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4 films I’ve watched this week.

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Rust and Bone (French: De rouille et d’os), Dir. Jacques Audiard, 2012.

Stunningly beautiful, moving and incredibly real, Rust and Bone, a film depicting an amateur bare knuckle street fighter who becomes sexually involved with a disabled whale trainer whilst trying to provide for his young son. As the title suggests it is a film about bodies and their limitations: the ways in which they interact with one another physically, either sexually, aggressively or dependent on one another. A fantastic watch.

In Darkness (Polish: W ciemnosci), Dir. Agnieszka Holland, 2011.

At times a little on the slow side, In Darkness is the true story of a Polish sewer worker Leopoldo Socha, who when the Nazis brutally invade the Jewish ghetto in his town of Lwow takes a select few into his care in the sewers. Initially as a financial arrangement, his relationship with those in his care soon becomes far more than just an extra earner, risking his and the lives of his family to keep these people alive. It is both a moving and eye opening story for survival, yet would be a fairly generic holocaust drama were it not propped up by Robert Wieckiewicz fine performance as Socha. 

Hierro, Dir. Gabe Ibanez, 2009.

Criticised for being too similar to The Orphanage by the same production company, Hierro similarly is about a mother whose young son goes missing, and her determination to find him. However, this does not share the same supernatural aspect of The Orphanage, instead this plays upon the far more real fears of a parent. It is not just the motif of the birds that gives this psychological thriller a Hitchcockian feel. As a mother, flitting between obsession and nightmares of insanity and delusion, pursues the whereabouts of her son on the remote Canary island of Hierro, we share her fear and loneliness, manifesting in a hugely disturbing and distressing film. 

The Art of Getting By, Dir. Gavin Wiesen, 2011.

In a similar fashion to The Perks of Being a Wallflower, this film is about an angsty teenage boy who finds a kindred spirit in a good looking, alternative girl at his school. Despite struggling with motivation to do homework,  George (Freddie Highmore) has little really to be angsty about in his middle class New York life, and puts in an often cringeworthy and slightly lame performance in what is quite a weak and predictably written film. Watchable but ultimately forgettable.

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Kings of Summer

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Having left home for the second time in my life this week, it seems fitting to review a coming-of-age film. Whilst I am 21 and 11/12th s years old, compared to the 15 year olds in this film, and as aforementioned this is the second attempt at moving away from the parents after what can only be described as a well-fed nine month hibernation from the real world, Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kings of Summer nevertheless feels like an appropriate choice of film; it was hard not to recognise some kind of parallel between this and my own situation.

With a limited summer release in 2013, after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, Kings of Summer received a largely positive critical response. This is a film about two teenage boys frustrated with their home lives and the attempts of their parents to control their lives. With summer term drawing to a close, the pair attends a party by a lake with some older students, which is broken up by an irritated neighbour firing a gunshot. As the party scatters, the film’s central protagonist Joe Toy (Nick Robinson) discovers a hidden clearing in the woods, and it is here that he decides he will build a house of his own away from adult control. His best friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso) takes a little more convincing, however his parents’ over attentiveness soon ensures that he is on board with the scheme. Somewhere along the way Joe acquires the company of the self-confessed Asexual boy named Biaggio (Moisés Arias), telling Patrick “I’m afraid to tell him to leave, I’m not sure what he’s capable of!”, as the smiley Italian boy dances around in the background wielding a machete. So the trio construct their house in the woods, happily living where their parents are not.

Kings of Summer could easily be filed alongside Rob Reiner’s 1986 coming-of-age film Stand By Me, but lacks its more sombre moments and depth of feeling. It is more focussed on teen angst and rebellion, rather than any kind of personal exploration; however this is perhaps due to Stand By Me’s retrospective adult narration. Perhaps if this film had a more mature narrative perspective it would convey more affectively the significance of this period in these boys’ lives. Despite this criticism, its lack of adult perspective gives this film a charm of its own; the film, like its adolescent characters is unable to see past the here-and-now, thus giving it a very young quality. Stand By Me’s narrator tells the audience that his younger self and his friends talked “the kinda talk that seemed important until you discovered girls”, and that is what fractures the status quo in Kings of Summer; they have already discovered girls: one in particular. Whilst in the grown-up world a search is on for the missing teenagers, Joe, Patrick and maybe Biaggio (it’s hard to be sure what exactly is going through the mind of the boy who has bought clothes especially for living in the wild) remain unaware and unfazed, and invite over some female friends. The two both have feelings for Kelly (Erin Moriarty) and when she chooses the more athletic Patrick, the friendship and the house implodes.

Kings of Summer is a heart-warming and relatable film about teenage friendship and resisting the grip of your parents. It is funny throughout, and the comedy is predominantly brought by Joe’s father’s dry and slightly embittered middle-aged wit and the eccentricities of Biaggio. I would argue that Biaggio’s character makes the film as strong as it is. He is the weird kid that tags along that we have all experienced at some stage in life, but he is also an enigma. The self-confessed genderless child, who can read but cannot cry, brings an absurdly contradictory philosophical insight to the mix, and it is never quite clear whether he is a genius or mentally vacant. Yet his presence in the film as the third member of the group provides the lion’s share of the comedy, and he is equally as emotionally vacant as he is the emotional core of the film. The film’s director describes Biaggio’s character as being like a dog, which holds true he is as much animal as he is human.

Whilst I hope my attempt to fly the nest is more successful than Joe, Patrick and Biaggio’s turns out to be, over-all this is a hugely accomplished film and deserves to be more widely known that it perhaps already is. Despite being an independent film, it stands up alongside the Hollywood productions on similar themes that we are all so fond of, and because of this it is a definite must-see.

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“You know what they call a quarter-pounder with cheese in France?”

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A “Royale with Cheese!” Jules Winnfield tells the petrified Bret in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, and Royale burgers with cheese is exactly what I have been serving for the last six months in the Diner that I have been working in. As Saturday marked my final shift, I thought I would do a homage to the institution of the Diner in film, with my ‘Top 5 Diner Scenes’. Favoured as locations by directors such as Scorcese and Tarantino, Diners feature heavily in American cinema and seem to lend particularly well to the mob genre. This is perhaps due to their iconic ‘American-ness’ and their ability to offer a location for clandestine meetings in plain sight; their booths allowing hushed and private conversations amongst the buzz of everyday life. Unfortunately nothing quite as exciting as any of this happened in my Diner days, however it did have its perks (the bottomless coffee). Here are my Top 5 Diner Scenes…

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The Monuments Men

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The main problem I have with George Clooney’s The Monuments Men is that for a war film, there isn’t a whole lot of war in it. This would be fine if it was just a film portraying the lives of art curators across Europe and America in the dying years of the war; one would expect a mainly indoor affair with very little gunfire on display, if any. This is billed as a ‘heist’ movie, in which a hand selected team is dropped into the front line of one of the most devastating wars this continent has ever seen, in an effort to rescue the greatest artistic works produced by modern civilization from the destructive grasp of Hitler. On paper this is undoubtedly a plot with epic potential, however it constantly fails to follow through.

The set up loosely echoes that of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan but demonstrates none of its thrill or power. A specialist team of men is assembled to enter France on a specialist mission in the final stages of the war. They are dropped on a beach at Normandy, and go from camp to camp at various bombed out French towns in pursuit of a lead. Substitute private James Ryan for the entire renaissance art stocks of Western Europe and it would seem you have The Monuments Men. Despite the trailer depicting it as almost a mission to steal back paintings from under Hitler’s very nose, there is very little contact with the enemy. We hear Bob Balaban’s character, Pvt. Preston Savitz question: “So we get to shoot some Nazis?” the answer to which is “No”, they don’t. This may be the bloodthirsty ten year old boy inside me speaking, just hoping for a real good shoot em’ up, but the plot offers so much potential for tense skirmishes and Aryan bloodshed, but fails to follow through.

The team is divided into pairs, which are sent off in various directions, much like in John Sturges’ The Great Escape.  As it does in Sturges’ classic, this format allows the cinematic eye to jump from group to group, showing a range or situations and thus potentially allowing for more intensity and excitement. However, in The Monuments Men, these moments don’t carry the same bite as Steve McQueen leaping barbed wire on his Triumph. The one moment with real potential in this film is good. The paired John Goodman and Jean Dujardin are travelling in a U.S. jeep when they stop to see a horse in an open field. Dujardin approaches the horse and jokingly offers him a cigarette but the horse flees. Goodman, is still beside the vehicle smoking when he makes eye contact with an allied soldier camouflaged in the trees. It transpires that the pair is pinned between two opposing units, perhaps holding fire because of the horse. Goodman, subtly signals to Dujardin that they need to leave. The Frenchman slowly walks away whistling as he goes, but then panicking, breaks into a run, and the Germans fire upon them. This is undoubtedly the most accomplished scene of the film, however I feel that it still falls short; it is unsure whether it wants to commit to comedy or intensity and thus doesn’t quite achieve the desired effect.

Overall, The Monuments Men is not a bad film, but it isn’t a particularly good one either. It maintains a level of charm throughout from its central cast members and is therefore a fairly easy watch, however Matt Damon is underwhelming at best and Cate Blanchett’s French accent is overdone. It is a film that meanders through its plot, and although the characters achieve this amazing feat, it remains pedestrian at best, and feels like a limp re-make of something from the sixties. Instead I would recommend watching Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book, in which a female Jewish singer infiltrates Gestapo headquarters on behalf of the Dutch resistance, inadvertently falls in love with a Nazi Commander, for some far more entertaining war-time viewing. 

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Julia’s Eyes

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Julia’s Eyes (Spanish: Los ojos de Julia) is a 2010 Spanish Horror directed by Guillem Morales and produced by Guillermo del Toro. Set in a grey, present day Spain, Julia’s Eyes tells the story of Julia’s (Belén Rueda) fight against her loss of vision and her pursuit of the murderer of her blind twin sister. The film begins with Sara (Rueda also) paranoid in her own home, her blindness is evident and so too is her belief that there is someone else present in the house. She begins to hang herself, but changes her mind attempting to remove the noose. However at this moment the stool is kicked away and a camera flashes. With some kind of psychic twin connection, Julia senses that something is amiss with her sister with whom she has not been in recent contact, and endeavors to investigate.

Accompanied by her partner Isaac (Lluis Homar), she finds her sister dead in a house without power. However when the power is restored the CD player begins to play a song that Julia knows her sister hated, raising her suspicions that he sister was in fact not alone, but rather accompanied by an unseen tormentor. Determined to discover the truth behind her sister’s mysterious death she sets about investigating the surrounding circumstances with some success. With growing discoveries comes a growing sense that an unseen predator too is watching her. Her investigations bring her into contact with a hotel Janitor who warns her of ‘men who live in shadows’, the type of men that even when visible remain unseen.

What this film successfully does is play upon the primal fear of what lies in the dark and the unseen, extending this to a fear of loss of vision; a helpless sensation that our own body is deteriorating and working against us or that somebody else is trying to remove our power of sight. The film uses particularly interesting techniques to enhance this sensation that the killer although perhaps visible, remains unseen. For example, after talking to Julia the janitor is killed in the bath, as the killer flees the audience sees through his eyes, and we witness Julia rush past. This therefore confirms that she has witnessed her tormentor and sister’s killer at first hand and yet remains unaware; it also increases the audience’s suspicion of all the characters that we have hitherto met, allowing us to believe that it could be any of them. Furthermore, later in the film we are introduced to a character whose face is never shown by the camera. The Camera therefore reveals a character’s presences without giving away identity, thus as Julia cannot see at this point and only knows that the character is there with her, nor can the audience see the character’s true identity, affecting our own sense of security. 

Another particularly affective moment earlier in the film places Julia in the position of the unseen observer. Determined to discover more information she visits a centre for blind people that her sister has attended. She enters the swimming pool changing room and overhears some women discussing her sister. Eager to learn more, she quietly listens to their conversation, however they sense her presence and she finds herself surrounded by these women who appear vacant behind the eyes. Whilst they are just normal women, they are given an almost predatory quality and are made to appear momentarily fearful. This seemingly taps into some inherent fear of bodily affliction, and through loss of sight their increased sensual perception makes them dangerous: an almost super-human quality. 

Whilst this film is at times predictable in setting up a host of potential suspects, inviting the audience to guess whilst eliminating them one at a time, it is extremely effective in using sight or a lack of it to either create or disturb a sense of security. In this way the theme of vision and sight makes Julia’s Eyes more than just a murder mystery and more than just a ‘who’s-in-the-house?’ slasher, instead a film which plays upon the inherent fears of its audience to achieve an unsettling effect.

@ScopophiliaRevu