Thursday, November 19, 2015

Quick Critique: Love (2015

Provocative French filmmaker Gaspar Noé (‘Enter the Void’, ‘Irreversible’) returns for a rather bold faced look at passion and sexuality. Told from the perspective of Murphy (Karl Glusman), he begins reminiscing about his life with Electra (Aomi Muyock) after getting a phone call from her mother saying that she has been missing for two months. On top of that, it forces him to examine his current relationship with Omi (Klara Kristin), a woman he accidentally got pregnant cheating on Electra with after all three of them had an erotic encounter together.

Noé seems to have two objectives with this story: a personal exploration of how unbridled passions can drive and utterly consume us, and to break down the barriers people have when it comes to sexually explicit content. It has been described as ‘pornographic’ by several people, but it wants to be open and uninhibited with his evaluation of sex and how it defines us. None of the sex scenes were choreographed, and it gives them a more authentic vibe that allows the couple to feel more intimate and explored.

Part of this intimacy seems to be giving it a certain personal touch. A lot of the characters are named after Noé or important people in his life (he even appears in the film). It’s like he shares his characters’ intimacy with the audience and himself. That is probably ‘Love’s greatest strength; even with the flashy images and stunning cinematography, there’s this sense that we are really exploring these people’s sexualities and what it means to them. The title ‘Love’ almost feels like a joke, as our protagonists have a very poor understanding of what love is, if they understand it at all.

Going back to the cinematography, you can’t fault this work for its technical prowess. It plays out of chronological order (a staple of the filmmaker, though not as out there as his previous two films), but repeated scenery and camera work give a sense of connectivity. The music is also great, feeling varied and nuanced, adding distinctiveness to certain scenes (like the threesome).

The film does have a few hang ups. The actors are not very experienced, and while they handle most of the scenes admirably, they do feel stilted and unnatural in certain moments. While the soundtrack is great, some of it can be jarring and strange. There are also one or two moments that feel a bit too forced, like the ‘oops baby!’ scene or the abortion discussion.

Wher you love (hah!) it or hate it, ‘Love’ will likely not leave your mind. While people may be turned off by the, for lack of better term, nakedness, repetitive sex scenes, and uncomfortable moments, it’s one of the more unique viewing experiences around lately and definitely worth your time. Whether you need a cold or hot shower afterwards.


Oh, and be sure to watch out for the 3D splash effect…

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Cork Film Festival: Carol (2015)

Based on the ground-breaking 1952 novel by Patricia Highsmith, ‘Carol’ tells the story of the titular character (Cate Blanchett), who is going through a difficult divorce when she meets toy shop worker Therese (Rooney Mara). Their relationship blossoms, but Carol’s husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) attempts to use their tryst to try to retain full custody of their daughter Rindy.

The story is set in 1950s New York, and rather than attempting to update a 60+ year novel to reflect on social changes and attitudes, director Todd Haynes (Far from Heaven, I’m Not There) chooses to tell it in a rather classic Hollywood style. Emphasis on colour (red pops up frequently), simple camera work, light cinematography, and very well thought out period dressing helps frame this as what it is: a classic love story that just happens to be about two women. This emphasis on simplicity means the film could have been released around the time the book came out, and no one would be any the wiser.

The two leads take up most of the running time, with sprinklings of well performed and necessary supporting roles for Sarah Paulson and the aforementioned Chandler. Cate Blanchett absolutely shines as the leading role, managing to mix class and subtlety in a very natural way. She disappears into the role and has the command and grace to make the rather difficult drama she has to shoulder throughout seem almost easy.

Not to be outdone, Rooney Mara is also quite impeccable. Her character goes through more of a traditional ‘arc’; going from a taciturn, unsure girl into a blossoming woman fully realising her own sense of self. While there could have been the tiniest of more room left to flesh these women out individually, their performances cannot be faulted.

What doesn’t work as well is the chemistry they share. It just never feels as burning, life-affirming and consuming as the actions of the characters are left to imply. It could just be that the actresses didn’t click in that way that classic Hollywood couples do, or maybe the development of their relationship needed a bit more polish, but it just doesn’t have that connection needed to make this story easier to invest into.

It also suffers from a terribly predictable plot. It’s not hard to be seven steps ahead of the film, and while that isn’t in of itself a bad thing, it does remove pivotal moments of their shock value and weight. It’s certainly the direction they wanted to go with, and the story’s focus is more on this couple and not necessarily the ensuing drama, but it just adds to not being able to connect to them as strongly.

‘Carol’ is a great showcase of some classical filmmaking and wonderful performances. It would likely be stronger with a more in-depth and engaging script and more chemistry in the two leads, but it’s far from a write-off.


Saturday, November 14, 2015

Cork Film Festival: The Witch (2015)

A Puritan family have their lives thrown into disarray after their infant son is taken. Believed to be perpetrated by the eldest daughter (Anya Taylor-Joy), who is accused of witchcraft, she struggles to maintain her innocence and sanity while her family are attacked by forces living in the wilderness.

There’s really not much that can be said about ‘The Witch’ that won’t ruin what an atmospheric, slow-burning masterpiece it is. Directed by Robert Eggers, it’s one of the strongest debuts all year, combining tension and perfect pacing with creepy horror imagery and a burning sense of dread and hopelessness.

Utilising Eggers' experience as a production designer, what truly sells this movie is its look. Everything, from the religiously pious looking farm, to the creepy and unnerving supernatural imagery gives it a true feeling of a folk horror. There’s one reveal in particular in the woods that’s so impressively done due to its design and performance that it sticks out like nothing else from a horror film all year.

The cast are also terrific. Not a single person is poorly cast or gives a weak performance, even the children. One standout performer is Harvey Scrimshaw, who plays the oldest son Caleb. Not much can be said that won’t spoil the moment, but believe that you will realise how great he is when it comes up.

Dialogue wise, it strives hard to gain authenticity, even taking words and speech patterns from the time period. That makes everything feel very natural, and that little attention to detail truly goes a long way in making the viewer immersed in the experience. If there’s one flaw in the film, it’s that the sound mixing can be a little muffled in places. It can be hard to hear the actors sometimes, and the Puritan dialect doesn’t help with the comprehension issues.

At its core, the story is a battle of nature over nurture, the ‘nurture’ side taken up by devout Christianity and the ‘nature’ battle being ‘Satanic’ witchcraft. The latter is displayed through the use of animals and the fact that the opposing force lives in the forest itself. Part of what tears this family asunder is their Christian values, though never displayed in an insulting way, more how the parents poorly impart them onto their children. This leads to a rather bleak and uncomfortable ending, something truly unnerving horror fiction should strive to.

‘The Witch’ is one of the best horror films to come out in a long time. it’s beautifully and carefully written, wonderfully cast, sharp and impressive first time direction, clever and subtle, and never afraid to be truly disturbing and unnerving. It manages to sell elements that could come off as silly, and is truly rewards its careful build up. At the time of writing this, it has not been distributed worldwide yet, so it is imperative that you catch this gem once it is.


Thursday, November 12, 2015

Cork Film Festival: Queen of Earth (2015)

Alex Ross Perry is one of the directors from the American indie scene on the up-and-up. After his previous film ‘Listen Up Philip’ gained him a bit more notability with a cast of well-known character actors like Jason Schwartzman, Krysten Ritter and Jonathan Pryce. Reuniting with one of his ‘Philip’ cast members, Elizabeth Moss, Perry takes an entirely different approach with his latest film. Shot on film and being placed at a lakeside vacation house, ‘Queen of Earth’ is a psychodrama reminiscent of the works of Ingmar Bergman and Roman Polanski.

‘Queen of Earth’ goes intimate in order to really hone in on this sense of claustrophobic isolation. The story focuses on two friends, Moss’ Catherine and Katherine Waterston’s Ginny. Alongside their lakeside neighbour Rich (Patrick Fugit), who has a romantic tryst with Ginny, they are the only characters to appear consistently throughout.

Beautifully shot, it truly contrasts this picturesque location with the psychological deterioration of our lead. Reeling from a breakup and her father’s recent suicide, the narrative hones in on her last constant, her friendship with Ginny, and the horrible co-dependency they have on each other. Moss’ performance is amazing, ranging from vulnerable to damaged to possibly unhinged, and always managing to be consistent. It’s rare to see a character feel and look that mentally unwell.

There are some absolutely stellar standout moments. Two in particular are a conversation between the two characters talking about former lovers, and a particular breakdown near the end of the film. The former is ranging with emotion and simply shot, focusing in on the character talking and then on the other’s reaction to what they are saying. It truly cements where their friendship is at that point.
So with all these positives, it’s a pity that the movie drags its feet in places. This is mostly build up, and a lot of moments do work, but you go from uncomfortable to lethargic to the entire situation. Building minimalist tension like this is a fine tightrope; one awkward step and everything falls down. It could have done with trimming it down a tad, keeping the lack of action while allowing the pace to run smoother.

Also, outside of Catherine, the characters don’t feel as well defined. Ginny is given a little bit more set up and backstory, but her personality seems to be more set on ‘spiteful bitch’ with no other nuance built into her. Their deteriorating friendship gets more development than why these two like each other. Patrick is similarly mischaracterised, he just randomly turns into a jerk. Though this may be down to Cat’s mental state affecting the way she perceives things, it doesn’t feel like a natural build.

‘Queen of Earth’ could have used some more characterisation, dialogue polishing and trimming of fat, but it’s a decent little psychodrama as it stands. It’s beautiful, intense, and truly unnerving, making you question your own mental state along with Cat’s.


Cork Film Festival: Toto and his Sisters (2014)

Romanian documentary filmmaker Alexander Nanau (‘The World According to Ion B.’) takes a provocative and daring look into the lives of three children living in the slums of Bucharest: the titular Totonel and his sisters Andreea and Ana-Maria. With their mother in jail and her children (9, 14 and 17 at the movie’s beginning, respectively) being looked after by her drug-addicted uncles, the movie follows the family for 15 months. In this time, Totonel finds a passion in break dancing, Andreea struggles to remove her siblings and herself from their awful home situation, and Ana-Maria sinks further and further into a drug problem.

Shot guerrilla-style and with no onscreen involvement from the director, ‘Toto and his Sisters’ offers an uncompromising and extremely uncomfortable look into the life of a Bucharest family destroyed by drug culture, and trying their best to find a better life. Despite the title, the movie focuses more on Andreea, who acts as cinematographer for several scenes filming parts of the documentary herself. While this can make the film constant shifting to different cameras can be jarring, it allows a genuine insight into the lives of the family. There are moments in here that would not have come off as naturally had Nanau shot the entire film himself.

While not the most exciting, artistically impressive or even well-paced of films, it gets across its message admirably and truly forces you to face the challenges children like Totonel and Andreea face. The children are so well defined, and have such strong personalities you truly feel connected to them. It never fails to be authentic and harsh, delivering moments and scenes that will make you genuinely uncomfortable and question what needs to be done to fix this situation. If we even have the power to help resolve it.

This impersonal manner may rub people the wrong way, as Nanau is directing real life children living in such horrible conditions. However, his goals are admirable and important, and could help families like this one moreso in the long run. There’s a specific scene near the end with Ana-Maria’s drug issues truly comes to light, and it’s so shocking and devastating that it forces you to reflect on the realities these children live in.

‘Toto and his Sisters’ ends on a frustratingly ambiguous note, as the children’s fate are never truly outlined for us, but perhaps that’s for the best. It’s a sombre but hopeful film, never failing to move you, but also to makes you joyful and engaged to everything going on. It’s an intimate documentary with an important showcase on how successful the ‘War on Drugs’ truly is, and will leave you with a pit in your stomach while also not removing hope that this situation could improve.


Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Cork Film Festival: Bone Tomahawk (2015)

A local sheriff (the irreplaceable Kurt Russell) of a town in the Old West finds himself in a horrific dilemma after the town nurse (Lilli Simmons) and deputy (David Arquette) are kidnapped by savage cannibals known as Troglodytes. The sheriff rounds up a team consisting of the nurse’s injured husband (Patrick Wilson), an arrogant sharpshooter (Matthew Fox) and the ‘back-up deputy’ (Richard Jenkins) to rescue the two from the caves the savages dwell.

‘Bone Tomahawk’, for its first two acts, delivers exactly what its premise promises: a good old fashioned Western. Filled with showdowns, male egos, beautiful scenic shot, horseback riding, gun slinging and lots and lots of camping, it’s a fond trip down the Wild West and a joy to watch for any fan of the genre. The actors’ interactions are quite enjoyable, the highlight being Jenkins’ Chicory playful bromance with Russell’s Sheriff Hunt. Jenkins is easily the most interesting and best defined character of the film, with his drawn on stories and eternal optimism bouncing perfectly off of Hunt’s dry realism.

Unfortunately, the rest of the characters are very stock. Great casting is what saves Sheriff Hunt, as he’s probably the most underwritten person in the film. Patrick Wilson’s Arthur O’Dwyer is given a bit more nuance, and his dedication to his wife despite his broken leg is pretty admirable, but that’s all there really is to him. Matthew Fox’ John Brooder is probably the most frustrating, as he seems to be the most complex, but the script never really decides who he is as a character. He has some of the best moments in the film, and there are shades of a great character here, but he’s too ill-defined and muddled to really stand out.

Also the cinematography is a little too murky. This happens a lot with modern Westerns, as an attempt to make them grittier and more atmospheric. Classic Westerns were bright and colourful and really added to their adventurous spirit. Speaking of ‘Classic Westerns’, it’s an admirable attempt to make the Troglodytes as distinctive from Native Americans as possible (even bringing in a Native American to explain this), as a way to avoid the awkward racial aspects of those older movies. Their dehumanisation even has a larger purpose outside of misrepresenting an entire race of people, as you’ll find out in the final act.

Without giving too much away, the final act of this movie almost makes whatever issues with the writing worth it. It’s full of tension and shocking moments, and there won’t be much else written on it here, except that if the rest of the movie had been this intense and brilliantly executed, this would be a different review.

As it stands, ‘Bone Tomahawk’ is a very enjoyable movie. Some dull cinematography and trite writing choices do not stop it from being an engaging ride throughout. A classic Western tale with some added bonuses at the end.


Sunday, November 8, 2015

Cork Film Festival: Valley of Love (2015)

A powerhouse double act of Gérard Depardieu and Isabelle Huppert play a long-separated couple as they explore landmarks in Death Valley, California, as instructed in a note by their son who committed suicide. ‘Valley of Love’ is certainly an interesting exercise in dealing with grief. And one in patience.

What makes the movie work is the two leads. Depardieu and Huppert have an insane amount of chemistry and you instantly believe that these characters have a history. Their subtle ticks and sly references to a shared past make their relationship feel very authentic. This combined with their very fleshed out and three-dimensional individual personalities makes them a joy to watch from start to finish.

The cinematography is also stunning. While director Guillaume Nicloux fails to make his voice really heard (outside of elements that will be discussed later), the excellent use of tracking and landscape shots make this film feel very inviting, despite its subject matter. Grief and death are clearly following these two, and it’s perfectly symbolised in the vast, empty terrains that never go the clichéd route of making them cold and uninviting.

What stops this film from really working is how they handle the spiritualist aspect. While there are subtle hints early on  (Huppert’s character Ellie speaks of visiting a psychic which is dismissed derisively by her co-star), once it starts becoming more and more at the forefront, it feels rather jarring and doesn’t fit the tone at all. Perhaps if it was introduced earlier it would have felt more natural, but as it stands it feels like a very unwanted element in an otherwise natural story of dealing with loss.

There are a few scenes where this becomes extremely distracting, but most of all it makes the ending a tad confusing. Without revealing much, one of the characters comes to a ‘realisation’ they should have come to a lot sooner than they do. On top of all this, it’s just awkwardly written.

The writing shines through when it comes to the dialogue and the clever and funny little bits Huppert and Depardieu throw at each other. However, it’s also got some pretty painfully on-the-nose exposition where characters are talking about what they already know just for the audience sake. Nothing about the story and its attempted deeper moments feel in any way subtle or naturally woven in, and it would have been a greater service to either being a lot more downplayed or just removed altogether.

‘Valley of Love’ is certainly a movie you can just sit back and relax when you want to unwind. It’s got some lush, beautiful cinematography, and two great actors given some biting and potent dialogue they exchange very naturally. However, its deeper elements and spirituality just don’t sit well. Definitely one strictly for fans of the two leads.


Cork Film Festival: Take the Boat (2015)

Abortion is a topic that has come up with extreme prominence recently, with the events of the ‘Ms Y’ case and Amnesty’s recent campaign encouraging the government to hold a referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment. With this incredibly volatile and highly charged topic coming back into the public sphere, a documentary focusing on a specific issue with our abortion laws is quite the necessity.

‘Take the Boat’ is named after an Irish euphemism of women going abroad to get abortions. The film explores these women, taking four stories of people who’ve had to go through this experience (three women and one couple). With their open, frank, and brave discussions about the process, including travelling expenses, hiding it from friends and people back home, and the dangerous return journey after the process, they explore the social stigma of abortion in Ireland, and then explore the more political aspects of this debate.

What’s interesting about this film is that it’s directed by two French women who have lived in the country, Camille Hamet and Serena Robin. Having been raised in a country that has had legal abortion for nearly 40 years, they bring a refreshing perspective to the debate, and are completely unafraid to explore the different aspects that this harrowing experience can have on women. The film is very short, only clocking in at 60 minutes, but it gives a very broad and introspective experience on the ‘culture’ of Irish women going overseas for a termination.

The documentary comes down rather pointedly on the pro-choice side, so those expecting an ‘objective’ view on this matter may need to look elsewhere. However, a view like this is important, as the women being interviewed need this platform to express how they were felt by the laws in this country. It’s a very detailed and nuanced picture of their experience, and focusing on the other side would only really muddle its message and disallow these women a clear voice.

Due to how carefully planned and well thought out the exploration of ‘taking the boat’ is, when the movie focuses on the pro-life campaign and the more political elements of this topic, it feels rather jarring. This is, of course, a necessary element, as the film is a rally cry for a referendum, and it is still quite informative (the speakers give fantastically in-depth information), it just feels a little off considering the rest of the movie. It’s also the directors’ first film, so there are a few technical elements that aren’t terrible up to scratch.

Still, ‘Take the Boat’ is an incredibly introspective movie about an important point of debate. Delving into a taboo subject with honesty, clarity and a sense of purpose, it offers uncomfortable but necessary truths about how women are treated by the State and what needs to be done to change this. It is highly, highly recommended you check this out, and give a voice to a voiceless part of our nation.


(I cannot find a trailer, so please find out more information about this film by visiting its Facebook page instead)

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Quick Critique: Spectre (2015)

Bond is back! After the massive success of ‘Skyfall’, Sam Mendes was hired again to direct the follow up and Daniel Craig’s fourth movie as the character. With the sombre and grittier tones the previous efforts had to offer, ‘Spectre’ offers to reel in more fun, globe-trotting adventures of yore while also continuing the storyline that has been running throughout Craig’s tenure. Unfortunately, this was a misstep for the series.

That isn’t to say it’s a complete write-off. There are plenty of set pieces that are amazingly shot and very well spread out. Each action scene has build-up and pacing, so they never feel on top of each other or unwelcome. There is a standout moment on a train which ranks as one of the most fun and creative scenes Bond has done in quite a while.

This is also probably one of Craig’s funniest Bond films. A lot of the wit and biting humour from the pre-‘Casino Royale’ series has seeped back in, and it’s very welcome. Craig pulls this off with effortless class that it never feels off from the grittier character we’ve been used to for the past three movies. Bond’s ‘gifts’ to his compromised associates in particular gets a chuckle.

Unfortunately, while the action is very well paced out, the pacing of the movie as a whole can be kind of sluggish. Clocking in at 2 and a half hours, this is the longest Bond film to date, and while it mostly breezes along, when it comes into its final act, the energy does seriously begin to drain. It kind of gives up in some minor ways, as the final third in of itself feels a lot less enthusiastic or fun as the rest of the film has been.

This also bleeds into the characters, as the weird pacing problems reflect poorly on the story choices. There’s a subplot involving MI6’ merger and eventual replacement of the 00-Programme by Andrew Scott’s Max Denbigh, and it’s so malnourished and undercooked that they resort to being painfully obvious with their social commentary that it causes the whole thing to be entirely disinteresting. Léa Seydoux is our patented Bond Girl, who plays the part admirably but is also underdeveloped due to her importance to Bond’s personal story.

The one who suffers the worst is the villain. Despite Christoph Waltz being great, the character is so underwritten and two dimensional in order to keep up a really obvious and terribly incorporated ‘twists’ that it just robs him of any menace or nuance that he sadly really needed. How these ‘reveals’ reflect on Bond in particular feel forced.

The characters that work the best are the MI6 team. While Ralph Fiennes takes a while to get into his groove as the new M, he easily becomes one of the movie’s highlights.

‘Spectre’ has incredibly entertaining moments throughout, but it fails to reach the heights of ‘Casino Royale’ or ‘Skyfall’. Go see it for a forgettable thrill ride and nothing more.


Monday, November 2, 2015

Quick Critique: Macbeth (2015)

Putting a new spin on a classic tale can always be an exciting, but daunting task. Justin Kurzel tackles this ambitiously with one of Shakespeare’s most well-known plays, Macbeth. The violent text about the follies of over-ambition and paranoia are offset in a very naturalistic setting of the Scottish Highlands with some visually striking and beautiful cinematography and a pungent, realistic atmosphere. While this does work to make the text grounded, it loses a lot of the dramatics and wonderfully avant-garde nature that makes the play so beloved.

 A lot of this has to do with the disparaging performances. Experimental Shakespeare productions like this struggle to marry the more theatrical performances with one more befitting the chosen setting. While actors like Marion Cotillard are astounding, they’re more traditional in tone compared to the grounded style of other actors.

At the same time, the dialogue is fitted for those more dramatic actors, which causes arguably the most important element of Shakespeare’s work to come off as flat in the hands of other actors. The more muted voices, and multitude of accents, also makes the dialogue difficult to hear in places and breaks the suspension of disbelief.

While Michael Fassbender is an excellent actor, and on paper he is just perfect for the tragic king of Scotland, his performance leaves a lot to be desired. He sells the subtler moments, but his intensity does not play off well in the more dramatic and violent moments. He’s an actor who excels at being understated and consistently nuanced, making this more traditionally dramatic flair sadly failing to reach that hype.

That isn’t to say that the film is completely without merit, because most of the other elements work wonderfully. The use of dazzling and beautiful imagery really adds to the majesty of the piece, and brings out harsher elements without breaking the tone. There’s an added element of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth losing a child to motivate their later actions. While this may annoy some purists, it really add layers to the characters.

However, some of this artistry can either work for the story or not. There are several moments so out there and strange that it really takes you out of the moment. Examples includes moments showing Macbeth while he’s mentally breaking down, or his actions during the famous ‘Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow’ speech. Probably the element that suffers the most is the Witches, while they are muted to fit this interpretation, nothing about them feels memorable, which sorely hurts their motivating factor in the story.

‘Macbeth’ is an ambitious, highly stylised version of the text featuring some standout performances and excellent cinematography. The thematic nuances of the ceaseless cycle of violence and mental degradation are excellently told and really add to this retelling. Had it managed to stay consistent both in the acting and style, this would have been a masterpiece. As it stands, it’s an interesting if slightly off-kilter effort from a visionary and quite interesting filmmaker.