Monthly Archives: February 2013

Mama (2013)

Half horror, half fairytale, Mama wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but in retrospect is a bravely imaginative ghost story; one that is not afraid to involve sadness and love as well as unbridled terror. Trading in gore for classic scares, this film is quite old fashioned in its handling of atmosphere and tension, but it pays off, as some scenes are genuinely shocking and leave a lasting impression.

After being abandoned in a forest by their deranged father, two young sisters Victoria and Lily are cared for in a dilapidated cabin by a mysterious figure that they call Mama. Five years go by until someone finds them, feral and dirtied from life in the wilderness, and they are reunited with their uncle Lucas, played by a brilliant Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (of Game of Thrones fame). He and his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) gain custody of the girls and are given a house in which to care for them by Dr. Gerald Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash). Things go awry when Lucas is mysteriously injured one night from falling down the stairs, and is sent in to a coma, leaving Annabel to care for the children on her own. Not related to them, and not ready to be a mother, she reluctantly finds herself sole guardian of her boyfriend’s nieces. Unfortunately for her, the figure from the cabin has come back to claim her girls.

Initially, it is the girls themselves who provide the scares, looking decidedly bedraggled, with their hair in their faces, and moving in strange and distorted ways reminiscent of Samara from The Ring. Lily in particular, the younger of the two (who has therefore lived more of her life in the wild) moves around on all fours pausing only to stare in to empty space. Unresponsive and quiet, she seems to react more enthusiastically to Mama. Victoria, on the other hand, is older, and so has memories from before her abandonment to fall back on. She makes more progress and adapts to life in the house far better than her sister. The two child actors who play the girls do amazingly well in such twisted roles, and Isabelle Nélisse in particular is a joy to watch, despite the unnerving nature of the story.

Jessica Chastain does her best with a badly written part. Annabel is the stereotypical “rocker”, wearing a Ramones tshirt and slouching in chairs with an affected bad girl attitude. The script even goes as far as to have her friend tell her that she shouldn’t have this kind of responsibility because she’s “in a rock band”. That’s not to say that her part is dire, just that it could have been fleshed out a little more considering that she becomes so central to the narrative.

Another downside is that the figure of Mama, once revealed, is ever so slightly laughable (in my opinion). It’s been said countless times about horror that it’s best to suggest and not show. As soon as we know exactly what she looks like, this vengeful spirit loses her psychological power and becomes a creepy looking piece of CGI. The film saves itself though with an adventurous ending that I imagine some people may hate, but is absorbing and daring nonetheless.

What starts out as a very typical but entertaining foray into the ghost story genre, ends up as something reminiscent of Pan’s Labyrinth. It is this originality, at a time when the horror movie is being drained of life by endless found footage films, torture porn, and shameless slasher sequels, that means Mama is deserving of its three and a half stars. There’s no denying that there are things that could have been done better, but this is a promising debut from brother and sister Andres and Barbara Muschietti.

FINAL VERDICT: ★★★1/2

Robot & Frank (2012)

RobotYour health supersedes my other directives. The truth is, I don’t care if my memory is erased or not.
FrankBut how can you not care about something like that?
RobotThink about it this way. You know that you’re alive. You think, therefore you are.
FrankNo, that’s philosophy.
RobotIn a similar way, I know that I am not alive. I am a robot.
FrankI don’t wanna talk about how you don’t exist, it’s making me uncomfortable.

Taking a fresh perspective on a familiar issue, Robot & Frank is a film that is quietly engaged with society’s concerns over technology. Humble but powerful, it is as much a study of friendship and family as it is a reflection on modernity.

The story is set in a near future where phones and televisions are suitably thinner, and machines have taken over the menial jobs of the world. Leading a solitary life away from his children, Frank (Frank Langella) is an ex-convict who is showing signs of dementia. His son Hunter (James Marsden) visits him as often as he can, but is tired of the long journey and so gives his father a “health care aid”, a state-of-the-art companion designed to improve the lifestyle and health of its patient. Initially, Frank is reluctant, and dismisses the robot’s demands that he establish a set schedule for his day. It’s only after realising that there is no state and federal law incorporated in to its programming that Frank begins to warm to his mechanical carer.

Representing a union between the old and the new, this film is the answer to pessimistic and unimaginative critiques of our technological age. It bravely avoids an examination of the destructive nature of technology, choosing instead to explore an odd alliance between opposites, thus suggesting hope for the future. The two characters form an unlikely bond, and being unselfish and loyal, Robot inevitably comes to stand for a variety of meaningful figures in Frank’s life. A replacement son, as well as partner in crime, this unblinking character is the perfect blank canvas for a aging man to project his anxieties on to. The question of its identity also offers opportunity for an exploration of memory, as Frank’s own concerns over his deteriorating brain are reflected in his refusal to wipe Robot’s hard drive.

Frank Langella is brilliantly proud and stubborn as Frank, and his interactions with the librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon) are a joy to watch. Jeremy Strong is perhaps a little too odd as the young, rich developer, and along with his girlfriend, walks and talks in a distinctly robotic manner. Whether or not this is deliberate, I found their presence awkward, and his character slightly unbelievable. Apart from this the cast does well, with James Marsden delivering an unexpectedly affecting performance as the neglected son.

Overall Robot & Frank is a fresh take on the robot film. It’s underlying messages are never preached, and this is what makes it an emotional watch, as you are allowed to connect with the characters on an intimate level. It manages to avoid a saccharine ending, and is a straightforward if slightly lightweight story of companionship and affection.

FINAL VERDICT: ★★★1/2

Drive (2011)

Breathtaking cinematography, and a stimulating soundtrack, work together to make Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive one of the most seductive pieces of cinema in recent years. Its polished neo-noir style is intoxicating, taking a lustrous Los Angeles skyline at night as a backdrop to its story of crime and revenge. Often criticized for its overuse of the pause, it is the film’s confident handling of tension and catharsis that makes it a silently powerful thriller.

Ryan Gosling is our hero without a name, the protagonist of a modern day fairytale, and on paper his story is simple. A mechanic turned stunt man and getaway driver, he befriends his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan), and through helping her husband, ends up inadvertently involved in some bloody mob affairs. A film of two halves, the first sees Gosling’s character wrapped up in a serene romance, bonding with Irene whilst her husband ‘Standard Gabriel’ is locked away in prison. Montages of their blossoming relationship are set to 80s synthpop as the two take long and quiet drives together down lamp lit streets and the Los Angeles River. Everything seems to be going well until Standard arrives home, and it’s his presence that sours proceedings. The tone of the film changes, its focus shifted from the blissful infatuation of young lovers, to an unnerving conflict involving mobsters Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman).

A simple enough plot is made incredibly impactful due to its imaginative and patient execution. Refn, and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, craft a spellbinding world where electric lights intrude on dark scenes, casting coloured glows over faces and heightening dramatic shadows. Silhouettes, side profiles and parallels are played with to great effect, as faces and forms are warped under odd lighting, and characters are strikingly framed by their urban surroundings. Certain features or details are intensely focused on, and there is an almost unbearable restraint within every scene, making any eventual action or speech far more affecting, and any violence far more horrifying. Rather than be packed with meaningless shouting and threats, the film takes its time building a dangerous atmosphere. Dialogue in scenes is sparse, but the silence never feels awkward. Instead, the viewer is treated to standout images such as our driver walking around in a quilted silk jacket, emblazoned with the image of a scorpion. Its fearless decisions such as this which make Drive such a bravely visual treat.

The film gets a lot of its emotional and sensual power from its music. A mixture of original songs by Cliff Martinez, and electronic pop numbers by Kavinsky, Desire, and College (one of David Grellier’s musical projects), the soundtrack is a stirring 80s tribute, not just supplementary, and in many ways the film’s fuel (excuse the pun). Cold, dry beats and robotic vocals manage to lend scenes an unexpected poignancy. From the very moment “Nightcall” kicks at the beginning, with its synthesised refrain and sinister vocoder, to the reintroduction of “A Real Hero” at the end, it’s obvious that the sounds and lyrics are as integral to the plot as the script. Martinez’s metallic sounds not only compliment the exteriors of the automobiles, but also stress that the characters’ actions are informed by the shining city in which they live.

A study of loneliness as well as identity, the film is a thrilling but melancholy tale of a hero’s isolation. Gosling’s driver is vulnerable yet brutal, dreaming of a life of love whilst coming to terms with his true nature. Mulligan plays damsel in distress with a strength that is apparent in her capability to raise a child alone and in a dangerous environment. The two are perfect for each other, and have a natural chemistry which only makes their fate all the more agonizing to watch. In Drive, Refn has managed to put together a fairytale that reflects a solitary life in the 21st Century. Every aspect is highly stylised, from the typeface and colour of the credits, to the costume choices. It is this heavy style which lulls the viewer into thinking that the film will be an easy ride, one of aesthetics rather than profundity. An abrupt shift in gears is what proves this to be false, as characters begin to deliver unexpected actions. By the film’s close, what has been cleverly demonstrated is that it is possible to involve both style and substance, and still have both pack hard punches.

FINAL VERDICT: ★★★★★

Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008)

The 21st Century’s answer to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Repo! The Genetic Opera does exactly what it says on the tin. It is a fast paced, cyberpunk, camp B movie opera with lots of blood. If you don’t like the sound of that, then look away now.

In a dystopic future where there has been an epidemic of organ failure, GeneCo miraculously offer surgeries to save people’s lives. Their transplant organs come at a high price though, and for those who can’t afford the fees, the cost of not paying is a messy death. Repo Men scout the streets in search of GeneCo property, cutting people open in back alleys to repossess their body parts. One such Repo Man is Nathan Wallace (Anthony Head), a conflicted soul whose daughter Shilo (Alex Vega) is sick, and kept locked away from the outside world. Head of GeneCo, Rotti (Paul Sorvino) takes an interest in Shilo (having known her late mother) and from here the story races manically forward towards a crazed conclusion. Imagine a production of Moulin Rouge, set in Blade Runner‘s Los Angeles, with sets and costumes designed by Dr. Frank-N-Furter, and a level of blood you’d expect to find in Sweeney Todd, and you’ve probably got something nearing the final scene of this film.

The musical numbers range from awful, to forgettable, to fantastic, with highlights being “Zydrate Anatomy” (sung by composer Terrance Zdunich himself), and anything with Sarah Brightman in it, whose Broadway vocals are a brilliant oddity in this otherwise underground musical. Anthony Head also proves that he can still belt out a tune since the last time his singing talents were put to use in Buffy’s “Once More With Feeling”. He very cleverly and effortlessly transforms from sweet father figure to evil Repo Man within the single line of a song.

A suitable amount of monstrosity is brought in to the mix by Rotti’s band of misfit children, who strut around with scarred and disintegrating body parts, knifing people when they get in the way. “Angry” Luigi is played by a deliciously wacky Bill Moseley, who practically screams and shouts his way through the film, and Pavi (musician Nivek Ogre) is a womaniser who wears women’s faces, singing in an effeminate Italian accent that meant I could barely understand anything he said. The star of the show, however, is undoubtedly Paris Hilton as Amber Sweet, whose dead eyes finally find a home in this world where badly acted cameos are welcomed with open arms.

Repo! The Genetic Opera could never be anything other than a budget musical. The story thrives off of shoddy pacing and berserk characters, leaving the viewer to either embrace this world of camp horror rock, or run screaming from it. But either way, it’s worth sticking around just to see Paris Hilton’s face falling off in the middle of an operatic number.

FINAL VERDICT: ★★★

Barton Fink (1991)

Barton Fink is packed full of symbolism, allegory, and open-ended questions. About one man’s struggles as a screenwriter in Hollywood, the film is at once realism and surrealism; comedy and tragedy. Willing you to discern meaning behind images and lines, Joel and Ethan Coen tease the viewer with a multitude of possible interpretations of their story and its characters. Littered with references to other films, novels, and poems, the viewing experience is overwhelming but rewarding.

With exhilarating performances from John Turturro, John Goodman, Michael Lerner, and Judy Davis, this is very much a character driven piece. Exploring the “life of the mind” from different angles, we are introduced to a variety of characters, each with their own issues and secrets. Barton Fink (Turturro) is a successful Broadway playwright who is asked by Capitol Pictures to write movie scripts for them in Hollywood. He agrees, albeit reluctantly, and checks himself into the Hotel Earle (where he meets bellhop Chet, played by Steve Buscemi). Wanting to avoid the flamboyant world of Hollywood money, Fink hides himself away in this obscure and dilapidated place, where the wallpaper peels off the walls and the bed’s springs creak.

Soon he becomes acquainted with his neighbor in residence, Charlie Meadows (Goodman), a travelling salesman with stories to tell. Having been commissioned to write a wrestling picture, Fink finds himself struggling for inspiration, and Charlie becomes a source of comfort for him during his long nights sat at his typewriter. Through forced socialising, Fink also encounters a writer named W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), and his secretary Audrey Taylor (Judy Davis). Immediately attracted to Audrey, it is Fink’s relationship with her that becomes the catalyst not only for his writing, but also for the action of the second half of the film.

Poking fun at the hypocrisies of Hollywood as well as the self-obsession of intellectuals, what the eventual absurdity of Barton Fink proves is that the life of the mind is truly chaotic. Fink desires an objective understanding of the “average working stiff, the common man”, but this is nothing more than a selfish ideal. What he finds instead is that such simplicity does not exist. Even the fishmongers are complicated, and everything is subjective. Our writer finds this out the hard way because of his stubborn refusal to listen to anyone but himself. Fink’s distinction between high art and low art is also his downfall, as he finds himself absorbed by a touristy picture on his wall whilst trying to write a masterpiece. He wants his work to be “the stuff of life” and yet he lives in a fantasy, ignoring those around him and creating drama that may be good, but is as fabricated as the Hollywood pictures he despises.

Charlie and the Hotel Earle have been seen as metaphors for many things, but the beauty of the film is that you can take everything at face value as well as trying to pick it apart for analysis. The sets and costumes are designed with a sharp-eyed attention to detail, lending the film a distinctive and memorable style. The rusty colours of the hotel match the browns of suits and shoes; and as Fink’s creative process goes on, his appearance becomes more and more disheveled. Capital Pictures boss Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner) is brilliantly smarmy in his cream-coloured robes and jackets, and Audrey’s red lips and hair are set strikingly against her white and blue dresses. A captivating watch, the film’s score by Carter Burwell, beautiful and odd at the same time, is a perfect match for a bizarre subject matter.

I knew nothing about this film going in to it, and I am glad that I didn’t. After the first half I thought I had this down as a quirky expose of screenwriting in Hollywood. Just like Fink, I was fooled into thinking that Charlie was your average Joe: round, friendly and funny. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), life isn’t so simple, and isn’t so truthful either. A celebration of madness, and proof that “truth” is sometimes stranger than fiction, Barton Fink blurs meaning until you’re not quite sure where you are or what you’re watching. But goddamn is it good, whatever it is.

FINAL VERDICT: ★★★★★

Paperman (2013)

I first saw Paperman at the cinema before seeing Wreck-It Ralph, which I absolutely loved. I feel as though my excitement for the latter was what made my initial rating of this animated short lower than it should have been. Watching it for the second time today, I was really affected by it, much more so than I was the first time round.

Blending traditional hand-drawn animation with a computer generated three-dimensionality, Paperman is a streamlined throwback to 1940s romance. A young office worker is given a second chance to catch the attention of a girl he met at a station platform, when he sees her in the opposite block from his window. He crafts paper aeroplanes in the hopes of having her notice him. When it seems as though all hope is lost, a bit of magic is what helps this young pair on their way to meeting each other again.

The soundtrack is what tugs at the heartstrings most, with floating strings building up to an emotional crescendo that suits the movements of the characters as they race toward their unknown destinations. Genuinely affecting, the film also has moments of light-hearted comedy that mean it is entertaining from beginning to end. A favourite moment of mine is when an unassuming man across the way receives one of the planes by accident, and gets excited thinking that he might have an admirer.

A luscious black and white love affair, Paperman is an imaginative short that can survive rewatches thanks to its likeable protagonist and its emotive score.

FINAL VERDICT: ★★★★

Adam and Dog (2012)

Focusing on the silent loyalty of dogs, Minkyu Lee’s debut animated short is a quiet and humble interpretation of the Adam and Eve story. Scaling down what is essentially the grandest narrative in history, Adam and Dog turns a damning conclusion on its head by promising happiness through friendship.

Manipulating darkness and light to great effect, the film opens with wide shots of scenery soaked in sunlight, where a feral dog walks inconspicuously, not searching for anything in particular. After a day of aimless wandering through fields and in among trees, Adam is introduced, and the two (as expected) get along wonderfully. Things go amiss, however, when Eve arrives on the scene and messes everything up, like she always does (please note sarcasm).

Capturing the times of day beautifully, early morning shots have a crisp and clean feel, with colours white-washed, and light peering through every opening. Afternoons are more earthy, with deeper greens, greys and browns taking over. And at dusk the sky’s blue fades into pink, turning the fields vivid orange and the water yellow. It’s at night when the film is at its most serene though, with a star pierced sky and the characters silhouetted against indigo.

The relationship between Adam and dog is well executed, with Lee managing to avoid over-sentimentality. Theirs is a genuine bond, and this is what makes the ending so strong. However, having never been a dog person myself, I found the exploration of man’s primordial connection to the canine family ever so slightly alienating. Eve is present only as a disturbance, and despite being accepting at the end, never feels like a genuine presence. This might be reading too much into it though, as it is only 15 minutes long, and the film’s title is pretty self-explanatory.

Lee’s short manages to lend an animal personality in moments of silence, and despite its shortcomings is undeniably a gorgeous animation, full of colour and enthusiasm.

FINAL VERDICT: ★★★★

The Eagleman Stag (2011)

How do you condense a lifetime into 9 minutes? By presenting it in an eerie white that transcends time and space.

The Eagleman Stag is about one man’s obsession over changing perceptions of time. For a young boy of only four or five, minutes can make a much weightier impression than they might for an 80 year old man. Interested in taxonomy, our central character finds a beetle that may hold the answers to the questions he has been searching for.

In a blanched world where the lines of writing and drawings are embossed on to the page and grass grows like scraps of paper, piles of memories are explored in an original and believable way. We begin with a fetus in the womb, which tells us “yes, this seems about right”. And what follows are magnified snapshots of childhood, small details that resonate in an older mind. It’s all about looking back in this film, at the moments you wish you had appreciated more, but which you never could because you didn’t know what they meant at the time. We can all relate to this pain, no matter what age we might be. A child turning in to their adolescence might reminisce over their blissful primary school days, just as an elderly man might look over his years and ponder “what did it all mean?”

Ironically, the minutes fly by whilst watching this, and it feels less like 9 minutes and more like seconds as you’re drawn into a sped up world of fleeting images. Gorgeously animated with an intense detail that works to emphasize the messages of the film, The Eagleman Stag is a brilliant tribute to the confusing and unforgiving nature of life and time.

FINAL VERDICT: ★★★★

Runaway (2010)

Overdone, ostentatious, pretentious and egotistical. Kanye West’s half-hour short/extended music video is all these things, and more. And yet it’s still brilliant. Let me just say this quickly though: If you don’t like Kanye West or his music, then you probably won’t like Runaway. Part of the reason I love it so much is because of the songs, and so if My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy isn’t your cup of tea, then this isn’t for you.

Loosely following a story about a phoenix (played by model Selita Ebanks) that crashes to earth, the film portrays the blossoming relationship between West and this mythical bird. Set pieces are accompanied by the booming bass and auto-tuned singing of tracks off the 2010 album, and in my opinion the sounds and images work amazingly well together.

The phoenix has been interpreted as a metaphor for how Kanye West views his own career: that he has made mistakes in the past and been ripped apart by those around him, and now the time has come for him to either turn to stone, or burn and be reborn. Some people have chosen to mock this sentiment and brand him a narcissistic jerk, which is probably something he would admit to being anyway. The focus on the female form, and on dance and movement, can either be taken at face value or as an emphasis of West’s insatiable need to inspire people with his music. His beats and the notes of a piano travel through the women like shivers.

When I watch this film I tend to focus on the music: what it means to me and how it makes me feel. I let the visuals compliment what is essentially an insanely brilliant album, and tend not to focus too much on hidden meanings and symbols. Gorgeously shot, the highlights are most definitely the ballerinas dancing to titular song Runaway, and the concluding song (featuring vocals from Bon Iver) Lost in the World, where Kanye (literally) runs to save his new love.

FINAL VERDICT: ★★★★

I’m Here (2010)

FrancescaWhat do you dream about?
SheldonWhat do you mean? We can’t dream.
FrancescaCourse you can, you just make it up. I had the scariest dream last night. I was trying to get away, and these plants they’re attacking me, they were chasing me. It was so scary. And the vines were grabbing at me and they were trying to kill me and they were pulling me down on to the ground, they were trying to tear me apart. And right before I died, I just — I woke up.
SheldonWoah, you’re a good dreamer.

Spize Jonze’s I’m Here is a love story set in a world where robots and humans coexist. Sheldon is a lonely and retiring librarian with sad eyes, who spots Francesca as she drives past his bus stop. She notices him too, and eventually they meet and fall in love through a series of sun-soaked montages. Things turn sour though when Francesca has a series of accidents, and Sheldon decides to make some big sacrifices in order to keep her happy and healthy.

Beautiful to look at, the film’s palette of muted blues, greys, browns, and yellows is similar in tone to Where the Wild Things Are. Outside scenes are flooded with a white light that blanches everything it touches, and there’s an expected blue tone to indoor shots that suggests melancholy. The soundtrack accompanies the images well with music from indie noise-pop duo Sleigh Bells as well as an appearance by fake band The Lost Trees, who provide eerie love ballads to hover over intimate moments.

In his film Jonze explores the intense pain that comes with intense love. At the beginning we are shown a dream-like ideal; a man meets the perfect girl and forms the perfect relationship. Later this ideal is taken apart (if you’ve seen the film, excuse the pun), as acts of self-sacrifice are made literal. Giving and taking is part of life and relationships, and robots with detachable parts make easy metaphors for this concept. I’m not sure how we’re make to take the message of the film, whether it’s a celebration of selflessness, a comment on selfishness, or an objective study of devotion. Either way, the images are strong and stay with you regardless of the interpretation you choose to make.

As robots the characters are incredibly human, sometimes too much so. Despite outward appearances they express an abundance of emotions and exchange meaningful looks. It’s as though Jonze strives too hard to have us relate to these machines with feelings, and so drowns them in sentiment to the point where they become saccharine. Lacking edge, this young pair in love becomes the epitome of the indie image. This is where my criticism lies. There could have been more done with this story, and what was done could have been executed slightly better. Tending too far towards robots as romantic symbols of our modern age, where technology has replaced intimacy, Jonze’s short seems weighted down by its own schmaltziness.

FINAL VERDICT: ★★★