Big Eyes

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DIR: Tim Burton • WRI: Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski • PRO: Scott Alexander, Tim Burton, Lynette Howell, Larry Karaszewski • DOP: Bruno Delbonnel • ED: JC Bond • DES: Rick Heinrichs • MUS: Danny Elfman • CAST: Christoph Waltz, Amy Adams, Krysten Ritter

As unfair as this is on the man, the best Tim Burton films are often the least Burtonesqueone. While the cartoonish Gothic shtick has certainly served him well – most obviously in his early career – many would surely agree it has led to rather diminishing returns in more recent times. He’s clearly a talented, individual director, but one who dances perilously close to self-parody on occasion. That’s not even mentioning the something of an over-reliance on certain collaborators, no matter how ill-suited they are to the task at hand.

 

That’s why it’s refreshing on those rare occasions when he breaks out of his dominant mode of expression – I for one definitely would not object to another film in the vein of Ed Wood, or even Big Fish. On the surface, it looks as if Big Eyes should capably serve that purpose – heck, it doesn’t even feature Johnny Depp! Excepting the absence of the earlier film’s star, the similarities to the delightful Ed Wood are fairly striking – they’re both based on bizarre real-life stories, they’re both period pieces, and they even share screenwriters (Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander). But while Ed Wood was an atypical Tim Burton film in a refreshing way, Big Eyes instead comes across as disappointingly anonymous.

 

The stranger-than-fiction tale at the film’s centre is that of Margaret and Walter Keane, played by Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz respectively. As the film opens, Margaret is leaving her first husband, and she moves to bohemian San Francisco with her daughter Jane. Margaret wants to be an artist, and her particular skill is the creation of portraits of wide-eyed ‘waifs’. While trying to sell the portraits one day, she meets charming amateur artist Walter. The two hit it off, and are soon married (a decision aided by a legal letter from husband number one). Walter is dedicated to striking it big with his art, but while holding an ‘exhibition’ in a jazz bar’s corridor, he discovers that it’s actually Margaret’s art that is making the biggest impression. One thing leads to another, and he manages to convince Margaret he should take credit for the paintings, because ‘women’s art doesn’t sell’. Soon, the waifs are a huge commercial hit. Margaret covertly toils away at creating the paintings while Walter takes credit, but it’s a secret that starts eating away at her.

 

Big Eyes’ evocation of the 1950s and 60s is a peculiar mix of pleasant and bland – which, to be honest, sums up the film as a whole. Everything is kept ticking over without grave offense being caused, but it consistently fails to really explore the material in a satisfying or surprising way. Take the relationship between Frank and Margaret. There’s an interesting dynamic of domination and submission, but Burton and the writers never tease the nuances out, relying instead on the broadest of brush strokes.

 

The only obvious DNA Big Eyes shares with sections of Tim Burton’s filmography – barring a very weak Danny Elfman score – are the bigeyed waifs. Margaret Keane’s style must have influenced the director’s animated work in particular, subconsciously or otherwise. In this case, though, the film as a whole suffers due to a lack of authorial signature. There’s one or two well handled sequences where the Keane style seeps into the real world with the aid of some imaginatively creepy effects work. In fact, other compositions in the film are sometimes inspired by the wider world of mid-century pop art in quite witty ways (a Warhol reference during a supermarket reference is not subtle, but still serves as a neat throwaway visual gag). Those are the rare moments when some of the film’s otherwise confused themes and underwhelming visual identity are operating on roughly the same page, and one wishes the rest of the film operated as effectively.

 

One of the film’s major problems is that it boasts a great cast, but a script that does not offer them anything in the way of meaty material. Amy Adams acquits herself well enough in what is easily the closest thing the film has to a three-dimensional role. Waltz gives it his all, but cannot possibly elevate a character that is written as a crude caricature. Walter Keane is portrayed as a transparently manipulative, selfish and domineering con artist – albeit with a rougish charm. While it may be somewhat true to life (it goes without saying I am not in a position to make that assessment), it’s a point made sufficiently early on, and the writers’ disdain for him only increases as the film progresses to the point of pettiness. As a result, Keane becomes more and more of a one-note character,  and no amount of Waltz’s talent can save Walter as he transforms into a pantomime antagonist. At least Waltz has plenty of opportunity to chew the scenery. Spare a thought for Jason Schwartzman and Terence Stamp, playing an arrogant gallery owner and snooty art critic respectively – two already crude stock types, written in an even cruder way.

Buried somewhere in Big Eyes is a debate about the nature of art and entertainment; the conflict between elitism and populism; an ode to authorship; an exploration of mid-century gender politics. The story itself is so straight-up odd that it cannot help but be strangely compelling, not least the farcical legal proceedings that brought the core conflict to something of a close (and easily the dramatic and comedic highlight here). Big Eyes, though, is not a film that explores any of that in anything more than a perfunctory, mildly entertaining way. Tim Burton films often suffer from a surplus of character – Big Eyes could have used some of the overflow.

Stephen McNeice

 

12A (See IFCO for details)
105 minutes.
Big Eyes
is released 26th December.

Big Eyes  – Official Website

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The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies

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DIR:  Peter Jackson • WRI: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro • PRO: Carolynne Cunningham, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Zane Weiner • DOP: Andrew Lesnie • ED: Jabez Olssen • DES: Dan Hennah • MUS: Howard Shore • CAST: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Evangeline Lilly, Hugo Weaving, Orlando Bloom
 

The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies starts with an ending – or what seems like it should have been an ending. Smaug’s attack on Laketown is a deeply peculiar choice to open the film with. Everybody’s in the middle of doing something, and we have no time to catch up as we’re breathlessly thrown into an elaborate action setpiece. The strange thing is, as soon as it’s over – and it doesn’t account for much more than 15 minutes of screentime – it feels like the film proper has started too, with the pace mellowing (temporarily) and plenty of time given to re-establishing the characters and their new motivations.

The entire Laketown arc would have worked well as one entity – whether as the ending of one film or the beginning or middle of another. Split as it is, with a gap of a year since the pointless Desolation of Smaug cliffhanger and its resolution, the sequence here serves as an ill-judged prologue. It’s separate from the rest of the Smaug story for no obvious reason other than some perceived need to open with an action spectacle – something that can’t help but seem surplus to requirements in a film where a good half the running time is given over to action spectacle anyway (the clue’s in the title).

It is but one more symptom of a problem that has been obvious since An Unexpected Journey, arguably even since the announcement of the three film plan – The Hobbit never needed three films. There’s one, maybe two, good films buried in here somewhere, but they have been smothered as a result of the method of delivery. Some of it will play better when all three films are available to watch in quick succession – better yet, when somebody does a much-needed, clinically brutal fan edit (it won’t be Peter Jackson, who has released Extended Editions for these films which badly need the opposite approach). But watching them in the cinema with a year between releases, The Hobbit has been a slog – worse, a trio of slogs.

I consider this pretty faint praise, but The Battle of the Five Armies is probably a little better than its predecessors. Not insignificant is that it’s a good bit shorter than either of the first two films, meaning it’s less top-heavy in terms of ‘stuff’. Adjusted expectations also surely factor into that, along with the fact that there have never been any illusions that the film was going to be much more than an extended battle scene. There’s more to it than a five army melee, but not much more.

The battle itself… well if you’ve seen The Lord of the Rings you know what you’re letting yourself in for. It’s an hour-long affair, cutting back and forth between the various factions a la the battles of Helm’s Deep and Minas Tirith.  While there’s plenty of individuals to follow, to Jackson’s credit he allows us relatively lengthy unbroken stretches with most of them, meaning it doesn’t feel as disjointed or hyperactive as it could have been. The battle itself is fine, I suppose – it’s pretty standard fare, enlivened by a few imaginative moments (a new twist on the Orc battering ram stands out). There’s still an over-tendency towards having characters swoop in at the last second to manufacture drama – a trick Jackson has overplayed throughout the series.

The eponymous battle also serves as a firm reminder of Jackson’s over-reliance on CG, which has been another major sticking point throughout The Hobbit saga. While generally far less cartoony than the other films, there’s still a real lack of physicality to much of Five Armies’ action and characters, the Orcs particularly. Although this is often obvious during the action – one shot of Legolas running across a collapsing bridge is very poor indeed – it’s almost worse during a number of dialogue-heavy scenes where actors are clearly standing in front of green screens. The The Lord of the Rings struck the perfect balance between CG and practical effects, makeup and locations. The Hobbit feels overly artificial, comparable to – dare I say it? – the Star Wars prequels of all things.

On either side of the battle – and even occasionally during it – there are some solid character moments, however. Bilbo’s relationship with Thorin is well handled (bar a misjudged ‘dream’ sequence that fumbles badly in its attempt to visualise Thorin’s descent into madness), and gives Martin Freeman in particular some great material – that’s a good thing, considering he has often been relegated to the sidelines in a film where even the title declares him to be our protagonist. Near the end, Freeman also enjoys a great, almost silent scene with Ian McKellen as Gandalf, albeit one undermined slightly by a less impressive follow-up a couple of minutes later. There are plenty of subplots to resolve, but the film does not spend quite as much time on them as Return of the King did, which is a relief.

The Hobbit may be a marginally learner and sometimes meaner films that its predecessors, but that’s not to say there isn’t filler – in fact, there’s plenty. The screenwriters’ manufactured ‘star-crossed love story, and Legolas too!’ subplot is a dreary distraction, that amounts to little more than Evangeline Lilly’s character learning the meaning of true love. Blegh. Several characters could easily be excised to the benefit of the film’s pacing. That, for example, is true of Alfrid, played by Ryan Gage, and not coincidentally another of Jackson and Co’s own creations. He’s a crudely written stereotype even in a franchise that trades in archetypes, and bafflingly several of the film’s key characters repeatedly trust him to carry out important tasks despite the fact that he’s clearly a backstabbing rat and does little to disguise it. The sheer bulk of characters, meanwhile, means Jackson cannot possibly afford many of them much screen space, and hence they often disappear for huge swathes of the running time (the band of dwarves particularly suffer in that regard). In some cases, we don’t hear from them again at all for no apparent reason.

Battle of the Five Armies also continues The Hobbit series’ tradition of clunky callbacks to The Lord of the Rings. There are several remarkably unsubtle nods to what is to come – they could only be more obvious if the characters in question turned to the audience and remarked “this is a reference to what’s going to happen to me in The Lord of the Rings, by the way”, followed by a cheeky to-camera wink and a ‘To Be Continued’ title card. That said, the superfluous prequelising of the story does lead to what is easily the film’s – and possibly The Hobbit as a whole’s – best set piece. Several of Middle Earth’s most recognisable ancillary characters get to show off their fighting skills in a visceral supernatural showdown, with Jackson illustrating a sense of brutal visual panache barely seen elsewhere in the trilogy. It’s the climax of a redundant subplot spread out across all three films, but hey at least it concludes in style.

The Hobbit ends as it started – bloated and clunky, albeit with scattered moments that capture, however briefly, the alchemy that made The Lord of the Rings so successful. That’s a formula the new trilogy failed to replicate consistently or convincingly as it stretched a modest adventure story beyond breaking point. Maybe a fan edit will salvage it one of these years – creating the one great film The Hobbit could have, perhaps even should have been.

Anybody have Topher Grace’s number?

Stephen McNeice

12A (See IFCO for details)
144 minutes.
Battle of the Five Armies
is released 12th December.

Battle of the Five Armies – Official Website

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A Spell to Ward off the Darkness

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DIR/WRI: Ben Rivers, Ben Russell PRO: Julie Gayet, Indrek Kasela, Nadia Turincev

A Spell to Ward off the Darkness is just about as experimental an effort as you’ll see getting a (very limited) commercial release this year. For that reason, it is not an easy film to describe, because much of its effectiveness – or, depending on your preferences, complete ineffectiveness – is obtuse and almost subconscious. If its rhythm hooks you you’re likely to be hypnotised by its elegantly ethereal mood, but there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself bored and irritated by its languishness. It’s just about as subjective as cinema-going gets, although given more than half of the viewers at the screening I attended abandoned ship well before the end credits, the odds may be stacked in one particular direction.

 

But as far as I’m concerned this is a film worth defending. Directors Ben Rivers and Ben Russell have abandoned most traditional forms of cinematic storytelling in favour of something much more poetic and primordial. It blurs the border between fiction and nonfiction to an inseparable degree. Emotions are not explicitly expressed, and instead emerge almost eerily through the images, editing and soundtrack. It is a film that, by its very nature, requires its defenders to summon up their most flowery and pretentious language to and describe a film experience that is defiantly indescribable. For many who fail to jump on board, a mere shrug of the shoulders will likely suffice.

 

A Spell… takes the form of a triptych of ‘stories’ (I use the term generously, given there is little in the way of traditional narrative), all of which are tied together by the presence of artist and musician Robert A.A. Lowe. In the first chapter, we observe the day-to-day activities of a group of people living in a commune in Estonia, as they ponder ways of living ‘liberated’ from mainstream society. In the second, Lowe’s nameless protagonist (himself?) explores a Finnish forest, sleeping alone in a small hut and living off the plants and animals he finds. The final section takes the form of a full half-hour death metal performance, shot in what appears to be a single, fluid take.

 

Following a lengthy and haunting opening panning shot of a lake (with a magnificently effective creeping choral soundtrack), the commune section is the most ‘traditional’ section of the film: in fact, it’s the only one with any actual speech. It is still, however, demandingly tranquil and meandering. The characters casually – and for quite a while completely nakedly – ponder their relationship with nature, society and each other, with the building a sort of ‘bio-pyramid’ happening in the background. There are some beautiful shots – including one remarkably expressive one of the group relaxing on the shore of a drowned town – but it’s the subsequent sections that prove truly sublime. The commune sequences are important, though, as they’re where the filmmakers most explicitly – i.e. very vaguely – hint at some of their thematic and artistic concerns before abandoning dialogue entirely.

 

When Lowe takes to the forest to live his solitary existence, the ethereal tone really starts to get under the skin. The dreamy and beguiling pacing becomes more poetic and tantalisingly ambiguous. The calm, observant camera and subdued sound design are hypnotic. Lowe says nothing, but he exhibits a curiosity and fascination with the landscape and his place in it, and that inquisitive nature is echoed through the meditative and observant cinematography. There’s a natural beauty here, but it’s contrasted in intriguing ways with Lowe’s own presence. One memorable shot of a dusky scene is contrasted with distant gunshots on the soundtrack – a straightforward but powerful evocation of the relationship between this one man and nature.

 

Then something bursts, or cracks. Lowe has a sort of primal realisation, which leads to an act of beautiful destruction. A stunning nighttime scene then vividly segues into the death metal performance. Lowe and his bandmates seemingly embrace and confront their inner darkness – and the darkness of the world around them – to conjure up something intensely creative.

 

The music will not suit all tastes, but the method of capturing this performance is remarkable. Rivers and Russell instill the camera movement with a spectral curiosity. It probes the scene, floating slowly. It drifts from one band member to the next, moving in for extreme close-ups and moving out for dynamic pans that intimately document both the emotions and (more fleetingly) the musical specifics of their performance. In the half-hour long take, the filmmakers also carefully documents the audience and their responses – some are enthralled, others observing more coldly.

 
It’s an astonishingly rich way to film music, and one that explores both the communal and individual aspects of live performance. This unashamedly inaccessible sequence will understandably prove one hurdle too many for some viewers, but for others it’ll represent A Spell to Ward off the Darkness achieving a rare level of cinematic transcendence – further emphasised by an incredible ending that gives a whole new meaning to fading to black. Count this viewer among the spellbound.

Stephen McNeice

 

98 minutes

A Spell to Ward off the Darkness is released 12th September 2014

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Joe

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DIR David Gordon Green WRI: Gary Hawkins   PRO: David Gordon Green, Lisa Muskat, Derrick Tseng, Alexander Uhlmann, Christopher Woodrow  DOP: Tim Orr   ED: Colin Patton  DES: Chris L. Spellman MUS: Jeff McIlwain, David Wingo   CAST: Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter

Many great American films could be classified as Southern Gothic, but whatever the reason the last few years in particular have seen an explosion of films from the US focusing on the rural Southern states and their inhabitants. You have Beasts of the Southern Wild, Mud, Winter’s Bone, Killer Joe, Hide Your Smiling Faces and more besides – very different films, but all memorably and proudly Southern. To that list we can add Joe, David Gordon Green’s hasty follow-up to Prince Avalanche.

 

This isn’t new geographical territory for Green. His still remarkable debut George Washington was set in North Carolina, and several of his subsequent films also affectionately portrayed life in the South. Sadly for fans of these films, Green’s incredibly promising early career was interrupted by his work on a trio of dumbass comedies that could generously be described as varying degrees of shit (although not without their fans). While no doubt there were reasonable motivations behind this bizarre shift in directorial direction, for this viewer at least Green’s return to smaller, character-based dramas – and, not coincidentally, the Southern states – has proved something of relief.

 

Like Prince Avalanche, Joe takes place in rural Texas. Like the earlier film’s haunting use of destroyed woodland, the setting here is one of its most valuable assets. Plot-wise, there’s not a whole lot going on in Joe you haven’t seen before, but Green manages to maintain an uneasy, even surreal mood.

 

Joe (Nicholas Cage, in one of his occasional excellent performances) is a man with a colourful history with the law, but seems to have settled down. He runs a tree-poisoning business, in which and he and his men prepare stubborn trees for timber companies. He lives alone, albeit with the occasional casual visit from Connie (Adriene Mishler). Joe being Joe, though, peace is a challenging state to maintain, and a disagreement he had in a bar with an aggressive local (Ronnie Gene Blevins) threatens to escalate. But it’s the appearance of young Gary (Tye Sheridan), who has is looking for work for himself and his father Wade (Gary Poulter). Gary proves to be a hard and loyal worker, and Joe takes him under his wing. Wade, though, is cruel, lazy and abusive, and as is to be expected this starts to cause some problems.

 

This is Southern Gothic turned up to eleven, and sometimes to the point of near parody. Joe’s world is an incredibly grimy, miserable one. Violence, substance abuse and prostitution of an almost Old Western sort are commonplace here. It might not be pleasant, but it sure is atmospheric. Muted but moody cinematography further emphasises this powerful sense of place.

 

It could, in less skilled hands, come across as almost exploitative in its stylistic exaggeration of an impoverished community. That’s a line individual viewers might feel is crossed at times. But Green lends a strange empathy to proceedings, and a respect and understanding of a lifestyle most of us aren’t familiar with. This might be a gritty thriller featuring violent characters committing violent deeds (or, in the protagonist’s case, trying desperately not to), but Green takes the time to carefully portray the daily rhythms of the poor but proud people too. It’s far from a romanticised portrait, but it can be a quietly affectionate one. That ensures things don’t descend into the ‘hicksploitation’ realm – well, at least for the most part.

 

As the title indicates, Cage’s Joe is very much the centre of attention here. Cage, I think it is fair to say, isn’t always a fan of subtlety (even in some of his best performances), but here his distinctive style works very well indeed. He plays Joe as a man constantly on the edge of exploding, and largely articulates this through body language and gestures. On the occasions when he does blow up, Cage’s familiarly wild acting style is a perfect fit for the fits of rage that follow.

 

Even then, however, there’s a powerful sense of regret and frustration in the character, as if he is trying with everything he has to keep in control. Although there’s a fundamental goodness about Joe, he’s just as likely to act indifferently or even cruelly to those he’s closest to. He might not always be a traditionally likeable protagonist, but he sure is a compelling one, and it’s not hard to buy into the deep-rooted respect many peripheral characters have for the man.

 

Cage’s stylised, powerhouse performance cannot help but dominate proceedings, but he’s capably backed – particularly by Tye Sheridan as the young Gary. Amazingly, though, there is something of a match for Cage’s typically bold performance, and that’s from Gary Poulter.

 

Poulter – who died last year while living in a makeshift campsite for the homeless – had never acted before (bar a role as an extra on TV), and had been diagnosed as bipolar. His life was equal parts wild and tragic – and that carries over here in an utterly unique performance that could only have come from a non-professional actor. Once again, there’s the threat of exploitation here, especially given Poulter’s own life story and its sad conclusion so soon after the film wrapped. But it is hard to deny the performance is fascinatingly raw, further enhancing the film’s memorably chaotic atmosphere.

 

Potently chaotic though the film may be in many respects, the actual story that drives it is largely lacking in surprise. The surrogate father-son relationship that develops between Gary and Joe is as familiar as they come, while there’s no doubt whatsoever everything is building up to a violently melodramatic conclusion. When that comes, it’s a dispiritingly familiar punctuation mark. But the performances and direction allow Joe to overcome some of its limitations. It certainly is ridiculous and exaggerated at times, but that helps make for a combustible cocktail of hyper Southern Gothic.

Stephen McNeice

16 (See IFCO for details)
117 mins

Joe is released on 25th July 2014

Joe – Official Website

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Cinema Review: Tom At The Farm

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DIR/WRI: Xavier Dolan  • PRO: Xavier Dolan, Charles Gillibert, Nathanaël Karmitz • DOP: André Turpin • ED: Xavier Dolan • MUS: Gabriel Yared • CAST: Xavier Dolan, Pierre-Yves Cardinal, Lise Roy

Early reviews from Tom At The Farm suggest that the film marks Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan venturing into properly ‘genre’ territory for the first time. However, while the film does utilise – and subvert – the tropes of a standard thriller, it so constantly sidesteps convention and audience expectation that any formal generic classification proves woefully inadequate.

After retreating exclusively behind the camera for his last film – the epic transgender relationship study Laurence Anyways – Dolan opts to take the lead role of Tom here. The story, adapted from a play of the same name by Michel Marc Bouchard, has Tom travel to his lover Guillaume’s funeral somewhere in rural Quebec. It transpires that the deceased’s mother, Agathe (Lise Roy), had no idea her son was gay. Tom is told in no uncertain terms to keep the secret, well, secret by Guillaume’s violent, quite possibly unhinged brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal). Initially intending to leave immediately, Tom finds himself increasingly fascinated by Agathe and particularly Francis, and opts to stick around. But as the lies pile on top of each other, it’s uncertain if secrets can stay hidden.

Homosexuality has been a key theme of Dolan’s films to date, and it’s central to Tom at the Farm’s drama. Initially Francis seems like your standard bigot, disgusted at his brother’s sexuality and committed to keeping it secret at whatever cost (especially if that cost is some sort of serious assault). However, as the film progresses a sort of masochistic homoerotic tension begins to develop between Francis and Tom. It’s a strange sort of relationship to witness, and leads to scenes playing out in ways the audience is unlikely to expect or predict. At its best, the film manages to paint Francis as an angry, self-destructive enigma, and captures Tom’s journey of self-discovery, as well as his potentially dangerous curiosity about his dead boyfriend’s unstable brother. There’s a few welcome narrative curveballs thrown into the mix, such as an ever-escalating attempt to persuade Agathe that Guillaume actually had a girlfriend.

Unfortunately, all this can also stretch credibility. It’s hard to get a firm grasp on any of the characters, who seem borderline schizophrenic at times. Occasionally it can be quite potently ambiguous (details of the characters’ backstories, for example, are doled out in a nicely controlled fashion), but a lot of the time it can be pretty frustrating as these people act in illogical, maybe even contradictory ways without much coherent rhyme or reason. There’s lots of room here for viewers to read into subtleties and hints – there’s a purposeful lack of concrete answers – but it’s sometimes worth asking how effective that ambiguity is: the ending particularly will annoy the hell out of anyone seeking something more definitive. Although some of the themes are clearly very personal to Dolan, it’s a film that feels somewhat cold and clinical overall.

Dolan can’t resist filming this in an impressively vibrant way – significantly pared back from the proudly indulgent Laurence Anyways, but still immaculately composed. That includes the finest aerial shot of Canadian farmland you’re likely to see in the foreseeable future. While Dolan constantly sidesteps predictable drama, there are a number of traditionally ‘thriller’ scenes – a fight, a threat or a chase here and there. Interestingly, Dolan chooses to explicitly utilise the aesthetics of genre cinema for these moments. The aspect ratio dynamically narrows, the lighting becomes more explicitly stylised, and the soundtrack bursts to life with the sound of excited strings. It’s an interesting and largely effective directorial choice, although most notably serves to highlight how the narrative steadfastly refuses to conform to convention despite seemingly borrowing some familiar tools. That playful adaptation of genre norms is to be celebrated, although ultimately the film is a strange mix of curious experimentation and frustrating elusiveness.

Stephen McNeice

105 mins

Tom At The Farm is released on 4th April 2014

Tom At The Farm – Official Website

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nO6PPKYpwPA

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Cinema Review: Noah

Russell Crowe as Noah in Darren Aranofsky's biblical epic

DIR: Darren Aronofsky • WRI: Darren Aronofsky, Ari Handel • PRO: Darren Aronofsky , Scott Franklin, Arnon Milchan, Mary Parent • DOP: Matthew Libatique • ED: Andrew Weisblum • MUS: Clint Mansell • DES: Mark Friedberg • CAST: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Anthony Hopkins, Emma Watson

If ten years ago you said that the director responsible for Pi and Requiem for a Dream would be making $125 million biblical epics you would have been… remarkably prescient. So, eh, well done, I guess!

 

Yes, surely thanks to the remarkable performance of Black Swan at the global box office, Darren Aronofksy has been granted a budget and canvas rarely afforded to arthouse darlings. With those resources, he has opted to put his own unique slant on one of the most famous stories of them all – that of Noah and his apocalypse-proof ark. It could have gone either way – a triumph or a massive disaster. Actually, it’s neither, but it’s absolutely fascinating to watch.

 

Do I need to go into a synopsis? The core story – divine vision, two of every animal, apocalyptic flood – is roughly intact, so many of the key story beats are obvious. What is interesting, however, is how unusual Aronofsky’s telling of the story is. He picks and chooses elements from the various versions and interpretations, as well as adding details of his own. Structurally, it’s far removed from your typical Hollywood blockbuster – most of the spectacle is spent in the film’s first half – which is perhaps perhaps best described as a ‘fantasy epic’ – and a majority of the second is devoted to a pretty intense family melodrama.

 

Noah, it should be said, is rather ‘Old Testament’ in its storytelling. It manages to get across the horror, violence, ancient morality and – yes – moments of beauty that are contained in those early volumes. It makes a valiant attempt at both critiquing and respecting the religious aspects of the story. There’s a truly stunning ‘creation’ sequence, for example, that recounts the biblical story while also allowing an evolutionary reading – a wonderful and provocative discourse realised with Aronofsky’s visceral visual storytelling (here using rapid montage editing). ‘The Creator’ (no mention the G-word here), meanwhile, mostly remains an elusive, mysterious presence throughout, despite being integral to the story. Aronofsky brings a welcome degree of scepticism while staying generally loyal to many of the myth’s themes and ideas: likely to alienate many viewers in the process, but resulting in a richer film. There’s also a contemporary environmentalist message mixed in, although it gels into the story’s themes relatively nicely and only rarely feels preachy.

 

The production values to the film are predictably impressive throughout – iffy CGI aside, but more on that anon – although the film inevitably sings during the scenes where Aronofsky indulges his wilder stylistic urges. There are several seriously spectacular moments, including a recurring dream / vision sequence that adds some welcome aesthetic oomph to that hoary cinematic tradition. The spectacle, when it comes, is intense and epic. Clint Mansell again proves himself a valuable asset, with his bold score embracing both subtlety and bombast when required. The music is overblown at times, but no more so than the story itself. Generally, there’s a welcome eccentric unpredictability to the film – despite tackling one of the best known stories from history, it’s the rare film of this scale that is happy to embark on stylistic flights of fancy or explore the underexplored thematic resonances inherent in Noah’s plight.

 

Actually, the single-most interesting aspect of Noah is the characterisation of the man himself. Crowe, Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel collaborate to put him on-screen as someone driven to obsession and near-madness by the challenge handed to him. He’s far from a traditional screen hero, particularly in the film’s latter half when he becomes almost completely delusional and manages to violently alienate his family in the process. It’s certainly a bold take on the character. Other members of Noah’s family do get the screentime necessary to explore their own stories, however. Jennifer Connelly plays his initially supportive wife, Naameh, with real passion, while Anthony Hopkins’ cameo adds some welcome colour – and the film’s only thing resembling humour – as Noah’s ancient grandfather Methuselah. One of the meatiest supporting roles is reserved for Emma Watson as Ila, the ‘barren’ partner of Noah’s eldest son Shem (Douglas Booth, who has comparatively little to do). Much time is also devoted to the increasingly strained relationship between Noah and middle-son Ham (Logan Lerman), who understandably is a little depressed about the possibility of a new world without the fairer sex. Ray Winstone appears as Tubal-cain, the cruel leader determined to procure the ark for himself. Alas, his extended appearance is one of the film’s less interesting features.

Which naturally leads on to the observation that the film is pretty wildly uneven. As soon as the CGI rock monsters / fallen angels appear in the opening minutes, it’s pretty obvious that certain aspects of the film ask a lot from the viewer, even if you’re willing to accept the more fantastical elements. Said ‘Watchers’ don’t become any less odd as they play a more integral part in the film’s second act. The whole thing is earnest and self-serious: rightly so at times, but to the point of parody at others. As alluded to above, plenty of it is completely overblown, especially some of the farcically melodramatic turns towards the film’s end. Surprisingly, apart from two scenes, the animals themselves are underused, although that might be down to the fact the CGI teams are clearly struggling to believably render thousands of different species at the same time. And the ending feels far too neat and tidy, as well as tonally inconsistent with what came before.

Yet, for all its imperfections – and it is, no mistake, a wildly mixed bag – there’s something ultimately admirable about its devil-may-care ambition. Aronofsky throws everything he has at the screen, and while much of it fails to stick, a lot of it does. It is a brave, auteristic blockbuster in an era when blandness and safety have become the standards. There’s something refreshing about that. It’s a reminder how rarely directors like Darren Aronofsky are gifted an opportunity to craft something on this scale, and how strange it is to see a fresh interpretation of such an iconic story. When Noah is at its visceral best, it’s something to be truly savoured, even if it can be just as maddening as endearing.

Stephen McNeice

12A (See IFCO for details)
139 mins

Noah is released on 4th April 2014

Noah – Official Website

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Cinema Review: The Unknown Known

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DIR: Errol Morris • PRO: Amanda Branson Gill, Robert Fernandez, Errol Morris • DOP: Robert Chappell • ED: Steven Hathaway • MUS: Danny Elfman • DES: Jeremy Landman • CAST: Kenn Medeiros, Errol Morris, Donald Rumsfeld

Errol Morris has a really remarkable way of getting people to open up on camera. In his debut The Thin Blue Line, he famously managed to record something that could well be a murder confession, helping lead to the release of the innocent Randall Dale Adams (who had been sentenced to life in prison). The Fog of War saw Morris ‘face off’ against former US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara. While McNamara didn’t necessarily ‘crack’, Morris managed to secure some startlingly and complex insights from his interviews with the man. Even in his 2010 film Tabloid – which is very purposefully a structurally tricky and playful affair that reminds the audience to be distrustful of individual testimonies – Morris ultimately manages to get his subject Joyce McKinney to make some memorably frank and intimate observations on camera (how much you believe them, of course, is up to you). Morris has even used the word ‘Interrotron’ to describe his trademark interview style of having his subjects talk directly to the camera – or is that the audience? – as if on trial.

 

The Interrotron is employed once again in The Unknown Known, with Morris turning the camera on another former Secretary of Defence. A two-time Secretary of Defence, in fact: Donald Rumsfeld. This time, however, Morris’ usual techniques make nary a dent in his interviewee’s armour. More often than not, questions are answered by Rumsfeld with a familiarly calculated response or enigmatic grin. When Morris – sometimes with genuine frustration and disbelief in his voice – attempts to push harder or presents Rumsfeld with a knowingly inflammatory query, the Washington veteran bats not a single eyelid as he shoots down the line of questioning or effortlessly defuses Morris’ enquiries.

 

Conclusions on how compelling a documentary this elusiveness makes is likely to differ from viewer to viewer. The Unknown Known lacks the surprises and fresh insights that have defined many great documentaries, much of Morris’ own work included. That’s one of the things about making any documentary: you don’t know what the results will be until you’re near the end of making it, with many changing shape radically over the course of production. If Morris was hoping Rumsfeld would reveal something controversial or even drop his charismatic public persona, he may well have been severely disappointed.

 

That, however, would be dismissive of what is a fascinating film in different ways. Rumsfeld might be an expert deflector, but his story is a great one. After all, this is a man who held one of the most influential positions in Washington during Watergate, the Cold War, 9/11 and the beginnings of the Afghan / Iraq wars. It’s a compelling political and personal story, full of twists and turns – at one point, he casually observes that under very slightly different circumstances, he could have been President or Vice-President of America. He worked over Dick Cheney, for example, when he was Gerald Ford’s Chief of Staff – indeed, it was seemingly Cheney’s recommendation that got Rumsfeld a prize position in George W. Bush’s cabinet. Obviously, little regret is expressed over his ultimate life and career trajectory – this is a man not hung up on what might have been.

 

This all makes for a very strong character study. The elusiveness, so frustrating in some respects, is curious in others. Here is a man who has been instrumental in some of the biggest and most controversial decisions in contemporary history, and has been quizzed about them hundreds of times (the footage of his press conferences are highlights here). He is able to personally justify or critique all his decisions – in fact, even if you don’t agree with his actions, there are times here when you won’t fail to be impressed by his persuasiveness and raw charisma. He’s, above all, a powerful screen presence, able to own and even manipulate the camera to his advantage.

 

Morris, for his part, adds a few interesting flourishes to ensure it’s not all Rumsfeld’s face for 100 minutes. There’s lots of archive footage, naturally. There’s a Danny Elfman score that’s at times more like his Batman work than your typical documentary soundtrack – I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing. There’s also frequent shots of empty sea, culminating in the launch of a dodgy CGI rocket that would have been best left excised. More interesting are the structural ideas, most intriguingly the way Morris repeatedly bases questions or loose ‘chapters’ of the film on Rumsfeld’s tens of thousands of memos to his Pentagon colleagues. From reflections on international tensions to requesting dictionary definitions of words like ‘quagmire’, they’re a further unusual insight into the man’s working and communication methods. It also serves as a way of highlighting the strange bureaucracy of Washington – a segment on the torture in Guantanamo Bay and other POW prisons sees Rumsfeld explaining it away as a series of miscommunications, misinterpreted documents and misunderstandings of the chain of command.

On a couple of occasions, Morris leaves the camera linger for a few extended moments on Rumsfeld’s face after he artfully deflects a particularly contentious question. Morris is clearly under the impression that this man has many things to hide, but there’s not a chance he’s giving them up. Perhaps we will never know what’s really going on in Donald Rumsfeld’s head, but gazing into the face of the unknowable holds its own unique appeal.

 

Stephen McNeice

96 mins

The Unknown Known is released on 21st March 2014

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Cinema Review: The Wolf of Wall Street

Leonardo Dicaprio in The Wolf Of Wall Street

Dir: Martin Scorsese • Wri: Terence Winter • Pro: Riza Aziz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Joey McFarland, Martin Scorsese, Emma Tillinger Koskoff • DOP: Rodrigo Prieto • ED: Thelma Schoonmaker • DES: Bob Shaw • CAST: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey

Having not too long ago celebrated his 71st birthday, it is obvious to any observer that Martin Scorsese’s love affair with cinema is still as all consuming as ever. His last film Hugo was an extravagant tribute to cinema itself: a compelling ode to the creatives, aesthetics and imagination of early cinema. Meanwhile, his continued patronage of projects like the World Cinema Foundation – dedicated to restoring and preserving films from countries without the resources or culture to do so themselves – further indicate his amour du cinéma. We the viewer luckily reap some of the benefits of this: Masters of Cinema and Criterion have started releasing gorgeous Blu-Ray boxsets of the Foundation’s preservation projects, Scorsese himself appearing on camera to introduce each of the films.

 

The Wolf of Wall Street is not as ‘literally’ the work of a cinephile as Hugo or the WCF, but it is unmistakably the product of a veteran director still madly, deeply infatuated with cinematic form. It radiates energy and enthusiasm, and is as lively and committed as anything he’s ever made over a nearly half-century long career. It is a welcome revisit to many of the stylistic and storytelling techniques that have defined many of his most beloved works, but also a fresh and ambitious project that differs significantly from the films we writers are obliged to compare it to (Casino and Goodfellas, if you’re wondering). It’s also incredibly funny.

 

The film is “based on a true story”, specifically that of Jordan Belfort – once dubbed the eponymous Wolf in a Forbes profile. As you can tell by the strategically placed quotation marks, the ‘truth’ is merely a launching point, but more on that shortly. First, the basics.

 

Belfort (Leonardo di Caprio) is a young, enthusiastic stockbroker, who unluckily earns his full broker’s license right around the time of the 1987 economic meltdown. After a brief period of unemployment, he winds up in a rundown brokers’ office offloading junk stocks to people barely able to afford their bills in the first place. He proves to have a knack for the work, and soon opens up a new firm exclusively trading in these rubbish but extremely profitable ‘penny stocks’. The work isn’t necessarily regulated or even legal in the traditional sense, but soon Belfort has started his own firm and trained a ragtag group to sell these rubbish shares over the phone. Soon, the company – named Stratton Oakmont – has exploded in size and popularity, moving to swank new high-rise offices and employing dozens of staff, with more begging to be hired. Belfort and his inner circle, meanwhile, are earning almost a million dollars a week, and spending much of it on mountains of quaaludes, prostitutes, private helicopters, alcohol, marching bands and hired dwarves (who they use as human darts). Naturally, this high life starts to take something of a toll on Belfort, all while FBI agent Denham (Kyle Chandler) starts investigating the company’s unusual practices.

 

The basics and even most of the specifics of The Wolf of Wall Street conform with Belfort’s own recollections, published in his memoirs of the same name. Scorsese, though, has opted to bring the situations and characters to life in a wild, cartoonish manner. Take it as a serious deconstruction of financial corruption and you’re in for a fall. The greed, the arrogance, the rudeness, and the reckless abandon of the Stratton Oakmont crew are merrily overblown, the film achieving a thoroughly entertaining hybrid of fact and comic exaggeration – well, I hope it’s exaggerated anyway, as you can never quite tell with those reckless financiers. The film manages to be a lightly damning critique of economic and social corruption (timely, considering recent financial shenanigans) but first and foremost it’s a madcap black comedy.

 

A wonderful comedy it is too, likely to offer the game audience member plenty of belly laughs. One late film setpiece plays out something like Buster Keaton meets Hunter S. Thompson: an inspired and very un-PC sequence of drug-addled slapstick. Scorsese, it goes without saying, directs this with the fervour of a true auteur – perhaps not the most distinctive film he’s made stylistically speaking, but still propelled by inspired musical choices, bold voiceover work, kinetic camera movements and a general structural playfulness (such as the fake television ads planted throughout the film). Thelma Schoonmaker – almost certainly the most important collaborator of Scorsese’s – expertly patches the chaos together, and with the exception of some minor lulls the 180 minute runtime whizzes by. In terms of its overall pace, style and structure it resembles – those names again! – Goodfellas and Casino, but is also very much its own beast.

 

DiCaprio, meanwhile, earns our undivided attention. The film, I must point out, offers a strong ensemble cast – notably a sultry Margot Robbie as Belfort’s second wife and Matthew McConaughey’s committed extended cameo as Jordan’s wall street mentor (Jonah Hill, by the way, is fine: not exactly offering a whole lot we haven’t seen from him before, but acting as something of a useful comic foil for DiCaprio). The lead, though, is a force of nature. DiCaprio paints Belfort as a charismatic asshole, the performance growing in complexity as drug addiction and other excesses take their toll. He’s smug and often insufferable: occasionally he even shatters through the fourth wall to shamelessly talk down to the audience. But DiCaprio also manages to portray how Belfort manage to stir up such loyalty among his supporters – during several intense motivational speeches to his staff, you’d almost be forgiven for briefly buying into his twisted, exploitative ideologies and practices. He also has a strange but fragile loyalty about him, explored intriguingly in the film’s second half. Scorsese forces Belfort through some crazy comic ordeals, but in DiCaprio’s hands he’s an individual with depth.

 

Any negatives worth noting? Well, one could argue certain sections feel repetitious, and there are perhaps moments of sluggishness (appropriate, maybe, given the increasingly grueling drug addictions experienced by the characters). Many moments are pitched extremely broad, with some scenes ending up feeling flatter than others. And these thoughts could lead to the question of how much depth there really is underneath the vibrant surface. Quibbles, these are. The Wolf of Wall Street is a refreshingly raw and vibrant Scorsese joint: a film that serves as a warm reminder of many of his most iconic directorial trademarks, as well as bringing plenty of new tricks to the table. It’s a wild ride and as funny as anything you’re likely to see in the cinema over the coming year. Martin Scorsese might have spent the last few years asking us to look back at cinema history with him, but on the strength of The Wolf of Wall Street we should all be greatly enthused about his present and future too.

Stephen McNeice

18 (See IFCO for details)
179  mins
The Wolf of Wall Street is released on 17th January 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street– Official Website

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