Review: Camille Claudel 1915 (2013)

Director: Bruno Dumont

****

This review originally appeared on Scannain.com

How many true stories in film feel ‘true’? Did The Four Seasons continuously narrate their lives and break into song? Often, a biopic’s scope denies it insouciance. The best biopics focus on a (relatively) short period of time, or a few key events. A biopic screenwriter must do their research and find the real meat of the story beyond the predictable key tragedies and formative moments. For example, in Camille Claudel 1915, we never once see the famed sculptor (Juliette Binoche) put chisel to stone. We never see her in a Kiss-inspiring tryst with Rodin. We meet her in Montdevergues Asylum, downtrodden and paranoid. In filmic terms, Claudel’s tale is closer to the tragedy of Corbijn’s Control. It isn’t uplifting, but it is true.

Anyone who’s seen Bruno Nuytten’s handsome 1988 biopic Camille Claudel would be forgiven for thinking another film moot. It’s a big, bold interpretation, with Isabelle Adjani on intense form (though perhaps a step or two down from the impressive histrionics of Possession). CC1915 starts where Nuytten’s film ended. Admitted to Montdevergues in the depths of paranoia, Claudel is a broken woman. She yearns for release, and attempts to convince her doctor (Robert Leroy) of her sanity. Initially, Binoche invests Claudel with a fussy energy that makes her stand out from the placid gallery of unfortunates around her. Her disdain for her surroundings and fellow inmates is matched by her paranoia. She insists on cooking her own food, and can’t bear to be in the company of the other patients. Montdevergues seems haunted, silent and crumbling. War rages a few hundred miles away, and within the heads of the inmates.

All Camile’s hopes are pinned on an impending visit by her brother Paul (Jean-Luc Vincent). As the man who had her committed, he’s unlikely to change his mind, but Camille stubbornly clings to the prospect of freedom. The sibling’s meeting is the central scene, both chronologically and narratively, with Dumont crafting his dialogue from letters between the two; many exchanges are lifted verbatim. Dumont makes the most of the intimate knowledge with which history has left us, giving proceedings an weight and urgency lacking in so many other biopics. Claudel’s mental state is not a hurdle to be crossed on the path to success; it is a true burden to doom her for life. Binoche’s tearstained face retains its nigh-unmatched capacity to break hearts. Dumont aids Binoche in grounding her vexations by making the asylum both handsome and decrepit. Whitewashed walls look ready to crumble, and most of the patients spend their days in silence, not least because some of them can barely speak at all. The lack of a score and the oppressive naturalism of DP Guillaume Deffontaines (dazzling sunshine, foggy nights) only adds to the claustrophobia.

Claudel’s stubborn One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest-alike reticence is slowly but gradually replaced by increasing acceptance, resignation and even bouts of succumbing to her predicament (A scene in which Claudel dances her hallelujahs down the aisle of a church walks the line between joyful and disturbed). CC1915 suggests at Claudel’s hospitalisation being more hindrance than help to her. It hints at lurches into Titicut Follies territory, but the primary impetus of Camille Claudel 1915 is truth rather than scandal. It’s a heady, heavy reminder that great artists will suffer for, and perhaps because of, their chosen medium.

Review: Night Moves (2013)

Director: Kelly Reichardt

****

This review originally appeared on Scannain.com

Hands up all of those who think Jesse Eisenberg is a one-trick pony.

Aha! We saw those hesitant limbs. Deny it not: it has been a common accusation (and indeed, misconception) that Eisenberg doles out the same Jew-fro’ed, nervy geek in every film in which he stars. Playing similar characters in quick succession is a risk for any actor; in Eisenberg’s case, it’s an additional misfortune that he played two nerds forced to come out of their shell in two films concerned with Lands in quick succession. Aside from pursuing Adventure and the occasional Zombie, check his back catalogue. He can be withdrawn (Roger Dodger), confident (The Social Network), all-out charming (Now You See Me) or gratingly motormouthed (30 Minutes Or Less, which was about 60 minutes too long). He proved his mettle most pointedly this year in The Double, in which he played two characters with the same face and body but distinct personalities. It’s no Dead Ringers, but Eisenberg (both of them) held the rest of the self-important Gilliam rip-off in place. Even if the claims of Eisenberg’s samey performances have died down, his discomforting turn in Kelly Reichardt’s masterful Night Moves ought to put the kibosh on them for good.

Unlike Eisenberg, most people know what they get with Reichardt, namely character and turmoil. Her two previous works exemplify her approach. As unlikely as it seems, she deals in danger. Threat comes from real life, be it economic (Wendy and Lucy) or purely survivalist (Meek’s Cutoff). For all the hardship, the pace is calm, almost distantly so. Danger usually entails urgency, but it can be just as powerful when far-off and unseen; the perception of danger is all that is required. With Night Moves, Reichardt ups the immediacy and the paranoia, to show that even the best laid plans of mice and eco-terrorists go oft astray. Within the confines of a solid three-act structure is a canvas for drip-feed excitement and intelligent thrills.

Based on/ripped off from Edward Abbey’s 1975 novel ‘The Monkey Wrench Gang’ (The argument progresses through the courts, but we have the film regardless), our focus is on Josh (Eisenberg) and Dena (Dakota Fanning, leaving behind the thankless roles of her younger years for something with a bit more thought put in to it), two members of an Oregon environmentalist commune specializing in growing organic produce. All well and good, except they’re cooking something up besides puy lentil broth. From early on, Eisenberg’s brooding stillness and Fanning’s distant intelligence suggest malicious intent. The first act establishes the plan; with the help of veteran Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard, bringing that smile to new heights of superciliousness), they aim to bring down the Green Peter hydroelectric dam with the help of several hundred pounds of homemade explosive. Supplies are sought. Explosives are constructed. A boat is bought. Confidence is aplenty. There is never any doubt in this trio’s minds that they are doing the right thing, with Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond’s script giving them enough rope with which to hang themselves later on. The homemade nature of their endeavour doesn’t inject an overbearing realism to proceeding, just enough believability to suggest this could happen. For a thriller, that suggestion is plenty.

Act Two is all in the execution. Classic character building leads to a date with destiny, as our Oregon Three take the boat, the ominously-named Night Moves, on to the Santiam river with its dangerous cargo. There is no established guarantee; the fear on all three faces is justified, and we are right there with them. All movie plans are foolproof, but Reichardt milks the tension. Is everything in place? Have they forgotten something? This is the high point; at its best Night Moves is stupendously riveting. Reichardt puts her protagonists through the ringer with ease; the segue from characterisation to no-frills tension is the work of someone operating at peak powers. It’s a scenario in which Eisenberg could have gone twitchy and Fanning could have become shrill. They are still, calmly quaking. Whether the bomb goes off or not, you will be on edge to find out.

All this leads to a third act that pales in comparison with the second, if only because the execution of the plan is just so tense. The fallout of the SS Night Moves’ final journey slowly but surely takes its toll on Josh. Harmon and Dena manage to keep their heads down, but Eisenberg puts a human face to their actions. Try as he might, cracks slowly appear in Josh’s façade, and the stresses will only lead to yet more extreme measures. If the lesson of the cost of idealism is nothing new, Night Moves at least puts a price tag on that cost. Cash in all comfort and prospect of happiness, and you’ll come out with change. The final shot of Eisenberg’s face shows a man who has paid said cost, although whether it was paid gladly remains up for debate. The efficiency and class of Night Moves, on the other hand, is undeniable.

Review: Heli (2013)

Director: Amat Escalante

***

This review originally appeared on Scannain.com

After a successful festival tour, including winning Best Director at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Heli arrives with relatively little fanfare. The film has got a cooler reception from critics than festival juries, which at least goes to disprove any idea that critics favour for prestigious films just because they’re miserable. Usually, that’s pure coincidence.

Is Heli just misery porn? Tackling the issue of drug cartels will be necessarily grim; told from a Mexican viewpoint, Heli doesn’t have the self-aware style of Breaking Bad or Soderbergh’s Traffic. What it does have is grit, violence and more grit. It centres on Heli (Armando Espitia), a young factory worker who lives with his wife, young son, sister and father in rural Mexico. Their lives primarily consists of keeping their heads down to avoid cartel activity forever haunting the frame from the sidelines. Heli’s sister Estela (Andrea Vergara) disturbs this fragile balance when she and her army cadet boyfriend Alberto (Juan Eduardo Palacios) procure heroin seized from the cartel and plan to sell it. Heli finds out and tries to hide the drugs, but right from the start this obviously cannot end well. This is clear when, in  one of the first scenes when Estela adopts a stray puppy. Any film fan worth their salt knows Fido’s done for, and so it goes when the cartel come looking for their misappropriated stash at Heli’s house.

Heli paints a portrait of rural Mexico as a hellish desert ruled by the lawbreakers, rife with corruption and torture. After the raid on Heli’s house, Heli and Alberto are taken by the cartel for some enhanced interrogation involving humiliation and the use of lighter fluid in conjunction with certain body parts. Escalante serves up a grim film, with shocking moments (violent and otherwise) and an unrepentantly dour tone. All this would be fine if Heli had something new to say about life in the shadow of the drug dealers. Escalante’s script hints at themes of guilt, revenge and redemption, but the themes risk being sacrificed to shock value. Admittedly, the portrait of the close family ties of Heli and his family are well established. The performances are strong from all concerned, while Escalante and his cinematographer Lorenzo Hagerman’s no-frills approach adds heft to the drama and the violence.

As a story, Heli works even though the characters struggle to crawl out from underneath the remorseless grim tone weighing the film down. Escalante must presume the travails of this family are enough to carry the film through, but it could have used more satirical bite. With this material, the scope for commentary is vast, but it’s scarcely explored. Heli has to ensure its memorability with shock, because it’s just not as smart as the filmmakers seem to think.

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.

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: 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?