Saturday 25 February 2012

The Insect Woman (Shôhei Imamura, 1963) Blu-Ray Review

Sachiko Hidari stars in Imamura's The Insect Woman (1963)...

Perhaps the most distinctive of Japan's New Wave filmmakers, Shôhei Imamura spent much of the 1960's examining the fallout of WWII on Tokyo's thriving backstreets, crafting four radical depictions of national grotesquery; The Insect Woman (1963), Intentions Of Murder (1964), The Pornographers (1966) and Profound Desires Of The Gods (1968), the latter of which is actually set on Okinawa. Throughout these pictures he navigated themes of incest, infidelity and identity, and in The Insect Woman - co-written with the surrealist Kenji Hasebe - we experience them through the eyes of Tome Matsuki (Sachiko Hidari). The film begins in 1918, juxtaposing Tome's birth with the uphill march of a struggling beetle, and over the next twenty minutes we are allowed snapshot windows into the first 27 years of her life, emphasizing especially the incestuous relationship with stepfather Chuji (Kazuo Kitamura), which begins around the time of her eighth birthday ("You sleep with me so we're married, right?"). Finally we locate Tome in Tokyo, 1945, where she takes work as a prostitute to support her daughter back in Tôhoku (who has, disturbingly, taken up with her grandfather). But it's not long before Tome is ratting out her employer, Madam Suma (Tanie Kitabayashi), to the police, and assuming control of her brothel...

The film works hard to accommodate five decades of Tome's life into its two-hour time frame, but Imamura's economic direction ensures that, even across the film's myriad subplots, his protagonist is always center stage. Actually, The Insect Woman is a much bolder narrative experiment than anything produced by the nouvelle brats of Paris, and if Godard's À bout de souffle (1960) paved the way for, say, Quentin Tarantino, then this picture informed the rhythmic, image-driven style of Terence Malick. Imamura's method is elliptical, but to suggest that as a conscious development might be incorrect. The director despised talk of theory, and yet the form of Insect Woman appears a masterclass in just that - it's jagged in structure and tone, flipping between social-realism and outright absurdity (the oddly poignant scene where Tome breast-feeds her retarded stepfather) with ease. Imamura actually aspired toward a "messier" brand of cinema, hoping that some greater truth might be captured in the clutter. For this fact The Insect Woman can be hard to keep up with, but the director's anthropological approach to storytelling, resulting in an almost microscopic level of character detail, keeps us engaged. Years often pass without register, and the audience are trusted to examine Tome's emotional state - communicated beautifully by Hidari - to locate themselves chronologically.

Indeed, Hidari is the film's most impressive force, instilling Tome with such compassion and empathy that we can never truly hate her, even when she falls foul of wreckless ambition. We understand her ratting out of Madam Suma as an act of desperation, but the girl's established democracy crumbles when desperation turns into greed, and Tome begins to exploit her friends, even after accumulating enough wealth to support her family. Tokyo represents an opportunity for those willing to take it, and Hidari perfectly embodies the struggle of a woman whose transition from gullible farm-girl to hardened businesswoman is equally tragic and comic. And while it's true that Imamura uses the character to engage with present social concerns, she never becomes the cipher for political demonstration. He positions Tome in a city wresting with change, and in the smallest of gestures - the overhead passing of a USAF plane - we are reminded of Japan's occupation, and the impact this has had on the country's economy and job market. Before succumbing to Madam's manipulation Tome works as a nanny, looking after the child of a Japanese housewife, Midori (Masumi Harukawa), and her Yankee lover. We are left to assume that such a relationship was not uncommon, and certainly US troops would make the most of Tokyo's colour-coded districts (for a fascinating depiction of the red, watch Seijun Suzuki's Gate Of Flesh, 1964).

Of course, The Insect Woman also signals a break from the classical traditions of Japanese cinema, and especially those of Yasujirô Ozu, whom Imamura trained under on Tokyo Story (1953). Working-class females were commonly depicted by Ozu - and, indeed, his contemporaries Naruse and Mizoguchi - but their technical and emotional exactitude stifled the young Imamura, who thought that film should be purely expressive; each frame must be bursting with the feeling of its characters. He achieved this notion with 1961's Pigs & Battleships, but not until this following picture would he discover the thematic and visual identity that would run all the way up to Warm Water Under A Red Bridge (2001). If The Insect Woman isn't Imamura's best film then it's certainly his most significant, and a work of unparalleled ambition for its time. For that reason alone, it demands to be seen.

The Disc/Extras
Fantastic transfer from Masters Of Cinema, who are among the most caring, passionate distributors in the UK. Imamura's use of light is incredibly pronounced in this remaster, and despite some print damage the film is generally impeccable in its presentation - undoubtedly in its best shape ever.

Extras wise, the disc contains Nishi-Ginza Station (1958), Imamura's second feature for Nikkatsu after the superior Stolen Desire (1958). It tells the story of a docile husband named Ôyama (Yanagizawa Shin'ichi), who takes his wife's leave as an excuse to hit the town with freewheeling pal Asada (Nishimura Kô). It's an inoffensive little comedy, directed with some style, but Imamura falls under the same diagnosis Asada prescribes Ôyama; "psychological constipation." As explained by Tony Rayns' accompanying essay, the director felt straightjacketed by Nikkatsu, who had envisioned the picture as an hour-long advert for Frank Nagai's titular single (Nagai was a popular 50s crooner; he also appears as the film's narrator). The signs of Imamura's frustration are clear, but his economic storytelling and visual flare ensure that Nishi-Ginza Station isn't an entirely wasted opportunity, and its new HD remaster makes the most of those tropical locations, which prefigure '68's Profound Desires...

Outside of Nishi-Ginza Station the disc has one extra, a 21-minute TV interview (I think from the early 80s) between Imamura and critic Tadao Satô. Here the director discusses his relationship with Nikkatsu, the origins of The Insect Woman, and particularly his revolutionary filming techniques (the film was shot on location, a fact which throws up some interesting anecdotes). Satô is a good host and his genuine interest in Imamura's filmography encourages lively discussion. The accompanying 36-page booklet contains two essays by Asian cinema expert Tony Rayns. His dismissive review of Nishi-Ginza Station goes some way toward contextualizing the work, but his piece on The Insect Woman is far more expansive and detailed, outlining the social and cultural state of Japan in which the film was made. It's not his most comprehensive work, but Rayns' style - halfway between academia and a fan letter - is hugely readable, and his passion is evident in every paragraph.

The Insect Woman was released on Blu-Ray on February 20th...

Friday 24 February 2012

The Three Musketeers (Paul W.S. Anderson, 2011) DVD Review

Logan Lerman stars as D'Artagnan in The Three Musketeers (2011)...

O, Three Musketeers, how do I loathe thee? I'd count the ways, but life's too short, and I'd much rather pen an 800-word critical maelstrom. I shall address you in the form of a letter. Firstly it should be stated, as to clarify my position, that on a scene-by-scene basis you're possibly the worst mainstream film of 2011. Within your (seemingly endless) 110-minute duration there's not a single idea which you undertake with charm, wit or grace. You are an unutterable waste of time, effort and money, not to mention human and chemical resources. The light with which you were projected is dead light. I didn't even know light could be dead until I saw you, and yet it whimpered its final song as you belly-flopped onto screens, pathetic as the day you were conceived. I recently reviewed Abduction (Singleton, 2011), an abysmal tween thriller which my PS3 literally upchucked in protest. Luckily you were viewed on a different player, or else I fear the device would have self-combusted. I don't care how much you plead. I don't care how much you beg. There's no getting out of this one. You are the black hole into which civilization has fallen. I despise you.

To call you an inaccurate adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' classic novel would be to unfairly assume that your makers had read, or even cared about that text. I find it hard to imagine how somebody could have taken a story with so much life and character, and sucked every ounce of interest from its metaphorical veins. You are a parasite, Three Musketeers - a leech on the beating heart of popular culture. You have two screenwriters - Alex Litvak and Andrew Davies. Nothing in their back-catalogue could have prepared me for the sheer incompetence with which they have delivered you to the screen. They may as well have re-titled you '101 Movie Clichés And How To Use Them', because that's your absolute content. You contain a comic relief character played by British comic James Corden, who is fat and a little bit simple. At certain junctures, when his vapid routines engulfed and made poisonous the frame, I felt like crawling into the fetal position and never EVER breaking from it, so long as life would be continued with the odour of your decay surrounding me.

Your director, Paul W.S. Anderson, strikes fear into my heart. You, Three Musketeers, are his concept of narrative cinema. The grinding sound you hear now is not a 100-maraca procession, but the corpses of D.W. Griffith, David Lean and Steven Spielberg - storytellers whose scope you aspire to - turning in their graves. The latter isn't even dead yet, which should speak volumes for your ineptitude. Anderson's slow-motion action scenes, involving tripwire explosives and Pirates-style airships, have made a mockery of your source. Are you not ashamed? Even in your best scenes, such as the climactic duel between D'artagnan (Logan Lerman) and Rochefort (Mads Mikkelsen), you are deeply derivative of your ancestors, displaying not a smidgen of imagination or originality. Your £75,000,000 budget lays bare your complete lack of ambition - your willingness to throw stuff and the screen and see how much of it sticks. One of those things is Orlando Bloom, introduced in a drugged-out haze which makes him literally indistinguishable from the furniture. Honestly Three Musketeers, you've penned your own parody.

Finally we come to your assembled cast, many of them wasted (I say many, for what else would Bloom be doing?) Are you aware that Christoph Waltz could have starred in a David Cronenberg picture, but was instead lured by your riches? Do you realise how much shame he must have buried in order to accept that paycheck? Milla Jovovich plays Milady as Resident Evil's Alice in a frock, such is the amount of screentime she dedicates to kicking people in the face. Also present here is Mads Mikkelsen, one of the finest actors in contemporary cinema. What did he ever do to you, Three Musketeers? To whom in your production did he owe enough money to warrant this dismal appearance? I'm signing off this letter now, but know that I could have continued. Know that I will never, ever forgive you, so long as I shall live. Know that even if you aren't quite the worst film of 2011, largely for your unintentional hilarity, then you are by far the most unnecessary. There is not a person on earth that has benefitted from your creation. All have suffered.

The Disc/Extras
The general presentation is perfectly acceptable, but the extras - while quite expansive, comprising a commentary, deleted scenes and three featurettes - are deathly dull.

The Three Musketeers arrives on DVD/Blu-Ray on February 27th. This review can originally be found at Flickfeast.

Tuesday 21 February 2012

Review Roundup: Carnage, Corman's World, The Muppets

1.) Carnage (Roman Polanski, 2011)

Boasting the finest vomiting scene since Peter Jackson's Bad Taste (1987), this scabrous adaptation of Yasmina Reza's God Of Carnage has been widely celebrated for its quartet of stunning performances, but the film's real achievement lies in the slick bourgeoisie design of Penelope and Michael Longstreet's (Jodie Foster; John C. Reilly) Manhattan apartment, and the fascinating experiment in film form that director/co-writer Roman Polanski conducts in its claustrophobic confines. The screenplay is furiously intelligent, jamming sexes warfare, Buñuelian satire and discussions of hamster homicide into a taut 79-minute production, but the real heroes of this piece are Production Designer Dean Tavoularis and Set Decorator Franckie Diago, who perfectly define the material spaces of quasi-progressive Penelope and "openly despicable" Michael's apartment - pasty eggshell walls, metric furniture arrangements and art books adorning the puked-on coffee table.

The Longstreet's son, Ethan (Eliot Berger), was attacked by Zachary Cowan (Elvis Polanski), the son of uptight broker/lawyer combo Nancy and Alan (Kate Winslet; Christoph Waltz), resulting in the couple's meeting to decide appropriate action. Polanski distances himself from the stage by infusing his film with dramatically heightened camerawork - at first his observation is static, but from the moment Nancy upchucks onto Penelope's treasured Kokoschka volume the director employs startling close-ups and accelerates the editing rhythm (courtesy of Hervé de Luze), creating a choking effect for both his characters and us, the increasingly uncomfortable audience. As the quarreling couples grow drunker (not just on the malt whiskey, but their own egos) Polanski literally uproots his camera and dislocates us from the established space, employing quick-pans and handheld perspective shots to churn the viewer's stomach. As the night wears on and the bitterness of Reza's comedy becomes more pointed, the film's tension gives way to gleefully rampant silliness, racking up the volume and letting the actors unleash their character's deepest, most malicious feelings. It's like spooning dark chocolate over a simmering ulcer, and the results are delicious.

2.) Corman's World: Exploits Of A Hollywood Rebel
(Alex Stapleton, 2011)

Given the bloody trail established by recent exploitation docs Not Quite Hollywood (Hartley, 2008) and American Grindhouse (Drenner, 2010), it was only a matter of time until somebody dedicated an entire picture to Roger Corman, the infamous Hollywood rebel who has produced almost 400 flicks since 1954's Monster From The Ocean Floor. Without doubt the most prolific film producer of all time, Corman revolutionized the industry in the early 1970's by accidentally creating the 'New Hollywood' (Scorsese, Bogdanovich, Fonda), re-inventing the production/distribution wheel while delivering schlocky sci-fi/horror movies to the expanding teen audience. This loving tribute to Corman - who here appears one of the kindest, most thoughtful characters possible - won't offer anything new for his fans, but latecomers will be treated to 90-minute's worth of stills, trailers and talking heads, all edited into one slick and hugely enjoyable package.

While it's true that Corman's work ethic involved recruiting budding, Cannes-bound artistés to make giant crab pictures, he also had a socially conscious and deeply artistic side, as demonstrated by projects such as The Intruder (1962), which no studio was willing to option due to its tricky racial integration topic. The film remains a bold and influential masterwork, perhaps Corman's best, and to see it evaluated in the same space as, say, The Big Bird Cage (Hill, 1972), demonstrates just how varied the producer's output was. Also discussed here is Corman's vital role in the distribution of foreign language features in the US, as he bought and marketed works by everyone from Fellini to Bergman (equally, Bergman was a huge fan of Jaws, 1975, essentially one big Corman homage). Exploits Of A Hollywood Rebel has enough styrofoam beasties, vehicular mashups and bikini-clad babes to satisfy any exploitation fan, but what rewards here is Stapleton's careful consideration of his hero and the enthusiasm he captures from various friends and colleagues. Well Roger, here's to the next hundred!

3.) The Muppets (James Bobin, 2011)

Considering the recent spate of CG 'toon reboots - the grotesque Yogi Bear (Brevig, 2010), for example - a 21st Century Muppet makeover might not sound all that appealing, but in the hands of Flight Of The Conchords' James Bobin the result is a joyous homage to TV's favorite felt troupe, and truly a film for all the family to enjoy. It's been thirteen years since The Muppets' last cinematic outing (1999's disappointing Muppets From Space), even longer since their last TV appearance, and in the ensuing years the gang has disbanded. Two lovable small-town brothers, Walter (Peter Linz) and Gary (Jason Segal), travel to L.A. to visit the old Muppet studios, now decrepit and abandoned, but while snooping around Walter overhears the plan of an evil oil baron, Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), who wants to dig below Kermit's office to unearth, well... oil. And so a journey begins to reunite the old gang and raise the £10,000,000 needed to buy back the studios. It's a familiar setup, sure, but the charm lies in its execution...

There's not a smidgen of cynicism to be found in The Muppets, a studio reboot which, for once, feels like it was made out of pure love rather than the hope of financial gain. The screenplay, co-written by Segal and Nicholas Stoller, is genuinely sweet, and finds deeper footholds in each of the character's relationships than we've ever seen before. Kermit (Steve Whitmire) and Miss Piggy (Eric Jacobson) are brilliantly on-again/off-again, as they've always been, but the most touching scenes come courtesy of Fozzie (Jacobson again), who we pick up with at a fleapit motel in Reno, recycling gags about room discounts and parking lots. There's a deep pang of sadness when Kermit discovers how his old pal has been living, and our heart goes out to the little bear who, until now, had been as one-note as his dismal routines. The relationships here are fresh and interesting, and Bobin is a smart enough director to mine his jokes from character beats rather than broad slapstick. That said, the film has some gloriously silly sequences, not least Cooper's hysterical rap about being a badass oil baron ("I got mo' cheddar than some super-size nachos").

There's not a single scene that doesn't hit the right note, and every new character (80's Robot is a work of subtle genius) slips into the established world without ever pandering to the new under-12's audience. I've seen the film twice now, and on my second viewing I was delighted to find myself singing along to each and every song (Man Or Muppet will undoubtedly win that Oscar), and finding new jokes tucked away in the background. This is a comedy made with the upmost care and passion, packed with star cameos and uplifting montages, fart shoes and dancing chickens. I really can't recommend it enough. I will be going back a third time...

Friday 17 February 2012

ZIFT (Javor Gardev, 2008) DVD Review

Zahary Baharov stars in the oddball Bulgarian crime caper ZIFT (2008)...

Zift: Socialist Noir, the complete title of Vladislav Todorov's cult 2006 novel, is perhaps as accurate a description of its 2008 film adaptation as you're going to find - even then missing its gleeful comic-absurdism, poetic nihilism and unquenchable romance. Indeed, faithfully explaining what ZIFT is about, without spoiling any of its myriad surprises, is practically impossible. The setting is Sofia, Bulgaria, 20 years after the coup d'état of '44. "The Moth" (Zahary Baharov) has been imprisoned for all of these two decades, but upon an early release - for introducing Communism into the prison - he is whisked to the public baths by a sweaty, Woody Harrelson-type attaché. He's stripped naked and tortured in 35mm, before director Javor Gardev skips back in time to the early 1940's, shot in 16mm. Here the story of a diamond heist unfurls, with plenty of sub-Tarantino dialogue (much of the film is driven by incidental anecdotes; Magnolia-esque urban myths) contrasting the classically hardboiled setup. Naturally each party is looking out for themself, including Moth's lover Ada (Tanya Ilieva), who he meets in 8mm. Their plan involves the lifting of a pronounced African penis, but believe me, that's possibly the most normal aspect of this bonkers caper...

Stripped down to its butt-cheeks ZIFT emerges as a pretty routine thriller, but Gardev injects enough ink-black humour, visual experimentation and literary finesse to stand apart from his contemporaries (and influences). The film begins with a side-character recounting the tale of a septic-truck driver who sought revenge on his wife's lover - a pastry chef - by discharging tonnes of sludge into his apartment (zift, among other meanings, is the slang term for shit), ending on the character noting the difference between moral and material damages. This sequence will become clearer towards the film's climax (pay attention to the repeated phrase, "the end is the beginning") but it perfectly establishes tone, and throughout the film, as Moth descends deeper and deeper into the black heart of Sofia - a journey somewhere between Week End (Godard, 1967) and After Hours (Scorsese, 1985), with a little bit of La Haine (Kassovitz, 1995) - he encounters a colourful cast of caricatures, each more odd than the last. We start with the one-eyed crook Van Wurst (Mihail Mutafov), whose moniker originates from the botched Barcelona job in which an antique clock (storing valued jewels) ejected its cuckooless spring into his orb. In fact, most characters are named after their visual appearance - the villainous Slug (Vladimir Penev), for example, whose stumpy human shell protects the greasy mollusk within.

While ZIFT is notable for its striking black-and-white aesthetic, carefully composed flashback structure and commanding leading turn, what'll really reward repeat viewings (I watched it twice before writing this review) is its absolute oddness and disregard for formula. Most films based on books attempt to distance themselves from the source material, but Gardev has completely embraced Todorov's poetic meter, employing it to articulate Moth's innermost feelings. Many standard scenes are lifted by his voiceover, such as his revealed disdain for a sarcastic, chain-smoking nurse; "nicotine phlegm is ripping her throat." This same approach is lent to the film's assortment of storytellers, most of whom litter the hospital's waiting room, telling tales about flammable cyclists and the accidental beheading of a hair salon. It's all as gleefully silly as its sounds, but juxtaposed with bracing ultra-violence and threadbare crime plotting these stories are lent an odd streak of pathos. We get the feeling that one day Moth will be the punchline of an urban myth, such is the looniness of his plight.

The film premiered on HBO in 2009 (one imagines it slipping comfortably between Oz and The Wire), but ZIFT only now appears on UK shores. Better late than never, I suppose, but it's a shame that this one has been left to gather dust for so long. Gardev doesn't appear to have any new projects in development, and neither Baharov or the gorgeous Ilieva (who share an intense - and intensely offbeat - sex scene) have made any subsequent films to break the international circuit. I can only hope that this DVD - released by EUREKA! - will garner enough attention to ensure that I see this talented group again in the near future...

The Disc/Extras
Solid presentation but slim extras, with only a trailer and stills gallery rounding out the vanilla package. Shame. With its complex literary source, Communist themes and experimental visual style, I'll bet there was a great behind-the-scenes doc to be made from ZIFT. A missed opportunity indeed.

ZIFT is released on DVD on February 20th. This review can originally be found at Flickfeast.

Monday 13 February 2012

The Woman In Black (James Watkins, 2012) Review

Horror lurks around every corner in Hammer's Woman In Black (2012)

Based upon Susan Hill's seminal '83 horror novel, James Watkins' The Woman In Black is a true return to the Hammer tradition of yore, arriving as an impressively full-on Edwardian chiller and the perfect star vehicle for a post-Potter Daniel Radcliffe. The former Boy Wizard plays Arthur Kipps, a recently widowed lawyer assigned to the ominous Eel Marsh House, cut off from the Crythin Gifford mainland; the town, like most in its wake, is clearly modeled around The Wicker Man's Summerisle. Here, whilst waiting for the arrival of his four-year-old son, Kipps becomes wrapped up in the mystery of The Woman In Black, a vengeful spirit who haunts the grounds and, whenever seen, takes a child's life. Jane "Kick-Ass" Goldman's screenplay, which was originally to be penned by Mark Gatiss, isn't the most faithful of adaptations, but as an excersise in creeping unease and shifting shadows it's an effectively low-key entry into Hammer's remerging canon...

The 22-year-old Radcliffe might not bear the full weight of Kipps' bereavement, but his commanding posture and steely gaze do lock us into the character during extended scare sequences, and despite a last-minute snip by the BBFC, Watkins still manages to mount dread like maestros Clayton (The Innocents, 1961) and Wise (The Haunting, 1963) before him. Indeed, the film's centerpiece - Kipps' macabre eventide in the Drablow residence - is fantastic, establishing and then eschewing clichés with an arch delight which feels right at home in the Hammer pantheon. Watkins frequently shoots Kipps in close-up, obscuring his surroundings with soft-focus lenses which so beautifully capture the rising corpse or turning screw-head of a ghostly antagonist, but subversively he leaves the frame empty. The audience becomes accustomed to this structure, eventually forgetting the intention of the setup, and then - bam! - Watkins slams a ghoulish visage into its purview at the exact moment we expect the opposite scare. There's also brilliant use of candlelight throughout, especially when illuminating the wandering eyes of porcelain dolls and monkeys.

The problem with Goldman's screenplay is its emphasis on the house, which thematically is the story's most uninteresting element. Crythin Gifford is plagued by Alice's (The Woman In Black) spectre, and the town's hermetic paranoia, communal sorrow and deep-rooted fear of outsiders - Kipps' very appearance heralds one of their children's deaths - could make for a fascinating psychological study. Indeed, the film's scariest moment (all I'll say is: burning basement) revolves around the children, but they're unforgivably allowed to become part of the background. Sam (Ciarán Hinds) and Elizabeth Daily (Janet McTeer) are the most fleshed out characters, and there's a brilliant scene where she (wedged between two little dogs) becomes possessed by Alice's spirit and starts scratching prophecies at the dinner table - it's mad as a bag of frogs, wonderfully campy and unnerving, and a moment of individuality amongst the grey sea of anonymity which mark the scenes in Drablow house. Watkins may find interesting ways to shoot familiar setups, but their familiarity is never in question, and his workaday aesthetic certainly doesn't separate Woman In Black from the dime-a-dozen imitations which have crowded multiplexes in Hammer's absence. The set and costume design is beautifully authentic, but this only renders the insipid palette more disappointing.

Goldman's most significant misstep comes with her clumsy re-write of the ending, which finds some degree of catharsis for Kipps. Watkins' previous horror, the mephitic, facile hoodie-horror Eden Lake (2008), doesn't feel like the natural precursor to a film this subdued, but its downbeat ending does seem a fit for the bleak sensibility of Hill's novel, which ends - terrifyingly - at a fairground catastrophe. Unfortunately, the twist here is dampened and derivative, leaving the audience feeling all warm inside when the twist's black coal lump should have pricked the hairs on their backs on its descent to the caverns of their churned stomachs...

The Woman In Black is in cinemas now...

Thursday 9 February 2012

Restless (Gus Van Sant, 2011) DVD Review

Henry Hopper and Mia Wasikowska star in indie romance Restless (2011)

Straddling the divide between winsome indie twee and genuine idiosyncrasy, Gus Van Sant's Restless was not high on my priorities list when it played during 2011's LFF, largely thanks to its worrisome invocation of Harold And Maude (Ashby, 1971), one of my favorite films of all time. It just looked a bit too... cute. Well, despite some early frustrations (maudlin protagonist Enoch builds a house out of cheese crackers) this elegiac portrait of picturesque Portland, inhabited by ghosts and fatalistic teens, is a deeply moving love story - unconventional in the best way possible.

Enoch (Henry Hopper) has his life on hiatus, mourning the death of his parents and struggling to readjust to society. Now living with his aunt Mabel (the criminally underrated Jane Adams), Enoch frequents stranger's funerals in order to channel his own grief, and at one service meets the quirky, cancer-stricken Annabel (Mia Wasikowska). These introverted teens, who share an interest in death, slowly fall for each other, aware that their love must be curtailed by Annabel's three month lifespan. Restless tells the story of their tender, fleeting romance...

It all sounds achingly drippy, I know, and listening to characters wax lyrical about Darwin does have its frustrations, but the sensitivity of Jason Lew's screenplay transcends the manic mawkishness of individual scenes, like Annabel's death rehearsal and the contrived rift it causes in her and Enoch's relationship (this is Lew's version of the rom-com third act cliché where the lovers decide they may not be right for each other, only to later reunite over extraordinary circumstances). They're played in a low-key fashion, but even the story's bolder eccentricities are kept in check thanks to Van Sant's ever perspicacious window into the teenage mind...

From Finding Forrester (2000) to Paranoid Park (2007), the director has spent most of the last fifteen years examining the psyche of outcast or damaged young men, and while Restless finds him treading the same ground it also presents, in Mia Wasikowska, his first female lead since Nicole Kidman in To Die For (1995). Since her breakout performance in Alice In Wonderland (Burton, 2010) Wasikowska has proven herself as an actress of considerable depth and range, and here she delivers her finest performance to date - balancing the hurt of Annabel's illness with her natural joie de vivre and compassion, intensified by her love for Enoch. Their relationship is as gentle as the autumn breeze, and complemented by DP Harris Savides' soft, pastel-toned photography, employing beautiful oranges and browns, it becomes genuinely absorbing.

Lew's screenplay also eschews the current wise-beyond-their-years kid cliché by imagining the stock source-of-wisdom character as Hiroshi (Ryo Kase), the ghost of a Japanese kamikaze pilot. What's interesting about the character is the normality with which he is introduced to the story (a game of battleships, which is not revenge for Nagasaki), and how rounded his emotional arc becomes. It's upon hearing about Hiroshi that most people decide Restless isn't for them, but he allows for vital plot information to be addressed in dialogue and for that act to feel natural and carry emotional weight. Annabel's sister, Elizabeth (Schuyler Fisk), could also have been a deeply annoying character, but instead she grounds the drama and provides the film's voice of reason, raising an eye to Enoch's gloomy antics. Rather than existing to add an extraneous layer of kook, which I think is the impression left by the trailer, Hiroshi and Lizzie act as a dramatic focus for the askew leads.

A final note for the film's soundtrack, which is a haunting mixtape of Sufjan Stevens, Pink Martini and Nico, with Danny Elfman's gently strumming score also recalling Carl Orff's classic Gassenhauer theme (famous from Terrence Malick's Badlands, 1973). What all of this music has in common is a scratchy, nostalgic ambience, ensuring that the film's atmosphere is heightened and somewhat timeless - an idea also complemented by Enoch and Annabel's anachronistic dress sense. It's the music which really carries us along Restless' hazy stream, much like the songs of Cat Stevens did in Harold And Maude. Indeed, rather than coming off as a pale imitation of Ashby's film, Restless feels like a perfect companion piece - and it's a double bill I'd recommend this Valentine's...

The Disc/Extras
Unfortunately there's no word from Sony about a Blu-Ray release, but this DVD's tech specs are satisfactory, and both image and sound are presented well. Extras are solid, comprising five back-slapping (but charming) featurettes, deleted scenes, and most interestingly Van Sant's silent re-imagining of Restless - after wrapping each scripted scene the director also shot a silent take, allowing the actors to communicate entirely through gesture. Diegetic noise and that mixtape soundtrack are kept intact, with the plot progressed through inter-titles - THE FOLLOWING SCENE: Wherein Enoch And Annie discuss funeral etiquette and Enoch learns that Annie volunteers with kids who have cancer. It's not entirely sucessful, mainly because the film's most poignant scenes revolve around dialogue - Hiroshi's letter, for example, which is entirely absent here - but it's a charming and interesting experiment nonetheless, rounding out a solid and bargain-priced little package.

Restless floats onto DVD on February 13th. This review can originally be found at Flickfeast.

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...