A Review of Gravity

One hundred kilometres above the surface of the Earth, a rudimentary repair of the Hubble Space Telescope goes awry when a cloud of debris, caused by the planned destruction of a Russian communications satellite, falls into orbit with our protagonists, astronauts Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock). Their shuttle destroyed, the pair must improvise a re-entry, with only abandoned Russian and Chinese vessels nearby and oxygen levels in their space suits lowering, before the debris cloud completes another orbit and threatens them again.

Alfonso Cuarón’s last directorial feature, 2006′s Children of Men, matched a personal story of survival against a broader vision of sci-fi apocalypse, while maintaining both in a constant process of interpenetration. There, the film narrative, as we’re given to understand it, was constantly subject to the incremental advance of the wider world, or to the vagaries of blind chance: recall Clive Owen’s Theo narrowly avoiding being killed in an explosion on a busy street in the film’s opening sequence. We were being told a story, but one subject to machinations (and other stories) above and beyond its own limits. 2001′s Y Tu Mamá También contained similar moments of what might loosely be called transcendent social realism, Cuarón’s wandering camera taking pains to establish a sense of social, economic and cultural difference between its young, bourgeois protagonists and the ‘backdrop’ of rural Mexico, the people who serve them along the way, and even adjacent political demonstrations. With Gravity, which is set entirely in space, society’s spectral presence makes itself felt only through personal information and anecdotes shared by Kowalski and Stone, (diegetic) music and—though not for very long—radio contact with mission control.

In the film’s opening—and most adventurous—sequence, Cuarón skillfully establishes his extraterrestrial setting as something of great beauty, but also potentially terrifying. His camera floats gracefully through 360° of movement, swooping and pivoting and managing to be at once exhilarating and nauseating. Cuarón is at his most playful in the early stages, and it is there that the film’s trumpeted IMAX 3-D is put to best effect, with framing directed less by the movement of its characters than by the necessary axislessness of space. This, along with clever sound production—the moment the in-comms music is turned off to aid Stone’s concentration is undeniably breathtaking—makes for an atmospheric sequence, plagued by a sense of dread that’s ironised by the space-weary Kowalski’s repeatedly joking: ‘I’ve got a bad feeling about this mission.’ When disaster eventually strikes, however, we enter altogether more familiar territory, both with respect to plot, and the aesthetics of an action film.

Despite the vastness of outer space in which our protagonists must fashion their escape/re-entry, all the set-pieces seem to take place as though guided by rails. The parameters have been set out for us: the debris cloud will have completed an orbit in 90 minutes, the Russian shuttle is over there (arbitrary), which must be used to travel to the Chinese space station there, from which a successful re-entry may be attempted. The universe has suddenly become very small indeed: the filmic space in which a certain set of goals must be completed to ensure survival. David Thomson wonders at how stories told through film can achieve such profound affect with their audience when, behind it all, or out of frame, it’s just actors hitting their marks on a dolled-up soundstage; with Gravity, the inverse of this seems true: three familiar acts performed in front of a black curtain, with additional material by Mitch Albom. The sense of danger inherent an endless space—on which the film has essentially grounded its appeal—is undermined the more we sense we’re in a Hollywood story of self-realisation and, of the latter, Cuarón doesn’t let us forget it.

Gravity is plagued by the sort of sentimental humanism that wins Oscars, but offers little by way of genuine insight or illumination. Feel as though you can’t go on? You must! You’ve got to try! These sentiments are empty of meaning for precisely the same reason they are perceived as universal. If Cuarón’s previous work has tended towards a reimagining of genre (apocalyptic sci-fi, teen road movie) within a wider social matrix, then his latest represents something undeniably worse, but potentially more interesting: the struggle of a tired narrative format to reassert its contemporary relevance by referring to its bearded Mephisto as infinity. The result is a film as platitudinous as it is briefly and assuredly exciting; despite pretensions to the contrary, Gravity seems inextricably bound to the dual moorings of banal humanism and narrative cliché: it seems odd to remark this of a science-fiction film in 2013, but look, you can see the strings!

*

This review appeared initially on the Totally Dublin website

A Review Of Pietà

Kim Ki-duk’s 18th feature film won the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival on a technicality, with Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master unable to sweep the boards despite accumulating the most thumbs-ups from Michael Mann’s jury. Here, the director of 2004′s acclaimed 3-Iron presents us with the tale of a brutal debt collector, Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin), forced to reconsider his violent ways when a woman claiming to be his long-lost mother, Mi-sun (Jo Min-su), turns up on his doorstep. Dealing seemingly exclusively with cash-strapped light-machine-tool operators in the industrial city of Chenggyecheon, Kang-do collects debts on which interest accumulates by as much as one hundred per cent on a month-to-month basis, with his preferred method being to seriously injure the debtors and taking their resultant insurance payments. Pietà‘s first half is devoted to the cruelty he inflicts on these people, maiming them using their own machines and seeming to take pleasure in doing so. The arrival of Mi-sun prompts in him disbelief, anger, violence (both physical and sexual — Kim’s films tend to be graphic and this is no exception) before acceptance and, it seems, a certain recalcitrance. The film’s Oedipal concerns, laid out in uncomfortable, broad terms, inform its second half, in which Kang-do tries with great difficulty to extricate himself from his former life for his mother’s sake.

This change in tone is ill-advised: the film’s high-point comes when Kang-do calls to collect a debt from an elderly man who confesses that he never had any intention of paying back the money he borrowed, that he wanted to spend it and enjoy himself before killing himself, to leave a life which, for him, no longer holds any worth. He decries the exploitation of ordinary people by factories that provide less and less work for less pay, and the eventual inevitability of workers’ redundancy. ‘What is money?’ he asks. ‘What is death?’

At this point, as the man ascends a fire escape to plummet willingly to his death, Kim cuts to jarringly-lit footage of machinery being operated: lathes, table saws, etc. that would not be out of place in a cheap documentary about factory production. By now, we have grown so accustomed to seeing Kang-do turn such machinery on its operators that we can think of little else. Kim cuts again to a wide shot of the skyline of Chenggyecheon, looking every inch the steaming industrial metropolis of our collective dystopic nightmares. The stark realism of his non-diegetic footage of production lines hints at a film not just about a fantastically cruel debt collector, but about alienation and exploitation, by the systemic cruelty of the capitalist mode of production, of debt itself.

So when, in its final throes, Pietà concerns itself more with the resolution of a rather more circular, individual story, there is a palpable sense of an opportunity having been missed. Kim shows us Kang-do’s unscrupulous, abusive employer in all his banal grotesquerie, only to (at least partially) exonerate him from his subordinate’s greater excesses as he denounces him a butcher, seemingly having been entirely ignorant of his insurance claim collection tactic: something which stretches credulity somewhat. But don’t worry: he gets his comeuppance, along with everyone else, for what it’s worth. It seems a shame that Kim’s storytelling is more concerned with making all the individual pieces fit neatly than examining the wider forces that act on them. As all the film’s loose ends are tied up, with something approaching a definitive ending (if not a happy one), we are left to consider again the final words of the old man who earlier died by suicide: even if the film is itself a closed system, the conditions represented within it are such that they reproduce themselves ad infinitum, that by outliving death, empty it of meaning.

*

This review appeared initially on the Totally Dublin website

A Review Of The Artist and the Model

Fernando Trueba’s latest, a collaboration with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, is a throwback to classic French cinema, and romantic ideas about the artistic process. Set in the picturesque south of France during Nazi occupation, the film concerns itself with the relationship between an elderly, disconsolate sculptor, Marc (Jean Rochefort), and a vagrant Spanish girl, Mercé (Aida Folch), by whom he is inspired to work again. Soon it becomes clear that Mercé is not all that she first seemed: she works for the Resistance, helping people to cross the nearby border into her native Spain, endangering the possibility of Marc completing what may be his final work: a lifesize sculpure of her, nude.

Shot in mild black-and-white, The Artist and the Model (the French title is L’artiste et son modèle, denoting possession and implicit power relations absent from its English translation) is as much a film about the occupation of France as it is the occupation of a young woman’s body for the purpose of producing sculpture. The clunky irony of lines such as: ‘Artists have a right to see women naked! Artists and doctors!’ satirise such macho attitudes, and it is surely no accident that it is a Nazi officer (and, we’re told, professor of art history: Marc’s biographer), in full regalia, who holds the abdomen of an unfinished, broken sculpture and marvels: ‘Ah, the female body!’ — but it is clear that Trueba and Carrière, proto-feminist concessions aside, have great affection for the subjects they ironise. Indeed, the film’s central drama relies on our sympathy for both Mercé and Marc, the subject and the artist, and our complicity in the reification of that power dynamic.

It is a truism that every period piece belongs to the time in which it is written as well as that in which it is set, but it is hard to determine what exactly The Artist and the Model has to say about 1943, or how a viewer in 2013 is expected to respond to its gentle ambivalence towards what is essentially a predatory, unequal relationship, played out as pure inspiration. Mercé’s initial discomfort with posing naked is treated brusquely, and the film progresses — perhaps appropriately for one quite literally about objectification, in sculpture — to revel in her nudity, both in fragmented close-ups and soft-focus mid-shots, for as long as possible before the constraints of being a narrative feature kick in. But Carrière has nothing new to say about the Nazi occupation, sculpture, or objectification, and the insistent banality of Trueba’s visual style lends the subject no depth or excitement: the film takes its cues from received wisdom about art, while treating its female lead as though she were a statue already. Marc’s jealousy of Mercé’s emergent relationship with a wounded resistance fighter (Martin Gamet) hints at a repressed sexual longing which is to be realised in the film’s closing sequence, in terms ostensibly intended to be melancholic and bittersweet. If you’re waiting for any disavowal or problematisation of the paternalistic, exploitative thread running through the narrative, you’ve come to the wrong place: this is 1943, after all!

‘They’re bombing Rome,’ reports Marc, sadly. ‘They must never have heard of Michelangelo.’ Trueba’s film, in conceiving of its titular model as merely a caryatid to her artist-cum-patron’s greatness, makes a cogent argument for bombing the past entirely, or at least the one it chooses to sculpt.

*

This review appeared initially on the Totally Dublin website

A Review Of Rush

This Ron Howard joint concerns itself with the fierce, real-life Formula One rivalry between the charismatic playboy James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and the calculating, professional Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), which would come to a head in the climactic 1976 season. The two drivers’ contrasting styles and personalities inform Howard’s dichotomous formal approach to this unusual biopic, which offers the adrenaline-pumping thrills of open-wheel racing in tandem with a sober message about the catastrophic dangers of the sport, and the risks to which drivers subjected themselves to in the early days of Formula One: between exhilarating reconstructions of races, for which replicas of the authentic vehicles were used, we are reminded that an average of two racers lost their lives each season at the time the film is set (today, there hasn’t been a fatal F1 accident since Ayrton Senna’s in 1994).

There is little nuance to Rush, though it manages to tell a simple story with the greatest of affection for its subjects, even if it veers into unpleasantly macho, GQ-baiting territory with its fawning depiction of ‘Hunt, James Hunt’ (as he introduces himself), and his appalling treatment of his wife Suzy Miller, played by Olivia Wilde. It is Daniel Brühl’s performance as the taciturn Niki Lauda that ought to win the most plaudits, injecting the film with a quiet then spectacular pathos in its final third, and in doing so raising something that Jeremy Clarkson will probably like into the realm of the genuinely touching.

*

This review appeared initially on the Totally Dublin website

A Review Of The Purge

For a twelve hour period, all crime is legal.” This is the snappy expository tagline for The Purge, a high-concept horror which pitches its dystopian fantasy only nine years from the present day. America has been transformed by the Purge initiative, we are told: poverty is almost non-existent, unemployment is at 1%, and crime is at an all-time low. During the Purge, the wealthy batten down the hatches of their high-tech security systems, or take to the streets with assault rifles to go “hunting”. The Sandin family choose the former, but when their morally conflicted youngest member Charlie (Max Burkholder) gives sanctuary to a homeless, black man being chased by a group of “hunters”, they find themselves under siege and subject to the ultimatum: it’s him or you. The home-invaders, a ragtag group drawn broadly as a mixture between a Manson-esque cult and Michael Haneke’s well-to-do psychopaths from Funny Games, promise to infiltrate their security system and “unleash the beast” if their demands are not met.

The film, predictably enough, finds itself confused on the levels of both concept and execution. For one, it implies that the systemic non-prosecution of murder of black people in America would require the creation of a ceremonial day in order to be a viable “thing”. Further, it is suggested that the Purge, a day where the homeless, poor and defenseless (who must by the film’s own admission account for less than 1% of the population) are culled by wealthy Americans “letting off steam”, has been good for capitalism, despite the manifest fact that the creation of conditions in which the poor can be more extensively oppressed, deprived, exploited and kept suffering but, crucially, alive is a demonstrably effective tactic that, you know, doesn’t rely on a willful misunderstanding of how poverty works (“Boy howdy! Killing all those poor people has made us rich!”). This is assuming that, outside of the whole temporarily legalising all crime thing, we aren’t observing a utopian, egalitarian society in which economic relations are based fundamentally on the buying and selling of weapons and home security products. The audience are left, largely, to fill in the blanks.

Such are the pitfalls of making a high-concept horror film. But this isn’t merely nitpicking on the level of pointing out occasions in which Ethan Hawke’s top button comes done and undone in sequential shots: in order to posit its imagined society as a flawed utopia in which, it seems, the common-sense, middle-American position is that, with brow suitably furrowed, “its benefits outweigh the drawbacks”, The Purge has to engage with a fictional past (that is, our factual present) in which there exists rampant and unregulated systemic violence. That the means by which this is addressed and, supposedly, eradicated (or, more accurately, re-contextualised), is something as ludicrous as the Purge, creates problems for a film which must eventually, in the final instance, reassert an identifiable-for-2013 liberal humanism: one which causes various members of the Sandin family to show saint-like mercy for others, even when it means endangering their own lives, and even when those who benefit from it have recently tried to murder them themselves. Of course, the Purge is ultimately condemned, but we get no indication that anyone involved in the making of the film knows precisely why.

The Purge finds the act of killing essentially abhorrent. It is repeatedly imagined as something grand and ceremonious, in which the would-be murderer delivers a lofty speech, or does an elaborate swords dance, only to predictably be shot in the back of the head in the nick of time. Our villains fetishise killing, they adorn it with fanfare and a spurious spiritual significance. This is how we are told to recognise objectionable violence: violence which recognises itself. It is, maybe, comparable to the line in the sand drawn by a liberal media establishment that excuses the murder of Afghani children up to the point that such is committed by unmanned aerial vehicles. It’s not the violence, see, it’s the way they go about it. Notably, the way in which the narrative finally asks us to come to terms with the Purge as “a bad thing” is that it endangers the white and wealthy.

It is precisely in its deeply flawed and confused recognition and representation of violence that The Purge fails as both a horror film and as a social allegory. It feels over-eagerly hacked down at 85 minutes and, with its perpetually shaky camera moving in for close-ups at every available moment, is nauseating in exactly the way that it probably doesn’t want to be. And for all that the film provides a fascinating sociological backdrop to its action, the majority of its run-time is spent in brainless horror mode, relishing in the suspense of whether any of the characters who nobody in the audience even remotely cares about are going to survive or not. This is near-future sci-fi written by Paul Krugman and directed by Mr. Bean, and its release may well have killed Iain M. Banks. As with all of America’s most grotesque excesses, it seems to have been perfectly legal as well.

A Review Of Paradise: Love

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Ulrich Seidl’s reputation as Austrian cinema’s enfant terrible precedes him on the international stage, as well as a body of work which includes such bleak and unsettling work as 1996′s Animal Love (“Never have I looked so directly into hell” – Werner Herzog) and 2007′s Palme d’Or-winning Import/Export, which depicted the precarious and exploitative living conditions of immigrants in modern Europe.

His Paradise trilogy (Love, Faith, Hope), to be screened in Ireland in three parts over June, July and August, begins with Paradise: Love, which explores Austrian (and generally German-speaking) women’s sex tourism at a Kenyan beach resort. The protagonist is Teresa (Margarete Tiesel), a middle-aged woman who feels that her age and body-shape make her unattractive to men. With the encouragement of a like-minded holiday-maker, she resolves to enter into a relationship with one of the many local “beach boys”, who are more than happy to provide sex and companionship to the visiting “sugar mamas” in exchange for financial support. This contract is vague, and not explicitly verbalised: Teresa wants the experience of romance and seduction, while the succession of men in whom she seeks this fulfilment persuade her to give more and more money to them, their families and friends for various, often dubious, emergencies and exigencies. The extent to which Teresa’s notions of love and courtship are culturally specific, and thus enacted in this context as an exploitative relationship, as well as the unspoken extent to which the relationship is economically precarious, makes for an unsettling contrast of two different kinds of exploitation awkwardly acted out in tandem.

The film is shot in Seidl’s recognisable tableau, in which stark surfaces and lines (walls, railings, etc.) sit parallel and perpendicular to a camera which itself remains static and level with the ground, evoking those images of early cinema in which the filming apparatus largely determined the formal properties of the shot. Seidl switches to handheld for the film’s busier scenes, of travel or dynamic movement (and, sometimes, sex), which are all the more effective for this contrast, between the singular, “closed systems” that Deleuze identifies in Dreyer’s cinema to the “eye that would be in things” of the more kinetic, naturalistic approach begat by a moving camera. Of the first shot type, Seidl’s work has been compared to medieval portraiture, with its monolithic images of little ambiguity. How stark a contrast his subject matter, as well as the formal tinkering, creates with this determination, and how fiercely it resists simple categorisation! This is just not a film about the pervasiveness of cultural misogyny (and ageism) in the West, though the scenes in which the Austrian women bemoan their bodies as undesirable and disgusting are powerful, and give some context, both explicit and implicit, for their reasons for being at the beach resort; nor is it just a film about racism, and the exploitation of African people in a “post-colonial” world, both economic and sexual, though some of the sentiments expressed by the same women are excruciatingly condescending and bigoted; and not to mention the obvious economic inequality that makes the type of tourism depicted in the film tenable on a grand scale: Paradise: Love is a difficult film which constantly denies the viewer the pleasure of moral unambiguity. Its characters are subjects of sexist, racist and economic oppression, while themselves to varying extents participating in and perpetuating these systems as oppressors. As the film goes on, do we not, like Teresa, find ourselves hoping in vain for a simple catharsis? — ours spectatorial, of sitting in judgement, of identification — and one which would, necessarily, be culturally specific. The narrative becomes a succession of transactions in which we are directly implicated.

Make no mistake, Paradise: Love is an uncomfortable, uncompromising film, engaging with a specific, banal horror of neo-colonial exploitation while providing the uneasy context of its attendant, intertwining narratives of oppression. It’s no sociology essay, however, but a beautiful, striking, visceral and personal cinematic experience, helped in no small part by Seidl’s use of non-professional actors (a constant throughout his career). With a first instalment so ambitious and brilliant, one can have high hopes for the rest of the trilogy.

*

This review appeared initially on the Totally Dublin website.

A Review of Something In The Air

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Director: Olivier Assayas
Talent: Clément Métayer, Lola Créton, Felix Armand, Carole Combes
Release Date: 24th May 2013

Olivier Assayas’ semi-autobiographical account of youth counterculture in post-’68 Europe (the film’s original French title is Après mai) picks up where his 1994 feature L’eau froide left off, charting the experiences of disaffected, artistic young folks against a macro-historical backdrop of political unrest. Like Assayas, they eschew political engagement for a pastoral humanism which is nominally countercultural and practically hegemonic. Like Assayas, too, they are fascinated by the allure of “the Orient” (to which the director has made explicit and unironic reference in interview, most recently in this month’s Sight & Sound) and a liberal eclecticism which, counter to the film’s tepid suggestion, 1970s revolutionary movements failed as a (partial) result, rather than in spite, of. Ironic, then, that it is in the very “Orient” which Assayas and his protagonists find so exotic and beguiling that people’s wars are today being fought in the name of the ideological struggle he so readily abandoned. I’ll tell you what’s in the air, Olivier: bad praxis.

*

This review appeared initially on the Totally Dublin website.

A Review Of Flight

Flight is a bombastic Zemeckis film that harks back to the director’s live-action prime―of Cast Away and Forrest Gump―before the motion-capture misery of Beowulfand The Polar Express (the latter a film perhaps all too real, in appearance at least, for its subject matter). This is, however, the (formerly) bankable director’s most explicitly adult film, featuring uncompromising scenes of drug and alcohol abuse and tackling substance addiction with a nuance that seems, for the first hour and a half at least, distinctly un-Hollywood. Denzel Washington’s ace pilot, Whip Whitaker, performs a miraculous emergency landing of a passenger jet (by rolling it upside-down and back again), instantly making him a national hero, but a toxicology report reveals that he was drunk and under the influence of cocaine when he did it. The film flips from a study of addiction to courtroom drama back to saccharine tale of redemption, much like the inverted trajectory of Whitaker’s miracle flight, with a final, hollow recapitulation whose contrivance reveals, ironically, just how seldom, in the real world, stories of addiction end happily.

By pitching Whip’s redemption (and the film’s narrative arc as a whole) as improbably as the miraculous crash landing which precipitates it—one hesitates to say Pynchon-esque, but it’s certainly there—Zemeckis elevates a rather unremarkable human drama to something altogether more provocative and poignant, ably assisted by an excellent performance from Washington in the lead role.

*

A version of this review appears in the February 2013 issue of Totally Dublin

A Review Of Zero Dark Thirty

“Zero dark thirty” means “half past midnight”, if you’re in the U.S. Military. Privileged information, to an extent, insofar as one would have to have knowledge of military parlance in order to understand the title of Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-season tribute to internment and torture. Out of context, it is difficult to understand, even nonsensical. An extended prelude in which a collage of audio from American telecommunications on September 11th 2001 plays out over a blank screen is the extent of the narrative context here given to the audience, for a story in which torture performs a central function in the tracking down and murder of Osama Bin Laden by U.S. forces (a deliberate misrepresentation which has been roundly debunked elsewhere). What is nonsensical to us, within the diegesis, is the violence and hatred displayed by the Other: here Muslims, Arabs, prisoners, the tortured. Zero Dark Thirty does not seek to answer such questions (“why do they hate us?”), nor even provoke their asking. It’s a strange sort of torture, one which doesn’t even attempt interrogation.

*

This review appears in the February 2013 issue of Totally Dublin