My week in film: Blue Ruin, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Amazing Spiderman 2 and more…

THORInspired by the effervescent Avengers Assemble, I sought out Thor (2011) for another watch to compare the tone of Branagh’s earlier effort with Whedon’s spot-on get-the-gang-together adventure. As with Avenger’s Assemble, one of the main pleasures of Thor is Tom Hiddleston’s demi-God Loki, brother to our titular hero. Hiddleston is deft at combining the pathos of Loki’s identity crisis, with the camp of a truly despicable villain, and in Thor his origin story is well worth revisiting, even if the more spectacular action set pieces are confined to realms other than earth, leaving Thor and his comrades battle with Loki’s metal man henchman seem a little underwhelming.

David Cronenberg is a director I’ve shied away from mainly due to my irritation with eXistenZ (1999), which seemed to belabor its point somewhat, however having finally seen The Fly (1986) and caught up with come more recent work, A History of Violence (2005), and Eastern Promises (2007), my irritation has lifted and I’m certainly trying to see more. With that in mind I watched A Dangerous Method (2011), which looks at the relationship between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), aA-Dangerous-Method-9nd the battle for morality and ethics in the birth of psychoanalysis, as represented by Jung’s torment at this relationship with a patient, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightly).

The key Cronenberg concerns are all present – sex, the death drive, the mind/body divide, an emphasis on the corporeal – making this perhaps the perfect subject for the director, and none more perfectly expressed than in Knightley’s committed performance, her body contorting in a pure expression of mental anguish.blue ruin

In Blue Ruin, a man seeks vengeance for the murder of his parents on the day their killer is released from prison, leading to a bloody series of retaliations, a form of justice kept ‘in house’ and away from the police. The immediate aftermath of Dwight’s (Macon Blair) somewhat calamitous yet shocking first kill sees him come face to face with the innocent quotient of his enemy’s clan, in a moment of pathos-filled humour, in which Dwight is required to release a passenger from his unplanned escape vehicle, and is given the first hint that his side of this story is not the only great tragedy at stake. Director/writer/cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier establishes a suitably sticky atmosphere, as the heat of the Virginia forests seems to emanate from the image of each blood-soaked character. Blue Ruin won the FIPRESCI International Critics prize in Cannes 2013 and it’s easy to see why – Saulnier here achieves a pure clarity of character, plot and form that draws strength from being both terrifyingly simple and artfully realized.

With Jane Campion’s Golden Globe winning Top of the Lake (2013), murder or the threat thereof is also the driving force of a plot that has Elizabeth Moss’s Detective Robin Griffin return to her home town, ostensibly to visit her dying mother, yet pulled into a rape investigation when a pregnant 12 year old attempts suicide in the titular Lake Top. Issues of gendered power plays are at the heart of this stellar mini series, as Robin’s status as a lone female sees her subject to forms of male protection both welcome and unwelcome, an inappropriate marriage proposal, threatening displays of violence, psychological manipulation and name calling, whilst other women seem to have varied experiences of the same enforced passivity at the hands of local land-owning alpha male, Matt (Peter Mullan).img_topofthelake1

Whilst Robin searches for Matt’s runaway daughter Tui (Jacqueline Joe), a camp sets up at Paradise, the lakeside land sold from under him by business partner Bob Platt, and a group of women move into storage containers, under the guidance of GJ (Holly Hunter). Although GJ professes not to teach or impart wisdom – only the ‘the body knows what to do’ all the characters of Top of the Lake are drawn to her at some point, whether seeking help, shelter or a chance to offload anger and fear – represented by one male onlooker that directly questions the specificity of her gender.

Showcasing the New Zealand landscape as a site of astonishing beauty and acute danger, Campion creates an atmosphere that never allows the viewer to assume the worst is over, as Robin’s investigation reveals inextricable links between her own past and present self.

captain-america-the-winter-soldier-teaser-trailer-black-widow1Finally, my viewing this week ended on lighter notes, with a double bill of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Anthony & Joe Russo, 2014) and The Amazing Spiderman 2 (Mark Webb, 2014). I thought Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, 2011) a terrible bore of a film – due mainly to the unimaginative direction (but then what was I expecting from the director of Jurassic Park 3?) so helpfully my expectations were low, and this new, post Avengers, Phase 2‘ iteration of the Steve Rogers story proved engaging, delightfully silly and earnest only when it mattered most. Action scenes involving Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow maintained the excellent standard of choreography for this character that began with Iron Man 2 (John Favreau, 2010) with the kind of fighting style that believably demonstrates how a woman of Romanoff’s strength and size can immobilize swathes of henchmen.

amazoing spiderman 2Emma Stone was also given ample space to show strength and characteristic intelligence as Gwen Stacy – saving Spidey’s (and the rest of New York’s) life in The Amazing Spiderman 2, which puts the romance between Peter and Gwen at the centre of the film. Though Andrew Garfield as Peter was once again the perfect, sinewy, athletic Spidey, I was left with a sense that his world is less tangible than that of the Avenger’s and its respective solo ventures in the series – despite also being a Marvel title. Perhaps it’s due to every villain so far having originated in that comic book cliché of accidental merge with toxic animal/goo/experiment gone wrong in the Osborn lab, or maybe Amazing Spiderman 2 failed to exploit the potential of any one of its villains, instead settling for broadly painted caricatures doing little justice to the caliber of the actors playing them. Nevertheless, Stone and Garfield are a sheer joy to watch, being that rare example of sizzling on-screen chemistry.

Coming next on My week in film… In cinemas I’ll review Frank, and at home – an as yet unknown plethora of film from around the world.

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My week in film: The Impossible, Anna Karenina, Wild Combination and a little Cronenberg

The soundtrack to Keep the Lights On included many beautiful tracks by Arthur Russell, a musician whom I had previously no knowledge of. Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell directed by Matt Wolf went some way to rectify this, it being a thoughtful documentary portrait that gives plenty of weight to what kind of person Arthur Russell was, as well as the particularity of his ‘genius’.

russell2Interviews with Russell’s parents, colleagues, friends – such as Allen Ginsberg – form a diversity of opinion on the late composer and musician but boyfriend Tom emerges as his tireless promoter, without whom Russell’s catalogue of recordings might never have been heard. The drawback to the far-reaching character analysis provided via contributions from friends and collaborators is that Russell’s music ends up being the one thing that doesn’t get enough attention. Performances are cut short and recordings given in snippets, so that the editing style is as frenetic and distracted as Russell’s demonstrable working method appears to be. It’s a shame really, as further insight from professional musicians and critics might have revealed more about the film’s subject than the testimonies of his contemporaries. TheImpossible_620_120312

 

The Impossible could aptly be described as a horror film, following director Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage – it’s a visceral depiction of a tsunami and its impact on the fragile human body. Watching it I realised I had never actually thought about the sheer force of water, and after I couldn’t help but recall such shallow, romantic depictions of glorious death by tsunami such as Tea Leoni and Maximilian Schell standing on the beach in Deep Impact (1998). The family at the heart of the film are perfunctorily bland – if a little idealised as headed by Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts – but its clear from the screen time given to the physical ordeals of each member that how the experience affects them, rather than who they were before that’s what really matters. ewan-the-impossibleThe performances are remarkable throughout; particularly that of Watts and Tom Holland – who plays eldest son Lucas – in the early scenes as they fight to survive whilst being carried at great speed by the giant wave. Bayona used a combination of CGI and actual scale models and tanks with gallons of water to create the wave, out of a desire for authenticity. With this in mind, the physical endurance of the actors seems all the more impressive and the result is immersive – a truly cinematic rendering of pure destruction, and one that is often hard to watch. McGregor also impresses as determined father, Henry, providing one of the most heartbreaking phone call scenes I’ve ever seen, beautifully simple in its delivery of a desperate message. Though The Impossible isn’t a film one would rush to see again, the horror is suitably rewarded through the melodrama of the family’s reunion and the chill of what their lives will become as a result of surviving. eastern-promises

Impressed as I was by Naomi Watts I decided that seeing another of her performances would also provide an excuse (as if I needed it) to finally kick-start catching up with Cronenberg – a director who’s films I haven’t seen enough of. Eastern Promises (2007) is a London set tale of a Russian mob family who unexpectedly pique the interest of nurse, Anna (Watts) when she finds a diary belonging to a teenage Russian girl who dies on her ward during childbirth. Investigating the origins of the girl and a potential family for the baby leads down a dark path towards terribly violent, fiercely loyal and protective criminals. Anna’s interest in the welfare of the child is explained by a hinted at back-story involving a miscarried child, but once established, the complexities of her motivations are underplayed to make room for the more showy role – that of Viggo Mortensen as ‘driver’ Nikolai. Cronenberg’s oft-discussed fascination with the invasion of the body through violent acts is given a memorable treatment in a standout scene involving a naked Mortensen and some standard thugs. Mortensen’s body – his skin decorated with symbolic tattoos; is exposed and vulnerable as he gains more bloody markings fighting for his life. Having only previously seen The Fly, eXitenZ and parts of Rabid, Eastern Promises seemed less hysterical, but no less unnerving and has certainly inspired me to continue with my catch up. Keira-Knightley-Anna-Karenina

Its awards season, so aside from The Impossible, I was interested to seek out other nominated/winning films and not wanting to fight the crowds for Les Misérables this weekend I opted for Joe Wright’s BAFTA nominated Anna Karenina, in the running for the Outstanding British Film award alongside Skyfall, the aforementioned musical adaptation, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Seven Psychopaths. Wright’s adaptation of the classic Tolstoy novel imagines Russian society and its self scrutiny as grand theatre in which the staging moves around the actors, rhythmically creating an atmosphere of high drama played out for its own (and the audiences) entertainment. Once this device is established however, it soon becomes tiresome, not to mention dizzying as the attempt is made to find inventive ways to maintain the aesthetic. Keira Knightly, as Anna is excellent however, demonstrating graceful and engaging emotion that lifts the film out of its theatrical confines. Domhall Gleeson as Levin is also hugely sympathetic – his subplot regarding the guilt of privilege and the anxiety of resolving one’s political and romantic ideologies is perhaps the best thing in the film.

Also watched:

Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino

His Girl Friday, Howard Hawks.

Coming up, Les Misérables, Django Unchained and a continuing catch up with Cronenberg – now won’t that be exciting?!