Lost River (2014)

2016 #79
Ryan Gosling | 95 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Lost RiverThe directorial debut of uber-hearththrob movie star Ryan Gosling is not what you might expect someone of that particular adulation to produce. It’s not just that it has a dark heart, but that it’s slow, opaque, perverted, and not easily summarisable.

To try nonetheless: Bones (Iain De Caestecker) lives in a possibly-near-future rundown Detroit, where his mother (Christina Hendricks) is struggling to repay the loan so they can keep their house. A meeting with the bank manager (Ben Mendelsohn) leads to him offering her a job at a mysterious nightclub. Meanwhile, Bones salvages copper for cash, which brings him into the orbit of vicious criminal Bully (Matt Smith). Escaping Bully’s clutches, Bones discovers an old road that leads under a lake. He learns from his neighbour, Rat (Saoirse Ronan), that there’s a town under there, which may hold the key to breaking the curse hanging over their town…

If it’s not obvious, there’s definitely some magical realism going on in Lost River. Adult fairytale would be another term for it; there are slices of some form of Gothic, too. To put it another way, it’s definitely Lynchian. Other directors may have been an influence on Gosling as well, but it specifically brought Blue Velvet to mind for me, without in any palpable way being a clone of that movie. Nonetheless, it also engages with some very real present-day issues, like the recession, albeit in an elliptical fashion (despite the plot being about someone under threat of losing their house). Perhaps this is just a convenient way to touch of themes of family, home, and what home means (i.e. more than just a house), as well as the importance or otherwise of escaping that home, or somehow reconstituting it.

Lake lightsIt comes to a very cathartic ending, on multiple levels. I almost didn’t realise I needed that catharsis at the end — I knew I wanted certain characters to get their comeuppance, but the load that seems to lift at the end, with all the different climaxes combined, including parts that might not seem ‘good’… well, it’s almost like Rat is right about Bones’ actions lifting a bad spell.

On a technical level the film is superb, combining fantastic cinematography with evocative costumes, expressive sets, and an effective score. Some of the imagery is the visual equivalent of ambient mood music, as is some of the score (er, literally). That occasionally comes across as self-consciously Arty, therefore, but in the right mood or mindset it works. There are several strong performances as well: Christina Hendricks does understated desperation; Matt Smith is a credible schoolyard bully writ large; Ben Mendelsohn exudes menace as a nightclub-owner-cum-devil-incarnate; and Saoirse Ronan is marvellous in everything.

By giving it a 4, I’m maybe being a tad generous; certainly it’s poor consumer advice, because this is a “not for everyone” film. But if I gave it a 3, I’d be underselling how much I eventually liked it. It’s certainly flawed — slow, slight, maybe pretentious, and Arty. But it also takes us to an intriguing world, toys with some interesting ideas, conveys a few memorable moments, and stuns with consistently arresting visuals. I’ll take that mix over “blandly fine” any day.

4 out of 5

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Brooklyn (2015)

2016 #63
John Crowley | 112 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK, Canada & Ireland / English | 12 / PG-13

BAFTABritish Academy Film Awards 2016
6 nominations — 1 win

Winner: Best British Film.
Nominated: Best Leading Actress (Saoirse Ronan), Best Supporting Actress (Julie Walters), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Hair.


BrooklynAdapted from Colm Tóibín’s award-winning 2009 novel by novelist-turned-screenwriter Nick Hornby and director John Crowley (Boy A, Is Anybody There?), Brooklyn is the story of Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), a young woman in 1950s Ireland who leaves behind her mother (Jane Brennan) and older sister (Fiona Glascott) for an exciting new life in New York. Lodging at the boarding house of Mrs Keogh (Julie Walters) with a gaggle of other girls and working in a glamorous department store, Eilis comes out of her shell, and falls for nice Italian-American lad Tony (Emory Cohen). When tragedy calls her back to Ireland, Eilis encounters nice Irish lad Jim (Domhnall Gleeson). Will she stick with her new life, or return home as a new woman?

That’s basically the plot of the whole film, bar the details; but the meat of Brooklyn is in the details, and knowing the shape of the story going in may even work to its benefit — it’s the kind of movie that might not look like it’s ‘about’ all that much. An easy point to pick on would be Eilis’ status as an immigrant, what with works of art about “the immigrant experience” being a definite Thing. There’s an element of that in the film, certainly, but I would say it’s not about anything so worthy-sounding. More, it’s a coming-of-age movie, about leaving home, spending time away, and then coming back to find home is different — not because it’s changed, but because you have. You don’t have to emigrate to understand that feeling — anyone who’s done something like go to uni will surely relate.

Guiding us through this, the film’s heart in every respect, is Saoirse Ronan’s leading performance. I will watch Ronan in essentially anything at this point, both because she seems to choose good material and because, even when she doesn’t, she’s great in it. This is probably her first really mature performance, convincing as a somewhat shy young woman who makes her way out into the world, in the process realising all the confidence she should have in herself. It’s the kind of character and performance that works by accumulation; it’s about the journey, not heavy-handed emoting in a scene or two.

As the family members left behind, Jane Brennan and Fiona Glascott get to give equally subtle performances, conveying reams of emotion in relatively few scenes and with their presence as much as their words. Similarly, Emory Cohen and Domhnall Gleeson might have been stranded with no dramatic meat playing Nice Guys, but they each find enough nuance to sustain their roles. It’s always nice to watch a movie that can tell a romantic story without needing to resort to melodramatic histrionics, and Eilis’ choice is all the trickier for the fact that neither reveals a Dark Side or anything so simple. It’s been noted before that Gleeson was in four of the big awards contenders last year, only picking up a few relatively minor nominations himself (at the Saturn Awards, British Independent Film Awards, and Irish Film and Television Awards), but those four roles display his range magnificently. “One to watch” may be an understatement.

John Crowley’s direction is largely unobtrusive, but that is a very different kettle of fish to lacking quality. The subtle changes in framing, lighting, and colour palette as the film moves through its locations and stages helps emphasise how Eilis is changing, and how the world changes in her perceptions, too. It makes the story’s times and places look beautiful without quite slipping into picture-postcard rose-tinted-memories territory.

Brooklyn is a deceptively simple film that might be easy to dismiss as a slight romantic drama with no real stakes, but I think that would be to do it a disservice. It is fairly subtle and largely gentle (the odd shocking development aside), but it amasses a wealth of feeling and personal development that builds, not to a crescendo, but to a point of emotional understanding.

4 out of 5

Brooklyn is available on Netflix UK as of yesterday.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

2015 #20
Wes Anderson | 96 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.37:1 + 1.85:1 + 2.35:1 | USA, UK & Germany / English | 15 / R

The Grand Budapest HotelThe latest from cult auteur Wes Anderson, which managed that rare feat of enduring from a March release to being an awards season contender, sees the peerless concierge of a magnificent mid-European hotel (Ralph Fiennes) accused of murdering a rich elderly guest (Tilda Swinton, caked in Oscar-winning prosthetics) and attempting to flee across the country to clear his name. More or less, anyway, because this is a Wes Anderson film and so it takes in all kinds of amusing asides, tangents, and recognisable cameos.

The film has the feel of an artisan confection: candy-coloured, precisely designed and constructed, sweetly enjoyable, but with a hidden bite. Something like that, anyway. There are many praises to sing along these lines. The visuals are the most obvious. As is apparent even from the trailer, the shot composition is tightly controlled, squared-off but using that formalism to its advantage in various ways. I don’t know if this is always Anderson’s style (this is only the second of his films that I’ve seen, but it was similarly employed in the other), but here it works in ways almost indefinable.

The performances are just as mannered, and equally as fantastic for similar reasons: they exist within very specific constraints, but then push at their boundaries. Fiennes displays a perhaps-surprising flair for comedy in the lead role. Apparently Johnny Depp was Anderson’s initial choice — thank goodness that didn’t happen! You can completely see Depp in the part, bringing his rote whimsy to it, but how much more entertaining it is to have Serious Actor Ralph Fiennes going somewhat against type, and playing the role beautifully too. A host of familiar faces turn up in supporting roles that display various degrees of individualistic eccentricity, and there’s no weak link, but Fiennes is the stand-out.

Not suspicious at allI suppose the kooky idiosyncrasies of Anderson’s brand of storytelling and filmmaking will rub some viewers up the wrong way, looking on it all as vacuous affectations signifying nothing. To each their own, but, whatever the merits (or not) of Anderson’s style as a kind of one-man genre played out across his oeuvre, The Grand Budapest Hotel displays a synthesis of contributing elements that creates a movie that’s ceaselessly inventive, surprising, amusing, and entirely entertaining.

5 out of 5

The Grand Budapest Hotel placed 10th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

Violet & Daisy (2011)

2015 #34
Geoffrey Fletcher | 84 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Violet and DaisyAfter winning the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Precious, Geoffrey Fletcher wrote and directed this zany hit-women movie. Or possibly he wrote it “in 1996, when everybody and their brother and their sister and their cousin twice-removed was trying to be Quentin Tarantino,” as Matt Zoller Seitz put it in his review for RogerEbert.com.

Indeed, the end result — which concerns two girl-ish assassins, played by Alexis Bledel and Saoirse Ronan, in a chaptered narrative that’s mainly about their confrontation with a mark, played by James Gandolfini, who actually wants them to kill him — plays like Tarantino with a metric tonne of Quirk slathered over it. On the bright side, it’s sort of entertaining, albeit fundamentally derivative with a sheen of left-field try-hard wacky-uniqueness.

There are good performances from Gandolfini (in particular) and Ronan, who manage to pull some genuine empathy out of the oddness. Unfortunately, this aspect of character drama comes too late — the early part of the film trains us to expect a stylised genre movie, then suddenly shifts into a meditation on loneliness and death. It doesn’t work because it doesn’t gel. I’m all for tonal dissonance, but it needs to be handled correctly. Sleepy cellHere, Fletcher either needs to settle on one or the other, or clearly signal his intentions earlier.

Violet & Daisy is a bit of a mess, but one that at least offers a worthwhile performance or two and some entertaining, inventive, if derivative, moments. The sheer scale of its self-conscious kookiness will just grate for some viewers, though.

3 out of 5

Byzantium (2012)

2015 #21
Neil Jordan | 119 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | UK, USA & Ireland / English | 15 / R

This review alludes to some spoilers.

Byzantium18 years after he adapted Anne Rice’s seminal vampire novel Interview with the Vampire into a seminal vampire film, director Neil Jordan helmed another tale of two inextricably-linked immortal bloodsuckers. However, while the older film was a lavish, luscious, romantic fantasy, Byzantium is an altogether seedier, baser view of eternal life.

The narrative unfurls in two timelines: the present day, where vampire mother Clara (Gemma Arterton) and daughter Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) find themselves in a washed-up seaside resort while on the run from who-knows-what (well, Clara knows; Eleanor doesn’t); and 200 years ago, when a young Clara found herself entangled with a pair of military officers (Jonny Lee Miller and Sam Riley) that led to… well, you can guess what. Between them the two strands hint at a rich mythology; one we seem to be witnessing a side story of, rather than the usual epic world-altering confrontation of most fantasy cinema. Screenwriter Moira Buffini (adapting from her own play, A Vampire Story) retains enough familiar vampiric tropes to be recognisable to aficionados, but also offers unique twists and tweaks to keep us engaged.

Although the past storyline has its pros, and merges with the present day in time for the climax, the less mythologically-minded viewer will see the meat of the film as being Eleanor’s story. The forever-16-year-old is becoming disillusioned with her secretive existence, longing to share her truth with someone. When she twice bumps into genuine-16-year-old leukaemia survivor Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), it’s easy to see where the broad strokes of their encounter will lead. A back-cover pull-quote describes Byzantium as “the best vampire film since Let the Right One In” — their relative qualities are a separate point, but this adolescent ‘love(?)’ story is an obvious point of comparison nonetheless.

WhorehouseThe most effective part of the movie isn’t so much its plot or its mythology, though, but its atmosphere. Vampire movies take place in castles or drawing rooms, or high schools in more modern iterations. They are grand and sensuous. Any glamour in Byzantium is discarded and decrepit, like the titular hotel that Clara reshapes as a whorehouse; faded and left to ruin. The seafront is characterised by graffitied concrete, the glaring lights of arcade machines, heroin-chic Eastern European prozzies. The pier appears to have burnt down at some unspecified previous time and just been left. The only people left behind are the ones without a means of escape, stuck with their miserable lot. Clara and Eleanor fit in almost seamlessly.

Some have picked up on an apparent lack of change or development in the lead characters’ personalities over 200 years, calling it out as a plot hole. Is it? Or is it part of the point? These two haven’t become wiser and more experienced over their long lives, but instead have become stuck in a rut, repeating the same lies and performing the only roles they know. That’s why Clara still works as a whore; why Eleanor still struggles with the guilt from her religious upbringing; why they stick together as protective mother and innocent daughter. It’s just as true of the other immortals we ultimately meet, an organisation stuck in outmoded patriarchal beliefs, who have held a grudge for two centuries. Here, the immortality of vampirism seems to mean not only staying physically the same, but mentally so as well.

Bloody tastyOther alleged faults include the film not giving enough time or heft to facets individual viewers want it to cover. For one example, someone criticised it for not fully exploring the issue of voluntary euthanasia. I’d argue it doesn’t explore it at all, because it’s not trying to. That Eleanor chooses to only kill people she perceives as wanting to die is not her making a moral statement on a contentious issue, but finding a way to marry her conscience and upbringing with the necessities of her vampiric life; and it’s probably practical, too. That’s not to say a vampire movie can’t be used to explore a topic like voluntary euthanasia, but if you want that I’m afraid you might have to write your own.

I don’t wish to imply that Byzantium is faultless in its execution of every point it raises, however, as some do fall by the wayside. Not least of these is Frank’s leukaemia, which has its useful points (bloooood), and I suppose it’s a good thing we’re spared the “wants to become a vampire to survive fatal illness” trope (because his cancer is in remission), but it also feels like it’s there for that trope, and by dodging it the film has nowhere else to go with his illness. A similar fate befalls the character of Frank’s mother, probably by association. What does she think of her sickly son disappearing off with some girl he just met, possibly forever? We’ll never know…

Soulless beautyTechnically, DoP Sean Bobbitt grants us some gorgeous cinematography. There’s a cruel, aptly soulless beauty to the faded town, while some countryside vistas, both past and present, offer more traditional scenic pleasure. A remote rocky, misty isle — central to the mythology and so repeatedly visited — is particularly notable. Captured entirely on digital cameras, it seems sometimes that Bobbitt tried to push his equipment too hard: some shots during the climax look flat-out weird, as if someone has applied a Photoshop “comic book” filter or something. Also of note is the score by Javier Navarrete, which makes particularly good repeated use of The Coventry Carol.

Byzantium is a particular kind of experience. It’s the kind of film that hints at an epic mythology but doesn’t explore it, which some will be glad of and others regret; personally, I feel both at once — there’s a grander story left here, but I’m not sure I want it told. The narrative the film does contain is grounded in a melancholic reality; one that finds a kind of splendour in forgotten things and places; that almost elevates the shabbiness of a half-abandoned community to desirability, while acknowledging that it’s nothing of the sort. It takes vampirism and its associated immortality as something tempting but terrible and fantastical but tangible, and finds reflections of that in real-life experiences and locations. Darkly lovedFor all its dual-period storytelling and its grubby settings, it’s a resolutely modern kind of take on vampire mythology.

There’s little doubt that the film’s brand of melancholic beauty is not to all tastes — an array of poor and middling reviews are easy to find — but it has qualities that must be recommended, and the potential to be darkly loved.

5 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Byzantium is on Film4 at 9pm tonight.

It placed 5th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.