Archive | October, 2013

Byzantium

31 Oct

byzantium

 

Director: Neil Jordan

Writer: Moira Buffini (play)

Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, Sam Riley

Motion Picture Rating: R

Runtime: 118 minutes

 

 

Although film and TV vampire stories are being remodeled for younger viewers – Twilight, True Blood, and The Vampire Diaries – one of the best remains Neil Jordan’s 1994 film Interview with the Vampire. That was an adult tale of two vampires in a very gothic 18th century New Orleans. With Byzantium the same director returns in subject matter and tone, but the two vampires are female and the setting is a distressed English seaside town.

Gemma Arterton is Clara, a streetwise exotic dancer and guardian to sensitive Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan). They wash up in a rundown coastal town after Clara has a violent encounter with a thug from their past. They are seemingly on the run, but it’s not clear from what. Their relationship is also ambiguous as the age gap makes them closer to sisters than mother and daughter. The 200 year back story is revealed slowly and in fragments. Their first encounters with vampires are explained and that past is carried as a burden.

The two women take refuge in a defunct boarding house called Byzantium. Clara meets the owner Noel (Daniel Mays) whilst turning tricks down by the pier. As the dancer / hooker Gemma Arterton is saddled with a shaky accent, but is effortlessly enticing. The harlot with a heart of gold is a bit of a cliché, but never has it been played with such sex appeal. Arterton does well, but is outperformed by Ronan who is typically captivating. At 19 she is already a mighty talent.

The look of Byzantium is washed out, distressed and grey. There are splashes of colour, such as the symbolic red cape that Eleanor wears, but mostly the aesthetic is reminiscent of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) by Tomas Alfredson. I like the production design in this, it suits the story and frankly most English seaside towns are shabby, dull and foreboding.

Those chasing Clara and Eleanor include Sam Riley as a shady policeman. He appears in present and in flash backs as part of some form of vampire secret society. Jonny Lee Miller also appears as a rotten naval officer. The centuries evolving plot is borderline ridiculous, but the actors commit to it and the slow reveal keeps it interesting. There is a nice modern day relationship, very much taken from Let the Right One in (2008, again Alfredson), involving Ronan and local teenager Frank (Caleb Landry Jones). Its youthful sweetness part balances the sourness of the adult liaisons.

There is a nice mix of serious and schlock in Byzantium and I enjoyed it. The film is sexy and scary at times and the cast is impressive and works hard throughout. It is not young and dumb like so much of the content in Twilight or True Blood and that’s one way to put some freshness back into the immortal bloodsuckers.

Compliance

29 Oct

Compliance

 

Director: Craig Zobel

Writer: Craig Zobel

Stars: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy

Motion Picture Rating: R

Runtime: 90 minutes

 

Compliance is a film that is “inspired by true events”. As such it is a shocking piece of cinema. It focuses on how people react to immoral direction from persons in authority. The setting is not in the military or on Wall Street, but in a fast food restaurant in middle-America. It is all the more powerful for that. What starts as a small and easy going fly-on-wall film about fast food workers morphs into something that is very troubling and very powerful.

Sandra (Ann Dowd) manages the ChickWich and appears to do an effective job. Becky (Dreama Walker) is one of the few staff members that show her a lack of respect. When an Officer Daniels calls Sandra to report a customer complaint of theft, the finger is pointed at Becky and the cop on the phone asks Sandra to keep Becky in the storeroom. The officer reassures Sandra that she is just doing her job and that he will take the fall if the accusation is proven false or if Becky is uncooperative. What follows is a detour into a dark and damaged place where Becky is detained and mistreated on the instruction of Daniels.

The cop on the phone is masterful in his manipulation. He plays characters off against each other and dispenses thanks and threats to great effect. He pulls the strings of those brought in to watch over Becky and he convinces them to overstep the mark. The result is a claustrophobic and taut story with a true escalation of shocks.

Compliance feels like a real-life demo of the Milgram Experiment. That measured the willingness of subjects to perform acts conflicting with their conscience when prompted by an authority figure. Milgram’s work is subject to a lot of debate, but he completed it to try and make sense of Nazi war crimes. Were German people accomplices? Were Nazis just following orders? Those are controversial and uncomfortable questions. Milgram’s conclusions were the same. He felt that compliance can sustain brutal behaviour and Craig Zobel’s film supports the hypothesis.

This is a short, small, but impactful film. The story is shocking and made more so by its basis in real life events. Zobel keeps it tight and the acting is good across the fairly unknown cast. It is no wonder that this did so well on the indie film festival circuit. It is exactly the surprisingly great type of film that breaks out of Sundance etc every few years.

Passion

27 Oct

Passion

 

Director: Brian De Palma

Writers: Brian De Palma, Natalie Carter

Stars: Rachel McAdams, Noomi Rapace, Karoline Herfurth

Motion Picture Rating: R

Runtime: 102 minutes

 

 

This is a remake of a 2010 French film called Love Crime from writer-director Alain Corneau. This time around the driving force is Brian De Palma; the 70 year old Hitchcock enthusiast famed for Carrie (1976), Scarface (1983) and The Untouchables (1987). It has been a while since De Palma produced a great film and the wait continues. Still, most of his neo-noir patchwork pieces of sex, manipulation and mind games are fun to watch.

One of this film’s taglines was ‘No backstabbing; Just business.’ That sums it up nicely. Noomi Rapace is Isabelle, a quiet and low ranking advertising creative who comes up with a clever mobile phone campaign. She has the credit for it taken by her ambitious and arrogant boss Christine (Rachel McAdams) and thereafter they play a strange game of one-upmanship with undertones of sex and obsession. The two female leads flirt with each other and Christine’s sexual preferences tend to S&M. There is a murder and the second half plays out like a crime thriller. It is certainly odd, and relatively fun, but for a movie called Passion there is a lack of fireworks.

Christine dresses in red and Isabelle dresses in black for most of the film. There are a lot of primary colours on display and plenty of stripped back sets. It looks like a De Palma film from the 1980’s and that aesthetic is enhanced by the lighting, décor and soundtrack. I have never seen a workplace like this one, but the lack of reality almost suits the outlandish story and characters. Passion plays like Basic Instinct at times which in 2013 you cannot seriously get away with.

De Palma filmed and financed this in Europe with Berlin the prime location. Just like Woody Allen, here he is reliant on past film glories and undiscerning Euro investors to bring his cinematic ‘vision’ to life. It is a strange phenomenon, but it gets older US directors out of the house, funds them to visit Europe for a while and allows local investors to get that Hollywood feeling. That the resulting output is invariably poor (Match Point, Scoop!) is by the by. With this film De Palma tries hard, but is actually doing little that’s original and he delivers a strangely cold, calculated and dull film.

The Place Beyond the Pines

6 Oct

the place beyond the pines

 

Director: Derek Cianfrance

Writers: Derek Cianfrance (story), Ben Coccio (story)

Stars: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes

Motion Picture Rating: R

Runtime: 140 minutes

 

This slow burn drama was hot property on the film festival circuit, but its heat dissipated at the cinema. Regarding the cast, story and end product I am surprised by the poor reception. This is a good film and deserves an audience beyond Sundance and Venice. The issues for the ‘mainstream’ I am sure lay with the rather ambitious layering of three connected stories, the slow-quick-slow pacing of the film and Ryan Gosling’s character. His fairground stunt rider dominated the marketing of the film, but the story actually revolves around Bradley Cooper’s character.

The transition from Gosling to Cooper is the first of two significant shifts in a film that aims to tell three connected stories. Both gear changes have the propensity to frustrate, but I went along with them and ultimately enjoyed this from writer-director Derek Cianfrance. No doubt Gosling die-hards will be disappointed by this and the snobbier film critics scoffed at Cianfrance’s ambition. All of that is understandable up to a point, but I was taken with this. It reminded me of a couple of films from Paul Haggis (Crash, Million Dollar Baby and In the Valley of Elah) where stories veer suddenly off in unexpected directions, but then come back again to connect the dots.

Coming after Drive this is another strong, silent and Steve McQueen-esque turn from Ryan Gosling. Here he shifts from expert getaway car driver to expert getaway motorbike rider, but again his criminality pays for his working class girlfriend to move on with her life. Eva Mendes is that girl and Bradley Cooper is the cop that goes after Gosling. It is a strong cast of gifted actors. We have seen it before from Gosling, but Cooper is stretched further than usual here and is convincing as the conflicted and ambitious cop.

There are two excellent supporting turns in this; one from Ray Liotta as a crooked and bullying colleague to Cooper and one from Ben Mendelsohn as Gosling’s partner in crime. Liotta still has the ability to put people completely ill at ease and is nicely menacing here. Mendelsohn was fantastic in Killing Them Softly and is on top form again. He is a laid back actor, but somehow captivating to watch and his relationship with Gosling, including a nice Hall & Oates inside joke, is a highlight.

The second narrative swerve, into the third act and final story, is not as effective as the first and at 140 minutes this is a little on the long side. It is not a perfect film, but it is very watchable, genuinely moving, well-acted and well worth your time. The conflict between criminal Gosling and lawman Cooper ignites the film and what follows is a sincere deliberation on the relationships of fathers and sons and the struggle to outrun the past. Cianfrance is a talented and thoughtful film-maker and has followed up strongly on the 2010 film Blue Valentine (also with Gosling).

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