Review: Locke (2013)

Director: Steven Knight

****

When one thinks on the conventions of genre, the word ‘thriller’ covers a lot of ground. It’s also more than a slight misnomer, considering how many purported thrillers fail to hit their mark and lack much in the way of thrills. An over-dependence on choreographed action and plots that are either too complex or completely lack complexity may have cloyed our tastes. Then, once in a while, we get a little gift like Steven Knight’s Locke and a balance feels restored. The plot is multi-faceted yet manageable. The thrills come from the story and not the stunts. And it’s a character piece! Oh, we are being spoiled.

So, what’s Locke about? Foundations. Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy, with a damn-near-perfect Welsh accent) is a construction manager on the cusp of his professional coup de grace, namely the pouring of over 200 truckloads of concrete for a new skyscraper’s foundation in Birmingham. Locke’s personal situation looks built on solid ground too, with a wife and two sons. All well and good, but Knight’s best work (his scripts for Eastern Promises for Cronenberg and Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things) always plunges ordinary people into the deep end, battling their own mistakes and the ever-turning wheels of fate. One such mistake sends Locke driving south overnight to London, where his partner in a one-night stand is about to give birth to his child. Jeopardising his family and career, foundations of all kinds are crumbling under Locke’s feet.

All of this could get quite soapy quite quickly, but Knight’s hook is to contain the action within Locke’s 4×4, putting Hardy front and centre, supported only by voiceover performances. On the way to London, Locke has to call his colleague Donal (a hilariously exasperated Andrew Scott) to oversee the concrete pouring, before calling his wife Katrina (Ruth Wilson) to tell her the truth, and the maternity hospital to check on expectant mother Bethan (Olivia Colman). The supporting cast give their all to convey the heartbreak and exasperation of the scenario, but this is the Tom Hardy show, and he is nothing short of great. The character of Locke is riddled with very human contradictions. He tries to hold everything together calmly when making his phone calls, only to lash out once he’s hung up. The ease with which Hardy switches between the two is positively scary; it could all drive a man off the road. He very nearly does when he has one-sided conversations with his late father via the rear-view mirror. There’s a dignity and desperation to Ivan’s quest for control and what’s right for all than ensures we can forgive him, even though he can’t forgive himself. Meanwhile, Knight’s script keeps interrupting the various calls and sending both Locke and his audience closer to the edge. We know his intended destination, but guessing where he’ll actually end up is another matter.

With a restrictive setting, an eight-night shooting schedule and not much in the way of action beyond a moving vehicle, Knight makes the most of what he has, namely a compelling setup and a magnetic leading man. The film focuses intently on Hardy’s bearded, gruff face. The same face is lit by the street lighting ever sweeping by, with DP Haris Zambarloukos capturing that illicit midnight haze. Locke has the trappings of a stage play, but it’s nimbly acted and directed, ensuring it escapes many of the pitfalls to which stage adaptations are usually prey. Locke is never stagey; the regrets and naïve calm of the man behind the wheel feel all too human to be staged.

Advertisements

Review: The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (2013)

Directors: Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani

***

The two best adjectives for The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears are ‘colourful’ and ‘strange’. The colour might hold the attention for so long, but the strangeness of the piece may alienate. Is it too strange? Not for hardened fans of gialli, but the repetition of tics and even entire sequences may be a problem. Still, any good giallo foregrounds colour over good sense, which makes The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears a success in spite of itself.

Directors Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani carved a niche for themselves with several shorts and their calling-card feature debut Amer, and there’s no sign of them deviating from that niche with The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears. It masquerades as an erotically-charged mystery, but it’s best experienced at a more basic, atmospheric level. The plot, such as it is, begins with Dan (Klaus Tange) returning to his apartment from a business trip. He turns the key in his door, but it’s locked from the inside. He calls for his wife, yet she’s nowhere to be found. One forced entry and a call to the police later, Dan is no closer to the answers, and thus begins a plunge into a colourful unknown, like Alice through the looking glass but with more bloodshed.

Horror is a constant and wonderful dichotomy. It aims to jolt, frighten, even horrify. Yet there are so many examples of the genre that aspire to art in their design. Argento constantly walked the fine line between horror and art, and Cattet and Forzani continue that fine tradition of the gialli. One of the most memorable sequences sees a gloved hand teasing a knife blade around a nipple, before plunging it into the unfortunate victim. Shot in stark yet crisp black and white by Manuel Dacosse, the sequence shocks and surprises on its first appearance, but after a while the whole sequence appears again. And again. Why? As with the films it references, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears has gaps where a narrative would normally be found, and must plug said gaps as artily as possible.

The repetition is unsurprisingly numbing, and it points to the flaws at the core of TSCOYBT. It is a homage first and a standalone film second. Cattet and Forzani’s love for slashers and gialli is evident in every frame, from the over-designed art deco staircases to the eye-popping greens and reds that flood the screen. Flesh and blades are given a neon glow; pause at certain moments and you’ll believe you’re looking at a particularly sacrilegious stained glass window, such is the sheen of it all. Yet the artistry of the film is uninterested in the plot, to the point that it practically gives up on narrative to stand alone. The plot does roll along to a point, as Dan continues his investigations into his other half’s absence, and he discovers that such disappearances are nothing new to the apartment complex. Still, anyone looking for plot will be left adrift as the film progresses. It’s a sensory experience through and through, with artistry and aspirations far beyond most anyone else working in the horror genre today. The hardened horror heads should have no beef with that; the uninitiated are invited to surrender to the film and be done with it. Woe to they that refuse the offer.

Review: The Lunchbox (2013)

Director: Ritesh Batra

***

This review originally appeared on Scannain.com

All too frequently, we are force-fed overly-sweet romances, processed and artificial. Their insincerity and unbelievability can cloy to retch-inducing effect. The Lunchbox is at least something more wholesome, but its exotic colours and presentation cannot conceal the familiarity of it all. Call it Brief Encounter-lite; it’s all familiar, but the real thing always goes down better. Still, Celia Johnson might have had a bit more luck with Trevor Howard if she’d whipped up some of the lunch platters proffered here. Let’s dig in.

It’s rare that Indian cinema makes a breakthrough to Western audiences. When it does, it usually involves funding and talent from outside India. The last notable example was the extravagant slice of poverty porn that was Slumdog Millionaire, a British film in all but setting. Ritesh Batra’s debut feature The Lunchbox is a very different look at life in modern India. A world away from squall and easily-sold triumphs over adversity, here we get a simple tale of everyday life with a just a little wish fulfilment thrown in for good measure. The film centres on the uniquely Indian phenomenon of dabbawallas, a network of delivery men who collect cooked meals from the homes of urban employees in the late morning to deliver them to the employees in time for lunch, before retrieving the remaining dishes to return them. It’s such a novel idea, yet so simple, and it gives root to a simple plot. With so many dishes and delivery men whizzing around Mumbai, is it not inevitable that some of them are wrongly delivered? Current statistics suggest the failure rate is one in eight million deliveries, but when Ila (Nimrat Kaur) sends a meal via dabbawalla to her husband (Nakul Vaid), it ends up on the desk of accountant Sajaan (Irrfan Khan).

Once Ila realizes the misunderstanding, she writes a note to Sajaan to apologize, but soon her plans to win her husband’s heat back through his stomach are forgotten; her epistolary relationship with Sajaan proves far more interesting. As all this goes on, it feels like Batra closely observed what makes Western screen romances tick and applied it to his script. Sajaan is a lonely widower, and is about to retire. The defining for this character are much as you’d expect; he’s bitter, he doesn’t like children and all he needs is an understanding voice to listen to him and for him to listen to in turn. Meanwhile, Ila (the second romantically-adrift film heroine with that name this year, after Emma Watson in Noah) finds her marriage is on shaky ground, as she suspects her husband is having an affair. To whom can she turn for advice? The disembodied voice of her auntie of the upstairs flat aside (and that sounds like a forced device, even in a review!), Ila takes her chances with Sajaan’s letters. Mercifully, this plot never gets overly mawkish or sentimental; a lot of that is down to the actors. Kaur and Khan’s wounded kindred spirits are likeable and generate a relatable chemistry, even across a city on handwritten notes. Trite though it may be, The Lunchbox’s lack of cynicism is its trump card. It’s not aiming for commentary or satire. It’s a little romance, no more and no less.

The simplicity of the setup is welcoming, but its lack of bite denies it much memorability. The Lunchbox’s makers have one eye firmly outside India, and its amiable leads and gentle story will ensure it finds an audience beyond the subcontinent. That said, whilst it’s a change to see India’s ever-growing middle class given a cinematic voice, there are doubtlessly more challenging stories waiting to be told from that point of view.

Review: Wake In Fright (1971)

Director: Ted Kotcheff

*****

This review originally appeared on Scannain.com

Strewth! Here comes something truly special.

Based on Kenneth Cook’s novel, Ted Kotcheff’s Wake In Fright is widely regarded as a particularly sweaty gem of the Australian New Wave. It was released in 1971, the same year as another New Wave masterwork, Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout. Whereas that film enjoyed a heady reputation from the start, Wake In Fright seemed to disappear for many years after its initial run, despite critical acclaim from its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, and successful theatrical runs across Europe. A 2009 restoration and re-release saw it brought back to sweaty life, and its returns once more to stake its claim as the finest film to come out of Australia.

Notably, on original release the film did not enjoy much success in Australia, almost definitely due to its unflattering portrayal of the Outback and the people therein. Our representative in this drier-than-dry morass is John Grant (Gary Bond), a young teacher trapped in a remote Outback township, tied to a teaching post to repay college debts. With Christmas holidays approaching, Grant prepares to leave for Sydney to visit his girlfriend. First, though, he must overnight in the city of Bundanyabba before catching his flight on to the coast. Unlike the ‘burbs of American Southern Gothic, where locals are defined by little more than distrust, the denizens of ‘the Yabba’ are surprisingly friendly. Grant encounters a local police sergeant (Chips Rafferty), who introduces Grant to prevailing pastimes of the Yabba: booze and ‘two-up’, essentially a giant game of Heads or Tails played for money. As soon as Grant arrives in Bundanyabba, the viewer is plunged into the sunburnt hedonism of outback living, where civilisation’s mask slips at the urge of the encroaching desert and heat. This witless abandon causes Grant to gamble what money he has on ‘two-up’, and thus he traps himself in the Yabba, unable to afford safe passage.

At first, Grant can’t leave due to lack of funds, but soon the aggressive hospitality of the locals becomes the force that keeps him in situ. It sounds like Buñuel on a bigger scale, but then you daren’t argue with a character like Donald Pleasence’s Doc Tydon. Doc leads the group of men who take Grant under their testosterone-bloated wing. Their prime interests are beer, hunting, beer, gambling and beer. Their exploits are rowdy and drenched in sweat, and that sticky atmos drips into every frame. Everywhere the clean-cut Grant turns he is uncomfortably pinned by their grizzly manliness. The most uncomfortable and infamous exemplar of this is when the group go on a kangaroo hunt. The hunt is unstaged, and the suffering of Skippy and co. is just as horrid as the day the film was first released. Any queasiness suffered by the audience is surpassed by that of Grant. The role was the only leading film role Bond had in his career, a surprise considering his cut-glass accent and uncanny resemblance to Peter O’Toole. His charming prettiness makes him ideal prey for Doc and his crew, and Pleasence’s performance switches queasily between rowdy warmth and knowing menace, a long way from (and a suitable patient for) Halloween’s Dr. Loomis.

From its relative dearth of female characters to its sickening violence towards animals, Wake In Fright is an intense plunge into the depths of the male psyche. Grant is relatively young compared to his new compatriots, whose violent ways stem from the pain of hangovers and desert living. The whole film feels sticky; shirts cling to backs and hair is matted by perspiration. Canadian director Kotcheff, who would go on to make First Blood, renders Australia a dichotomy: full of natural beauty, yet conducive to anger and violence. The tracks were laid for Ozploitation here, but none of the films that followed could match Wake In Fright for emotional intelligence. Despite the bloodshed and copious amounts of beer on show, it’s a fascinating pastiche of manliness and male bonding. The pretty boy and the rugged outdoors men seem absolutely aberrant to each other. Doc observes Grant’s manner and concludes it is “a vanity spawned by fear.” That perceived vanity is soon washed away on a wave of beer and kangaroo carcasses. Wake In Fright makes no concessions to audience expectations or good taste. It’s a cinematic fever dream, full of sights and events that don’t wash off easily. Wake In Fright is a riveting watch, sometimes in spite of itself, and the passage of time has only added to its ferocity and fear. Drink up, mate.

Review: The Book Thief (2013)

Director: Brian Percival

*

This review originally appeared on Scannain.com

All art, film included, has a responsibility towards history. Art can manipulate and distort history, where and when perceived as necessary, to shine a light on the past. Picasso painted the swirling dervish of chaos that is ‘Guernica’ to reflect the horrors of war. The makers of The Book Thief simply have an eye on awards and easy marketability. It is a hollow shell of a film, constructed of coloured artificial blandness to hide a distinct lack of a soul. It is engineered purely to manufacture false sentiment. Despite its ineptitude, its horrid deforming of history means it is not just a bad (poorly made) film. It is a BAD film, of questionable moral fibre. In an ideal world The Book Thief would suffer the fate of many a poor book in the film, and be burned on a pyre.

The problems begin right at the start, when our mysterious narrator (voiced by Roger Allam) begins to tell the tale. Fans of Markus Zusak’s source novel will know who he is, but it’s a silly structural gambit that should have been left with the book. His voiceover introduces us to Liesel Meminger, a young girl who is adopted by foster parents after the disappearance of her communist parents. Liesel is played by young French Canadian actress Sophie Nélisse, who it seems was cast based on her Bambi eyes. Her round face and big brown peepers look custom made for a weepie. Be assured; she will deliver pouty, cutesy crying of the highest order. Her foster parents are played by Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson, wasting their talents on ‘kindly old pop’ and ‘bitter realist mother’ roles respectively. Liesel is lonely, but begins making new friends and living a weakly-acted and idyllically photographed life. Her foster father begins to teach Liesel how to read, and thus is ingrained a love of the written word. So strong is this love that she begins saving books from burnings. It feels like a dumbed-down history lesson. Replace Jews with books, see? Good grief; it’s as if Shoah never happened.

As people start hanging swastika flags from their windows and Liesel and her friends are roped into the Hitler Youth, the clouds of war drift in. However, there’s little sense of threat or urgency. To counter this, a young Jewish man named Max (Ben Schnetzer) is roped in as a dramatic device. Liesel’s father must hide Max to repay an old debt; thus, the story is given a forced dramatic device and Liesel gains an oracle, spouting wisdoms and aiding her with her reading lessons. It’s all horribly trite; considering how many incredible survival stories are known from this time, surely telling one of them would have been much more worthwhile? Instead we get a forced episodic tale, with army conscription, air raids, atypically friendly Nazis and a plot development in the later stages which doesn’t so much tug at the heartstrings as rip them out with a Panzer. All this and the creepy narrator add up to a pile of patronising, middle-of-the-road awards bait. Ultimately, The Book Thief’s only Oscar nomination is for John Williams’ pretty score which, unlike the rest of the film, sidesteps WWII film clichés. Someone call Jerry Lewis; The Day The Clown Cried couldn’t be as bad as this, surely?

Interview: John Hurt at JDIFF

John Hurt

There is something inherently powerful about John Hurt. A lot of it may be in the voice. His gravelly tones, somewhere between a rasp and a roar, have depicted power and distrust for decades. Now a little older, those marvellous intonations and informed pronunciations convey a great wisdom. All of this means the prospect of interviewing Hurt is initially terrifying. Be assured, though; behind the curtain there is just a man. Mercifully, he’s a very pleasant and chatty one. On entering the interview room, we are greeted with a vision resplendent in corduroy and a majestic unruly goatee. We acknowledge our nervousness. “You don’t need to be nervous. I’m just a bloke!” The 5’9” frame might suggest so, but that wonderful voice causes us to suspect otherwise.

We meet Hurt in Dublin, where he’s arrived as a guest of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival. He’s here to present a preview of Only Lovers Left Alive, the latest lament for lost time from acclaimed director Jim Jarmusch. It tells the story of two married vampires, Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), whose disaffection for the modern world and its values threaten their very existence. Hurt plays a vampiric version of Christopher Marlowe, the infamous alleged ghost writer of most of the works of William Shakespeare. It’s an marvellously entertaining and smart film, treating the vampire with the respect that such a dangerous creature deserves. Was Hurt a vampire fan?

Hurt as Marlowe in ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE
“No, not really.” comes the frank reply. “I never thought of it that way. But I like the device of it, because you can’t… look at somebody over one lifetime. And if you get the chance of looking at them over maybe another lifetime, and maybe looking at them from a different point of view and so on, then you begin to think, ‘Oh, yes, I see the point.’ I’ve never seen the point of drinking blood… to be whoever you are, but I’m not asked to do that. I’m asked to play a part. I mean, if I were making a film I wouldn’t choose to make it about vampires!”

The idea of the vampire as a device is very relevant to Only Lovers Left Alive. Both Adam and Eve are accomplished artists in various mediums down through the centuries, having idolised and even befriended great thinkers and writers through the years. Their melancholy look back to the past is a theme of much of Jarmusch’s work. The elegiac mood and unhurried pace of his films has won Jarmusch many fans, and a varied repertoire of actors with whom he works. Only Lovers… is Hurt’s third film with Jarmusch, about whom he is very complimentary. “I just love Jim. I like the way he thinks. I like the way he talks, and it’s fun working with him. It’s just nice. I mean, if Jim calls me up I say, ‘Where and when?’ I don’t ask what it is, because you never know with Jim. He can’t explain himself, he’s hopeless!”

Hurt continues, “But he’s a good filmmaker, a really good filmmaker, and I’m not ashamed of any of the three films I’ve made with him at all.” This may be a reference to the cool critical reception for their last film together, 2009’s The Limits of Control. Not that it matters much to Hurt. “Not that I’ve had a lot to do in any of them!”, he acknowledges. ”It’s just the way it works out, and I like him, so it’s always nice to make a film with him.” That said, Hurt is keen to dispel any idea that enjoying working with someone doesn’t make it easy. “It’s quite tough when it comes to it. When the juices are going, [Jim]’s quite tough, which is great. It takes you along, it takes you on a journey. It’s not just sort of nice and simple and bla bla bla. You are working properly, which is nice.”

One of the noteworthy trends on Hurt’s CV is the number of real people he has portrayed onscreen. He won much praise early in his career for his performance as Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant (a role he returned to in 2009 follow-up An Englishman in New York). Hurt earned one of his two Academy Award nominations for his heartbreaking portrayal of John Merrick in The Elephant Man (the other was for Midnight Express). He also played Stephen Ward, the man at the heart of the Profumo affair, in Scandal and was Mel Brooks’ vision of Jesus in History of the World, Part I.

Yet playing Marlowe, or at least this version of him, is different. How does one approach turning one of history’s greatest silent partners into a vampire? “The difference between playing Marlowe and the reason for seeing him spread out over four centuries is the whole Shakesperean myth, which I was never particularly interested in before. Shame on me, because I should have been!” The conspiracy theories never go away, with each one gaining momentum even still. “Jim got me very interested.” explains Hurt “So much so that I actually deviate from him. I think it was De Vere (Edward, 17th Earl of Oxford) who wrote the plays. I think everything points in that direction. But we’ll never know that, unless something is unearthed. But it’s completely fascinating!”

Hurt as Quentin Crisp in THE NAKED CIVIL SERVANT (1975)
Hurt’s long career (52 years since his first appearance in an episode of Z Cars, and counting) was due in no small part to his portrayals of real people, but with the years and the award season rolling on, the glut of biopics being foisted on award voters and audiences alike seems to grow ever larger. We asked Hurt how he feels about this trend, considering the amount of films he’s made based on true lives. “I suppose I never considered them biopics. Certainly, I never considered The Naked Civil Servant a biopic, and yet it is the most obvious. It just never occurred to me. I was playing Quentin, and I met Quentin, and so on. But the word ‘biopic’ hadn’t come into being then anyway. ‘Biopic’ now has that sort of thing that it makes you feel like you’re.. it’s a ‘sub’-genre.”

The mention of awards in this context causes him to sit up. “Don’t go into that with me.” Have we hit a sore spot? A tense pause follows. “I mean… well, you can, but I’m not in favour of awards anyway.  And I’m not dog in the manger; I’ve got plenty.” Despite awards recognition many times in his career, Hurt is not rushing out to canvass for glory. “I don’t agree with them, and I don’t agree with the idea that you can compare one thing with another and say, “Oh, this is better than that.” I don’t think you can. I mean, we do because the audiences love it. But I can’t think of any good reason other than that. 12 Years A Slave was not made as a big movie, by any means.”

Whether or not he gets awards, Hurt has had an incredibly diverse and interesting career. He works with auteurs like Jarmusch or Lars von Trier, backs up bigger ensemble pieces like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or the Harry Potter series, and he turns out to be Doctor Who. Is this variety what keeps him going? “I have no idea!I couldn’t tell you. I don’t know if you’ll be sitting in that chair in 40 years time. Hopefully not! What do you want to be doing?!”, he asks with wry laughter. We’re caught on the hop there. The wise old man has caught us napping. “I’ve no idea how it works. It’s just a bit here and a bit there, and it’s interesting. That takes over your life at that point, and then something else takes over; I never know from one year to the next what I’m going to be doing.”