Archive for February, 2012

Canadian director David Cronenberg has had something of  a career change in recent years. Once renowned for his body horror features, he took a turn towards more psychologically probing thrillers. Horror fanboys might balk at this transformation, but you could argue that Cronenberg hasn’t really changed his spots. His films are still focused on human dysfunction and the less palatable parts of our nature, but this time it’s under the skin.

A Dangerous Method tells the story of perhaps the ultimate psychoanalytical drama, that of Freud and Jung. Cronenberg details how the young and upcoming Jung (Michael Fassbender) is taken under the wing of the more established Freud  (Viggo Mortensen), an intellectual buddy duo if you will. Their relationship starts to disintegrate when the two disagree about the right treatment of a wayward patient, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), which is a microcosm for their wider held views.

The film is handsome and fairly engrossing. There are some Edward Hopperesque mise en scenes, and the era is carefully reconstructed. Fassbender and Mortensen are fine in their roles, though neither character stretches two actors who have given a lot more in other roles. Keira Knightley, however, is a unwelcome distraction. Spielrein suffered from bouts of hysteria and unfortunately Knightley fails to convey this in an authentic fashion. Her gargoyle gurning seems to suggest an actor rooting around for the right way to play a difficult role, but I was yearning for an unknown instead, someone not quite as prim as Knightley.

Much of the film relies on extended dialogues between the characters discussing theories and dreams, and there is only perhaps one set piece in the entire film. This leads me to question whether this story lends itself that well to cinema. It is interesting no doubt, Jung and Freud’s relationship and the ideas that they were pioneering, but you get the sense that you would get a richer, more in depth reading from a book on the subject rather than a film. Additionally, the difficult material leads Cronenberg into some stagey drama that occasionally feels like a parody of a serious Hollywood biopic.

It’s still an intriguing, insightful film, but not wholly successful in its execution.

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Directing for Hammer Horror, James Watkins (Eden Lake) brings The Woman in Black to the big screen, complete with a much anticipated new role for Daniel Radcliffe. Critics have taken to the film with beady eyes, highlighting the simplicity of the plot, addressing the sparse characterisation and treating Radcliffe’s performance with pedantic scrutiny. When all is considered though, their in depth examination seems laughable in the face of what is a first-rate horror film like one we haven’t seen in years.

Based on Susan Hill’s novel, The Woman in Black tells the tale of a young solicitor and single father, Arthur Kipps who heads to a desolate mansion on the English coast to see to a deceased woman’s paperwork. Kipps has a young son to provide for and the sadness of his wife’s death (who died in child birth) still hangs upon his shoulders. Upon arriving he is informed by the locals that he should not visit the mansion, as they believe it is haunted by a darkly clad female apparition. Applying reason to the situation Kipps decides to see the job through, as he must prove his worth to his employer for fear of losing his job.

Radcliffe’s first serious non-Harry Potter performance is in good hands with James Watkins who gives him a mature role, playing a grief stricken father. While Radcliffe’s acting range is discernible, Watkins plays to his strengths allowing us to invest suitably in his dilemma. Building the authenticity of the story Watkins selects some superb locations, particularly the mansion itself – the design team dressed Cotterstock Hall in East Northamptonshire to create the epically creepy Eel Marsh House.

Watkin’s shooting style brings to mind classics of the horror genre, notably Psycho, Halloween and Alien. The movement of the characters and the coordinated use of close ups and shallow depth of field keep us on edge knowing that something sinister is lurking near-by. The design and lighting combine to give us a sense that the woman in black herself is omnipresent, building a constant sense of tension. Use of CGI is limited and thankfully so – often the effects feel like some of the cheapest tricks, but Watkins reins it in. He also deserves credit for rejecting the initial proposal that the film should be shot in 3D – this would have destroyed the classical creep of the Edwardian set story.

Amping up the scares towards the end, in a fashion particularly comparable to Halloween Watkins makes The Woman in Black first and foremost a thrill ride, but this is not to say that the film lacks substance. The payoff requires credible emotional investment from the audience and it carries it off with precision, allowing the fear of the woman in black to make a real impression. This film, like the novel it is adapted from, is designed to haunt you after it has ended. Perhaps when you are home alone, or just going to bed it will come back to give you one extra scare – when you buy tickets to see a horror film that is what you pay for and The Woman in Black welcomely delivers.

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Bruno Dumont is a French director whose films are inspired by his fellow compatriot Robert Bresson and background in industrial documentary making. His singular films are stripped back and emotionally raw, using non–professional actors to convey a sense of authenticity. They deal in the primal urges of human beings and are constantly gazing up at some higher power in a semi religious fervour. At times they can be tender and compassionate, at times they can be blunt and brutal.

Hadewijch is his fifth feature, and though it was ready for release back in 2009, it is only just getting a minor release. It’s not that hard to see why Dumont has not found a mainstream audience yet; his films are slow burning and can be uncompromising in their depiction of sex and violence. This latest work takes a detour somewhat, though sticks to the overriding themes of his previous offerings. Celine (Julie Sokolowski) is a young woman living in a remote nunnery in northern France, but her religious dedication is so intense that she is cast out by the senior nuns. They feel that the wayward girl will perhaps find her way back to God if she is living back in the real world.

Back in her privileged Paris existence, she meets Yassine (Yassine Salime), a devout muslim boy from the projects. Her naivety and vulnerability allow her to be taken into Yassine’s world, where his brother (Nassir Karl Sarafidis), also deeply religious, is charmed by Celine’s religious devotion. This leads her onto a path of ‘activism’ that would be unthinkable at the beginning of the film. It’s testament to Dumont’s ability as a filmmaker that we follow this journey through to the end.

Dumont’s main actors often have a earnest, almost simple quality to them. Julie Sokolowski is utterly compelling as Celine, her pale features and shivering emotions dominating the screen. Dumont has a remarkable  ability to extract such raw, honest performances out of his non–actors, leaving us with moments of genuine spontaneity and tenderness. The vivid, sharp cinematography also contributes to this ‘thereness’ that Dumont conjures so masterfully.

Many viewers will be put off by the slowness, the sincerity, the ambiguity of Hadewijch, but those willing to surrender to the French director’s vision will find an enigmatic, surprising, oddly touching film about faith and redemption. It doesn’t quite hit the heights of his earlier Cannes winner L’Humanite, but there is no one quite like Bruno Dumont around at the moment.

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Alexander Payne is an unusual proposition; a Hollywood insider with a taste for European arthouse films, a director whose films seem relatively gentle and breezy on the surface, yet hide an acerbic wit and misanthropic worldview below. Often his films will meander along playfully, then Payne will throw a curveball out of the blue. I’m thinking about the lecherous teacher in Election revelling in his students’ ‘Cunt’, the grotesque but humorous copulation of the ‘large’ couple in Sideways and in his newest film, the resolutely un-PC outbursts from stoner dude Sid. I’m not sure many other US filmmakers could get away with what Payne has and still get lauded by the Academy voters.

The Descendants, his latest film, is a less abrasive and more reflective affair than his previous offerings. It follows Matt (George Clooney), a lawyer and his two teenage daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) as they come to terms with his wife’s severe coma. Matt, a descendant of the islands ‘owners’, also has to contend with an imminent decision whether to sell off the island to investors. Over the course of the film, these issues become increasingly interlinked and Matt has some moral quandaries forced upon him.

This sub plot with the island sale is a lesser matter; we’re interested in what will happen to the people on screen, not some courtroom malarkey. Matt’s relationship with his daughters is distant and hands off. The disappearance of the strong parental influence forces him to contemplate his role in their lives, and hopefully, step up to the plate. Payne opts for a more reflexive family drama; he has mainly dispensed with the cutting humour and daft hijinks that made his previous films a delight. This is adult fodder, with no easy answers.

Clooney gives one of his most heartfelt performances as the lead. Payne has said he doesn’t ‘believe’ most actors in Hollywood, but ‘believes’ Clooney. Though Clooney is the archetypal movie star, he has a certain goofiness and good nature that Payne exploits to great effect. Amara Miller is solid as the younger sister, yet it’s Shailene Woodley who steals the show. As the temperamental Alexandra, she exudes an emotional rawness that is reminiscent of Anna Paquin’s recent role in Margaret.

Good though it is, I can’t help but think that Payne’s potential accolades would be much more suitable in recognition of Election or Sideways. This is a quietly poignant, sincere drama yet suffers from the dearth of black humour that characterises his best work.

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Imbued with a compelling central performance, a well judged approach to camera direction and the haunting folk songs of Jackson C. Frank, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a desolate film that resonates with a profound sense of mood. Debut feature director Sean Durkin uses dual narratives to tell the tale of Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), an impressionable young woman who joins a commune, only to escape into her sister’s care having experienced something terrible. What will happen when she returns to normality is entirely unpredictable.

Seemingly beginning the film at the end of the story (when Martha leaves the commune), writer/director Durkin could have fallen into the trap of having a story with no momentum, but he deceptively uses this end point as a starting point for a new leg of the story, while narrating in flash back the events in the commune. As the present narrative develops we become more and more engaged in the flashbacks, creating a dual level of interest.

Constantly keeping the audience in suspense of two narratives Durkin allows Elizabeth Olsen to perform an extremely rounded and complex portrait of her character. Upon arriving at the commune Martha is convincing portrayed as a lively, yet impressionable young woman. The leader of the communal group, Patrick (John Hawkes) convinces her that those in her past were responsible for causing her emotional harm. Unknowing to her Patrick is actually drawing her into a downward spiral which causes greater damage than she can imagine.

Durkin transitions from scenes of the past and present by subtly intercutting the narrative as if sliding in and out of a dream. He exhibits a superb control over pacing for each scene and his use of slow dolly shots and long lens camera work creates a detachment from the ordinary world and its conventions. The camera also takes on a significantly psychological influence on the story as Martha finds herself confused between what she may have dreamed and what may have happened at the commune. This happens as her influence on her sister’s life becomes increasingly burdensome.

Durkin’s choice of music gives the film one final kick and this manages to ingrain the film deeply in the audience’s memory and emotions. Durkin had John Hawkes learn Marcy’s Song by near-mythic folk artist Jackson C. Frank for a scene that becomes the centre point of Martha and Patrick’s relationship. Hawkes makes this song entirely his own and the song feels as if it were written specifically for the movie (only several decades early). It is the perfect compliment to the story, performances and overall filmic style.

Martha Marcy May Marlene feels like a film where all the elements fit correctly. This is down to Durkin’s superb directing skills which were honed making short films and music videos, while producing low budget features. It would be entirely unfair to say that this film feels like a result of luck – Durkin and his company Borderline Films have established themselves with an impressive background of work and Martha Marcy May Marlene feels like a culmination of this so far. What they produce next will no doubt be hotly anticipated, as will Elizabeth Olson’s next acting move. In years to come this film deserves to become a true classic of the American independent cinema.

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Veteran director Roman Polanski has crafted a notable canon of tight, claustrophobic thrillers, so it comes as no surprise that he ended up filming Yasmin Reza’s stage play Le Dieu Du Carnage. That play was an acerbic four hander set entirely in a New York apartment, where two sets of parents come together to discuss a minor violent incident between their children. In the first scene, we see a gang of young boys by a river side taunt a solitary child, who in turn lashes out at another with a stick.

But Carnage isn’t really interested in the children, moreso the four ‘adults’ who bicker between themselves in a manner that is purely playground. Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C Reilly) are the young victims parents, an apparently down to earth pair, though Penelope has cultural pretensions and Michael a laissez faire attitude to life. In contrast, Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan (Christophe Waltz) are a professional couple with demanding jobs. One of the stars of the film is Alan’s mobile phone, constantly ringing as he recites dubious legal advice to murky pharmaceutical companies.

Carnage delights and viciously picks at the contrasts, flaws and hypocrisies in the four protagonists arguments and lives. Each couple fights their corner at the beginning, unwilling to accept full responsibility for the violent incident. As the stakes raise higher, however, alliances break up and new ones are formed, husband to wife, man to man, woman to woman. Each character has their own little blindspot which Reza seizes on and pulls at, leaving no stone unturned. Status, morality, parenthood, marriage and life in general is all fair game for a group of people at the end of their tether.

Befitting it’s stage origins, Carnage is an actors film, and fortunately Polanski has assembled a strong bunch. Foster is so committed you worry she’ll burst a blood vessel, as Penelope becomes increasingly hysterical as her controlled facade falls apart. Winslet destroys the scenery (literally), Waltz is deliciously slimy and sauve, while Reilly plays with his everyman, nice guy image to great effect. With a lesser cast it would have fallen flat, but they all excel.

Strangely, you hardly remember this is a Polanski film by the end, such is the efficiency and discretion with which he directs. Polanski recognises the strengths of the project are the actors and the dialogue, and gives them the freedom to let rip. Yes, this isn’t a project that utilises the medium to its fullest, but it’s bringing to a whole new audience a deliciously vitriolic satire on modern family life and status. For that we should be grateful.

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Picking up numerous awards internationally, as well as topping respected critics ‘best of year’ lists in 2011 A Separation is another strikingly human piece of storytelling from Iran. The film begins with a seemingly straightforward dilemma between husband and wife. Nader (Peyman Moadi) wants to stay in Iran to care for his elderly father who suffers from Alzheimer’s, while his wife Simin (Leila Hatami) wants to leave Iran to find a better life for their daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) abroad.

Director Farhadi’s script becomes more complicated when Nader hires a devoutly religious housemaid called Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to look after his father, who’s condition is severe. With Nadar away at work and Simin living with her own family the pressure of the situation falls on Razieh’s shoulders, but true to the human nature of the storytelling she has her own problems. After Razieh leaves Nadar’s flat early one day, Nadar returns home to find his father neglected. He becomes angry and when Razieh returns an altercation happens; Nadar may or may not have pushed Razieh down the stairs, as he tried to make her leave his apartment.

It is here that A Separation essentially changes gear from a simple domestic dispute into something much more complex. Razieh is taken to hospital, having suffered a miscarriage. The film becomes a piece of realist filmmaking with a structure like that of a legal drama, or a crime procedural. With Nadar trying to gain information to clear his name, in order to avoid a murder charge and a prison sentence, A Separation becomes utterly gripping viewing. The film probes themes of the law, honour, gender, family and religion.

Initially posing Simin’s essentially female dilemma, the film paints a complex portrait of Iranian society and its Islamic values, while staying true to the human concerns at the heart of the story. When maid Razieh’s unemployed husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) enters the picture, the frustrations that he feels as a man are also brought to the fore, as he cannot fulfil his responsibility to support his wife. He becomes irate and aggressive frequently and wants to use this opportunity to gain in order to support his wife.

As well as trying to avoid a murder conviction Nadar fights to maintain his respectability, with his wife continuously pushing to leave the country. The web of difficulty pushes in on every character, male or female, devout or moderate, young and old. Director Farhadi maintains an immaculately level approach to each character and their storyline. The way he ends the film is the ultimate continuation of this, he consciously decides not to judge his characters.

That A Separation was successful on such an international scale is important, as it portrays a drama that is so human with characters that are so convincing and relatable; it creates a portrait of Iran that is nothing short of necessary viewing for those in the west who understand the country purely on the basis of its political stance with the west. On simple terms though this is a brilliantly true piece of filmmaking, with a story told in such a gripping fashion that it makes many thrillers look lifeless. With its disciplined approach and nuanced script A Separation reminds us that Iranian directors are some of the best storytellers in the world.

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Derided by the public upon its release, Wake in Fright looks today like something of a father figure to contemporary Australian cinema. With recent Australian films such as Snowtown, Animal Kingdom and The Proposition achieving critical and box office success despite their challenging subject matter, it is interesting to think that in the early 1970’s such candid self-reflection was out of bounds. Today Wake in Fright is ready for due consideration as a prominent piece of Australian filmmaking, but the question remains – was it tough for its time or is it still today?

Wake in Fright tells the tale of a middle-class school teacher John Grant (Gary Bond), who works at a tiny school in a township called Tiboonda in the Australian Outback. Upon closing school for Christmas, Grant gets the train to a local mining town known as “The Yabba”, from where he plans to fly to Sydney. Stopping at a cavernous, yet heaving bar Grant meets a policeman called Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty) who encourages him to drink numerous glasses of beer and gamble, whereupon he loses all his money. Unable to leave “The Yabba” Grant enters into a journey of Heart of Darkness proportions as he begins to mix with the local people, most of whom share the same infectious drinking habit.

Director Ted Kotcheff creates an image of hell out of the outback. The world of “the Yabba” is geographically barren, saturated with alcohol and male-dominated (with only one prominent female character called Janette, who seems to have had relations with all the local men). The situation Grant finds himself in makes it easy for anyone, including the well orientated, to slip into disarray. The film contains a number of distressing scenes including a ruthless cross country Kangaroo hunt and brutal brawls, as well as implying disturbing relations between various characters including a local doctor and alcoholic Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasence), who Grant befriends.

Grant’s journey from upstanding school teacher to crazed maniac feels swift and it is naturally portrayed by Gary Bond. The film has pace and like a roller-coaster we are flung through Grant’s descent. The film gives us the feeling that not only is any man susceptible to base behaviour but he has it innately in his physical and psychological make-up. This is emphasised by Grant’s encounters with Doc Tydon, who is respected as a local doctor despite his alcoholism. The direction their relationship takes towards the end is unexpected but not entirely surprising.

The enduring impression of Wake in Fright can be seen in 2011’s Snowtown (based on the true story of John Bunting, Australia’s most notorious serial killer) and Animal Kingdom (a crime family story equivalent to Australia’s Goodfellas), in that they represent a national cinema that is fearless in its representation of dark but valid cultural themes. The difference, however, is that Wake in Fright portrays an entire community with an undercurrent of madness; it therefore suggests a disturbing cultural trend on a much larger scale than that of a serial killer or even a crime family. Wake in Fright does not allow the audience member to entirely disassociate themselves with the themes of man’s barbarism – some audience members may feel that it points the finger. For that reason it was controversial in its day and is potentially still a shocker today.

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Sicilian American actor Ben Gazzara, famed for his work with John Cassavetes died on Friday of pancreatic cancer, aged 81. Gazzara’s career spanned seven decades and his impact as an actor was felt through generations of American filmmaking. Beginning his career on Broadway in the 1950’s, notably working with Elia Kazan on Tennessee William’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Gazzara went on to study at the Actors Studio before truly making an impression in the films of John Cassavetes. Working alongside Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk, Gazzara featured in three Cassavetes films: Husbands (1970), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) and Opening Night (1977). In 1979 Gazzara starred as a pimp in Peter Bogdanovich’s Saint Jack; the production won the critics prize at the Venice Film Festival, the first film to win it in seven years at the time. Later in his career Gazzara’s impression on the younger generation of American filmmakers became clear, working with Vincent Gallo, the Coen Brothers, Todd Solondz and Spike Lee in Buffalo ’66 (1998), The Big Lebowski (1998), Happiness (1998) and Summer of Sam (1998).

THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE (DIR. JOHN CASSAVETTES, 1976)

SAINT JACK (DIR. PETER BOGDANOVICH, 1979)

BUFFALO ’66 (DIR. VINCENT GALLO, 1998)

THE BIG LEBOWSKI (DIR. JOEL & ETHAN COEN, 1998)

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