Cinema Reviews

Review: Free Fire; Directed by Ben Wheatley; Cert 15

“I’m not dead…I’m just regrouping.”

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It is fitting that Martin Scorsese is listed as an executive producer on Free Fire, the latest film from writer/director Ben Wheatley. Scorsese forged out one of the greatest careers in the history of cinema by never settling on any one genre. He may be primarily regarded by mainstream audiences as an auteur of crime cinema, but the diminutive New Yorker can count psychological thriller (Cape Fear), satirical comedy (The King Of Comedy), and historical biopic (The Aviator) as feathers in his considerably decorated cap. Over the course of his nigh 54 year career, he has proven himself to be a master of all trades.

While the writing/directing/editing team of Wheatley and Amy Jump have had their films out in the wild for 40 odd years less than Marty Scorsese, they have quickly established themselves as filmmakers who are similarly adept at turning their hand to a variety of film genres. While the majority of their work has some level of horror pulsing through it, they have managed to produce a crime drama (Down Terrace), a jet black comedy (Sightseers), a surrealist historical drama (A Field In England), an adaptation of a dystopian satirical novel (High Rise), and an all out, brutal horror film (Kill List). Their prolificity has only been matched by their artistic diversity, yet their unique fingerprints are visible on everything they have done.

With their latest outing, the married couple have once again taken their talents in an unexpected direction. Free Fire is a kinetic, chaotic and frantic action set piece stretched out to feature length. The setting is a warehouse in ‘70s Massachusetts. Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) are IRA men looking to buy weapons from arms dealer Vernon (the always magnificently offbeat Sharlto Copley). Brie Larson’s Justine and Armie Hammer’s Ord are intermediaries, brokering the deal. The wild cards in the deck come in the form of smack-smoking Stevo (Sam Riley) and hot headed Harry (Jack Reynor). An altercation between the latter two lights the touch paper, and a fracas quickly descends (or escalates?) into a firefight.

Free Fire is split quite distinctly in two parts, with the dialogue-heavy preamble taking up the first third. This introductory segment leans heavily on both its cast and its dialogue. One soft performance or buff line can derail this kind of chamber piece before it begins. Fortunately, there are no misfires to be found here. The cast are all excellent. Everyone gets their moment to spit a cracking line, and nobody detracts from anybody else’s moment. Copley is understandably receiving plenty of plaudits for his hilarious, seemingly improvised performance as the shmoozey, slimeball Vernon (think of a South African Del Boy in a disco shirt and you’re half way there). Sam Riley’s turn as the sleazy, grimy spanner in the works shouldn’t go unnoticed though, nor should Larson and Hammer’s game work as the cool-headed brokers who are trying to keep all of the testosterone fuelled egos from exploding.

Inevitably though, the bullets start to fly. The moment they do, Wheatley shows himself to be as sure footed when crafting an action sequence as he is when dealing with horror, or comedy, or both. The first thing that jumps out at you is the exceptional sound design. The film features a minute amount of non diegetic music. Instead, the shootouts are soundtracked by the explosive sounds of guns being fired, echoed shouts across the warehouse, and the piercing sound of bullets ricocheting past skulls. These weapons don’t so much fire as combust, with the sound of each gunshot delivered at ear-melting volume. Wheatley stated in a recent interview that he wanted to portray how it really feels to witness a gun being fired, rather than the tepid, feathery gunshots we see and hear in most action flicks. Not only does he accomplish this mission, but it has the desired effect, with the action sequences managing to thrill while almost inducing shell shock.

Wheatley has always seemed to enjoy disorientating his audience, and that signature penchant for mischief remains here. During the shootouts (or perhaps it’s just one, hour-long shootout?) he refuses to provide us with a wide shot of the warehouse. Instead he shoves us behind the crates, barrels and walls of the warehouse, down in the dust next to the characters. We are never quite able to discern who is where in relation to whom. At times, it’s a challenge to figure out who is even shooting at whom. At one point, Noah Taylor’s Gordon brilliantly screams, “I forgot whose side I’m on!” Tell us about it.

The greatest triumph of Free Fire is the way that it is able to constantly keep you engaged in spite of the fact that the set up is the narrative. After the first shot is fired, the bullets don’t stop until the credits roll. Jump and Wheatley are able to find the moments and the stories within the action that make the film much more than just a group of set pieces. They also show admirable restraint in keeping things short and sweet, with the film running at a tight 90 minutes. Many people have compared Free Fire with the work of Quentin Tarantino, but the truth is that Tarantino hasn’t made a film this lean and disciplined in decades.

Free Fire is living, blistering proof that a film doesn’t need to be deep, meaningful or even beautiful to be fantastic. Wheatley and Jump have tasked themselves with finding increasingly interesting ways to have a bunch of shady people un around and shoot at each other, and they have absolutely succeeded. The film is an ever evolving chess match between a group of characters who walk just on the right side of cartoonish, and the result is simply the most fun I’ve had at the cinema this year.

5/5

Cinema Reviews

Review: Get Out; Directed by Jordan Peele; Cert 15

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Cinema has always been a medium that has the ability to turn its gaze upon the world; to reflect the social issues of the day. Perhaps more than any other medium of entertainment, we are able to look back on the history of cinema and see the history of our culture imprinted upon it. Horror cinema, for all its shlocky thrills, is so often the genre that it most affected by the world around it. There is something unique about watching a film filled with violence, shocks and viscera that uses these grim tools to comment on the world outside of the screen.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a uniquely blunt, nihilistic film; a response to the social and political turmoil in post-Vietnam America. The Blair Witch Project became a sensation because it reflected our fears of the unknowable digital age. Every Romero zombie movie is less a commentary and more a slap in the face of its audience, screaming at us about the dangers of consumerism, of shallow living, of mindless thinking.

Get Out follows the path marked out by these and many other great horror films. It is a film that exists (and has become such a sensation) as a direct result of current cultural tensions. The way that it ingeniously plays on these very contemporary issues while also toying with our expectations makes for a unique cinematic experience like few others I can remember.

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose (Allison Williams) have been together for four months. Draped in new-relationship bliss, they are seen packing for a weekend at Rose’s parents. One of Chris’ first lines breaks the romantic mood and sets the tone for the entire film: “do they know I’m black?” Chris and Rose arrive at her parents’ opulent homestead and are greeted warmly, but from the get go Chris seems uneasy. Something isn’t quite right. Is it the way Rose’s father keeps referring to him as “my man”? Or his repeated insistence that he “would have voted for Obama a third time, given the chance”? Or is it Rose’s brother’s more sinister suggestion that Chris’ “genetic disposition” means that he would make a fantastic mixed martial artist (“you could be a beast”)?

Weirder still is the behaviour of the people under the family’s employ. The housekeeper stares out of the window, a glazed look in her eye and a plastic smile glued to her face. The gardener is seen sprinting around the grounds in the middle of the night, and greets Chris with thinly veiled contempt. Oh, and they just both happen to be black.

Get Out’s first two acts are incredibly whip-smart. Director Peele quite brilliantly conflates the uncanny, discomforting feeling that an audience has while watching a horror film with the feeling that a person of colour has when trying to interact with people who only see them as a skin colour. Chris attends a family party where he is asked about Tiger Woods, “black fashion” and his penis size. Meanwhile the people around him seem to be behaving increasingly oddly. Chris is unsettled, and we are unsettled with him, both because of the surrealist horror movie tropes being employed, but also because of the way people are speaking to and looking at Chris. The increasingly surreal narrative may be fictional, but Chris’ experiences interacting with affluent white people feel skin-crawlingly real.

While Get Out teases us for a good hour with a slow burning narrative (just what is this family up to? Has Rose’s mother really hypnotised Chris? What’s being kept in the basement, described by Rose’s father as being locked due to “black mold”?) the final third of the film is a sudden and welcome cacophony of brutality and belly laughs. I won’t give the game away, but the audience were frequently leaping between open-mouthed gasps and head-rolling hilarity. By taking its time and pacing itself, Get Out induces a fantastic reaction from its audience. It saves the spills and chaos until the we are wondering if they’re ever going to come, and then unleashes both barrels upon us.

Get Out is a truly unique cinematic experience. It has all the trappings of a traditional horror film, but at its heart it is a satirical comedy and a fiercely smart social commentary. One latter scene featuring a police car is one of the cleverest moments I’ve seen at the cinema in years. Leaving the screening, I felt taken with the film but wondered if it had maybe become the victim of its own lofty hype. Like all the best art though, the more you think about Get Out, the more you get from it, and the more you want to go back and see it again. Combining weighty, socially relevant messages with all out popcorn entertainment is a nigh impossible balancing act, but Jordan Peele and his collaborators have danced right across the tight rope, all the way to the bank.

4/5

Cinema Reviews

Review: Logan; Directed by James Mangold; Cert 15

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Peter Bogdanovich once recounted a conversation he had with Orson Welles about the state of cinema. The great auteur apparently answered thusly: “We’re brutalizing the audience. We’re going to end up like the Roman circus, live at the Coliseum.” That conversation took place in the 70’s, before video nastys, before Tarantino, before The Passion Of The Christ and Kick Ass and every other film that has taken Hollywood violence to a new frontier (side note: I would LOVE to hear what Orson Welles made of Kick Ass).

It can and has been argued that the more honestly a filmmaker depicts violence, the less they are glamourising it. With all of this increased brutality that so concerned Welles, we may uncover greater morality in our storytelling. Logan, the latest and potentially final film in the Wolverine saga, takes the mainstream superhero genre and injects it with this ideal. While doing so it pushes the boundaries of just how much of this honest brutality an audience may want, and obliterates the previously held expectations of its genre.

Logan sees Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine living a reclusive, broken life. His still daunting facade is weathered, as is his ever-fragile mental state, as he spends his life driving limousines to make ends meet and to help him take care of Professor X (Patrick Stewart), who has also fallen into psychological disarray. Age and possible dementia are causing Xavier to lose control of his substantial powers, and Jackman keeps him medicated and locked away for the apparent good of mankind. Meanwhile, fellow mutant Caliban (Stephen Merchant), plays the role of bizarre housewife. Unable to withstand any exposure to sunlight, Caliban lurks around Jackman’s shack in a manner that suggests he’s a moment away from a sycophantic “yeeaaaas masteeeeer” while rubbing his hands with glee.

Through a number of plot contrivances, Jackman comes into contact with Laura (newcomer Dafne Keen), a young child who may or may not be the first mutant to be birthed in 25 years. Cue nefarious corporations and their henchmen hunting the child down, Richard E Grant playing an unambiguously bad egg, and a whole lot of stabbing.

Logan has drawn numerous favourable comparisons to Westerns, and while it certainly takes many visual cues from the genre (dusty, sun-bleached settings, characters as physically grimy as they are emotionally, gorgeous lighting), it seems to draw many of its thematic influences from hardboiled film noir. Logan is the quintessential noir anti hero, boozing, limping and killing his way to redemption. Jackman turns in his best ever version of the character, the infamous seething rage is always at the forefront, but the nuance of his performance shows us the humanity and the pain behind his eyes. Logan is a film about loss, loss of those we love, the loss of our glory days, the loss of innocence, and how to live with that loss. While Logan is almost always too stoic to speak about it, Jackman shows us that he is a man crippled by these losses and looking for a way out.

Jackman’s Logan isn’t just put through the ringer psychologically though. While this may well be an auteur’s take on a Marvel film, the action is not only present, it takes the forefront of the viewer’s attention for much of the film. This is due not only to the brutality mentioned above, but the frequency of the violence. Logan becomes an absolute canvas of barbarism as he is beaten, bludgeoned, stabbed, slashed, shot, thrown, gouged and impaled throughout the film’s fairly substantial 140 minute duration. In fact, by the film’s final act it all becomes a little bit exhausting. Director James Mangold (Walk The Line; Girl, Interrupted) has to increase the stakes in the action scenes to keep the viewer interested so many times that by the end the sheer volume (in both meanings of the word) of brutality becomes a little tiresome. It is clear that Mangold is making a point about self sacrifice and self destruction, but after two hours I felt like the point was well made three chest-stabbings ago.

Thankfully, Mangold is a smart enough filmmaker that he is able to find some balance. While the action and violence throws our minds out of kilter, the carefully ratcheted emotional tension keeps us grounded to what’s happening in between the viscera. Dafne Keen channels a fair old slice of Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven from the series Stranger Things, but even so, her performance is a sensation. Mute for the vast majority of the running time, she is able to portray Laura as both terrifying and totally sympathetic. Her relationship with Logan grows just enough to be believable, and it is this relationship that gives the film its soul, and draws the tears from the audience while the characters are drawing blood from one another.

Logan is a cinematic experience that leaves you feeling drained, but in an oddly positive way. It is a feeling of catharsis, like after you scream or shed tears. Mangold allows the over the top action to take the wheel for a little too long at times, but he always manages to steer things back on course. Along with Deadpool (and with more than a helping hand from the aforementioned Kick Ass) it may be heralding in a new, more adult period for the comic book movie, one that may be sorely needed. But it is more than just a trendy R rating for the sake of it, it is a film with heart and subtext and consideration for its characters. At its best, it stands alongside Christopher Nolan’s Batman films as the most cinematic and cineliterate superhero films, and is a worthy finale for a franchise that did so much to shape the superhero film into the dominant genre in Hollywood.

4/5

Cinema Reviews

Review: The Neon Demon; Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn; Cert 18

The word “provocateur” gets thrown around a lot these days. It is a word I most frequently see people using to describe themselves on social media, and is often a pompous synonym for “troll”. What a shame that a phrase that was once reserved for artists, writers and thinkers is now associated with online garrulousness. Such a description is something that should not be self-prescribed, but bestowed on somebody through both admiration and aversion. It is a word quite often seen in any discussion of Nicolas Winding Refn.

It seems odd to think that “Drive” turns 5 this year. Refn’s dreamy techno thriller nudged an already well-thought-of filmmaker into auteur territory, offering a combination of mainstream appeal and art house cineliteracy that so often results in appearances in “best of” lists. What was so amusing to see in the aftermath of “Drive” was the glee with which Refn took a hammer to peoples’ expectations. His follow up, “Only God Forgives” was less a thumbing of the nose and more a middle finger to the face of both the cinematic establishment as well as mainstream audiences who had lapped up Drive. Gruesome, philosophical, thematically grim and narratively baffling, one had to admire the film’s absolute rejection of the attention Drive had created, even if it was a film that was a challenge to enjoy at face value.

The Neon Demon arrives then with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation. More boos at Cannes (although they are becoming a badge of honour for many and frankly, a lame cliche), reviews that are the very definition of “mixed”; where will this latest effort fall on the Refn-scale of cinematic madness?

The Neon Demon is the story of Jesse (Elle Fanning), a 16 year old aspiring model, fresh off that metaphorical boat in Los Angeles. She is taken under the wing of makeup artist Ruby (Jenna Malone) who attempts to ingratiate the wide-eyed teen with the LA fashion elite. Meanwhile Jesse’s understanding of the power of her youth and beauty grows while she attempts to deal with a sinister motel manager (Keanu Reeves), her fellow models, a doting photographer (Karl Glusman) and a possible mountain lion living in her room.

If the plot sounds a little derivative, it’s because it is. There can be no doubt that the corrupting influence of America’s most glamorous metropolis has been unpicked and analysed repeatedly and masterfully throughout the history of cinema. This is not the first time the fingerprints of Davids Lynch and Cronenberg have graced Refn’s work, but their influence has never been seen so starkly. Lynch’s Mulholland Drive is a clear reference point here, and at times its genius looms too aggressively over what Refn is trying to achieve. However it would be unfair to label the whole film as Lynchian or Argento-lite. The fact is that over the course of his last 3 films, Refn has developed a style that is all his own. Dreamy, neon-lit cityscapes, silent yet powerful protagonists, opulent cinematography capturing moments of shuddering violence…”Refnesque”, perhaps? The Neon Demon’s narrative may well be unoriginal and the themes certainly do beat the viewer over the head, but a story does not have to be unique in order to be engaging, as long as the teller can find an interesting way to tell it.

Beauty is the recurring motif throughout The Neon Demon, the way it can be used and weaponised, the ways that it can be stolen. How fitting then, that this is one of the most wonderful films to simply sit and look at in recent memory. Natasha Braier’s cinematography is a marvel. She uses lighting in a manner that is experimental without ever being distracting or garish. One transformative catwalk scene is so intoxicating it simply must be seen on a cinema screen to be properly experienced. Her ability to capture darkness in a frame evokes Darius Khondji’s work in David Fincher’s earlier films. She uses blacks and whites to literally frame her images, creating sumptuous moments of visual contrast. Her style so perfectly aligns with the now signature synthetic thump in the music of Cliff Martinez, it is truly surprising that this is her first time working with Refn.

The performances in The Neon Demon all fall just on the right side of off-kilter. Elle Fanning shows bravery in her willingness to deliberately walk the line between poker-faced and wooden. The surrealism being created requires equally odd acting in order to keep the film whole, and both she and Jenna Malone play it just about right. Keanu Reeves is an oddly distracting and occasionally giggle-inducing presence. In fact much of the acting and dialogue evokes an uneasy humour, and there is a satire in amongst the dread and hypnosis that seems very much deliberate given that Refn employed the services of two playwrights (Mary Laws and Polly Stenham) to work on his script. “Sweetie, plastics is just good grooming” rival model Gigi informs Jesse, with all the poorly disguised bile one would expect.

As The Neon Demon reaches its climax, its overt desire to cause jaws to drop may leave many behind. The final scene in particular is one that will either be the final nail in the coffin or the icing on the sumptuous cake, depending on whether the film still has you. Refn’s reputation as a 21st century provocateur remains intact, and in an age where every real life horror is captured on smartphones and shared around the world, that in itself is no mean feat. 

Cinema Reviews

Review: Carol; Directed by Todd Haynes; Cert 15

  

After watching Carol, the latest feature film from director Todd Haynes, it comes as no surprise to learn of the inspiration he apparently drew from New York photography of the 1950s. The film not only uses photography as a character device and thematic motif, it is shot and designed in such a way that one could remove almost any frame and study its composition, its structures and its meaning. The film focuses on the beauty and the agony of love, and Haynes’ fluid, sumptuous visual style gives life to these feelings in a manner that feels completely original and stunningly engaging.

The aforementioned setting of 1950s New York is the location for a story that is so simple on the surface (two people who shouldn’t fall in love, fall in love), yet conveys a dizzying level of thematic depth in its disciplined 118 minute run time. Therese (Rooney Mara) is temping in a department store over Christmas when she meets Cate Blanchett’s Carol in a seemingly benign work related encounter. However, through coincidence (or perhaps not) they see each other again and an unlikely friendship is sparked. As Therese and Carol learn more of each other, an attraction that was instantly apparent soon becomes undeniable, and both are forced to make life-altering decisions.

It is immediately apparent when watching Carol just how beautifully Todd Haynes, Cinematographer Edward Lachman and Production Designer Judy Becker have evoked the period. Using grainy, 16mm stock, Haynes and co transport us wholly to the smoke-filled cafes, foggy neon-lit boulevards and snow-ridden suburbs of New York in the 50s. It is hard not to think of Matthew Weiner’s seminal TV series Mad Men when admiring the way that the costumes, interior design and constant billowing cigarette smoke combine to portray a location that feels both dreamlike yet utterly alive and thriving.

Phillis Nagy’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s original novel (The Price of Salt, written under a pseudonym as the positive portrayal of homosexuality was so taboo at the time) asks much of its lead performers, and Mara and Blanchett are more than up for the task. It is odd to think that Mia Wasikowska was originally cast as Therese, as it is hard to imagine the character without Rooney Mara’s wide-eyed innocence and twitchy eccentricity. Therese is effortlessly cool, an offbeat observer of life who often chooses to stand on the fringes and simply watch people. This cool detachment makes her scenes of eventual emotion all the more wrenching as they almost take us by surprise.

Blanchett on the other hand channels her previous work from two Oscar winning performances. As Katherine Hepburn in The Aviator and another titular role in Blue Jasmine, she portrayed women from a seemingly wealthy background who were struggling to conceal their emotional fragility. Carol is a much more sympathetic character than Jasmine, and her delicate fragility is much more subtle, but her mixture of charm and vulnerability is nonetheless magnetic. Come the film’s final act, Blanchett portrays her emotional side so delicately and with such honesty that we see her as a fully rounded, complex and at times flawed human being. It is the sort of performance that is forceful without ever being showy, and it further solidifies Cate Blanchett’s place as one of the true acting geniuses of her generation.

Perhaps Carol‘s biggest success lies in the way that, despite the material, it never feels like a film about homosexuality or homosexual love, just a film about sexuality and a film about love. Haynes achieves this by never pandering to lesbian stereotyping, and by capturing and displaying his characters’ emotions without shouting them from the roof tops. The most intimate and complicated of feelings are communicated through a glance, or a hand lingering on a shoulder. By ensuring that as an audience we never feel like we are watching a “gay film”, Haynes communicates the way that Therese and Carol must feel; that their love is not a subset, a cliché, or unusual, it is simply love, in all its triumph and its violence. 

Carol is a film that expresses what it is to be in love as succinctly as any other in recent memory. It is a heady, sumptuous cocktail of performance, direction, photography and art design the result of which is entirely unforgettable. Awards may well beckon for both its cast and its crew (Rooney Mara already scooped a prize at Cannes), but irrespective of industry plaudits, it should stand tall as one of 2015s greatest cinematic achievements.

5/5

Cinema Reviews

Review: Inside Out; Directed by Pete Docter; Cert U

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Pixar Animation Studios have a rich history of respecting the intelligence of a family audience. Whether it was confronting them with raw loss in Up and Finding Nemo or presenting them with a near silent opening segment in Wall-E, Pixar never holds the hand of its young viewers. Instead it provides their imagination with a jumping off point while handing them lessons about the realities of life in a way that is never overly intense or complicated.

 

This fragile tether between family entertainment and thematic complexity is stretched to its absolute limit in Inside Out, the new film from writer/director Pete Docter (Monsters Inc). The film primarily takes place inside the mind of an 11 year old girl, Riley, and its protagonists are the humanoid representations of her key emotions; Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust. As Riley’s happy, comfortable life is shaken up, the emotions inside her mind battle to deal with the changes she is going through.

 

There is little doubt that this is Pixar’s most adult-centric film to date. It packs in references to Polanski’s Chinatown next to discussions about the subconscious and sight gags about abstract thought. One of the film’s many triumphs is the way that it never risks alienating its core audience despite its maturity and intelligence. It is a consistently witty movie but also packs in traditional entertainment by the bucket-load, with the character of Fear providing a myriad of slapstick moments to keep younger children entertained. It is also such an utter visual delight that any moments that go over the heads of the little ones will instantly be forgotten as the lurid, glistening animation keeps them, and us, absolutely transfixed. The brain-dwelling protagonists all have an incredible fizz about their design, and you can see their body’s sparkle and vibrate slightly. Joy’s design in particular is beautiful in its shimmering simplicity.

 

These characters not only look spectacular, but are loveable, entertaining and rich. Each one is defined by their key emotion, but never annoyingly so. Joy, the leader of Riley’s mind, skips and bounds around, obsessively ensuring Riley stays optimistic at all times. Sadness is hilariously and adorably morose, and these two characters break away from the pack and have their own adventure into the depths of Riley’s mind that is deliriously inventive and endlessly entertaining.

 

As Inside Out’s narrative progresses, its emotional core slowly starts to reveal itself and as an audience we find ourselves darting between the emotions that are being presented to us in the film. Several times I found myself switching belly laughs for tearful weeping within the space of a few seconds as Riley’s emotions begin to realise that their roles are more delicate and difficult than they could have imagined. It is this emotional intelligence that raises Inside Out above even Pixar’s greatest work. There are deep emotional realisations to be found within its constantly imaginative narrative, not only by children but by us adults as well.

 

There is so much to treasure in Inside Out that it is impossible to cover it all in a simple review. The cinematography is startlingly artful, Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith give beautifully memorable performances as Joy and Sadness, and there are so many witty, inventive moments of genuine hilarity. The purveying feeling we are left with though is that of being utterly moved. As the characters inside Riley’s head realise the worth of each other, we see that in order to appreciate joy, we must embrace and accept our sadness, and that the way that we change as we grow is simultaneously tragic, infuriating and ultimately, beautiful. 

 

5/5

Cinema Reviews

Review: The Falling; Directed by Carol Morley; Cert 15

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I went into The Falling, the first feature effort by acclaimed documentary film maker Carol Morley, with a sense of trepidation. A deluge of highly divided reviews combined with a trailer that gave off a TV movie aesthetic had me concerned that I was setting myself up for a dull experience. While the film is undoubtedly flawed in many places, the last criticism anyone could level at it is that it is tedious. The Falling proved to be one of the most unique, engaging and memorable cinema experiences I’ve had in a long time.

The tale (as it is far more a “tale” than it is a “story”) takes place in 1969 around an idyllic yet strictly run girls’ school. Lydia (Maisie Williams) and Abbie (debutant Florence Pugh) have a friendship discomforting in its intensity. Abbie, the older and more savvy of the pair, seems to have a deep hold over Lydia, who follows her, doe-eyed, everywhere she goes. They lay on the grass in an embrace, go drinking and dancing together, and Abbie shares stories of her sexual exploits with a fascinated yet jealous Lydia. When a deep tragedy strikes the school, Lydia begins exhibiting unusual, frightening behaviour; behaviour that her classmates soon begin to emulate. The adults in their lives are left to decide whether or not they are all overcome with some sort of sinister illness, whether the situation is an act of manipulation on the part of the girls, or possibly something in between.

Director Carol Morley brings the compelling premise to life with a real eye for surrealism. Channeling the stylistic work of the likes of David Lynch and Nic Roeg, she uses form to highlight the content of her narrative quite beautifully. Individual frames pop in and out in a disorientating fashion, shots of the school and the surrounding area invade the screen, creating a presence all of their own, and the sumptuous, elegaic soundtrack by Tracey Thorn both enraptures and unsettles in equal measure. Agnes Godard’s cinematography is also employed beautifully. One scene in particular, when an entire assembly of girls become simultaneously overwhelmed with their mysterious affliction, is shot with intelligent distance and stillness, allowing the creepy, bizarre action to do the work for the camera.

All of these strong formal qualities serve to highlight the film’s themes quite beautifully. The way that oppressive control can affect young women, the disorientating yet exhilarating feeling that comes from following a crowd, from feeling like you are part of something larger than life. While the film is at times bizarre and muddled, it is always thoughtful and intelligent and there is plenty for the viewer to chew over after the lights have come up.

It’s a shame then that all the excellent formal work is undone in the third act. Morley seems to bow to the pressure of narrative conformity, abandoning her surrealist premise and tying herself in knots trying to explain the motivations and history of her characters. The cause of Lydia’s fragile psyche had already been delicately hinted at during scenes with her shut-in Mother and truly creepy brother, yet the script decides to tell us exactly what has gone on rather than stick to the subtle foundations it had laid down in the first two acts. The result is a convoluted, contrived conclusion that feels out of touch with the delicate narrative work that had come before it. Maisie Williams maintains her fantastic performance throughout, showing Lydia’s psychological frailty as well as her manipulative, conniving side thus fleshing out her character into a fully formed, believable human being. Yet even her impressive screen presence can’t rescue the final third of the film from the doldrums. Still, Morley shows fantastic promise as a feature director, and Tracey Thorn gifts us with one of the best soundtracks any British film has been blessed with in years.

3/5

Cinema Reviews

Review: It Follows; Directed by David Robert Mitchell; Cert 15

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As a genre, horror cinema undoubtedly relies more heavily on its tropes, clichés and stereotypes than any other. The most tiresome horror films regurgitate ideas and themes that have existed for decades without finding a fresh way to present them. The best examples of the genre find ways to subvert these tropes, to examine and unpick them, and will occasionally invent new stylistic devices of their own. It Follows, the new film and first foray into horror by director David Robert Mitchell, is a rare and fascinating example of a movie that relies upon the generic conventions of the past while simultaneously attempting to subvert them.

 

The film presents the type of high concept premise that marketing execs must drool over. Our protagonist Jay, young and beautiful with an effortlessly cool veneer, sleeps with a guy she has been dating following a particularly peculiar night out during which he appeared to be seeing people who weren’t there. While she dreamily picks flowers following their vehicular fumbling, her date drugs her and ties her to a wheel chair. He then explains that he has passed on a curse, that Jay is going to be followed by something, something that will take various forms, that she must not let it touch her, and that the only way to stop it is to sleep with someone else and pass it on to them. He apologises, proves he wasn’t kidding, dumps her in the street and disappears.

 

Of course horror cinema has always been obsessed with the corrupting influence of pre-marital sex. It Follows’ wicked premise allows the film to openly acknowledge this history while adding to it, expanding upon it and turning it on its head. While the classic slasher films of the 70s tended to spare only the virginal, the curse in It Follows dictates that the only way to be saved is via carnal relations. The way that Jay is constantly stalked by something that often looks like a stranger, but at times takes on the guise of family members and friends, hints at the pressures associated with sex when we are young. The threat of STDs, the way society judges promiscuity in females and the looming influence to be sexual active as a teen all leer over the film and ensure that it has thematic, intellectual depth, something that is sorely lacking in the vast majority of contemporary horror.

 

Stylistically, It Follows’ director David Mitchell shows a canny awareness of the importance of oddness in great horror cinema. From the outset the film lays out an atmosphere of eerie disquiet, of the uncomfortably offbeat. The action appears to take place in a confused time period, where organists play in the cinema, people only watch black and white films on blocky, fat TV sets and yet Kindle-like devices exist and fashion is ultra modern. The score also plays a key role in creating an off kilter sense of dread. Dreamy synths glide over lingering photography in the film’s early scenes, before the tension and scares are ramped up and the sleepy score gives way to circus-like, deliberately overbearing electronica. Disasterpeace, the group responsible for the soundtrack who also scored the genius, indie hit video game Fez, deserve credit for creating a soundscape with a singular vision that harks subtlety back to Goblin’s seminal work for Dario Argento.

 

It Follows isn’t all about ethereal film making and psychosexual underpinnings though. There are traditional jump-scares aplenty, which act to the film’s detriment and its benefit. It’s a little disappointing that a movie that has such a unique and direct vision and seems to pride itself on unravelling conventions eventually needs to rely on them, but the scares are genuinely effective and the audience I sat with reacted vociferously to them.

 

It Follows has been described as Larry Clark meets John Carpenter. As I took in the illusory photography and hazy soundtrack though, I couldn’t help but feel like I was watching Sofia Coppola directing a script by Wes Craven. It has all the atmosphere and thematic depth we associate with the former combined with the knowing wit and genuine frights made famous by the latter. What this means of course is that the film belong to no one other than David Robert Mitchell and his team, and while there are many influences and inspirations bubbling under the surface, the film is a unique concoction and its greatness lies in how fresh and vital it feels. Horror can never truly escape the mire of genre convention, so it must toy with it, tease us with it and occasionally submit to it in order to be successful. In this regard, It Follows is an uneasy, skin crawling success.

4/5

Cinema Reviews

Review: Ex Machina; Directed by Alex Garland; Cert 15

Ex-Machina-Gallery-01

Alex Garland is no stranger to genre blending. His screenwriting CV features the likes of Sunshine, a Science Fiction film that evolves into an old school slasher in its third act, and 28 Days Later, a zombie horror with inflections of social realism. It comes as no surprise then that Ex Machina, his directorial debut, is an old school Sci-fi film on the surface but takes its wiring from the body horror of David Cronenberg and the theatrical cinema of Hitchcock.

Ex Machina’s narrative cuts to the chase remarkably swiftly. We are introduced to Domnhall Gleeson’s Caleb, a young programmer who receives an email on his work computer informing him that he has won a contest. He is immediately whisked away to a luxurious, ever so slightly futuristic cabin in the woods, where it is revealed that his competition prize is the chance to spend time working with Nathan (Oscar Isaac), his boss and the head of a Google-like company, on his most recent and highly secretive research.

The above occurs within the first 10 minutes. Garland does not waste time pondering over his film’s set up, since the meat of the plot is where the real intrigue lies. It is soon revealed that Nathan has created an Artificial Intelligence, and that he intends Caleb to act as the human side of the Turing Test, an interview of sorts that is said to determine whether a machine has genuine intellect. Caleb is introduced to Ava (Alicia Verkander), and as he begins to pry into her constructed psyche, he comes to question his own preconceptions about AI, Nathan’s real intentions, and even his own humanity.

Questions are key throughout Ex Machina. It becomes immediately apparent that not only is Caleb quizzing Ava, she is grilling him right back. Alicia Verkander’s performance anchors these interview scenes, as she displays child-like naivety melded with a barely observable undertone of mischief. Physically she is both beautiful yet wholly unnatural, her young human face a stark contrast to her mechanical frame. Her body is so synthetic that one can see the technology whirring and glowing luminescently inside her transparent torso. Nathan is inviting Caleb (as Garland is inviting his audience) to buy into the concept of Ava’s humanity while her body is constantly singing of its own artificiality.

While the characters are questioning each other, Garland’s screenplay simultaneously questions the viewer. Not only are we constantly unsure of the motives of all 3 characters as they repeatedly withhold information from each other, the film gently asks us the sort of complex questions that all good Sci-fi should pose. What defines our consciousness? To what extent do our bodies make us human? Should scientific pursuit trouble itself with morality? These questions are explored with some depth in the film’s final act (each character’s relationship with their body is especially scrutinised), but we are left with ideas to discuss rather than answers to argue over.

Much of Ex Machina hangs on the performance of Oscar Isaac. He more than justifies his position as one of the most talked about actors in the world, crafting a unique character the likes of which I have hardly seen before. Nathan is clearly a genius and a revolutionary thinker, yet rather than take the stereotypical path of the eccentric, isolated inventor, Isaacs and Garland present Nathan as a sort of twisted frat boy. Frequently swigging beer, chatting to Caleb with a contrived, overly casual vocabulary and switching from friendly to sinister on a whim, Nathan is a constantly unsettling presence. Within 30 minutes it seems clear that everything he says is as elaborately constructed as Ava’s fibre glass physique.

Ex Machina’s only real flaw is that when the third act comes around and the narrative is set up to take any number of different paths, it takes the most predictable and perhaps the least interesting one. The Cronenbergian focus on man’s relationship to his body takes centre stage for a while, which is certainly interesting and divergent, but each character eventually acts in the way that you expect them to, a shame considering how cloudy their motivations appeared through the first two thirds of the film.

Ex Machina is a refreshing cinematic gift, a Science Fiction film that revolves around its ideas and intelligence like the Sci fi of old. Essentially a theatrical three-hander, it takes a tiny cast in a single setting and presents a narrative that coherently and thoughtfully toys with some of the broadest and most complex themes of technological advancement, while delivering a psychological thriller that never struggles to engross.

4/5

Cinema Reviews

Review: Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance); Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu; Cert 15

Birdman_courtesy_Fox_SearchlightOne of my most beloved quotes about film (and one I use as a banner for this blog) comes from the late, fantastically great Roger Ebert: “It’s not what a film is about, it’s how it is about it”. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s latest film, Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a virtuoso testament to this ideal, and one of the most fascinating films to come out of Hollywood in quite some time.

To start with then, the “about”. Birdman centres itself around Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thomson, a former Hollywood superstar famed for his portrayal of the titular Birdman, a superhero quite deliberately not unlike Batman, a role which Keaton made famous and which brought him great fame also. 20 years away from the role have caused Riggan to feel that he is washed up and irrelevant, a sensation that leads him to put on and star in his own adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” on Broadway. What follows is an examination of a dizzying number of themes: ego, self worth, family, mental health, artistic credibility, Hollywood, the theatre, performance, and legacy to name but a few.

Much has been made of director Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s method of storytelling, and I will continue to add to that trend by making much of it here. The fact is that it is impossible to understate or downplay the technical achievements of Birdman. The film is presented as a series of enormously long takes, the camera following Riggan and his fellow thespians throughout the cramped, hallowed halls of their labyrinthine Broadway theatre with barely a visible edit. While the effect is startlingly impressive, it is always used as a necessary part of the storytelling rather than simply as a showy affectation. The effect of watching two hours of cinema with minimal edits is disorientating. As Riggan’s ego and anxiety cause him to slowly loosen his grip on reality, this disorientation causes us to feel how overwhelmed he is, how baffled and out of his depth. It’s a perfect example of form informing theme and vice versa.

These ideas are further enforced both through Antonio Sanchez’s rhythmic, staccato jazz score (sadly ineligible for Oscar consideration due to its use of pre recorded classical music) and Keaton’s vibrant, vivid performance. The actor so regularly accused of being washed up himself seems to pour every part of his own psyche into a role that requires him to be hilarious, tragic, hideous and sympathetic all at the same time. Keaton is surrounded by fantastic supporting performances, most notably by Edward Norton as a smarmy, method-obsessed actor and Naomi Watts as his naive actress girlfriend, but the film’s heart beats in time with Keaton’s throughout. An actor less capable would most certainly have derailed a film so complex and surreal, but Keaton’s Thomson is always engaging and relatable, even at his most neurotic and bizarre.

As Birdman’s narrative draws towards its conclusion, some ideas about the meaning of its sub-title come to the fore. The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance may well be our own ignorance as an audience towards the sacrifices made in order for an artist to accomplish a vision. It may also be the ignorance of an artist as to the effect they may have on an audience during the creative process. ft In the case of this film though, it could also be the ignorance we feel as we gaze up at the rolling credits, scratch our heads and murmur “how did they do that?”

5/5