Director Nicholas Winding Refn cleverly opens Drive with a compelling high-octane chase through the streets of nighttime LA, during which Ryan Gosling, baseball game burbling from the radio, stop-start guns a last-gasp getaway into a series of clever, nervy near-misses before eventually slipping the attentions of the law amidst the safety of the post-game crowd. I say ‘cleverly’ but the walk-outs across in UK multiplexes shortly thereafter suggest that many a punter felt mislead: that’s the most ‘in-car’ action you get, other than one other chase involving Christina Hendricks and a car seen flipping through the air through the windscreen over her shoulder (genius shot). This isn’t a chase movie, or an action film: opening in such a way sets the tone. There’s a matter-of-fact compulsion to the prologue that’s a million miles from pulverizing drum-and-bass car pyrotechnics.
By day Gosling’s a mere stunt driver and auto mechanic: throwing himself into the metal-whomp of chassis-totalling peril and tinkering under the bonnet. He’s a central character that clearly struggles to communicate, socially inert, murmur-happy, who is arrested from the automaton danger of his existence by two things: his car and Carey Mulligan. The latter seems to take him by surprise: flipping his stunt car through 180˚ and onto its roof at high speed is nothing. Mulligan, however, awakens something that he can only normally access when gripping the wheel with landscape blurring by. She should represent the opposite of danger, something to ameliorate the precariousness of his existence. But soon enough she’s the reason he’s dodging bullets as well as serious workaday injury.
There have been plenty of inscrutable, unreachable characters down the years, and the play on that trope is normally to wear them down, coax the ‘real’ them out of a cast-iron shell, thaw the ice progressively (until there’s a shallow pool of acquiescence), or have them refuse to budge an iota right through to the end, which normally entails a lot of people taking a beating, as the ‘for real’ protagonist, with glum resolve, walks off beyond a heap of nemeses into a sunset that only means something to the observer.
Ryan Gosling’s driver is a kind of re-animation of the McQueen/Eastwood prototype, a man who believes in doing a job properly within specific parameters, offering nothing beyond efficient resolve other than easy-on-the-eye intransigence. During his violent escapades here (although there’s little in the way of satisfaction involved, more a blank dutiful impassiveness) he’s a little like a child caught up in a motorway pile-up – traumatised somewhere in there but surface numb. He’s not Takashi Miike’s blind samurai, chuckling affably between ruthless limb-lopping before reverting to humble tranquillity. He’s the troubled, monosyllabic offspring of the 80s writ large, stuck behind the wheel: sexless, starved of serotonin and substance from birth, he’s an adrenaline junky, the product of e-numbers, fast food and MTV. The gestalt here is unmistakable: and the Bickle-esque central character that’s negotiating this hazy half-world will clearly face a reckoning of some sort. The backdrop, though, isn’tVietnamnightmares, it’s much more nebulous, and there’s no euphoric bloodshed and catharsis, just the negation of a dream with no resolution.
The thing is (and the film rests almost entirely on this): the protagonist is impossible to dislike and cool. Gosling has the face and demeanour of a manchild, an all-American cereal box kid kept in a vault and unleashed into adulthood, no longer registering on any kind of readable scale. When he moves in on an auto-shunted Ron Perlman, beached and bloodied, he’s wearing a mask and looks like a crash test dummy (which is funny) but he’s inexorable death and vulnerable at the same moment. It’s hard to imagine who else could carry off such a powerful dichotomy. As Perlman (a cackling minor Mob scumbag) flails and splashes before a totally immutable gaze, the expressionless executioner hoves in, playing a non-specific role, metering out unacknowledged punishment, on behalf of a girl and her son, people he hardly knows, an act of murderous faith borne out of a feeling. When Gosling kisses Mulligan for the first time, in a lift that also contains someone arrived in their building to kill them, the kiss, the moment of grace before death is duelled, is prolonged by Refn, a cauterized slow-mo shot that suggests Gosling is preserving a memory and stifling inevitablility. Therin lies the intent of the film, and the scene offers a perfect microcosmic hint at what Refn’s after. Namely, the best of any moment, to sift out all the mundanities and retain only the hard-edged or gratifying elements and string them together.
Director Refn gets it all exactly right. I have yet to read the source novel, although Max Cairnduff’s excellent review –http://tinyurl.com/82y8ens – suggests that it’s well worth checking out. But, in terms of cinema, he has fashioned an extremely interesting concoction that asks swift, serious questions, in passing, about what a modern story can do in terms of contemporary commentary on film heritage without affecting story immersion: how there’s little room for the lone hero amidst the swarming bombardment of information and overkill, and what the 80s have become in our collective consciousness. Here is an alternate 80s: the music could hardly offer more overt cues. Refn suggests: this character and these metonymical elements are best served through the utilisation of an idea of a time. It’s a distancing mechanism that’s as good as a relocation to another, analogous planet.
The film is in many ways an adolescent fantasy, punchy nostalgia rebooted, gleam-waxed, supercharged yearning for an ineffable but unnamed something. Recognition? There’s a scene in the film in which Gosling prises open the lid he’s kept an inarticulate white-knuckled hand over throughout, offering a tribute to Mulligan that seems doom-laden: ‘I just want you to know, the time I’ve spent with you has been the best time of my life.’ As though he understands his fate doesn’t involve hanging around being happy, as hanging around, whoever it’s with, means death: he needs to move to live – because he’s an idea. There exists between Gosling and Mulligan a strange, unspoken accord, surprising but futile. His fate lies elsewhere: he’s a stunt driver by day and a getaway driver by night: hardly the bedrock of a long-term relationship, nor the professional pursuits of a man likely to be home much.
You have to, I’d say, look at the film as a product of a director born at a certain point who has always trodden a difficult path between substance and visceral immediacy. The emotional affect here doesn’t quite work: it’s basically Eno’s ‘Ascent: An Ending’ as shorthand for the magic of amorous connect. Far less clumsy and sloppily overbearing would’ve been no soundtrack whatsoever during these scenes: but in writing this I realise that it’s part of the whole conflation of an Eighties-feel sensibility taken a little too far, probably deliberately. It’s a suffocating clinch when it might be a casual embrace, and such moments detract in a film where other such examples of soundtrack overkill work perfectly, such as during a montage featuring a day out in the car for Gosling, Mulligan and her son, in which he makes lighthearted concessions to his trade by delighting with some barely-dangerous manoeuvring.
These people are fairly ridiculous. They’re comic-book Mob, pulp miscreants, endangered, helpless damsels and sullen heroes. The whole set-up has been done countless times. But it all unquestionably works: the sum is a glinting, beguiling amalgamation of the parts, and it’s a very strange entity often masquerading as something very different. It’s a film about nostalgia and the impulse that demands the impossible combination of comfort and reassuring recycling with night and uncertainty, which never flinches and never doubts its method.
This isn’t a film about driving, it’s an extrapolation of a feeling prompted by the daydream gleam on a fender, a film about adolescent projections as to what a city might be like (the LA of Drive feels unfinished, a dream reconstruction, smooth-edged and uncluttered), full of elegiac slow-mo interrupts and sudden, unfeasible eruptions of violence, all based upon a singular fount: (80s) cinema, TV and music. As such, it’s clever and endearing: it relentlessly prevails on a surface level that, were it to plunge beneath, it would quickly collapse. It’s an artful, unreal, depthless riff on a collective impression of an era and a naivety, and it works supremely well. Critics that refer to formula ‘plot holes’ are looking for another film that Refn would never make. The kiss between the leads, the avid, unvarnished, staged brutalities, the cars flying onto the beach, the musical interventions: they’re all hallucinatory, boyish invocations of want. Refn’s skill is to transpose that into a vicarious cinematic experience without it becoming a ridiculous exercise in nostalgia porn. A considerable achievement.
Beginners features Ewan McGregor as a thirty-something advertising artist that can’t hold down a relationship. Dad Christopher Plummer announces his homosexuality just in time for a liberated swan song before succumbing to cancer, which forces McGregor into some serious re-appraisal re: his relationship with both his already dead mother (plenty of flashbacks throughout) and father, who now also has a much younger boyfriend, an over-kids-TV Goran Visnjic. And then radiant Melanie Laurent arrives, and she and McGregor initially share the kind of cloyingly indie overtures that prompt thoughts of Miranda July, but this is both less faux-kooky and more affecting than that might suggest, despite a dog that communicates in cuddly subtitles.
Contagion is a tight but swift hurtle into potentially (but not actually that) worrisome global epidemic territory, featuring exponential death rates and lots of opportunities for big-name actors to ‘do’ sick. Gwyneth Paltrow, the first recognisable link in the chain of death through whom we first see the ravaging effects of said virus, offers up a pretty passable rendition of ‘exceedingly ill’ as part of an intermittent cameo. We experience, in Soderbergh’s efficiently and effectively (and starkly colour-coded: the use of filters seems as overt an imprimatur as ever) plotted thriller, an increasingly wrought, ratcheted and gruelling accumulation of dread, corpses, shameless political manoeuvring, selflessness, futile professionalism and a realisation that Jude Law is often very distracting. Of the starry cast, Laurence Fishburne and Kate Winslet (along with the deservedly ubiquitous Bryan Cranston) fare best, not for the first time.
Everything Must Go is a notional adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story: very little of the referred original (Why Don’t We Dance?) survives here, other than a chap (Will Ferrell – good and pleasingly dialled down but you still get the sense that his hangdog equanimity is a serious strain on the leash) unravelled on his pleasant surburban lawn with all his belongings marshalled around him and his beer cluster as part of a pre-eviction/divorce/meltdown yard sale. (Key scene: Ferrell clutches at a cold 8-pack of beer at the local mini-mart, but is clearly in trouble as he instead clink-hauls two 8-packs out of the fridge.) Instead of a young couple rummaging and delving amongst his marital mementos we have instead a marginalised black kid, an apparently kindly cop keeping fellow feds at bay and an abandoned mum-to-be keeping him nicely dovetailed company. In other words, anything potentially troubling has been excised and replaced with the kind of situations and characters that lend themselves pleasingly to feel-good innocuousness. There are good moments and the pacing of the film is surprisingly comatose at times, but you know where it’s going before it begins. And why’s the nowhere-to-be-seen Laura Dern on the poster? Clearly she went as well.
Kill List is exceedingly powerful, almost suffocatingly so, for an hour, before it decides to become an insane Wicker Man/Eyes Wide Shut hybrid, at which point the film deflates with accompanying fart noises. It’s exceptional for a good while, though, and the director (Ben Wheatley) will doubtless produce something great. The level of bristling discomfort Wheatley develops before it all goes awry (and it’ll depend on how you feel about mad plot twists as to your tolerance level as the film veers into a ‘we’ve run out of ideas’ brick wall) is seriously impressive, and the various Yorkshire locations are not places you want to hang about, particularly not with any of the Kill List cast, though reluctantly negotiating them as part of a truly (in the main) disturbing cinematic voyage is a different matter.
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol features a fairly nifty prison break, broad comedy courtesy of Simon Pegg, the human Aardman performer, every few minutes to remind you this isn’t Brian De Palma or remotely serious, and stomach-somersault provocations by way of Tom Cruise slapping along the smoked-glass top floors of the world’s tallest building with only one functioning electro-suction glove. There’s also an occasionally confused-looking Jeremy Renner and the excellent Paula Patton. Cruise is clearly trying to find a niche between Bond and Bourne, and he’s decided that playing it all for laughs at the expense of pulsating grit is the safest route to preserving the franchise. It’s an IMAX/Brad Bird film: it’s never particularly suspenseful and it’s even less often dull. For example: the CGI Kremlin gets bombed, totters and teeters before toppling in a glorious billowing barrage of dust and debris. In other words, you get your money’s worth.
Film should do one of two things: make you feel happy to be alive or tell you the truth. Anything else is just mucking about. Steve McQueen isn’t interested in the former, but the latter: he’s your man. Hunger was shocking, impressive proof of this and Shame even more so. It’s no fun whatsoever, but is completely necessary.
Michael Fassbender is a kind of automated death gigolo, propelled through chilly NY streets towards the next pummelling, empty sexual fix. He’s scratching a terminal itch, repelling anything that doesn’t adhere to his narrow mindset and mindlessly feeding his mania with a relentless porn habit. He’s possessed by an animal urge and sates this quite easily, as he isn’t the shabbiest looking bloke. But he’s completely out of control and wraith-like, enervated by each encounter.
He picks up a girl at a bar – who his boss has oleaginously failed to entice – with horrible ease, and a quick and clamorous libido-feed down a rainy side street later and he’s momentarily cured. But he’s soon in need of another release: in the shower, in the toilet stall at work, in front of the laptop in his bleak minimalist pad. He’s a total addict, relinquished of every possible distraction that might clutter his consuming focus: the next hit.
And then sis Carey Mulligan crashes in. He has been ignoring her answer message pleas, at one point reaching back to flick the machine off with one hand as he pulls himself off with the other. Heavy-handed, perhaps, but there’s a lot of odd sibling-sexuality stuff in here that’s left hanging which adds to the inextricable murk.
Mulligan is a singer, her typical gig seemingly as the neglected musical periphery of an odious, swanky wine bar. When Fassbender, with his leeringly inept motormouth boss in tow, attends her latest set, there is a mordantly magical exchange between them mid-song (New York, New York) which articulates far more than any expositional interruptions might. It’s a breathless scene that lasts the entire song and beyond, powerful and unequivocal, yet unresolved and suggestive of hundreds of questions never answered, thankfully. But Shame isn’t the kind of film to answer questions: it doesn’t believe there are any. There are situations and occurrences, fates and teeming disquiet. There is humour, but as with Fassbender’s response following a scene in which Mulligan walks in on him masturbating, it’s a laugh likely to be spun into complex terror in a moment.
Mulligan’s arrival occasions something of a rupture in Fassbender’s descent, a contributory factor in the drawing of a few uncomfortable truths into queasy focus. But these don’t hold much purchase and are temporary self-delusions of resolve. Not even another (a quick shot of Mulligan’s multiple slash marks on her arm illustrating beyond doubt something you’re likely to have suspected) suicide attempt by Mulligan seems particularly likely to effect a wake-up call, for either of the siblings. As Mulligan suggests to Fassbender towards the finale. ‘We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place.’ Wherever that is, and it’s never made explicit, it’s up in the air as to whether or not their history has a deathly grip on any kind of future.
McQueen is quick to make sure we don’t get any Hollywood-tinged ideas of reprieve: a harrowing attempt by Fassbender to initiate a relationship is foiled by the sheer fact that the whole set-up isn’t dangerous or unempowered enough a scenario in which he can exist. He flops, to put it succinctly, and it’s as difficult to watch a moment as the evening out late-on in the film during which Fassbender seems ready to invite self-destruction with keen and uncomfortable urgency. All this before Mulligan careens yet further into disaster.
There are two shots in the film that don’t quite ring true and are a little too ‘shorthand’ cute. One is the opening shot of a rather elegantly spent Fassbender, blue silk framing a rather pointedly decadent repose. The other is a tracking shot of Fassbender jogging the blues away through the quiet metropolis. The former is too jarringly iconic for such a searing inquest into sex addiction. The latter wants it both ways: any such shot is immediately loaded with reference points that are unfortunately contradictory. In film, you simply can’t expend your ire pounding the pavements anymore, certainly not in a serious film. The wide-angle street jog is synonymous with archly light fare such as When Harry Met Sally, American Beauty and Kramer Vs Kramer, to name three of about a thousand. You cannot introduce stock shorthand into such an endeavour without diminishing returns. If any of this sounds picky, it’s because the film is, whilst not perfect, certainly a carefully assembled, powerful antidote to watered-down cinema otherwise. It’s a smack in the face and such pulled punches are always particularly glaring in such an otherwise uniformly strong, uncompromising film.
Michael Fassbender clearly relishes the opportunity to throw it all in and inhabit such hellish abandon. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role: he’s a superficially coasting unspecified mid-ranking office bod watching the clock roll around for the next joyless depravity fix. His computer is missing one morning: upon it’s return, his boss queries him. ‘Anal, double-anal, cream pies. I don’t even know what that means.’ You sense a moment of relief for Fassbender, a mortifying but conversely welcome moment of conspicuous dread. He’s out of control, and here’s an unexpected but perhaps inevitable intervention. But no: ‘Do you think it was your intern?’ the boss dumbly offers. He is sliding across life without reproach amid a jumble of grimly frantic liaisons.
Carey Mulligan, though, is at least as impressive as the brashly ruined sister, all feigned exclamations and overdone intimacies, accumulated tics and deadly poise. It’s a brilliantly observed, startling characterisation, and a genuinely shocking, admirable transformation.
Shame, which Wikipedia, I find, describes as ‘erotic’, is anything but. But it is certainly a genuinely disturbing, impassioned and important piece of work.
Norwegian Wood is a measured 140-minute adaptation of the Murakami novel about grief and longing that’s as quietly thrilling as it is funereal. Events transpire beyond a bubble of isolation in which our protagonist is trapped and every experience glances tracelessly across him – apart from his tragic relationship with a doomed girl, who is inexorably ruined once their mutual friend suicidally exits the film in the opening minutes. Murakami’s novel, still the best-selling novel inJapan, gets a deserving reimagining in this often visually astonishing paean to love’s hellish, tormenting possibilities. Norwegian Wood is both immensely bleak and euphoric, a blue-tinged spectral examination of the effects of devastating loss on one hand, and a lush, elegant hymn to growing into a new self and leaving a corrosive past where it belongs. Not that everyone here manages that.
The Ides of March does precisely what you imagine it will: offer a breezy soundbite snapshot of a vogueish element of the political process with added A-listers lending the uncomplicated script an esteem it perhaps doesn’t warrant. It wants Alan J Pakula status but settles for popcorn sophistication and is surely the kind of middle ground accessible-but-ambitious multiplex offering we could do with more of to help repel the sequel madness. Director George Clooney takes a backseat as a Democratic senator unwilling to compromise his principles on one level but more than happy to compromise those of others, as Ryan Gosling raises his game as a spin doctor-ish advisor who jumps ship, with cataclysmic consequences. Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman are typically excellent in support and Evan Rachel Wood is again radiantly perturbed in an absorbing enough film that eventually feels like an accomplished if unspectacular sum of parts failing to quite add up.
Midnight In Paris is another (rare) example of Woody Allen confirming he still has worthwhile work in him, and this is about as much fun as cinema in 2011 is going to get. It’s gloriously entertaining, indulgent stuff, with Owen Wilson strolling drunkenly across Paris, away from dull, totally unsuitable fiancée Rachel McAdams and, upon the chimes of midnight, into the 1920s and the serendipitious path of a number of heroes including the Fitzgeralds (Tom Hiddlestone is exactly how I imagine Fitzgerald was, which means nothing other than that, but provoked enormous personal glee), Hemingway, Stein, and Adrien Brody as a comedy Dali, amongst others. If you don’t enjoy Midnight In Paris, you’re dead.
Cold Weather is an intriguing and worthwhile micro-budget effort which suggests interesting future work from director Aaron Katz. An ex-girlfriend goes missing, and our hero, with sister in tow, does a bit of sleuthing, with some success, but with a bit of a caveat that might’ve been a little more thrillingly unpacked. The film is still admirable, pleasingly languid but too uneventful for such slight protagonists.
We Need To Talk About Kevin, an enjoyable, insubstantial film, is blighted from the off by two things in particular. The first being the overly provocative stance the author took in hypothesising every worst case parental scenario obstacle she could put in the way of a beleaguered protagonist, as some kind of vicarious experiment in tolerance and grief (the gifted director, Lynne Ramsay, is similarly troubled by adhering too stringently to the source material). The second being the fact that the latter incarnation of Kevin, as a late-teen Gucci model prowling the life of his mother for an opportunity to provoke torment, is completely ridiculous, over-stylized and, worse, constantly has you wondering what Placebo are up to nowadays. This is an overt symbolism-happy horror film with only a few chills, some beautiful camerawork, and a magnificent performance from Tilda Swinton, which is rather wasted. It’s enjoyable on a surface level it never strives to go beyond, a kind of infuriatingly provocative trifle.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which contains a level of subterfuge, intrigue, internecine chaos and thrumming disquiet that The Ides of March would kill for, also contains Gary Oldman’s best performance, which is almost distractingly good, and an absurd ensemble of great actors. Oldman is George Smiley, elegantly constricted, an inscrutable yet glaring, mesmerising presence, who is tasked with locating a double-agent in the ranks. This leads him, and his tonsorially top-hole accomplice Benedict Cumberbatch, into a few hornet nests and drably murky environments, straight out of a nightmarishly bereft, dust-swathed version of 80s Britain, as the miscreant is sought. Throughout, Oldman offers little clue as to what makes Smiley tick, but every nuance is so beautifully, tantalisingly eked out (and it helps that he has offered up such extravagantly volcanic performances prior) that you marvel, both at the apposite nature of the choice of characterisation and at the sheer subtle freight that Oldman exudes into every frame in which he’s present, as all those around him reap the rewards of such solid centrifuge, particularly Mark Strong, never better than here.
And The Ward has John Carpenter still at it, despite a sequence of late disasters, and he does enough here to wrest back a little of his reputation for hefty cheap thrills. Amber Heard, who is basically an angrier, more interesting version of Elizabeth Banks and always puts you in mind of a disappointed cheerleader, is pulled away from a burning house by the cops and thrown into an ITV lunatic asylum, featuring the Bella Emberg version of Nurse Ratched and a handful of other disparate ciphers that beg you to guess the backstory and the ‘twist’ that’s far too easily apparent. It’s overcooked to charred illegibility at times but it’s largely fun, as Carpenter still, despite all the obstacles he puts in his own way, makes the loosest, least substantial premise work by hitting the inarguable dramatic spot often enough to elude your cynicism.
There’s a typically indictful moment late on in Melancholia in which Kiefer Sutherland’s glib Republican sets the camera up for a shot of him and his son on a lush, expansive lawn. Behind them, Melancholia, a planet set for a collision with Earth which will destroy all life, is approaching and vies with the moon for starry-skied attention. He sets the timer and rushes back into the frame, hovering proprietarily behind his son. They both smile, clearly delighted. If there’s one scene that encapsulates Melancholia, possibly Von Trier’s best film, it’s this: self-regarding notions of ‘timelessness’, self-preservation and the accumulation of objects in the face of annihilation is still irresistible. Marital partners, photos of nearing planets, houses. Unless, that is, you’re Kirsten Dunst’s recently disastrously wed depressive.
The film begins with a beguiling, disorienting opening montage, in which we have Dunst looking beyond us as birds plummet to the earth behind her and sister Charlotte Gainsbourg, son clasped to her, falls to sodden golf course turf, her Munch expression slowly worsening. There are a series of colour-saturated, surreal images, such as Dunst straining from right to left, in full wedding garb, seemingly rooted to the turf, effecting a gloriously futile and beautifully staged metaphoric exit – from what we are yet to understand. A carefully-framed horse slowly falls, redolent of Kubrick for some reason (Barry Lyndon?). Dunst is perplexed and catatonically bewitched as wisps of electricity plume from her fingertips. Then, shots of space, constellations and the abyss of unreciprocal chaos. All this in slow-mo to the heady, unequìvocally rousing strains of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. These are impressionistic stabs at grandiloquence, and provide an extravagant, impressively daring and epic foregrounding that immediately prompt comparison with Malick’s recent Tree of Life.
We’re soon inside the wedding limo with Alexander Skarsgård and Dunst, giddy with conspirational jocularity, despite their driver failing to negotiate tight country-road corners. Upon arrival at a remote chateau (at which a lavish wedding ceremony in their name is already underway), where we will remain thereafter as the slow thrum of impending disaster builds, Dunst is initially unassailably amused but dutiful at the pained recriminations as to her giddy tardiness from sister Charlotte Gainsbourg and bounderish brother-in-law Kiefer Sutherland. Dunst is a hyper, distant presence in the opening throes, an oblìvious lightning rod to the internecìne grumblings in her midst. Best man Stellan Skarsgård makes a self-gratified speech as Von Trier’s camera work expertly conveys mid-drunk swagger. Thereafter, Sutherland distractedly chomps on food whilst fairly obvious nemesis and mother-in-law Charlotte Rampling expounds, in rebuttal to father-in-law Hurt’s goading, on her hatred of marriage.
As planet Melancholia becomes more prevalent in the darkening sky, we have the groom’s speech: Alexander Skarsgård perfectly capturing the nervy delusions of the smitten man with dire skills of perception. His vulnerability is his ego, and his jitters are aptly countered by Dunst, who wills on the creaking fantasy as an inevitable doom lingers in her gaze. She wanders in and out of proceedings whenever the façade slips and turmoil holds increasingly fervent sway. There is a sense that her unpredictability has been factored in, and this is a ceremony at which she is, unusually, not always the focal point. Von Trier constructs the film skillfully to place you firmly within her perspective, which is one of assuming a series of guises and postures that belie her inner state, until the inevitable crash. So you never feel part of the unfolding jamboree, as she doesn’t. You vicariously take in the distant theatrics of your own wedding. ‘You’d better be goddam happy’, as Sutherland says at one point. ‘You got any idea how much this wedding cost?’ He also demands, ‘How many holes are there on this golf course?’ of Dunst, who says ‘18’, which is enough to provide a moment of grim approval (all the more potent later on as we encounter the ‘19’th…).
Skarsgård can’t, or doesn’t want to, see behind the wedding veil. He bounds on with the happy delusion, at one point producing a photograph of a plot of land he’s bought for Dunst, which awaits an impossible future. ‘Maybe we can have a swing hanging from a tree?’ he confirms, rather than suggests. Dunst’s response is a non-commital placation: ‘I’ll keep the photo with me at all times’, just prior to leaving it behind as she slips out of the room, a painful, compressed seal of marital doom. She is soon re-arranging books on display, a simple compulsive act of control to quell the downswing, a desperate, rushed, trivial intervention indicating a change in psychological equilibrium, and she’s inexorably on the way to over-aware capitulation, confiding as she does in Gainsbourg: ‘I smile and I smile and I smile,’ to which the latter rejoinders unhelpfully with ‘You’re lying to us!’ Mother Rampling is somewhat more sympathetic. ‘We’re all scared. Get the hell out of here.’ Dunst is soon aborting the consummation of her marriage before forcibly having sex with someone else on the golf course, and in an incredibly seductive moment, basking in the glow of the ‘flyby’ planet, stretched out naked on an embankment, a parallel prelude to the imminent inter-planetary ‘dance of death’, as Gainsbourg looks on, spellbound, a realisation of something lacking in herself beautifully suggested by the disappointed-child-faced actress. This marks the point at which Gainsbourg’s air of grim stewardship falters, and a role-reversal is soon underway, as she procures drugs to endure their shared crisis, Dunst by now emptied and assured.
It is, in particular, a brilliant, untethered-yet-controlled performance from Dunst, surely a career-best. From blank glee to silent horror, she perfectly encapsulates the behavioural cues of someone trudging through a marriage and a life beset by uncontrollable demons, never more so than frozen in torpor in a bath as the ceremony continues to unfold during another of her intermittent absences. She evokes a sense of the embattled heroine amidst an unseen maelstrom, repelling an incomprehensible everything by hiding far within herself. Melancholia represents a release for her, and as it hurtles closer, and as she goes from a kind of beatific denial through breakdown to icy equanimity, she is eventually composure’s epitome as the end nears.
(Aside: A brilliantly employed crude metal loop extended on the end of a branch which tracks the nearing planet’s proximity is surely the only Dogme-esque borrowing. This is otherwise far too honed and stylish to bear too much resemblance to ‘Festen’. There are also direct references to Alain Resnais’ Last Year At Marienbad that are welcome and relevant, death being the real protagonist of both, spectral humans no match for the onslaught of time. And horses tensely clopping around stables (before appropriating an eerily calmdisposition) is maybe a bit obvious for such a post-modernist.)
Dunst ends euphoric and baffled, beset by wonderment and perplexity, not merely at her and everyone else’s fate, but at the triviality of humanity, pedantic and parochial even at death’s advance. There is no personal sadness, just a reflective resignation. ‘A glass of wine and Beethoven’s Ninth’ is a ‘piece of shit’ way to go, which is one withering way to put it.
I read the other day that Lars Von Trier was a fraud. To many critics, adopting the correct stance in the face of unfortunate media tomfoolery seems paramount. Meanwhile, this is the best distillation of the director’s misanthropic musings yet, in what is easily the film of the year thus far. If ‘Life is only on Earth. And not for long’ then I’m delighted that Von Trier is here to help us face up to our lot with his unique and unmissable take.
This heavily-touted offering, which promises bleak thrills and sinister mayhem (it’s from Kim Ji-Woon, director of the magnificent A Tale of Two Sisters, not to mention the star of the glorious Oldboy, Choi Min-Sik), certainly doles out a set of squib-heavy demises and plenty of chopped-up limbs and cracked skulls, but the sum of well-shot parts equal confusingly little.
Snowdrift darkness, a car breaks down; a lone female passenger awaits unlikely help when smiling crackpot Min-Sik taps on the window. A polite demurral of offered help is a meaningless interlude, Min-Sik fails to drive away – Don’t get out of the car! – and we’re soon properly introduced to our serial killer: a flashing rugby-tackle and brief pursual with swishing weapon later, and a grisly end amidst a perversely elegant flurry of snow. The victim’s husband, Lee Byung-hun, on the mobile to her moments prior to ill-fate’s murderous manifestation, takes a sabbatical from pounding the beat and goes after the roaming murderer, gradually narrowing down suspects until the two men converge, and Min-Sik’s rapist psycho is helplessly drawn into a tortuous game of catch and release, until the game goes on too long and he gets away. Until, of course, they meet again.
Nothing quite works in I Saw The Devil. Scenes don’t mesh or conjoin, moments that seem replete with everything needed fall flat, and one moment, be it frenzied or not, fizzles up against the next, and thus it plods, resisting your involvement throughout.
For example: there’s a scene in a taxi that has all the suggestion and necessary elements to be a highlight, and ends up boring you, even as knives are plunged rapidly in-and-out of flesh and the car swerves and careens. It’s symptomatic of the film: it’s well-staged, well lit, well-performed, and it simply doesn’t work. There is no momentum, no interest, and no involvement. Kim Ji-Woon, so good at capricious, clever, downright scary sleight of hand and surprising shifts in tone with A Tale of Two Sisters here has little control over pervasive mood and instead delivers well-mounted scenes that are meaningless and dull.
Similarly, the performances throughout are excellent (though the nature of the storyline, which permits focus on only the two actors in question, blights any alternative, the lack of even subtle, marginal interest in any of the victims renders the film narrower than maybe a storyline tweak might’ve remedied) and entirely wasted. It’s a baggy, uneven enterprise. An attempt at leavening the potentially one-note bloodletting aspect with comedy police ineffectually following both men is ridiculous and adds to the failure. It feels tacked on and it detracts. Director Ji-Woon seems torn throughout as to whether he should introduce more dark humour, ratchet up suspense, play a rape scene for laughs (and there’s a bizarre, crass, annoying scene late on, involving a rape which, considering it’s a rape scene, should surely primarily horrify you – but here it’s just wearyingly misconceived), overdo a murder until it becomes deliberately absurd, introduce a bit of humanity, play to the Oldboy crowd or slow things down. He seems to have no idea what he’s after, beyond the bones of the script, and was presumably hoping that the prolonged duel, and the two admirable leads, would hold the film together. But the director leans too heavily on them, and they can’t salvage a win. Scenes seem isolated, technically intact, but never link adequately enough to form any sense of compulsive coherence. It’s like an identikit film: fine elements, well-cultivated ingredients. But there’s something naggingly absent. It’s a classic case of strange failure, a textbook example of what not to do. Don’t spend too long with a maniac on screen, however good he is: less is more. Don’t lean on talent too heavily at the expense of tightening the plot. Spend a bit longer on characters that are about to be hacked into the afterlife or we won’t care in the least. Don’t outstay your welcome. And so on.
And on top of all the endless quibbles, I Saw The Devil just isn’t dark enough to pass muster. There’s a good madman’s lair, certainly (tilted floor with grid with which to rid the place of the old haemoglobin, a discerning serial killer’s must-have) but it all feels a little too delighted by its comic-book capering sense of half-hearted jolts and blood-splatter to engage as, say, Seven or Ju-On: The Grudge did. If you have this much crimson-spattered carnage in any film, without dramatic urgency or involvement, you’re left with a stodgy series of tiresomely bloody set-pieces you could neither give two hoots about, nor care about the fate of any of the savaged ciphers or even the two headliners, so every potential wince becomes a slightly aggrieved shrug. He’s crazy, totally merciless and not much fun: established. How many blood-smudged donks on the head with a mallet does any scene need? Each arcing blow, were the recipient anyone you were willing to escape, might have cumulative merit, but here it gets a bit comical and a bit old, boy does it.
JJ Abrams’ Super 8 carries a well-played ‘cusp of adulthood’ feel throughout: stirrings that can neither be ignored nor quite reconciled plague these teen protagonists as a manifestly metaphorical giant crab-like alien foe snaffles various unfortunate local residents. These kids have to grow up quickly; though the zombie movie they’re clandestinely patching together after hours has them playing adults, many of whom are expendable zombies (geddit?). Playing adult is no fun in Super 8, unless it’s in the realm of such blood-spatteringly gleeful make-believe, and even then train wrecks and rampaging aliens tend to spoil such late night escapist film-making tomfoolery. The parents of these kids are not unsympathetic, but they’re manic, beleaguered and embattled at every moment, rattling exertion much preferable to slowing things down and realising they’re not particularly good parents. Abrams intermittently bleeds careful sincerity into his burbling absent-parent issue throughout, but such is the compelling and exceptionally well-crafted Spielbergland otherwise (the kid performances are uniformly perfect; awkward, funny, complexly inter-connected, believable) that you don’t have time to register or dwell upon shortcomings, which are, you might say, an inevitable by-product of all the good, frivolously engaging stuff. It’s a sweeping blur of well-marshalled chaos, impatiently on to the next set-piece, crane shot or soon-to-be curtailed dialogue exchange (mirrored by the tyro film crew’s scramble for footage). Enjoyable but ever-more cloying the nearer the self-congratulatory ending you get.
Jane Eyre is a highly accomplished, gloomy version of the Bronte classic, and dispenses with that final line, which would probably be inadmissible here anyway, adding, as it would, an at-odds tinge of spry positivity. This is a circumspect, careful version of the famous novel, perhaps over-deliberate and fusty at times, but with a brilliant sense of place and time, and some fine turns, Mia Wasikowski offering as good as any take on the titular heroine, Michael Fassbender an icily vigorous, lugubriously lovelorn Rochester. Jamie Bell wears mutton chops with aplomb, which is more than you could hope to expect, and Judi Dench disappears amidst the mise en scene, no mean feat for such an iconic figure. And at 140+ minutes, the film is no more than 5 minutes too long, though suffering a rather terse final movement post such pained, involving tranquility.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes isn’t the queasiest example of CGI out there, but possesses very little in the way of heart, and in what should be a significantly emotive affair (does heavy-CGI consistency bleed the emotional affect out of every film?), the blue screen is never far from your thoughts. James Franco seems a little too wry to buy into all this, but goes through the motions believably enough, until the whole thing becomes a bit of a calamity in the final stretch. And there’s less chemistry between Franco and the fragrantly dull Freida Pinto than there is between any of the fake chimps.
Attack The Block is far and away the worst thing in this round-up, a late-night CITV disaster. Clunky, rubbish camerawork, ridiculously uningratiating and laughable scally patois, woefully contrived set-pieces, terrible yoof performances and titter-heavy ‘serious’ moments. It’s an unmitigated, shameful travesty. Even the aliens, which have pretty decent glow-in-the-dark gnashers, are hilariously distracting, kind of orang-utan/dog amalgamations of shaggily innocuous mirth, bounding about like simian stormtrooper fodder. They’re the most likeable thing in it. Bruv.