Tuesday, 27 November 2012


(Michael Haneke, 2012)

Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignanat) and Ann (Emmanuelle Riva) are an elderly couple who live in a large, ageing Paris apartment. In a single sequence of the couple attending the piano recital of one of Ann's old students, Haneke manages to communicate the strength of their bond, and their comfortably bourgeois lifestyle. And then, he tears it away from them; inch by agonising inch.
Ann suffers a stroke and an operation to correct the damage fails. She is paralysed down her right side and needs a wheelchair. Her condition steadily deteriorates. Georges, having promised that she will not return to hospital, patiently cares for her in their home until he cannot cope alone. Their daughter Eve (Isabelle Huppert) appears occasionally from her busy life in London and is appalled by what she finds, but Georges is dismissive. The ending is inevitable, and we are shown it at the beginning when police break down the door and discover Ann's body upon the bed.
Haneke keeps his style simple and undemonstrative, all the better to boost the power of such moving, universal material. He finds solid mastershots for almost every room in the apartment, lets cinematographer Darius Khondji light them with a muted, autumnal brand of realism, and more or less returns to them throughout the film, emphasising the numbing repetition accompanying Ann's slow decline with every shot of Georges shuffling through the same doorway.
Haneke's reputation for coldness, and even cruelty, seems absolutely unfair after this film, which is warm and empathetic throughout, which keeps its two leads in focus and monitors every emotional pulse within its elliptical structure, which is minutely callibrated and all the more devastating for it.
The few grace notes allowed to the couple once Ann's illness has set in only serve to make the long slide to death that much more painful, the loss of her dignity and sensitivity that much more unfair. They laugh together early on, and she comments "Its beautiful, life. So long." while looking through their photo albums, still appreciative of what she has, and has had. Later she is a mostly-mute, bedbound invalid, bellowing incoherently, spitting water at her husband when he tries to feed her.
Their daughter's tearful shock at her mother's condition reflects that of the audience - Haneke cuts out the transition to the time after her second stroke, when she deteriorates most rapidly, and so we suddenly jump to her struggling to form words and unable to move.
Georges response to all of this is even and calm. He keeps going, rarely losing patience, acknowledging how sad it is verbally to Eve without any visible emotion. Near the climax two scenes depict him exploding to some degree, and they are perhaps the most charged in the film, the most fraught with that repressed emotion.
There are also a couple of moments of extremely black comedy, which may be entirely necessary in such a grim story. But this is not a depressing film. It is too good, exhilaratingly so, to be depressing.
Somewhat reminiscent of Maurice Pialat's fine La Gueule Ouverte, Amour is a beautiful, wrenching drama. Its two leads are absolutely superb; fearlessly confronting their own age and its possible consequences, sadness and acceptance meeting in their faces.


(Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)

The arc of Anderson's career is a fascinating one. The early films that are equal parts Mamet (crackerjack screenplays filled with brilliant dialogue and vivid characters), Scorsese (dazzling and ostentatious directorial pyrotechnics) and Altman (intersecting stories and overlapping soundtracks on tapestries tinted an odd mix of cynicism and profound sentimentality) served notice of a potentially massive talent. And, unlike so many boy wonder auteurs before him, Anderson has just about fulfilled that talent. He makes big, important, serious American films. He generates them himself, writing the scripts, and they are distinctively his films. Those powerful influences - and some newer ones; Demme, Welles and Kubrick, for instance - have been absorbed, and now he seems to be only himself.
His films are literary without ever compromising how intensely cinematic they are. They are never trivial, yet they can be funny. They are cerebral and yet gruellingly emotional.
These days his career seems more like that of a novelist than that of a director. He follows his muse where it leads him, from the intense sketchwork of Punchdrunk Love to the epic foundation myth of There Will Be Blood.
The Master is at heart a character study. It is still and patient, and perhaps even somewhat frustrating. Nobody learns anything in this film, nobody grows. The characters are never explained for the audience the way they are in many films. Anderson asks that we do some work, that we think about their motivations and their feelings. The Master is rewarding if you are willing to go with it. It is mysterious too, with depths in its detail that most directors could not even conceive of, never mind work them into a film such as this.
At its heart is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, magnificent), just out of the Navy in the years after WW2, and confused and purposeless in the Post-War World. Anderson elliptically shows us some of Freddie's experiences in service, enough to communicate some of his problems. He is an alcoholic who brews his own hooch from whatever is available - torpedo fuel, paint thinner - a habit that has him flee a migrant worker camp at one point after a man drinks from his concoction and dies. Phoenix plays Freddie as a man twisted by his own desire and frustration; his shoulders tense, waistband near his sternum, mouth a tight slash through which words are forced together in slurs, a laugh erupting from him when he's nervous.
The film itself seems as fascinated by what is at the root of Freddie's issues as Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) plainly is. Freddie stumbles, drunk, onto a ship carrying Dodd and his party down the California coast and through the Panama canal to New York city, and Dodd is intrigued by this "animal" who creates amazing potions and excites something within him. He claims they have met before but cannot recall where or when. There is an obvious homo-erotic subtext here but Anderson isn't interested in that. Nor is he really all that interested in "the Cause", Dodd's Scientology-like Cult which practices "applications" to regress subjects into past lives and is based around Dodd's writing. The Cause here is just another tool used to probe Freddie, to test his limits and arouse his passion, altough Dodd's circle provides an interesting dynamic, containing as it does Dodd's Lady Macbeth of a wife (Amy Adams) who disapproves of the arrival of this stranger and even his effect upon her husband; his disbelieving son Val (Jesse Plemons); and a daughter who flirts with Freddie before condemning him to her father.
Hoffman beautifully communicates Dodd's pomposity and his charisma, but more importantly he shows how this man feels a sort of envy for Freddie's surging impulsiveness, his "mischief". Dodd contains all his rage and frustration and they are only perceptible in a few instances - when he loses control during an argument with a dissenting voice at a party ("Pig Fuck!" he suddenly, shockingly yells) and when he and Freddie scream obscenities at one another after they are both arrested. He tries to "cure" Freddie, but perhaps only to keep this odd man around, to feel himself worshipped as his "Master". Their strange kinship is evident in a few shared scenes where they drink Freddie's mixture together and where they even wrestle. Their relationship is the engine driving the central passage of the film, bookended by scenes providing a sort of "origin" for Freddie's melancholy in the loss of a girl called Doris.
But then the film unpicks this too, and finally Freddie is left, fittingly, an enigma, ruined by the War.
This sort of characterisation is brave in an era where everything is explained to audiences, where pop-psychology is applied to every character. But then Anderson is a brave filmmaker. He treats Freddie like a real person, and so he is contradictory and driven by unknowable impulses.
He is brave too in the stylistic alteration he has made here. While the intense long takes remain, this is a film filled with equally intense close-ups. The camera pulls back on only a few memorable occasions. Otherwise we are trapped uncomfortably close to Freddie, watching him prowl, certain that an incident is close.
Anderson's style has become seamlessly controlled. The camera moves but never pointlessly. The cuts are natural, near-invisible. Jack Fisk's superb production design and Mihai Malaimare Jr's cinematography combine to form a convincing, textured portrayal of the 1950s. Jonny Greenwood's score is as atmospheric and unsettling as his work on There Will Be Blood.
But the key collaborator here is Phoenix, who seems to fully inhabit this part to a disturbing extent. In the final scene, a release and rapture for Freddie, we see him happy - almost certainly fleetingly - for the first time in the film. Perhaps that is what the character and his creator were searching for all along.
Whether that is the case or not, their quest is a beautiful, unforgettable one.

Saturday, 24 November 2012


(David Twohy, 2009)

Writer-director Twohy, who made the fantastically effective sci-fi b film Pitch Black, here demonstrates that his understanding of genre dynamics extend to the more mainstream end of things - in this case a seemingly anonymously generic thriller.
The set-up is almost perfect in its bland familiarity: three couples cross paths in a remote area of Hawaii. The police are hunting a similar couple, wanted for a grisly double-murder in Honolulu, and suspicions are naturally aroused. Tensions and undercurrents crackle between them as they journey through the jungle to a famously isolated and beautiful beach.
This self aware spectacle is all kinds of fun, twisting and turning through revelations and double crosses all the way through, beautifully shot and edited and nicely directed by Twohy.
It plays oh so smartly with audience expectation and genre convention; Twohy knows precisely what should happen, and sometimes he even delivers it. Only upon reflection we realise that what we thought we saw is not what we actually saw.
That might make A Perfect Getaway sound like gimmickry, but it is solidly built upon great characterisation and strong performances: Timothy Olyphant has a great time as a loquacious "American Jedi" ex-Special Forces soldier, Milla Jovovich thrives away from the numbing repetition of fighting zombies in video game adaptations, and Steve Zahn shows he has some range beyond quirky smart-mouths for perhaps the first time ever. There is more there too, if you want it - a telling, well-observed study of coupledom, its compromises and shared understandings, and a believable, authentic portrayal of the weird chemistry of a holiday encounter: instant bonds formed between strangers and the tensions that ensue. Only here that all ends in gunplay, desperate chases through the tropical forest and knives flung through the air.
It is the kind of film that plays well on a first viewing but improves with subsequent watches - its layers and cleverness only truly revealed with an awareness of the final act reveals and reversals. Then it seems hilariously funny in its teasing of the viewer, as well as gripping and enormously entertaining.

Thursday, 22 November 2012


(David O. Russell, 2012)

Its hard to say just what it is that makes Russell's films so distinctive, but distinctive they are. They feel like his alone, in approach, in style, in vibe. I think its a combination of elements. He has a nervy, almost hysterical angle on character. His people are not always likeable, but they are warmly, messily human; complicated, infuriating creatures with personality defects and evident flaws. His style emphasises this, with a fluid facility with handheld work notable in each of his last few films, the camera restless and mobile, indulging in lots of sweeping pans and long zooms. He loves to use classic rock on his soundtracks, too; Silver Linings Playbook makes beautiful use of Led Zeppelin's "What Is and What Should Never Be", for instance, during a manic episode suffered by Pat (Bradley Cooper).
Pat has just been released from a Mental Hospital into the care of his parents (Jackie Weaver and Robert DeNiro) after finding his wife in the shower with a colleague triggered a violent incident. That incident only revealed a long-undiagnosed bipolar tendency perhaps inherited from his father, who deals with his issues through an obsession with American Football and superstitions around the game. Pat is determined to improve himself for his wife, even though she has filed for a restraining order and left town (his repeated assertions of their love and happiness are the chief signifier of his instability). Meanwhile, he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), whose husband has died, leaving her alternately depressed and manic - perhaps the first manic pixie dreamgirl who actually qualifies - and their initial spark is complicated by both of their disorders, their family situations, and Pat's delusional belief that his wife is waiting for him.
Russell makes the early sections feel like a somewhat frazzled black comedy, filled with dark humour, bitter dialogue, and the many tensions beneath the surface of this troubled family sporadically spurting to the surface. The film then slowly grows more emotional and moving, that bitterness receding to an extent even if it never really quite disappears. The ending is straight romcom, and while some may be disappointed by its outright conventionality, it feels like a triumphant victory over the forces of darkness after the territory plumbed by the material earlier on. Just to make it even more conventional, the last act also has a sport movie tinge, with Pat and Tiffany preparing for and competing in a Ballroom Dance competition, but that sequence is a great example of what makes Russell so interesting: though the stakes are high, he makes a joke of it, with a key move in the routine providing a big laugh.
This is a film focused intently on family, on the damage that our parents can do to us, but about how they can heal us, too. De Niro and Weaver are terrific as Pat's worried parents, the former doing his best work in about a decade. His own explosive issues have informed the way Pat has developed, and yet his love for his son is never in doubt. This is revealed in a handful of great scenes - a couple of emotional, farcelike showdowns in the family home and a tearful confession of fatherly neglect and regret - each of them nicely played without recourse to the usual mugging and stock mannerisms we have seen from the actor in role after role over the last few years.
It is also a film about the world now, with references to the way the economy crushes people, increasing the pressure of everyday life until mental and emotional problems become almost unavoidable. Pat suggests at one point that perhaps he and Tiffany and his friend Danny (Chris Tucker)
are the ones who have seen something the others are simply missing, and you feel the film may agree with him. It certainly sympathises. The world is a cruel, grim place, Russell seems to say, but there is the love of a family and the love between a man and a woman, and that can sometimes make it all alright. That might sound schmaltzy, but his sensibility rejects schmaltz and overt sentiment, preferring a tart view of humanity and a cynical laugh at their ludicrousness, which is a big part of what makes his work, and this film, so compelling.
Apart from all that, and returning to classic rock, has any director ever used Rare Earth on his soundtracks as much as Russell? I think not, and he should be cherished for that...

Tuesday, 20 November 2012


(Steve McQueen, 2008)

McQueen, in his stunningly accomplished debut, displays an acute understanding of the power of the medium. Its there in the first scene. We follow a Prison Guard - employed in the Maze in 1970s Northern Ireland - through some of the moments of his routine. He bathes his bloodied knuckles in cold water. He smokes a cigarette. His wife makes him a fry-up. He checks his street for potential assassins and the underside of his car for bombs before leaving for work. All of it beautifully composed - the framing and lighting distinctively stylish. That and the sound gives it all texture and a truly sensual reality - the crunch of the Guard's toast is shockingly intimate, the rustle the fabric of a shirt makes as he dresses, the gush of tapwater into a wash basin. All of this means that when the focus shifts to the Republican Prisoners engaged in a dirty protest - not washing, smearing their excrement on their cell-walls, clad only in blankets - we can smell the filth, feel the maggots writhing on the floor. The violence of their beatings is given horrific weight in this film. The focus shifts again, to Bobby Sands, who would lead the hunger strike which would kill him after 66 days. Michael Fassbender is incredible in the role, and the later scenes, where his emaciated body seems to fade away before us, are almost unwatchable in their power and visceral quality. Its a formally brave film - McQueen uses long static shots brilliantly, but mixes them with tight close ups and moments of pure visual poetry. Perhaps the film's bravest gamble is the long central scene of Sands debating his intentions with a Priest (Liam Cunningham), which McQueen films in one ten minute long set-up. This puts the burden on Enda Walsh's dialogue and the two actors, and they are all up to it. It works, giving some context to the otherwise intensely focused story we are shown. It is even-handed, too: the murder of the prison guard while visiting his senile mother in a nursing home is perhaps the most brutal moment in the film. The final moments escape briefly into visual beauty before returning us to the cold, terrible reality of Sands physical collapse and death. Somehow it is too beautiful and exact to be depressing. The control and focus and austerity is reminiscent of Bresson, but the emotion evoked is much rawer than anything in his work. Its severity and formal precision makes most films about the Troubles (including Terry George's solid Some Mother's Son, also concerned with the Hunger strikers) look like contrived Hollywood piffle. McQueen looks a massive talent.

Thursday, 15 November 2012


(Michael Winterbottom, 2012)

A lovely study of the quotidian stresses and agonies of a family separated by the imprisonment of the husband and father (John Simm), Everyday is moving and beautifully observed.
Director Michael Winterbottom has long had the rare ability to combine an almost verite sense of the real world - a sometimes drab place, without glamour or artifice, filled with normal people living casually uneventful lives - with an eye for the fleeting poetry of the now, for the beauty in a dull room barely lit through a smeared window, or the splash of energy on a city street, and that is powerfully in evidence here.
Winterbottom shot Everyday at intervals over a five year period, and Simm and Shirley Henderson (as his wife, struggling with raising their four children alone) are surrounded by non-professionals, and indeed, part of the unique joy of the film is watching the four children grow up over the course of the story. That sense of the passage of time, so often a phoney construction in cinema, here has the sting of reality visible in the maturing faces of its actors.
This is essentially a love story rooted in the routines and grind of family life, with the father notable mainly by his absence, and it is given a sort of intimate epic quality by the majestic landscapes of Norfolk where the family live and by an expansive, emotive Michael Nyman score. Scene after scene follows Henderson and her children engaged in the banalities of regular family life - getting up in the morning, commuting to work and school, bedtime, dinner, sunny days at the beach, supermarket shopping, and watching television. The tiny dramas of life - children staying out too late, fights in the schoolyard, a troubling flirtation from a friend which becomes an affair - are just part of the tapestry, of one thing after another, day after day after day. That is all given an added dimension in contrast with what we see of Simm's life in prison: the dull colours and harsh lighting, the extreme repetition and unbending routine, the small spaces and petty humiliations. These two worlds clash a few times - the family visit their father in prison, and he gets a couple of day release passes. Winterbottom brilliantly punctuates these sequences with the flat reality of the penal life Simm must return to afterward, and this repetitive structure takes on its own rhythm, formed from repeated shots and events - characters travelling on buses and trains and in cabs, Henderson awakening at the rude trill of an alarm clock, the fields around their house.
This film asks how can a family survive such a separation, and more piercingly, how a couple can remain in love without the traditional structures of family life to support them. This love story is odd and difficult but also tremendously moving. A couple of halting, beautiful love scenes are echoed by repeated shots of this man and woman clinging to one another, and walking surrounded by their children. In Everyday, that is a great happiness, the continued survival of the family a triumph of sorts over the world itself.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012


(Ben Affleck, 2012)

Though it tries very hard to feel like a film from the era in which it is set - the end of the 1970s and dawn of the '80s - there is in fact something awfully 1990s about Ben Affleck's Argo. It is so careful and earnest in its attempts to be an adult entertainment - not too funny, not too political, not too talky, just exciting enough - that it instead feels slightly drab at times, despite its outlandish "true" story.
That story traces the attempts of CIA extraction specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck, sporting a true-to-period beard and semi-mullet which always look just a tad too styled) to smuggle six US embassy staff out of Tehran following the Islamic Revolution in Iran. His plan involves the creation of a fake movie project - the sci-fi epic Argo - which has a script, storyboards, production company and a couple of cynical Hollywood old-timers (Alan Arkin and John Goodman, sharing all the films best lines between them). Argo is to shoot in Iran and Mendez means to smuggle the embassy workers out as part of his film crew, the story being that they have been scouting locations in the country.
The action is split between intense conversations amongst groups of suited men in rooms, most with fringes and sideburns, arguing and blustering over their plans; and scenes of angry Iranians in the streets of Tehran. The Iranians we see here are generally granted no individuality, rather they are a shouty, scary mob, or intensely focused anti-American zealots, and Affleck shoots the Tehran scenes differently than those set in the USA. In Tehran the camera is jittery and handheld, the film grainier. The sequences in Langley and Washington are slightly smoother - the camera circles and roves insistently but without that same nervous energy, the more measured cutting amplifying this to an extent.
But then there are few real characters here. Affleck's Mendez has no personality, instead being fitted out with a series of gestures in the direction of one; he is separated from his wife and son, he drinks too much, he seems somewhat mournful. With other figures he has avoided the impression of shallow characterisation through casting - his actors are largely superb, and the likes of Bryan Cranston and Scoot McNairy give these people more meat than the script perhaps allowed for their bones.
That script is filled with great lines and snappy exchanges and Affleck keeps the whole thing pacy, particularly in the difficult expository sections of the first act. It is atmospheric too, with a nicely textured sense of that world, filled with cigarette smoke and creaking leather.
By the last act much of this has ceased to matter. By then the escape attempt has begun, and it is unbearably, giddily gripping and suspenseful. Affleck may lack a distinctive style or voice, but he is a fine craftsman, and his handling of suspense here is textbook stuff which works brilliantly in its every predictable, triumphant beat, twist and reversal.
This may be his most roundly entertaining and accessible film yet, but for me it is also his worst. The understanding of Boston so evident in Gone Baby Gone and The Town is here replaced by a touristic awe at Tehran, the relatively intense character studies of those films replaced by a more functional approach to characterisation. That this is still a soundly entertaining film is tribute to the skill of Affleck as a director, his excellent ensemble, and to Chris Terrio's script. While the actor-director has been (inaccurately) compared to Sidney Lumet on the basis of this film, a more telling comparison would be with Sydney Pollack, who also specialised in high-class middlebrow entertainments aimed solidly at grown-ups. Pollack turned out more than his fair share of classics over the years and I can see Affleck doing the same, if he continues to pick his projects wisely...

Saturday, 10 November 2012


(Jacques Audiard, 2012)

Audiard here takes two of the stories from Craig Davidson's fine collection, "Rust and Bone", and fuses them into one gritty, emotional melodrama. That fusion shouldn't really work. The stories - one about a bare knuckle boxer, the other about an Orca trainer injured by an animal - are utterly different in tone and setting. But it helps that Audiard keeps few of the details from Davidson, and that so much of the story of this film is of his own invention, expanding upon what he has adapted from the book.
He transforms the material into a bruising love story. Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) is newly arrived on the French Riviera with his young son. They stay with his sister while he moves between jobs - as a bouncer and a security guard. Working at a club he meets Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) an attractive, possibly dangerous party girl. Later, she is crippled by an accident at work, and she contacts Ali again. Slowly, a strange relationship forms between them as both seek to find themselves once more.
The leads are crucial to the success of this film. Cotillard has more of the standout moments - her discovery that her legs are gone, her sexual reawakening and excitement at Ali's physicality - and she plays each with a sensitivity and rawness of emotion that is powerful and believable, but Schoenaerts is a fitting partner for her, making Ali a wounded brute, capable of surprising sensitivity and feeling yet also never far from an explosion. They make the union between the characters feel inevitable and fascinating.
Then there is Audiard's evolving style. He finds a key to each scene which makes it ring with a visceral sense of the truth of the moment - whether its the texture of the ground upon which Ali is fighting, a tooth spinning onto it, or the way he and Stephanie pant together during sex, or her flashes of memory of her accident, the water swirling with debris and blood. Every sequence has this exhilarating pulse of life in it. Some moments feel almost like the Dardennes tackling a torrid melodrama, others recall Michael Mann in their sensual poetry and attention to the fleeting beauty of the everyday. His use of sound is sublime too, and the soundtrack choices are particularly perfect, from Katy Perry to Bon Iver, each amplifying the emotional impact of the visuals they play over.
That is the main impression of any Audiard film; the emotion. Once the love story kicks in here, the muted chemistry between the principals becomes something far more powerful and intense, and the fine cast here make those feelings sting. The lovely moment when Stephanie returns to the Ocean Park to see old friends and communes with her Orca through glass is a great example of his art - it is beautiful, yes, with a natural sense of cinema, but it also feels emotionally wrenching. Just like this film, then.

Thursday, 8 November 2012


(Leonard Abrahamson, 2004)

This modest Irish film is a tragi-comedy which follows 24 hours in the lives of the titular characters, a pair of childhood friends turned junkies, as they wander Dublin in search of money and their next fix. Sounds hilarious, I know. But it maintains an almost Beckettian grim humour from the first scene, when the duo awake in a wasteland behind the formerly notorious Ballymun estate. The tall one - they are never assigned names, and people greet them with "Alright Adam and Paul?" - finds himself glued to a mattress and the first words uttered are "Ah for fucks sake." They swear throughout, as do most of the people they encounter in the course of their day, which is extremely authentic to Dublin. The comedy mainly comes from the small one, who is the slapstick clown of the pair. He is clipped by a moped crossing the street: "Me fuckin leeggg!!" He hurts his hand trying to smash a car window: "Me fuckin hand!!" He throws up by the side of a motorway, he takes an emergency shit crouched in an alley ("I'm not wipin meself with a tayto bag") and he bungles an attempt at shoplifting, then cannot even open the milk carton he has escaped with. He maintains a pathetic, whining tone throughout. And yet he is the more sympathetic of the two, his puppyish eyes and dependence on his friend and constant repetition of "sorry" making him seem absurdly vulnerable and pitiful. He bemoans their life when they are at their lowest: "Why can't things be easy, just for once...and to be lucky?"

There is also comedy in the duo's slow-motion verbal ping-pong, underlined by their slack-mouthed, heavy-lidded, slow-blinking smackhead personas. The tall one is the boss, the thinker, and he carries an air of grim regret and melancholy, as if he knows what he is and is helpless to do anything about it. When they are reunited with their old friend, the now clean Janine (in a lovely, silent moment of imagined mental communion), it is suggested that he may even be the father of her infant child. But he is determined in his pursuit of their next high. He carries on, without looking back, dragging the small one in his wake. They are outsiders, always out of place in company, their smalltalk stilted and awkward. They meet some acquantances in a park and it is like a scene from a wildlife documentary - a pack including children, two women and a watchful alpha male are encountered by these two comedically predatory rogue males. The male, in due course, warns the pair off. But they are never sentimentalised or glamorized. They ruthlessly mug a downs syndrome boy they see waiting for a bus. They are close to stealing Janine's new tv. The narrative is sprinkled with suggestions about their role in the death of Matthew, an old friend and fellow junkie whose funeral they have attended a month before (and whose family they encounter). They seem stunned and unsurprisingly numb at the grief they encounter, their immersion in their own addiction blotting out all else for them. And the film, to its great credit, does not shy away from giving that addction a sort of climax. Adam and Paul do score, and their high is depicted as an extraordinary, blissful rapture. The film's colour palette briefly changes, as does the music, and the screen is aglow for one scene, full of light and vivid imagery. This high is eventually followed by the inevitable consequences, however, and they give the film a moving, low key ending, as do the terrific performances from Tom Murphy and Mark O'Halloran.
Adam & Paul perfectly captures the grey, grimy, litter-strewn streets of Dublin's Inner city, the working class heart that still beats on the outskirts of the tourist-choked area of the centre. Aside from the heroin scene, the colours are muted throughout, the skies overcast, the sunlight hazy and diffuse. Skin tone is mottled, colours lose their allure under the dull weather of an Irish midwinter. Abrahamson is a subtle stylist, seldom moving his camera but choosing his shots economically. He indulges himself with a few moments of hard urban poetry in his many compositions showing Adam and Paul as figures framed against a landscape, whether it be crossing a rain-soaked back-street or begging on a corner. He seems interested in modern Dublin and how it works as a city. Adam and Paul exist in the margins, flitting between mainstream lives. There they encounter a Bulgarian man, allowing Abrahamson to examine the complex relationship the Irish - a traditionally emigrant people - have with the Immigrants who have recently flooded their newly wealthy country. He exposes their prejudices ("Yeah, Our Country," the tall one says. "Fuck off back to Romania") before telling them that Dublin is a shithole, full of Romanians. Earlier, a homeless man has berated a store security guard by yelling "You wouldnt have thrown us out if we were black!" Adam and Paul, though definitely outsiders within Dublin, still see themselves above the foreigners filling its most menial positions, and even Irish people from outside the city - "Fuck off back to the country" they shout to another security guard.
Films set in the World's legitimately great citys often rely on a shorthand. Heres a shot of the Eiffel Tower. Look, its Big Ben, and theres a Red bus. That sort of thing. Nothing in Dublin is as instantly recognisable, except to its inhabitants. Abrahamson steafastly refuses any cheap establishing shot and avoids most recognisable landmarks to emphasise his heroes strange isolation. Until the High, that is, which occurs on one of the Liffey's bridges, and the haunting final scene, when one of Dublin's most recognisable Industrial structures towers in the background in what seems an ironic thumb of the nose at the very idea of such gestures. This contrarian streak is itself a very Dublin trait, and it may have helped Abrahamson make what is the greatest film about the city.

Monday, 5 November 2012


(Benh Zeitlin, 2012)

There are things here to like. Young Quevenshane Wallis is magnetic and likeable as our narrator-heroine, Hush Puppy, and the majority of the others in the non-professional cast are fresh and believable in this world. Zeitlin's camera picks out a few stunning images, mainly of the Louisiana coast in all its astonishing, often desolate beauty. Some of the production design of the ramshackle structures in "the Bathtub", where Hush Puppy lives with her ailing, cranky father Link, is imaginatively, funkily visualised. And there is an unmistakeable, and powerful - if slightly cheap - pathos to that father-daughter relationship that carries the film through its more annoying later stretches.
And yet. This post-Katrina fantasy of a lovingly eccentric (fictional) community felt entirely fake to me, a piece of designer tourism with the aesthetics of a Levis advert, a contrived narrative and characters so cutesily eccentric they were at best silly, and at worst infuriating. This village lies on the wet side of a Louisiana levee, and when a great, Katrina-esque storm comes and the waters rise, the few remaining residents band together for survival.
This is all seen through Hush Puppy's eyes and overlaid with her naive, poetic, utterly overwritten musings about life and nature and meaning. They play like a bad attempt at Terrence Malick, and are compounded by Zeitlin's decision to depict the prehistoric Aurochs imagined (or are they..?) by Hush Puppy, thawed out by the melting of the ice caps and on the loose in the flooded Bathtub.
On top of that is a strangely bombastic, euphoric, awfully familiar indie-sounding score by Zeitlin and Dan Romer. The story ricochets across tones and registers - from seemingly realist drama to coming of age story to epic adventure - but never loses its essential tweeness, which becomes especially problematic when it attempts to address the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in its portrayal of the Bathtub family forcibly evacuated and blandified by a government who try to tame our heroine by putting her in a dress. This is a film which superficially seems joyous and simple, yet actually feels cynical and a touch laboured in its motives and stylistic tropes. It should be charming, but instead its charmless.