British filmmaker Joanna Hogg’s focus on listless bourgeois ennui is a surprisingly refreshing tack to her contemporaries; forgoing a literal, gritty depiction of working class woes, Hogg opts instead for an opaque reading of the middle-class that holds implicit trust in the audience’s discerning spectatorship and appreciation for a carefully considered mise-en-scène. In the same way that Antonioni would move Italian cinema away from its neorealist tendencies in the 1960s and infuse it with a slow-burn, modernist inspection of the bourgeoisie’s anxieties, Hogg similarly intends to gently prod at the psyche of the British middle class, an area that in the past decade has scarcely been examined by home-grown directors or afforded much critical attention. A great shame, as it can often be an ugly place to visit.

Hogg’s exceptional 2010 film Archipelago followed a middle-class family on their holiday to Tresco; its title is a telling prognosis of the family’s fragmented positioning, inhabiting a shared environment yet harbouring discrete motives and desires. Hogg’s framing amplified the discomfort through extended wide takes, allowing naturalistic dialogue to feel its way through awkward silences, interjecting, overlapping and conflicting. In Hogg’s world – as real as ours – silence and empty space are privileged as much as whatever comes to occupy that space, and we are invited to consider the relation of each person’s body within and beyond the frame, and just how these compositions complement their mind’s interior.

In follow-up Exhibition, Hogg shrinks the proverbial battlefield. We’re removed from the Isles of Scilly and placed into the indisputable symptom of West London, the expanse of a shoreline substituted for an oppressive apartment, a nuclear family shrunken down to a mere pair of co-inhabitants. Known simply as D (Viv Albertine) and H (Liam Gillick), this couple are on the cusp of selling their apartment and starting afresh. There’s a palpable air of malcontent swimming around these two, and their story’s placement in the UK’s congested capital – quite unlike the extrapolated family of Archipelago – allows for Hogg to further pepper their peace with the world outside their bubble, with diegetic city sounds seeping into each scene, and the windowed borders of the apartment displaying the vulnerable bodies either through the glass or by its reflections. D is steadily prying herself from the glue that has had her stuck to H for so long (her clothes continually change, he stays in the same black t-shirt), and as she begins exploring her body with the silent encouragement of her enormous office window, the film’s title becomes ever more appropriate.

An entire floor is often filmed with a pillar or staircase either centered or thereabouts, bending the shot so that we see around the corners of the apartment, somehow increasing both its depth and oppressiveness. Hogg’s attention to her characters is impressive; in one scene, D’s bed is pictured as having by its side both a telephone and a small statue of the Buddha, a symbol of tranquility and its opposite effectively cancelling each other out. Ostensibly irrelevant tangents, such as H’s confrontation with a man parking his car in the couple’s own private space, serve to illuminate the colour inside the characters. But even these dialogue exchanges are not wholly the key to understanding their motivations. Hogg trusts us to consider not solely what these two say to one another, but what they will not say; far more crucial is what each are thinking, through the small adjustments in their daily rituals, and how these transient motions are considered within the context of their rigid environment.

It could perhaps be argued that the film’s greatest weakness lies, paradoxically, in its repeated precedence on the glassy surfaces that enable the enactment of its title. Hogg isn’t complacent enough to simply rest on the same principle for too long, though. When D attends an imaginary critical debate and sees herself and H air their differences in front of a live audience – the most contentious ‘exhibition yet’ – the film’s themes further open up. Much like Archipelago, with its guest artist character deciphering the family’s doldrums, we are reminded once more of how works of art are truly analogous to life, crucial in navigating its many and varied pitfalls. Hogg’s latest is one such revelation.

Much like the forlorn, tortured soul of Rambo and the brainwashed mind of Danny Stevenson in Split Image, Wake In Fright‘s disorientated lead character once again proves Ted Kotcheff’s ability to capture torment and dread with finesse. With the original negative thought to be lost, the classic, cult film, has now had its restoration, a re-run in cinemas, and is newly available on DVD and Bu-Ray. The stunning visuals and meticulous accent on atmosphere has now got glorious definition, making this a must-buy for film fans.

Marked by controversy and the story of its print’s loss, Wake In Fright has had a life of its own outside its plot. Within that plot, however, are a far more gripping and shocking set of events. It leaves the film both historically and artistically striking. With a pivotal scene including the cull of many real kangaroos, Wake In Fright acquired a notoriety. Thankfully, that notoriety also earned it a lot of followers. You watch the film now and you can see the influence it has had not only on Australian cinema but the entire sub-genre of hallucinatory horror.

We follow a polite, smart Brit (John Grant’s Gary Bond) planted in the Australian outback before his holiday. What begins as a simple pit-stop turns into an invitation into the very heart of Bundanyabba – a town where everything feels off yet the townspeople see no abnormality in their actions. Those actions include copious drinking, a habit that leads Gary to sweaty men’s clubs, kangaroo culls and witness to far-from lucid behaviour.

Gradually building on the tension, Kotcheff’s piercing eye on all this is wonderfully stylistic. Some may view it as over-the-top, prime for parody, yet it’s also contained in the 1970’s setting, where there still remained archaic, ignorant laws and bizarre characters. At one point we see Gary walk down the street, dishevelled, and with a rifle in his hand; passers-by just look on in bewilderment rather than fear – an odd image if you tried to think of it in contemporary terms.

Despite sensing some of the time lapse, Wake In Fright still resonates, overall. The notion of getting drawn into a culture or giving in to peer pressure is universal and timeless. Set in the Outback, it also allows for the extraordinary backdrop to be married with this common theme. If Gary is the everyman we are keen to follow and support, the Outback is something we’re intrigued about – especially given its effect on the protagonist. In sum, it keeps you thoroughly gripped; a series of unpredictable incidents collaged together with gorgeous cinematography and palpitating edits. There’s a life to the film – one than could have been forgotten and buried along with its nearly-destroyed print – that needs to be experienced.

Locke, the new in-car thriller written and directed by Steven Knight, comes from a conversation he had with one of his producers about the difficulty of filming in moving cars. Weirdly, this film seems to confirm these limitations rather than challenge them, despite ensuing technological advancements.

Locke follows an ordinary and perceivably honourable man take a turn for the worst when he decides to drive to London, rather than home from his construction job, having received a call that his illegitimate child is to be born that night. Thus, the film is made up of an almost real-time drive where Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) attempts to salvage his job, wife and soon to be born child over hands-free conversations (with the spectre of his dead father in his back seat.)

While it can often be refreshing to see films take place in a single location (sometimes applying extra pressure on an airtight narrative), unfortunately Locke leaves a lot to be desired in the script department. The dialogue can be clunky and unsubtle metaphors hit the audience over the head repeatedly. Hardy makes the best of it however, performing a normally mild-mannered man, with a thick, booming Welsh accent, who sees his life unravel over the course of a car journey.

Equally though, not all of these segments are poorly written. Despite the heavy-handed metaphors, Ivan’s somewhat sociopathic attempts to soothe and control his increasingly estranged wife Katrina (Ruth Wilson) are engaging. Similarly, Ivan’s attempts to guide an increasingly inebriated Donal (Andrew Scott) to do the construction work he’s left behind are highly amusing and a nice respite from otherwise rather upsetting plot points.

However when it comes to the real crux of the matter, Locke falls short of really making any kind of emotional impact. While it’s certainly believable that he doesn’t love the impregnated Bethan (Olivia Coleman), given they only met for a short time, it is not enough to attribute his problems on a meekly written, traumatic relationship with his deceased father. These scenes are a clear weakness of the film, and troublingly, are actually supposed to explain the film’s narrative. While there are believable elements to Locke’s breakdown and this is due to Hardy’s excellent delivery, there is no authentic depth to why any of this is happening.

As a result, the film’s climax lacks punch and feels rushed. It’s a shame, as limiting the drama to behind the wheel is an intriguing concept. Equally, it seems a missed opportunity not to take more advantage of the film’s location outside of the car. A more adventurous exploration into the repetitive visual motifs of the motorway could have been intense and rewarding, but instead it merely dresses the stage.

Since its release in early 1991, months before alternative rock would explode into wider public consciousness with Nirvana’s Nevermind, Spiderland has been a record shrouded in mystery. Little was known about this quiet, mysterious release that Touch and Go records put out to almost no reception and its creators, Slint had already broken up. The only proof that this record hadn’t landed from outer space was the four ghostly, subterranean, drenched humans, who represented, we assumed, the band themselves.

Over the years however, Spiderland has grown a reputation as an adored and canonised record, which has inspired many to pick up a guitar, bass or drum sticks and make their own introspective noise. The record is cited as being huge influences in both the post-rock and emo movements of the 90′s and this, coupled with the mystique, makes Slint its generation’s Velvet Underground.

Director Lance Bangs was active in the late 80′s/early 90′s alternative rock music scene in Athens, Georgia. However, even he had no clues as to who wrote the record he, like so many others, has held in such adulation. Thus Breadcrumb Trail is to some extent his personal exploration into the largely unknown people behind this unparalleled piece; a surrogate for the ever increasing amount of fans this band and record gain yearly.

What we find in Bangs’ search through the borderlands city of Louisville, Kentucky, are a group of inspired, if slightly mad, affable musicians who were still only teenagers when they created their masterpiece. Bangs does an excellent job of detailing their, then still short, upbringings; being nurtured by creative down-town free-schools, supportive parents and an insulated but vital music scene which all enabled the band to create their opus. Through present day interviews we see the band’s members looking back largely fondly at their formative years, exposing a real humility and humour one would expect from teenagers, but is perhaps often lost in a record regularly documented as sounding “dark” or “serious” or “brooding”.

Most striking of all is watching early footage of their rehearsal process in drummer and songwriter Britt Walford’s parent’s basement, complimented by grainy, Super 8 shot footage of Louisville, where this incredibly youthful band would practice these songs for hours on end until they were perfect. While interviews with local Louisvillians and studio engineers Steve Albini and Brian Paulson certainly colour the song writing and recording process, it is highly inspirational and enviable to see such young musicians push themselves, while maintaining a sense of humour about themselves.

Ultimately, Breadcrumb Trail excellently dispels of the idea that Spiderland was created in a vacuum, showing these individuals to be charming, self-effacing and hugely talented. Its legacy and mystique is maintained through the hugely respected musicians interviewed or at least mentioned or inspired by association with the record; without unnecessarily exploring the band’s own influences or showing reunion footage. While vocalist Brian McMahan confirms the band ended due to his having to be institutionalised briefly after recording, it is quite incredible how many people the record has touched and how the band continued to work together in other guises, since there was no real breakdown between its members. Finally, we have a documentary worthy of the record.

“The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” – L.P. Hartley

Following on from his widely successful breakthrough film A Separation (2011) Iranian director Asghar Farhadi relocates to Paris for his latest family drama, The Past.  Here, Farhadi compiles a strong cast of current French talent, Bérénice Bejo (The Artist) and Tahar Rahim (A Prophet), and places them in Parisian territory as outsiders (much like himself.) As a non-French speaker, Farhadi it would appear, has his work cut out for him directing and writing a French narrative. Through his lead actor, Iranian Ali Mosaffa, who speaks in a broken French, there is a vulnerable distance inevitably created; however through Farhadi’s masterful storytelling ability, he manages to utilise this and express some fairly unifying themes.

The Past follows Ahmad (Mosaffa) as he returns to Paris after a 4 year absence, to sign his divorce papers with his ex-wife Marie (Bejo). While there, Marie asks Ahmad to speak to his step-daughter Lucie, played by a young and particularly impressive Pauline Burlet (La Vie en Rose), who disapproves of her mothers’ upcoming union with Samir (Rahim). This establishing and overlapping of characters is a strong indication of the film’s tone. These four main characters are all connected and yet distant. Ahmad is not the father of Lucie, or her younger sister Léa (Jeanne Jestin), as much as Samir’s son Fouad (Elyes Aguis) has no relation to Marie, and yet here all these characters are brought together under one roof, for a short time at least.

The film largely feels like one of Ibsen’s dramatic family stage plays, or the “kitchen sink” dramas of the 1960′s in Britain. The mood can often be oppressive and claustrophobic, with Paris standing in largely as a suburban backdrop rather than a tourist locale, which gives the film a weight of authenticity and naturalism. It is important that Paris remains recognisable but largely absent, as initially at least, we view the narrative through “outsider” Ahmad. He tries to help around the house and crucially understand Lucie’s increasing isolation, he quickly takes on the role of investigator. As he and we learn more about what “the past” actually is here, Ahmad unwittingly becomes a sub-film noir hero, with his past left no clearer than simply being Iranian, Marie’s ex-husband and having previously suffered bouts of depression.

In the centre of all this is Samir’s wife, whose attempted suicide has left her in a comatose state, between life and death, much as the rest of the characters are between the past and the present with their interactions. This is what we, initially through Ahmad, piece together as the narrative moves forward. One of the film’s strengths is that The Past refuses to have a single focaliser and as a result, does not allow the viewer to form assumptions about any of the characters for too long. The film easily could have made Samir the straw-man, a guy who is partly responsible for his wife’s tragic act, yet actually appears to be moving on to a better life with Marie when he should really be wallowing in guilt. However Farhadi instead closes the narrative through his perspective, allowing a good deal of empathy to be shared with all of the main characters here.

As a result, there is an inherent and fascinating tension in The Past which is never truly resolved. Everyone here is somewhat culpable for their actions and simultaneously sympathetic, which makes for a highly believable narrative. It’s fairly modernist in this approach, especially as Farhadi refuses to allow ethnic or class backgrounds to define any of his characters; instead they express themselves largely off-screen (through unseen emails and phone-calls) and dwell largely on their actions in the past.

But while there is much to admire about Farhadi’s film, it’s a tough film to become truly engrossed in. For all his expertly placed motifs, of not allowing a single character to seem entirely blameable, it’s difficult to really forge relationships with these people who are piecing together their miscommunication. While there are some lighter moments earlier on in the film, most notably in Samir and Ahmad’s prolonged awkward silence, it’s suffocatingly serious tone for 2 hours and 10 minutes makes it hard to really ever enjoy. While it’s intriguing to learn about the past of this dysfunctional family, the plot turns exist to the point of distraction; this softens its intended climax somewhat.

Ultimately, for all it’s excellent performances, layered-narrative and stage-play atmosphere, the shared empathy across the board prevents us from making a meaningful connection. For all it’s achievements The Past suffers from its own accomplishments as an excellent modernist morality play. It is something to be seen, but not really felt.

It’s almost easy to forget that Wes Anderson makes films. Such is the cult that has grown around him over the years, he feels more like a brand beloved of hipsters such as American Apparel or Apple Macs. Just by uttering his name a person has given an insight into their adopted subculture. Numerous parodies have been dimwittily prepared and his signature visual style has been gentrified by a zillion twee graphic designers. Which all distracts from the fact that Wes Anderson does actually make funny, literate and often moving films.

The Grand Budapest Hotel, his latest film, feels like a culmination of all Anderson has been working towards in his career. It marries the the quirkiness and pathos of his earlier work with his recent dabbling with animation, as seen in The Fantastic Mr Fox. If some viewers felt his previous films were overkill, then they would be advised to cross the road for this one. The layered narrative essentially follows the exploits of M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the hotel concierge, and his trusty protege Zero (Tony Revolori). Set between the world wars, Gustave oversees the running of the majestic ship while ‘seeing’ to the richer female clientele.

One such client, Madame D., (Tilda Swinton) is found brutally offed, and when Gustave is left with her invaluable ‘Boy with Apple’ painting, both her son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) and the police begin to suspect the hapless concierge of foul play. Gustave and his lobby boy Zero have to flee in order to clear his name, by which time the film descends into somewhat of a chase movie. All the typical Anderson staples are here; the intricate, gaudy mise en scene, the literary references, the witty wordplay and the slapstick flourishes. There is a greater sense of action here though, veering into the cartoonish.

Fiennes is a rather excellent comic creation, embodying both the eloquent workaholic in Gustave but also a childish goofiness. Newcomer Revolori is appropriately boyish and earnest, while William Defoe and Brody are deliciously devilish as the baddies in pursuit. Unfortunately a couple of actors are wasted in somewhat dull roles, like Ed Norton and Bill Murray. The script, loosely based on Stefan Zweig’s writings, is one of Anderson’s wittiest and funniest for a while. I can’t remember many laughs from Moonrise Kingdom, but this latest one definitely had the audience tittering into their craft beers.

The film gets off onto a very good, if slightly convoluted, start. The hotel itself has been so beautifully designed that you wonder if Anderson would have been better off making another of Roald Dahl’s books, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The hotel is part swank hotel, part toy shop, an intricate creation that Jacques Tati, surely one of Anderson’s greatest influences, would have been impressed with. The world is a joy to be in, so when Anderson takes us out of it and into the outside world does the film begin to flag. Particularly the 2nd half of the film begins to test the audience’s patience, as the jokes become less pronounced and the chase becomes bogged down in Anderson’s own elaborate tangents.

Still, this is one of Anderson’s best films in a while. Whereas some of his more recent films felt more subdued and perhaps even navel gazing, there is a sense of fun running through The Grand Budapest Hotel, even if it does turn sickly at points. If I were to nostalgically yearn for anything from Wes Anderson, it would be a sense of space. Looking back at his undeniably superior works Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, there was a looseness about them that let the inventive visuals and eccentric characters breathe. Perhaps for his next film, less is more.

The battle between image and narrative has pestered cinema since its inception. The greatest films have seamlessly intertwined these two elements by telling a great story through stunning visuals, yet for the most part we see films that are driven by plot, the visuals a sad afterthought. Music video directors who segue into feature film makers often represent this clash well; what use are pretty, inventive visuals if the characters are emotionally uninvolving? But on the other hand, cinema is essentially a visual medium, why waste it through humdrum mise en scene?

Which leads us to Jonathan Glazer, who began his career as a lauded music video and ad director. With notable work with Radiohead and Massive Attack under his belt, Glazer went to make the feature films Sexy Beast and Birth. While those two films were fairly straightforward narrative pieces,  it is his latest film Under the Skin that truly belies his music video beginnings. Loosely based on Michael Faber’s novel, it follows Laura, a beguiling, glamorous young vixen who roams the desolate areas around Glasgow looking for young male prey.

One of the key elements of the film is its ambiguity and mystery. We don’t know where Laura is from, what her motivations are or why she has that peculiarly plummy English accent. Soon the audience begins to realise that Laura is not quite what she seems, yet Glazer and writer Walter Campbell keep their cards close to their chest. The film is a triumph of suggestion and innuendo, leaving the audience with more questions than answers. In many ways it is similar to some of Kubrick’s work, in that any chance of sentimentality is replaced with cold sterility.

Scarlett Johansson plays the enigmatic lead, which she is utterly perfect for. I don’t believe Johansson has great range as an actress, but playing an otherworldly, seductive chanteuse is her bread and butter. The contrast between the sallow, desperate young men she picks up (who amazingly were non-actors oblivious to the set up) and her porcelain doll is delicious. Cruising around in her white van looking for her next victim, Laura becomes a genuinely strange new cinematic icon. The audience revels in these surreal images of a Hollywood starlet asking where the nearest Asda is in obscure Scottish locales.

The trailer for the film was genuinely exciting; we were privy to what seemed like new images to stimulate the senses, and hints of the esoteric score by Mica Levi. The film IS visually striking. There is a mysterious opening sequence reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s infamous psychedelic section; we seem to be watching this strange entity being birthed straight from the cosmos. Elsewhere there are some startling images inside Laura’s lair, where her victims are submerged into an oily abyss. Combined with Mica Levi’s ominous, primal orchestration, these moments are truly unnerving.

Yet there is something unsatisfying about the film as a whole. Although the documentary style footage of Laura stalking the bleak streets of Glasgow is creepy and surreal, it often deadens the drive of the film with its repetition. It’s beguiling, no doubt, but the meandering, barely there plot feels intriguing rather than profound. Again we go back to this division between visuals versus plot, and in this case I feel that the film is lacking that narrative drive to really make it a transcendent piece of cinema. As a mood piece it is really rather wonderful, but you get the feeling that this will come to be known as a cult film in the vein of Nicholas Roeg rather than a bonafide classic.

Salvo‘s gripping first 30 minutes – a dense dance of diegetic devices – is both the film’s greatest asset and its disadvantage. Powerfully using the cinematic form to all of its advantages, directors Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza have you at the edge of your seat for an extensive period of time. The issue is that once that tension subsides, you are still pumped full of adrenaline, disinclined towards the comedown. The comedown is, of course, the main crux of the film – the aftermath of that first half hour.

In a nutshell, the synopsis follows Saleh Bakri’s eponymous hitman. Opening with a charged sequence in which Salvo tracks down the man behind an unsuccessful hit on his boss – a Renato Pizzuto – and murders him. During this point, he discovers Renato’s blind sister, Rita (Sara Serraiocco), who he is unable to kill. Rita has an effect on the otherwise unemotional hitman, whilst one touch from Salvo inexplicably earns Rita her sight back; a bond is made and Salvo starts to alter his ways.

Were it not for the miraculous, sight-giving motif included in Salvo, the story would seem a tad conventional and/or unexceptional. However, the messianic elements and the way Salvo uses the subject of senses transforms the film into a far more complex gangster film. Italian cinema has long been interested in the romantic and ethereal aspects of life (Vittorio de Sica’s Miracle in Milan and the work of Pier Paolo Pasolini and Federico Fellini, for example) – a cinematic appraisal that Salvo wonderfully adjoins. The pacing that alters itself from the heart-pounding opening, to the steady study of life and death is what will divide audiences, ultimately. To those hearing the buzz words “gangster”, “thriller” and “mafia” surrounding Salvo, as well as sitting through the action-laden opening, there’ll be a sigh of disappointment at the meditative main part.

For cinephiles and admirers of the arts, Salvo will be a fitting find. The craft is absolute, with colour and sets neatly defining a moment or a character. Lenses and lighting change for Salvo and Rita, respectively. As well as that there is definition on shape and structure – walls with circular or straight patterns, confined space or open rooms that all deftly underline the smooth or suffocated nature of a scene. Capturing all this is Daniele Ciprì’s stunning cinematography and Desideria’s Rayner’s refined editing – a feast for the eyes. And to top off, audio work and a discriminating regard to diegetic sound (striking due to the lack of dialogue) that are masterfully employed.

It’s easy to review Salvo as a technical achievement, perhaps less so when speaking about its story. Few will feel devoted to the main character, what with an enigmatic agenda and near-silent expression. Rita, too, is a quietly curious character, only managing to shine in the last few scenes. There is little to connect with on a personal note, with the film feeling like a far more sensory experience; yet altogether perfect for the darkened space of the cinema.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 138 other followers

%d bloggers like this: