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Film Review – Melancholia

18 Nov

– by Walton Pantland

In a hopeless situation, only those who have given up hope can find any strength.

I am not a fan of Lars von Trier. He is a difficult man to feel affection for, and his films are often oblique, challenging and downright depressing. Breaking the Waves was powerful, but remorselessly miserable. Dogville and Manderlay bored me, and I didn’t watch Dancer in the Dark because it sounded too relentlessly bleak. I hated Antichrist: while it was aesthetically interesting and had powerful images, I felt mocked by it, and by his suggestion that there is something primevally wrong with women that men need to overcome. Women are witches, he seemed to be saying, with an unholy relationship to a malign natural world.

Melancholia, however, is one of the most powerful and prescient films I have seen in a long time. A beautiful fable about the end of the world, it tells the story of the collision of the rogue planet Melancholia with the Earth, and of the annihilation of all life, from the point of view of three main characters. The film suggests an analogy with the environmental, economic and political collapse we are experiencing, and coldly compares responses and coping mechanisms. In the film, the only character who is able to face the end of the world with sang froid and equanimity is Kirsten Dunst’s Justine, who is so incapacitated by depression that annihilation seems like a mild inconvenience.

Dunst’s acting in this film is exceptional, and challenges our assumptions about her artistic range. We witness her psychic descent over two acts. In the first act, we experience the beginning of her mental collapse at a disastrous wedding party. What starts out as predictable behaviour from a nervous bride becomes significantly more serious after she locks herself away and then has a random sexual encounter with one of the guests.

By act two, her mental state has deteriorated so much that she is unable to feed or wash herself and is cared for by her sister Claire, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. However, as Melancholia encroaches on the Earth and doom becomes immanent, she finds strength in her despair while the other, more ‘rational’ characters fall apart.

Claire is made to look ridiculous in a powerful scene where she suggests that the end of the world can be made ‘nicer’ by lighting candles and enjoying a final glass of wine. Her husband, John, played by Keifer Sutherland, is unable to cope when his scientific rationalism and optimistic world view has has no remedy for the impending doom.

Only Justine has the courage and fortitude to face the darkness. She is also able to use a magic realist conceit to shield Claire’s son Leo from the truth, and the two face oblivion by calmly holding hands.

Does this suggest that those who are anticipating the collapse, such as the Dark Mountain project, have got it right?

Shot through with powerful imagery evoking German Romanticism and featuring Wagner on the soundtrack, several scenes remind us of the work of Caspar David Friedrich. Von Trier’s vision of apocalypse is strangely beautiful, and the film acts as a darkly moving counterpoint to Terrence Mallick’s Tree of Life.

As we contemplate our end, we reconsider the value of what we do.




Film Review – We need to talk about Kevin

18 Nov

– by Andrew Brady

The film is a faithful adaptation of the novel by Lionel Shriver about a fictional school massacre. And yes I must confess I have not read the book (it’s lying on my shelf) but I know people who have and assure me of this. The film’s Glaswegian director Lynne Ramsay brought the film to the Glasgow Film Theatre recently and also participated in a discussion – and if anything you should go to see it for this sole reason.

It is written from the perspective of the killer’s mother, Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton), and documents her attempt to come to terms with her son Kevin (in adolescence played by Ezra Miller), and the murders he committed. The story is told from the perspective of letters from Eva to her husband (John C. Reilly).

The film switches between the guilt-stricken mother trying to rebuild her life post-shooting and the hatred showed towards her by the local community and the life stages of the family. It is clear that a contributory factor to Kevin’s difficult childhood is a result of Eva’s own post-natal depression. The estrangement she feels towards her son intertwines with his increasing malice before culminating in mass murder. The film ignites a classic ‘nature versus nurture’ debate which in the end is never resolved.

A deeply disturbing film with some powerful performances.

Film Review – Tree of Life

17 Nov

– by Andrew Brady

The ‘Tree of Life’,  directed by Terrence Malick, is perhaps the film that has left the most lingering feeling on me both cinematically and in its story. Despite being the winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year it received mixed reviews from Joe Public.

It essentially begins when Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) recalls a lesson taught to her that people must choose to either follow the path of grace or the path of nature.

In the mid 1960s, she receives a telegram informing her of her son’s death at age 19, while Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) is notified by telephone. The family unsurprisingly is thrown into turmoil. The film then switches into the present day with one of three brothers Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn)  going through an emotional crisis of his own. When he sees a tree being planted in front of a building he reminisces about his life as young teenager during the 1950s. It is at this point the film begins to develop.
The early years of Jack become intertwined with grand scenes showing the formation of the universe and as galaxies expand and planets are formed, voice-overs ask various questions about existence and life. Some of the stunning cosmic scenes seem more akin to Kubrick’s ‘A Space Odyssey’.
On the newly formed Earth, volcanoes erupt and microbes begin to form through to the evolution of dinosaurs. In a scene designed to provoke an alternative narrative to Darwinism a dinosaur places its foot on the neck of an ailing other, preparing for the kill, but then reconsiders after watching it struggle and it wanders off.
As the family story evolves the young couple are enthralled by baby Jack and, later, his two brothers. When Jack (Hunter McCracken) reaches adolescence he is faced with the conflict of the nature of his parents – grace or nature. Mrs. O’Brien urges her sons to follow a path of grace and wonder while Mr. O’Brien (nature) is strict and authoritarian – although believing that it prepares his sons for life.
Yet in a deeper philosophical thread in the film he laments the course his life has taken questioning whether he has been a good enough person. The final scenes of the story of the family culminates with the final scenes of the evolution of our Earth until in the end it is left as a desolate, lifeless frozen place still orbiting around the sun. One is forced to ask in the final analysis what will be the enduring legacy of our Earth and of family, friendship and community.

The film really unsettles viewers to ask the enduring questions of Life – for what purpose has anything ever existed (is there one?), and, for what purposes do we live? Are we as beings simply a continuation of nature, inconsequential in the cosmos, or should our mortal time here on Earth be spent towards creating a greater grace? I will watch this film from time to time for years to come…..

Film Review – Ides of March

17 Nov

– by Walton Pantland

This is a finely scripted political thriller in which an idealistic campaigner loses his innocence.

Ryan Gosling – easily one of the most interesting actors working in Hollywood today – plays Stephen Myers, an adviser working on the political campaign of Democratic leadership candidate Mike Morris, played by George Clooney, who also directs. The tighly contested Ohio primary is under way, and Myers is working hard to get his candidate elected. Reflecting the optimism of the Obama campaign, Myers is a true believer – he believes Morris will make America a better country, and that fundamental change can come about by electing the correct candidate.

A romance with a beautiful intern Molly (Evan Rachel Wood) has tragic consequences, and Myers is forced to confront the sleaze and corruption of the political system, and his own faith in the candidate he reveres.

Can this be read as an allegory for the Obama presidency? For many activists in the US, the rhetoric about hope and change seems to have retreated into resignation and a cynicism that hope and change can’t come about through the established political order. The people now involved in the Occupy movement across the US are the same constituency that turned out en masse to elect Obama. The film speaks of the failure of centre left politics to articulate people’s aspirations and hope for a better future, and of the victory of cynicism in politics.

The film has an excellent cast – Marissa Tomei, an increasingly nuanced actor, is excellent as a crusading journalist, while Paul Giamattai and Philip Seymour Hoffman are utterly convincing as world-weary and cynical political advisors for rival candidates. The star is clearly Ryan Gosling, who’s wide-eyed innocence is crushed and compromised by the corruption, cover ups and back stabbing he encounters on the race to the top.

An intelligent political drama that speaks to the democratic deficit and widespread popular disillusionment with our political systems.

Film Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

28 Sep

– by Walton Pantland

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a finely crafted spy movie. It owes more to old films like The Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin than modern incarnations like The Bourne Identity. It’s a cerebral and atmospheric film, and you need to pay attention to follow the complexity of the plot as the tension slowly winds itself to a cold, hard finale.

Based on the novel by John le Carré, and set in 1973 in the depths of the cold war, the central plot is that one some one at the very top of British intelligence is a secret Soviet agent – and has been for years. MI6 – code named the Circus – has been infiltrated by an enemy agent. Gary Oldman, in a masterful performance, plays George  Smiley, tasked with surreptiously identifying and exposing the spy at the heart of the Circus. He teams up with a Benedict Cumberpatch’s Peter Guillam as they set out to spy on the spies and uncover the mole. As he slowly uncovers the agent’s tracks, he is haunted by an earlier interaction with Soviet master spy Karla, who appears to be the puppet master pulling the strings.

The grey tones and muted, subtly shifting moods perfectly evoke Cold War paranoia; the focus on betrayal and secrecy rather than car cases and gun fights a reminder of the contrast between the slow burning tensions of international espionage and the passions of hot war.

The film also deals with loyalty and identity, as well as with homophobia in the British establishment, and asks: why would some one betray their country? The answer seems to be that despite the differences between their societies, at this level both sides seem as bad as each other. Both engage in nefarious deeds, and are involved in assassinations and other such activity. Despite the veneer of espionage being a gentleman’s pursuit, this is a dirty business and people are of no consequence.

When you find yourself with colleagues you despise and enemies you respect, and complicated layers of double dealing, it is hard to know when you’ve crossed the line until it is too late. Featuring more than one passionate but tragic love story, as an agent falls for the beautiful but betrayed Russian woman Irina and tries to rescue her, Smiley and Guillam attempt to hold things together and inject some humanity into the situation.

With a stellar cast and understated performances, this film evokes a murky, complex world when the shadow of nuclear annihilation hung over the body politic.

A masterful film well worth watching.


Film review: La piel que habito – The Skin I Live In

29 Aug

– by Andrew Brady

Pedro Almodovar’s film is one of horror, elegance, comedy and surrealism. Those who are familiar with his work will recognise these traits but for those who are not – myself included – the mix is magical.

The story begins with the brilliant plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard (the fantastic Antonio Banderas) at his home. Here lies a private operating theatre where ethical boundaries are crossed. The mansion is also ‘home’ to Ledgard’s special patient Vera (Elena Anaya) who practises yoga in a catsuit. Ledgard watches Vera on surveillance screens while she remains locked in the room for reasons which are not clear, and when they come into contact in the room there is a romantic chemistry between the two which Ledgard continuously draws himself back from entering into.
It soon becomes clear that the reason for this is that Vera is Ledgard’s patient – but no ordinary one at that. Vera is his creation as a result of genetically modified human skin. But who is Vera – is it Ledgard’s wife who is presumed to have died in a car crash from burns, or someone surgically created to resemble her? Those familiar with the concept of Stockholm syndrome should be prepared for it to be stretched to the limits.
Ledgard soon transforms into a maniac but yet someone who you feel compassion for as he appears to care for Vera with precision and meticulousness; while a journey of emotions begins with the character Vera . For those familiar with Almodovar’s work this journey coincides with – quite frankly – compelling absurdity. It involves a Brazilian robber in a carnival tiger costume who happens to be the wayward son of Ledgard’s housekeeper Marilia – who is also Ledgard’s mother unbeknown to him – and with this another sub-plot unfolds.

Almodovar’s further depth into the absurd involves Ledgard’s disturbed daughter and a young window dresser Vincent who meet at a wedding party. It is at this point where the story truly unravels. I will say no more for fear of revealing the plot, however, be prepared to leave the cinema at the final scene laughing, bemused and chilled. It is a film produced with exquisiteness and style.

Now showing on general release and at the GFT.

Film review: Cría Cuervos

15 Jun

Cría Cuervos, (Raise Ravens) has been re-released as part of the BFI Southbank season of post-Franco Spanish cinema.

Director Carlos Saura’s 1976 film is incredibly timely as there has been little else since White Ribbon which can match it for its mysterious, cinematic charm. The movie focuses on a dysfunctional, strict and secretive family (with many skeletons in the closet which are not spoken about) that in many ways chimes perfectly with a Spain emerging from dictatorship.  Eight-year-old Ana Torrent plays Ana, whose father is a senior Spanish Fascist army officer and who she blames for the premature death of her mother.

The film begins with Ana witnessing her dad expiring from a heart attack while having an affair with the wife of his best friend. His own wife, Ana’s mother, has already died after a long illness and years of mistreatment perhaps reflecting another part of Franco society.  Ana, who lives with her two sisters, authoritarian Aunt, Grandmother and housemaid Rosa, after the death of her father, however, is preoccupied with memories of her late mother who appears to Ana in supernatural scenes. In a strange yet fascinating angle to the film the young Ana who in part narrates the film as an adult is played by the same actress who appears as her mother, perhaps reflecting the continued pain that not only her family went through but also Spain in a post-Franco era trying to break free from its past.

In a review for the Guardian which neatly sums up the film, Peter Bradshaw writes:

In one sense, the child stands for the whole of Spain’s younger generation, brutalised by the Franco regime, tensely and miserably waiting for it to die out, but wanting to have killed it.

An interesting and compelling cinematic experience not matched for a number of years. The film is a must see either on re-release or DVD.

Cría Cuervos is showing at Glasgow Film Theatre in August.

– by Andrew Brady