Monday, 28 November 2011

'Take Shelter' review:

Just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean they're not out to get you. That's the abiding feeling of 'Take Shelter' in which Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) begins to lose his sanity following a series of apocalyptic dreams, as everything in his small Ohio town, from faithful dog to colleagues at the construction site, become portents of doom. Most concerned about his sudden change in temperament and drop in health (mental and physical) is loving wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain), whose two dearly held aspirations - a move to the seaside and surgery for their daughter (Tova Stewart) which will restore her hearing - are put in jeopardy by Curtis' decision to throw all their finances into extending an old storm shelter underneath the backyard.

Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, it's commendable as an exploration of mental illness - with each fresh concern seeming very real to Curtis even as those around him raise eyebrows. As with 'Melancholia', the unsympathetic reaction of others to his mental state is key. But it's his own maniaphobia, the fear of going insane, that is best represented as he heads toward a total breakdown even in spite of his wish not to. He sees a doctor and a councillor, but wants to be given concrete answers and cured - not merely listened to (a position anyone who's been to the doctors with a mental health problem will understand). The fact that his mother was committed when he was a child adds to the sense of dread as he contemplates a future in which he too is separated from his family.

Shannon's portrayal of this fall is the film's strongest suit, with the actor long a specialist in playing unhinged characters ('Revolutionary Road', 'My Son, My Don, What Have Ye Done?') without gimmicks. There is something in his eyes which suggests a man who's both dangerous and pitiable, and there is also a warmth there evident as he interacts with his daughter. Chastain, who has seemed to be in everything over the last six months, is also outstanding, giving her most compelling and complete performance to date. Also worth a mention are the special effects which are totally effective for such a low budget drama, as CGI tornadoes and swarms of black birds blend seamlessly with their environment.

The final twist is, however, misjudged - providing a cheap, head scratching finale over which the audience can pontificate "did that just happen or was that a dream?" or "is she insane now too?" which somewhat undermines the mental health angle of the preceding two hours. It also lacks dramatic power, coming out of nowhere. Pacing is also an issue as the running time drags, whilst the frequent dream sequences are so clearly signposted that they are never themselves frightening (even if they give us a window onto why Curtis is frightened). It's difficult to shake the feeling that, as the stakes are raised and Curtis is plunged deeper into insanity, the film should become quicker and more intense.

'Take Shelter' is out now in the UK and has been rated '15' by the BBFC.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

'Weekend' review:

The bitter-sweet story of two men spending as many days together following a one night stand, 'Weekend' is not only a touching and gently funny love story, but a rumination on what it means to be gay. More broadly speaking it's about identity and the conflict between how we see ourselves and how we wish to be seen by others. Here the introverted, determinedly anti-camp Russell (Tom Cullen) finds himself attracted to his opposite: the loud, confrontational and highly politicised artist Glen, played by Chris New.

Russell seeks the path of least resistance where sexuality is concerned - being quiet about his sexual escapades, even in private, and rejecting public displays of affection altogether - whereas Glen is comfortable meeting prejudice with well reasoned debate or juvenile insults as the situation warrants. He bravely seeks to challenge the heteronormative society in which he lives, but he is also pretentious, insensitive and emotionally immature: Russell likens him to a teenager at one stage, even as he regards him with thinly veiled admiration.

Director Andrew Haigh's naturalistic screenplay, along with the fine performances of both leads, brings to life a film of emotional substance and nuance, in which neither character is judged by the filmmaker even as they judge and contradict each other. Glen's cynical take on marriage, as a sort of fay middle class obligation, is every bit as persuasive as Russell's suggestion that the ritual represents a bold public declaration of love. In this way the lengthy, often drug-fuelled, exchanges between them - as they discuss art, sex and gay rights of passage - are always interesting, funny and heartfelt - never sentimental or contrived.

From within a drab block of flats which, as surrounded by security cameras, feels at times like something out of Andrea Arnold's 'Red Road', it is easy to identify with Russell's less overt, less militant homosexuality. Without a single scene of physical violence, Haigh still manages to create an intimidating atmosphere as brainless insults are directed at the protagonists from off-camera. In this way the unseen villain of the piece is not anything as extreme or jarring as a punch in the face, but in the words people use so thoughtlessly - and in the culture itself, as people channel directionless anger into anti-social behaviour. The decision not to show the haters is also arguably a political gesture in of itself: this isn't their movie after all and their place in it, whilst necessary, is marginal. What's far more important is how Russell and Glen react differently to this ever-present oppression as opposed to any specific instance of confrontation.

That it's to some extent broken free of the "Queer cinema" ghetto and achieved modest mainstream box office success - in the UK and US, where it won awards at several festivals - has taken the industry by surprise, with cinemas notably slow on the uptake: forced to carry the film after date in response to audience demand. It might seem odd - and even like evidence of institutionalised homophobia - that it's faced such an uphill battle even in spite of overwhelmingly positive reception in the mainstream press. Yet it's arguably evidence of a fear raised in the film itself, as Glen contemplates the future of his own vaguely defined art project: an installation which will centre on the frank discussion of gay sex in a public forum.

Of that taboo-defying piece he muses that homosexuals won't be interested because it's not at all pornographic, whilst "straights" won't come because it's not about their world. 'Weekend' is challenging these restrictive, intellectually and emotionally stifling lines in the sand in ways even its director couldn't have foreseen, becoming one of the year's stand-out films on its own terms. Whether or not this will have a lasting impact on the exhibition industry, clearing the way for wider distribution of similarly accomplished gay cinema in the future, remains to be seen. But in an industry typically turned on the identification and immediate assimilation of trends (superheroes, J-horror remakes, 3D), I'd be very surprised if distributors weren't at this very moment actively seeking out the next 'Weekend'. The trouble for whichever film inherits that mantle is that Andrew Haigh has set the bar unreasonably high.

'Weekend' is out now in the UK and rated '18' by the BBFC.

Monday, 21 November 2011

'Three Colours Trilogy' review:

I watched Krzysztof Kieslowski's 'Three Colours Blue/White/Red' over the weekend and really enjoyed them, which was a surprise as I thought they'd be the sort of strained arthouse fare that's far easier to merely "appreciate". 'White' was especially good - a darkly funny Polish chapter - though the virtuosity of 'Blue' and Irene Jacob's radiance in 'Red' also left a strong impression.

My review of the Blu-ray box set, released today, is up now at What Culture!.

I've also had DVD reviews in the last two Saturday editions of the Daily Telegraph which I hadn't bothered plug here for some reason.

Gross-out gals comedy 'Bridesmaids' - which I enjoyed far more on a second viewing than I did upon theatrical - and the repugnant, mean-spirited, black-hearted 'Horrible Bosses', a more typical dude comedy which will never get the chance of a second viewing.

Tomorrow I'm hoping to have time to review the brilliant 'Weekend', which totally justifies the recent hype and box office success.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

'Immortals' review:

From Tarsem Singh Dhandwar, director of 'The Fall', 'Immortals' is as self-consciously artful as it is ultra-violent - a skull-smashing, eye-gouging riff on Greek myth. Its characters are thinly drawn heroic archetypes, lead by Henry Cavill (the next Superman) as Theseus and Luke Evans as the wettest version of Zeus ever committed to film. Mickey Rourke again takes the role of villain, whilst "actress" Freida Pinto is a virgin oracle and an underutilised John Hurt narrates, bringing back fond memories of 'The Storyteller'. There isn't a lot to the characters or the story: Rourke longs to find a holy artefact (the magical Epirus Bow) that will enable him to "unleash the titans" and destroy the gods, whilst our heroes must stop him. And, as with every telling of this story (Disney's 'Hercules', both 'Clash of the Titans' movies), they will by necessity fail to stop him, or else rob us of a gods versus titans spectacular at the end.

Where Tarsem's film does stand up is in the art direction. Yes, it's entirely showy (though not in the ugly way Zack Snyder's '300' was), but to see a blockbuster with such a coherent sense of design and an eye for composition is heartening. There is no place for realism here and whilst this does excuse a few awkward plot holes it does enable some fabulously over the top costumes and elaborate sets. The 3D is also well utilised, reminding me of Wim Wender's arthouse dance flick 'Pina', with increased spacial depth providing the perfect platform for the grim choreography of battle. A few jarring cuts betray the compromise that took some of the more grisly shots from the film in order to grant it a '15' certificate, but it's still spectacularly violent and frequently inventive with it.

Possibly as a lazy piece of character motivation rather than something more insidious, both Rourke as the merciless King Hyperion and Cavill's hero are motivated by a need for personal revenge: the villain blames the gods for the death of his family, whilst Theseus has his own personal cause to want Hyperion dead. Though this blood-lust does undermine his heroic character, as does his shield-beating claptrap about immortality through death in battle, it's entirely consistent with the film's conservative, militarist message. Here the enemy is one who, we are told, kills innocents without remorse because they are motivated by a conviction of belief. Key to the victory of good over evil is Theseus' discovery of deep religious faith.

To compound this message, a slimy politician (Stephen McHattie) seeks to negotiate with Hyperion rather than command his forces in battle, citing logic over superstition and demonstrating that those who seek the peaceful path are weak and godless fools. Here an army of face-covering fundamentalists can only be bested by renewed fundamentalism on the part of the good guys. Throw in the fact that the all-white gods (wearing blonde armour) beat the crap out of the dark-skinned titans and you've got something that's either stringently right-wing or just crass and insensitive.

'Immortals' is out now in the UK and rated '15' by the BBFC.

Monday, 14 November 2011

'Wuthering Heights' review:

If you read certain newspapers you could be forgiven for thinking that things are getting worse by the day: that society is regressing and life on Earth is more miserable now than it was for our grandparents. This truism is, aside from being quite annoying, potentially destructive and alienating. Its effects can be seen in our most culturally conservative films: that of the "heritage" cinema. In the British heritage cinema, with its eyes set on international box office, we see this idea applied to the nineteenth century time and time again, where people are invariably more refined, elegant, witty and polite than ourselves. They live in magnificent houses surrounded by beautiful things and speak the clearest (and often most verbose) form of English.

In this cinema we not only play up to international expectations of what "Britishness" (or really "Englishness") is, but we portray ourselves as we wish to be seen. This it at its most troubling when it comes to representations of race - where black faces are erased from British history in spite of the fact that London has been a multicultural city since before the time of Shakespeare - and, of course, social class. There have certainly been handsome and enjoyable period films over the years but there can be little doubt that the genre is staid and in need of a shake-up. Luckily Andrea Arnold, the director of 'Red Road' and 'Fish Tank', has done just that with a dirty, sweary and determinedly working class adaptation of 'Wuthering Heights'.

In this tale of doomed romance she recasts the central role of Heathcliff, an enigmatic social outsider, as black whilst Cathy and her family speak with thick regional accents. It's the 'Batman Begins' of period movies: a gritty game-changer that injects realism into a genre more commonly resembling fantasy. The dimly lit interiors speak of a time before electricity and our restricted view of the world (the whole thing takes place in one rural community) creates a sense of isolation. Use of anachronistic swear words and racial slurs, along with dynamic handheld cameras, also paints the past in such a way that it feels alive and the people real. The decision to again cast many non-actors (which worked so well in 'Fish Tank') also ensures there is little chance of mistaking this for an episode of 'Downton Abbey'.

These divergences from the standard tropes of period film are not merely cosmetic but help tell the story - and in lieu of any lengthy dialogue, displaying an admirable confidence in the power of images above the spoken word. Admittedly my knowledge of Emily Brontë's nineteenth century novel extends only as far as the Kate Bush song, but the director's vision seems faithful to that of the Gothic novel as far as I can tell. The story is stripped to the bear essentials, but the elemental animal passion of the characters comes across, especially in the first half of the film depicting childhood. Having a black Heathcliff serves to imbue scenes with deeper significance - such as when he is treated as a domestic servant, beaten and locked up - whilst it also strengthens the feeling that he and the white Cathy will never be accepted as lovers.

The tragedy of Cathy and Heathcliff's destructive love-hate relationship and unconsummated love comes across vividly, as does the fecund and windswept setting, marking this as a successful adaptation of the story. But the greatest achievement - and hopefully most lasting influence - of the piece is in Arnold so boldly shaking the British costume drama by the shoulders. There will always be an audience for glossy nineteenth century literary adaptations about gaudy dresses and well-maintained topiary (and they will likely always generate more money than Arnold's film), but this is the clearest evidence since Kubrick's 'Barry Lyndon' that this most stagnant of genres can be as gutsy and relevant as any other.

'Wuthering Heights' is out now in the UK where it is rated '15' by the BBFC.

Friday, 4 November 2011

'The Future' review:

I reviewed Miranda July's 'The Future' from Berlin earlier this year, but today sees its release in the UK. It's a real love it or hate it movie, which I suspect many will think is far too quirksome for its own good, though I really enjoyed it.

Read my review here.

'The Future' is released in UK today and rated '12A' by the BBFC.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

'Paranormal Activity 3' review:

For anybody wondering why a film coming to the end of its theatrical run is at the top of this blog: I'm just catching up on some of the current releases. In lieu of anything else to do/because it was Halloween, I chose to see this. Rest assured this week's biggest new films have been reviewed further down, in the form of 'The Adventures of Tintin' and 'The Ides of March'.

With some major exceptions - like Kubrick's 'The Shining' and Carpenter's 'The Thing' - I'm not a big fan of traditional horror movies. This represents a major gap in my cinema knowledge, leaving me with many seminal movies as yet unseen. As a result I'm often left shamefaced when people assume I've seen, for instance, 'The Exorcist' or 'Night of the Living Dead'. It's a rare event that I even see a horror movie in fact and I suspect fewer than 5 of the around 250 films I've reviewed since beginning this blog have been unambiguously of the genre, even though it's perhaps the most enduring and commercially successful in the business. I am increasingly aware of the need to bridge this cultural gap, but horror was never my passion growing up like it was for many of my peers.

I begin this review of 'Paranormal Activity 3' with such a strained admission of ignorance because I'm self-consciously out of my depth and didn't want to give any impression to the contrary. I also thought it might explain why I'm much less interested in the actual business of what went on in the film - the scares and specific additions to the series' growing mythology - than I am of who made it and how. Whilst I saw the original 2007 lo-fi phenomenon 'Paranormal Activity' on DVD, I never sought out its first (by most accounts rubbish) sequel. Yet I went to see this third entry because of two names: Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, directors of the controversial "documentary" 'Catfish'.

I write the word sceptically because much of the coverage surrounding 'Catfish' - which ostensibly followed a man's online romance to a very creepy conclusion - focussed on whether or not it had been staged. Was it actually just a very cleverly made thriller, rather than a genuine insight into the pitfalls of love in the digital age? I don't know, though it certainly felt real to me to the point where the question seemed redundant. With that debut as their calling card, the duo make an inspired choice to direct a fake "found footage" movie on a low budget. So when I learned they had directed this latest, cash-in sequel (actually a prequel) it elevated my interest all the way from "none whatsoever" to "desperate to see it".

I was very impressed by what I saw. For one thing, as with the previous films in the series, the action is mostly staged within the confines of (despite its 80s setting) one ultra-modern American suburban home and the directors use this space brilliantly. Very quickly we understand the layout of the house, meaning that when a spooky images flickers from one end of a hall to the other we understand where it is headed, and when people react to events happening off-camera, we know exactly where they are looking. The house itself is airy and open plan, which contributes both to the feeling of being watched by an omnipresent entity and of there being nowhere to hide.

Furthermore, the cine-literate directors geek out spectacularly throughout the movie. The man obsessed with taping the events this time around, Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith), is an amateur filmmaker who not only spends his time arguing with a friend about the logic of the title of 'Back to the Future' whilst sitting at an editing suite, but actually discusses the mechanics of shooting the house - and by extension the movie itself. He talks at length about wide-angle lenses and experimenting with different placements to capture as much of the space as possible with one camera.

He creatively uses mirrors to cover multiple angles within each single shot and - in the film's best moment of invention - turns an oscillating fan into a slowly panning camera tripod. Not only is this a neat piece of guerilla filmmaking, but the set-up plays directly into the scares as the camera tracks back and forth from the kitchen to the living room tantalising and frustrating us in equal measure with the promise of the inevitable reveal. Add to this some unsettling in-camera effects and 'Paranormal Activity 3' definitely makes the most of its small production budget (ignoring the hundreds of millions presumably spent on marketing).

Like the original film, the horror here is born directly from the act of filmmaking. The viewer is as ever complicit in enraging the demon, which we know is prone to acting up whenever people try to capture it on film. Our act of voyeurism seems to put us at risk for the duration of our time in the theatre and Dennis can't stop filming for the same reason we don't stop watching: we are psychically compelled to want to see our tormentor even as instinct tells us to turn and run away very quickly. This strange urge to explore the origin of an unexplained noise or to look inside the dark cupboard is what puts us in danger. It's a collective neurosis that's almost biblical in proportion: just as Adam was cast from the garden Eden for sating his intellectual curiosity, so must we pay for sticking our noses where they don't belong.

Also interesting is the fact that the two lead characters spend the first half of the film trying to scare each other, and most of the jumpy moments relate to this rather than anything supernatural. This is a clever twist as it gives you the satisfaction of a quick jump scare, whilst still withholding the lurking monster itself. And your knowledge that a genuine spooky force is present also makes you anxious, as those who play spooky tricks leave themselves open to very real paranormal attack in the process. As they laugh we suspect the worst is on its way. Even I, with my aforementioned lack of horror knowledge, can see many of the clichés at work here - including the dominant presence of two spooky girls - but Schulman and Joost inject much more invention into this theoretically moribund franchise than there was any right to expect.

'Paranormal Activity 3' is on general release in the UK where it is rated '15' by the BBFC.