Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone.

A review.

Winter’s Bone is one of those rare American indies that manages to be both a cinematic essay in social realism and cinematic poetry, a journey not only through the backlands of Missouri, but also through the human soul. A film that is both particular to a place and a time, and universal. This is American cinema at its best.

Powerfully acted and beautifully shot, Winter’s Bone follows 17 year old Ree (a wonderful Jennifer Lawrence) in her quest for the fate of her missing father, a drug addict who has put their house, yard, barn and land as payment for his bond (bail) for his forthcoming court appearance. If the property is repossessed, she, her young siblings Ashley and Sonny, and their invalid mother will be thrown into the wilderness to fetch as dogs, as she said in one of the key and emotionally charged scenes of the film.

We first see Ree taking their horse to be cared for a neighbour, because, as she put it: “Right now, I’m short of cash”. This particular scene sets the tone for the film, the harsh nature of the environment, the social bonds of mutual dependency formed in rural communities as theirs is, the strong and powerful character of Ree, and her will to survive and care for her family.

A subsequent encounter between her and the local sheriff sets her in her path to find her father, learning soon after that he failed to turn up for the court hearing, making him a “runner” and endangering her and her family. Her steel is evident when she tells the sheriff “I’ll find him”, the strength in her eyes was a beauty to watch. This is a community of few words, but each one is charged with meaning. You miss one, and you miss a whole world.

Her adversity, and that of her family, and her enquiries, initially meets indifference from the community and some of her relatives. This indifference soon turns into open hostility as she starts to find out some unsavoury truths, however, the power of the blood reasserts as she confronts this hostility, the depth of the passions aroused powerfully depicted in a poetically charged scene set in a cattle market. The film becoming at this point a comment on the hopelessness and, yet, resilience of rural communities in America such as this and, incidentally, throwing some light on the background of some of the recruits for the American military.

Winter’s Bone has a very authentic feel in language, the characters and the environment. I understand that Jennifer Lawrence’s Kentucky roots made her easier to understand Ree, and the film was shot in locations in Missouri, using local people as extras and homes as sets.

I was also relieved to see an American independent movie that is not a bad Woody Allen clone or about boring and shallow New York socialites.

Winter’s Bone is, in an odd way, a feel good tale, but one that dug deep into my heart and which, I suspect, will stay in there for a long time.

Based on the novel Winter’s Bone by DANIEL WOODRELL
ENGLISH / USA/ 2010 / 35MM / COLOR / 1.85 / DOLBY DIG / 100 min

Winner of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival's Grand Jury Prize and Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, WINTER'S BONE is directed by Debra Granik (DOWN TO THE BONE) and adapted for the screen by Granik and Anne Rosellini. Based on the bestselling novel by Daniel Woodrell, this tense, naturalistic thriller stars Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Kevin Breznahan, Dale Dickey, Garret Dillahunt, Sheryl Lee and Tate Taylor.

Distributor: Artificial Eye

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Kick-Ass DVD reviewed

Frankly, I was very disappointed by this film. Yes, I know, it was released ages ago, and yet I managed to see it the DVD only last night. I thought that it was a kick-ass of a movie rather than Kick-Ass. The story was totally predictable, the gags too (I hardly laughed at all during it), the rhythm was uneven. I can see that as a parody of the super-hero, so much predominant in American culture, it has some value. However, apart of that, and very strong strong acting (Chloë Grace Moretz was particularly powerful, while Aaron Johson delivered an excellent performance as the boy turned superhero), a waste of money, acting talent and space.

The DVD is pretty empty for a £16.99: I would have expected a pretty beefy bonus section, with interviews to the actors, etc. Apart of a short film on the comic that inspired the film, nothing else. In other words, a rip-off.

In short, an ass-kick film and DVD, just saved by the actors' performance, particularly those of Chloë Grace Moretz and Aaron Johnson. .

Director: Matthew Vaughn
Writers: Jane Goldman (screenplay), Matthew Vaughn

Cast: Aaron Johnson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Mark Strong, Chloë Grace Moretz, Nicolas Cage

Friday, 15 October 2010

Beautiful Kate, a film by Rachel Ward

 A review

The marketing blurb for this film states that “[it] cannot fail to get under your skin”, and, for once, the PR is right.

Ned, a writer in his forties, gets back to his father farmhouse in the remote Australian outback, where he, and his girlfriend, Toni, are greeted by his younger sister, Sally. She asked him to return home as Bruce, their father, is gravely ill, we know that he will not live for much longer. The ghosts of two missing siblings haunt their first meal together, yet the subject is carefully avoided.

The story is developed in a series of shots of the farm life in the present intermingled with flashbacks, the device used being places within the compound that metamorphose into that bygone past, highlighting the decay suffered not only by Bruce’s face and body, but also by the face of the farm itself. Thus, the pond where one of the key moments in that past happened is now dry, with rusting cars and farm machinery littering it. Beautiful Kate, splendidly played by newcomer Sophie Lowe (she reminds me of a young Sissy Spacek), Ned’s sister, plays and flirts with her brothers. However, do not be fooled by that nostalgic view of the past, perhaps the times of childhood and early adulthood were better when seen through the lens of time past: there is a sting under that nostalgia, and its hurts.

This is an intense film not only about incest and sexuality, but also about the power of memory not only to guide us, but also to lead us to emotional dead ends. Memories are, by definition, always selective and narrow in focus, and this is evident when Ned’s recollection of his relationship and death of his sister, the Beautiful Kate of the title, is confronted by a revelation by Sally, an involuntary witness one night a long time ago on that now dry pond. The past is no longer seen on the same way, and Ned’s attitude to his dying father warms. The ghosts have been put to rest.

This closed and incestuous story is told over the magnificent and tough backdrop of the landscape, those long winding and dusty roads, the cinematography making an excellent use of the wide format and colour palette.

A self confident, sensitive and powerful exploration of incest and awakening sexuality on a desolate farm in the Australian outback. Rachel Ward is in full command of her material in this debut feature. She has no fear in tackling a subject that most of us would prefer to be silent about, and she does it with sensibility and love for her subjects.

Beautiful Kate got under my skin, particularly when facing its shattering, and, yet, cathartic, end. I feel that it will remain there for a long time.

Director: Rachel Ward
Starring: Ben Mendelsohn, Bryan Brown, Rachel Griffiths, Maeve Dermody, Sophie Lowe
Running time: 101 mins

For trailer please visit:

Stills  © Matchbox Films

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Ruben Östlund’s INVOLUNTARY

A review

Ruben Östlund’s Involuntary joins the list of recent Swedish films that have made to the world stage, such as Daniel Alfredson’s Millennium Trilogy (based on Stieg Larsson’s books), Tomas Alfredson’s Let The Right One In (based on John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel), and Roy Andersson’s You The Living, between others.

Five interlaced stories run throughout the film, structured in clearly delineated cinematic tableaux, like paintings with moving figures: long takes with the camera left to roll in fixed positions, the actors moving in and our –sometimes just out as we only hear their voices, or moving towards the lens until becoming blurred. It is almost as if Involuntary were an exercise in mass observation, although the development of the stories in the timeline of the tableaux have been carefully constructed and orchestrated.

The link between these stories can be defined with just two words: peer pressure. How spontaneous and individual are our decisions? How much are they influenced by our desire, our need, conscious or not, to fit into a social group, into patterns of established and accepted behaviours within that group, or to fit into a intellectual or ideological construct? Key is the tale of the little girl who finally gives the response that was expected from her in the classroom, although she knew it was the wrong answer.

The recurrent feel of mass observation pervades the film, as the actors (all of them novices with the exception of Maria Lundqvist) play their fictitious lives as if they were their only lives, this is the degree of naturalism present in the acting. I noticed that the actors’ names are also the names of the characters they play, so Maria Lundqvist is Maria Lundqvist. I understand that most scenes were rehearsed several times, and took several takes before (50 or 60) making into the finished film (with the exception of the striptease scene with the two teenage girls, Linnea and Sara), a technique that streamline the understanding and absorption of the parts being played. This documentary feel to Involuntary is reinforced by the almost complete absence of a music track, the sounds being those of background conversations and noises, passing traffic, birdsong, children playing, all choreographed to punctuate specific moments in the film.

The tone of the camera is neutral and non-judgemental, almost tender at times in its outlook of the follies of us, human creatures; while, at other times, that coldness makes difficult to engage with the characters as we do not see them with the warmth present in, let say, Andersson’s You The Living. It prompted a desire to walk into the film to talk and argue with the characters and their transgressions, before realizing that the desire is actually to engage ourselves, as if we were the other. Have no doubt, the characters up there on the screen are no more than proxies, the camera is actually filming us, the audience. There is not a single one scene in the film that most people would have experienced in their lives, I dare to say. I was glad to see that Sweden also suffers a problem with drifting teenagers, drinking to stupor and falling into vandalism and what is called antisocial and reckless behaviour, the camera lens bearing witness to their antics.

The tale of Henrik, the coach driver, is, perhaps, the clearest of all: a social situation that becomes a trap, enslaving all those who are involved in it, feelings of unspoken embarrassment and guilt hiding just below the surface, as the camera pointed at the reflections on the coach windows hints.

Involuntary, with is dry, hilarious and, sometimes, dark humour, does not produce a immediate reward: the secret is in the details of each tableau, we miss them, and the film becomes meaningless and, even, tedious. We, the audience, have to work to reap the rewards.Yet, the prize for your efforts is a cinematic gem: this is a tender film that will haunt you for days to come.

Some films are like good wines: they get better and better as they mature. Involuntary is one of those, several days after having seen it, the smile is still on my face.

Do I need to say any more?

Director: Ruben Östlund | Sweden | 98 mins 


Villmar Björkman, Lola Ewerlund, Mia Ericsson, Hanna Lekander, Simeon Henry Nordius, Maricel Amance, Rikard Borg, Leif Ericsson, Margret Andersson, Staffan Mau, Eva Mau, Thomas Petéus, Guje Palm

Maria Lundqvist, Henrik Vikman, Ida Linnertorp, Birgitta Sundberg, Tommy Bech, Filip Nilsson, Edvin Daal, Lars Melin, Mikael Bundsen, Wille Lindelöw, Niklas Månsson, Emil Olsson, Jonny Jänsby, Malin Rosenqvist, Anna Karlsson

Linnea Cart-Lamy, Sara Eriksson, Moa Mathiesen, Malin Segerblad, Kenneth Bodin, Fanny Askerfors, Jonas Harström, Ludwig Palmell, Daniel Brandt, Lars G Svensson Elisabeth Cart-Lamy

Cecilia Milocco, Alicia Gustavsson, Ulf Lundstedt, Axel Hurtig, Gunilla Johansson, Biggan Hjelt, Ylva Nilsson, Josef Säterhagen, Per Johansson, Birte Niederhaus, Pupils From Lyrfågelskolan

Leif Edlund Johansson, Olle Liljas, P-A Emanuelsson, Pär Berg, Jonas Pärlbäck, Johan Bylund, Krister Bården, Vera Vitali


Stills and trailer © Trinity

Friday, 8 October 2010

Desire, a film by Gareth Jones.

I happened to be re-reading some of the classics of English literature, in this particular case, Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”, when I watched Desire:

“A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it!”

Desire drives the heart of those breasts, the creative impulses of not only artists, but of all of us, is what  I read from Gareth Jones' film.

The apparently innocuous façade of a London suburban house hides a universe of emotions, passions, human fragility, untold secrets and longings. We never see the exterior of the house, or indeed the outside world apart from glimpses through windows until the very end of the film, a cathartic scene.

We first see Ralph (Oscar Pearce, from Roegs’s Puffball and Paul Anderson’s Resident Evil), a writer holed on the top floor of the house, on a series of close-ups of his hands typing on a computer keyboard, like the hands of a musician on a piano keys; and his intense gaze, a kind of leitmotif running throughout the film, the gaze of an intellectual and emotional vampire lusting for the inner lives and bodies of those surrounding him to feed his writing and, thus, allowing him to survive as a human being. The proposition that desire, longing, sexuality, sensuality and survival are inextricable linked seems to be the subtext of this film “of ideas”.

Phoebe (Daisy Smith), his wife, is a soap opera star whose career is rapidly running downhill, her acting skills and career being wasted by increasingly banal plot lines and dialogues. She knows it, although she is outwardly in denial until this fact is slapped on her face in a brutal scene later on in the film. Ralph’s script for a film called Desire is vital to salvage her career, and the small universe that this family has constructed (a device that allows blurring the boundaries between reality and fiction). After all, Phoebe pays the mortgage. As she says in the film, if Ralph fails to produce the screenplay for Christmas, then there will be no more house, no more Chinese and African antiques, and no more Néné.

So, Néné (wonderfully played by Tella Kpomahou in a part that grows as the film progresses, her face and body expressing a myriad of emotions) enters the picture as the au pair in a morning scene repeated uncountable times in millions of homes on this planet: breakfast, and getting the kids ready for school.

So, who is Néné? Phoebe, and us, ask. We know that she is African, we know that she speaks French, we know that she was living in Paris, we know that she is learning English. We also know that she is one of those creatures that Dickens referred a couple of centuries ago: a face whose contours hides a deep unknown, and unknowable, world; we are only able to catch glimpses of it, a song by Malian singer Oumou Sangare here and there, like peeping into a room we think is full of marvels through a half open door. Language itself becomes both a barrier and a bridge, particularly when she rewrites her part that Ralph had concocted from hearsay and assumptions in his script (and to hell with “authorial rights”, life has taken over), in a powerfully acted scene, where Tella Kpomahou as Néné exerts her seductive powers on Ralph (and on us, the audience). Do we know what is driving her heart? We never do, although we can glimpse it, as her gaze teases Ralph and Phoebe, or when we glimpse (this word, again) a photograph of a child.

This stranger, whom Phoebe strongly distrusted that first morning in the kitchen, has become an inextricable part of this family, yet she remains a mystery, still a stranger in their hearts, unspoken desires driving them apart, yet gluing them together with a different structure of relationships, particularly when Phoebe brings her new co-star, Darren (Adam Slynn), a contributor to this redrawing of boundaries. I can read here parallels with Pasolini’s “Teorema”, where the inner fragility of a family hidden by its apparent bourgeois solidity is disrupted and reassembled by the catalytic visit of a stranger, like an angel (of Death, of Life?).

Néné’s capacity to reassemble the inner structure of this world is as much due to its fragile foundations as the emotional strength driving her. Ralph, Phoebe, Néné, Darren, they all circle around each other, all desiring the others, to suck their blood, to take over their bodies and their minds, to take them inside, to make them part of their selves. Underneath this dance, the intellectual, emotional and financial need for Ralph to finish the script.

Perhaps one of the reasons behind the popularity of vampire films, and books, is the need to exteriorize this inner desire to make the other part of our selves, this lust for their bodies, their lives, their entrails.

I do not know if by setting the film within the confined walls of a house was intentional or not in the sense defined by Dickens’ lines; or if it was a dramatic device to explore the simmering of emotions, exposed raw by unspoken desires, driving not only the creative processes of a writer, but their capacity to fundamentally alter the human relationships within what is, basically, a pressure cooker, a creative process in itself, where boundaries are redrawn.

Gareth Jones and Fiona Howe (who also composed the music for this film) states that “Desire explores the link between sex and creativity through the story of a screenwriter struggling with a character who threatens to take over not just his creative life but his sanity.” However, my reading makes it a far more complex film. It is not only Ralph who evolves and gains within these relationships, but Néné also gains, her rewriting of her own life within the script is a clear act of defiance and reasserting her own self as a woman who happens to be African, but who is, firstly, a woman. Intellectual colonialism is, thus, exposed.

Perhaps the strength of this film is also its weakness: the clinical coldness of the camera work, which, whilst allowing us, the viewers, to keep a critical distance from this emotional nest of vipers and, therefore, safeguard our own sanity, it makes very difficult for us to feel sympathy for any of the characters, with the possible exception of Néné, Tella Kpomahou’s injection of inner warm winning us over. Phoebe is played by Daisy Smith, revealing the essential shallowness of the character, not much different from that of the character of the soap opera within the film; while the vampiric intensity of Ralph is developed by Oscar Pearce, and the greed of upcoming boy Darren by Adam Slynn.

However, the complexity of this film, and the several possible readings of it, conspires against Desire, as, somehow, Gareth Jones seems to have lost control. There are just too many strands and ideas floating around, and the device to deliver this cinema of ideas, the voice over, is, at times, clumsy.

Alex Ryle’s intelligent use of a subdued and chiaroscuro palette, and his controlled camerawork, deserves special mention: without this restraint (and that of Gareth Jones), this film in less capable hands could have well ended up as an over emotional soap opera. Fiona Howe’s score also is commendable for its beauty and restraint. The voice over, whilst being essential for Gareth Jones’ aspiration to develop a cinema of ideas (and Desire certainly succeeds as such, setting it apart from much of the recent crop of British cinema) and being beautifully written, words that cut through the calm of my living room, is at times drowning the visual imagery.

Director/Screenwriter: Gareth Jones
Producer/Composer/Designer: Fiona Howe
Cast: Oscar Pearce (Puffball; Resident Evil), Tella Kpomahou (Les oiseaux du ciel - Birds of the Sky; Il va pleuvoir sur Conakry - Rain over Conakry), Daisy Smith, Adam Slynn

Desire will be released in the UK later in the year.


Stills and trailers © Scenario Films Ltd.

Post revised on October 19th, 2010