Sunday 22 June 2014

Review: The Past

Year: 2013 (U.K Release 2014)
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Screenplay: Asghar Farhadi
Starring: Bérénice Bejo, Tahar Rahim, Ali Mosaffa

Synopsis is here:

To say I have a problem with mainstream cinema’s addiction to broad moral arrangements would be incorrect. As budgets grow higher and international audiences become even more important to Hollywood, it’s understandable to see films appear to be more uncomplicated in their principles. I’ve mentioned on this blog, at least in one entry, how much I enjoyed some Blockbusters more simple outlooks towards its subjects.

However a film fan cannot live on It’s when films slip into more difficult territory, that I find myself more engaged. I love an entertaining diversion, but they just don’t stain the memory as much as The Past. Through such an alarmingly simple set-up, an ex coming back sign his divorce papers, this absorbing drama has a vivid poignancy which lesser films can only ever hope for. Like Asghar Farhadi’s previous film; A Separation,  The Past boasts wonderful uses of form, which only enhance the inner conflicts of the characters we observe.

You sense the film's intent from its opening moments. When we first meet Ahmad (Mosaffa), he is leaving the Airport to meet his pick up and soon to be ex wife Marie (Bejo). They notice each other but are separated by the glass window of the airport. They try to talk to each other yet they cannot hear what the other is saying. It’s a small moment that foreshadows one of The Past's main themes, the difficulty of communication. As the film continues, we observe how each character's willingness/unwillingness to communicate draws divisions between each other. As in A Separation, the games of the adults cause considerable wedges between the children, while their impulsive behaviors, keep the tensions of the elders on a knife edge.

The Past works because it’s human characters are so beautifully drawn. Bejo’s Marie is not a two dimensional shrew, but a conflicted woman whose lack of brevity, forces  the man in her life into near impossible positions. Ahmad caring qualities shine with both Marie’s and Samir’s children, yet it’s clear that his desire for a clean resolution to the situation obscures the reality. Samir (A Prophet’s Tahar Rahim) is not a dim cypher that one could easily see an American film portray him as, but a deeply torn young struck by both his past and present loves. These people are drenched in differing moral shades. Bad things happen, yet not for the simple reasoning that these people are evil, but desperate, drained and damaged.

Farhadi wraps these characters up within a Paris that feels miles away from the one we recognize in other movies.  There are no landmarks to speak of and why should there be? This is a Paris which has been "lived in". That is the romantic, idealistic view of the city. Whatever sights there could have been, are long forgotten now. All that exists now for these characters, is how they wish to deal with their past to cope with their present, yet they are constantly reminded. At one point Ahmad notices that the house he once lived in with Marie is being repainted. It’s not just the walls being painted over, but memories too.

This is Farhadi’s first film outside of Iran, but his ability to deliver rich drama has not been lost in translation. Every performance is weighted, every moment is measured and every emotion is balanced. For me the film works not just because of its densely packed compositions, but because when we add up all I see from these people and how this small segment of the relationship plays out, the film is still compelling enough to make me think twice and reconsider each person's position. Something these characters must do in every moment we are with them.

Review: The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears

Year: 2013 (UK Release 2014)
Director: Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani
Screenplay: Hélène Cattet Bruno Forzani
Starring: Klaus Tange, Ursula Bedena, Joe Koener

Synopsis is bizarre

Macabre directors; Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, who delivered sensual yet disconcerting Amer have returned with their second, giallo tinged feature length thriller. The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears reverses some of the elements of their 2009 debut, but retains the themes the duo are infatuated with, albeit with lesser results.  

With a narrative as convoluted as the film’s title, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears follows Dan Kristensen (Klaus Tange); a disorientated fellow who tries to uncover the bizarre disappearance of his wife within his Brussels apartment building. Falling deeper down the rabbit hole, his findings only become more cryptic. Soon after, Dan begins to sense the feeling that he’s being watched, as do most people in a film like this one.

This deconstruction of the infamous Italian pulp genre, like Amer, displays two directors who are completely in sync with their vision in terms of craft. It’s difficult to fault the beautiful “ugliness” of the visuals (cinematographer Manuel Dacosse) or the pinpoint accuracy of the film's editing (Editor Bernard Beets’ makes you believe you saw more than you did), but with all the film’s fancy pants technique is lost upon the writer/director duo’s indulgent love for the opaque.

Countless sequences are repeated, narrative tangents lead to very little and the films violent and sexual transgressions never fully connect. Far too often the film feels unfocused in what it wants to say and what it is saying has been explored by other directors with less pretension. When talking in terms of the form, the film's placement in the giallo sub-genre raises an eyebrow. The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears looks superb, and often oozes with a tension that could be hard to gain from some of the more dated films it’s influenced from. A moment involving hands roaming inside a body, is troubling in a way only some horror films can be.

However, in a wider argument in terms of theme, the film is repackaging old ideas of male sexuality and voyeurism into glossy new wrapping paper and doing very little to see if you’re interested in the gift. While Amer’s focus on female sexuality felt provocative, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears does very little to engage other than producing a few moments of distinctive moments of creepiness. It did, however, remind me that I really should pick up the remastered Peeping Tom (1960) Blu-Ray. So there’s that.

Review: Oculus

Year: 2014
Director: Mike Flanagan
Screenplay: Jeff Howard
Starring: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cocharne

Synopsis is here:

It is currently world cup season and I have spent much of the last week in a colorful football haze, doing my best to catch as many of the games as I can. A good friend of mine (who despises sports) invited me out to the cinema to watch Oculus as he didn’t really have another person interested in horror movies to go with. Personally, I feel there was an unconscious, ulterior motive: to get me out the house and back on the films so I could possibly fill my social network statues with something other than awful memes of Spain’s demise.

My visit to watch Oculus coincided with the Holland vs Australia game and, of course, in typical fashion, it featured one of the best goals of the tournament so far. That said, movies are my overall passion and while I wished I saw the game in its entirety, I’ll happily miss football for a horror film which delivers the goods. Mike Flanagan’s Oculus was quick to inform me that I made the right choice missing the game.

James Wan and Leigh Warrell may be gaining the plaudits when it comes to the populist aspect of the genre, but Flanagan’s second feature (his first was the Kickstarter sponsored Absentia) really finds a way to get under the fingernails. Oculus doesn’t resort to the cheap and mechanical scares that littered the likes of immensely popular The Conjuring (2013). Instead, it finds a way to take the known tropes of the genre, invigorate them with some slight tweaks, strong knowledge of a decent setup and genuinely affecting characters. Oculus clearly riffs on the likes of The Shining (1980), The Amityville Horror (1979 & 2005) and a truckload of psychological/possession films before it, yet the film’s direction and performances hold a conviction that I sometimes find to be sorely lacking from this particular sub-genre of horror.

This is a film which has a very measured, gradual building of tension, with a screenplay keeps its characters and their emotions in the forefront. More importantly, these main characters feel strong. Karen Gillan’s Kaylee feels less like a cutout from the horror template of female horror characters and is a frank young woman who actually has a game plan for dealing with the evil at hand. Brenton Thwaites’ Tim may feel less defined at times, but the actor still manages to give the character a confused energy that heightens the uncomfortable feeling that hangs in the film’s air. Katee Sackhoff impresses with a sometimes savagely physical performance, meanwhile Rory Cocharne shows that the years haven’t been kind to him since Empire Records with an intense and brooding performance.  
Flanagan displays his confidence with a third act that had me agreeing with my friend's statement that we landed in “Videodrome territory”. Not only does Flanagan hold a strong grasp of atmosphere (the lingering camera gains a sense of dread throughout), but as the film hurtles towards its climax, he manages to maintain the complexity of the film's flashback narrative. The final third becomes devilishly playful in teasing us with the character’s sense of their past, their present and how both converge. We only become confused when the film wants us be, and the mental geography that takes place, never leaves the viewer behind.

These reasons are why I found Oculus such an interesting entry into the horror genre. Oculus doesn’t turn the old archetypes on its head. Instead, it merely reminds us about the people who have to do their best to survive the things that go bump in the night. Something I wish I felt when watching The Conjuring. Hauntings have always been about the people being scared. When we see their reactions, we feel it too.

Monday 2 June 2014

Review: X-men: Days of Future Past

Year: 2014
Director: Bryan Singer
Screenplay: Simon Kinberg
Starring: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Anna Paquin, Ellen Page, Peter Dinklage, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart

Synopsis is here:

The blockbusters are now in full flow, and despite the latest entry of the x-men franchise gaining healthy word of mouth both critically and commercially, I once again left the auditorium with feelings of fatigue. My enjoyment of the X-men series hit its peak with the brash knock around pleasure of X-2 (I did really enjoy 1st Class also) but the time hopping antics of Wolverine and company only allowed a cloud of malaise to fog my mind.

Not being a comic book fan (per se), I find that my enjoyment of many of these films stems from when they slightly stray from the frame. I found myself more entertained with these characters when Singer decidedly placed himself out the frame as opposed to following things panel to panel. I enjoyed his broad brush strokes of religion (Nightcrawler) and race (Malcolm X and Dr King parallels) slotting into generally fun and balanced ensemble pieces. Day of Future Past cuts things straight down the line, with little time to be distracted by things that aren't dictated by the plot. We're too far down the rabbit hole for those small character beats that some enjoy.

Days of Future Past has Wolverine as the de facto leading man once again in an alteration to the original that is understandable in terms of the story, but feels dull due to the volume of X-men films with Hugh Jackman setting the pace. Jackman is still solid in the role, but after situating Wolverine as the main poster boy for long now has the decision feeling stale. It did allow my audience to gawp and giggle at Jackman's bare ass. The hefty violence, however (which did cause one family walk out), didn't raise an eyebrow. As I considered how desensitised audiences can be to on-screen violence, I realised that while the film didn't stop for me to finish my contemplation (why should it?), it didn't have anything within it to make me stop my mind from drifting.

I found myself thinking about the texture that Singer had brought to X-men before. Having mutants such as Nightcrawler who didn't just feel like an amazing opening set piece, but a chance to introduce a mutant which had a certain amount of consideration to his character. Days of Future Past has an illuminating Quicksilver (A mutant with superhuman speed) sequence which had me grinning at the wit and cocksure attitude that Evan Peters brings to the role. However, he feels utilised only as a plot device rather than anything else. The use of Quicksilver doesn't feel as jarring as the motivations of Michael Fassbender's Magneto in the later stages. Writers who know their comic onions such as Devin Faraci have written entertaining pieces on why the film has no continuity errors, but a decision by Magneto feels more muddled than it ever should do. Had I no formal knowledge of the character, I would have been questioning the film even more. The film screenplay often clunks plot elements about heavily. Ask yourself: how often do we need Wolverine to explain to people on why he's in the past? 

Here's where we are now in the comic franchise city. If you weren't around at the beginning and something confuses you, then tough cookies. It makes sense to the nerds and geeks, so you're not invited. Anything that may feel like a piece of badly communicated plot can be happily explained to you afterwards, but if that's the case, is it good filmmaking? Then again, even those who have enjoyed past entries may raise an eyebrow to other actors who get short-changed by the film's direction and its clunky narrative. Halle Berry and Anna Paquin could have had grounds to sue if they looked like they gave more of a damn.

Clearly I'm being facetious, but looking at how previous characters are treated in Days of Future Past reminds me of how empty the film made me feel. After watching it last week, I'm now struggling to remember anything other than the odd one or two moments that held my attention. Nixon caricatures and speeding Quicksilvers aside, Days of Future Past will (and has) impress those who revere the film's source material. For the likes of myself who remain on the periphery of this wave of geek pop culture, there's a good chance of being slightly stumped.