The Limits of Control in Hungry Hearts

“This is very embarrassing”, says Adam Driver’s Jude to Alba Rohrwacher’s Mina in a confined toilet cubicle of a Chinese restaurant in the opening scene of Saverio Costanzo’s Hungry Hearts. It’s a sequence that sits at odds with the rest of the film and one that initially had me worried about the rest of the film. It’s, shall we say, pungent use of toilet humour initially coming off as an unpleasant palate setter. In retrospect, the scene is rather ingenious in the way it completely offsets the audience’s expectations. Knowing zero about the film going in as I did, and ten minutes in there is no possible way to know where it will end up, which only seeks to heighten the horrors when they eventually come flooding into the narrative after a speaker-busting use of Irena Cara’s “Flashdance… What a Feeling” and shotgun wedding filled with gaiety and love.

Mina and Jude are expecting a child and so she puts her career on hold and the two move in to her glorious top-floor apartment near 72nd Street in Manhattan. She visits a clairvoyant of sorts and collapses on a rooftop at a friend’s art exhibit. She underweight and so too is the child when he is eventually born. Mina’s concern over radiation and air pollution mean she and the baby never leave the confines of their apartment except to tend to the makeshift greenhouse that they have erected on the roof and cell-phones must be left at the bottom of the creaking staircase. Jude’s initial discomfort becomes terrified panic and it becomes clear that Mina’s paranoia is effectively killing their child. He begins taking the child out for walks, entering a church just to feed him ham and other meats in order to make him grow, but when Mina’s delusions become too much, the extreme nature of their situation becomes too much to bear.

Read the rest at FIPRESCI.

 

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Avengers: Age of Ultron is (For Better or Worse) More of the Same

At this stage of the game, it seems impossible to be truly surprised by a Marvel film. That’s not necessarily a knock against the billion-dollar team that effectively changed the way people make and watch superhero movies when they introduced the now-fabled “Marvel Universe,” it’s just that, well, when you sit down for a Marvel movie you pretty much know exactly what you’re going to get in terms of drama, story, action, and character. That doesn’t change with Avengers: Age of Ultron, which brings about an end to the second phase in Marvel’s plan for world cinematic domination with the usual solid skills that we’ve come to expect.

I’ve enjoyed all the Marvel films that I have watched to more-or-less the same degree, but that doesn’t mean Marvel is infallible. Despite the overall enjoyment factor of the film, with this, its eleventh film, writer-director Joss Whedon seems intent on pushing some of Marvel Films’ more tiresome elements to the extreme. For instance, Avengers: Age of Ultron isn’t just full of whippy quips from its handsome, athletic cast — it’s positively drowning in them. Every single scene features at least two (usually several more) of the sarcastic, wise-cracking retorts, and by the film’s third hour (it is 141-minutes long) they have ceased to amuse and instead take the attention away from the whiz-bang effects and highlight the lazier-than-usual writing. Top points to that “Catholic rabbits” gag, though.

Read the rest at Weekly Gravy.

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The Water Diviner a Fine Reminder of Crowe

The most surprising thing about The Water Diviner isn’t that Russell Crowe directed it, but that in taking upon the extra role of director, and a debut director at that, Crowe somehow got one of the best performances out of himself in quite some time. Perhaps he’s not been giving a damn about the movies he has been appearing in lately and the chance to work on anything that was distinctly personal to him finally brought it out of him. And while the performance as a farmer who sets out to Turkey to find the bodies of his three children following the bloodshed on the beach of Gallipoli isn’t quite his best work, it’s certainly his most refreshing in a long time and a nice reminder that he can be subtle and can play a regular, normal human being again.

Crowe’s direction of The Water Diviner is certainly more impressive than another recent actor-turned-director: Angelina Jolie on Unbroken. Being an actor and working on sets day-in-day-out does not instantly afford somebody the knowledge of how to do certain things that are required of a director like how to extract performances like Yilmaz Erdogan’s, especially when actors are dealing with potentially silly dialogue (lord knows actors like Crowe have made enough bad movies to suggest they don’t always know what good dialogue looks like as an actor or as a director.)

waterdiviner01And to be sure, The Water Diviner certainly has its problems. Take for instance the is-she-or-isn’t-she love interest character played by Olga Kurylenko that comes off as lazy scriptwriting, certainly not helped by the casting of the impossibly beautiful Kurylenko in a fashion that strikes as simple directorial wanking. Or the somewhat less interesting third act wherein Crowe tries his had at a prolonged action set-piece that ultimately doesn’t quite come off as the exciting climax he may have anticipated. And I will always want more Jacqueline McKenzie who just last year in Fell proved her abilities in brief, grief-stricken roles, yet even I was struck by how little she was actually in the film to justify the awards and nominations she has received for what amounts to a cameo. Crowe is most on point as a director when dealing with, well, himself. That could be a worrying sign for any future directing prospects ala Mel Gibson, but for now I’m just going to appreciate that he gives the strongest performance of the film. If his film is a direct attempt at going more back to basics with his acting and reminding people what he’s capable of in the face of Les Miserables and its kind then it’s mostly a job well done.

It’s a handsome movie, too, with cinematographer Andrew Lesnie on board to lens the film in a sea of rich oranges, golds and browns. He was wise to use the visuals to suggest that there’s actually not that all much different around Australia and Turkey, with both countries engulfed by sand and heat. The music by David Hirschfelder also impresses, but ultimately the really does rest on Crowe’s shoulders. If his performance wasn’t as strong as it is then The Water Diviner simply wouldn’t work at all and it would be harder to forgive some of his less impressive directorial judgements.

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Triumph of the Human Spirit Isn’t Triumphant Enough in Unbroken

One of the biggest problems in Unbroken – and trust me, there are many – is that director Angelina Jolie and presumably her screenwriters (which include the Coen brothers and Richard LaGravanese) assume a sort of WWII shorthand with audiences. The central character of Louis Zamperini isn’t much of a character at all, but merely a vessel with which little is done yet with whom we are immediately meant to resonate with because he is a) American, b) handsome, and c) the lead character in the movie. Despite being played by the talented Jack O’Connell – so good in Starred Up and ’71 – the character is fairly interchangeable with all of the other young, handsome males of the cast (which includes Jai Courtney, Finn Wittrock, Alex Russell, and Luke Treadaway. The role likely could have been played by any of those actors, too, and not been any different. Louis Zamperini at times feels like a supporting character in his own story and I guess it was just because he wrote a book about his experiences that they made the film about him and not one of the other equally resilient characters. Certainly, in her desire to make this character as above-average as possible, Jolie pads the runtime with the film’s most laborious and unnecessary passage wherein Zamperini competes in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. He didn’t win a medal, but it’s presumably shown to prove how much of the Human Spirit he has within him.

And, oh boy, is the Human Spirit alive and well in Unbroken. The entire film’s purpose appears to be to bask in the glow of this man’s Human Spirit. The cinematography of Roger Deakins even mimics this glow by positively roasting the actors in hideous Olympic-golden hues that appear to have been overly rendered in post-production to the degree that nothing quite looks real. It’s a visual concept that is as treacly as the material, slopped on thick like maple syrup. At least one can give the film points for consistency as this humdrum sentimentality certainly extends to the music with an appalling, pandering original credits song by Coldplay. Even Alexandre Desplat, usually a reliable bet to be better than the material, drowns in the banality of the film with a musical score of such bland unoriginality that it doesn’t sound just phoned in, but rather faxed. From 1984.

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Of course, much of one’s satisfaction with the film will come down to an audience member’s hero-worship. Does merely fighting in and surviving WWII make Louis Zamperini one? And why, other than having written a book to base it on, does he get a film made about himself when there are surely plenty of other (yes, less straight, white and male) stories to be told about this oft-represented period in history? It’s especially curious since Jolie is at the held. Her last film was a Bosnian refugee drama spoken in a language other than English, and yet Unbroken is about a white guy who, much like Fury and Monuments Men also from this year, finds the courage to survive. Given the size and her obvious desire it’s mostly just disappointing that she didn’t take her moment of directorial courage to tell a story that doesn’t feel like it’s already been told many times before. I certainly knew every beat of what was going to happen long before it occurred on screen, and that was even without knowing much of his story. The way the material is handled doesn’t exactly give the impression that it could go any other way.

It would be easy to dismiss Unbroken‘s very blatant sentimentalism as lazy if it weren’t obvious that Jolie was trying so very hard. Jolie has assembled a top notch collective around her, but nobody around her seems to be trying as hard as she is and that chasm of a disconnect reflects badly. She does everything in her power to wring every potential last teardrop from the audience, but it falls flat. In one instance when Louis Zamperini attempts to prove once and for all that the evil, leering Japanese solider can’t break him, characters stand around and recite dialogue like “You can do it!” It’s nauseating. Then again, the film fits smack bang in the bland, featherweight territory that Jolie is mining these days. It’s the same direction that saw Maleficent become a film about a woman who realises the beauty and sacrifice that comes with being a mother. One needs a healthy dose of the Human Spirit to get through Unbroken, well, unbroken. It would seem that I am not that strong.

 

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The Elements of Control in Before I Go to Sleep

In this past month we’ve seen both David Fincher’s Gone Girl and Ruben Ostlund’s Force Majeure examine the relationships between men and women and the ways in which both parties delicately handle control. In both cases, those films feature male protagonists who think they’re in control as their spouses attempt to turn the screws (in polar-opposite ways) around them in order to confront their failures. While not in the same realm of dramatic scope or just plain old cinematic quality, Rowan Joffe’s Before I Go to Sleep also plays its hand at this concept of a husband believing he is in control of a woman who has stepped out of her society-bound role as masculine-observant to seek her own truth. It’s pulpy, but Joffe – who also adapted the screenplay from S.J. Watson’s novel – does a good job at giving his actors a playground that adheres strongly to genre conventions, but with a bit more mature leeway.

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Nicole Kidman stars as Christine, a woman who suffered a head injury and now awakes every morning believing the man next to her is a one-night stand from her 20s. It’s only upon looking in the mirror and seeing the photographs on the bathroom wall that she realises something is amiss. “I’m your husband”, says Ben, played by Colin Firth in a quick return to the screen for The Railway Man pairing. Once he has spelled out the morning routine as he always does, he heads to work, which is when Christine receives a call from Dr Nasch, played by Mark Strong, a neurological specialist who has been secretly helping Christine without Ben’s knowledge. He informs her that she has been keeping a video diary of the clues and information she has been discovering on her quest to find out the truth of what happened to her.

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78 Years of Horror Reaches The Town That Dreaded Sundown

“Wow, look at this place. It’s like The Town that Dreaded Sundown.”
“Yeah I saw that movie. It’s about a killer in Texas, huh?”
Sidney Prescott and Deputy Dewey, Scream

 

There’s certainly something to be said about expectations. I think everybody assumed The Town that Dreaded Sundown was a remake, and bound to be a decidedly average one at that, but it is actually a meta-sequel of sorts yet also works as a reworking of the Charles B. Pierce original from 1976. It in fact didn’t just overtake my expectations, but exceeded any possible best case scenarios I may have hazarded to predict.

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s 38-years-later return to the town of Texarkana – half on the side of Arkansas and half on the side of Texas that’d sound like a neat gimmick of a location if it weren’t actually a real place – and plays devilish games with the idea of remakes and sequels, making his film a surprisingly twisty revisit to both the original “Phantom” serial killer story and the 1976. Taking a similarly murderous winking tact to the original that Wes Craven’s New Nightmare had to its own franchise starter, it posits that the original Pierce film was in fact a real movie production that blew in to the town and made a film that capitalized on their very real grief. All of these years later, local teens consider the film a rural rite of passage rather than a horrific account of their hometown’s past. Little more than a moving picture postcard of their grandparents’ day for their amusement as they take dates with the hope of getting laid once the credits have rolled. For another example, the 1976 film is to the 2014 film as Stab was to the universe of Wes Craven’s Scream series, and I certainly didn’t expect that when I sat down in my nearly vacant Saturday afternoon cinema.

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Much like 1994’s New Nightmare and 2011’s Scream 4, Gomez-Rejon’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown tries to examine the link between on screen violence and real-life violence when filtered through the prism of retrospection and nostalgia. Through a plethora of red herrings, it suggests that somebody from the past isn’t happy with either the film’s representation of the Phantom case (a real unsolved case from the ‘40s) or how much people in the town have turned the film into a reverential joke.

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Kristen Stewart Finds Autonomy in Self and Character with Camp X-Ray

I recently caught up with John Curran’s Tracks and found myself marveling at star Mia Wasikowska. Not so much for her performance, although she is great in it, but rather how the Australian actress has somehow been able to carve a strong, viable, and successful career for herself making predominantly independent movies with the likes of David Cronenberg (Maps to the Stars), Jim Jarmusch (Only Lovers Left Alive), and Richard Ayoade (The Double). And that’s just in 2014. Oh sure, she has Alice in Wonderland to keep a steady big paycheck coming in, but she has become a sort of emblem for the way a generation of new filmmaking avenues – digital, independent, VOD, etc – when combined with the ever-expanding online news cycle granting wider coverage of an industry with a shrinking audience size, has allowed for her and other performers like her to have a newfound level of dictatorship over their own careers.

I thought similarly after having watched Peter Sattler’s debut film, Camp X-Ray. It’s a small movie and one that wouldn’t have gotten the amount of press it has received if it weren’t for starring Kristen Stewart, who, like Wasikowska, has a few giant blockbusters to her credit and is now parlaying that fame into a career that in 2014 has included an indie alzheimer’s drama gaining her Oscar buzz, a female-centric film from a French auteur, and this, a study of human moral conflict within the confines of Guantanamo Bay.

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I am currently reading a Bette Davis biopic from the early 1980s, and it describes in details the many struggles that the famed actress had in finding films that she actually wanted to make. Held back, she felt, by a team at Warner Bros – the studio that had, in essence, purchased her in the day of star contracts – that were giving her bad scripts and not properly capitalizing on the fame she had amassed. I know it’s a long bow to stretch, but I find them a curious comparison, seeing how Stewart appears to be utilising her fame (even the face of sexist and ridiculous “just smile!” complaints) to now take on roles that challenge her idea of self and the narrative of her career.
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