Interview: Mike Leigh and Marion Bailey talk Mr. Turner

With the release of Mr. Turner, I sat down with director Mike Leigh and actress Marion Bailey to discuss the film. The interviews, for Scannain.com, are available here:

My review of Mr. Turner can be read here.

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Review: Men, Women & Children (2014)

Director: Jason Reitman

*

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

Men, Women & Children is a hateful film. This does not mean it’s an easy film to hate (though it is thoroughly hateable); it means the film itself is full of hate. This wannabe crusade against the evils of the Internet and social media is so apoplectic in its message that it tars every one of its characters with the same brush, portraying them as blinded idiots led into a digital Sodom and Gomorrah by that great tool of the Devil, Facebook. In years to come, audiences will look back on Jason Reitman’s film and laugh. With its blend of self-righteousness and tone-deaf storytelling, Men, Women and Children is little more than the Reefer Madness of our times.

The inflated air of grandiosity that exists where this film’s brain should be looms into view in the opening scene, with the Voyager spacecraft drifting into space. This beautiful shot is compounded with the plummily reassuring narration of Emma Thompson to create potential. As she explains the cultural booty stored upon the brave little satellite, drifting past Jupiter, an expectation is set. There may be some thematic heft to this thing. This little Internet commentary seems to be aiming high. Then, from the depths of space, we cut to a teenage boy in his bedroom browsing PornHub, and we’re down to Earth with a sickening thud. The boy in question is Chris (Travis Tope), and his fondness for the acting of Tori Black will prove to be his downfall. Every character is doomed to suffer in Men, Women & Children, with no compassion forthcoming from or for any of them, and no explanations beyond a Mr. Mackey-esque “the Internet’s bad, mm’kay?”

One bad film on a director’s CV is a blip on the radar, but two in a row is a genuine cause for concern. Reitman hasn’t made anything truly mind-blowing to this point (the likes of Juno and Thank You For Smoking are sardonic slices of fun), but this slump would be enough to kill some careers. Last year’s Labor Day was a queasily slushy attempt at feelgoodness that felt about as fresh as month-old peach pie. Now, Reitman torpedoes whatever goodwill could possibly remain with a sanctimonious diatribe against digital relationships, where subtlety takes a holiday and the myriad conversations had via text and online messenger are displayed onscreen above everyone’s heads. The sanctimonious tagline for Men, Women & Children reads “Discover how little you know about the people you know”; if Reitman thinks the idea that people’s secrets render them essentially unknowable is at all original, then his film is about as relevant as Windows 3.1.

Men, Women and Children features a fine ensemble cast, but the film itself is so far removed from the works of Altman or P.T. Anderson that to apply the term ‘ensemble piece’ to it would be to do that term a disservice. The great actors populating this thing are not afforded the luxury of characters. Instead, they are moralistic cyphers, representing one of the evils that the Internet gives us. No matter how well-meaning the ‘character’, everyone here is spiteful on one level or another. Every one makes a dumb decision or represents a viewpoint so extreme that it’s impossible to like or care for them. Take Patrica (Jennifer Garner), a suburban yummy mummy whose obsession with tracking her teenage daughter Brandy’s (Kaitlyn Dever) online activity leads her to confiscating her mobile phone and using a tracker to locate her. Who actually does this? No-one, we hope. It’s just the tip of the iceberg of unbelievability that is this film.

Brandy has just started dating Tim (Ansel Elgort), who is having online problems of his own. His addiction to RPGs has led to him quitting the school football team. Besides the fact that Elgort looks like a breeze could blow him over, let alone an opposing quarterback, this storyline just cannot be taken seriously. Manufactured emotion fills the screen, with Tim reeling from his mother walking out on him and his father (Dean Norris), while Pop has no clue how to relate to Tim except via hardman sports talk. Norris does his best with a thankless hardnut role, but if we don’t care about Tim’s online problems, and we can’t relate to his conflict with his father, then how can we be expected to relate to this? Reitman shoots all this with a lingering, nosy camera to squeeze ever last tear and drop of exasperation from his actors with which to shove his morals down audience throats.

Men, Women & Children is full of indignant ire, but it has absolutely no clue how to turn that ire into a believeable story, so it relies on hollow emotions and hot button topics to justify itself. Each ‘character’ and their online problem is just a click away from another ‘character’ and their problems. Chris’ parents Don (Adam Sandler, purposefully unfunny for once) and Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt) are separately contemplating adultery, with the help of (shock horror) online dating and escort services. Meanwhile, little waif Allison (Elena Kampouris) is dealing with anorexia and pressure to lose her virginity, all fuelled by blogs, and single mom Donna (Judy Greer) is helping her daughter Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia) foster an acting career with a sexy online persona. The lesson is: your online life is a primrose path to ruin and despair. Then, once the ‘characters’ have made their mistakes, Reitman’s camera slowly pulls back whilst maintaining a sickeningly judgemental stare. All the while, everyone’s online interactions and messages appear onscreen to allow the audience more chances to look down on them. It’s the cinematic equivalent of rubbing a dog’s nose in excrement to ensure it’s housebroken; in the end, a talented and willing cast are the ones left smelling of shit. They’re left adrift like the lonely Voyager satellite, whose lofty ambitions are never troubled by Men, Women & Children. Should Reitman’s career falter after this and his noxious previous outing, perhaps he could become a clergyman; preaching seems to be his true métier.

Event: NOAH Premiere report

This report was originally published on Scannain.com

Rain is a constant risk of Dublin life, but it was apt to see the clouds descend on O’Connell Street for the premiere of Noah on Saturday (29th March). A heavy mist smothered the city in expectation of the arrival of Russell Crowe, the film’s leading man, on the red carpet. In a canny piece of advertising, Crowe attended three premieres in the British Isles in the space of one day. Exhausting? Noah must have God on his side.

The drizzly clouds never let up, dampening most everything except the spirits of the attendant crowd who has assembled by the barriers skirting the red carpet. The mood stayed buoyant as PR folks passed flyers for autographs out to the crowd, whilst an actor dressed as Noah proclaimed a very damp end of days for the sake of hawking weatherproof paint. Security was tight; breath was baited; patience was abundant but tested. The grins of all involved in this event screening bellowed with one ironic message; this was going to go flawlessly, come hell or high water.

Noah is a retelling of the Genesis story, as Noah (Crowe) is charged by God with saving his family and samples of all of Earth’s animal species from an impending flood. Noah and his family begin construction of a huge ark, much to the chagrin of violently skeptical locals. The spectacle of such a story is nothing new to director Darren Aronofsky, whose films never lack for ambition (See his curtailed yet beautifully transcendental love story The Fountain for proof). Still, a straight adaptation would be too much of a gamble now. Instead he manages a tricky balance between Bible story, environmentalist tale and adventure, with minimal irony and strong performances from all concerned. Alongside Crowe, the cast features his A Beautiful Mind co-star Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, Anthony Hopkins and Ray Winstone (It’s saddening to learn that at no point in the film does Winstone yell, “Oi, Noah, you slaaaaaag!”)

Russell Crowe meets the press at the Dublin premiere of Darren Aronofsky’s NOAH
Prior to the film’s release on this side of the Atlantic this Friday (April 4th), Dublin, Edinburgh and Cardiff welcome Crowe and his young co-star Douglas Booth (playing Noah’s eldest son, Shem) to their respective red carpets. Dublin is first on the list, with fans arriving from early in the morning ahead of the screening’s 12:45 start. The rains get heavier as ticket holders are admitted first, followed by photo-ops for the local hangers-on ahead of the arrival of the main draws. Booth arrives first, sporting a faint check suit. Despite cheers from the folks outside, his red carpet time is brief; the man everyone is here to see is following close behind.

Crowe arrives in style, in a black-and-white patterned scarf and elegant black coat. The fans scream for his attention, and he does not disappoint. Despite time constraints, he responds to autograph and selfie requests with an efficiency that only the experience of many premieres past can bring. Reputations be damned; he has classic star wattage viewed up close. Moving between media outlets along the red carpet, he’s to the point but disarmingly charming. Questions inevitably turn to critical responses to the film from conservative Christian groups. Were he and the filmmakers surprised by this? “No,” comes to honest reply, “We kind of expected that, just the same way we expected to be banned in certain Muslim countries as well. But it’s gratifying that people are actually starting to see the movie now, because it gets irritating after a while. 12-14 months of criticism based on people not seeing the film.” His reference to skepticism on the public’s part during production belies that certain gruffness beneath the warmth. If nothing else, Crowe is only human; expectations for a biblical story would always be low in the modern age.

Our attention turns to the filmmakers. We ask Crowe what he felt Aronofsky brought to the project. “A lot of planning, and a very specific budget!” is the knowing reply, delivered with a warm smile. That specific budget is currently touted at approximately US$125 million, so a man with a plan was clearly a must. Was working with Aronofsky part of the draw for Crowe? He confirms, “Definitely. I’ve been following Darren’s growth as a filmmaker for about 15 years, and I was really taken aback by Black Swan. It’s one of those calls that you wanna get, you know? Here’s a guy coming towards the peak of his powers, and you’re the guy he wants to call!”

Showing his enthusiasm, Crowe reveals a tale from the casting process. “[Aronofsky] made a gag at our first conversation. He said ‘I’ll tell you what the movie is we have to make together. I’ll make you two promises, but don’t say anything after I say the title.’ He said it’s Noah, and then he said ‘Here’s the two promises. One: I will not require you to wear sandals. Two: I will not have you on the bow of a ship flanked by a giraffe and an elephant.” It’s a relief to hear this from Noah himself; that image could be either kitsch or ironic, two points of view which the film purposefully avoids. Crowe nods to the balancing act Aronofsky performs with Noah. “In his vision, even though you’re talking about a biblical story, Darren’s allowed a certain latitude for evolutionary theories as well.”

Running late, time constraints force Crowe on his way. The press gallery consisted of seasoned journalists and relative newbies, but all are left with a feeling of achievement. His reputation and his handlers precede him, but Crowe clearly has a great deal of energy devoted to Noah. The marketing push has been a big effort, and he has two more premieres to fly to before the day is out. We later hear he made it to the Edinburgh screening before the Dublin screening had even ended! Whether or not he’s doing the Lord’s work, his director and the film’s backers should be pleased by Crowe’s efforts.

Review: The Babadook (2014)

Director: Jennifer Kent

****

This review was originally published on Scannain.com.

Kids, eh? Who’d have ‘em?! If they’re not screaming their heads off or injuring themselves or others, the monsters from their nightmares are trying to kill you.

In the film bearing its name, the babadook is a creature that feeds on fear. Initially you can’t see it, but the more you deny it, the stronger it gets. Jennifer Kent’s film has operated in much the same way. It built buzz at film festival screenings, with audiences proclaiming it a masterpiece. Deny the buzz, and it only gets more insistent. But now, it arrives; we are face-to-face with the beast. Can we deny it any longer?

Here’s what’s undeniable: The Babadook is one of the smartest horror films to come along in quite some time. It is scary, but the scares are not the be all and end all. Yes, it has a potential scream queen protecting a vulnerable child from a big beastie but, first and foremost, The Babadook is a treatise on grief. A beast in itself, grief can isolate, incapacitate and even destroy a person. That is no less than what happens here, as two grieving souls confront something threatening them from within.

The film opens on a close-up of Amelia (Essie Davis). The setting suggests she’s in a car. The glass flying all around suggests she’s in a car crash. Indeed, we learn this was the night in which her son was born and her husband was killed in that crash. Cut to six years later, and young Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is driving Momma crazy. He’s full of shrill energy, and obsessed with monsters and magic. Young newcomer Wiseman is a fine fit for the role; he’s necessarily annoying, but her comes into his own when Amelia begins to believe in some of the fantasies he’s concocted. In a brave move, writer-director Kent plays with the conventional mother-child relationship as glimpsed in most horror films. Whether because of his father’s death or his continuous talent for annoyance, Amelia is clearly resentful of her son. He is a perpetual fright; with wide-eyed energy and a tendency to ask the wrong question at the wrong time, the viewer occasionally finds itself on Amelia’s side. Why can’t he just sit down and be quiet?! This tension, cruel as it may seem, is crucial to The Babadook’s success. Both mother and son are going through a prolonged grieving period, with Samuel asking questions aplenty about the father he never knew. Amelia’s sadness, coupled with child-induced insomnia, combine to leave a broken woman. As Amelia, Davis is the beating heart of the film. At first, Amelia’s barely holding her life together, but she eventually proves both admirable in her devotion to her son, and terrifying as she succumbs to the will of something she can fight, but she can’t altogether control. Enter the babadook.

In a desperate bid to lull Samuel to sleep one night, Amelia reads him a bedtime story. She finds a copy of a book in his bedroom bookcase, a pop-up book entitled ‘Mister Babadook’. Everything about the book, from its blood-red cover to the creature’s shape, screams bad news. Initially, Amelia’s reading only leads to a great punchline for the audience, but it’s what happens in the nights that follow that really unsettle. The first visible appearance of the babadook itself is a child’s worst nightmare poured on celluloid. He evidently shares a couturier with Freddy Kreuger and the creeper from Jeepers Creepers. He can crawl, glide or just stand still; it doesn’t matter because he/it is just an unknowable evil. He can invade homes, and even films. A sleep-deprived Amelia sees the babadook on a late-night TV screening of Méliès’ Trip To The Moon. It’ll get a smile from the film nerds, before another glimpse of the creature finds us unawares once again.

As is the way of these things, the creature wants the boy, and Amelia must be the vessel for this evil. It plays with tropes of possession and haunted houses (Alex Holmes’ production design is full of dour colours and period details), but the film works best as a struggle between unconditional love and inconsolable grief. There is no signposted victor, and the ending is left open to a surprising degree of interpretation, which may vex some horror purists. Then again, The Babadook isn’t just a horror. It’s an emotionally-charged portrait of the grieving process; it just happens to be bloody scary into the bargain.

Review: Leviathan (Левиафан)

Director: Andrey Zvyaginstev

****

This review was originally published on Scannain.com.

With a title like Leviathan, you can be assured that this film is heaving with scope and scale. It’s a word heavy with meanings, any of which could be applied to Andrey Zvyagintsev’s drama. It’s not an assault on the senses like its 2012 documentary namesake, but it ropes the audience in with questions and challenges that linger in the mind. In its oldest Biblical sense, a leviathan is a giant sea creature, more often interpreted as a whale. The area of the Barents Sea where Leviathan is set is often visited by whales. One of the most memorable sights from the film is a giant whale skeleton, as glimpsed in the film’s posters and advertising. The original leviathan threatens God’s creation, though it’s more human forces that threaten the idyllic fishing village at the heart of Leviathan.

All talk of sea creatures aside, the biggest Biblical reference point in Leviathan is the Book of Job. This particular sliver of the Old Testament is fertile material for filmmakers, custom-made for commentary (Recent onscreen variations include A Serious Man and The Tree Of Life). Our Job substitute this time around is Nikolai (Aleksei Serebryakov), a mechanic living with his second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and his young son Romka (Sergey Pokhodaev) in the sleepy village. Their lives are quiet, yet happy, but it’s all starting to unravel. The film opens with Nikolai meeting his old army pal Dima (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) off the train from Moscow. Dima is now a respected lawyer, and Nikolai is bound in a legal quagmire.

Nikolai’s legal problems are where we might find reference to Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes, the classic argument for a social contract whereby some freedoms are sacrificed by the masses to escape the fractious state of nature. The mayor of the town (Roman Madyanov) is seeking to evict Nikolai and his family, with rumours suggesting he wishes to build a mayoral palace in place of Nikolai’s house and garage. Leviathan dares to mock the leviathan that is the Russian establishment; this vast land has adopted the commonplace social contract of democracy, but its abuse is accepted by most, and those that rally against it seem doomed as Job once was. Vadim the mayor is a drunkard, and as such is an easily-mocked yet threatening representation of Russian government. His bodyguards and status give Vadim the confidence to come to Nikolai’s house in the dead of night to issue vodka-fuelled threats. When Nikolai reports this to the police, his antagonism get him arrested. Meanwhile, Dima visits Vadim in his office featuring draped flags and Vladimir Putin’s portrait on the wall. The village is in thrall to this version of the social contract. Witness the speed at which a judge reads out the testimony and findings of Nikolai’s case. The law dominates the landscape, but in turn the law is flouted by the lawmakers. Job is doomed once more.

Leviathan is an active commentary, but the story drives it. The hot-headed Nikolai is fighting a worthy fight, but he also brings a lot of strife on himself with his anger. Lilya clearly loves him, but her eye is not above straying. Meanwhile, Romka’s teenaged rebelliousness has shades of his old man’s temper. Dima makes a good counterpoint, a calmer presence but also flawed. As the case rumbles on, the characters’ desires and failures come to a head. The central scene sees Dima, Nikolai, his family and friends go on a shooting trip-cum-picnic. Truths come to the surface, but not before the party have had some target practice with framed portraits of Lenin and other Soviet leaders. Even amongst the drama, the commentary is never too far away. The fact that these aspects of the film rarely overwhelm each other is a tribute to a uniformly-excellent cast and the script. Zvyagintsev and his co-writer Oleg Negin manage this balance with skill; in their Cannes-prizewinning script they understand that the plot and the satire help carry each other along.

Zvyagintsev presents a foreboding landscape, full of grey mountains, grainy roads and blue-green seas. Its stark beauty accentuates the predicament of the characters, who increasingly seem to be abandoned by anything they might have once believed in, be it the state or God. Throughout the film, we see an Orthodox priest give counsel, whilst a bust of a suffering Jesus looks down from his mantelpiece. Both church and state have their idols from which to derive their power. Arguably, in the third act of the film, Zvyagintsev opts to give more time to the commentary than to the story, threatening his balanced script. Still, by then the damage has been done. Job has suffered once again at the hands of his Lord. It’s a brave man that dares tackle a leviathan. Zvyagintsev is one such man; Russia once threatened to ban the film, and now its the country’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. However, as his skilful and thoughful film reminds us, he is an exception to prove the rule. Even the strongest men succumb to greater forces, and those who oppose will litter the landscape like the bones of a whale.

Review: Goodbye To Language (Adieu Au Langage) (2014)

Director: Jean-Luc Godard

***

This review was originally published at Scannain.com.

Oh, what is that rapscallion Godard up to now?

For the 55 years since À bout de souffle was released, and even beforehand, Jean-Luc Godard has prided him on playing fast and loose with the language of cinema. Why cut the shots of Jean Seberg from the same angle together so haphazardly? Because he could! Godard’s manipulation of cinematic language through the years has been so forthright and antagonistic in both form and content that it’s reassuring to see his anger hasn’t subsided. Indeed language, both verbal and cinematic, is the subject of his newest filmic rebellion.

Goodbye To Language is a cheeky, frustrated and frustrating chapter in Godard’s decades-long eulogy for cinema. Given that most filmmaking is still very much subject to the tyranny of the narrative, one can’t help but feel that Godard’s pronunciations about cinema’s end just feed into his own needs and desires as a filmmaker. Still, give him points for gumption; Goodbye To Language is a reminder of just how singular and how angry a directorial vision can be. Alexandre Astruc would be proud; Godard doesn’t wield the camera like a pen so much as a sword. Complacency is not an option. You may have a headache after seeing Goodbye To Language; you will have an opinion.

The film opens with numbers and titles layered over each other through the magic of 3D. If a use of 3D could be described as aggressive, this is it. Explaining the plot will do little to prepare the viewer for the experience. Nominally, it revolves around a couple (Héloise Godet and Kamel Abdeli) and their increasing inability to communicate with one another. All of this takes place in surroundings so badly shot that it automatically alienates the viewer. The film itself is already refusing to communicate openly. The 3D could instigate many a migraine whilst the sound, one minute booming and completely cut out the next, is a purposeful irritant. The film is an immersion in filmmaking chaos; if we can tolerate retrograde 3D and deafening sound from the latest Transformers film, we can tolerate it here.

As unlikely as one might have thought, the 3D here gifts us one of the most memorable shots of any film in recent memory. The woman sits on a bench talking with a man, then gets up to argue with a suited aggressor nearby. Thanks to the 3D, even though the camera pans right and the first man should be out of shot, the 3D ensures all parties appear to remain in the shot. Each man sits in one viewer’s eyeball, while the woman moves between the two. The grammar of cinema is manipulated again, to an unlikely effect. This tool probably shouldn’t be used this way (The likely ensuing headaches will be proof), but it gives us two views at once, like the eyes of a chameleon working independently of each other.

Later scenes see husband and wife in their home, their domestic surrounds standing in contrast to their proclivity for nudity and discussions while using the lavatory (All in 3D!). Their chatter touches on typical Godard-ian topics (Hitler, the Holocaust and imperialism all get an airing) before proceedings are interrupted by another soundtrack attack or a repeated shot of a ship setting sail. If this wasn’t in 3D and from Godard, would we dismiss all this? It’s likely, but then Godard is one of those people who would have to be invented if he didn’t already exist. He may be in his eighties, but he still pushes buttons like no-one else can. His camera is a wrecking ball; if you bought the adverts proclaiming Avatar’s revolutionary 3D, this is a must-see film for you.

The only presence or character we come to appreciate is a dog (Godard’s own pet, Mieville). He crops up now and again, enjoying leisurely walks and the sights and sounds of nature. He doesn’t say anything, he doesn’t antagonise, he just exists in the rare moments that allow us to forget the film is in 3D. He is our unlikely source of calm in the storm. Otherwise, Goodbye To Language is an exercise in frustration, and sometimes that is necessary. It’s easy to dismiss on the surface, but by the time the film ends on the high-pitched wails of a baby, its memorability is secure. Even if Godard manages to piss everyone in the cinema off, you can almost hear his voice every time a character utters the repeated line “Ça m’est égal!” (“I don’t care”).