Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Review Roundup: Chronicle, Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Grey

E-Film Blog has been a bit on the quiet side this past week, largely due to some commitments with other publications, but I have been keeping up with what's playing at the multiplex - here's a review roundup for Chronicle, Martha Marcy May Marlene and The Grey...

1.) Chronicle (Josh Trank, 2012)

Penned by Max 'Son Of John' Landis and directed by 26-year-old newcomer Josh Trank, Chronicle is a gimmicky hero-for-real flick which, according to some reviewers, has revolutionized the found footage format. Andrew (Dane DeHaan), Matt (Alex Russell) and Steve (Michael B. Jordan) are teens on opposing sides of the high school spectrum, brought together one night by the discovery of an ominous crater. Together they journey into its heart and discover crashed alien technology, which somehow imbues them with superhuman abilities - specifically telekinesis and the power of flight. Chronicle is their story, told from the perspective of Andrew's videocamera (which he has brought to document his father's abusive rage; he's a drunk). The format is warped when Andrew hones his telekinetic powers, allowing him to create fluid tracking shots with his mind. During the film's finale, in which Andrew wreaks hellfire across the city, he is able to control the IPhones and Tablets of bewildered onlookers, arranging them in a handy 360° network which editor Elliot Greenberg can then skip between. There's also considerable use of CCTV, and sketchy love interest Casey (Ashley Hinshaw) is a handy camera obsessive, meaning that we can also observe scenes from her perspective. "Do you mind if I film this?" characters frequently ask each other, as if the filmmakers believe that acknowledging the silliness of their format will make it any less silly. My thought is this: if you're so desperate to open up the visual playing field, why not abandon the shaky-cam aesthetic altogether and just shoot the film conventionally? Even from the perspective of a floating IPhone the film is limited to a specific line of sight - the whole gimmick falls flat when you open it up to accommodate every technological source.

The narrative structure is also incredibly weak, and the brisk 83-minute length hampers any attempt to build emotional arcs for the protagonists. Because we spend so little time in Andrew's mind his violent flip-out is never really convincing, and I personally found the finale a little morally suspect. Andrew has a shitty life, yes, and I certainly felt for him in the earlier scenes of the film (his mother is dying from a non-specific illness) but is that really an excuse for him to harness his powers like a petulant child, blow up gas stations and lob cop cars at civilians? Is a rough home life really any excuse for mass slaughter, and the scene where he launches a group of local thugs across the pavement, cracking their jaws open on the concrete (this really pushes the 12A rating)? When he's isolated Andrew is a sympathetic character, but by the time he hospitalizes hundreds of people I was willing Matt on to spear the asshole. I also found it odd that these kids never thought to help anyone with their powers. "We need to take this to the next level" Andrew declares in one early scene. What he means, oddly enough, is taking a holiday in Tibet...

2.) Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin, 2011)

The breakout film of Sundance 2011, Martha Marcy May Marlene is an extraordinary atmospheric exercise, employing oily photography and rumbling sound design to create a permanent sense of unease for the viewer. The story follows Martha (Elizabeth Olsen; stunning) in the days after her escape from an abusive cult, fronted by the charming Patrick (John Hawkes). She takes lodgings in the Connecticut getaway of older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), who appear unnerved by her erratic behavior. The script certainly has its dud moments ("death is the most beautiful part of life") but its elliptical structure is masterfully composed, looping back and forth in time so that flashbacks can feed information into our subconscious, and subsequently be relayed into the present - which is vital, given the cipher-like nature of our protagonist. Indeed, the film's biggest problem is Marcy herself, who remains so withdrawn into her own mind that Durkin's screenplay must rely on surrounding characters for drama - but Lucy and Ted are such bland, banal people that the present-tense scenes eventually become exhausting. Through slithers of exposition we are left to gather that Lucy can't conceive, causing a rift in her and Ted's relationship, but the arc is throwaway as these characters aren't allowed to develop on their own terms.

Martha Marcy works best when located on the cult's farm, which becomes more disturbing with each visit - particularly the revelation of children who are all fathered by Patrick. "They're all boys" notes newcomer Sarah (Julia Garner). "Patrick only has boys" replies Martha, chillingly. The problem here is that Durkin too often strains for a level of threat which is already established by the atmosphere - Patrick's haunting rendition of 'Marcy's Song', for example, is twice as effective as the silly break-in scene, which was the final test of my patience. The performances are all terrific though, with Olsen commanding attention in her first leading role - her quietness is disarming, and the actress finds naturalistic footholds in a character whose emotions are all inwardly realised. She should have been Oscar nominated for the role, and it's a true injustice that she hasn't been. My problems with the ending remain, and it's for this reason that Martha Marcy leaves an unfortunately sour taste in my mouth. In my mind the film closes on the wide shot of the lake, which asks the viewer to decide whether or not Marcy is being watched. The reverse shot - whether she's imagining it or not (and she's quite definitively not) - is an unnecessary answer, stripping the scene of its ambiguity and forcing us into one mode of thought. For all of its unspoken mystery, the film ultimately ends on a full stop when it should have dissolved on a question mark...

3.) The Grey (Joe Carnahan, 2012)

Based on Ian MacKenzie Jeffers' Ghost Walker, this bleak survival epic from Narc (2002) director Joe Carnahan is 2012's first must-see surprise - appearing out of the grey and commanding attention with its Nietzschean blend of Jack London and Walter Hill; a brutish exercise in stranded machismo. Liam 'Motherfucker' Neeson plays hunter John Ottway, who is hired by an Alaskan oil company to kill the wolves who threaten its drilling team. After failing to commit suicide (magnolia-imbued flashbacks hint toward a troubled past) Ottway boards the plane home with his fellow passengers, but things go from bad to worse when a blizzard disables the wing and sends it hurtling into the wilderness. The crash sequence is a blistering sensory blowout, hoisting the distorted sound design up to ear-piercing levels; Carnahan's camera pins us right up-close with Ottway, and save for some breathtaking landscape cutaways it adopts that position for the film's remainder. With little to no resources the men decide to head toward the woods, where they can better defend themselves. The landscape is photographed in bleak/beautiful tones by DP Masanobu Takayanagi, who captures Alaska's rogue -40°C winds (the film was shot on location) with an unusual sensitivity - sometimes the haze feels delicate, like the remnant of a thousand nested snowflakes, and on other occasions its bitterness literally stings. The film is a masterclass in atmosphere, but it's essential that we feel as stranded as Ottway and his companions. Carnahan nails it.

As with most horror/thrillers, The Grey works best when building on the idea of what can't be seen - the wolves present a real threat when vocalized in deep synchronized howls, which echo out from the tree's obsidian frontline. The animatronics also pack heft, with the wolves' blood-specked jowl barely visible under the flickering embers of Ottway's torch. Where they become less convincing is in the full-on CGI shots, where Carnahan's budged is exposed and our fears quenched. But the director has enough sense to limit their screentime, instead focusing on building up rounded arcs for his characters. They're cliché's, sure - Dermot Mulroney wants to get home to see his kid, but reveals his fear of heights before passing over a rocky gorge - but the actor's committed turns pin us into their plight, and the loss of each member is genuinely affecting. Neeson's performance is his best in over a decade, grizzled and unpredictable, and when he finally rearranges the minibar into a set of Wolverine-esque claws my audience got up and cheered. He's the last actor I'd have ever expected to become a middle-aged action hero, but here he adds pathos to the established brawn, hooking us into the character before revealing his true colours as a badass wolf slayer. That said, don't expect the man vs. wolf tussle advertised. A last-second blackout on the film's repeated mantra - live and die on this day - leaves the fate of both predators hanging...

3 comments:

  1. This movie is suspenseful and will hold your attention to the very end. You will be on the edge of your seat right to the very end. And what movie that has Liam Neeson isn't good. He is a true Movie Star. A great action hero and a mans man. Those that tell you this is not a good movie or just a so-so movie simply didn't like the ending. Because it makes you think. And those who gave this a bad review simply don't like thinking. Trust me. Watch this movie and you will know exactly what I am talking about.

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  2. This movie is good storytelling, horrible reality. I watched this on DVD and everyone in the room started yelling at the screen. "you have several buck knives, make some spears not a 'bang stick'. Set up a perimeter! Carry your knives in your hands at all times. Make a larger fire. Stay together!". They had a plane full of broken metal but not one person thought to use any if it as a weapon against attacking wolves. Even those if us watching who have no hunting/survivalist skills were astounded at the stupidity of the characters behavior. Sitting facing a tiny fire with your back open to attack? Only in Hollywood

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