Archive for November, 2012

Austrian auteur Michael Haneke has made a habit of challenging taboos in his 20-odd year cinematic career, from racial conflict in Hidden, media violence in Funny Games and the emptiness of modern life in The Seventh Continent. He has an innate ability to hone in on what he deems to be troubling Western society, and subject it to his own meticulous cinematic scalpel. Reaching his 70th year, he has turned towards an issue that he himself will surely be contemplating in the years to come; the ageing process.

Working again in his adopted home town of Paris, he has written a film about an elderly couple living alone in their apartment, stalked by the threat of growing old and senile. Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) were both involved in classical music; Anne was evidently a teacher, Georges’ occupation unclear. They are still in love, though prone to the occasional niggle at each other. They spend their days inside the apartment, and Haneke’s camera coyly avoids the outside world. Their only visitors are their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) and friendly neighbours.

The film clicks into gear when the two sit down to breakfast one morning. Georges asks Anne something, but there is no reply. She just stares into space. It is this single moment which indicates the tragic decline of Anne’s mental and physical state. Haneke has a way of conjuring immense foreboding with just the tiniest of events; think back to the teens whose seemingly innocent request for some eggs in Funny Games sets in motion the terrible chain of events. So it is a film about the two lovers coming to deal with the loss of life as they know it, and the gradual downward cycle. Typically cheery Haneke fare then.

Haneke makes pains to create a disparity between the couple and the outside world; it is a us vs. them scenario. A visit from a cherished former pupil ends with him declaring the ‘sadness’ of the situation. Their daughter challenges Georges, issues him with thinly veiled ultimatums, while the newly employed nurses are impersonal and rough with Anne. It is only their downstairs neighbours who exude any real empathy with their situation, and it is no surprise that they are not so much younger. Haneke seems to be indicating a clear age divide between those who see a terrible scenario unfolding and those who have to live through it.

Amour is not an easy film to watch, but often the most rewarding films are also the most challenging. It is a struggle to think of many films that deal with ageing fullstop, let alone in such an uncompromising way, so for that Haneke should be applauded. The performances by the veteran actors Trintignant and Riva are superb and devoid of vanity. Aesthetically the film is classic Haneke; muted interiors, wide angle shots, long takes. The most striking thing about this new film, though, even despite the grim subject matter, is a sense of humanity creeping in throughout the film. Yes, there are moments of domestic horror and cruelty, but the defining emotion is the one clung to by the couple; amour.

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The Railway Children is a children’s story originally penned by Edith Nesbit in 1905. The tale tells of a group of children who lose their farther to false imprisonment, having been accused by the British government of selling secret information to the Russians.

Jason Figgis’ horror film takes its name from Nesbit’s novel and the plot bares a similarity to the original book in that it concerns another set of parentless children. However, there are no railways in sight, just dilapidated houses and bleak Irish landscapes.

The girls at the centre of the story are Evie (Catherine Wrigglesworth) and Fran (Emily Forster), two sisters attempting to survive alone, following the demise of their parents to a pandemic affecting only adults. They hop to and from abandoned homes in search of food and shelter, reading Edith Nesbit’s story to each other as they go.

As the girls progress on their travels they meet a wider ensemble of young people like themselves. The lack of adult guidance has effected the characters they encounter differently, gradually exposing the girls to a deepening vision of horror.

Perhaps because of its shoestring budget (a mere €500), this is a horror film that foregoes many of the more visceral generic conventions. The film plays as a series of extended scenes with characters locked in relentless conflict, built out of the dialogue. As Figgis successfully increases the stakes, the drama (derived more from melodrama, than horror) becomes increasingly engaging.

In common with the shooting style of realist filmmakers, such as Ken Loach, Figgis chose to shoot The Railway Children in chronological order; this method helped the young actors comprehend their character archs. The approach affords the film an unexpected grounding in realism, which appeases the low budget constraints of the production.

This is not to say that The Railway Childen is completely without horror. Figgis splices visceral flashbacks of the traumatic past into dialogue scenes, to present the characters’ horrific memories. The performances by the adult cast in these scenes are particularly bold.

The problem with this method though is that Evie and Fran rarely encounter any threat or horror in the immediate tense; this diminishes the opportunity for real suspense. The low key digital cinematography also limits the emotional impact of the film’s imagery, which had strong potential given the remote shooting locales.

In spite of its low budget trappings however, The Railway Children offers something unexpectedly fresh for a modern horror. The film introduces a young ensemble of Irish talent and gives them some real dramatic material to work with. Some genre fans may be put off that The Railway Children is more melodrama than horror, but this is a blessing in disguise, as the film’s impact cuts far deeper as a result.

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French director Jacques Audiard came to international prominence with his film A Beat That My Heart Skipped and furthered his reputation with 2009’s A Prophet, which topped many an end of year list. Both of those films shared Audiard’s customary documentary-style observation and moments of flair, with strong central performances depicting seedy and flawed existences. Romain Duris and Tahar Rahim both played characters wrapped up in the darkness of the underworld, fighting to escape, in Duris’ case, or flourish, in Rahim’s.

His sixth feature, Rust and Bone, follows in a similar vein. Based on author Craig Davidson’s short story, the film revolves around Alain’s (Matthias Schoenaerts) tumultuous relationship with Stephanie (Marion Cotillard). Both of these characters find themselves at the fringes of society; Alain is a no-nonsense tough guy, floating from job to job while trying to care for his young son, while Stephanie’s life as a whale trainer has been swept away by a freak accident that leaves her an amputee. Through a chance meeting, the odd couple find each other and discover solace in their existence as society’s underdogs.

Rust and Bone is not a typical romance story. There are moments of brutality, and the whole film is injected with a raw, frayed undertone. Alain, for his part, seems only able to express himself through aggression. He can only control his young son through mild threat and criticism, and with Stephanie, his love interest, he is only capable of bluntness rather than tenderness. He only really comes alive when he is reunited with his past career as a kick boxer, but this time in rural locales with illegal betting. After one swift fight in which he dismisses an opponent, he careers off into a run in order to burn up the remaining aggression in himself.

Stephanie is a much more grounded individual; a steady job as a trainer in a local water park attraction, she seems to revel in her alternate existence in the water. Like Romain Duris’ piano playing in ABTMHS or Alain’s fighting, Stephanie’s escape is the water. When she finds this life taken away from her, she struggles to adapt to everyday existence as an amputee. She is a much more sensitive, humane person than Alain, but finds his matter of fact talk comforting when she finds herself in a sensitive situation. By this point in the story, they both need each other. Will Stephanie ever be able to tame Alain though? That is the active question that Audiard leaves us with.

Like his previous films, Audiard’s latest is characterised by the towering central performances. Schoenaerts is uncompromisingly lunk headed and thuggish, but still retains a flawed humanity. His physicality is frightening, and he remains a constant source of threat. Cotillard is superb as the emotionally and physically wounded Stephanie. She has the emotional range to exhibit the hurt of isolation and need, without resorting to hysterics. With much of her Hollywood work she has seemed uncomfortable and displaced, and this film questions whether she would be much better served working in her native country.

Although there are a few nicely composed images in this film, it is strange that Audiard is often noted as a stylist. His work appears much more in line with the observational documentary style of  Ken Loach or the Dardenne brothers (both of whom focus on marginalised characters). There are moments of flair in the choreographed fights and pop soundtrack, but overall this is a gritty, raw piece of work driven by flawed characters and their arcs.

Rust and Bone is a punchy, gutsy character drama with superb performances. The relationship between the two players is both original and touching, offbeat and uncompromising. Audiard makes the audience believe in something initially far fetched and grips us all the way to the denouement. It falls a little short of his two previous films, particularly A Prophet, perhaps because it is missing the sense of epic scale that that prison drama had. While Alain has a distinctive arc, Stephanie’s is less certain.

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Never let it be said that Paul Thomas Anderson doesn’t give us something to think about. With his latest film The Master, Anderson has tackled a subject arguably more challenging and confounding than his previous offering There Will Be Blood, which looked to the American oil business and its relationship with Christianity for sensational dramatic material.

With The Master Anderson has stepped into the world of quasi-religions. Herein we discover a fictitious group called The Cause, based in no small part on Scientology and the legacy of the group’s founder L. Ron Hubbard. An alluring Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd (based on Hubbard), an outrageously charismatic charlatan who describes himself thus: “I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but above all I am a man.”

It is when Dodd meets Freddie Quell (a frightening Joaquin Phoenix), a veteran of World War II suffering from a severe case of Post-traumatic stress disorder that he is fuelled into action and feels compelled to help the man. Dodd takes Quell under his wing and offers him therapy, support and above all seemingly genuine friendship, in exchange for Quell’s expertise in brewing a dangerous substitute for alcohol; a drink largely comprised of paint stripper.

Initially Dodd’s friendship with Quell seems genuinely beneficial and Dodd’s therapeutic techniques have a short term impact on Quell’s sense of catharsis, but Quell’s troubles are deep seated and Dodd’s faux expertise begin to seem doubtful. Despite being a damaged soul, Quell is still a fiery individual by nature and soon conflict arises between Dodd and he. In one extraordinary scene the men are imprisoned together, leading Quell to smash a cellblock toilet in misdirected anger.

In spite of Dodd’s declaration that “man is not an animal” (a theory that seems to be the basis of The Cause) the relationship between Dodd and Quell has a very animalistic quality. Anderson shows this with particular clarity when the men wrestle on the grass outside of Dodd’s house. The portmanteau ‘bromanace’ has never seemed more pertinent.

The expertise with which Paul Thomas Anderson carries off the continually fascinating (and consistently entertaining) relationship between Dodd and Quell is without question. His command of the cinematic language is so competent (with his stunning use of 70mm film) that it makes us wonder to what extent the title of the film can be considered a pun. Yet, in spite of its mastery, a question remains: what exactly does Anderson want to say?

Like There Will Be Blood the meaning of The Master is illusive. Anderson leaves us with numerous disparate thoughts and feelings, but no closure. Like Quell’s battered seaman we are adrift in search of meaning, left only with Frank Loesser’s song (I’d Like to Get You on a) Slow Boat To China, abysslike shots of the ocean and naked women (sculpted out of sand, if all else fails).

Perhaps Paul Thomas Anderson wants to tell us that, instead of seeking a higher meaning and instead of following the theories of others, we can only rely on our basic animalistic urges. Perhaps when Dirk Diggler fixated on the content of his pants back in Anderson’s second film Boogie Nights, the director had said everything he had to say. As for The Master only time and repeat viewings will tell.

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