Monday, 31 October 2011

LFF 2011: Target (Alexander Zeldovich, 2011) Review

The mask of eternal youth... Justine Waddell stars in Target (2011)

Russia, 2020. Co-written with 'Ice Trilogy' author Vladimir Sorokin, Alexander Zeldovich's Target presents a futuristic utopia whose model exteriors cloak rabid corruption among its bourgeoisie classes, whose greed for eternal life has spoiled them. Over the next decade youth has become a commodity, attainable for a price. Zoe (Justine Waddell) and Victor (Maksim Sukhanov), along with a group of equally opportunistic friends, travel to an abandoned astrophysics complex in search of eternity, recalling the quest to The Zone in Tarkovsky's Stalker (1979). Sadly this Russian epic has none of the depth or invention of that classic, ending up a tiresome mishmash of ideas and ideologies which range from the stupid to the plain offensive...

With that said, I'd like to highlight some positives. Target is 154 minutes long and there are very few scenes which feel familiar - Zeldovich's crumbling utopia is an individual and hermetically sealed world, and especially interesting in its approach to architecture. How refreshing it is to see a film set in the future which doesn't look like Metropolis (Lang, 1927) or Blade Runner (Scott, 1982), instead making subtle changes to the face of contemporary Moscow. This is a country whose pristine veneer, now heavily influenced by China, has been built over time - its towering glass skyscrapers, expansive motorways and touch-screen walls feel real, and provide a present tense reminder of our worrying dependence on technology. This is a landscape which, in its details, provokes thought. Funnily enough, the film's deepest aspect may be its surface.

The score, by Leonid Desyatnikov, is also beautifully composed, and DP Alexandre Ilkhovski lends the film a striking palette of heightened blues and greens. Unfortunately it's the underneath of Target which proves ugly, displaying an unsettling penchant for casual misogyny. None of the women in the film have jobs. None have any individuality, instead existing at the command of men, whom they are demanded to look beautiful for. They're frequently objectified and abused, treated like objects or possessions. By the third rape scene my blood was literally boiling, and I began to wonder why any actress would ever sign up for such gross mistreatment. Waddell is an English actress who learnt Russian for the part, and she was happily in attendance at my public screening. Every ounce of her passion is evident onscreen, but her efforts are wasted on a character whose victimization is disturbing and, frankly, upsetting.

The film's problems extend to its philosophies too, which are at best shallow and at worst non-existent. As with all futurist societies this cityscape has allegorical qualities, presenting its audience with questions about technology and its effect on contemporary life. Zeldovich's envisioning of the home in 2020 is quite interesting, and again remarkable for its subtlety, but as the film drags on (and boy, does it drag!) the details get lost amid the director's bigger picture, allowing for bizarre cutaways to a satirical TV cookery show where the host politically harasses his contestants and ends up violently attacking them or the audience. It feels like a scene Godard or Buñuel would have executed in the 60's, although it lacks the bracing wit or insight of their work; Zeldovich's politics are so on the nose that it can sometimes feel like we're watching a party broadcast.

It's no wonder people have been walking out of Target in their droves, although I do think the film is worth seeing. Yes, it's at least 45 minutes too long. Yes, it's tonally scattershot and prone to lashings of wanton sexual violence. Yes, there are times where I hated it. But there are also images of undeniable artistry and power which will stay with me for months for come, and the film provides a definite talking point. One thing I can guarantee is that nobody walked out of that screening and ignored what they'd just seen. They reacted. I doubt the film will ever get a UK release outside of festivals, but if it does I can't wait to see the audience divide. They won't know what's hit them...

VHS Quest #13. Halloween Special: The Tempter (L'anticristo) (Alberto De Martino, 1974)

Ippolita (Carla Gravina) is bewitched by dark forces in The Tempter (L'anticristo)...

In the 1970's/80's horror, before a staple of the studio production line, evolved into the genre of the auteur, birthing everything from the grotesque Dalí-like abstractions of Argento's Suspiria (1977) to the cold spectral surfaces of Kubrick's The Shining (1980). During this time horror validated itself as an individual artform, capable of instilling beauty into the macabre (I recall the entire disco sequence from Carrie, De Palma, 1976). But many of the decade's biggest hits spawned a legion of less impressive copycats, and none more so than William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973), a spew-laden drama about demonic possession, haunted by Mike Oldfield's classic Tubular Bells. But of all the Exorcist copycats I've seen none have quite the high-strung infernal power of L'anticristo, a possession horror hailing from Italy - the capital of genre sleaze. Indeed, everything that Friedkin's film restrains De Martino's takes to an extreme and vomits it in the face of the viewer. Dim your pumpkins horror hounds...

Ippolita (Carla Gravina), a young woman haunted by the death of her mother, is tormented by satanic visions while undergoing a crisis of faith. She's paralyzed, anxious, repressed and frustrated. Nobody seems to understand her, despite the best efforts of her comforting brother (perhaps a little too comforting) and strict father. When she seemingly loses mental control to dark forces a psychiatrist is hired to hypnotize the young woman, in the hope that some past trauma may be revealed. Ippolita travels back to a previous spirit; a life in which she was condemned for witchcraft and burnt at the stake. Doctors fail to cure her and eventually Father Mittner (George Coulouris) is called to perform a full exorcism. Will he be able to save the girl, or has she been forever lost to the devil?

Although lacking the intellectual rigor of The Exorcist, adapted by William Peter Blatty from his original source novel, L'anticristo does ramp up the intensity of the possession, working valiantly to gross us out every ten minutes. Character is much less of a concern here than set-pieces, but De Martino does provide his audience with a logical sequence of events which lead to Ippolita's demonic overtaking, as opposed to Friedkin's more ambiguous approach - Regan (Linda Blair) is just an ordinary girl, happy until she starts chucking up green sludge and breaking out in scars. L'anticristo's centerpiece is Ippolita's feverish nightmare recalling her past life as a witch, focusing on a surreal ceremony in which she licks a goats anus and makes love with (possibly) Satan himself, masked in theatrical animal getup. The young girl writhes on her bed as the colour and soundscapes shift in tone and intensity; the walls of her room seemingly give way to a different environment, and the effect is disorienting. De Martino frames the ceremony like a fairytale inauguration gone straight to hell; all spindly trees, cold marble and freakish orgiastic bodies rattling in the mist. He takes a distance from the action but allows for enough emphasis so that it feels explicit - indeed, the devilish induction will leave a disturbing mark on your mind.

Much of the atmosphere in this sequence (and the full-pelt exorcism which ends the film) is mustered though Ennio Morricone's incredible score, co-written with Bruno Nicolai (best known for his work on Caligula, Brass, 1979). A mixture of ghostly pipe organs and jolting strings, their accompaniment is as beautiful as it is terrifying, and will make subsequent visits to church uncomfortable for quite some time. The track which ends the film, 'The Light', is a masterpiece of crescendoing intensity, ranking among the composer's best work. De Martino is a competent director though, and not incapable of building atmosphere. His camerawork is often dynamic and exciting, especially in the sequences where Ippolita wreaks havoc in her bedroom, throwing paintings, drawers and wardrobes around with her mind. It's just that Morricone and Nicolai's score is so overwhelming that it hits every primary nerve the director also strives for.

Gravina is exceptional as Ippolita, throwing herself full-on into the film's most difficult sequences. The makeup does a lot of the work for her (pale, powdery complexion, dark rings around the eyes, foaming at the mouth) but the actress still dedicates herself to the idea of possession, moving specifically to the limitations of her character (she's in a wheelchair). The dubbing on this VHS is terrible but her physicality informs us of every demonic pang and thrust; every resentment bubbling under the surface of her now hell-wracked face. Some may find her over the top, but I think that's rather the point. Every other performance is somewhat underwhelming, although in fairness to the actors they're not really given much more than exposition to work with. Overall L'anticristo is a roaring success, and one of the most underrated horror films of the 1970's. "Your mother sucks cocks in hell"? Bah! This makes Friedkin's film look like a trip to Disneyland...

This review is part of VHS Quest.
P.S. I now learn that The Tempter is available on DVD under the title The Antichrist. It has so many monikers that I struggled to find it initially. I'll still include this review in VHS Quest however, because it counts as a Halloween Special.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Saint (Dick Maas, 2010) DVD Review

He knows when you've been naughty, and he has a killer zombie army... Saint (2010)

'This Christmas, Santa's Coming To Slay...'

So reads the tagline for Saint, Dick Mass' blackly comic yuletide horror about a "murderous renegade bishop" who kidnaps children on the dark, blizzard-swept eve of December 5th, the traditional date of celebration for Sinterklass. Legend dictates that when this night bears a full moon St. Nick will return, raising his festive spear to the throats of little'uns whose only wish is to find a puppy or scalextric set burrowed under their tree. Mounted upon his demonic steed, this vengeful Santa is an evil tyrant who once pillaged villages and stole their young - that is until a rag-tag troop of parents gathered their torches and pitchforks to wreak revenge (pictured above). Horror fans will instantly recognize the nod toward Freddy Krueger's backstory, and on a first glance this festal slasher might draw comparison with Silent Night, Deadly Night (E. Sellier, Jr, 1984), but Saint is undeniably a horror from the Low Country...

Maas' most famed work is probably 1988's Amsterdamned, a Dutch giallo about a scuba-diving killer who scales the city's canals for fresh female meat. I once described the film as "a remake of Jaws, but with a psychopath instead of a shark" and by this logic Saint is basically a retelling of your traditional Nöel fairytale, but with a spindly disfigured butcher instead of a jolly plump present bearer. Clocking in at a lean 78 minutes, the film is an action-packed ride through a snowy suburb in the Netherlands, populated by various horror movie clichés. Actually, Maas' does show an odd level of contempt for his stereotypes (cliquey bitches, crass jocks, drunken ex-cops), especially the young tech-savvy protagonists who exist at the whim of their IPhones - in fact, one group of broadly etched friends have their limbs lopped off for the failure of their GPS system. Maas' might be having a poke at contemporary culture here, and in some scenes he does so pretty scathingly, but it never stops the film from being fun. The screenplay is actually very witty and, despite being caricatures, the characters do develop into people we can care about and get behind - especially Goert (Bert Luppes), our ex-cop.

What really sells the film are its set-pieces, and they're an absolute riot. Believe me when I say that you won't see a more original chase sequence this year - a cops vs. santa rooftop pursuit! St. Nick darts across houses as the police pursue below, speeding down tight one-way streets and crowded estates, firing off rounds at the red-caped baddie. Eventually they land a blow and... well, I won't spoil the outcome, but it's a smashing finale. It's also worth commenting on the quality of the SFX here - Maas can't have been working from a huge budget, but his monsters are astonishingly well rendered, and the action scenes are state-of-the-art. The final set-piece, despite amounting to a huge anti-climax, also looks terrific, handling beheadings and firefights on a pretty impressive scale. Maas', who is now 60, directs the action with energy and confidence; indeed, Saint has all the technical vigor and extreme gore of an eager debut.

It's not perfect, but Saint is definitely a Halloween release I can recommend, and actually it's disappointing to find the flick landing straight onto DVD. Some may be uncomfortable with the en masse kiddie slaughter (it happens offscreen, but Santa does burn a children's ward to the ground), and I can imagine the stock character types getting on people's nerves, but Mass' latest has enough dark wit, brooding atmosphere and blood spurting decapitations to satisfy any horror hound looking for something a bit different this October 31st. One of the genre's most undervalued auteurs has struck gold again with a wonderfully crafted snow-steeped slashfest - it's a blast!

The Disc/Extras
Excellent quality release; the image is crisp and clear. I'm surprised it hasn't been made available on Blu-Ray. The lack of extras is also very disappointing - it's really unforgivable these days to release a DVD package that doesn't even contain the original theatrical trailer.

Saint pops down the chimney and onto DVD shelves on Monday 31st October.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Sleeping Beauty (Julia Leigh, 2011) Review

"More tea Sir?" Emily Browning stars in Sleeping Beauty (2011)

"Your vagina is a temple" asserts Clara (Rachel Blake), the chic femme bitch of Julia Leigh's Sleeping Beauty. "My vagina is not a temple" replies Lucy (Emily Browning), the protagonist of this perverse, Haneke-esque anti-fairytale. Actually, there are hints of Buñuel here too, and not just in the obvious Belle de Jour (1967) - glibly affected dinner table scenes appear to repress the middle-class satire of The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie (1972), a trick Leigh woefully (if intentionally) misses. Instead she crafts a portrait of the doe-eyed Lucy, our titular sleeping beauty, who offers herself as an ornamental plaything for the self-destructive old men who endeavor to relive their youth through her doll-like comatose form.

It's an interesting setup, but Leigh's rigid sexual drama is too austere to engage, ultimately ending up as a series of cold, loosely connected set-pieces which never feel sure of their purpose; do they aim to titillate or disgust? The film attempts to illustrate the ethical dilemmas of paying and being paid for sex, highlighting the psychological implications and dangers of both, but Sleeping Beauty never dares to delve beneath its own pristine surface, undermining any attempt at moralising with its frequent and explicit nudity. Surely Leigh doesn't require that many full-frontal shots to make her point, if indeed she even has one?

What's worse is that I never really felt for Lucy or understood her as a human being, the reasons for which are twofold. The screenplay is woefully underdeveloped, preferring direction to dialogue, and it never presents the audience with a believable normality that Lucy can then shatter. We're privy to her enigmatic relationship with a sickly hermit named Birdman (Ewen Leslie), but their conversations never go anywhere or feel substantial. They are one of the film's more interesting elements though, because they at least feel somewhat real. The main arc never strikes a single believable note. But this is also down to Browning's laughably one-note performance (her reaction to a bedside companion during the final scenes is uncomfortably bad) which is so wooden that she may as well be a part of the furniture.

I was initially shocked to learn that Sleeping Beauty has been produced by Jane Campion, a director well regarded for 1993's mute period drama The Piano. But then I remembered her own atrocious erotica, 2003's dud Meg Ryan thriller In The Cut, and everything suddenly fell into place. Indeed, the more of its hand it reveals (do we even need to enter the sleeping chamber?) the less interesting Sleeping Beauty becomes. Ultimately Leigh's Fabergé fantasy is one of the year's worst films; adolescent, pompous and unforgivably boring. My final word? Belle de Shit.

Sleeping Beauty was released in UK cinemas on October 14th.

LFF 2011: The Awakening (Nick Murphy, 2011) Review

Things might not be what they seem for Rebecca Hall in The Awakening (2011)...

A cold manor house surrounded by dense woodland provides the backdrop for Nick Murphy's nuts n' bolts ghost story The Awakening, and it's one of several elements you've undoubtedly seen before. Following in the classic tradition of The Innocents (Clayton, 1961) and The Others (Amenábar, 2001), this is a film sorely lacking in originality and identity, instead acting as an efficient skim through your current DVD library; a reminder that you should probably re-watch The Orphanage (Antonio Bayona, 2007). The floorboards here are sufficiently creaky, and the house unnerving, but you'll struggle to find anything new within its walls, or indeed anything worth remembering.

The story picks up in 1921 London. The country is recovering from war and struggling to develop in the ashes of conflict. Thousands of soldiers have fallen, leaving behind widows and orphaned children. Perhaps this is a time where people have need for ghosts. Professional hoax exposer Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) is dedicated to logic and science, yet secretly longs to be visited by the spirit of her loved one, who was stolen by the ravages of WWI. Schoolmaster Robert Mallory (Dominic West), a troubled ex-solider, calls her to Rockwood, a boys' boarding school seemingly haunted by the ghost of an ex-student. To nobody's surprise Florence finds it hard to debunk the rumoured sightings and instead gets wrapped up in the mystery. There are some head-slappingly obvious twists along the way (including some full-on Scooby Doo red herrings), but the fun lies in their execution.

DP Eduard Grau (who won acclaim with 2009's A Single Man, Tom Ford) shoots the landscape through a drab, grey lens, capturing a genuine bleakness through an aged aesthetic. He musters a tangible atmosphere around the spiraling staircases and foreboding corridors, but The Awakening really calls out to be shot in black and white, which would lend it the feeling of a monochrome wartime photograph. Every frame is drained of colour, and Grau is obviously striving to vary around one tone, so why not just go the whole way? I suspect it comes down to marketing, and the age of the target audience.

But black and white photography would have served another important purpose. There's something wonderfully old fashioned about Murphy's film, which creaks and groans across a heightened soundscape (courtesy of Daniel Pemberton), but it also showcases a peculiar penchant for modernism - the ghost itself, for example, defined by a CGI stretchy-mouth straight out of Asian horrors such as Ringu (Hideo Nakata, 1998) and Ju-On (Takashi Shimizu, 2002). Then there's our heroine, who is frequently referred to in dialogue as "educated", presumably to point out how ahead of her time this feisty protagonist is. It quickly becomes tiresome, and when her dress code also moves anachronistically toward GAP one wonders why this tale requires 1921 as its setting. My point is that black and white photography could have lent the film a definite period feeling, and further heightened the atmosphere.

There are some effective jump scares (Florence's first night in the house, a protracted set-piece of mounting dread, is exceptional), but the film's other big hangup is its lack of psychological impact. Here we are in the wake of war and economic devastation, and Florence's own battle against the spirit world she's now confronted with, and the film never raises an emotional pulse. It never got inside my head or under my skin. Character drama is foregrounded, but for what purpose if every plot strand is going to be abandoned for formulaic score-orientated scares? This is a classier horror picture than we're used to, but its ultimate ambition is no different to your average Insidious (Wan, 2010), which is to get popcorn flying in front of the screen.

That said, they just don't make 'em like this anymore, and it's nice to find a traditional English-feeling horror in cinemas once again. Hammer are releasing The Woman In Black (James Watkins) next February, so perhaps we're about to witness a resurgence? I couldn't be more excited by the prospect, especially if it's going to attract talent like Hall and West, who are terrific here, making the most of risible material. Neither are at their best, but actually the film is worth seeing for their performances. You believe their fear at every turn, even if Murphy never allows you to feel it for yourself.

The Awakening is playing at the London Film Festival on Wednesday 26th October. Its official UK release date is November 11th. This review can originally be found at Flickfeast.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Red Psalm (Még kér a nép) (Miklós Jancsó, 1972) DVD Review

A mighty wind blows through the peasants' revolt... Red Psalm (1972)

Composed of just 28 sequence shots, Miklós Jancsó's Red Psalm (Még kér a nép) is one of cinema's greatest political parables, a film Jonathan Rosenbaum rightly described as "an awesome fusion of form with content and politics with poetry." Set in 1898, the film elliptically floats through several days in a socialist revolt, charting the epic struggle by the working class against their bureaucrat oppressors. Jancsó denies the audience any association with a specific character, instead taking the Hungarian workers as a collective, united by linked arms and folkish rhapsodies. Musicians ramble freely around the rings of revolutionaries, singing songs of peace and freedom. "The land belongs to those who cultivate it" declares one character, a plain woman who sows seeds in the hope that life will be born from them. Jancsó's film is empathetic and objective, a vision for which he won 1972's Best Director prize at Cannes.

But those without a working knowledge of Hungarian history or politics (this bracket includes me) needn't be intimidated by Red Psalm's subject, for Jancsó's tale is a bold cinematic adventure which, with its graceful camerawork and ethereal landscapes, strikes a deep and resonant emotional chord. Much like Zoltán Huszárik's Szindbád (1971), released by Second Run earlier this year, Red Psalm presents a perfect marriage of form with content, expressing much of its story with striking visual patterns. Written by Gyula Hernádi, the film employs dialogue sparingly (much of it feels improvised), preferring to let the landscape speak for itself. The camera glides past characters - incidental and critical - with no particular rhythm, and reading the essay which accompanies this release I learn that Jancsó didn't plan or choreograph any of his shots before arriving on set. There's a freedom to his camerawork which perfectly complements the action it observes, wherein characters often break into dance and address the camera directly. It's a film constantly in motion, and this helps engage the viewer through the disconnected narrative.

DP János Kende captures the fields of revolt beautifully, and there's one particularly striking sequence where the protestors set a church on fire. The flames tremble and roar around this holy architecture; it is a formidable beauty. Jancsó switches between intimate close-ups (sometimes too close, and the effect is choking) and huge landscape shots with ease, and his eye is highly developed. There's another impressive sequence where the protesters unify in dance, only to be surrounded by armed soldiers. Horses gallop around the site, denying them any chance of escape. Their fate was perhaps inevitable, but the ringing gunshots still strike a devastating blow, and Jancsó's distance from the event makes it all the more chilling. His understanding of framing and colour is impeccable, and the use of red, at first on a bleeding hand and then across waves of ribbons, has scarcely been used more effectively in cinema.

Even without an understanding of its wider aims, Red Psalm still impresses in its scope and feeling. This was my first experience of Jancsó's work, and I can't wait to explore more - turns out there's no better time either, as Second Run are releasing a collection on November 21st.

The Disc/Extras
The brand new 16:9 digital transfer has been approved by Jancsó himself, and it looks wonderfully crisp and clean. As usual with Second Run there's an accompanying booklet, this time authored by Peter Hames, providing context for the film and its director's body of work. Hames' is perhaps a little too academic, but his 20-page entry is still highly readable and informative. The sole extra on the disc is Message Of Stones - Hegyalja (1994), the third in Jancsó's Message Of Stones documentary series. I haven't managed to watch this yet due to my tight LFF schedule, but I promise I'll update this review with my thoughts sometime over the weekend. Overall, Red Psalm is another essential purchase from Second Run, who miraculously haven't released a bad title this year.

LFF 2011: Curling King (Ole Endresen, 2011) Review

The half-wit curlers of Ole Endresen's slapdash Curling King (2011)

Dodgeball (2004). Blades Of Glory (2007). Semi-Pro (2008). Sports comedies have been doing pretty big business in Hollywood over the past decade, due in no small part to the presence of Frat Packer's Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Will Ferrell. Largely revolving around the underdog/slacker-done-good arc, these conventional comedies have scored with audiences by portraying their sports with a blend of broad slapstick and in-jokes, and the same formula applies to Norway's Curling King, an efficient little farce which is too predictable to become the international show-stopper it's hoping for. Norwegian cinema has definitely secured an audience in the UK this year, and its presence at the festival (be sure to check out Morten Tyldum's Headhunters, 2011) is encouraging, but sadly this isn't a release I can get behind.

The story revolves around a middle-aged curling team who fall apart when their leader, Truls Paulsen (Atle Antonsen), is diagnosed with OCD and banned from the sport. Heavily medicated and under surveillance from his trophy wife Sigrid (Linn Skâber), Truls soon decides to come back to curling when his mentor Gordon falls ill. He requires an expensive life saving operation, but coincidentally the cash prize from the curling championship will meet his medical bills. The rest of the plot could be (and probably was) mapped out on a handkerchief, and all of your primary presumptions are probably correct (breakups, setbacks, reunions etc).

An example of Curling King's predictability. Early in the film it is revealed that one character's estranged father is a Rod Stewart impersonator. It's only a matter of time before we're treated to the hi-larious sight of a monotone codger in a tiger-skin jacket giving his half-arsed rendition of 'Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?' My audience howled with laugher, but I can't imagine why. Even worse is my suspicion that, had an American film pulled that gag, we'd all be rolling our eyes and calling it predictable. Well guess what? It's no different here. Same goes for a boring dance-off sequence to MC Hammer's 'U Can't Touch This', which is sure to get a round-of-applause. It was funnier when Little Miss Sunshine (2006) did it.

In all honesty I wasn't really prepared for the sort of film Curling King was when I walked into the press screening. Despite the festival programme using terms such as "pastel-bright comedy" and "growing old disgracefully" I was expecting something more along the lines of Eran Kolirin's The Band's Visit (2007), a dry Egyptian comedy about a police band lost in translation. The broad, knockabout stylings of Curling King actually have more in common with those blockbusting Frat Pack outings, abandoning subtlety and character at the calling of a good chubby-chaser gag. That said, Endresen's film isn't without charm, and that's largely down to some terrifically offbeat performances...

Each member of the curling team is undergoing some kind of midlife crisis (the funniest, involving a pillow and a milk truck, gets an unsatisfying payoff), and their concerns are all somewhat relatable. Beneath the vibrant colour scheme and broad sight gags (plentiful pelvic thrusting from Paulsen's arch nemesis) there's actually an affectingly deadpan sadness, which the actors exploit well. They don't entirely gel as a team, and it's annoying that the plot becomes so centralized on Paulsen that it forgets about his teammates during the middle third, but the brisk pace means that it never becomes too much of a problem. Antonsen's comic timing is particularly spot-on, but the setups just aren't good enough to support him.

It's very hard to get 600 words out of Curling King. I've managed, but this review has been stretched to its limits. At times it was like getting blood from a stone, and in that sense I have something in common with the film's screenwriters; finding enough jokes in the premise of Curling King to sustain a 75-minute feature is a task I wouldn't have envied them...

This review can originally be found at Flickfeast.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (Nagisa Ôshima, 1983) Blu-Ray Review

David Bowie plays a prisoner of war in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983)

Nagisa Ôshima's vision of war-torn 1942 Java was met with middling critical reviews upon its release in 1983, but the film has grown in stature over the years and it now arrives on Blu-Ray as something of a cult curio, largely for the assembly of its three leading players - David Bowie, Tom Conti and Takeshi Kitano. Based upon Sir Laurens van Der Post's 1963 prison diary 'The Seed And The Sower', the film chronicles life in a Japanese POW camp for two pairs of soldiers. The British, Col. Lawrence (Conti) and Capt. Hicksley (Jack Thompson), are stiff-upper-lipped, deflated and, in the case of the former man, bewildered by the culture he is now charged with translating. The Japanese, Sgt. Hara (Takeshi) and Capt. Yonoi (Ryûichi Sakamoto), are warriors and leaders, but different in their approach to the British. They represent, respectively, sadism and empathy. Through these characters the film, as well as being a compelling study of the consequences of war, also becomes about culture shock and tradition. We view these themes through Lawrence's sad eyes; eyes which challenge Japan's moral authority.

Ôshima's films have always expressed criticism of his home country, and here Lawrence exposes and grapples with some of its hypocrisies and elderly modes. One scene finds Lawrence confronting Hara about shame, which for the Japanese is a feeling worse than death. They would commit harakiri (ritual suicide) rather than experience it. What the mannered Brit expresses is that shame presents itself differently to every man. In fact, he regards suicide as an act of shame - a cowards way out of life's challenges. The two men understand each other, but could never imagine living by the other's values. For me their conflict is the most engaging element of Mr. Lawrence, but the film is captivatingly odd from its opening minutes, which showcase Sakamoto's classic score - a blend of wind instruments and anachronistic synthesizers which look to both classical Japan and 80's America for its influence. His music actually musters much of the atmosphere that Ôshima's confused direction can't, as it often feels like the director is lost in translation between the Japanese and British styles.

On this note, I have to say that the actors are the film's biggest weakness. Not necessarily because they're bad, but more down to the fact that Japanese and British acting styles are so different, and the two are awkwardly married. Conti and Bowie aim for a kind of damaged realism, underplaying every line and expressing the majority of emotion through their eyes and subtle physical gestures. Kitano and Sakamoto are much more theatrical, expressing everything on the surface in grand sweeping movements. Their lines are shouted, and Sakamoto in particular seems to be struggling with the English dialogue, at his very loudest sounding like a bad Fozzy Bear impersonator. Ôshima implies a latent homosexual attraction between Yonoi and prisoner Celliers (Bowie), but the actor's performances are so aggressively incompatible that it's hard to read anything between them. That said, their relationship has struck a chord with certain audiences, and there's even fan art dedicated to the subtext.

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is an oddity in Ôshima's body of work, but by no means its weakest link. Individual scenes impress in their daring, such as Lawrence's conversation with Yonoi where he learns of his sentencing to death. No crime must go unpunished in Japan, even if the guilty party is uncertain. Lawrence laughs the matter off before acknowledging a deep frustration with his captors way of life; a great pain, too. Scenes like these elevate the film to a soaring level, but there are also entire sequences which prove sluggish and unnecessary, such as Celliers' flashback to his youth and the troubled relationship he shared with his hunchback brother. Mr Lawrence is a hodgepodge collection of performances, ideas and styles, and far from a perfect film. But it is one of the most interesting I've ever seen, and am ever likely to see...

The Disc/Extras
A good, clean transfer, but a bit of a disappointment coming from Optimum Entertainment, whose remasters of In The Realm Of The Senses (1976) and Empire Of Passion (1978) are far superior. Still, this is the best version of the film available in the UK, largely because of the expansive extras. There's an interesting 30-minute making-of documentary called 'The Oshima Gang', interviews with Jeremy Thomas (producer) and Ryûichi Sakamoto (actor/composer), the original theatrical trailer, and a 3-minute excerpt from Scenes By The Sea (Louis Heaton, 2000), a documentary about Takeshi Kitano. There's perhaps nothing new for fans here, but it's a solid package nonetheless.

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is out on Blu-Ray from Monday 24th October. This review can originally be found at Flickfeast.

Friday, 21 October 2011

LFF 2011: Sleeping Sickness (Ulrich Köhler, 2011) Review


Africa is a land of ailment and confusion in Sleeping Sickness (2011)

Where to begin with Sleeping Sickness? I can only divulge the first third of its plot, merely suggest genre, and much less express my feelings intelligibly for fear of giving away the film's myriad surprises. Perhaps it's an enigmatic thriller set around the world of medicine, specifically concerning Dr. Velten (the permanently sweaty Pierre Bokma) as he wrestles with administrators and an outbreak of the titular disease? Perhaps. But at around the 30-minute mark Köhler's film cuts, without warning, to another time and place, introducing new characters and agendas. How far into the future are we? How will these stories connect, if at all? Suddenly the film becomes a 'Heart Of Darkness'-esque tale about foreigners in a radical land, exposing the West's warped idea of African society. It's a fascinating slow-burn (but actually incredibly entertaining) film, impossible to grasp with the logic of traditional storytelling. Let's focus on that first third a little more...

Dr. Velten's medical programme has been a success, extensively reducing the amount of illness in the region. Administrators are demanding an increase in financial aid, but Velten stands strong on his position. Shortly he will be rejoining his family, wife Vera (Jenny Schilly) and daughter Helen (Maria Elise Miller), in their native Germany, but something about that land depresses him. The jungle has a grasp around his throat, it would seem, although the consequence of this pull won't be made clear until the bewildering ending (you won't see a better final shot this year). Köhler slowly builds a portrait of this family, framed like the most ordinary of dramas. The dialogue and performances are naturalistic, the photography uncharacteristically beautiful, the sound low-key. This portion of the film engages, but doesn't indicate greatness. Questions about legislation and corruption are raised, but it's clear that Köhler is going to keep his picture small. Even when the scope of its story extends the film remains intimate, focusing on character.

I wish I could discuss the next third in more detail, but all you need know is that it concerns Alex Nzila (Jean-Christophe Folly), a French doctor who is sent to build a report on Dr. Velten's programme. When he arrives Ebbo is nowhere to be found. What follows is an examination of Africa unlike any I've seen before, and a visual portrait of the country which is as mythical as it is challenging. The landscape, lensed by DP Patrick Orth, suddenly attains a sparse mystique - anything, we consider, could happen here. This feeling becomes even more prevalent in the final third, which I shall keep completely under wraps. This is the most snakelike of films, deceptively slithering through the subconscious and shedding its skin every thirty minutes. Its themes change with the tides. To some degree it's also about culture shock. The plot I've described so far is really just a surface, although I don't make that statement detrimentally. It's the most polished, absorbing surface a film of substance can possibly possess.

A cautionary tale blending the ideas of Conrad with the aesthetics of Denis (and a bit of Weerasethakul thrown in for good measure), Sleeping Sickness is the most interesting film I've seen this year, and I'm praying that distributors give me the chance to watch it time and time again. Just one piece of advice: don't read ANY other reviews until you've seen it. There are some great ones out there, but all reveal too much of the plot. The ideal way to watch Sleeping Sickness is completely cold, unaware of its eventual trajectory. In all honesty, you probably shouldn't have read this far...

Sleeping Sickness is playing at the London Film Festival on Saturday 22nd October. This review can originally be found at Flickfeast.

LFF 2011: Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, 2011) Review

Curtis (Michael Shannon) suffers visions of the apocalypse in Take Shelter (2011)

Can you imagine waking up one morning, staring into the mirror and feeling separate from the reflected image, as if you were actually looking at some obscure portrait? Can you imagine the terror of not being able to distinguish reality from nightmare, forever living in a paranoid state, trying to untangle your mind from the impending disasters it's convinced itself of? Take Shelter, Jeff Nichols' second feature after 2007's incendiary Shotgun Stories, is an interpersonal horror movie of biblical proportions, observing the end-of-days through the splintering mind of one ordinary man. And if that summary hasn't sold you then frankly nothing will...

Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) is a working class guy living in a small Ohio town with his beautiful wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and deaf daughter Hanna (Tova Stewart). His existence is seemingly perfect, but he's plagued by a series of apocalyptic visions, rendering his nights sleepless. These nightmares begin with a downfall of thick, oily rain, followed by ghost-like figures scratching at the widows, and then descending into a full-blown storm. Fatigue sets in, and Curtis becomes increasingly detached from his reality, much to the concern of his family. When he begins work on renovating a storm shelter in his backyard word travels concerning his strange behavior, and the line between reality and nightmare becomes worryingly blurred.

Nichols frames Curtis' life like the classic American Dream; it has everything but the emblematic white picket fence. In fact, the family's life could even be called clichéd, but it's important that Nichols' establishes an identifiable everyday reality for his characters so that the ensuing terror may carry greater weight. This could be your neighborhood. Hell, these could be your neighbors. The screenplay also does a great job of raising questions of trust and morality. When Curtis begins experiencing visions he does not think himself a prophet. His first instinct is to see a doctor, and then a therapist. One morning we sense deep shame when he wakes up to realize he's wet the bed. But as the narrative progresses he seems to become more convinced that these dreams are foretelling reality, and yet he does nothing to warn anybody. Now his instinct lies with survival; more specifically the survival of him and his family. His explosion of rage at a community dinner exposes contempt for those who have sniggered behind his back. And after all, they did nothing to help him, so what loyalty does he owe them?

Unfortunately the film really loses steam in its last ten minutes, which provide unnecessary answers to questions which will present themselves differently to every viewer. Part of Nichols' genius lies in his ability to create a constant sense of unease from his premise, where the viewer never understands - much less trusts - Curtis and his motives. One disturbing vision suggests that he may be compelled to hurt his family, and Nichols' can muster tension from this scenario because he's never given us reason to believe that Curtis isn't capable of violence. He's a dedicated family man, and clearly a loving husband, but lacks control over his condition. For me the film ends on a shot of his hands reaching for a door (you'll know it when it comes), and the final minutes undermine almost everything which has come before. That said, even though the final shot appears clearcut, you may interpret it differently to me.

The film's constant appeal is Shannon's shape-shifting face, as compelling here as in Bug (Friedkin, 2006) and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? (Herzog, 2009). He's one of the finest actors of his generation, and I can't wait to see what he does next. No matter the quality of the film, I know he'll be brilliant. But the real revelation here, for the third or fourth time this year, is Jessica Chastain. In Malick's Tree Of Life (2011) she floated on air, like an earthbound angel. Here she represents normality, the anchor of love that Curtis needs to keep his reality in check. Her building anxiety and concern is beautifully played, perfectly matching Shannon's subtle facial ticks. She's really built a heavy reputation for herself this year. Come November, when Take Shelter is released theatrically, I think her popularity will be cemented in the minds of UK moviegoers. She's a sensation.

Take Shelter is playing at the London Film Festival on Friday 21st and Sunday 23rd October. Its official UK release date is November 25th. This review can originally be found on Flickfeast.

LFF 2011: Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin, 2011) Review

"Martha. You look like a Marcy May"... Martha Marcey May Marlene (2011)

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a film of dramatically heightened senses, perceiving touch, sight and hearing with the anxious curiosity of a newborn. Martha's (Elizabeth Olsen) years spent in a cult, fathered by the seemingly innocuous Patrick (John Hawkes), have desensitized her from the outside world. Her escape is a full-throttle assault on our senses, combining frenetic handheld camerawork, a brooding visual style and a rumbling string-fronted soundscape. The feeling of this scene is overwhelming, like stealing a sharp intake of breath after deep submersion. Indeed, the intensity of Durkin's film cannot be understated. This is a picture of conditioned spaces and inaugural terror, repetitive cycles and unsettled awakening. The camera shadows Martha ("you look like a Marcy May") as she reassembles her life, seeking refuge with concerned sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her frustrated husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), rhythmically flitting back to her memories of life on Patrick's farm. In many ways, like the upcoming Take Shelter (Nichols, 2011), the film can be viewed as a horror, albeit an intensely personal one about the confrontation of inner demons.

Durkin's film is really remarkable for expressing so much disquiet without ever engaging, explicitly, in the exact ritual of Patrick's self-made family. It appears that he recruits young girls into his spacious barn home, allowing them to settle in and then raping them when they feel comfortable. Another girl will reassure the young victim, telling her that it's all part of the "sharing process", and that the family will have to be open to one another in order to live harmoniously. Most doors are kept closed on the farm, and interiors are largely shot in obscured close-ups. Everyone finds their place eventually, whether it be washing dishes or looking after the children (disturbingly, they may all belong to Patrick). Durkin's directorial sensibilities are greatly restrained, and he evokes a troubling atmosphere through the use of photography and music. In one scene Patrick sings to the group, delivering a haunting rendition of Jackson C. Frank's 'Marcy's Song'. It starts off romantically ("well she's, she's just a picture") but as the actor narrows his gaze and the lyrics shift toward something darker ("her dripping, ripping down your hands") we gain an insight into Patrick's dream for the farm. It's a disturbing vision, and we never feel safe in his presence again...

Hawkes has been a commanding presence on the American indie scene for some time now, and he turned the Academy's heads with his supporting role in last years Sundance sensation Winter's Bone (Debra Granik, 2010). His performance here is layered and affecting, constantly challenging the expectations of an audience. In one scene he approaches Marcy, who is being trained to use a gun, and instructs her to shoot a cat. "You're a teacher and a leader Marcy, now prove it." He delivers the line with such calm that we begin to wonder what Patrick is really capable of. Has he killed before? His psychology is never probed, and for once that's a good thing. We get to feel for the character but never understand him; he's just a blank slate. Olsen is also incredible in her first leading role, turning in a raw, naturalistic performance that never hits a false note. Her portrayal is also a layered one, and the actress slips inside a state of fear and unease, proving herself as a magnetic screen presence.

I've allowed the film to settle in over two weeks before writing this review, and many of my initial problems with it now feel less significant. The screenplay, written by Durkin, does have its tin-eared moments, and some of Patrick's dialogue is laughably artificial, especially a speech about the cycle of life and death. It feels too much like the director is trying to shoehorn a bigger idea into the picture, but it just gets lost among the smaller, more intimate moments. My other problem was with the films final minute, and this has caused division among my fellow critics. Durkin employs a stunning wide shot to observe Martha as she swims in a lake. The frame is disconcerting in its quietness, and DP Jody Lee Lipes darkens the palette, lending the lake an oily quality; below the rippling surface it appears black. We stay in this shot for an uncomfortable amount of time, and the dense woodland begins to envelope the viewer. It's a perfectly ambiguous note to end on but Durkin follows it up with two extra shots. To me they're unnecessary, but they're certainly not enough to stop me from recommending the film. It's a hauntingly subdued piece of work, heralding great things for both its director and star...

Martha Marcy May Marlene is screening at the London Film Festival on Saturday 22nd and Monday 24th October. Its official UK release date is February 3rd. This review can originally be found at Flickfeast.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

LFF 2011: The Future (Miranda July, 2011) Review

Miranda July's annoyingly quirky The Future (2011)

Miranda July's debut feature, the wonderful Me And You And Everyone We Know (2005), currently ranks as one of my Top 10 films of the last decade. Understandably, her second venture as writer/director/star, the less cumbersomely titled The Future, was one of my festival priorities. I'd already resigned myself to the fact that it would be something of a letdown, yet I remained confident of enjoyment. How wrong a person can be. For what I discovered, upon entering the NFT1 on a bright September morning, was one of the most nauseatingly self-absorbed and tirelessly pretentious films of the year. It's in my Bottom 5. I flat-out hated it...

Sophie (July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater) are a thirty-something couple living in LA, working jobs they hate to pay the rent on their hipster-centric apartment. In thirty days they're due to adopt a cat named Paw-Paw, and this spurs them on to the realization that they're growing older ("forty is basically fifty") and life as they know it will soon come to an end. No more lounging around on Facebook, it would seem. Naturally this realization spins time and space out of order, and all manner of kookiness begins to occur between the fracturing couple, who attempt to find meaning in life outside of each other.

The Future is a film which builds an existential crisis from the unplugging of the Internet, and that's about the level of depth July is working from. The film is about mortality, responsibility, incapability and inevitability. It's about hitting a brick wall and not knowing how you got there; coming to terms with the life you've built and wondering why you never became more. "I always thought I'd be smarter" says Jason. Sophie decides to dedicate her life to a YouTube dance. "30 days 30 dances." Do you want to spend time with these people?

First we must establish the rules of July's universe. The film is obviously operating on a heightened level, and to look for realism would be a fool's errand. That's not the point. The same was true of Me And You And Everyone We Know, which at one point paused its story to contemplate the fate of a bagged goldfish. The difference was that the heightened world in that film held an underlying truth; characters whose interactions carried weight and felt believable. It's almost as if they had no barometer for their emotions, and spoke directly from the subconscious; the home of memory, imagination and classic movie dialogue. Those characters were forgiving and open-minded. They said things like "I was trying to save my life and it didn't work." Some will cringe, but I found it disarming, and most of all charming.

The Future makes use of surrealism to tell its tale, and the press notes reveal that the project was birthed from a performance piece called 'Things We Don't Understand And Definitely Are Not Going To Talk About'. Examples of surrealism include Jason's conversation with the moon ("what do I know? I'm just a rock in the sky") and a living T-shirt which follows Sophie to a new home. The problem is that none of this coalesces into a consistent vision, and the tone always feels slightly off. The mechanics of the film are always visible onscreen, and the whole thing lacks momentum. There's a clearly defined end-goal (the collection of Paw-Paw), even marked on a frequently referenced calendar, and yet it never feels like the film is working towards anything substantial. Sub-plots arise from the most coincidental of details, and none carry depth or humour.

But am I hypocritical to mark down a film about aimlessness for being aimless? Not when the conversations are this banal and self-serving, having the nerve to discuss profound life achievements after the characters have just quit their jobs to become free spirits. Is that viable in this economy? No, but they're quirky, so apparently it's all fine. Talking of quirky, have I mentioned that the film is narrated by Paw-Paw (voiced by July)? It's intensely irritating but actually works as a good litmus test for if you're likely to enjoy the film. My advice? Watch the trailer. Anyone who rolls their eyes at the cat narration would be best served by giving July's latest a miss.

In the interest of fairness I should say that there are positives. Linklater is terrific as the mumbly, introspective Jason, and makes the most of a weak screenplay (his entire arc revolves around becoming an environmentalist). The score by Jon Brion (one of my favorite composers) is also good, as is the use of a Beach House track called 'Master Of None'. But honestly, if you want to listen to that, just buy the soundtrack album. It'll be a more gratifying experience. And that's really all I can say in the way of positives. I so wanted to love The Future, but I left the screening angry and sad. I won't have a more disappointing experience at the London Film Festival this year.

The Future is screening at the London Film Festival on Friday 21st and Sunday 23rd October. Its official UK release date is November 4th. This review can originally be found at Flickfeast.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

LFF 2011: Mourning (Morteza Farshbaf, 2011) Review

A family recovers on the road in Morteza Farshbaf's Mourning (2011)

The feature debut of Kiarostami protégé Morteza Farshbaf, Mourning is the gentle and affecting tale of Arshia (Amir Hossein Maleki), a young boy whose parents disappear in the foreboding hours of dusk, never to be heard from again. The film opens on a frame flooded with darkness; the inky streams of night obscuring Arshia's outline as he retreats into the safety of his blankets. His parents bicker loudly downstairs, their argument seemingly spurred by an off-hand remark taken the wrong way. Their quarrel builds to a furious climax resulting in both parents storming out of the house, owned by relatives Kamran (Kiomars Giti) and Sharareh (Sharareh Pasha), who are both deaf. The couple's departure will be more lasting than anyone could have imaged, as news arrives in the morning of their death. Kamran and Sharareh decide not to tell Arshia, informing him that his parents have headed off early. A trip ensues to return the boy home...

Iranian cinema experienced something of a resurgence in the early 1990's, and at its heart was Kiarostami, whose own driving drama Ten (2002) explored the road through a series of loosely connected vignettes. Farshbaf's film also resembles an Argentinean drama playing at LFF this year, the underwhelming Las Acacias (Giorgelli, 2011), about a mute truck driver (Germán de Silva) who falls in love while crossing the border to Buenos Aries. What makes Mourning unique, at least from a dramatic standpoint, is the fact that its main characters communicate entirely through sign language, expressing emotion with their hands and through facial gestures. This forces actors Giti and Pasha - who are a real-life couple - to be more suggestive with their (limited) physicality, and the audience is tasked with observing them closely. It's an interesting dynamic for the cinema to adopt, but Farshbaf's confident camerawork (his early compositions are beautiful) ensures that his story has scope beyond the car's hermetic enclosure.

For the first ten minutes Farshbaf's camera operates exclusively in wide shots, observing the landscape as Kamran's car navigates its winding roads. The soundscape is entirely empty, save for the feint sound of wind blowing through blades of grass and the car's wheels kicking up dirt and stones. Subtitles roll underneath the images, leaving the audience to imagine the interior of the car, which is often framed like a tableau, and kept static for extended periods of time. There is a sense of mystery to the film at this point. Arshia's parents, voiced by Sahar Dolatshahi and Peyman Moaadi, are never visualized on-screen, not even by photograph. They are left to the audience as memory; two people fighting in the dead of night. Arshia's troubled face, which is rarely observed in close-up, suggests that this event is not unusual, and lines of dialogue subtly suggest that the couple were fracturing. The film is structured something like a jigsaw, but its bigger picture still won't be clear by the end. Would you want it to be?

One of the things I really loved about Farshbaf's film were its frequent diversions from the set path, such as a moment where Kamran accidentally drives past the spot of Arshia's parents' car accident, visualized by trembling flames in a distant tunnel. Another scene finds the car breaking down, and Kamran wandering off to seek help. He manages to hail somebody down, and then attempts to communicate where exactly his car is stuck. In a moment of beautifully observed comedy Kamran mimes a hill, a gesture his driver struggles to comprehend. "Are they deaf", he enquires, after discovering there are two other people waiting with the stranded vehicle. Kamran nods, misunderstanding, for Arshia is not deaf. "Oh dear", the driver sighs. With the simplest of gestures Farshbaf not only crafts a touching scene of two people lost in translation, but also a winning blend of physical and written comedy; it's perfectly judged.

A fascinating take on the road movie, Mourning also offers a refreshing examination of loss, and is my pick for the hidden gem of London's 2011 festival. Actually, it's one of the very best films of the year, and I really hope somebody picks it up for distribution soon. Farshbaf is an exciting new voice in Iranian cinema, and I suspect his career will be an important one to follow over the next decade...

This review can originally be found at Flickfeast.

LFF 2011: The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, 2011) Review

Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo star in the wonderful The Artist (2011)

Hollywoodland, 1927. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is one of the silver screen's most luminous stars, sharply suited and boasting a smile as bright as it is wide. His latest picture, A Russian Affair, has just become a storming success, and the actor (a blend of Fred Astaire, Rudolph Valentino and Charlie Chaplin) is at the height of his powers. An adoring fan, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), accidentally stumbles into Valentin outside the film's premiere, and the pair are photographed by a local paper (WHO'S THAT GIRL?). Soon she's singing in the chorus line and, via montage, works her way up the ranks of America's most glittering industry. Hazanavicius' film charts her meteoric rise and Valentin's disastrous fall, all played out in silent black and white. But this isn't just romantic kitsch. Oh no. The Artist is a classy, confident film which can rank alongside any masterpiece of the silent era...

This 1.33:1 dream of a film evokes the silent period with such incredible detail that you'll be doing a double take when Malcolm McDowell rears his head in an amusing (but largely pointless) cameo. The dressing rooms, the costumes, the cars, the architecture, the music... this is the most beautiful of films; a love letter to the medium itself. Guillaume Schiffman's photography is gorgeous, perfectly recreating (but never looking like an imitation of) the aesthetic of 1920's cinema. Occasionally we are allowed to sample snippets from Valentin and Miller's films (I'd love to see Beauty Spot), which have the exact right amount of grain to feel accurate. Valentin seems to have his own crime serial, recalling Feuillade's Les Vampires (1915), perhaps in a nod back to Hazanavicius' native France. The use of title cards also plant us firmly into the period, although some carry jokes which are a little too self-knowing for my tastes. Most of the films self-reflexion is subtle though, working as a gentle wink to the film buffs in the audience. There are two references to Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941), the first of which, set at a breakfast table, is an absolute delight.

Hazanavicius' film presents an industry on the brink of change (1927 is the year Alan Crosland's The Jazz Singer broke the sound barrier), and his sense of the period is impeccable. Casting John Goodman as big time studio mogul Zimmer was a stroke of genius, recalling the actor's roles in Barton Fink (Coen's, 1991) and Matinee (Dante, 1993). His presence and energy engulf the frame, and he also gets one of the most rewarding lines (yep, a talkie). Dujardin is also perfect as Valentin, exuding charisma and talent in every frame. His knack for physical comedy was explored in Hazanavicius' James Bond spoof series OSS (2006, 2009), but nothing could have prepared us for the actor's tour de force performance here, which won him the Best Actor prize in Cannes earlier this year. Bejo is also an impossibly charming screen presence, and her final dance number with Dujardin is the films most impressive sequence. They're both note-perfect, and a close-up of their extravagant grins will surely send every audience member out on a high.

How could we discuss a silent movie without mentioning its score, this one composed by Ludovic Bource, who seems to be having the time of his life. It soars with emotion, radically shifting in tone and tempo as the film moves from a toe-tapping dance-off to a spectacular sound-infused nightmare, where Valentin's dressing room suddenly springs to life, attacking the star with its natural noises. "This is the future!" says Zimmer of sound films, a reality many stars had to face in the late 1920's, including Marlene Dietrich, who is evoked through several noir-inflected posters for Peppy Miller movies. The Artist is a truly sensory experience, combining lavish visuals, sweeping orchestration and larger than life performances to carry the audience off their feet into a past world. Sitting in the Odeon on a cold October morning I felt transported back to the Golden Age of Hollywood. Imagine my disappointment when Cary Grant wasn't reclining in the lobby with a latte.

Rapturously entertaining, The Artist won audience's hearts at Cannes and it'll no doubt be the talking point of London. There are no words to describe the feeling of elation it left me with. I learned today that the film has a confirmed UK release date of December 30th. It'll be a little late, but this is truly cinema's Christmas gift to the nation. And honestly, we couldn't have asked for anything better.

The Artist is playing at the London Film Festival on Saturday 22nd October. Its official UK release date is December 30th.

LFF 2011: Headhunters (Morten Tyldum, 2011) Review

The milkman had taken a disturbing new approach... Headhunters (2011)

I've never been much of a betting man, but if somebody offered me stakes on the likelihood of Headhunters being marketed as, From The Studio That Brought You "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo", by the time it finds a UK distributor, I'd put my £100 on the table right now. By this point that tagline will be associated with David Fincher's 2011 Dragon Tattoo remake, rather than Niels Arden Oplev's 2009 original. The same marketing strategy will be used when Headhunters is given its own (inevitable) US makeover. It's a sad cycle, but money talks and Hollywood listens. Thats why its creative well has run dry. But there's still a reason to rejoice dear readers, for Tyldum's film, based on Jo Nesbø's bestselling 2008 novel, is a barnstorming success - an absurd Norwegian thriller which never lets its foot off the pedal, and left me gasping for breath by its conclusion.

Roger (Aksel Hennie) is a professional headhunter struggling to maintain his wealthy lifestyle, believing that his trophy wife Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund) will leave him if he doesn't constantly shower her with gifts (his 1.68m height is also a concern). What she doesn't know is that he's swiftly approaching bankruptcy, and moonlights as an art thief in order to keep her happy with jewelry and a dream home. Diana introduces Roger to Clas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), an ex-mercenary and former CEO of Dutch GPS firm HOTE. It is revealed that Clas owns a rare Rubens' painting - The Calydonian Boar Hunt - and suddenly all of Roger's financial woes seem close to resolve. Except that people start dying, infidelities are exposed and our sweaty protagonist begins to slip into a literal pool of shit (yes, literal)...

When I came out of the press screening I was convinced that Headhunters was the most fun I'd had at the festival so far. It's exhilaratingly paced, tightly plotted and shot through with an obsidian black sense of humour, clocking in at a neat 100 minutes (too many contemporary thrillers outstay their welcome). In my opening paragraph I mentioned that it was absurd, but Tyldum's film fully embraces its own silliness and enjoys ramping it up with an ever-increasing degree of confidence. It shape-shifts between styles, making you howl with laughter at a scene of wince-inducing gore (smashed-in heads are a frequent sight). Its genre leans toward noir, showcasing a classic man-on-the-run setup, but it also has scenes of dramatic poignancy. There's more crammed into these 100 minutes than any thriller I can remember from the last five years, and I had an absolute blast. But then the film settled in and I gave thought to its deeper themes. I gave thought to its screenplay and performances. And I've come to the conclusion that this is much more than just a slick, sick ride through the dark depths of the Norwegian art scene...

Like every great film I've seen this year (Malick's Tree Of Life, Sorrentino's This Must Be The Place), this one has grown on me in the days since my first viewing, when all of its composite elements have fallen into place. The job of a film critic is really to discuss, in depth, the reasons why a film does and doesn't work, analysing the mise-en-scène and other such technical waffle. When we sit down and have fun with a movie we can often forget to look for things to be sniffy about, and Headhunters provides such a problem for me. I was so absorbed in the tale that I forgot to look at the craft. Of course, the fact that I never noticed the craft means that it was working on an exceptional level - the music, lighting and editing coalesced into a consistent vision. I bet Headhunters has a really great score, and effectively moody photography. I honestly can't remember, because these elements worked for me on a subliminal level; they were part of the bigger picture.

I really can't recommend this film enough. At around the halfway point I began to have doubts about the trajectory we were on. I was concerned that Tyldum had played his ace card, and we were going to slip into a predictable chase thriller. But then, and I shall say no more than this, there's a scene involving a dog and a tractor. I'd forgotten cinema could deliver scenes like that. I'd forgotten it could make me laugh so hard, grip my seat with excitement and feel so many conflicting emotions for a character. I'd forgotten cinema's primary function: to entertain. Headhunters fulfills that function with aplomb, and I can't wait to see what Tyldum does next.

Headhunters is playing at the London Film Festival on Wednesday 19th and Saturday 22nd October. This review can originally be found at Flickfeast.

Monday, 17 October 2011

LFF 2011: Las Acacias (Pablo Giorgelli, 2011) Review

The road is the destination... Germán de Silva and Hebe Duarte in Las Acacias (2011)

Pablo Giorgelli's debut feature, Las Acacias, belongs to a recent movement which critics have baptized "slow cinema", defied by diegetic sound, long shots and unhurried editing. The tag is frequently a byword for tedium, attributed to films which test the patience of an audience. They bring to mind a question: are all films required to have a story? I ask because Las Acacias has a setup, and doesn't give thought to traditional narrative convention. It goes thusly: Rubén (Germán de Silva) is an enigmatic and largely mute truck driver from Argentina who has agreed to carry Jacinta (Hebe Duarte) and her eight-month-old son Anahí (Nayra Calle Mamani) across the border from Paraguay to Buenos Aries. They drive. They drive some more. They stop for food. The journey is resumed. Giorgelli structures his picture around the theme of repetition. Here "slow cinema" appears as a byword for a cinema in which nothing happens, or at least nothing of consequence. Alfred Hitchcock once said, in a dispiriting fashion I might add, that "most pictures you see are photographs of people talking", meaning that they don't necessarily require the qualities of cinema to tell their tales. But perhaps we're thinking of cinema too rigidly, which is a common mistake when faced with a technique which differs from the norm.

A recent example of slow cinema is Meek's Cutoff (Reichardt, 2010), a largely silent Western about settlers on the Oregon trail. It's a film which takes time to observe faces and landscapes, protracting time to emphasize the unbearable conditions of frontier life. It drags, and yet the film is made up of nothing but set-pieces. The narrative is driven by events, for example the capture of a Cayuse man played by Rod Rondeaux. Salon critic Andrew O. Heir described the film as "a thriller or a horror movie in extreme slow motion." He's exactly right. Even the films of Béla Tarr are driven this way. I view Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) as a monster movie. Las Acacias is a road movie. The genre's primary theme is growth, and yet this tale feels stunted, lacking any kind of hook for an audience. You could fall asleep for twenty minutes and wake up to the same sight - Anahí crying as Rubén's timber truck rumbles past the landscape. He still looks gruff. What incentive has Giorgelli given the viewer to engage with this tale? The characters' faces hold inherent mystery, but they alone cannot sustain interest.

The film is beautifully photographed by DP Diego Poleri, who captures an authentically dusty exterior from the limitations of Rubén's truck. I could discuss the framing of certain shots, and the delicacy of the lighting. The use of natural sound. All components of "slow cinema." But when one begins to notice these things a bigger problem announces itself - a complete lack of engagement with the onscreen action; the characters and their arcs. I suspect the screenplay was filled with directions and no more than ten pages of dialogue, none of which probes into backstory. For once exposition could have been forgiven. When two characters are driving across the country, characters who've never met before, would it not be natural to have them at some point discuss their lives? What the actors have to work with is the psychological implication of their journey. Where are they going, and what does it mean for them when they arrive? The performances are wonderfully naturalistic, but perhaps that's because they're not prisoners to language, which is so often contrived for the purpose of plot. A benefit of "slow cinema" I suppose.

When the ending arrives Rubén asks Jacinta if she would like to accompany him on a journey the following week. There's a glint of romance in his eyes, and we suddenly become aware that he has developed feelings for her. A reverse shot to her reaction reveals that the feeling might be mutual. The footage which unfurls this development must have been left on the cutting room floor though, because there's no trace of it in the first 75 minutes of Las Acacias, which drags on for what feels like a lifetime. It's a real shame, because there's so much potential in Giorgelli's setup. He's just not interested in story.

Las Acacias is showing at the London Film Festival on Tuesday 18th October. The film's official UK release date is December 2nd. This review can originally be found at Flickfeast.