Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Review of Tyrannosaur (2011)

"Tyrannosaur", a sophomore directorial effort expanding a short film made four years prior, from that most gifted of British actors Paddy Considine, is principally a film about dichotomies. It presents two visions of hell, one terrifying, and one sad, and almost seems to let them battle it out against each other. It also concerns a man with a fractured psyche who has a deep wellspring of rage within him, but enough of a conscience to know that his actions are abhorrent. There's something Nietzschean, or perhaps Freudian, to his character, such is the intensity of the war ongoing between his id and his ego.

This man is called Joseph and is played by Peter Mullan in a naked, brave performance. The very first scene sees him stumbling out of a pub, drunken and rambling, angry at some trivial thing or another. It doesn't take much to set him off. His dog whimpers at him, and he kicks it. The dog dies. The next day, he buries it in his back garden.

Described here, one could very easily hate Joseph, but Considine seems to be telling us that to do so would be taking the easy way out. There's something to his grief, and tenderness, the way he caresses his dogs' paw after the event conveying a deep regret at his actions, and a deeper regret at his inability to stop himself from performing them.

Joseph's world is the sad vision of hell.

Events place him in the company of the timid, Christian, charity shop worker Hannah (Olivia Colman). There is no easy rapport between them to begin with, and theirs is not some love story. Her innate goodness results in her trying to console him, but he lashes out and deeply insults her. Later she returns home to a pleasant suburban house, quietly drinks a lot of wine while sat on the sofa, and when she has passed out her husband James (Eddie Marsan) returns home and urinates on her.

Olivia's world is the terrifying vision of hell. A wedding photo of the pair hangs large in their living room, almost as a reminder of how dire her situation has become and how much has been lost in her life.

Indeed, for me the film's strongest and most affecting writing came in the presentation of their abusive relationship. James decides to beat her up, and when Hannah comes into work the next day, her assertion that she "slipped in the bath" feels as well-rehearsed as an old stagehand performing the role of Banquo. Without ever, really, saying so Considine conveys the rise and fall and stagnation of an entire relationship. James' pitiful apology to Olivia, a scene I had to look away from, is so devastating because it implies a vicious ongoing cycle, and also because it subtly shows James wheedling Olivia into the perpetrator, and him the victim.

These two worlds are presented side by side, with Joseph and Olivia's relationship the focal point in the centre. They are both so hurt, and so wounded, that they see a little of themselves in each other, and hence against their natures get drawn towards each other.

They key to the film's success is that it is so accurate and rings to true about the characters and situations it depicts. I have met people like Joseph, whose lives revolve around rage, alcohol, and self-pity, with just enough humanity to know that if he really, really tried they could turn it around a little. I have met people like Hannah, who carry inside them a small glow of goodness which touches all they speak to. I have even, from afar, observed the actions of people like James, who defy understanding, in the way we can understand Joseph, and appear to have been born into this world as just pure evil.

A vision of the world this bleak needs an accompanying visual design, and thankfully Considine hired cinematographer Erik Wilson, one of the best working today, and he creates an oppressive and dreary atmosphere greyer than the M5. A couple of outdoor scenes I assumed were set indoors; that's how overcast the film is.

At this point you may be wondering why you'd want to see a film like this. A not entirely invalid question, since although this is a first-rate production it is in the service of a miserable plot. Yet... I can't say it transcends the misery, but there's so much artistry surrounding it and so much essential human truth at the centre of the film, and it conveys the themes so cogently and effectively that I can't help but recommend it most highly.

Films like this, I think, are best for allowing us to observe worlds which we may not come into contact with, and hence it deserves respect. Bad things like this do happen, and just as we should not ignore them when they do, so, too, I don't think we should ignore this film.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Review of The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

There's a moment of utter preposterousness which occurs near the end of the Peter Jackon's "Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" which highlights the sheer ridiculousness of Warner Brother's decision (informed, I can only assume, by the allure of box office receipts) to split this slim book into three huge films. Two characters, I won't name who so as to avoid spoilers, have just had a twenty minute fight, replete with the "he's dead, HE ISN'T, he's dead, HE ISN'T!" beats every two minutes or so. Finally, the scene decides to end, and one character falls from a height which would DEFINITELY kill him. Then, just so we know this isn't a false death like the many that have preceded it, we see a huge rock fall and hit them. Splat. We get it.

I laughed, against myself, because it's just a ludicrous piece of film-making in a ludicrous saga, which has no good reason being this long. The plot itself has enough meat, perhaps, for two 90 minute films or one very fast-paced 150 minute film. It concerns a quest to a mountain which has been taken over by a dragon, Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch); that's it. But where the previous Lord of the Rings films (of which I am a fan) had a plot that was similarly simple, but embellished by a fierce sense of place, this film just drags, because the extraneous elements feel shoehorned in, as opposed to part of this world of awe and wonder.

There's just no sense of urgency. Characters stall and dither and shoot the breeze and make grandiose statements in big booming voices and reflect on the Terrible Nature of the events which have just occurred, and it amounts to piteously little. Elements which could have been nice emotional bookends on a smaller film, such as Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman)'s borderline homo-erotic friendship with dwarf Thorin (Richard Armitage) are here treated as if they carry the emotional heft of Bizet's Carmen. It's as stagnant a film as you can imagine seeing, and that's surprising when you consider that the title literally acts as a complete plot synopsis. It's a battle. There are five armies. There's a lot of bodice-tearing braggadocio and battlefield proclamations (which grow quite comical by the end).

Oh, there's so much to pick apart. The sound design was unusually woeful for a production of this heft; various scenes had dialogue when the characters' mouths weren't moving, the battle sounds felt like they'd been pulled from a child's sword/shield/helmet playset, and the whole film had a vague "you're watching this underwater", subdued quality to it. Even Ian McKellen's legendary wizard Gandalf, one of the most recognisable figures in modern day popular culture, is completely wasted, spending the first half of the film in a cage and the second half of the film commenting on the battle and strolling around.

If there's one saving grace, I suppose, it's that whilst the film is long (144 minutes for one battle and some moping) it doesn't quite hit the gross exorbitance of the last film in the trilogy, "The Desolation of Smaug", a 161 orgy of needless narrative excess and, on the record, one of the most boring films ever made. This film is, narratively, a complete whitewash- I cannot stress this enough, ONE BATTLE, SOME MOPING- but at least it wasn't as bad as one of the dullest films I've ever seen.

Small potatoes.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Review of Stranger By The Lake (2013)

Stranger By The Like is as much about loneliness as it is about lust, which is a key to understanding it amidst the un-simulated and frankly shot sequences of gay lovemaking. It could not be a simpler film, taking place at the eponymous lake which doubles as a cruising spot for a number of gay men. We are introduced to a man called Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), who is perhaps in his mid-to-late 20's, who frequents the spot. In the first scene, he walks up to a larger, older man called Henri (Patrick d'Assumcao) and starts chatting with him. We learn that Henri is recently divorced, with an ambiguous sexuality, but content to sit and watch the lake as the days go by.

The film has an eerie, voyeuristic tone to these opening scenes which simultaneously puts the viewer at ease, with its' gentle and luscious depiction of the tranquil lake and the surrounding woods, and also unnerves, as the various men lie undressed on the beach, go up into the woods to get it off with each other, and make idle chit-chat around this. It's an effective juxtaposition which underpins the entire film.

I was immediately reminded of Ulrich Seidl's "Paradise: Love", the first part of a trilogy, which saw an older woman travel to Africa to have sex with younger African men. They share a lot of stylistic choices; that film had a number of scenes set on a beach, and they both share a prevalent use of shallow focus photography, meaning that everything is on the screen in clear view. There's no lighting. It's as frank as can be, and shot primarily in long-shot and tableaux.

This idyll is somewhat shattered when the mysterious Michel (Christophe Paou) turns up. Franck is instantly attracted to him, but Michel has another lover. Franck silently stews, transfixed, and occupied with his conversations with Henri, until one evening after it has got dark, Michel drowns his lover in the lake. Instead of doing the sensible thing, Franck finds himself further drawn towards Michel, replacing his previous lover, and even being so bold as to name their love-making love, instead of simply cruising.

The events above are presented in such a placid, manner-of-fact way that as a viewer one has to constantly remind themselves of the true nature of the story being told. This is the stuff of pulp, elevated to what appears to be high-art. It's also, for me, a pitiful study of loneliness. As well as morbid curiosity and fatalistic lust, Franck's actions belie an intense loneliness. He's desperate to feel something with someone; look at how he says "kiss me" just as he is about to climax. This also explains his growing bond with Henri, who is also incredibly lonely but in touch with himself enough to admit it; he is a complicated character, but brutally honest, which Franck lacks.

The film does uncoil, slowly and then very quickly in a notably tense sequence, and comes off ultimately like a Hitchcock film directed by Bruce LaBruce (and shot by Haneke's regular cinematographer). This is not a bad thing; it's a b-movie with arthouse trappings, and this too does its' bit to unnerve the audience. Its' depiction of male sexuality is among the more overt examples of male (on male) gaze I've seen, and far from being exploitative we are forced to genuinely contemplate the male body in the same manner as looking at Michaelangelo's David forces us. Director Alain Guiraudie is fearlessly formal in framing his compositions around this remit, and he knows how to gain the most from shooting a sex-scene.

I do, however, have reservations. Whilst I cannot fault the manner of its telling, the story itself is dragged down by a couple of bits and pieces. The dialogue in the early scenes is a little heavy-handed, and one encounter with a man looking for women feels like it's establishing that this is a gay cruising spot; well, duh. There are a couple of clanging moments like that. And there's something to the disintegration of the sunny, peaceful tranquillity which is a little too complete for me; there's nothing in particular left to think about, or contemplate, and it doesn't go wider than the film itself. This seems like a bizarre criticism, but there's something to be said for the sadness I feel when I think I'm watching a great film which is going to endure and grow in the mind, and it turns out to be just a good one.

And yet, as I am wont to say, this is still a good film with a lot to recommend it. There's something marked about the restrained performances and lolling pace in service of the nasty plot which left a distinct impression on me, and a film willing to present male sexuality this bravely has to be commended. It's a shame it didn't do more, but then maybe I'm just asking a bit much.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Review of Sightseers (2013)

It reads like some kind of bizarre story you'd get in the back pages of a shady pulp magazine; or perhaps more like something you'd find plastered on the front pages of one of those glossy, grotesque "True Life Stories" magazines you assume no-one buys, yet someone must. A happy couple, in their mid-30's, on a caravanning holiday, which would end in a string of senseless murders.

He is Chris, played by Steve Oram, an amiable, bearded man, the kind of bloke you'd happily chat to down the pub. Bearded and opinionated in that way that British men in their mid-30's often are, he seems sensible, friendly, and almost remarkably normal. She is Tina, played by Alice Lowe, and her character is a bit more complicated. She's cute, pretty, but we sense a supreme loneliness inside her. Perhaps Chris is the first guy who's paid attention to her in a while. That she lives with her demanding, overbearing mother Carol (Eileen Davies), feels like a clue.

The very first scenes, with Tina preparing for the holiday, are like Mike Leigh on downers, as Carol bitterly spits in Chris' face "I don't like you" after he promises to bring back Tina safely. It's an odd opening, lacking any big laughs to hook the audience in, but funny enough to let us know we're watching a comedy, and it does set up the characters very well. The early scenes with the holiday itself work too; Chris and Tina are genuinely in love, and seem to complete each other in quite an endearing way. I liked them both throughout.

But all is not quite right; a man drops a Cornetto wrapper (a nod to the Cornetto Trilogy, I imagine, since Edgar Wright produced this film) on a tram, and Chris gets unduly enraged. Later he runs the man over with his caravan, in front of the man's wife and child, in what appears to be a terrible accident, although you can't help but notice Chris' little smirk...

Perhaps you can see where this is going. It is not long before Chris has pushed a man called Ian (Jonathan Aris) off a rock-face, seemingly for no other reason than Chris really didn't take to him. Tina finds out, but seems nonplussed at Chris' confession; "You can't do that... You'll ruin our holiday!." The bodies begin to mount up after that, but this is not some caravanning slasher flick. It's quite a hard film to peg, actually, but certainly a very intelligent one, and that's what I loved about it. Think a British "Badlands", where the characters have doubled in age and are prone to worry about not finding the right pasta sauce in a different town..

The film has a commitment to mundanity which is quite remarkable. It was quite uncomfortable to watch in places, actually, because it skewers a number of things which are very accurate about British life. Buying mints at petrol stations; holiday itineraries; the National Trust; the Daily Mail; the way some people get really, really funny about dog crap. Again, Edgar Wright's influences are writ large, but where his Shaun of the Dead poked fun at British life, director Ben Wheatley seems to dissect it and lay it bare. The film is so effective because you could probably edit out the killings, and you'd be left with quite a touching, romantic little love story.

But the killings are there, and this marriage of the macabe and the mundane becomes more pressing as the film goes on. It would, weirdly enough, make a fantastic double bill with John McNaughton's "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer", a film I admire very much, which intercut scenes of brutality with scenes of the killers shooting the breeze and drinking coffee. I watched this film with my father, who made a fair observation halfway through that this is, probably, what a fair few serial killers live like. Certainly, the perverse normality of it all made me relate to Chris and Tina, which made me creep-y and crawl-y, and there's something to be said for Chris' complete and utter lack of guilt, or remorse, and the way he treats all this as just a fact of life.

The film goes to some darker and deeper places later on, and I won't ruin how, but I will say to keep a very close eye on Tina and her behaviour in the final act. The film itself retains a mordant, unrepentant eye on the pair's actions, and as an audience we almost feel like accomplices ourselves. It is also very funny, never in a particularly laugh-out-loud way (although there are some good laughs), but it's more... Amusing. Constantly dancing on that knife-edge between discomfort and hilarity. And that works quite well. Perhaps if it had been too funny, that would have distracted from the bigger things at work under the surface.

A final note must also go to Laurie Rose's brilliant cinematography. She worked on Wheatley's "Kill List", which was a cultish, psychedelic hitman movie, and utterly unforgettable, in no small part due to her downright freaky shot arrangements. Here she keeps the creepy compositions down to a bare minimum, but allows for a few moments of beauty. The moment where Chris kills Ian has the most effective use of chiaroscuro, and is just fancy enough to let the audience know that the rest of the films' look, which has a kitchen-sink, warts-and-all feel to it, was a conscious choice.

This is a subversive, discomforting film, hilarious in the right places, gruesome in others, and has that quality that means it grows in the mind as you think about it. The script, credited to the principal actors, has that very British ad-libbed feel to it, which is perfect here. It's just vague enough to interpret, but overt enough to let you know it knows what it's doing, and it has a peculiar mood which is hard to describe but very easy to feel. In short, it's just right, and if that sounds like damning with faint praise then think about how many films you've seen which don't put a foot wrong from the first frame to the last. This is one of those films, and it's a rarity, and it deserves to be seen.