Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Philip Ridley Double Bill: The Passion of Darkly Noon (1995)

“It’s time for my walk in the dark.”

Image: Seville Pictures

While The Reflecting Skin keeps a certain distance from its subjects, The Passion of Darkly Noon has a similar Gothic fairy-tale feel but gets right up close for a sweaty, lurid, darkly comic look at the titular character’s mental disintegration.

In the middle of a vast forest in the American south, Darkly Noon (Brendan Fraser) stumbles into the road and is found by Jude (Loren Dean), who drives him to a small house owned by beautiful outcast Callie (Ashley Judd). Darkly explains that he barely escaped with his life when the religious commune he lived in was attacked. She takes him in but the puritanical Darkly struggles to control the urges the beautiful, free-spirited Callie provokes in him. When her partner Clay (Viggo Mortensen again) returns, Darkly’s psyche starts to fracture.

While the basic structure is more generic than in Ridley’s previous film, The Passion of Darkly Noon is still a bizarre, layered, atmospheric piece of work. The forest becomes less idyllic and increasingly claustrophobic as the film progresses and Darkly’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic. We’re never given any reason to disbelieve his story about where he’s come from so it’s difficult not to feel for him as he starts to collapse. The casting of the likeable (pre-fame) Fraser helps in this regard and he gives a surprisingly effective performance. Darkly starts off as twitchy but good-hearted only to show that he’s unable to cope with Callie’s sexuality. On the other hand, Callie makes it clear that she has no interest in Darkly as a sexual partner and while she doesn’t alter the way she dresses or behaves she wants to provide him with a loving environment. Despite their best intentions, their incompatibility makes a violent confrontation inevitable.

The David Lynch influence is slightly more pronounced here, in part due to the endless, forbidding trees and the presence of Grace Zabriskie as an eccentric hermit who plays a key part in Darkly’s third act revelation. With shots of a giant silver boot floating down a stream and Darkly’s increasingly bloody attempts to keep his urges under control, it’s more flamboyant and slightly sillier than its predecessor. But, with title cards keeping track of the days and the increasingly intrusive camera-work and editing, Ridley’s second film is an atmospheric, tense character study and it’s tremendously entertaining.

Both in the notes given out before the films and the Q&A afterwards (during which Ridley was joined by composer Nick Bicât), it was explained that both The Reflecting Skin and The Passion of Darkly Noon are specifically a London boy’s vision of America rather than an attempt at a realistic depiction. Both films feature gorgeous, seemingly endless landscapes that act as prisons for their characters. Classic Americana clashes with sex and violence, and the idea of the supernatural is a welcome alternative to the harsh reality. This world is beautiful, strange and dangerous. It was a treat to see them on a big screen and they deserve proper restoration.

4/5

JH

Monday, 24 September 2012

Philip Ridley Double Bill: The Reflecting Skin (1990)

It’s unusual these days to look for a film and be unable to even find an old DVD edition that has gone out of print, especially when the filmmaker is as highly regarded as acclaimed playwright, artist, and author Philip Ridley. Because of the shameful lack of availability of his first two films, we’d only seen his third and most recent effort, 2009’s underrated East End horror Heartless. So it was with a great deal of excitement that we made our way to the Roxy Bar and Screen for Savage Cinema’s double bill of his previous work, set deep in the heart of America: The Reflecting Skin (1990) and The Passion of Darkly Noon (1995).

“Poor Seth. It’s all so horrible, isn’t it? The nightmare of childhood. And it only gets worse.”

Image: BBC

The Reflecting Skin is the story of eight year old Seth Dove (Jeremy Cooper) who lives with his parents at a gas station in a small rural community in the 1950s. Both parents seem to be on the verge of a breakdown, as his mother takes her anxiety about Seth’s veteran older brother Cam’s (Viggo Mortensen) return from the Pacific out on Seth and his subdued father. Seth amuses himself by tormenting their mysterious English neighbour Dolphin Blue (Lindsay Duncan) who he believes to be a vampire and responsible for the on-going murders of local children. When Cam finally returns and falls for Dolphin, Seth decides he has to save his brother.

Our first impression of The Reflecting Skin was just how fantastic it looks. Ridley’s history as an art student is certainly apparent and the shots of the never-ending fields and the fragile houses standing as lonely outposts are simply beautiful. There’s also a huge amount going on in this bizarre southern Gothic fairy-tale. The characters are so bizarre and the world is so peculiar that the existence of the supernatural seems entirely plausible. Seth’s head is filled with angels (he decides a stillborn foetus he finds in a barn is the angelic reincarnation of a murdered friend) and vampires while the adults are cruel, confused, and quick to anger as the heat, the stink of gasoline, and the inescapability of the location creates a stunning but intensely claustrophobic environment.

Ridley spoke after the film about the dream-logic narrative making the film’s timeframe quite liquid and it does create an uncertain world. Characters have to be reminded of the terrible events that have befallen them. At one point Cam asks Seth why he doesn’t go and play with his friends only to be told that they’re all dead.  Both the possibility of the supernatural and the mercilessness nature of the environment are characterised in Lindsay Duncan’s stunning performance as Dolphin Blue. Dolphin is a grieving widow whose husband committed suicide weeks after bringing her to America. Her clumsy, playful attempts to bond with Seth (“50? No, I’m much older than that. I’m 200 years old.”) lead to his delusions of her wickedness. She subsequently connects with Cam through their shared experiences of the war (she was present during the Blitz; he worked on atom bomb testing in the Pacific). But Duncan plays the character with just the right combination of fragility and humour that her scenes with Mortensen are deeply touching while her interaction with Cooper’s wide-eyed Seth are darkly funny and bordering on threatening.

The Reflecting Skin is a beautiful dark fairy-tale that’s a fascinating vision of twisted rural Americana. It’s a crying shame that this wonderfully photographed, excellent film has not been properly restored.

5/5

JH

Look out for our review of The Passion of Darkly Noon tomorrow. 

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Now Is Good (2012)

Image: Warner Bros.

Now Is Good tells the tale of a 16-year-old girl dying from leukaemia. Despite suffering with the disease throughout her teenage years, Tessa (Dakota Fanning) is told by doctors that her treatment has been unsuccessful and that she should enjoy the last few months she has left. Determined to live the rest of her life to its fullest, Tessa creates a bucket list of things she wants to do before she dies and, with a little help from her best friend and the cute boy (Jeremy Irvine) next door, does her damnedest to fulfil every wish.

In spite of the less than appealing publicity images for the film, Now Is Good is easily watchable. Fanning pulls off the cancer-stricken, English girl with aplomb, and the rest of the cast equally deliver solid performances. It's cheesy in a few places and fully aware of the heartstrings it's pulling on, but it's a likeable adaptation that will, no doubt, resonate with its target audience.

Not that bad.

3/5

FG

Friday, 14 September 2012

Hope Springs (2012)

Image: Momentum Pictures

It’s a sad fact that there aren’t a lot of great parts for American actresses once they reach a certain age but if any actress has managed to break this rule it’s Meryl Streep. It’s also a sad fact that there aren’t a lot of big Hollywood films that examine the sexuality of an older couple, although she’s broken that rule too with 2009’s It’s Complicated. Still, with more emphasis on the drama than the comedy, Hope Springs is quite a rare thing indeed.

Kay (Meryl Streep) has been married to Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) for 31 years and is incredibly lonely. The two sleep in separate rooms and the only time he touches her is to give her a peck on the cheek when he leaves for work. When Kay finds a book by Dr Feld (Steve Carell) on how to rekindle romance in your marriage, she tells Arnold that she’s going for a week of therapy with the author, with or without him. Arnold reluctantly joins her but can their marriage survive the airing of old grievances?

First off, as you’d expect with this cast, the performances are superb. Jones is an actor who’s been known to switch to autopilot in studio fare but paired with Streep he puts in an excellent performance. Arnold is uptight, unfriendly, and complains at length about everything. Kay is reserved, easily hurt, but determined that something has to change. At first it seems like the film is happy to keep things relatively light and keep to familiar territory but it’s when they go to Dr Feld’s sessions that Vanessa Taylor’s screenplay shows itself to be a realistic and honest depiction of two people whose increasing lack of communication through the years has led to alienation.

The therapy scenes are the film’s best, with a well-judged, quiet performance from Carell allowing Jones and Streep to play off each other. There are big laughs (Kay revealing the extent of her naïveté, Arnold revealing he fantasies about a threesome with the neighbour), it’s often tense (few actors are as good at showing a line is about to be crossed as Tommy Lee Jones), and it’s often quite moving. The script goes to some surprising and funny places as Kay and Arnold attempt Dr Feld’s exercises and try and rediscover each other’s bodies from a starting point as simple but vital as physical contact leading to increasingly sexual scenarios.

But for all the excellent dramatic work, the filmmakers don’t have the nerve to see it all the way through. Director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) handles the quieter scenes between Kay and Arnold so well that it’s frustrating when the film falls back on rom-com-drama stereotypes. The soundtrack is bursting with songs that hammer home emotion the actors have just portrayed, Kay dramatically runs off at least one too many times, and Elisabeth Shue is completely wasted in a two minute scene as a down to earth barmaid who reassures Kay that nobody’s getting enough.

It’s probably a little harsh to gripe about these flaws too much, however. Jones and Streep make a great pairing during both the comedic and the dramatic scenes, the script is great, and Hope Springs is a funny, surprisingly affecting comic drama.

3.5/5

JH

Friday, 7 September 2012

Dredd (3D) (2012)

Welcome to the meat grinder

Image: Entertainment Film

Comic book hero Judge Dredd last appeared on film in the 1995 Sylvester Stallone vehicle Judge Dredd. While it has its fans (personally we love the design), the film was very much a standard mid-90s sci-fi flick, akin to Demolition Man, and far from the spirit of the original 2000AD comics. Now 28 Days Later scribe Alex Garland and Vantage Point director Pete Travis have teamed up to bring us what they hope is a truer rendition.
For those of you not au fait with the background, we are in a near future where most of the USA is a nuclear wasteland. Judge Dredd is a member of the peacekeeping Justice Department, the body which oversees Mega-City One, an urban sprawl which covers much of the Eastern Seaboard. Filmed in Johannesburg, the city of this film is a horrible near-reality, where grimly familiar streets are over-shadowed by gargantuan ‘city blocks’, effectively vertical cities in themselves. Dirt is definitely the order of the day – the streets, the housing, the people, all coated in dust and grime.
Garland’s simple but effective plot sees Karl Urban’s Judge Dredd trapped in a city block – the sweetly named Peach Trees – ruled over by the despotic and psychotic Ma Ma (Lena Headey), an ex-prostitute turned drug baron responsible for hawking the latest must-have narcotic, Slo-Mo. Teamed up with sensitive, telepathic rookie Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), Dredd must work his way through floors full of violent criminals out for his blood and take down Ma Ma, who does not look kindly on the law knocking at her door.
Urban is perfectly cast as Dredd, playing him rough but likeable, like his Bones McCoy after a heavy night’s drinking. Purists will be happy to know that we never see his face, a sacred cow of the comics slaughtered in the 90s version. Thirlby is equally good in her role, handling the clichés of the rookie with aplomb. She particularly shines in her interactions with Wood Harris’s nasty criminal, engaging in some nicely twisted one-upmanship. The real stand-out, though, is Lena Headey. With her battle scars and crack-addict teeth, Ma Ma is a suitably demonic foe for Dredd, and Headey rules every scene she appears in. One particular shot of Ma Ma with a mouth full of blood and a terrible grin will remain with you long after the others have faded from memory (though this is also to do with the context).
There are images of real beauty to be found amongst the grit – the scenes showing the perspective of people under the effects of Slo-Mo are wonderfully idiosyncratic (the drug causes the user to experience life at one tenth its normal speed, so the visuals are both slow-motion and very trippy). Lena Headey’s introductory scene, in a bath with water arcing around her in slow-motion, catching the light and exploding in rainbow colours, is wonderful. The relatively low budget actually helps the look of the film, with low-tech and dirt being far more in keeping with the source material than anything more polished. The motorbike chase which begins the film benefits from featuring actual stunts rather than CGI. You really feel that people are going to get hurt, and they certainly do! The film has an 18 certificate and the makers waste no opportunity to capitalise on this – the gore is realistic and horrible and every bit as copious as fans of 2000AD will be expecting. We get skinnings, burnings, bullets to faces and an awful lot of splatter.
If one criticism can be levelled against the film, it is that the 3D adds nothing to the experience, and indeed from where we were sitting actually diminished the effect of the Slo-Mo sequences, blurring the edges of the floating elements and dulling the vivid colour. The only really successful moment of 3D is in the closing credits, which shows how relevant the process is in the film. Time to give it a rest!
Gritty and brutal, this is Dredd as it should be done. If this doesn’t get a sequel then there really is no justice.
4.5/5

MP

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Lawless (2012)

White lightnin’

Image: Momentum

The last time Nick Cave and John Hillcoat made a film together, it was the brutal, lyrical Australian western The Proposition. They’ve relocated to American South for this adaptation of Matt Bondurant’s book “The Wettest County in the World”, the story of three bootlegging brothers in Prohibition Louisiana.

The Bondurant boys are notorious in Franklin County. They make the best moonshine, they’ve got an arrangement with the law, and there’s even a legend that they cannot be killed. But when Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) arrives with the intention of making things run his way, the boys find themselves up against it.

While The Proposition relocated the Western and stripped it down to its harsh, savage elements, Lawless finds Cave and Hillcoat settling a little more comfortably into genre conventions. While it’s often brutally violent and there’s a pitch black sense of humour, it’s (for the most part) playing by the rules. There’s not one but two romances, there’s the youngest brother fighting to prove himself, and there’s the slow realisation that a life of crime isn’t as glamorous as you might think. But although Lawless might cleave a little too close to these staples, it does so with a lot of skill.

There’s the well-played dynamic between the three brothers. Jack (Shia LaBoeuf) is the youngest and is eager to make his mark on the family business with forward thinking. The problem is that he’s not made of the same stuff as his elder brothers. Howard (Jason Clarke) is the hard-drinking muscle, while Forrest (Tom Hardy) acts as the head of the family (with no less muscle). These are familiar types, but the three leads are on good form and their chemistry is spot-on. There are also strong performances from the underused Mia Wasikowska as Jack’s love-interest Bertha (the local preacher’s daughter) and Jessica Chastain (a mysterious refugee from Chicago), who makes one of the film’s strongest impressions as the strong but haunted Maggie who’s drawn to Forrest.

The romances are convincing and affecting while never being particularly surprising. Chastain is at her best when confronting violence, which, somehow predictably, is also when the film’s at its best. Hillcoat chooses not to linger on these moments, but there’s no doubting their brutality. A sequence in which Rakes gives Jack a beating is brutally believable, but it’s Hardy’s scenes that will have you squirming in your seat.

The most memorable creation in Lawless, though, is Pearce’s odious Rakes. It’s the actor’s third film with Hillcoat and he clearly feels comfortable enough to deliver this bizarre character. Rakes is a vicious, misanthropic germaphobe who, with his savagely parted hair, pale skin, suit and bowtie, and lack of eyebrows looks like a vampiric ventriloquist’s dummy, contrasting with Hardy’s monosyllabic, grunting “country boy”. Whenever the film threatens to slip into predictability, Pearce’s off-kilter turn keeps us on our toes.

There are times when Hillcoat seems a little cautious, which leads to a mixture of touchstones. He’s always interested in the cultural and historical significance of the period, and there’s an acknowledgement of the Western migration of the dustbowl era. But it’s not meditative enough to be compared to The Assassination of Jesse James, while much too interested in character for Public Enemies comparisons. Instead, Lawless is an undeniably entertaining and often viscerally exciting period crime drama with an excellent cast and a brilliant soundtrack (a version of White Light, White Heat deserves special mention).

It doesn’t match up to their first outing, but Hillcoat and Cave deliver a highly entertaining, often touching, and frequently violent Prohibition family drama.

4/5

JH