Director: Spike Jonze
Actors: Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper
Synopsis: Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) battles against his demons and low self-esteem while commissioned to write a challenging screenplay about the relationship between a novelist and enigmatic orchid-thief. At the same time, his heathen brother, Donald (Nicolas Cage), achieves unlikely success with his own, more hackneyed genre screenplay….
Review: This riotous portrait of the principled writer adrift amid Hollywood’s industrial machine and the commercial tyranny of story/character/action, functions somewhere in-between a sly celebration of the writer’s inherent sustenance and adaptability versus a more forlorn, futile view of their obsolescence against the system.
Of course, intellectual, idea-heavy movies like this toy with becoming self-defeating in that their deconstructionist bent can preclude any notion of actual dramatic watchability (an error the Coen brothers’ spy spoof, Burn After Reading committed). Thankfully, Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman are able to keep Adaptation progressively lucid and amusing through the clever revelations of their postmodern musings – not only is there the obvious twist at the end of the orchid thief subplot taking on the pulpy genre twists of Charlie’s brother’s scripted machinations, but throughout the whole narrative we’re forced to contend with just exactly what the film’s empirical perspective is, and just where the double-backs and stories-within-stories begin (if indeed they do at all – echoing the abyme of Jonze/Kaufman’s previous collaboration, Being John Malkovich, which Adaptation is a temporally literal spin-off from). (December 2013)
The Ghost (2010)
Director: Roman Polanski
Actors: Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams
Synopsis: An unnamed British writer (Ewan McGregor) is hired to ghost-write the political memoirs of ex-British PM, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). Out at Lang’s retreat in the US, the writer soon becomes disconcerted by Lang’s murky past, the isolated, windswept setting, and the fate of his predecessor who was mysteriously found washed up on the shores of the island near Lang’s house.
Review: This classy, veteran’s genre piece really does find Roman Polanski on cracking form, navigating superbly the fine balancing act between honouring his story’s genuine thriller tension and paranoia, versus its more pulpy, playful bent.
Mining the core theme of ‘situational terror’ which I take his major auteur feature to be, Polanski really does make a striking pictoral film – not just in the obvious guise of Adam Lang’s iconic, clinical Martha’s Vineyard beach bunker, but in his stellar cinematography and inimitable ability to suggest a sinister presence just below the surface of so many of his scenes. The section of the film where Ewan McGregor’s unnamed writer follows the same ill-fated trail as his deceased predecessor on the island ferry and through to the ominous residence of Lang’s old university pal, Professor Emmett, really is a directorial masterclass in building tension through mood and technique alone.
Polanski also projects plenty of wry distance from the ultimate, fairly moderate ‘whodunnit’ machinations of the narrative, suggesting the pleasure is not solely to be gleaned from the end-destination of that story, but in its ride too. There’s a sly ‘gallows humour’ undercurrent throughout the film, and it receives its perfect climax in the closing shot, where Ewan McGregor’s ghost – having finally solved the narrative riddle, thus breaking the constant air of threat he’s been under – receives the ‘pay-off’ he was least expecting.
Talking about Ewan McGregor, it’s an interestingly cast film. Throwing disparate ‘names’ together like McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams, Kim Cattrall, Tom Wilkinson, (plus lovely little cameos from the likes of Eli Wallach and James Belushi), suits the relaxed, classy charm of this piece to a T. (November 2013)
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)
Director: Julian Schnabel
Actors: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josée Croze
Synopsis: Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) is a man coming to terms with having ‘locked-in’ syndrome.
Review: The in-built poignancy of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is hard to deny, and it’s very creatively and ‘artistically’ shot by Julian Schnabel, but it’s a film I find that gets a little bit weaker each time I see it.
The opening half-an-hour or so to the film is mesmeric, as Schnabel films from the point-of-view of Jean-Dominique Bauby as he wakes from his coma and progressively discovers at exactly the same time as the audience just how debilitating his stroke has been (he cannot move nor speak, one of his eyes has to be occluded, and he ultimately learns he suffers from ‘locked-in’ syndrome). I don’t know how practical it would have been to shoot the film exclusively from Bauby’s gaze, but it certainly would have been bold and radical. Instead, Schnabel arbitrarily shifts the perspective and for the remainder of the film we get a more watered-down smattering of conventional framing outside of Bauby’s paralysed body, montages from his mind, and – most tenuously – rather demonstrative, artsy, ‘advertising’-style imagery supposed to depict that most ephemeral of things – his ‘spirit’. Also betraying the fact that some of the scenario has been configured for commercial reasons is the use of voiceover. Again, how much more austere and dark it would have been had the fact that Bauby lost his ability to speak been honoured by denying us his voice from the diegesis (almost highlighting the tragic desperation of his locked-in syndrome). Schnabel takes the understandable but more crowd-pleasing decision to give Bauby a lucid voiceover that though extremely colourful and humorous, also tends to hammer home the subtext of his situation – one example being when he’s had a lovely day out at the beach with his three children before they leave him once more to the solitude of his hospital room. The silence as the children depart speaks volumes for Bauby’s aching sadness at this time, but Schnabel’s inclusion of Bauby voicing such a fact is unnecessary.
Minor criticism aside, there are some truly spectacular elements to the film’s construct and Schnabel’s direction. Although I pick up on Schnabel’s very calculating artsy eye, he is a gorgeous image-maker and some of the scenes in and around Bauby’s hospital ward and in the town of Berck-sur-Mer are beautifully rendered. It’s also a masterfully structured narrative. Sure, it starts with Bauby’s realisation of his condition, but the story from thereon bounces very organically and sensuously around various players and memories in Bauby’s life (his father, the mother of his children, his three kids, a clumsy African friend, another friend who unwittingly became a hostage when swapping an airline ticket with Bauby, and Bauby’s most recent girlfriend who took him on a portentous visit to Lourdes). (November 2013)
We Own the Night (2007)
Director: James Gray
Actors: Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, Robert Duvall
Synopsis: Bobby (Joaquin Phoenix) and Joe (Mark Wahlberg) are two brothers with markedly different occupations in 80s Brooklyn. Joe is a stellar cop – following in the proud footsteps of his Police Chief father (Robert Duvall), while Bobby runs a top nightclub which has links to a Russian drug ring. When Joe makes a raid on Bobby’s club, it sets in chain a sequence of events that will put Bobby’s loyalty and bravery to the test…
Review: James Gray’s old-fashioned, early-Scorsese-esque melodrama We Own the Night showcases his interest in clean-cut, high-concept ‘polar’ dramatic pieces. Sandwiched in-between his The Yards that had Mark Wahlberg’s ex-jailbird trying to go straight, and the later Two Lovers - a romantic drama charting Joaquin Phoenix’s irreconcilable relationship dilemmas between two totally different women, We Own the Night has a classic set-up with Phoenix again portraying a conflicted Brooklyn thirty-something, split between his upwardly mobile nightclub career and a loyalty to his firm and proper police-employed family. This dichotomy is outed in the iconic opening section where Phoenix goes from his pumping Brooklyn club to a dowdy, community hall police awards ceremony. In fact, it is Gray’s feel for the kinetic action sequence which is probably We Own the Night‘s greatest strength, as he creates two memorable scenes with fantastic visual and sound design – one being when Phoenix goes undercover to sting the Russian mobster’s drug den, and the second when Phoenix (under police protection) is chased by gangsters on a rain-sodden New York highway.
Sure, the film is schematic and full of its own dramatic portentousness, and the closing sequence where Phoenix goes off in to the smoky marshland to hunt his arch-nemesis is one unlikely, overblown sequence too many, but I’m inclined to admire Gray’s almost unfashionable sense of seriousness and spectacle. (November 2013)
White Material (2009)
Director: Claire Denis
Actors: Isabelle Huppert, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Isaach de Bankolé
Synopsis: A middle-aged white woman is frantically trying to catch a bus in an isolated outpost of an unnamed West African country. In flashback, we see the cause of her distress – she is Maria (Isabelle Huppert), a French emigrée advised to leave the war-torn African country where she is running a coffee plantation. She refuses to leave out of a desperate attempt to procure the last week’s bumper coffee harvest and through her haughty, hostile attitude to First World/French influence. But will her stubbornness cost her?….
Review: This classic tragedy of a fundamental white/European incompatibility with ‘Africa’ is in a sense quite unsubtle with its story of a European-owned coffee plantation and all its dysfunctional/corrupted personnel as they come unstuck during the encroaching civil unrest in that country. Unpicking the relative sophistication (or not) of the dramaturgy is beside the point though, as Denis’ construct is intentionally fablistic and symbolic, and its classical beauty emerges more through her mastery of mood, sense of place, and the ellipses in the narrative. Some of the best sequences in the film are the most ‘undramatic’ – the workings of the coffee plantation, the pans over the jungle landscape, and the remarkable scene where Huppert’s plantation owner goes to an outpost of her district to see if she can recruit anyone willing to brave the danger of the present situation to help harvest her coffee (the men emerge hypnotically and ominously after the village’s women do the bargaining with Huppert). Certainly, White Material speaks more to me about the primal brutality of civil conflict in Africa (a by-product of how life is so impoverished and devalued in many of its states?) than a white man’s morality film like Hotel Rwanda. (November 2013)
Wayland’s Song (2013)
Director: Richard Jobson
Actors: Michael Nardone, Hannah Lederer, Orla Brady
Synopsis: Wayland (Michael Nardone) is a returning soldier from Afghanistan. His daughter has sinisterly vanished, so Wayland sets about uncovering her whereabouts.
Review: Richard Jobson’s artful attempt to render the emotional and psychological wasteland a man encounters after a spell in Afghanistan is laudable in so many respects. First, Wayland’s Song is evidently a film that’s been made on a limited industrial ‘canvas’ and budget, but you wouldn’t guess it based on Jobson’s polished cinematic grammar. In a sense he’s more interested in the idea of the inner hinterland his protagonist Wayland traverses, with Helmand and ‘combat’ being more abstract states of mind than actualised scenarios that needed filming in Afghanistan. Also, rather than dealing explicitly and directly with a narrative about the war in Afghanistan, Jobson has ambitiously fashioned the film around a classic domestic revenge plot hook. Only the canny viewer will get (beyond the more obvious scenes of trauma-induced flashback) that this is a film about a vile, decadent society that doesn’t give two hoots about the brave men it sent out to unimaginably dark places in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Superficially, the film has echoes of Adrian Lyne’s more pulpy Jacob’s Ladder and – less obviously – Pawel Pawlikowski’s tricksy The Woman in the Fifth. My only marginal critique and one I’ve levelled to some of Jobson’s other films, notably New Town Killers, is that sometimes he indulges a predilection for postmodern genre experimentation, although I’m sure he would justify his graphic novelesque air of an indestructible man out for revenge as a more atypical, interesting way of outing his overfamiliar story of war-induced trauma. Ultimately though, it’s Jobson’s fine cinematic eye with the remarkable hellish red design of ‘Tony’s Bar’ and the compelling sequence where (spoiler alert) Wayland exhumes his daughter, which will stick longest in my memory. (November 2013)
The Deep Blue Sea (2011)
Director: Terence Davies
Actors: Rachel Weisz, Simon Russell Beale, Tom Hiddleston
Synopsis: In early 50s, post-war London, Hester (Rachel Weisz) has just tried unsuccessfully to kill herself. Through a series of flashbacks, as well as in the present day, we see reasons for Hester’s unhappiness as she is torn between two men – Bill (Simon Russell Beale), her kindly, but dull and repressive older lawyer husband, and Freddie (Tom Hiddleston), her dashing and charismatic current lover, but a broken young man, incapable of returning Hester’s love.
Review: Terence Davies works his customary magic over this deceptively slight Terence Rattigan play from the early 1950s. In many ways, the material is heaven-sent for Davies, from the chance to revel in both the grandiosity and austere shabbiness that the various middle/working-class post-war settings allow, to the story of repressed emotion and thwarted desire which are favourite themes and sensibilities in Davies’ cinema. Unsurprisingly, The Deep Blue Sea is beautifully shot and designed, with a particularly majestic opening tracking shot moving across a typical London residential street before entering the window of Hester’s dingy flat where we locate her in all her misery, about to attempt to commit suicide. The apotheosis of Davies’ whole modus operandi though comes in a wonderful moment where Hester is caught running into an underground situation (perhaps to attempt suicide again), before the scene dissolves in to her remembrance of Aldwych station when it was used as an air-raid bunker in the Second World War. The sequence elapses whereby the camera tracks along the station as all the various strands of London society are crammed in, singing along to “Sweet Molly Malone”, before the shot settles on Hester and her husband Bill in seemingly happier times. At this precise moment, the sequence shifts back to Hester in the present, seemingly having resisted the notion to throw herself in front of the train, but instead caught in a rapturous moment of emotion as the wind of the train passes by her. Though the sequence has clear debts to Brief Encounter and Douglas Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows with its gorgeous use of red in Weisz’s coat and lipstick – it is also so unmistakably Davies’ in its execution and eloquent communication of poignant memory.
Davies has also fashioned one of the great films about building a profound macro-drama out of a single event or day (I can think of Tom Ford’s underrated A Single Man or Cristian Mungiu’s amazing 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days as other examples). Only people who really understand the true tragedy of lost love will ‘get’ the trajectory of the narrative and the ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ courage Hester shows when looking on Freddie one last time before his flight to South America. (December 2011)