Saturday, 9 March 2013

'Lore', 'Stoker', 'No' and 'Robot & Frank': review round-up, plus I'm back hosting Flick's Flicks

Time for another brief review round-up, but first I wanted to mention last night's Hold Onto Your Butts Film Quiz and Duke's at Komedia - the second so far. It went very well (from what I could tell) and I had a lot of fun hosting it. If you live in, or around, Brighton you might be interested to know it's taking place on the first Thursday of every month in the upstairs bar of the cinema at Komedia (Gardner Street, North Lain area). Though I really only bring it up here as an excuse to again publish Joe Blann's fantastic picture round (above).

Also, I'm again presenting Flick's Flicks to cover the regular writer-host's maternity leave, so here is the March edition of Picturehouse cinema's online film preview show:

On with the reviews!

'Lore' - Dir. Cate Shortland (15)

People I respect have raved about Australian director Cate Shortland's German-set 'Lore' - a coming of age story that follows the displaced children of high-ranking Nazis as they come to terms with defeat at the end of the Second World - though I found it to be a turgid bore. The premise is interesting enough, with the film taking the perspective of the eldest - the titular Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) - as she tries to shepherd her feckless siblings 900km across the country to their grandmother's house, following the arrest of their parents. However, it doesn't really seem to have anything to say about the situation the characters are in, beyond the obvious - that a generation of Germans grew up with guilt for crimes they didn't commit and that children born of Nazism stepped from the war into a world they didn't understand.

These points are hammered home with a few clunking metaphors, with a porcelain deer standing for innocence/the old ways and its climatic destruction a heavy-handed signifier that young Lore has left both behind. This is also a textbook example of "too-many-endings" syndrome, with yet another little scene every time you think the credits might finally be about to roll. Probably not an issue you'd have if, like many I've spoken to, you found the whole thing engaging and in some way illuminating about the human condition. But I didn't and so the whole thing was a tortuous drag - one of those Euro arthouse movies you see in the first week of a festival and forget by the start of the second.

'Stoker' - Dir. Park Chan-wook (18)

Strangely Park Chan-wook's uber-stylish English-language debut has a few things in common with 'Lore'. Firstly, it's a coming of age story about a young women moving into adulthood and losing their childlike innocence about the world. Secondly, and more specifically, both films feature a sequence in which the protagonist spies on her mother amid a sexual act and almost immediately sets out to replicate it with a relative stranger. But there the similarities end, because 'Stoker' is a stone-cold masterpiece in terms of direction, cinematography, editing and sound design. The plot itself is perhaps predictable and lacking in the sorts of twists and turns many have come to associate with the director of the Vengeance trilogy and 'Thirst', but the way the story is told is of the highest order. Some of the transitions between scenes are simply incredible, notably a shot that seamlessly goes from an actresses hair to a field of grass.

The plot basically amounts to: hyper-sensitive and isolated teen, India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska, who here looks something like 'Beetlejuice'-era Winona Ryder), is troubled after the death of her father and resents her cold, dissatisfied mother (Nicole Kidman). After the funeral her estranged uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) turns up and decides to stay in their house - only he has a secret and is more than willing to murder to protect it. But what it's really about - in keeping with the title's allusion to Bram Stoker of Dracula fame - is sex and death, both by way of touching lady-necks. Chan-wook is looking at the ability of blood, violence and mortal danger to both repulse and attract us - examining the erotic power of horror. In this context it's only natural that, after a spate of murdering, India comes to associate carnal desire with bone-snapping acts of violence, whilst seeming to fall for her mysterious and deadly new surrogate daddy. In other words, there's a lot going on here.

Double Academy Award nominee Jacki Weaver is also on hand to add to an Australian-rich cast, making her biggest impression since 'Animal Kingdom' in a brief but memorable role as India's aunt, in a film where every actor is perfectly cast. Matthew Goode in particular is a great physical presence, both charismatic and attractive whilst also always seeming like a genuine threat: he seems to loom several feet over the rest of the cast (pretty much all-female) and his hands - so often seen wrapped around the throats of victims - seem enormous. Wasikowska and Kidman are also excellent, particularly when playing off against each other.

'No' - Dir. Pablo Larrain (15)

Chilean writer-director Pablo Larrain's highest profile film in the UK to date, partly thanks to the casting of an internationally recognisable star in Gael Garcia Bernal, 'No' continues his run of films on the Pinochet era - following the disturbing and darkly funny 'Tony Manero' and 'Post Mortem'. This time his focus is on the end of that political epoch, as Bernal plays an advertising executive tasked with sexing up the "No" campaign during the 1988 plebiscite that would signal the end of the bloody dictatorship. Larrain's regular star Alfredo Castro also returns, here (naturally enough) as the suitably shady and morally ambiguous snake devising the pro-Pinochet camp's own adverts, though not even he can steal the show from the charismatic Bernal's withdrawn and equally ambiguous lead. Is he truly invested in the political campaign for which he is working? Or is he just out to win - furthering his fame within the advertising world?

In attempting to do the unthinkable and aid the "No" cause to victory - in an election assumed by most to be a formality, only staged to legitimise the regime's power - Bernal's Rene successfully uses the language of vapid, feel-good empty consumerism rather than engaging in traditional political discourse. This alienates a lot of campaigners on his side of the political fence, who feel he is ignoring the thousands of people "disappeared" by the regime, but Rene's lack of faith in the Chilean electorate is eventually rewarded. The film's final shots ingeniously play on our concerns about his victory, seemingly pondering whether a victory gained with empty, cynical consumerism can only lead to an empty, cynical and blandly consumerist society. It's a compelling point that renders the campaign's victory - almost a happy endpoint for the director's loose "Pinochet trilogy" - bittersweet.

The decision to shoot the film on 80s cameras is likewise ingenious, allowing the fictionalised drama to blend seamlessly with contemporary news footage and the original campaign clips themselves. In featuring the original adverts - with their crude comedy sketches, cheesy imagery and despicably catchy jingles - the film also becomes a historical document and a sort of documentary about that period in the nation's history, further enhancing how engrossing and fascinating the whole thing is. Along with the aforementioned 'Stoker', this is one of the best films I've seen so far this year. I can't wait to see what Larrain does next, especially now that he seems to have closed the book on that grim part of Chile's national history.

'Robot & Frank' - Dir. Jake Schreier (12A)

Without wishing to seem condescending or damning with faint praise, 'Robot & Frank' - a first feature for its writer Christopher D. Ford and director Jake Schreier - is a gentle and nice little movie. It's supremely pleasant but without being in the least twee, and it's wistful and nostalgic without being maudlin. Frank Langella, the Frank of the title, gives a subtle, un-showy central performance as a retired cat burglar and former jailbird suffering from dementia given a healthcare robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) by his concerned son (James Marsden). Both his hotshot lawyer son and flaky, bo-ho daughter (Liv Tyler) are mostly absent from his life and Frank slips in and out of remembering who they are during their brief visits and phone calls - but, despite early  reservations, Frank soon finds a renewed lease of life through his interactions with the robot. Especially after discovering his suitability for a life of crime.

It's wryly amusing and occasionally moving, especially in the closing stages of the arc involving Susan Sarandon, but beneath the deceptively light and easy feel there are actually a lot of interesting ideas and themes at play concerning our relationship with technology, the fragility of memory and how our society treats the elderly. It's actually a movie with quite a lot to say about these things, yet it never beats you over the head with any of them. It's certainly an easy recommendation and rounds out a really good week of cinema-going!

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