really are the ultimate hipsters: living a life of devotion to their art, citizens of the world recycling local influences and avoiding the corruptions of global capital (Detroit and Tangier are both places of largely forgotten and crumbling grandeur, and when Eve is booking a flight she is keen to avoid London at all costs), ultimately desirous of nothing so much as cult respect. Near the end, Adam encounters a performance by Yasmine Hamdan in a Tangier bar, and is told by Eve that “she’ll be famous one day” to which he snidely replies “I hope not! She’s too good to be famous.”

Music is a key to Jarmusch’s work, especially in this film. Given the essential stasis in the narrative, it wouldn’t be accurate to say the film stops to take in various musical performances, but integrating these is part of its method, whether Hamdan in Tangier, or psychedelic spacerock band White Hills in a Detroit club. Adam is a man after Jarmusch’s own heart, and indeed Jarmusch and his band Sqürl have provided a lot of the sonic textures for Adam’s artistic experimentation. Eve meanwhile is obsessed by literature, and when she travels books are all that she carries; we see her running her hand over their tactile pages as she packs them. Their seriousness is contrasted with Eve’s inane LA-based younger sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska).

Once you get into its slowly laconic rhythm, there’s a lot to like about the film. Tilda Swinton remains refreshingly disarming on screen and perfectly cast as this otherwordly being (harking back in spirit to Orlando), while Tom Hiddleston is a compelling presence, effortlessly assuming the pose of a debauched, self-serious artist. If everyone here just seems to be marking time, they certainly do it with style.

Only Lovers Left Alive film posterCREDITS
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.

Stoker (2013)

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.

The performances too are stylised; I think all the actors hit the right tone and do a great job at it. If I have an issue with this film, it’s that it strains really hard (heightened sound effects and colours, chilly modernist music, briefly glimpsed flashbacks) to create a brooding atmosphere filled with myriad possibilities that it can never really deliver on. I was convinced at one point that the mood was building to a pay-off whereby the heroine would kill people using only her mind (she doesn’t). In fact there are plenty of supernatural signifies at play here, so you could be forgiven thinking it’s going to go down that route. Also, despite the implications of the title (which for me points to the author of Dracula), there are no vampires. (Sorry about that, if you consider that a spoiler.)

But as a stylish atmosphere piece, it delivers very well.

Stoker film posterCREDITS
Director Park Chan-wook 박찬욱; Writer Wentworth Miller; Cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon 정정훈; Starring Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Tuesday 5 March 2013.