Reviews

It (2017)

An 80s style coming of age story set in Derry, Maine, a town where the kids go missing at a rate over 6 times higher than anywhere else. Stranger things have happened, and Stranger Things continues to happen as a bunch of dweeby kids become hero investigators, including one of the boys from STRANGER THINGS.

If Stand By Me (also adapted from a story by Stephen King) were Alien, this is Jim Cameron’s sequel, as a group of boys find a fuckload of dead bodies in the sewers.

For a film about a demon clown, the scariest moments are the most grounded – the malicious parents and school bullies. Perhaps this is because their actions and reactions are grounded in reality, whereas Pennywise’s strengths, weaknesses and triggers seem arbitrary. It gears up as though it’s related to fear but it matters not in the end, they say that it does but show that it doesn’t.

A shape-shifter that represents fear and preys on children much like Freddy Krueger, there are some huge references to A Nightmare on Elm Street, as in the bathroom scene, but it relies more on computer generated effects.

IT is a fun nostalgia film intercut with neutered horror scenes that somehow make it less scary.

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The Party (2017)

Written for RAF News October 2017

A few friends have been invited to Janet’s soiree in her London home: a disaster barely waiting to happen. A host of clashing personalities all celebrating her ascension to Shadow Health Minister, on course to potentially leading the party, but for now she has a very different party to run.

In case it wasn’t clear that things are going to end badly, the film opens with Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) pointing Chekov’s gun right at us, then cutting backwards in time to the exchange of crocodile smiles and inane niceties before things inevitably turn sour.

With these opinionated ideologues now in an enclosed space, there is the catalyst of announcements: of promotion, pregnancy and the prognosis of death. Each now has a purpose to shout their worldview from their respective soapboxes.

Spiritualist life coach Godfrey (Bruno Ganz) sits cross-legged on the floor offering esoteric musings to each flawed dinner guest, though it only takes a gentle prod from his sarcastic wife (Patrica Clarkson) to expose the hypocrisy. Cillian Murphy’s suited banker is shaky and sweaty upon arrival, making frequent trips to the bathroom to find a clean corner of the bathtub to help keep his nerves unstable. All the while Janet’s husband Bill (Timothy Spall), a renowned Atheist Author, sits in a drunken stupor controlling the music in the most perfectly inappropriate manner.

The soundtrack is just one element of style that is added to this theatrical farce, presented in black and white and with camera angles that get right in the faces of it’s cast. Each addition of drama ratchets up the tension and brings out the comedy. We follow different pairings of characters to learn about the baggage that each of them has brought along.

The Party is quick and comical with a political subtext that makes it more relevant than ever. So swiftly are you thrown into the chaos that you can’t help but be engaged.

Wind River (2017)

Written for RAF News September 2017

When the body of a young girl is found barefoot in the thick snow of the Wind River Indian Reservation, the F.B.I. get involved. Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) heads over to Wyoming from the Las Vegas department to investigate – as best she can in her unsuited clothes and car. Headstrong but inexperienced, she is really out of her element here.

With few police of their own in this large stretch of unforgiving terrain, Banner looks to Corey Lambert (Jeremy Renner), the hunter who discovered the body, to help find her way around. He knows the place, the people and the predators that lurk within. It seems the community are battling a world that doesn’t care about them, torn apart by drugs and delinquents.

What begins as a moody procedural however will quickly become an all-out action thriller in a whiplash-inducing change of pace. Details that are initially obscured will be explained fully and any attempts at making a serious dramatic point will be lost to Taken-style shootouts. This is a bizarre film that doesn’t know how seriously to treat its subject. Most serious of all is Corey, a man with a troubled past who has apparently learned much about the culture of Native Americans, taking every opportunity to high road others and pass on his wise words.

Wind River is written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, writer of Sicario and Hell or High Water, the latter of which really comes through here just without the balance of comedy. Other than the chief of local police, who is included for comedic relief but sidelined immediately, there are fleeting glimpses of humour that are practically apologised for.

Wind River is confusing in tone but still interesting to watch. You can’t help but feel that if it weren’t so serious it’d be fun; or if it weren’t so silly it’d be brilliant.

Final Portrait (2017)

Written for RAF News August 2017

At the point that we meet Alberto Giacometti in Final Portrait he is at his most self-critical. This is 1964 mind, so he has already achieved great acclaim as an artist and wads of cash can be found thrown about his studio between works-in-progress, but apparently success is the breeding ground for doubt.

At least this is what he tells James Lord, an influential critic and admirer who has agreed to model for one of his paintings. Assured that it would take no more than a few hours, Giacometti soon confesses that a portrait is never finished, that they are meaningless and impossible. Despite this Lord decides to stay it out, observing the artist observing him.

Battling doubt and distractions – his penchant for cigarettes and red wine or his obsession with wildfire prostitute Clementine (Clémence Poésy) – it becomes apparent that he is afraid of finality, so closely twinned with fatality. Clearly neurotic he romanticises suicide but begrudges that “you only get to do it once!”

Geoffrey Rush, who does share a likeness with the Swiss sculptor and painter, is superb casting, cantankerous with the flair and affectation of genius. His wry humour works perfectly with Armie Hammer’s clean-cut straight man in Lord. When he first begins painting he makes cutting observations of Lord, goading him with such a dry tone that you can’t be sure he’s joking. Sitting with the subject for the duration of these sessions, and with a great deal of silence, you share Lord’s frustration when no progress is made, or worse when it all starts again.

Taking place in this one location for the most part, it may seem more suited for stage but Stanley Tucci knows when to introduce music and change the pace, or where to put the camera, including one of the most stunning scene transitions involving a swimming pool and Chagall’s ceiling.

Final Portrait hinges though on the dynamic of the two central characters, the back and forth between artist and subject, and in this respect it is always funny and actually offers a profound insight on the creative process.

The Odyssey (2017)

Written for RAF News August 2017

Two hours isn’t a great deal of time for anyone’s life to be condensed down to, especially not that of Jacques Cousteau, and yet The Odyssey gives a good go anyway.

A deep-sea diver who became a pioneer of underwater exploration and documentary filmmaking, Cousteau was first a showman. In the opening of the film Cousteau, played by Lambert Wilson, attends a screening of one of his early expeditions and takes to the stage to answer the audiences’ questions – he seems to find as much comfort under the spotlight as he does underwater, speaking with great ease and incredible charm.

If you hadn’t seen any of Cousteau’s own groundbreaking films, they may be familiar from Wes Anderson’s A Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which took on the stilted style of Cousteau’s semi-staged documentaries. It also included a lot of biographical information about Cousteau that bobs up here in The Odyssey with much more dramatic heft.

The key component and through-line to this story is Jacques’ relationship to his son Philippe (Pierre Niney). Whilst his loyal wife Simone (Audrey Tautou) and crew remain supportive of his over-ambitious attempt to produce films for studios, it is his prodigal son who provides a realisation and rebirth for the legend as he is known today.

Although it only focusses on a few decades in Cousteau’s life it still feels packed with information. With so much to include, it impinges on the atmosphere and characters, with events following each other in such rapid succession that it can be difficult to take them in or take them seriously.

Needless to say Cousteau was an extraordinary man, though not without flaws, and there is a lot to discover about him and the forging of his legacy in The Odyssey.

A History of Violence (2005)

It goes without saying that Jesus Christ is everywhere: He is in you and me and many films of Hollywood cinema – in the journey of the hero. Now I never tire of looking for Jesus, lurking in the subtext, and am prone to point out the parallels given the opportunity, and so I was delighted when talking about A History of Violence with my other half, she proposed a Jesus parable. Oh yes. He is always welcome here.

Story

It goes like this: Tom Stall, an all-American family man, runs a diner where there is an attempted robbery. In an act of self-defence he kills the two assailants, with panache. Heralded by local news as a hero this humble man is then visited by a mysterious out-of-towner who claims that Tom is really a gangster. It transpires that Tom is a personality invented, and that he does in fact have a history of violence.

What is so great about this and many of David Cronenberg’s films is the complicated characters, their motivations and internal struggles – all of which are portrayed beautifully in this film, key moments happen wordlessly as you watch an expression take form, as emotions are experienced in sequence, leaving you to figure what is being communicated.

Sex

In keeping with Cronenberg’s fascination with sex, he had written additional scenes into the adaptation to allow this complex exchange of vulnerability. The first features Tom’s wife Edie dressing up as a cheerleader, trying to inject some excitement by enacting the teenage years that they never had together. A few themes are established in this scene (as well as the first ever 69 in mainstream cinema): the idea of a past that does not exist or is somehow lost, role-playing and the exhilaration attached to being with a stranger.

Later, as Tom’s true identity comes to light, there is a mirrored sex scene that begins as a fight, and continues being a fight afterwards. It is so strange and captivating. Cleary Edie feels betrayed and confused, and yet this is a dose of sexual excitement that she couldn’t even fabricate. Before she was pretending, through the cliche filter through which she understood deviance, but now she is experiencing the real thing, complete with its dark and violent underpinning, on the stairs no less, leaving bruises on her back as a symbolic memento. (Turns out that the amount of real bruises on actress Maria Bello had to be covered up in order to not detract from the one they show in the film.)

Violence

Cronenberg’s decisions always seem to enhance the story he wants to tell, they are motivated by intention. His portrayal of violence always has a purpose, he does not shy way from showing gore and brutality, and in fact makes a point of it, making you take in the consequences of violence.

I think it was director Michael Winterbottom who proposed that film certificates are the wrong way around: that the eradication of blood or physical pain requires an intellectual mind to know that this is fantasy, that you should have to deal with the fallout of violence. Or words to that affect. Either way I think it’s something that Cronenberg does expertly in all of his films, along with Gaspar Noe, with a great style too.

In History of Violence he punctuates any moment of badass combat, with a few seconds dedicated to looking at the wounds, the mangled flesh. In fact Cronenberg edited out some gunshots in the diner as he thought it was glorifying the violence in the scene.

Jesus

Cross necklace wearing Tom Stall is hurt on separate occasions, notable injuries are the semi-stigmata that he receives through a gunshot to the arm and stabbed through the foot. He tries to avoid violence initially though he is really fucking good at it. And his real name is Joey Cusak – ol’ JC.

Now why would there be a Jesus parable in this story? Maybe it’s dealing with the idea of forgiveness and rebirth. Are we able to be forgiven of our past sins and move on or will they always be present under the surface, awaiting some catalyst to draw them out.

As with Bill Pullman’s Fred in Lost Highway, he is freed of his sins by becoming someone else, but unlike Tom Stall, he physically transforms and has no real memory. This was an imagining of OJ Simpson and the idea that he disassociated from the murder he had committed as a defence mechanism, convincing himself in the process.

But Tom cannot escape his past. His violent tendencies will come back as he protects himself and his family, and also we see his son begin this cycle as he kills a man himself. Another great wordless exchanges as Tom looks at him with anger, forgiveness, and reassurance as he realises what he will have to live with.

Maudie (2017)

Written for RAF News August 2017

Maud is a passionate artist with arthritis and a bad leg, eager to get out into the world and free from her aunt’s care to make a life for herself.

Idly looking over paint cans in the store she hears the grunts of an inarticulate local wanting to put up an ad for a housekeeper. This is Everett Lewis, a stubborn and neanderthal-like man who has trouble communicating at all, much less show compassion.

The film looks at how these two opposing personalities come together, as Maud gently forces her way into his life initially as his live-in maid, bringing with her warmth and colour, painting the walls and windows of his humble shack as a perfect metaphor.

Maud has a romantic outlook on the world best encapsulated in her paintings that take the best from all seasons. Sally Hawkins is utterly transformed bringing this real folk artist to the screen: posture shrunken down with her shoulders brought in though her smile remains permanent. Hawkins is artful at magnifying small personal victories through her infectious smile, a trait reminiscent of her break-out role in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky but Maud is a little more meek, on the surface at least.

Ethan Hawke plays against type as Everett, so often the sensitive one it’s hard to believe his masculine posturing. Everett is shown as gruff and aggressive, hard on Maud from the outset and reluctant to hire her in the first place. It’s clear that that his hostility comes from feelings of inadequacy and yet Maud never really has her moment. We see him grow passive to her, a comedic way of relaying that things have changed in the household. She cooks and cleans as required but continues to paint simply because he never tells her to stop. Whilst it is interesting to avoid the obvious moments, having Everett’s tenderness or understanding occur off-screen makes it hard to sympathise with.

In all Maudie is a little slow and perhaps deservedly heavy on sentiment, with a relationship that is quite hard to engage with, but Hawkins performance is a triumph.