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Heal the Living

May 14, 2017

Heal the Living (2016)
Director: Katell Quillévéré
Actors: Anne Dorval, Tahar Rahim, Emmanuelle Seigner

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Synopsis: Simon (Gabin Verdet), a teenager full of life, is left brain dead after a catastrophic car accident. The race is on to see if his parents can be convinced to donate his healthy heart for organ donation – specifically to sickly, middle-aged mother-of-two, Claire (Anne Dorval).

Review: This staggeringly moving and accomplished film does the seemingly impossible: it projects its very political, polemical message (the championing of the organ donation scheme) through utterly organic dramatisation; even deftly sensualising the whole moral of the practice – the “heal the living” of the film’s title.

It’s this dichotomy of the cleverness of the film’s manipulation, yet the artfulness of its method, that is so compelling. Selecting a donor who was at his most virile and life-affirming – a fun-loving, romantic teenager – assists director Katell Quillévéré’s rhetorical attack, and in one of many beautiful scenes that sensualise the preciousness of his life (when he goes surfing on the day of his death is another of them), his mother processing the news that his brain damage is irreversible is juxtaposed to a gorgeous extended tracking shot that lionises his exuberance when he cycled all the way to the top of the hill in his city to catch his would-be girlfriend while she is taking a cable car.

Quillévéré taps into Michael Mann’s common signature of finding the macro in the everyday, by imposing an almost genre movie hero status on all the selfless personnel required to enact a heart transplant with the necessary urgency. Quillévéré also imbues his story with a seductive, existential scope – characters are often framed by the immensity of the metropolis or nature around them. Again, this subtly embellishes the film’s thesis of asserting the sanctity of the continuity of life.

It’s an incredibly skillful film in sum. The handheld tracking shots that are touch away from being first-person proxies suggest the precarious fatefulness connecting all the characters, and Alexandre Desplat’s emotive but unhistrionic piano score further underscores the sentiment that seeps out of this lovely ode to being alive. (May 2017)

Avengers: Age of Ultron

May 12, 2017

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Director: Joss Whedon
Actors: Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth

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Synopsis: The Avengers assemble once more to bring to task a renegade AI programme: Ultron.

Review: The return of the Avengers crew, though bringing little new to the table after the 2012 series opener, Avengers Assemble, is an amiable enough hokum diversion for 2+ hours. More than anything, it’s a chance to enjoy a smorgasbord of Hollywood pros having evident fun with their superhero detour. The film certainly wears its graphic novel pretensions lightly.

The opening in media res skit is a clever way to introduce all the characters (with associated ‘skills’ and repartee) in one brisk action sequence. One thing that’s always struck me though about all this repartee and ‘banter’ is that it begs the question if the project is somewhat self-defeating when arguably its best feature is its proclivity to take the piss out of itself. Certainly the film’s least interesting part is the obligatory techno genre exposition we’ve seen from scores of other superhero films.

Indisputably the best section of the whole film is the midway ‘hideout’ detour in Hawkeye’s house. It slows the action right down, and we get some lovely little character segues, with the actors actually getting the chance to show a little range. Pushing the film even further down this route, and away from the relentless treadmill of action sequences, could be the best remedy to ensure the endurance and novelty of the Avengers series for some time to come. (May 2017)

The Handmaiden

May 6, 2017

The Handmaiden (2016)
Director: Park Chan-wook
Actors: Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo

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Synopsis: A love triangle between a Japanese noblewoman and two Korean tricksters in occupied Korea during WW2. Told in three parts, each character is duped by the other two at one stage…

Review: The Handmaiden is essentially one long, elaborately constructed curate’s egg of an inane structural parlour game – but what skill and dash in that conceit!

There isn’t a moment of the film’s construct where Park isn’t restlessly trying to further his story – and push its tricksiness – with a showman’s sense of sound design, or a revelatory tracking shot, or a dramatic pictoral or narrative change of perspective. In a sense, that’s Park’s greatest triumph with The Handmaiden – it’s one long structural tour de force. Certainly the labyrinthine theme – both in the tripartite story that continually recontextualises what had come before, and the mise en scène that the protagonists co-exist in of rooms-within-rooms and opportunities to play peeping tom on one another – embellishes that.

What we’re eventually left with though is one long, depthless ode to structure. And even then, the film’s conceited submission to its storytelling thrills becomes one-dimensional and ever-decreasing by the midway point. The narrative about-turns grow progressively predictable and explanatory, and Park becomes too enamoured of revealing the conceits of his story and flattering his audience. At best, The Handmaiden is a sort of superior heist/genre movie, but no more than that. (May 2017)


April 30, 2017

Graduation (2017)
Director: Cristian Mungiu
Actors: Adrian Titieni, Maria Dragus, Lia Bugnar

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Synopsis: Middle-age doctor, Romeo (Adrian Titieni), finds himself drawn into a murk of corruption when his daughter might potentially fail her all-important school exams because of an assault.

Review: Cristian Mungiu is unquestionably a master dramatist and master commander of cinematic grammar, and Graduation – another of his verité descents into one person’s unfurling nightmare – is one of the most formally accomplished films of recent years.

If anything though, Graduation feels too calibrated. It wears its metaphoric conceits and subliminal social commentary a little too readily, a little too prescriptively. Perhaps not coincidental considering the film was produced by the Dardennes, but Graduation reminded me most of the Dardennes’ most unsatisfying film of recent times, Le fils. There, like here, the camera hugs the forlorn, hulking frame of its increasingly unreliable narrative conduit (Adrian Titieni has more than a passing resemblance to Dardennes’ regular and Le fils lead, Olivier Gourmet). There is an unsubtlety in Mungiu’s obvious intent to build a morality play around this man’s immersion and loss of self amid the quagmire of corrupt Romanian society, and as a very consciously ‘arthouse’ exercise in middle-class guilt, Mungiu was clearly playing into the lineage of two of the finest films of the millenium so far in Michael Haneke’s Hidden and Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman.

Away from Mungiu’s didacticism, it’s impossible not to appreciate his skill as a filmmaker. Each sequence is crafted visually and aurally to take you into the immediacy of the story, and when Mungiu gets his dramaturgical ingredients just right, as in Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days, he is a filmmaker of the highest order. (April 2017)

A Quiet Passion

April 14, 2017

A Quiet Passion (2017)
Director: Terence Davies
Actors: Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Keith Carradine

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Synopsis: The life of American poet, Emily Dickinson (Emma Bell, Cynthia Nixon).

Review: Having recently read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s seminal 1892 feminist novella, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, it seems more than opportune that I encounter Terence Davies’ exquisite biopic of 19th century American poet, Emily Dickinson, A Quiet Passion. Both works are about the domestic and professional restrictions placed on ‘creative’ women in 19th century American society, and the torment and tragedy that comes with that repression.

There couldn’t be a more appropriate director for this sort of material than Davies. He’s an expert literary filmmaker, he’s one of the greatest ever directors of the period movie genre, he’s a master at depicting thwarted desire, and he’s a great filmer of interior stories (and that’s interior as literally denotes indoors as well as internal emotions).

The opening to the film outlines the mastery of Davies’ technique and rhetorical craft as he homes in straight away on the admirable qualities to Dickinson’s character. In a harsh religious school, the cruel headmistress instructs the girls to move to one side if they’ve accepted their subjugation to God (the implication being that they all should do!) All move away bar one – the young Emily (brilliantly incarnated by Emma Bell), who in Davies’ textbook symmetrical framing is depicted straight away as boldly and defiantly apart from convention. The subsequent scene is simply gorgeous, iconographic image-making as Dickinson looks wistfully out amid a sun-drenched room, awaiting her saving from school by her loving family. That family is then charted pictorially in one of Davies’ famed tracking shots (think the underground sequence in The Deep Blue Sea). The edenic haven of Dickinson’s family life is revealed as all the members are either writing, reading or engaged in crochet while the mother and father look lovingly on.

What’s so great about Davies’ work here is that he’s made a film that is at once extremely political and dramatic while also being compellingly interior and existential. The final thirty minutes of the film are especially magical as Davies recedes into one of his hallmark ‘quiet’ fade-outs of his narratives. Dickinson’s silent descent into her middle-aged malcontent state is beautiful – especially the poignant sequence where her and her sister tend to the final moments of their beloved mother.

Comment on the film would be remiss without acknowledging the uniform excellence of Davies’ cast (Keith Carradine as the stern, but generally understanding, family patriarch is especially poised). A Quiet Passion also features the best use of character ageing transitions I’ve ever seen. Davies makes this utilitarian trope utterly relevant by literally morphing the image of the young actor in portrait to the older actor – subtly suggesting the poignancy of ageing and the accrual of experience in the process. (April 2017)

The Bling Ring

April 13, 2017

The Bling Ring (2013)
Director: Sofia Coppola
Actors: Israel Broussard, Emma Watson, Katie Chang

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Synopsis: Feckless teens in Los Angeles go on ever more brazen celebrity burglary trawls.

Review: Sofia Coppola finally falls from her lofty perch with her first unequivocal dud after four previous films of near concentric excellence.

Over the years, many commentators have found the insularity and sameness of the Coppola “cocooned malcontents” canvas a problem. Previously, it never seemed much of an issue to me as she is not a dramaturgical filmmaker: she doesn’t engage in overt moral commentaries, and she’s more interested in sensualising the worlds of her protagonists than judging them.

With The Bling Ring, Coppola seeks to depict the brazen fecklessness of a troupe of San Fernando Valley teens who embark on an increasingly inane set of celebrity burglaries around LA. The subject matter in itself needn’t be a concern (although making interesting the inner-worlds of these vapid narcissists is pushing the boat out perhaps a bit too much). Where Coppola fails is in her usual alchemy of making their inner-lives swoonworthy and transcendent. First, she indulges in faux framing interviews with the teen felons as they look back on their indiscretions. This is a meek narrative device: very un-Coppola and very uninteresting. Second, beyond the following of the teens around their pulverisingly glib visual and aural universe (we get a lot of bourgeois co-opted house music and gangsta rap montages), there’s very little interiority or poetry. And finally, the film is a rhetorical catastrophe. Coppola plays it like it’s an ingenious satire throughout but it’s really so obvious, so relentless and so leadenly portrayed. It almost hearkens to the inadvertently lame culture clash skits at the beginning of Lost in Translation. Where that film differed is that it was rescued by the beautiful and uncanny air of transitory epiphany Coppola conjured. Here she’s unable to pull off any such magic act.

A Look Inside Mulholland Drive’s Troubling Heart of Darkness

April 11, 2017

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Please follow the below link to read my article on one of my favourite films, Mulholland Drive.