Review: A Little Chaos (2014)

Director: Alan Rickman

**

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

At one point in A Little Chaos, garden designer Sabine de Barra (Kate Winslet) has a chance encounter with no less than King Louis XIV (Alan Rickman), for whom De Barra has been commissioned to design a part of the gardens for his new palace at Versailles. As the conversation comes to their mutual love of gardening, the king declares, “It is the ease of it I like. The ease.” A Little Chaos is a film of ease, a simple and gentle period piece. However, like claiming to have an interest in gardening just from watching Gardener’s World, there’s no real grit, drama or effort involved.

The extensive history of the French court at Versailles is a fascinating tale, but Rickman’s sophomore turn behind the camera has little interest in anything beyond being a frothy little bodice show. De Barra is a fictional creation, hired by the garden’s true architect Andre Le Nôtre (Matthias Schœnaerts) to craft one section of greenery into an ‘outdoor ballroom.’ She’s keen, but her relative free-thinking approach ruffles many a powdered wig. Le Nôtre is sufficiently convinced, however, and he visits De Barra at her home in a scene to offer her the job in a scene so over-produced and shot that we half-expect Meryl Streep to barrel in for a musical number. Ellen Kuras’ cinematography is undeniably cheery but, much like the gardens of Versailles, the design and look of the film draws attention to its own artifice. Every bodice is too perfectly stitched, every candle shines too bright and every conflict feels too well-constructed. It’s all too handsome to be taken seriously.

Take Schœnaerts, for example. He’s normally an intense and brooding presence, and his build can’t help but stand out amongst the delicateness of his onscreen surroundings. As Le Nôtre, he’s given very little to work with. As is the way of these things, or rom-coms for that matter, he finds himself enamoured with the young woman he’s just hired. He and Winslet exchange mild flirtations amidst handsome woodlands and crushed velvet, but it all moves with that accursed ease so beloved of Rickman’s king (and indeed, Rickman the writer-director) that it threatens to grind to a halt. That it manages not to do so is down to the cast. De Barra is a typical Winslet role: standoffish yet charming all the same. The screenplay doesn’t give Winslet to work with beyond those traits and a sob backstory, but its the most any cast member gets here. Helen McCrory adds another snobby bint to her repertoire as Mme. Le Nôtre, and Stanley Tucci crops up in an extended cameo as the Duc d’Orleans. With wig and purple pantaloons in tow, he ramps up the camp for his handful of scenes, allowing him to overcome weak characterisation to steal these scenes, or at least what there is of worth to steal.

Construction starts on the garden as De Barra feels frustrations on all sides. Divisions of class ensure her competition seek to scupper her efforts, while Le Nôtre gives her dreamy looks of yearning. We might have cared more if there wasn’t such an air of artifice around proceedings. The gardens of Versailles were all about manipulating nature into submission, but A Little Chaos will not force anyone under its power. It’s simply too safe and lethargic; indeed, a little chaos of its own might have gone a long way.

Review: The Salvation (2014)

Director: Kristian Levring

**

This review originally appeared on Scannain.com

For a film titled The Salvation, not a great deal of saving or salvaging actually happens. It tells the story of Jon (Mads Mikkelsen), who presumably has to be saved from the peaceful life he had intended for his newly-arrived family by a baptism of blood. Was nowhere in the ever-expanding West safe way back when?

Director Kristian Levering clearly loves Westerns. Nothing wrong with that, except he cannot distance himself enough from the tropes so beloved of old-school oaters. The Western is not a genre normally associated with Scandinavia (even if Ingmar Bergman did declare John Ford was the greatest of all directors), but The Salvation has a decidedly Nordic sensibility. Mikkelsen’s Jon is a Danish imigré and a former soldier, and the film opens with him welcoming his wife and young son off the steam train to their new life in the newly-United States of 1871. It’s a cliché to suggest Scandinavian auteurs must peddle a ‘life-is-suffering’ message, but Mrs. and Jr. are scarcely off the train when they are kidnapped. Jon gives chase just in time to find them dead and to exact his revenge on the kidnappers. All this happens in the first ten minutes; it’s a good thing the kid was there to be killed and manufacture audience investment, eh?

With blood on his hands, Jon faces a fight as gang leader Delarue seeks revenge for the men Jon killed. Delarue is played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who must still be picking hunks of scenery out of his teeth, thanks to his blustery Yosemite-Sam act. As Delarue goes about his hunt for the cotton-pickin’ varmint what killed his men, Jon must fight to save himself and the local townsfolk from Delarue’s wrath. If that sounds hokey, blame Levring and his co-writer Anders Thomas Jensen. The latter also wrote En Chance Til for Susanne Bier, so he knows his way around soapy, slapdash plotting. A high body count can cover up so many problems, but then in swans Eric Cantona attempting to look and sound threatening as one of Delarue’s henchmen, and the tension evaporates faster than camel urine in the Sahara. He is but one of a notable supporting cast left with sod all to do. The likes of Douglas Henshall, Mikael Persbrandt and Jonathan Pryce can only go through archetypal motions. The greatest waste sees Eva Green’s reduced to Delarue’s plaything, which wouldn’t be so bad if the character wasn’t mute. First Ethan Hawke in Good Kill, and now this. Casting directors: please stop casting such riveting talkers in (near-)mute roles.

The rest of The Salvation sees the upper hand flit back and forth between Jon and Delarue until an inevitable shootout ending with few surprises. The Salvation has all the materials for a gritty take on what many regard as a relatively-disposable genre. It’s only held up by the conviction of its leading man. Mikkelsen’s intensity is cut from the same cloth as that of fellow Scandinavian export Viggo Mortensen, rugged and brooding. He’s the reason to keep watching; this leading man leads this film through many a rough patch just enough to escape with his dignity intact. As for the rest of the film, there are only so many pretty vistas you can visit before you realize you’re going nowhere.

Review: A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014)

Director: Ana Lily Amirpour

****

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

It’d be far too easy to solely blame the Twilight phenomenon, but recent cinematic vampirism has been defined by a severe lack of mojo. Twilight just proved bloodsuckers can be as mopey as a hormonal teenager (and as vacuous as a Hollister model, or Taylor Lautner). Their small screen incarnations, True Blood and The Vampire Diaries, gave vamps a good dose of sexy but, under the silken surfaces, the bite was lacking. Where were the smarts? The fear? The ‘cool’? Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut feature, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, remembers to bring all those ingredients back to the table, and casts them in a familiar, but very tasty mould.

It’s plain bad luck for Amirpour that one of her primary stylistic influences, Jim Jarmusch, beat her to this particular punch. Only Lovers Left Alive was a woozily intelligent elegy for art and artistry of times past. With their inability to age, vampirism proved a clever narrative tool for Jarmusch. That said, as wonderful as OLLA is, there wasn’t much in the way of menace to its leading bloodsucking duo. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night keeps the ‘cool’ and ups the threat. The action centres on a vampire we only ever know as The Girl (Sheila Vand), and this inability to know her already singles this character out as something special. Though petite and fair of face, there is an inherent creepiness to her movements, and her hijab and striped jumper combo, like an emo apparition; it should prove popular come Halloween. Vand is a mesmerising study in stillness and loneliness; as with so many vampires, we must presume she’s been a bloodsucker for quite some time. Her soft eyes convey a warmth, while the rest of her body language hints at danger. It’s a lethal combination.

Another reason we don’t know this Girl as well as we’d like is because A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night doesn’t have the feel or shape of any typical vampire film. Though shrouded in shadows and stillness, the look of the film is as much that of Lynch’s Eraserhead as of Browning’s Dracula. The film has been pitched as the first Iranian Vampire Western; though shot in the U.S. with American funding, the film takes place entirely in Farsi. Amirpour claims Sergio Leone as a big influence, and the fictional setting of Bad City plays like so many Western towns, with oil pumps churning and bad guys running amok. Instead of one big bad, the demon ruling the roost here is heroin addiction, and it’s a world in which our nominal leading man Arash (Arash Marandi) is regretfully caught up. With an addict father and a bleak outlook, this drifter wannabe finds solace in an unlikely urban avenger with a penchant for stripes and nocturnal strolls. Despite her tastes and his background, there is a lovely innocence to this pair. An unspoken electricity passes between them as he slowly approaches her for a tentative first kiss. It plays like a hipster Wong Kar-Wai moment, soundtracked by a slow-build White Lies track. Love and tension are evoked masterfully, as we can’t guess how this will end. The film is full of such moments, full of different shades of dread.

Whilst never setting foot there, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night frames Iran in very cinematic terms, as worthy a host to boogeymen as any cabin in the woods, and home to as many pimps and dope fiends as any American city. All this works because of the references to what has gone before. The Girl is defined by her flowing robe, and A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is defined by its influences, which it wears brashly and confidently. There are generous helpings of German Expressionism here;  A scene in which the Girl terrorizes a little boy brings Nosferatu to mind, but in a new wardrobe and a very new locale. David Lynch is can be heard in the dim hum of silences before some new fright strikes. Lyle Vincent’s swooning B&W lensing helps the film acknowledge its influences whilst staying just the right side of self-aware. Meanwhile, the eclectic soundtrack sets the mood as required, from exotic to dread-filled at the turn of the dial. Amirpour has said she wanted to make a film in which everything seen and said was ‘shit that she loved’ (her words). There’s the rub; is the experience of A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night dependent on the audience sharing her tastes? She knows good films, so that shouldn’t be a problem. Any other over-stylized choices are overcome by the fascinating robed creature at the heart of it all. It has ‘cool’ aplenty, but A Girl… is all about The Girl. Amirpour’s next film, whatever it may be, will have to work hard to match the balance between style and thoughtfulness achieved here.