Sunday, 30 September 2012

Requiem for a Dream (2000)

Darren Aronofsky might not be the best technical director, he's no Spielberg, but he is incredibly talented in crafting powerfully moving emotional pieces. Aronofsky will make you feel something, whether it's the disillusioning power of love in The Fountain, pity for a man who is clinging to a life he has long outgrown in The Wrestler, the detrimental effects of chasing a perfection you don't even want in Black Swan, or the soul crushing depression of addiction in Requiem for a Dream.

Requiem really is the best traumatic film I've seen. It's a well produced piece of work, but you might be a little less than satisfied when the credits roll. Across the Summer, Fall and Winter of a particular year four people find themselves in the grips of drug addiction for a number of reasons. Three heroin junkies (Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly and Marlon Wayans) find themselves going from user to dealers in the hopes of elevating themselves from their respective gutters and becoming respectable people, only to find themselves trapped by more than getting their next fix. Across town, the mother of Harry (Leto), played by Ellen Burstyn, battles a weight-loss triggered amphetamine dependence. The four fall victim to a myriad of different effects of a hard drug habit, from the disgusting physical transformations, through the degrading personal sacrifices to the disturbing psychological disruptions caused by copious amounts of body chemistry altering substances.

Aronofsky takes some quite brave steps with regards to structure and how the film plays out. A frantic, MTV style of editing lends itself to montages made up of little more than snapshots well, giving the drug and psychosis induced hazes and hallucinations a jarringly real sense of what a bad trip can be like. Heavily stylised, many scenes take place with different parts of the shot playing out at different speeds, with lenses that distort and nauseate at times. Clearly split up into three arcs, the summer, fall and winter, it's pretty easy to see where the fates of the central characters ultimately lie, and if you've been paying attention it should come as no surprise that Aronofsky doesn't follow the typical mold where a big problem appears about 2/3s of the way through the film and the final third is where everything is made okay with the world again. A very clear progression makes itself known pretty early on, and despite how much you want it to stop, it continues on all the way to the anti-hollywood finale.

If you're a fan of authentic, frenetic filmmaking and don't mind feeling a little bit blue absolutely terrible at the end, Requiem for a Dream has to go on the 'Must Watch' list. Chances are it'll only be there once though.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Cabin in the Woods (2012)

(Poster by Mondo)

The Cabin in the Woods is 2012's answer to 1996's Scream. It manages to be a tongue-in-cheek take on slasher movie cliches and a straight up horror bloodbath at the same time. If you're not aware of the tropes and archetypes that make up the recipe for a modern horror flick, you might miss out on a couple of the jokes and references but you'll still get a tense, bloody and hilarious death-fest. 

Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard have written what is about as formulaic as a slasher movie as you can get.  A bunch of young, pretty people decide to go for a trip away to a cabin (in the woods no less!) where there's no cell phone reception, no internet and only one road in and out. It's like these people want to die horrible deaths in isolated wilderness. But Whedon and Goddard's writing knows how obvious this is, and has a lot of fun with just how stereotypical it is to start with through a repertoire of references, in jokes and parodies. One early scene in particular is  a duelling banjo away from being straight out of Deliverance, one of the first in the isolated-in-the-woods-being-hunted-by-hillbillies genre.

It's easy to read CitW as a satirical criticism of modern horror films. The pacing in particular is exaggerated in such a way that the slow building tension of the first half ramps up exponentially and reaches a fever pitch later on where there is no time for build up, you just get horrific image after horrific image. CitW does it in such a memorable and bombastic fashion that it is clear that these guys weren't simply following the recipe, but taking the piss out of it. Some of the subversions  are misses though, and it'll be a fifty-fifty split on whether the ending embraces the "traditional" horror film ending or if it avoids it.

Laughs and lacerations abound in Cabin in the Woods. Even if you think everyone who tries to point out all the obvious things about horror films (see "The Rules" scene in Scream) is just being pretentious and self important, you'll probably be able to garner enough enjoyment out of Cabin in the Woods as a normal slasher film that just takes a few unconventional turns.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Take Shelter (2011)

Critically acclaimed but largely unheard of, Take Shelter is one of the best smaller films of last year.

From the opening shot of Curtis LaForche standing in an oil filled rain, Michael Shannon gives a phenomenal performance as a man plagued by apocalyptic visions. Curtis becomes the victim of vivid hallucinations and terrifying dreams that follow him through his waking and sleeping life. Shannon sculpts a masterpiece performance and shows us a man who is truly, deeply scared and even more embarrassed by his fear. As he tries to sweep his increasingly erratic actions away from friends and family he can't shake the nagging fear of his dreams and what is happening to him. Is he descending into a hell of mental illness or are his visions a warning of a coming storm?

Shannon's performance goes hand in hand with Jeff Nichols' direction and some spectacular special effects to create a real sense of dread from start to finish. Take Shelter isn't a scary film in the same way as a traditional horror film, because it's not one, but there is a constant undertone of unease and that this peaceful world could come crashing down in every scene. Whether it was the spectre of mental illness or the possibility of the storm ever coming, something ingrained in Take Shelter just had me tense throughout, in a good way. It's impossible to pin down why that is, but all the subtleties and different elements combine into a perfect storm or angst and fear for Curtis' safety, and his family's safety from him.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Atonement (2007)

Costume dramas with Keira Knightley come by the bucket load, but few come as crushingly sad as Atonement. Based on the Ian McEwan novel of the same name, Atonement tells the story of how the romance between the bright young groundskeeper/Cambridge graduate Robbie (James McAvoy) and the daughter of a wealthy English family, Cecelia (Keira Knightley) is ripped apart by unfounded accusations from her younger sister, the harsh realities of the second World War and a sprinkling of the gulf between the classes.

Joe Wright does everything right here. The film looks especially beautiful in all its locales. the stately homes in the English countryside are lavish, bright and suitably saturated in the hazy colour of late summer and the dirty streets and hospitals of a mid-war London are suitably tarnished and covered in a bleak dusting of hopelessness. One set in particular stands out, and not just because it was shot down the road from me at Redcar beach: Dunkirk. Wright took on the monumental task of creating an almost purely practical set for the scene, and documents the desperation, pain and occasional glimmers of hope of the evacuation in one extended tracking shot that includes near enough 1000 extras from the local area.

The story unfolds with a number of flash forwards, which are quickly rewound to see how we got there, and it paces the film magnificently. Central to the major rift that separates Robbie and Cecelia is a moment where both the audience and Cece's sister are left unsure of what they've seen, and telling the story with quick darts forward in time leaves enough room for contemplation as to what you've seen and what you explicitly didn't see. The flash-forward mechanic is powerful. It'll smash you right in the emotions and really leave you questioning whether the instigator of all these problems has really atoned for their actions.

James McAvoy and Keira Knightley are outstanding as the troubled couple, with the former establishing himself as one of Britain's biggest upcoming things (he's since starred as the lead in XMen First Class and Wanted) and the latter continuing to mature into her roles and mold her craft into something fantastic. Joe Wright's direction and storytelling is something to be envied, with set design, shooting technique and direction clearly signposting the descent from the hazy otherworldly dream of the stately home to the dirty and real world where everything doesn't end up perfect. The visuals alone tell a story of heartbreak, regret and resentment. In particular, Wright should be proud that he manages to deliver the most powerful wartime beach scene this side of Saving Private Ryan.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Tron Legacy (2010)

A Disney production through and through, Tron Legacy is a predictable, yet ultimately satisfying and visually stunning experience.

Tron Legacy picks up 30 years after its predecessor (Tron (1982)), both in terms of what it delivers and in plot. It's pretty standalone storywise though, so there's no need to be too apprehensive if you haven't seen or can't remember the original. Legacy is set in a world where the Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) of the original has been missing for twenty years after establishing an astounding successful computer/software company. His son, Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund), receives a message that might help him find his father, and leads him down the rabbit hole into the alien computer world of The Grid.

The world Sam finds himself in is fantastically realised: a digital world where everything is made up of clean, angular lines, bright neon lights and computer programs in human form. Everything is beautifully crafted. The world created for Tron Legacy is elegant and ethereal, where the lines between solid structures and constructs made of pure light aren’t so clear. The CGI and set design sell this universe in a way that makes the film feel as cutting edge as its predecessor was back in its original release.

My only gripe with the performances given by the cast is with respect to the alien world of The Grid. Sam, played by Garrett Hedlund, is dropped here unexpectedly and is seemingly nonplussed by the entire place. Sure, he’s a bit concerned about why he has to fight for his life, or how he’s going to save the world, his father and his new friend Quorra (Olivia Wilde) but the fact that he’s seeing what cyberspace looks like or that he’s able to walk on solid goddamn light doesn’t seem to even cause a blip on his radar. For all the other characters its either the only world they’ve known, or they’ve been there long enough for it to become normal but Sam should getting blown away by everything that he looks at but just isn’t. On the flipside, Jeff Bridges and Olivia Wilde are entertaining. Bridges as the jaded old man who is reluctant to act and Wilde as his young and enthusiastic apprentice. Both are aspects of Sam’s personality. It’s just a shame that the most interesting parts of him are represented by other characters.

The story plays out pretty much how you expect it to, there isn’t really anything that surprising. But that tends to be the way Disney movies go. What you’re here for is how it’s told. The magical visual design, the thumping electronic soundtrack provided by robot DJs Daft Punk and some interesting performances from the supporting cast are all reasons to see Tron Legacy.

Domino (2005)

In light of the recent death of director Tony Scott, one of the few good things to come out of Teesside, I decided to check out one of his less appreciated works. I'm not going to sugar coat it because he recently died: Domino is pretty terrible and nowhere near as good as the man's other work.

The problems with this film could probably be explained if you imagine what the production meeting must have been like: a litter of ADHD afflicted labrador puppies hopped up on coke flinging ideas at the wall just to see what sticks, in the mid-90s. Everything wrong here is a result of having no attention span and trying to cram way too much in. It tries to shoe-horn so much plot that you see scenes play out, only to be told later on that "Oh wait, it didn't actually happen like that at all but happened like this instead" in the most boring case of using an unreliable narrator I've ever seen. All of this done through scenes that ended up being responsible for more cuts that any My Chemical Romance album.

A completely unnecessary romantic sub-plot (to use that word loosely) appears out of nowhere right when the film should end, before going on for another half hour. It is completely forced and unnecessary, especially during a tale that, I thought, was supposed to showcase a woman who could handle herself just as well as a man in the world of bounty hunting, but you just get her eventually falling back on a supporting male character for help and validation.

Domino Harvey, of the title role, is played by Keira Knightley. Domino is a British ex-model turned bounty hunter in the US. Did I mention she's British? Because, holy shit, she will definitely make sure you know it. I know Knightley is English and apparently born and raised in London, but her accent here is so exaggerated it pretty much comes full circle and sounds like a bad impression of an aristocrat. The only redeeming thing I can say about her performance is ultimately shallow, but she does look pretty damn amazing as a grungy, shorthaired delinquent considering she pretty much exclusively does period costume dramas these days. It’d be nice to see her do something a bit more adrenaline fuelled now that her acting skill is allegedly more mature in her past few films, e.g. Anna Karenina.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

The Reader (2008)

Stepehn Daldry's drama spans 40 years and asks a lot of questions about how much a person can change over time, but avoids a lot of obvious questions that you ask as the true past of a main character comes to light.

Starting in a post-war Germany, The Reader is the story of a schoolboy (played by David Kross when he is young, and Raplh Fiennes as he ages)  who falls in love with an older woman (Kate Winslet) who acts as a good samaritan when she sees him becoming ill on his way home. Throughout the development of their relationship (the age gap being one of those things that is never acknowledged) over the next two hours, a truly horrendous crime in one person's past is revealed, people becoming rightfully estranged and questions of shame (about the wrong things) are explored.

Once the film gets going, after the rather uninteresting and repetitive first act, it comes into its own and Winslet shines especially bright as the tough but tortured Hanna Schmitz in a number of powerful scenes during the distant Michael's twenties. Despite my accusations of avoiding the tough questions there exists, across the later 2/3s of the film an overarching theme of guilt and what it means as a whole for a country recovering from something as awful as WWII. The disconnect in age between Michael and Hanna works to demonstrate the differences between those who did what they had to do and then live with the consequences, and those who can see the consequences but not the situations that brought them about.

The Reader is an emotionally charged journey through a number of decades, with two great performances of people aging and trying to deal with, and make the best of, what they've done earlier in their lives. The ending feels like a bit of a cheap get out from dealing with some of the later realities that these people might face, but it's understandable that having it play out otherwise might make the film too long and distract from the real message that was strived for here.