Monday 22 September 2014

Review: Calvary

Year: 2014
Director: John Michael McDonagh.
Screenplay: John Michael McDonagh.
Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O'Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran, Isaach de Bankolé.

Synopsis is here

I enjoy films about faith. I feel much of this stems from my upbringing and my grandmother; a woman whose faith in the almighty seemed to never waver. When she was told about the ailment which caused her demise, as opposed to facing hours of operations and hospital treatment, she decided upon staying at home and going peacefully with her family as it was the “will of god”. I admire such a choice as much as I feared it. Possibly because I’m still young. I’m currently not sure I could make the choice so readily. Even if I was at the age she was.

For me, I find this to be an often neglected cornerstone of faith, often glossed over by the more arrogant members of the new atheist movement, who are very quick to inform us of the corruption and wars that religion plays a part in, or how scared people are to find solace in faith. We often never hear of these folk telling us about what moral good that they themselves perform. All wrapped up in the sins of the church, some seem to be far too interested in maintaining the view that the world is an insidious and ugly place. One of my favorite qualities of my grandmother is how she interpreted faith as a source for good, no matter what denomination. I love seeing that in films like Calvary, a film that beautifully illustrates the idea that the goodness in faith must stand defiant in front of those who only wish to mirror the ugliness that resides within the world.

Calvary’s focus on its weighty subjects start with what sounds like a dark absurdist joke. Opening with a beautifully composed shot of Father James (Glesson) sits solemnly in the confession booth as a voice whisper to him that they first tasted semen at age 7. The more depraved may crack a grin (sorry), but this moment is a telling one. The Irish voice, the line of abuse, the troubled grimace of the face as the ears register what is said. One of the films subtexts, the abuse carried out by the Catholic Church is richly brought to our attention within minutes. The conversation only seems to get worse. The exchange digs deep into each participant psyche till we reach the inciting moment: the person we don’t see on the other side of the confessional wishes to kill the priest. To kill this priest, a good one, will say more things about us than if a bad one was murdered.

Father James seems to know his killer and after being introduced to the town’s oddballs and eccentrics, most viewers will know too. Writer/Director John Michael McDonagh almost displays the identity as an open secret. However, Calvary is more interested in the mysteries of our morals and guidance than it is about a maybe murder. Calvary holds some the darker humor of McDonagh’s previous effort, The Guard, but is much more meditative and pensive thematically. Calvery is a film, much like the slightly more pious Of God’s and Men (2010), which helps question the place of faith in a messy modern world.  With his fate considered sealed, James continues to provide penance and advice to those around, while they do their best to condemn him and the church and frolic in their impurity. Why does Father James continue his work with such a cloud looming over him? Why does he seemingly do little to try and alter the course?

The eccentric village folk do very little to help matters. At one point a resentful publican belligerently questions James on why the church hasn’t done anything to attack the banks, and their part in the economic crash and yet amusingly such thoughts fit snugly into more questions of who why and how we observe faith. To snub one’s noses at religion and what it may bring to some is of course the easiest thing. It’s also clear that Father James feels his doubts prick at him like acupuncture needles that are slightly too large. Then again, when it comes to faith, doubt can hit anyone.

Calvary may set up the idea that its lead is Jesus-like, but the film also does well to ground him as a man who lived a life before the cloth a man who pushed past the wrong to allow faith into his life. This is not a man born into the burden and there are times that we see and know that it must be hard to keep the halo from slipping. For a man of Gleeson’s size, he manages to carry such vulnerability with great balance. The boorish behaviour from The Guard (2011) is not shown here, but the sensitivity certainly is. “There’s too much talk about sins. Not enough about virtue.” James utters at one point. This line, like many in the film's screenplay manages to get under one’s skin for the better.

The film is visually based on sparse paintings of Andrew Wyeth, and cinematographer Larry Smith’s bold compositions illuminate the darkness that lies between each scene, but Calvary is anchored by the weighty performance of Gleeson, who carries himself like every inch of his soul is troubled by the unsaid burden placed around him. Yet James plays on despite the prickliness of the village oddballs.

Whether or not our protagonist of the story embraces or fears death is one thing, but the fact that he acknowledges fate as he wanders through what may be his last week becomes suddenly profound. In the slightly distanting landscape of modern mainstream cinema, which is often invested in near immortals keeping all of us safe, James’ heroism isn't about saving the whole world, but doing his best to affect the close ones within his, despite their naysaying. The fact James decides to do this through faith brings poignancy as those around him feel that they know better but do a little better for themselves. Calvary, like my grandmother, gives insight into how the small steps of faith can bring clarity and courage. Not only to those who believe, but those who may not believe. I enjoy films about faith and Calvary is a welcome and inspiring one.

Sunday 21 September 2014

Review: Before I Go to Sleep

Year: 2014
Director: Rowan Joffee
Screenplay: Rowan Joffee
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Mark Strong, Colin Firth

Synopsis is here

Before I go to sleep is the type of pot boiler that you saw often in the 90’s. Usually late at night on terrestrial television. The film gets top marks for being thematically relevant, but its execution, is nothing to write home about.

Based on a popular bestselling 2011 novel, Before I Go to Sleep is another entry into “amnesia films”. Like Memento (2000), the film has a central character, whose ailment is so acute, it allows those around them to insidiously manipulate their fragile situation. When done well, you get Memento; an acidic thriller that is hard to shake off to this day. Before I go to sleep is a more neutered and neutral thriller. It’s as long as they come, but it’s so trim, there’s little to give it character. The film is smooth enough in its craft, but it's sanded down in such a way that there's no rough edges to make it stand out. Joffee makes a simple, moderate movie that does little to offend, however, after predicting the film's outcome in the first ten minutes, there wasn't much else to make me want to hang around. I stayed, however, because I’m not Rex Reed.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with Before I Go to Sleep. Nicole Kidman does the cracked porcelain doll thing well. Mark Strong and Colin Firth are cast for clear, obvious reasons and both play to their strengths. The film's most interesting element is how the texts could be considered within the feminist argument. Here we have a fractured and damaged woman whose world is controlled and manipulated by the men she knows. The incident which brought about her amnesia, as well as the amnesia itself, creates an interesting commentary on how abused women are viewed, and how the trauma affects the victim’s psyche. Kidman’s line of “I wish I wasn't scared all the time” is an all too knowing remark.

This said, the film's overall execution makes little waves. Before I go to sleep, may perhaps be a more interesting book, with the film's streamlined execution, doing little to make us grasp hold of its characters. While the storytelling allows the viewer to stay one step ahead of the film. Not the place you need to be with a feature like this.

The film trundles along, with Kidman trembling nervously through the film's intentionally drab blue/ gray cinematography and Hitchcockian conceits. Yet when comparing this to films of last year, which gave us ludicrous, stylised, yet highly entertaining thrillers such as Trance, Side Effects and Stoker, this slightly dour, workman-like effort may find itself as fodder for bleary eyed insomniacs more than anything else.

Review: Lucy

Director: Luc Besson
Screenplay: Luc Besson
Starring: Scarlet Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Amr Waked, Choi Min-sik

Synopsis is here

Note: The opening of this review contains spoilers for three Scarlett Johansson movies, including this one.

It happened with a hint of humour and romance with Her. It also occurred to a more devastating effect in Under the Skin. Now here, in Lucy, Scarlet Johansson once again gathers all the human information she can, gains a complete understanding of humans as a species, before dissipating into the atmosphere and exiting our existence when her capacity for us have reached her peak. In Lucy, this trait of the actress is perhaps at its most ludicrous and yet still provides a certain amount of engagement.

Lucy is ridiculous in the same way that Neveldine and Taylor are. Our lead character accidentally overdoses on an experimental drug, and begins to level up in percentage figures. It's not enough that we have a dump truck of exposition around every corner. No, said information is often visualised by overtly obvious metaphors. So when you see a wide eyed Lucy quivering like a gazelle mesmerised by a cheetahs glare. The film cuts to a direct, on-the-nose, visual of such an event. Heroes and villains are broadly defined in such a way, I’m surprised we didn't have their name and main characteristic tattooed on their forehead. The premise of the movie is built around the debunked theory that we only use ten percent of our brain. There's a feeling amongst some that brainpower was not at full capacity when thinking of the scripting.

Lucy is part comic, part video game and all lunacy. The film is equal parts Limitless, The Fifth Element and Crank and it revels in its nuttiness, as did I for the most part. The film's channel hopping, A.D.D craziness will irritate some, but I have to admit it's the first piece of Besson tinged madness that I've had a laugh in for quite a while. The fact it's clearly winking at the camera and acknowledging its silliness is one thing, but the gusto and lack of cynicism is quite refreshing. Lucy wants the viewer to hop on for the ride as opposed to push shock buttons obnoxiously. Something that often distracts me from the likes of Nev/Taylor.

A lot of Lucy’s fun stems from its casting. The doe eyed and anatomically pleasing Scarlett Johansson, already showed in Under the skin just how well she can do the flat, distant performance. Demonstrating that segregated from human beings look is difficult to pull off without looking like its “bad” acting. Johansson loses the more serpentine movements that inflections that were noted in Johnathon Glazer’s sci-fi, and instead fuses her overdosing action hero with sharp, analytical head swipes and eye darts. Again Johansson makes the whole not-of-this-realm thing seem effortless.  Morgan Freeman appears to bring forth the necessary “wisdom” to proceedings, kicking off with a tutorial that clearly drives the film's tongue into its cheek. It’s an actioner which drolly muses over its powered protagonist entering God mode. Set pieces don’t last too long here, and why the hell should they? Johansson has pressed iddqd. We shouldn’t expect a near tiresome display of stunts. Although the sequences we see have their quirks. Lucy manages to indulge into the silliness of superheroes with a certain cartoonish aplomb.

Maybe I’m just happy that Besson keeps his expansive (and silly) ideas, light, loose and under 90 minutes. The film doesn't offend me by being longer than it needs to be, although the execution of the film’s last act lacks a certain punch. However, by the time Lucy starts communicating with telecom communications through windscreens, I was already too immersed in films nonsense to mind too much. Feather-brained it may be, but Lucy once again showcases Scarlett Johansson as a sassy alternative to Jason Statham and has Besson finding the right vehicle for his lunacy.  There’s much talk about Johansson’s Marvel’s arrangements, but if Johansson wants to keep pursuing this type of madcap premise, count me in. 

Sunday 14 September 2014

Review: Blue Ruin

Year: 2013 (U.K Release 2014)
Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Screenplay: Jeremy Saulnier
Starring: Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves

Synopsis is here:

While reading the deftly crafted review of Blue Ruin from my good friend and accomplished cinephile Micheal Ewins, I couldn’t shake off my own feeling of indifference towards the movie. I couldn’t feel the way Mike does about this movie, despite the film really being something I’d usually devour.

Blue Ruin is the little revenge movie that could. A sophomore effort from its writer/director; Jeremy Saulnier, which gained it’s funding through Kickstarter and managed obtain a decent theatrical run along with its VOD release. It inhabits the same morbid humor that resides in the earlier Coen brother's efforts. Visually; its warm yet muted colour tones do a lot to hide the grim violence that punctuates certain scenes. The central performance of Macon Blair is a formidable one, balancing the character of Dwight’s fear, tragedy and confusion within his spoon wide eyes.  It’s clear in the film's craft, that despite the film's small budget, ambition resides in the filmmakers. Blue Ruin’s brittle tale of vengeance, features bold, messy acts of violence, spans across states and really wishes to speak about the circular hold of brutal revenge.

As the film draws into its second half, however, the film shifts into a slower gear, and never really push on the bonds that were forged in the early stages. Saulnier really sets the scene in the films beginning and deftly drives the film with its imagery over dialogue. You can feel the tension in the films first assault. The meeting of Dwight and his estranged sister; Sam (Amy Hargreaves) is one subtly fought with despair. By the time Dwight releases his true destination, however, the film itself loses steam. I never gained the sense of unpredictability that my friend Micheal enjoyed. While we should lose a certain connection with Dwight as he descends into this world of malice, I found myself losing the empathy that I felt back at the Diner where Dwight chats to his sister. I found myself simply waiting for the films beats to play out. An element of surprise had somehow been lost along with some pacing.

There’s still lots to take from Blue Ruin. A quiet pause for tea evokes one of the darkest moments of Goodfellas (1990). While the idea of keeping things “in house” is the disturbing thought that this may be the only way certain types of justice can be served in these backwoods. The performances are effective enough and the dark, offbeat humor does raise a smile. Yet when I compare this to the intentionally confusing and conflicting of Claire Denis’ Bastards (2013) or Shane Meadows powerful Dead Man’s Shoes, Blue Ruin feels a tad shallow. That said a film that manages to get me to chuckle at a wrongly placed garden rake is still a worthwhile view.  

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Review: The Sacarment

Year: 2013 (U.K. Release 2014)
Director: Ti West
Screenplay: Ti West
Starring: Joe Swanberg, Amy Seimetz, Kate Lyn Sheil

Synopsis is here

I didn’t give The Sacrament further thought after watching it and there lies the problem. The idea is a strong. Something that I usually enjoy pursuing. The writer/director behind the film is one I admire and generally enjoy his work. The problem I found is that the main influence of the movie, was much more terrifying in real life than anything The Sacrament throws at us. If you’ve seen the terrifying documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (2006), then this may seem like an unnecessary appendix.

Ti West is a curious filmmaker. I enjoy the genuine affection he has given to his previous, vintage tinged horror. I’m also a big fan of the unhurried pace of his storytelling. Allowing the unease to creep into the frame.  In both The Innkeepers (2011) and The House of the Devil (2009), West pulls off the difficult task of making the mundane feel macabre and does so by giving his scenes a touch more breathing space.  He once again tests the attention spans of some of the more easily distracted patrons, but giving The Sacrament a similar pace. The length has been never my issue with this film, however as the films other elements never seemed to gel.

Despite being a “found footage” horror, the film’s smooth camera work does little to instill the fear of god. Add to this the film’s flat dialogue, awkward performances and the films wish to try and recreate the Jonestown massacre like an overtly polished crime re-enactment more than a film in its own right. Unlike Kevin Smith’s grim and grubby Red State (2011), which holds the right balance between its influences and Smith’s fictional aspects, The Sacrament feels too much like mimicry to stand out on its own. 
Whereas Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple  manage to startle with its small inserts of grainy VHS footage, allowing the survivors recounting of the story to fill in the gaps. The Sacrament explicitness only ever feels forced. Small moments are effective. Reaction shots of children obliviously sucking down Kool-Aid are unsettling, while Gene Jones’ “father” has a distinct sleaziness to his charming speeches.

The film, however, never gets really gets under the skin as it should. Strangely, it feels slightly too close to the material, it’s influenced by, yet holds none of the power. It’s a shame the film never reaches the same woozy feeling that the likes of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) creates, although that movie is more intelligent with its usage of points of view. The Sacarament stumbles over simpler aspects. West’s found footage movie suffers from the tropes which annoy others when they watch similar films. A camera is dropped when a character tries to evade gunman. The solders fine the camera a leave it (after dropping typical explanatory dialogue) and then leave the camera, despite being extremely wary of the filming near the beginning of the film. Other cameras clearly get destroyed while filming, yet have footage that blend seamlessly with the rest of the film. The found footage is an interesting angle, but awkwardly utilised. That said, the film’s opening segments lend a certain web 2.0 authority to them.

The Sacarment never feels like it cracks the veneer of civility in the way that one would like. Certain parts feel too manufactured, while other aspects have a clumsiness about them I just wouldn’t expect. The Sacrament won’t put me off the next Ti West film, but this entry feels all very surface level. Particularly where other flawed yet provocative films about cults have been released recently. The Sacrament has a competency that raises it above a few one or two found footage films, but it never manages to capture the spirit of the time like it could. Better luck next time.