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Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

3 Nov

Aint them bodies

 

Director: David Lowery

Writers: David Lowery

Stars: Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster

Motion Picture Rating: R

Runtime: 96 minutes

 

The inexperienced writer-director David Lowery admitted that he set out to make a “classic film” with Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and he certainly gave it a good go. He demonstrates a high level of technical skill and is supported by a strong cast, an effective score and some beautiful cinematography. This is a wonderful looking film that deserves recognition. It does not reach classic status, but so few films actually do.

Bob Muldoon (Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Mara) are lovers and bank robbers in 1970’s rural Texas. Bob takes the fall after a failed getaway, is sent to prison and leaves pregnant Ruth behind. They both suffer their separation deeply with Bob writing endless letters home and Ruth re-focusing her attention on their daughter. In time Ruth strikes up a friendship with local sheriff Patrick Wheeler (Foster) whilst Bob’s mentor Skerritt (David Carradine) watches on. When Bob breaks out of prison the slowly developing lives of those left behind are further entwined and changed for good.

The heart of this film is the passionate relationship between Bob and Ruth. Once apart the story focuses on how they adjust with Ruth learning to fend for herself and to be a mother. As the years go by she realizes the conflict inherent in loving an outlaw and caring for her daughter. Ruth opens up a little with the sheriff, but feels guilty doing so and like the imprisoned Bob she yearns for life as it was before they were caught. Rooney Mara conveys all of that passion, conflict and guilt. It is an excellent performance and it is matched by those of Affleck, Foster, impressive yet again in a supporting role, and Carradine.

The casting of Affleck and Mara is a coup for the writer-director Lowery. Rightly these are two of the hottest actors working today and it is stirring to see them together on screen. At times Rooney’s flawless porcelain skin is at odds with her Texan country girl roots, but ultimately she convinces as the doomed Ruth. Affleck is always good. The direction is as strong as the acting and the whole film is beautifully shot in hues of a late summer haze. It is a slow ride and that will frustrate some viewers, but tension builds and the ending is smart.

It is impossible to watch this film and not to think of the work of Terence Malick. The plot in part resembles Badlands (1973) and the country setting echoes Days of Heaven (1978). The slow, controlled pacing and warmly photographed natural world are central to The Tree of Life (2011). Malick makes ‘classic films’ and Lowery is trying to follow suit. In doing so he has produced an old-fashioned effort with a lot of heart and passages of real beauty. It has its flaws, but the ambition should be applauded and I would describe this as a minimalist triumph.

Calvary

31 Aug

calvary image

 

Director: John Michael McDonagh

Writer: John Michael McDonagh

Stars: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly

Motion Picture Rating: R

Runtime: 100 minutes

 

The word calvary can mean agony or anguish as well as torture or affliction. The calvary being endured in John Michael McDonagh’s second film as writer-director is that of Father James Lavelle, a Catholic priest in rural Ireland. It is also that of the Irish people. Their deep anguish at the hands of the Catholic Church as well as other tainted pillars of society from bankers to politicians. Ireland during the last 5 – 10 years has suffered a crisis of faith and this film wades through it warts and all.

The opening of the film is in confessional with Father James listening to a male member of his parish. The voice from behind the curtain tells the priest that he will kill him in 7 days’ time to make amends for the pedophile sins of the Church. It is a shocking first scene. Father James has little to say. The clock on his execution come sacrifice is already ticking.

The film follows father James, played by Brendan Gleeson, through the days leading up to that date with destiny. He ministers to his congregation as best that he can with equal parts charm and bemusement. His community is a mix of oddball characters, played nicely by Chris O’Dowd, Dylan Moran, Aidan Gillen etc, with plenty of dark secrets shared around. Father James must deal with adulterers, deviants, criminals and addicts. For a small wind-swept town there is plenty of healing to do (although most seek solace a long way from the church). It becomes clear that this priest gets short shrift from an ever faithless flock.

Father James starts to question his own faith as the town openly questions the church and other once lofty Irish institutions. The tone of the film gets darker, the themes heavier and the numerous comic touches of the first 60 minutes fall away. The transition is mostly handled well by the writer-director. Arguably this is a black comedy, but the blackness engulfs the comedy by the end. Unlike its predecessor “The Guard”, another very good film, McDonagh paints a much bigger picture than ‘rural Irish strangeness’. This attempts something grander.

The few flaws that appear are mostly the result of over-ambition. There are one too many characters to follow, their traits are too extreme at times and the storyline about the disgraced banker (Moran) pales against that of the crumbling church. However, Gleeson holds it all together with a perfect performance. He relishes the material and gives it his all. His Father James goes on a hell of a journey and his anguish is very real. That calvary is seemingly reflected in the dark, damaged and detached minds of many of his fellow countrymen.

The Canyons

16 Jun

the canyons image

 

Director: Paul Schrader

Writer: Bret Easton Ellis

Stars: Lindsay Lohan, James Deen, Nolan Gerard Funk

Motion Picture Rating: R

Runtime: 99 minutes

 

I cannot remember when I first heard of this film, but it was a long while before I saw it. The hype was significant as soon as director Paul Schrader and writer Bret Easton Ellis came together. Their film was bankrolled by crowd funding, to be shot fast on commonplace digital equipment, with a male porn star as the lead and to feature rehab queen Lindsay Lohan. It was almost too much to process. The context, storyline and casting were unreal. I, like many others, could sense a car crash on the horizon.

Unfortunately for the film-makers, the opening of The Canyons proves all doubters right. A pivotal dinner scene with the 4 main characters – Christian (James Deen), Tara (Lindsay Lohan), Ryan (Nolan Funk) and Gina (Amanda Brooks) – is so badly lit, scripted and acted that it feels like a hoax. Are the film-makers being deliberately bad? Were Schrader and Ellis playing us all that time? Why else have porn star Deen, completely out of his depth with his clothes on, and battling addict Lohan sit and spout preposterous dialogue for 5 minutes. It is cringe-worthy.

Christian, as it happens, is living with Tara and funding a new movie to star Ryan and being produced by Gina. Tara was influential in casting Ryan (her ex-boyfriend) and Gina is also Christian’s personal assistant. The 4 of them have overlapping lives, but it’s Christian, with his substantial trust fund and self-confidence, around whom they orbit. It is the destructive and poisonous relationship between Christian and Tara that centres the film. He likes to film her having sex with strangers and she is seemingly OK with that whilst he puts a very expensive roof over her head. It’s that type of relationship. And there is a fair amount of sex and voyeurism on display.

Exactly what Schrader and Easton Ellis are trying to do and to say with The Canyons is not clear. They have talked about ‘re-inventing’ cinema with this low budget, quick and open production, but that’s not the case. They achieve some high quality shots considering the budget and equipment, but it still feels amateurish. The story is old hat and they borrow from other films (such as Body Double by Brian de Palma). The premise of young, amoral and wealthy Americans deadened by modern digital life was addressed by Don Jon, The Bling Ring and by Spring Breakers (all reviewed on SSR.com).

The most interesting aspect of this is Lindsay Lohan’s participation. She looks shocking and she acts with real pain. It is uncomfortable to watch. The plastic surgery and addictions have aged her to quite an extraordinary degree and there is something desperate and sad about her appearance in this provocative nonsense. The film-makers want to comment on the death of cinema – hence the inclusion of stills of closed theatres throughout and quotes from Christian such as “we are all actors now” – but with Lohan they have a living embodiment of said decay. She is Norma Desmond. She looks haunted and yet still puts in a solid performance. It’s about all that The Canyons has to offer.

The East

21 May

the east

 

Director: Zal Batmanglij

Writers: Zal Batmanglij, Brit Marling

Stars: Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgård, Ellen Page

Motion Picture Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 116 minutes

 

Over the opening credits oil slicks pollute coastlines as an Ellen Page voiceover introduces an eco-terrorist group called The East. It is a strong intro to a topical and interesting subject. The East is a young anti-corporate group of agent provocateurs that target businesses polluting the environment. Members are described as anarchists and counter-culture types. We expect a mix of Green Peace activists and Occupy Wall Street protesters with the likes of Exxon, Goldman Sachs and Dow Chemical firmly in the crosshairs of their righteous rifles.

Page plays true believing activist Izzy. The lead character Sarah is her opposite and played by Brit Marling (sharing the writing credit with director Zal Batmanglij). Sarah works for a private company that protects the reputations of big business. The company sends her to infiltrate The East as a part of their surveillance and counter-terrorism work. She is chosen in part because she is a highly unlikely agent provocateur. She is a straight-laced Christian radio listening good girl (so just maybe The East will not see her coming…) Sarah’s journey into the heart of the anarchists’ collective, and away from the expected path, is no doubt where the film-makers expected drama to emanate from.

Unfortunately, the role of Sarah and the casting of Marling hobble the film from the get-go. She looks too much like a hair model, acts in an oddly impassive manner, and her character is simply far too naïve to ever be selected as an undercover operative. Marling can act and has shown up well in films such as Another Earth, but I don’t see her as a lead and one suspects her writing credit and friendship with the director partly led to the unconvincing turn here. That is a pity because the subject and basic premise are worthwhile.

Elsewhere the casting is similarly flawed. The East comprises of Page, Toby Kebbell as Doc, Aldis Hodge as Thumbs, and Alexander Skarsgard as their sensitive leader Benji. Together they look like a J Crew version of an eco-terrorist group. It’s a young, good-looking, confident and well attired group that would look out of place at Glastonbury let alone a Green Peace protest. It’s all too unbelievable and any semblance of drama from an early attack on a big pharmaceutical target dissipates as the gang mope and squabble and pout and shout. Their later raids are less impressive and the lack of drama continues to a muted ending. This is a missed opportunity. Never have counter culture types, anti-corporate terrorism and deep under-cover work been so dull.

Don Jon

25 Mar

 

don jon

 

Director: Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Writers: Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore

Motion Picture Rating: R

Runtime: 90 minutes

 

 

The internet has substantial power to corrupt and harm peoples’ perceptions of sex. The lack of real and immediate intimacy can desensitize those viewing sex remotely. Internet sex can advance stigmas, prejudices and encourage anti-social behaviour. It can be the same with internet violence, but that subject is less taboo than pornography which is, ironically, the most trafficked online content. It is rare for a film to tackle the topic of porn addiction so Joseph Gordon-Levitt (JGL), the writer, director and star here, deserves plaudits for Don Jon.

Gordon-Levitt’s Jon is sort of positioned as a modern day Don Juan and has accepted the ‘Don’ nickname from his admiring buddies. Jon spends his nights picking up ladies in neighbourhood bars and clubs and his days working out at the gym and watching porn. It’s a simple life. So simple that his work status is never confirmed. What we are told is that he loves his mother, goes to church each week, values his ride, his body, and good-looking chicks (on and offline).

Jon’s problem is his addiction to porn. He cannot go a day and sometimes an hour without it. He obsesses as much about internet sex as he does about his gym workouts and his weekly church confessions. It clouds his views on sex, love and relationships (that Jon feels are inferior in the real world). And that is the story being told here; how online porn can distort and ruin lives by preventing users from making real connections. It is a worthwhile and interesting tale, but the film comes up short in some key areas.

Jon is an unpleasant and one-dimensional character which is brave of JGL to create and play, but is unhelpful for most of the film. His interactions with the two main female characters are often awkward and Jon is hard to engage with. He chases and dates Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) and hangs out with Esther (Julianne Moore). He loves the way that Barbara looks and he likes the way that Esther challenges him, but those couplings don’t always convince. It feels forced, the plot turns are well sign-posted, Jon’s family is a sit-com cliché (with Tony Danza playing dad), and only in the final 20 minutes does the film provoke real emotion.

Overall, this is a good first effort from JGL and the film should be applauded for its subject matter. The acting is solid, with Moore as usual showing up to best effect, and there are a few funny lines and scenes. It’s not particularly subtle or insightful, but I imagine that the intended 18 – 28 year old target audience will thoroughly enjoy it and possibly learn from it. To that extent it has to be classed a success.

The Selfish Giant

7 Mar

the selfish giant

 

Director: Clio Barnard

Writer: Clio Barnard

Stars: Conner Chapman, Shaun Thomas, Sean Gilder

Motion Picture Rating: 15

Runtime: 91 minutes

 

Clio Barnard, the British writer director of The Arbor (2010), was inspired by Oscar Wilde’s short story for children to bring this piece of social realism to the screen. Wilde’s giant owns a beautiful garden in which children love to play on their way home from school. Barnard’s giant is a tough scrap metal merchant and his ‘garden’ is the rusting, dark and dangerous yard for which most children stay clear. That’s the children regularly attending school, the children with parents to worry about them whilst they get on with their homework. That’s not the two children at the centre of this tale; Arbor (Conner Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas).

The two boys hanging around the scrap metal yard come from an impoverished community on the edge of Bradford. They live on council estates in broken homes. Jobs are scarce, life is hard and there is a pervading air of anger and despair. Both boys, best friends around 15 years old, show flashes of anti-social behaviour from the outset, but Arbor is particularly troubled. He is on medication, clearly struggles to control himself and rarely attends school. He sees the scrap yard as a way to make money and drags along the gentle and mature Swifty. They annoy the yard owner Kitten (Sean Gilder), but he allows them in, gives them odd jobs and takes an interest in Swifty.

The story is simple. It follows the boys’ interactions with Kitten, the escalation in risks they’re willing to take to collect scrap and the impact of both on their friendship. Throughout there are some beautiful shots of dusk and dawn in the boys’ neighbourhood; of pylons, common ground, stray horses and vacant lots. Everything is haggard and past its best, but at the same time the cinematography pulls something from the void. It is rarely hopeful, but it is beguiling.

Whilst the story is simple, there is more going on in this film to subtly challenge the viewer. As with Wilde’s fable for children, themes touched upon include the end of childhood and the bonds between friends and within communities. Arbor and Swifty have their friendship challenged by their interaction with Kitten and the scavenging for scrap ekes away at their childishness. They are forced to become ‘adults’ and that’s as sad as the broken communities in which they roam. As such this is a deeply affecting film and I shed a tear or two at the end. Clio Barnard has produced a perfectly small, powerful and moving film about real life and with two excellent performances from the young and novice actors.

The Iceman

24 Nov

the iceman

 

Director: Ariel Vromen

Writers: Morgan Land (screenplay), Ariel Vromen (screenplay)

Stars: Michael Shannon, Chris Evans, James Franco

Motion Picture Rating: R

Runtime: 106 minutes

This is based on the true story of a contract killer living and murdering in New Jersey in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The hitman, Richard Kuklinski, achieved notoriety because of the number of murders that he was associated with (approx. 100), the iceman nickname that the press gave him and because of the very ordinary and healthy family life that he maintained. Kuklinski, of Polish origin, appeared to be a regular Joe, but was far from it. His psychopathic tendencies were funnelled into contract killing for local mobsters and that allowed him to support and to nurture a family. This film focuses on the central contradiction of his life.

Michael Shannon plays Kuklinski and his towering frame dominates the film. He is a large man and a brooding and menacing presence. Here he is reminiscent of James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano, but with added threat. Shannon is well respected by other actors, but is far from a household name. Acting like this, he probably should be; this is a big performance from a very talented actor. His large head, cold eyes, slow and purposeful walk fit the character, but Shannon is more than his physical attributes and imbues Kuklinski with magnetism, depth and a strange poignancy.

There is not a great deal of plot and when the story gets more complicated it less easy to follow and oddly less interesting. The second half mainly involves a lot of tough guys mumbling about double crossing each other. The most intriguing scenes later on provide an insight to the Kuklinski childhood dominated by an abusive father. The young Richard is prone to torturing animals in a clearly desensitized reaction to the physical abuse routinely met out by dad. A conclusion is that the contract killing work of the adult Richard is a way to stay level and to keep demons at bay. He thus manages to live a normal life with wife and kids.

This is a good and mostly gripping film. The 1970’s production and design are on the mark and there are a couple of very good supporting turns by the likes of Ray Liotta. Shannon is excellent throughout and pulls the audience in as his two wholly separate and compartmentalized lives unravel and collide. There are some smart observations about psychosis too in between the assortment of murders. It is not perfect by any means, but is very nicely done. A small, tight and rewarding movie. 

World War Z

9 Nov

world war z

 

Director: Marc Forster

Writers: Matthew Michael Carnahan (screenplay), Drew Goddard (screenplay)

Stars: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz

Motion Picture Rating: PG-16

Runtime: 116 minutes

Big budget action movies getting into production difficulties? I admit I keep an eye out for reports of on-set fights, funding gaps and artistic differences. I waited to get a good look at Waterworld, The Brothers Grimm, Wolfman and Gangster Squad knowing their productions were disastrous. And it’s the same with World War Z. Brad Pitt’s belief drove the project forward, but at what cost? The film was edited multiple times and endings were swapped in and out as Paramount tried to manage pre-release bad buzz.

Unlike the majority of other troubled productions, this film did well at the box office. It is actually one of Pitt’s most successful films. Interest in his more adult take on the zombie genre was helped by his substantial personal promotional campaign, but there are elements to admire here. This is not a bad film.

Pitt is the retired UN conflict manager Gerry Lane living a quiet suburban life outside of Philadelphia with his wife and children. That life, and planet Earth’s survival, is threatened by a plague of fast moving zombies. The Lane family escape the first onslaught in downtown Philly, but then have to battle to meet up with Gerry’s UN crew. Thereafter Gerry is brought out of retirement and sent out by the UN to try and track the source of the zombie virus. He heads to South Korea and to Israel, but strangely ends up in Wales.

The first 20 minutes of panic and pandemonium are brilliantly shot and open the film with a bang. The CGI takes it close to a video game, but the mayhem is suspenseful and scary. Later scenes of rampaging zombie hoards, especially in Israel, are equally as effective. It is hyperactive and fast with these signature shots as good as anything I’ve seen (in the LOTR series for example). That the big stuff is handled well is not in doubt, but the glue keeping the set pieces together is unfortunately not as sticky as it should be.

The final third of the film takes place in a lab in Wales. Gerry has an idea for a cure and pulls in some stranded scientists. The action slows to the pace of a traditional zombie shuffle and the fairly patchy story comes to some form of conclusion. It’s clear that the studio had problems with the ending and the one decided upon is not perfect. All of the early energy and suspense dissipates. The result is close to two different films being sandwiched together and it doesn’t really work. There are some good set pieces and it’s enjoyable, but the film ends with a whimper.

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.

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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