Monday, 14 July 2014

Review: Under The Skin (2013)

Under the Skin (2013)

Ten years since his sophomore feature Birth (2004) was released to a lacklustre reception, director Jonathan Glazer, who showed great promise with Sexy Beast (2000), is back with an altogether delicious monster of a movie. Scarlett Johansson plays against all conceivable type as a nameless creature who travels around Glasgow in a white van, scoping out men with her predatory and objective gaze and, after picking them up, she takes them back to a run down property and has her wicked way with them. As simple as the premise may sound, Under the Skin (2013) an adaptation of the marvellous novel by Michel Faber, is anything but simple as the narrative is simply non existent thanks to the director’s unique and experimental vision.

Initially the audience is cast under the glare of a blazing spotlight and what follows continues to be an utterly hypnotic amalgam of breathtaking sound and vision. The extraordinary score by Mica Levis enters the ear canal with the voracity of a swarm of curious insects. A hint of Johansson’s husky tones hits the ear canal as the spotlights morph before your eyes into a giant retina. A transformative role for lead actress, Johansson who, as alluring as her protagonist may be, operates stoically, emanating the curiosity of an unfeeling vessel, not too dissimilar from David Bowie’s performance in The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976). Her performance is captivating. Her femininity provides some warmth, in the wake of the deadly chill she so dastardly creates. The film as a whole is one beautifully paced mystery, from start to finish the questions of intention and motive are removed from the picture, leaving viewers to create their own interpretation of what the hell is going on even if they’ve read the book. If you like a film to answer its own questions, look away, this is not for you. There is no resolution here.

Filmed from the perspective of the mysterious protagonist, Glazer captures the true essence of an unsuspecting public through use of hidden cameras, thankfully Johansson remained largely unrecognisable in both her British accent and her dark fright wig so the reactions from the public were real and perfectly unfiltered. Extras were not cast, they were just regular people who had no idea that they were being filmed. The juxtaposition of an alien look at human life and the raw reality of an unsuspecting public creates a bizarre sci-fi sub-level from which you are asked to watch the film. In creating this unique perspective the audience become somewhat disassociated from their own race, forcibly joining the lead in her alien observations.

Under the Skin will no doubt divide audience opinion but nobody can deny the true originality on offer here. Glazer’s mash up of the hyper-real and oblique extra terrestrial creates an altogether unique and bewitchingly stylistic sci-fi experience. Whilst the initial introduction recalls Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey (1968), yet with a gentle bat of an eyelid, there is a significant shift towards the unfamiliar and darkly uncomfortable. Like a beautiful nightmare from which you cannot wake, Glazer’s vision is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, but once you have seen it, it will follow you around forever.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel (2013)

With his trademark colour palette and an ambitiously farcical plot Wes Anderson returns with The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), the tale of hotel concierge, Gustave. H played by Ralph Fiennes, who employs a bizarre level of celebrity at the titular hotel. When one of the wealthy female guests, whom Gustave has “serviced” in more ways than one, is killed under mysterious circumstances, the concierge becomes the number one suspect, particularly after a valuable painting from the victim’s collection is bequeathed to him. After being framed for her murder, Gustave steals the painting and mayhem is unleashed on the picturesque mountain range. With the victim’s family in hot pursuit, the concierge, with the help of a young lobby boy, must race against time to protect his inheritance and prove his innocence.

A gloriously entertaining amalgam of comedy, romance, prison drama and murder mystery, the film’s genre is almost indistinguishable, making it one of Anderson’s most original and unique offerings. The expeditious dialogue harks back to the exuberance of slapstick and Ealing Classics and it is delivered with delicious grace from Ralph Fiennes in an iconic and perfectly poised performance. An incredible ensemble cast provide gloriously entertaining subplots, all paced with a joyous and frenetic energy.

There's so much to enjoy from each character however brief their appearance may be. Tilda Swinton makes a wonderfully comic murder victim as Madame D, and Tony Revolori shows great ambition both as a young actor and as Zero, the Lobby Boy, Gustave’s eager protégé. Cameos come as thick and fast as the snow that caps the mountain tops. Some (Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Edward Norton) serve only to whet the appetite for re-viewings of Wes Anderson’s back catalogue and others provide the groundwork for characters so intriguing that they act as a precursor for their own grand story. Both Harvey Keitel and Willem Dafoe bring huge character to minimal screen time, which is perhaps one of the elements that makes the film so captivating. It could literally go off in any direction, it’s so precise and detailed in its composition that every scenario is as involving as the other.

The sets are perfectly grandiose and as ever, in all of Anderson’s work, they are animated wildly with an incredible array of clashing colours and intricately measured symmetry. The interiors are breathtaking in both size and design and full of unique character. The ever changing external landscape is captured in a style reminiscent of the imaginative stop-motion technique applied in Fantastic Mr Fox (2009), particularly the chase scene through the snow, which purposefully looks haphazardly produced, making the low budget aesthetic hilarious in its incongruity.

Traditionally, Alexandre Desplat’s score is equal in inventiveness to the visuals, adding perfect doses of both emotion and jollity to match the pace of events as they continue to accelerate. The story of Gustav. H is framed, or rather bookended by Jude Law as a curious young writer and the soothing tones of F. Murray Abraham as the aged Zero, provide the perfect spoken word narrative. The Grand Budapest Hotel is one of the year’s greatest. It’s packed with so much flavour, that you can practically taste it. Like the delicious looking Mendel’s cakes, Anderson’s greatest film to date is a mouthwateringly stylish and addictive sweet treat that has been meticulously decorated. You will want to feast on its greatness again and again.

Available on DVD and Blu-ray now.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Review: Exhibition (2013)

Joanna Hogg’s previous films, Unrelated (2007) and Archipelago (2010) firmly cemented the director’s name as a leading figure in new British cinema. Her nuanced approach to character driven narrative and an almost voyeuristic directorial flair, has seen the director achieve auteur status and even seen her signature stiff-upper-lip, middle-class Britishness alluded to in the work of others, including Alex Walker’s remarkable debut, Fossil (2014). Her latest film, Exhibition (2014), sees the director reigning in the action to create an insular portrayal of a stagnant marriage and repressed artistry.

Viv Albertine, iconic front woman of punk band The Slits, stars as artist D, who along with her husband, H (Liam Gillick) decide to sell the London home that they have lived in for twenty years. As they prepare to move on, anxieties surface both in the couple’s marriage and in D’s creative ability. The home has seemingly consumed parts of their history, psyche and marriage and functioned as a container for their lives together. Will the couple be able to cope without the luxurious confines of the structure, or will the foundations, that keep them together, crumble to pieces?

Hogg’s style will undoubtedly alienate fans of the mainstream. Her every move is considerably non-conformist. When you expect the camera to shift, it lingers for longer than you feel comfortable. D’s over exposure magnifies her every imperfection. Her boredom and frustration can all be felt via the inhabited space and the relentless exterior noise. Short on dialogue, Exhibition manages to say more about the couple in their tense moments of silence and the discomfiture of a bedroom scene is depicted the morning after, via an exterior shot and the riotous clashing and banging of scaffolding pipes.

Moments of serenity are constantly disrupted by city noise. The moving of furniture, an overhead plane, sirens, traffic and vacuum cleaners. There is no peace or comfort in the marriage or home, as still as it may appear and, after 20 years, the house is feeling it too. D so content in her solitude finds it hard to communicate in the environment, particularly with the vulturous estate agents. She’s constantly distracted. Every crack, creak or crevice becomes a curiosity and she’s captured feline like, mimicking the shapes of the architecture. As the home is pulled towards a new buyer, she explores it from every angle, attempting to shed fresh perspective on the property, in the hope that it will offer her some creative and romantic resolution.

Hogg’s framing and use of natural, available light elevates the film into a different league. The composition is impeccable with reflections and street lights utilised to generate depth and dimension. Each scene is utterly absorbing. There is an element of discomfort also as Hogg places the viewer, as in Archipelago, at the head of the table as the uninvited guest at an awkward dinner party, or crouched at the foot of the bed as the couple “enjoy” a bout of mundane marital sex. The aforementioned providing one of the films most humorous and agonising scenes. After receiving an internal phone call to “come upstairs”, D is next shown, laying lifeless and naked on a bed. As H tries to move things forward, she remains static and nonpartisan, and has all the sexual allure of Christmas ham. Again, in juxtaposition and devoid of dialogue, D’s feelings are expressed subsequently, as H’s forced declaration of love is matched with the image of D laid holding a rock in the garden.

Exhibition is high art, formed from grand designs and manipulated with the archetypal tradition of marriage. With sparse architecture and a screenplay largely absent of discourse, it’s a credit to Hogg’s artistry that she is able to tell such an intensely personal story. Presented here is a unique perspective on the alien lifestyle of an artist. It’s a raw, painful and often amusing character study that is almost explicit in its dissection. Viv Albertine, makes a great protagonist and Hogg provides valuable insight on the internal and external nature of D’s character which is perhaps a reflection of the director's own. When D leaves the house and heads into central London, she literally flourishes, sheds her marital cocoon and springs to life. This is set against a lavish and delicious backdrop of the capital, shrouded in golden light and rich heritage. As brief as the footage is, this glimpse of the city captures D’s remarkably astute confidence and London’s structural elegance, a definite rival to Holy Motors’ (2012) Paris. Hogg has proved that she can more than deliver from within claustrophobic confinements. This perfectly cultivated scene provides significant understanding of the director’s overwhelming potential, should the walls she works so perfectly within, be knocked down.

Visit Curzon to watch Exhibition now. 

Friday, 6 June 2014

Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets (2014)

Far from an overnight success, Pulp originally formed in 1978, yet only achieved any major recognition in the 90s with their unique brand of indie disco that included big hits such as Common People, Disco 2000 and Sorted for Es and Wizz. They became a staple of the Britpop movement, selling over 10 million albums worldwide yet always remained faithful to the place of their humble beginning, Sheffield. Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets (2014) documents the story of the band as they prepare, during their 2012 comeback, for their final hometown show. Director, Florian Habicht brings together live footage and interviews with the band and a handful of Sheffield’s most loyal and intriguing fans to shed some pragmatic light on the phenomena. Stories are told against the backdrop of a bustling market entrance, a dilapidated warehouse and a city of industry crushed by Thatcher’s regime. Captured in full northern grit, this Sheffield is a crumbling, forgotten city full of salt of the earth types and pop heroes - who aren’t too successful they can’t change their own car tyre - demonstrated expertly by charismatic frontman, Jarvis Cocker during the film’s introduction. Common People, the band’s career defining hit is the first live performance and as the song approaches it’s peak, the sound gently fades, and is then continued by a local harmony group. Habicht’s film is very much about the people that inspired Pulp’s music, the Common People themselves.

Sycophancy doesn’t exist in this city or in the confines of this film, instead what’s documented here is a celebration of the band’s solid foundations and the very root of their lyrical inspiration. Habitcht’s voice of authority occasionally emerges from beyond the camera to direct or question his non-media-trained subjects. Two children, listening to Pulp for the first time, dish out some valuable parental advice and reveal what it’s like to grow up in the North and decaying landscape aside, it’s surprisingly far from grim. The director’s enthusiasm and excitement for his subjects can be heard in his New Zealand Kiwi twang. The non-investigative approach to documenting the band’s story draws out some optimistic and inspiring stories from those who wander the city’s market place. The soundbites are often hilarious when they miss the mark. Habitcht has a great knack for choosing valuable and raw subjects and handles them with great respect and affection. You couldn’t make these people up, unless you were maybe Ken Loach or Mike Leigh.

Archive footage of the band’s earlier live performances give some scope to their journey. Keyboardist Candida Doyle tells of the days when times were so hard that they created their stage regalia using kitchen foil and attempted (and failed) to make their own dry ice, only a plateful at that. Pulp’s back catalogue warms the nostalgic cockles, as it is drip fed throughout and during some mesmerising concert footage that serves to remind how captivating a performer Jarvis Cocker can be. Cover versions from Sheffield Harmony and a heartwarming rendition of Help The Aged in a cafe, demonstrate the rewarding influence the band’s success have had on the community. One would perhaps expect a Pulp documentary to focus on Cocker and give insight to the man behind the performer but this documentary is not the platform for such. Instead the focus is spread evenly, ensuring that all band members get equal recognition for their part.

The Pulp film tells a heartwarming and commendably humble story of a band and the city that inspired their music. Pulp are a band of the people and like its many of the remarkable subjects documented here, they have no heirs, graces or delusions of grandeur. The band’s incredible live performances speak for themselves and without the blowing of proverbial trumpets. Subtle suggestions reflect Pulp’s largely unspoken phenomenon as Jarvis emerges, 10 million albums and a sell out comeback tour under his belt, through a thick cloud of properly formed dry ice, into the film’s neatly framed conclusion and to the cacophonous roar of a proud hometown singing wholeheartedly as Common People reaches its peak. This isn’t just a film about a band, it’s Sheffield’s story and Pulp, with a little help from Habicht, have the repertoire and capacity to tell it.

By Leigh Clark, also published on Cinevue

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Review: The Sacrament (2013)

Director Ti West developed a small cult following after his films The House of the Devil (2009) and The Inkeepers (2011) helped mark him as a leading figure of modern horror cinema. With his unique attention to detail, slow-burning scares and retro aesthetic, West’s outstanding efforts hit refresh on a genre that had grown repetitive and tiresome. It is surprising then, that the progressive director has stuck with the style of his VHS (2012) vignette and opted for the found-footage formula for his latest project. The Eli Roth produced “horror” feature The Sacrament (2013) is a psychological thriller set in a remote and seemingly peaceful commune.

Fashion photographer, Patrick (Kentucker Audley) calls on his friends at Vice media to help find his missing sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz) whom he knows has been hanging out at Eden Parish, an off-the-radar commune that she has been living at since completing a drug rehabilitation programme. Sam (AJ Bowen) and Jake (Joe Swanberg) agree to help, and intrigued by the idea of remote living they come armed with cameras, expecting to get a story out of the people who had made the decision to escape the rat-race. Upon arrival, the trio are met with violent animosity from armed gunmen, before being led into the self-sustained community by an over enthusiastic and very healthy looking Caroline. At the heart of the parish is a mysterious leader known only as “Father” (Gene Jones) whose voice booms over a tannoy system, instructing Parish members at all times of the day. As Patrick reunites with his sister, his two friends explore the community interviewing residents about their lives on and off the commune. At once, the filmmakers are struck by the harmonious ethos within the man-made paradise. However, cracks soon begin to appear as sinister notes are exchanged and one by one residents approach the newcomers begging them to help with their escape.

Although the film’s location, Eden Parish is a fictional creation, the parallels between the commune and that which lay host to the real-life Jonestown Massacre of 1973 seem more than coincidental. The emphasis of the film, however is on humanity, with the writing adding flesh to the bones of what one would formally regard as a statistic, thus bringing the viewer closer to the mentality of an individual with the chutzpah to walk away from a traditional society. West’s signature slow-burn is applied perfectly and we’re introduced to the mysterious leader initially through his loud booming voice alone, thus creating an intimidating God like figure. When the enigmatic Father, played with great menace by Jones, sits down for an interview with the filmmakers, the reaction of his followers is wild and exalting, yet when the camera meets his shaded eyes, his unexpected normality becomes strikingly unsettling.

The found footage formula has been milked to death of late thanks to an endless outpouring of Paranormal Activity (2007) spin-offs, yet here it is used to fully immerse the viewer, ensuring that the characters speak directly to the audience and, with the removal of the third wall, throws them straight into the lions den to create maximum discomfort. The Sacrament is the pure definition of a “cult-film” and whilst it may not appeal to its target market due to the avoidance of the sharp shocks and ghouls that have become synonymous with the genre, it does have the capacity to broaden the director’s fan-base. Here West’s approach borrows the tension from Kevin Smith’s tragically underrated Red State (2011) is more Apocalypse Now (1979) in its subtle and gentle incline towards “the horror”. When the horror itself begins, thanks to West’s use of the first person perspective and Tyler Bates’ haunting score, Eden Parish becomes wholly engulfing and an impossible place from which to escape.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Review: The Punk Singer (2013)

Sini Anderson’s documentary, The Punk Singer (2013) uncovers the true origins of nineties "girl power" and the birth of the Riot Grrl movement. Kathleen Hanna, co-founder of the movement and frontman of Bikini Kill is the titular singer with the film documenting her career from start to a surprisingly abrupt finish in 2005 when Hanna and her then band, Le Tigre’s radio silence made the loudest noise with her fans. Using vintage performance footage and interviews with band members, family, friends and fans, the film sets out to discover the cause that quietly shut the vociferous scream queen down.

Hanna’s rapid evolution from ambitious spoken word artist to punk singer is told through a series of stories from her childhood and teenage years that influenced Bikini Kill and their original material, which controversially alluded to issues such as child abuse and rape. At the time of the band’s conception, the media were reporting on the supposed death of feminism, thus starting a fire in the bellies of the passionate band members. Bikini Kill not only came armed with a visceral setlist, but their secret weapon was a powerful manifesto which through lyricism and performance saw the birth of the Riot Grrl, an army of outspoken feminists that burst out of the testosterone heavy grunge scene and brought feminism back from the brink.

 Hanna increasingly became a big deal and as the figurehead of female empowerment, also became the target of a media backlash. Her life choices were widely criticised and assumptions were made on her personal life through the words used in Bikini Kill’s lyrics. Now residing in a lavish property with her husband Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys, Hanna sheds a fresh perspective on her career and explains in brutal honesty, the complications that arose as she, the feminist artist, fell in love with a man who sang about women doing his laundry for him. As she plans to launch her new music incarnation, “the Julie Ruin”, Hanna reflects on the time with her second band Le Tigre and sheds light on her disappearance from the scene she created.

Fanzines, a topic discussed in the documentary were one of the many projects that gave the Riot Grrls a voice and director Anderson applies a similar cut and paste aesthetic to the narrative giving the film a frenetic and youthful energy. The soundtrack, as one would expect, is a cacophonous punk riot, it steadily pulsates throughout vintage footage of a young Hanna as a spoken word artist and in her early days as a performer. She sparkles with charisma, whilst the music provides authenticity and the evidence that this documentary was always just waiting to be made.

Context is provided through the perspective of, among many, fellow rock icons Kim Gordon and Joan Jett who through masked interview, attempt to characterise the enigma created by Bikini Kill thanks to a self imposed media blackout. Thankfully, Hanna’s career, her achievements and her raison d’etre are interesting enough to keep the documentary afloat without any moments of disruptive narcissism. Even her husband Horovitz, is kept at arms length, only showing the couple together in old homemade footage or photographs. When the couple speak of one another, they do so with great respect and adulation but with very little schmaltz as this film is not a fawning appreciation of a pop star, it’s about passion, determination and an influential legacy that was recently represented on the ski-masked faces of Pussy Riot and Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers (2012).

The arc of the tale leads to the abrupt stop in Hanna’s musical output but unlike other rockumentaries of the genre such as Hit So Hard (2011) or Pearl Jam Twenty (2011), where protagonists battle with personal demons or fight with major labels, the focus here is on self-control, Hanna’s most admirable trait. The Punk Singer is a rewarding and positive experience. Anderson delivers a fascinating account of the grunge era and an influential story of a role model who has the guts and spunk to inspire a whole new generation of Riot boys and Grrls.

OUT IN CINEMAS 23rd May 2014
Available on DVD 23rd June 2014

Review also published on Cinevue.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Review: Wish You Were Here (2013)

After carving out an acting career, including roles in films such as Animal Kingdom (2010) and The Reef (2010), Kieran Darcy-Smith shifts his focus behind the camera for Wish You Were Here (2013), his directorial debut feature that explores how one man’s split decision can have a detrimental and devastating chain reaction on those around him. Joe Edgerton stars as Dave, a carefree hedonist holidaying in Cambodia with both his pregnant wife, played by co-writer Felicity Price and her younger sister Steph (Teresa Palmer).

During one wild, drug-fuelled night, Steph’s lucrative business-man boyfriend, Jeremy (Anthony Starr) vanishes without trace. As investigations begin into his mysterious disappearance, his fellow travelers raise suspicions with their vague and conflicting recollections of the night in question. Alice remains constantly optimistic and convinced that Jeremy will surface alive and well. However, her husband and sister know much more than they are letting on. As inquiries continue back in the trio’s homeland of Australia, the the dark and disturbing truth of what really happened in Cambodia is eventually revealed.

The dark mystery that makes this masterful debut so compelling is tightly packaged in the meticulous editing of two alternate narratives; the past and the present. The story unfolds in a nonlinear timeframe that gradually peels back the layers in small and intriguing doses, weaving back and forth from the ambiguities of the Cambodian holiday to their current, interrogative nightmare. Each piece of the puzzle fits together seamlessly thanks to great performances from the main players. The structure of the film sees the actors playing two versions of their characters simultaneously, highlighting the stark contrast of their lives before the disappearance of Jeremy and after. Edgerton leads the film confidently, playing the suspicious husband with a heavily solemn conscience. Both he and Felicity Price gel effectively as spouses, together delivering one of the film’s greatest and frighteningly realistic showdowns. Bright young thing, Teresa Palmer is expectedly captivating as the sister, who brings her own secrets to the mix and adds great angst to the ever mounting and unrelenting conflict.

Events unfold beneath the aesthetic sheen of hot, hot heat and steady, intricate pacing ensures that even when the holiday is over and the sun has gone down, the temperature is cranked to boiling point and the characters, as well as audience are made to sweat through the tension. Enthralling, challenging and evocative, the strength of this film is in the tight grip of its mystery, which remains protected with utmost care, until the film’s final, and almost alarmingly abrupt act. Wish You Were Here is a rewarding and unpredictable thriller from Darcy-Smith, who proves with this remarkably confident feature that he has a promising career ahead.