Monday, 18 May 2015

FILM REVIEW: WILD TALES



Sony Pictures

In the opening credits of this Argentinian film, cast and crew are represented by an image of an animal: lion, fox, crocodile etcetera. Yes, people are animals. And while that metaphor may not be subtle (though a whole lot more subtle than it was delivered in Luc Besson's Lucy), the rest of Damian Szifron's third feature is a punchy, bloody and at time raucous evocation of said metaphor.

Across six vignettes (including the pre-credits tale set aboard a plane), Szifron explores with humour and violence, through the absurd and the bloody, our violent and vindictive nature; how quick we are to anger and to embrace our basest impulses.

Along with those passengers all booked aboard a doomed flight, there is the waitress at the roadside diner who is confronted with the man who ruined her family: will she poison his dinner like the cook suggests she should? Meanwhile, on a stretch of quiet road outside of the city, a well-heeled man insults a 'redneck' only to wish he hadn't when car trouble strikes and the offended driver catches up with him.

This vignette, arguably the best of the six, plays out almost like a horror film before machismo and city-v-country rivalry are reduced to little boy fisticuffs and a fiery denouement.

The fourth and fifth vignette's in Szifron's film are perhaps more specific to Argentina: a city engineer becomes increasingly exasperated and infuriated by the corrupt bureaucracy. He's as mas as hell and he's not going to take it any more; meanwhile a hit and run by a rich kid sees his parents, the family lawyer and even the humble gardener too easily prepared to take advantage of the country's corroded legal system.

These two segments, more politically and socially pointed, halt the film's earlier, punchier style but Szifron ends his anthology on a high: a wedding which sees a post-nuptial bride go berserk when she discovers, mid-celebrations, her new husband's infidelity. Hell hath no fury like a bride betrayed. (This reviewer has already cast Gaby Hoffman and Bradley Cooper in a feature-length remake.)

Like any anthology, not every story is as effective as the one before but overall Wild Tales is a satisfying whole. And while those expecting a project produced by Pedro Almodovar to contain some kink, camp or even just a tad more sex may feel a little cheated by proceedings, Szifran deftly handles the shifting tones and styles of each tale.

With an Oscar nomination (for Best Foreign Language Film) now under his belt, Damian Szifron is another name to watch in the ever-growing list of impressive South American filmmakers.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

FILM REVIEW: CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA



Pinnacle Films

The female yin to Alejandro G. Inarritu's Oscar-winning yang, Birdman, Olivier Assayas takes a look at the ageing actor's lot from the female perspective -- and in the very beautiful visage of Juliette Binoche -- in Clouds of Sils Maria.

Binoche plays Maria Enders, an acclaimed French actress who got her break in the theatre 20-odd years ago in the stageplay, Maloja Snake, by Wilhelm Melchior; playing a young chanteuse, Sigrid, who seduces her older female employer.

It's while on a train to Switzerland and a tribute for said playwright, that we first meet Maria and learn of Wilhelm's death. But the show must go on, as they say, and so insists Valentine (Kristen Stewart), Maria's personal assistant, handler and confidant. Far less acerbic and combative than Emma Stone in Birdman, Valentine is Maria's conduit to 21st century life: social media, Hollywood, and the hottest talent in front of and behind the camera.

That includes Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger), a European stage director who is planning a new production of Maloja Snake and who wants very much for Maria to be involved; this time playing the elder role of Helena. For various reasons, including her mentor's recent death and, of course, vanity -- she is no longer the younger woman -- Maria's not-so keen.

But Valentine insists, and Klaus is persuasive, and so actress and assistant retreat to the Swiss Alps to rehearse -- the two reading and replicating the young-and-old female dynamic; life-imitating-art-imitating-life -- as Maria also familiarizes herself with her future co-star, Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz); Google searches revealing a talented yet tumultuous Lindsay Lohan-like starlet, one who is all butter-wouldn't-melt in preliminary meetings, and something else entirely once the work begins.

Like Birdman, Assayas's film is meta, but it's far less arch about it. Clouds of Sils Maria is an intertextual, and arguably far more intellectual -- and certainly more talk-y -- exercise than Inarritu's dark comedy of backstage life.

And similar to Birdman, Sils Maria has a similar disdain for superhero films: Maria has done her stint in tights, hanging from wires in front of green screen, but scoffs at Valentine's suggestion that playing a mutant requires the same level of emotional truth as, say, Lady Macbeth.

It's these kinds of back and forths between Binoche, the classical actress, and Stewart, the 'modern' one, which give Clouds of Sils Maria its verve and punch. Not surprisingly, Binoche is thoroughly convincing as a haughty, refined yet emotionally vulnerable woman coming to terms with her past and her age, but it's Stewart who will surprise and impress many. She commands the screen in a quieter and, for her, less fidgety role; never once becoming lost in Binoche's shadow, and being greatly missed when she's not on screen.

Like that of Sigrid and Helena's, Valentine and Maria's relationship is fraught, competitive and not without a sexual element. As the pair read through their lines, you're asked to read between them and like the weather phenomenon which lends the play its title -- cloud formations which snake their way from Italy and through the Swiss Alps -- what you see is open to interpretation.

Less of a Rorschach test is the overall effect of the film itself: Assayas has given us one of the year's best.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

FILM REVIEW: WHILE WE'RE YOUNG



Roadshow Films

The synopsis for Noah Baumbach's latest film -- a middle-aged couple's career and marriage are overturned when a disarming young couple enters their lives -- reads a lot like a 1990s sexual thriller. Far from it.

Baumbach is known for his smart, often caustic take on middle class, pseudo intellectuals and while the younger couple may not be all that they at first seem, the action in While We're Young remains out of the bedroom and relatively light on.

Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are a documentarian and film producer respectively, though they never collaborate on the same project: Josh has been filming a doco on "power in America" for the best part of a decade now with little end in sight; Cornelia produces the films of her father, Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin), a legendary documentarian whom Josh none-too-subconsciously tries, and fails, to live up to.

Drifting from their friends who have recently had a baby, Josh and Cornelia fall in with Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried); two 25-year-olds who are fun and spontaneous, and view the world as theirs to embrace and conquer at will. They collect vinyl records, watch "old" films on VHS and have beach parties in the street of their New York neighbourhood. Yes, they are hipsters (adjust your disdain accordingly).

Darby makes her own brand of ice cream while Jamie is an aspiring filmmaker, which sees Josh form a fast connection with the young man; reinvigorated by his energy and eager to become both a mentor and collaborator. Between dinners, night tours of train tunnels, trips to hip-hop dance classes and a suburban Shaman, the two couples become almost inseparable.

Josh and Cornelia also become unrecognizable. But are they losing themselves or merely rediscovering the passions and youthful zeal they abandoned when they moved from their 20s into their 30s and beyond? And are Darby and Jamie all sunshine and lollipops or are they too good to be true?

Noah Baumbach's characters often occupy a similar world to those of Woody Allen's: middle class, college-educated liberals (though mostly Gen X as opposed to Allen's baby boomers) who almost always work in artistic or intellectual fields. And they are almost definitely white. And in the case of Josh and Cornelia, and especially Jamie and Darby, they are insufferable.

But While We're Young is no less fun for that, so long as Baumbach sticks with the culture clash between Generation X and Generation Next. The ways in which the older couple try to imitate the younger's fashion and spontaneity, and how the young take everything from the older's youth -- movies, music -- and re-purpose it with all new meaning and no distinction between high and low art, makes for some amusing, if obvious, moments.

It's when the writer-director manufactures a conflict between the older and younger filmmakers in the third act that the film trades in its comic edge; taking on a semi-serious tone about truth and authenticity in art and life, and losing steam as a result.

Some species eat their young but in the human world, you either make way for them or you get eaten. And in While We're Young, hipsters are no less ambitious in spite of their laissez faire lifestyle. Not that the film condemns them for that, but neither Josh -- nor Baumbach -- is quite ready to secede to them just yet. The war wages on, amusingly so.

Monday, 13 April 2015

FILM REVIEW: IT FOLLOWS



Rialto Distribution

In the most creepily effective piece of safe sex promotion since the Grim Reaper campaign of the 1980s, comes writer-director David Robert Mitchell's It Follows: a creepy-as-fuck parable about the dangers of unprotected sex.

But Mitchell's young protags don't have to contend with chlamydia (pfft, they wish!) but something far more sinister. For in this instance, STD stands for Sexually Transmitted Demon and once you've been infected (via sexual intercourse with someone already carrying the bug) you have one course of action: pass it on ASAP and hope that person passes it on just as quick, or else the Demon will come and fuck you up.

After a couple of dates with the slightly older Hugh (Jake Weary), college student Jay (Maika Monroe) decides to go all the way. But her post-coital bliss in the backseat of his car soon turns to horror with the introduction of some chloroform. Thankfully Jay is neither raped nor murdered but she soon realises that what her beau has done to her is arguably far worse.

Jay is now infected with a relentless (though slow moving) demon, which can appear in any guise but only to the carrier, and which is only dangerous should it get its hands on you. Jay's best bet? To pass the disease on to someone else and hope they do the same. One willing recipient is Paul (Keir Gilchrist), friend to Jay's younger sister, Kelly (Lili Sepe), who's had a crush on the older girl since childhood. Tormented though she is, Jay, unlike Hugh, is not so eager to pass on the disease so freely.

Kelly, Paul, their friend Yara (Olivia Luccardi), and neighbour Greg (Danny Zovatto), rally to support the unraveling Jay, even though they can't see what she does. They also don't go to their parents or the police because who'd believe them? Also, you don't talk to grown-ups about sex!

Like the horror films of the 1970s-80s, It Follows -- which save for the use of mobile phones has a very 1980s aesthetic -- plays on the theme of sex as sin and death as punishment. Those teens who indulge in carnal activities are bound to regret it most painfully: punished for partaking in 'the original sin'; those who remain virgins get to live through the night. Ironically, sex is both the poison and the cure in It Follows, and like herpes -- or HIV -- the "disease" just can't be rid of.

And like the best horror films, the protag is female. Maika Monroe's Jay may not be as kick-ass as say, Neve Campbell's Sidney in the Scream films, or Sigourney Weaver's Ripley in Alien, but she is strong-willed with a functioning moral compass (though it does divert from true north on one occasion). She also gives great cry face.

Monroe, strongly resembling Brie Larson, also has a passing resemblance to a young Chloe Sevigny. This in turn recalls Sevigny's character in Larry Clark's Kids (1995), who spends the entirety of that film trying to prevent the boy who infected her with HIV from passing it on to another unsuspecting girl. Intentional or not, it adds another layer of interest to a horror film that is already operating on a more intellectual level than your average teen slasher flick.

It's an impressive and mostly assured second feature by David Robert Mitchell but by no means perfect: the score by Disasterpeace is often just as distracting as it is effective, and just what was the motivation behind going to the old swimming pool in the third act?

Others have taken issue with the film's ending, which isn't a climax (no pun intended) so much as open-ended. But that's more in keeping with the theme of sexually transmitted infections, particularly if you want to read It Follows strictly as AIDS parable.

Either way, It Follows will leave you unnerved and feeling uneasy long after the house lights come up. But maybe don't see it on a first date; that could kill the mood whilst also provoking some awkward post-film chat.