Talking Movies

April 24, 2014

Tracks

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The omnipresent Mia Wasikowska gets to use her own accent for a change as a real-life explorer in 1970s Australia.

Robyn Davidson (Wasikowska) wants to be alone. And not in the ‘get out of my room/house’ Greta Garbo sense, more in the Calvin & Hobbes ‘I want to live a million miles from anyone’ way. Arriving in Alice Springs, she circles her dream of escaping into the Outback with some camels and crossing the Australian desert to reach the Indian Ocean. She slaves for German camel-trainer Kurt Posel (Rainer Bock) learning the craft, but Afghan rival Sally (John Flaus) becomes her true mentor. She says goodbye to her Pop (Robert Coleby) and sister Marg (Emma Booth), who don’t understand her motivation. Her best friend Jenny (Jessica Tovey) does, but scuppers Robyn’s desire to be alone by introducing her to National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan (Adam Driver). Along with Aboriginal elder Mr Eddy (Rolley Mintuma) Rick helps her survive the desert.

Tracks is a very well made film. Mandy Walker’s photography of the striking scenery impresses as much as her work in Australia (when Baz Luhrmann let her actually film Australia), John Curran’s direction is as measured as ever, and the use of actual grouchy camels rather than the CGI creations you’d have half-expected/feared is very refreshing. Marion Nelson’s adaptation of Robyn Davidson’s memoir, however, disappoints.  We’re teased with elliptical reveals of the reason Robyn wants solitude; but it’s a substitution of cinematic convention for true psychological probing. Jenny seems to introduce Rick to stymie what she never articulates – Robyn’s death-wish; a fear verbalised by sister Marg, who the script mocks for suburban conformity. And, as much as I Am Legend, without a faithful dog (Diggity, NCIS fans will rejoice is actually named Special Agent Gibbs), the protagonist would be toast.

Tracks could use a lot more detail on the actual practicalities of arranging the supplies for a 2,000 mile trek across a desert, and the mechanics of how navigation, establishing camp, feeding camels et al actually happens. But at the same time towards the end you get the distinct impression that Curran actually wants to make a film trippier than a PG-13 rating allows for. There’s a lot of weird nudity with Wasikowska skinny-dipping and trekking naked, shot from behind or far away, which is oddly prurient; and seems a belated attempt to depict the madness that inspired the trek as well as that inflicted by the trek. So, oddly, by charting a middle course between those two extremes of narrative technique Tracks has something to annoy everyone who wants to quibble. But there can be no quibbling about the acting. Driver is quite funny as the awkward Yank, and Flaus’ mentor is very empathetic.

Tracks is a solid, enjoyable film, but despite Mia Wasikowska’s commitment in the lead it never really catches fire.

3/5

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April 23, 2014

An Ideal Husband

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Oscar Wilde’s treatment of the related dangers of political corruption and the dangers of puritanical morality returns to the Gate under award-winning Ethan McSweeny’s direction.

Sir Robert Chiltern (Garrett Lombard) is hosting a party as the London season winds down. In a night of general aggravation Sir Robert’s sister Mabel (Siobhan Cullen) is infuriated by the inattention of her erstwhile suitor the foppish Lord Goring (Marty Rea), whose sloth equally enrages his Cabinet minister father Lord Caversham (David Yelland), while Sir Robert’s wife Lady Gertrude Chiltern (Lorna Quinn) is outraged when her friend Lady Markby (Marion O’Dwyer) arrives with Mrs Cheveley (Aoibheann O’Hara); whose latest surname change cleverly hid the identity of a despised schoolmate. Mrs Cheveley immediately blackmails Sir Robert to push through the Commons a speculative canal in Argentina that he knows to be a fraud: either he endorses it and makes her fortune, or she will publish an incriminating letter in which he sold state secrets years before to make his fortune…

Wilde’s curtain almost divides drama and comedy. Robert wrestles with his conscience as the surprisingly wise Goring advocates that he confess to his wife and ‘fight the thing out’ with Cheveley, but Lady Chiltern’s most hysterically puritanical judgements come in this serious first half when she forces Robert to sacrifice his career by refusing to aid Mrs Cheveley, and he hates her for it; not least because she has made him such a moral ideal that he knows he’s already lost her by having done wrong years before he met her. After the curtain Wilde careens towards farce. Marty Rea Fassbenders mightly as Goring: he shrieks with surprise when his stealthy valet Phipps (Simon Coury) surprises him, turns his portrait to the wall after being unnerved by lines on its face, insists on a trivial buttonhole to make himself appear younger, desperately tries to read without glasses, and verbally fences with a sublime David Yelland as his comically disappointed father.

Marion O’Dwyer matches Rea’s tour-de-force with her proto-Lady Bracknell turn as Lady Markby, while Siobhan Cullen’s Mabel is rendered as affected as her soul-mate Goring with her repeated posing to receive a proposal that Goring neglects to make. Under McSweeny’s direction Mrs Cheveley enjoys her dirty work more than I’ve seen before, and Aoibheann O’Hara’s breathy delivery emphasises the pleasure she takes in destroying Gertrude. Lady Chiltern and Robert are the most serious roles in the play, and. Peter O’Brien’s costumes provide Lombard with trappings of office that he wears with aplomb, and he makes Robert sympathetic thru a strangulated Etonian drawl that emphasises his politician’s social-climbing nature. Lorna Quinn makes Gertrude formidable in facing down Mrs Cheveley, but the script prevents her unbending nature being made sympathetic; perhaps why Wilde diverted her downfall toward mistaken identities and purloined letters.

Francis O’Connor’s mobile door-frames allow us see the truth of scenes other characters only superficially observe and Wilde’s script similarly hides pragmatic profundities on morality and politics behind epigrams.

4/5

An Ideal Husband continues its run at the Gate Theatre until the 14th of June.

5 Reasons to love Tom at the Farm

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Xavier Dolan’s Quebec-set thriller Tom at the Farm only played for a week at the IFI but it deserves to be seen by large audiences.

 

L’Ambiguitie

Dolan’s film, adapted from Michel Marc Bouchard’s play, maintains ambiguity masterfully. Tom (Dolan) is bullied by his dead lover’s brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), into keeping Guillaume’s sexuality hidden from his mother Agathe (Lise Roy), but Guillaume’s elision of Francis’ existence, and the true nature of Francis’ need for Tom to stay at the farm, remain murky: when Francis menaces two men who insult him, we assume a motive which is later expertly cast into doubt. Nothing is obvious here.

 

Two to Tango

The moment when Francis takes Tom to a shed in the family farm that is revealed to be a nearly professional standard dance-floor is a startling character revelation. But when Francis then shows Tom how he used to practice as a teenager with his deceased brother Guillaume, by whirling Tom around to music memorably used in a Nip/Tuck finale, and Tom responds by assuming his dead lover Guillame’s place and tangoing perfectly makes this scene deliriously transgressive.

 

Bright lights, Dark story

When Tom goes for a drink, to kill time while waiting for a bus to roll in, it’s hard not to be struck by the lurid colour scheme his very green jacket makes against the very yellow bar he sits at. As the barman starts to tell him exactly what Francis did to be so shunned by the local community, the lurid colours seem ever brighter as an almost Hitchcockian contrast against to the ever-darkening monologue.

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Letterbox ex machina

At first I thought I’d been half-asleep and had somehow missed the entire film being in letter-box format when the screen seemed to close in as Francis choked Tom in the cornfield after Tom’s early futile escape attempt. Then the film reverted to normal ratio… And, sure enough, now on the lookout for it I noticed the boldly expressionist format shift happen twice more: when Tom chokes Francis later, and when Francis makes another bolt for freedom.

 

Freudian Slips and Chokeholds

Freud you imagine would have a field-day with this movie… The macho swaggering farmer Francis seems to represent the powerful eruption of the suppressed sexual instincts. Except Francis also seems to equally represent a powerful rage against just those instincts, while Tom in his relationship with Francis veers somewhere beyond Stockholm Syndrome and the embodiment of Freud’s death-drive thanatos being intimately related to the sex-drive libido in his acceptance of beatings and positive pleasure in choking.

April 18, 2014

Magic Magic

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Juno Temple stars as an American student visiting Chile and losing her grip on reality as a result of insomnia.

The highly-strung Alicia (Temple) arrives in Santiago to stay with her cousin Sara (Emily Browning), who is spending a year at university there. No sooner has she arrived than she’s bundled into a car with Sara’s boyfriend Agustin (Agustin Silva), his studious sister Barbara (Catalina Sandino Moreno), and their obnoxious American friend Brink (Michael Cera) for a long road-trip to an island off the Chilean coast where Agustin’s family has a holiday home. And Sara stays behind, pleading an unexpected college exam that she has to take. Alicia’s confusion, linguistic incompetence, clumsiness and insomnia see her rub everyone up the wrong way. Feeling persecuted and ever more insomniac Alicia starts to hallucinate phone conversations with Sara, imagine disapproving stares from Barbara, and even become morbidly afraid of an amorous dog. When Sara finally arrives she finds Alicia nearly unspooling completely.

Magic Magic isn’t really a horror film, but it does have elements of ‘social horror’ as Stephen King dubbed it. Early on Barbara deviously baits Alicia into patronising the marginalised of Chile, and from that moment we suspect Barbara, but are also terrified on Alicia’s behalf that she’s going to be victimised by these people as a sacrificial ugly American paying for the sins of the CIA. That things don’t work out quite so predictably is to the good. Instead Alicia’s insomnia sees her start to lose her grip on reality, and, on a more mundane and relatable level, make poor choices that compound her existing difficulties. The irony of course is that this island is beautifully photographed by Christopher Doyle and Glenn Kaplan as a paradise, but Alicia can only see its geographic isolation and its related threatening strangeness.

Temple is less over-exposed than in Killer Joe, but reprises some elements of that naïf performance. Michael Cera, however, reprises elements of his This is the End cameo to startling effect. It turns out that Cera can be skin-crawlingly creepy and his cruel capricious sexually predatory Brink is a very memorable villain that renders George Michael Bluth a distant memory. However, despite the committed performances and the patient descent into insomniac madness writer/director Sebastian Silva doesn’t really seem to know where all this is headed. A climatic sequence seems to fulfil many of the social horror elements hinted at earlier, but then peters out into an ending that may have been intended as enigmatic but just feels inconsequential. Cera, the executive producer, obviously sniffed a good opportunity to shake up his screen persona, but what is the film’s wider purpose?

Magic Magic is eminently watchable; especially if you’ve ever been thrown among strangers and had to awkwardly sink or swim socially, or lain awake for hour after frustrated hour; but it’s not essential viewing.

3/5

April 10, 2014

Calvary

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John Michael McDonagh and Brendan Gleeson follow up The Guard with an episodic metaphysical drama punctuated by blackly comic diversions.

Fr James (Brendan Gleeson) hears the confession of a parishioner who was sexually abused as a child by a priest. Except this isn’t a confession – the unseen parishioner informs James that he will kill him on their beach in one week: ‘Killing a priest on a Sunday. That’ll be a good one.’ James knows the identity of the parishioner, but, despite the flawless logic of his Bishop (David McSavage) that if no confession was made the seal of the confessional lapses, he will not reveal the identity of his designated assassin. Instead he goes about his pastoral duties, attempting to spiritually salve wife-beating butcher Jack (Chris O’Dowd), cynical atheist doctor Frank (Aidan Gillen), ailing American novelist Gerald (M Emmet Walsh), and jaded ex-financier Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran); none of whom want his counsel. One person who badly needs him though is his visiting suicidal London-Irish daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly). James became a priest after his wife’s death, leaving Fiona feeling abandoned…

Calvary is fantastically well acted by a truly impressive Irish ensemble, but is far removed from The Guard. There are dementedly funny scenes, like misfit Milo (Killian Scott) trying to convince James that wanting to kill people really badly would be a plus for being accepted into the army – ‘like an engineering degree’. But there are many more scenes addressing knotty theological concepts of fate, free will, evil, and forgiveness: a prime example being James’ fraught encounter with jailed cannibal serial killer Freddie (Domhnall Gleeson). I haven’t seen so many ideas thrown at the screen since I Heart Huckabees, but I’m unsure what McDonagh’s larger purpose is. Fr James, like Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory whiskey priest, is being shepherded towards his own squalid Calvary. But Greene’s imitation of Christ drew attention to the potential for holiness in a flawed man; James is marked for death because of his virtue – a good man expiating the sins of many.

But… this reading is undermined by a jaw-dropping scene where an irate stranger tars James with the general brush of ‘molesting cleric’, shocking the audience who’ve seen his deep compassion. The assassin’s wish to punish a good priest for the misdeeds of bad priests will be utterly lost, because outside their community everyone will assume James was a bad priest. But this may be deliberate. James seems at times to be an argument for married clergy, witness his comforting of newly-widowed Frenchwoman Teresa (Marie-Josee Croze), but then his daughter insists he put God above family. Refn’s DP Larry Smith captures the Sligo landscape to amazing effect, especially Ben Bulben – almost creating an Eden. But this is Eden where Sin has been banished as a concept. Veronica (Orla O’Rourke) provokes James with her public promiscuity, her lover Simon (Isaach De Bankole) distinguishes between believing in God and acting morally, and James himself tells Fiona too much stress has been laid on sin. James thinks forgiveness need emphasising, but publican Brendan (Pat Shortt), who now espouses Buddhism, beats the bebuddha out of people with a baseball bat – with no guilt; sin is passé, and forgiveness requires sin.

Calvary might deserve four stars. I don’t know. It’s more ambitious than nearly any other Irish film, but it outsmarted me; I feel I need to do extensive reading in Jean Amery and Fyodor Dostoevsky to apprehend McDonagh’s quicksilver.

3.5/5

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