Review: The Childhood of a Leader

What sounds like a dictator’s pre-pubescent biography transmutes into a tapestry of tales copped from the collective childhood’s of the 20th century’s worst enemies. Borrowing its title from Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1939 short story, indie actor Brady Corbet’s (Eden, While We’re Young, Melancholia) directorial debut The Childhood of a Leader is a thoroughly art-house affair that will win critic’s affections, but no doubt alienate mainstream audiences. Still, amid Corbet’s predilection for the melodramatic, there is something distressingly original to be unearthed from a filmmaker who, it seems, is just flexing his muscles.

Robert Pattinson might be gracing the covers of The Times and Vanity Fair alongside Corbet in promotion of their festival-feted tour-de-force, but Edward Cullen devotees be warned, his appearances are scant. The real headliner is Tom Sweet, a girlishly striking young actor plucked from obscurity and burdened with carrying the effectiveness of the film on his bony shoulders. His, after all, is the childhood in question. Born to a German mother (The Artist’s Bérénice Bejo) and an American diplomat father (Game of Thrones’ Liam Cunningham), aiding President Wilson in the rebuilding of post-WW1 society, Prescott is the fruit of a frost-bitten harvest. All too aware of the wandering eyes and language barriers that afflict the already chilly relations between his parents, Prescott has been raised in an environment where callousness and commands take precedence over compassion. Tracing disobedience which builds to deviance and eventually flourishes into full-blown despotism, The Childhood of a Leader plays like a period We Need To Talk About Kevin, which says enough about the kind of mood you need to be in to watch it.

With ferocious singularity, Corbet and his eclectic menagerie of a cast deliver a potent piece of cinema that will linger in your mind.

childhoood-of-a-leader-2015-002-tutorial-two-shotThe film is structured in three acts, each labelled as tantrums and as one might expect, each escalating to have eye-widening ramifications. Boredom, might have something to do with it. Prescott, newly acquainted with his French chateau digs, has yet to make friends and finds reprieve in acting out. Whether it be throwing rocks at Parishioners in the family’s local church or humiliating his French tutor (Nymphomaniac’s Stacy Martin) with a series of calculated moves, Prescott discovers – not childish delight – but cold-hearted content in the chaos he is able to create. Status, appearance and religion are that which the family hold dear, something which Prescott recognises and learns how to unsettle early on. This is a child with an uncanny ability to undermine and override adult authority; revealing it to be fragile and performative.

With discipline failing and attempts at ‘befriending’ their child proving futile, Bejo and Cunningham – both efficiently effective in their roles – alternate between acquiescing entirely to their temper-prone spawn, or discussing providing him with a sibling, as if to erase his presence altogether. Though the triptych arc of Childhood is compelling in it’s setup, you can’t help but feel short-shrifted in terms of context and emotional depth. When Prescott’s third and final tantrum rolls around and a hostile environment – on both a personal and historical level – culminates in a dinner party with grave consequences, the explanations, or lack thereof errs on the frustrating side. For a film that projects anything but subtlety, it’s ironically prudish regarding the reasons behind the child’s maniacal tendencies.

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A delirious and stylistically salient epilogue infers the result of all this bad behaviour, heavily alluding to World War Two and the appearance of a leader whom made his beliefs devastatingly known. Though the interim period might’ve done with a touch more fleshing out. A bizarre twist of sorts – slash – casting choice (best not to IMDb this one before watching) does nothing to alleviate the air of confusion.

All of this being said, with ferocious singularity, Corbet and his eclectic menagerie of a cast, deliver a potent piece of cinema that will linger in your mind. What begins as a simmering study of childhood malevolence ignites to something much weightier and indeed, timely. Despite its languorous pacing, this is a tightly-wound narrative and Corbet’s is a film that never wastes a single moment. Each glance or exchange is significant and frequently informs a later action.

With a strident score and deft camera movement, Childhood persistently places you on the back foot, making you aware that something sinister is brewing but distinctly not in a position to stop it. You can only look on – through splayed fingers, such are the mounting levels of tension – as the tantrums progress and the consequences worsen. There’s a particular moment, about halfway through, where the camera tracks Prescott from behind as he ascends the stairs to his bedroom; the musical orchestrations mounting and gnawing away at your insides. Prescott enters his bedroom, turns around and promptly slams the door in our face. His is not a perspective we are ever given insight into.

Corbet’s is a handsomely-mounted and atmospheric debut; presented with a decided amount of operatic theatricality. Shot by cinematographer Lol Crawley, who most recently worked on 45 Years, the colour palette of Childhood is a bewitching mixture of foreboding darkness and translucent shafts of light; menacing images occasionally punctured by cherubic beauty. The house meanwhile, is adorned with opulent curtains, through which Prescott makes several entrances and Corbet frequently frames his characters in wide shots, as if you are watching them on stage rather than screen. Interestingly for all the wealth and power tied up in this family, the house ripples with cracked walls and peeling paint, as if signifying postwar dilapidation and the fraying familial relationships. This was an era after all when everything appeared to be unravelling at the seams. (Did I use the word timely already?)

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Despite his American background, Corbet’s cast and directorial sensibilities reflect a resume speckled with European influences. Written with his Norwegian partner Mona Fastvold, with whom he also collaborated on The Sleepwalker, a brilliantly unnerving and underrated thriller starring Christopher Abbott, there are semblances of Trier, Haneke, Force Majeure’s Ruben Östlund and Assayas. No doubt absorbed from Corbet’s time spent on their sets. After working for a great many auteurs, it comes as little surprise that with Childhood, Corbet exhibits the makings of a great one.

5 Scene Stealing Cats

Amid Britain’s political turmoil and the likely devastating impact on its creative sector, I thought I’d try to bring some levity to bear. And what better way to do that than to talk about cats.

So here are cinema’s most recent entries into the feline hall of fame…

Nasty Baby | Sula

Cat_001Freddy’s feline friend ‘Sula’ is director Sebastián Silva’s actual cat, an unsurprising discovery given the scant privacy she affords him. In a series of touching scenes, the cat’s presence becomes more than just a gimmick, but undoubtedly the one during which Sula wins the affections of the audience is the bath scene. With trademark curiosity and playfulness, her gentle prodding of Silva’s forehead lend the moment an air of tenderness, befitting the film’s raw and improvised tone.

Listen Up Philip | Gadzuki

Cat_002Like a child in a faltering marriage, Gadzuki the cat, in Alex Ross Perry’s lacerating comedy Listen Up Philip becomes a pawn in the drawn out break-up of Philip (Jason Schwartzman) and Ashley (Elisabeth Moss). Gadzuki is a staple throughout, sharing several heart-warming exchanges with Moss, and even garnering his own voiceover mention and narrative resolution, but his shining moment occurs roughly one hour in. When Philip returns to New York to win Ashley back, Gadzuki serves as proof that Ashley has moved on and is even used as a puppet to express Ashley’s newly unearthed dislike of her ex. It’s an empowering scene for Ashley, and perhaps a slightly exploitive one for Gadzuki, but the duo make a charming pair and you can’t help but feel they’ve got each other’s backs.

 

Inside Llewyn Davis | Ulysses

Cat_003The Coen Brothers’ poignant exploration of the Greenwich Village folk scene in 1961, arguably features the most characterful cat ever to have graced screens. Indeed, Oscar Isaac’s flame-haired companion has inspired endless critical evaluations. What is its significance? Is the cat Llewyn? The consensus seems to be that the cat amplifies Llewyn’s quest for an identity outside of his folk duo, joining him on a journey of self-reflection and giving him a sense of purpose when he so desperately needs one. Even if that is just retrieving said cat from various escapades.

The Grand Budapest Hotel | Persian Cat

Cat_004The most ill-fated cat of the bunch begins his cameo in the arms of Jeff Goldblum’s Kovacs and ends it dispatched from the clutches of Willem Dafoe’s Jopling. A particularly fluffy specimen, though the Persian’s appearance is short-lived, it’s a memorable addition to Wes Anderson’s bevy of whimsical characters. What’s more, his exit allows for a signature Andersonian visual gag; even the cat’s corpse is perfectly symmetrical.

The Voices | Mr. Whiskers

Cat_005Unlike the other films where the cat is a somewhat comforting presence, in Marjane Sartrapi’s black-comedy The Voices, Mr. Whiskers is a manifestation of Jerry’s (Ryan Reynolds) more deranged thoughts. As Jerry spirals downhill into a murderous pickle, Mr. Whiskers – the sardonic Scottish-accented sociopath to Bosco the dog’s more optimistic offerings – steals every scene he’s in with his morbid diatribe.

Top 10 Films About Literary Icons

With International Dylan Thomas day having just passed, I deemed it high-time to take a look at a movies that have dared to delve into the backstories of literary icons…and done it rather well.

Originally published on Top 10 Films.

 1. Capote (Bennett Miller, US, 2005)

The late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman took home an Oscar for his expertly-calibrated performance as Truman Capote. Based on the research process that produced the controversial novel In Cold Blood, director Bennett Miller (of Foxcatcher fame) shows precision and integrity in his handling of the material, producing a film at once pervasively tense and quietly hypnotic. Hoffman captures the charm and power of the unparalleled Capote to electrifying effect, but the film never shies away from depicting the darker underbelly that facilitated his success. Capote dazzles not just as a character study of the immensely complex, and compulsive author but also as a fascinating look at the relationship between a writer and his subject, and a rare entity in the biopic canon in that it avoids idolatry.

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2. Bright Star (Jane Campion, UK, 2009)

Jane Campion proves herself a force to be reckoned with in this wistful and melancholic rendering of the unconsummated romance between John Keats and Fanny Brawne. Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish are the literary love-birds whose relationship seems doomed from the outset. Still, for the all the tragedy, Campion’s film is disarmingly beautiful, bursting with colour, restless camera movements, lingering close-ups and of course, Keats’ spirited poetry.

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3. The End Of The Tour (James Ponsoldt, US, 2015)

 Not a biopic of David Foster Wallace, insomuch as a rendezvous with the idea of him. Based on David Lipsky’s memoir of his five-day interview with Wallace for Rolling Stone during the tour for the eccentric novelist’s magnum opus Infinite Jest, The End Of The Tour is essentially an extended conversation, but an illuminating, meditative and ferocious one at that. Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg (harkening back to the rapid-fire dialogue he perfected in The Social Network) turn in career-best work as the two David’s. This emotionally and intellectually charged two-hander is fuelled by their effervescent chemistry.

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4. The Invisible Woman (Ralph Fiennes, UK, 2013)

A languidly-paced period drama that charts the intricacies of Charles Dickens’ extramarital relationship with ingénue Nelly Robinson, starring British acting pedigree Ralph Fiennes (also taking on the mantle as director) and rebel-trooper-in-waiting Felicity Jones. Sizzling with repressed desire and sideway glances, Fiennes shows a cunning eye for detail in his debut outing as director. With a keen grasp of the novelist’s talent and influence, as well as the era, The Invisible Woman makes for an aesthetically pleasing and engaging biopic.

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5. Saving Mr. Banks (John Lee Hancock, US, 2013)

Delightfully campy and quippy, Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson go head-to-head as Walt Disney and PL Travers in this chronicle of how the Mary Poppins film came to be. The shiny, upbeat veneer is balanced by a poignant backstory giving credence to Poppins’ origins, where Colin Farrell does empathetic work as Travers’ alcoholic father. It’s twinkly-eyed, without ever pulling too mercilessly on the heartstrings, and who better than Hanks and Thompson to make the sparring go down sweeter. Magic.

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6. Set Fire To The Stars (Andy Goddard, UK, 2014)

Exquisitely shot and elegantly staged, director Andy Goddard takes a monochromatic look at Dylan Thomas’ tour to New York in 1950, three years before his whiskey-fuelled death. Elijah Wood is doe-eyed academic John Brinnin, tasked with taming the beast, whilst Welsh-born Celyn Jones plays the poetic hell-raiser in question. What escalates is part bromance, part road-movie and though it never really digs beneath the surface of its characters, it remains a handsome snapshot of a bygone era and a beloved wordsmith.

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7. Barfly (Barbet Schroeder, US, 1987)

 Roger Ebert labelled Barfly one of the best films of 1987 and this semi-autobiographical tale of poet and author Charles Bukowski, is certainly an atmospheric paean to the sordid back-alleys and dive bars of 1980s LA. Worthy of mention for Mickey Rourke’s performance alone, his besmirched poet – a Bukowski type figure named Henry, as opposed to a direct invocation – is all the more resonant because you sense that the potential scuppered by way of alcohol abuse would come to haunt Rourke’s own career.

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8. Big Sur (Michael Polish, US, 2013)

Infused with a pragmatic perspective, director Michael Polish doesn’t condemn the Beat generation, nor does he revere them. In this coalescing of Jack Kerouac’s novel with the real events that inspired it, Polish achieves an intriguingly complex and impressionistic portrait of an elusive, much-fabled literary figure. Majestic, surreal and meditative, it doesn’t quite capture the charismatic intensity attributed to Kerouac (Jean Marc-Barr), but at a pacy 70 minutes it plays with the hyperactive restlessness that the Beat generation were so seduced by.

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9. The Edge Of Love (John Maybury, UK, 2008)

 A fanciful, fleeting peek into a supposed ménage à trois between Dylan Thomas, his wife Caitlin and his childhood friend Vera. Matthew Rhys, Sienna Miller and Keira Knightley captivate as the bohemian trio who flock to the Welsh hills to escape the calamities of WW2. Director John Maybury has flagrantly assumed creative license; regardless it crackles with desire, tension and jealousy and conveys Thomas’ zest for life.

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10. American Splendor (Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini, US, 2003)

 Blending documentary, drama and animation what emerges from this unconventional portrait of underground comic-book artist Harvey Pekar, is something as engrossing as it is poignant. Considered a ‘blue-collar Mark Twain’, the film’s exploration of Pekar’s quotidian lifestyle allows his true originality to shine through. Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis have great fun as Pekar and his third wife Joyce Brabner, rivalling some of the great screwball partnerships of the 40s. Directed by real-life couple Berman & Pulcini, whose screenplay earned them an Oscar nomination, it hums with the kind of oddball creativity you imagine the real Pekar would’ve appreciated. Exhilaratingly subversive.

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What is a New York movie?

An exploration of Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip and Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behaviour.

In film criticism, the term ‘a definitive [insert genre] movie’ is frequently bandied about, placing its subject on a pedestal because it exemplifies the very best of it’s type; thereafter held up as a litmus test for all its successors to borrow from and be inspired by.

New York is a city so iconic, cinematic and beloved that it has become a genre itself. To set a film there is to immediately bring to mind such classics as Taxi Driver, Manhattan, The Naked City, Goodfellas, Breakfast at Tiffany’s – so on and so forth.

Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha is a recent example of a film that has been lauded as “a modern New York classic” (The Playlist), whilst Little White Lies called Appropriate Behaviour “an original and charismatically honest New York comedy”. But what is a New York movie? Can a city so multifarious and dynamic ever be pinned down?

I took it upon myself to explore  what it means to make a film in the most illustrious concrete jungle.

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In City That Never Sleeps: New York and the Filmic Imagination, Wheeler Winston Dixon argues that,

New York has a hold on our imagination because it is so compact, so violent, so energetic, so full of possibilities, a place where neighbourhoods change from one street to the next and strangers can become intimate friends or deadly enemies on the slightest of whims. (p. 243)

New York is a breeding ground for possibility and heterogeneity, and the films which emerge from and about it can mean almost anything to almost anyone. By accepting the impossibility of creating a definitive vision of New York, it becomes a place where you are free to project your own vision.

In his maker’s statement, Alex Ross Perry explains that Listen Up Philip reflects “what [his] New York looks like, and it is one I seldom see depicted with any honesty in cinema….Listen Up Philip is a summation of all I’ve observed, lived through, laughed at, narrowly avoided and absently longed for during my time in New York”.

Similarly, in a behind-the-scenes interview with her producer Cecilia Frugieule, Desiree Akhavan states that she wants her film “to reflect [her] morals and [her] tastes”, thus Appropriate Behaviour’s rendering of New York is very specific to her.

A native New Yorker herself, Akhavan argues that too many movies about the Big Apple are “like a love letter – and I feel like the love letter I want to write points out all the flaws and is like, ‘I love you, despite all those flaws’”.

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Both films are set in and around Brooklyn, using locations in Dumbo, Park Slope, Red Hook and Bushwick. Of the locations he chose, Alex Ross Perry, in the director’s commentary says he wanted to capture “a New York that isn’t identifiable or modern”, whereas Akhavan has deliberately chosen, played up to and satirised a very recognisable and hipster Brooklyn.

New York is a breeding ground for possibility and heterogeneity, and the films which emerge from and about it can mean almost anything to almost anyone.

As Shirin tries desperately to win her ex-girlfriend Maxine back, we watch her manoeuvre the absurdities of life in Brooklyn. Though her new roommates in Brooklyn are tattooed artists who met at Occupy Chelsea and she encounters a hair model named Tibet, this is a feat most notably achieved in the sequences where Shirin teaches 5 year olds (the likes of which are called Kujo and Blanche) how to make movies: “I could lock them in a room with a half-eaten apple and a tic tac and come back to The Mona Lisa”.

Speaking of this satirical tone, Akhavan says “Each neighbourhood [in Brooklyn] changes identities so quickly that jumping through them is like trying on personalities for size sometimes…I was writing from what I knew. I knew what it was like to come of age in those particular neighbourhoods — in Bed-Stuy or Williamsburg or Cobble Hill…. So it was about figuring out where was the right location for the character [Shirin] to undergo whatever experience she had.”

For both filmmakers then, Brooklyn is a way to film New York from an outsider’s perspective. As Perry remarks in his commentary, the only time his protagonist Philip ventures into Manhattan is to interact with his literary idol Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), and whilst there he marches frantically and avoids eye contact with everybody. “It is ugly. And loud. It’s always moving, and I never feel still long enough to hold a thought”. Contrary to popular depictions, New York actually seems to stifle Philip’s creativity and he feels the he needs to escape the city.

Listen Up Philip expertly highlights the general alienation of living in a vast, sometimes hostile city like New York, with the film’s narrator (Eric Bogosian) pointing us towards the loneliness and vapidity of a creative hub, where an individual is surrounded by similar people all the time. Conversely, though Akhavan deals in alienation, hers is more inward. Shirin feels alienated from her own culture and history because sexually she identifies with something so antithetical to it.

Perry and Akhavan are both concerned with filming a New York that depicts their own personal experience. Philip Friedman, as played with incisive wit and acidity by Jason Schwartzman, is a distinctly male, academic, middle-class and Jewish representation of New York, whereas Desiree Akhavan’s Shirin is Persian, bisexual and female. These two characters embody the spectrum of lenses through which the New York experience can be filtered.

Whilst Appropriate Behaviour’s exploration of Persian bisexuality is strikingly original, there are moments that ring familiar. Akhavan herself describes the film as “a Lesbian Annie Hall from the perspective of Annie… if she’d been a closeted Persian Bisexual” and admits that she “grew up watching Woody Allen…There’s a sequence when they’re at the bookstore where we stole, or paid homage to a shot in Annie Hall. We were very aware of the references we were making and I wanted to make a real conscious reference to that film”.

Perhaps the seminal filmmaker associated with New York, Woody Allen became a zeitgeist for the pressures and peculiarities of modern living and urban romance. As seen in the likes of Annie Hall, Manhattan and Hannah & Her Sisters, Allen’s films are ultimately concerned with his characters’ failure to find happiness in the metropolis.

It’s a theme both Listen Up Philip and Appropriate Behaviour reference without ever succumbing to stereotype or convention, and their respective directors cite Woody Allen as having a direct, and indirect influence on the tone and texture of their respective films. It’s present in the intertextuality, self-reflexivity and intellect of their narratives, as well as their stylistic choices.

Perry admits to being inspired by – and in some cases – directly lifting certain iconic camera movements and shots from Allen’s movies. As The Playlist notes, “Perry borrows from several influences to make something unique and idiosyncratic, so he’s also a pricklier Woody Allen, a less fastidious Wes Anderson, and so on”.

However, Perry’s New York is also more intimate and intrusive than Allen’s, predominantly using close-ups where Allen preferred long and medium range shots. As iterated in a review by The New Yorker, Perry’s is

“A big and exuberantly gaudy directorial performance that’s delivered in a modest and intimate format, and greatly aided by the remarkable images of Sean Price Williams, whose darting, agile camera work, often apparently with telephoto lenses, achieves a blend of intimacy and distance, of perception and opacity reminiscent of the camerawork in the films of John Cassavetes”.

The frenetic and spontaneous camerawork used in Listen Up Philip perfectly captures the energy of the city; at times chaotic and disorienting, but never boring, a sensibility accentuated by the use of jazz. The jazz-inflected score is something that has recently been seen in another New York set movie; Birdman, which coincidentally also explores notions of art, ego, success and sustaining relevance in an ever-changing landscape.

Shot on super 16mm film, the aesthetic of Listen Up Philip is warm, saturated and autumnal, an artistic choice that seems at odds with Philip’s caustic persona on-screen, but which creates a heightened paean for a bygone era, vividly reminiscent of the 80s classic When Harry Met Sally or indeed the muted greys and browns of Annie Hall.

Appropriate Behaviour has a much grittier feel. DoP Chris Teague, whose CV also includes the New York set Obvious Child – discussed Desiree’s influences in Filmmaker Magazine, citing the oeuvre of Noah Baumbach. “Appropriate Behaviour’s a little bit rough around the edges, [and was filmed] almost entirely handheld… it feels very loose”. This quality corresponds with the messy, ‘making it up as you go along’ aesthetic of Listen Up Philip and perhaps reflects an attitude to life so commonly observed in recent representations of New York and its millennial inhabitants.

Ultimately, New York epitomises the myth of the American Dream, and the illusion that opportunity and ambition will inevitably collide to fertilise success. Contemporary portrayals speak to an experience more cynical and fraught with anxiety than the glamour and romance oft associated with the city. One just had to look at Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture or Girls to see that feeling adrift is the main concern for New Yorkers in our era.

Both Listen Up Philip and Appropriate Behaviour – though very different in tone and humour – navigate the tribulations of being heartbroken, aimless and frustrated, with themes of isolation, belonging, exclusion and possibility at their core. They offer us perspectives of New York that feed into these familiar themes, but in altogether original and necessary voices.

To watch Listen Up Philip, plus behind-the-scenes extras, go here.

To watch Appropriate Behaviour, plus behind-the-scenes extras, go here.

The Diary of Teenage Girl and 6 Other Directorial Debuts From The Past Year You Need To See

Some directorial debuts serve as calling cards for multi-million dollar franchises. Others disappear into obscurity, better best forgotten. To make an impact with your first attempt is a rare feat, but to sustain that success is even rarer…

To celebrate The Diary of a Teenage Girl winning Best First Feature at the 30th Independent Spirit Awards, I’ve scoured IMDb for shining examples of a directorial debut in the past year.

Marielle Heller worked on adapting the project for 8 years before shooting the film in San Francisco.

THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL

DTGAn audacious, provocative depiction of teenage sexuality, The Diary of a Teenage Girl has made quite a splash.

From newcomer Bel Powley’s astounding performance, to the support of seasoned producer Anne Carey, Marielle Heller’s dazzling debut is a testament to the talent of women both above and below the line. Despite its 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and critical acclaim across the board, this is the kind of success story we hear all too infrequently.

In an interview for Vogue, Heller highlighted the disparity of opportunities for male and female directors. “There’s this feeding frenzy when a man makes a good first feature. Like, let’s scoop him up! We have to give him some giant franchise. And there’s this sense with women that you have to prove yourself so many times over before that same feeling happens”.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl – with its whimsical aesthetic and candid outlook – represents exactly the kind of unique voice that women can offer cinema…

Watch the film plus behind-the-scenes extras here.

APPROPRIATE BEHAVIOUR

ABPremiering at Sundance in 2014, Appropriate Behaviour is the bold, brash and downright hilarious debut that has everyone wondering what writer, director and star Desiree Akhavan (as seen in Girls season 4) is going to do next.

Part biopic, part homage to Annie Hall, Appropriate Behaviour sees Iranian-American Shirin navigating bisexuality, break-ups and familial tradition with varying success. Akhavan’s keen eye for observational comedy and willingness to push every boundary offers up a film as poignant as it is pertinent.

Watch the film plus behind-the-scenes extras here.

 

JAMES WHITEjames-white

James White might be his first feature, but director Josh Mond cut his teeth producing projects such as Indie Spirit Award nominee Martha Marcy May Marlene.

It’s the kind of practice run – if you will – that no doubt spawned this spiky and spectacularly intimate drama. Christopher Abbott (of Girls fame), is the sole caregiver to his dying mother (Cynthia Nixon, transformed). He’s also a slacker. A liar. A reckless thug. And a lost soul.

Every scene crackles with volatile energy, an atmosphere harnessed by Mond’s rugged, handheld filmmaking. But the malevolence is also punctuated by moments of profound tenderness. It’s unlikely you’ll see a more touching mother-son relationship depicted onscreen this year.

 

THE WOLFPACK

Walking down First Avenue in the East Village, Crystal Moselle encountered the subjects for her first documentary feature. 5 years, and 500 hours of footage later, she had an extraordinary debut film.

By getting to know the Angulo brothers and the unbelievable circumstances of their upbringing, what could’ve been exploitative or sensationalist in lesser hands, emerges as an affectionate – if no less bizarre – portrait of manhood, brotherhood and adulthood.

As the six brothers adjust to life in the outside world, Moselle shows a gift for allowing their eccentricities and expressions to float to the surface. Her film, perhaps, begs more questions than it answers and its scope is indeed narrow. But its sincerity won’t fail to charm you.

Prior to The Wolfpack, Crystal Moselle had worked on short documentaries and commercials.
Watch the film plus behind-the-scenes extras here.

EX-MACHINA

ex machinaAlex Garland knows how to handle the sinister undercurrents of the sci-fi genre. He’s the mind behind 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Never Let Me Go, after all. With Ex-Machina he continues to prove his expertise in telling intelligent stories with a spine-tingling edge, confirming that his eye for detail is as razor-sharp as his imagination.

Domnhall Gleeson’s Caleb finds himself trapped down a murky rabbit hole of robotics and ethics. What begins as ‘The Making of a Robot’, soon escalates into a menacing power-play between egotistical engineer Nathan (Oscar Isaac) and steely AI Ava (newly Oscar-winning Alicia Vikander), both of whom have agendas of their own.

Scooping an Oscar for Best Visual Effects, Ex-Machina is Fincher-esque in its meticulousness. Whether soaring through remote Alaskan vistas, or navigating Nathan’s claustrophobic laboratories, Garland is quite the engineer. Guiding his audience through a maze-like set and a complex story to pulse-quickening effect, Ex-Machina is one of the most exquisitely-designed and electrically performed debuts since Duncan Jones’ Moon.

mustang-toh-exclusive-posterMUSTANG

Like The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Mustang is a story of burgeoning female sexuality and empowerment wherein voyeurism is avoided by firmly locating the narrative’s perspective as female.

Groomed for arranged marriages and conventional futures, a group of sisters growing up in a Turkish village find their freedoms increasingly curtailed. Filmed with a hazy sensuality that has drawn comparisons to The Virgin Suicides, you could be forgiven for not expecting the furious sense of resistance that bubbles beneath it’s quaint surface. Not dissimilar to Diary, the film serves as a call-to-action to allow – and encourage – the free-spiritedness of teenage girls, in whatever form that may take.

Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s brilliant, and bracingly-perceptive debut deservedly picked up an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.

THE SURVIVALIST

Akin to Marielle Heller whom penned upwards of 80 drafts of The Diary of a Teenage Girl prior to shooting, The Survivalist’s director Stephen Fingleton has long been preparing for his feature debut.

In my interview with the Irish filmmaker, he conceded that he treated his shorts films (two of which can be viewed here) as precursors to the main event and a way to smooth out any kinks in the process.

It’s a process he’s honed to near-perfection, and which saw his nomination at this year’s BAFTAs for Outstanding British Debut. With The Survivalist, Fingleton serves up Ray Mears by way of The Hunger Games in this sparse and unsparingly gritty apocalyptic thriller, that see loyalties tested and a primitive ménage à trois go awry. It’s a lean and assured debut that will leave your hands clammy from tension.

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Irish filmmaker Stephen Fingleton earned a BAFTA nomination for his work

Watch the film plus behind-the-scenes extras here.

An Interview With Stephen Fingleton

Originally published on We Are Colony.

I sat down with Stephen Fingleton, BAFTA-nominated director of The Survivalist, and talked all things apocalyptic…

Pitch us your film in one sentence.

The Survivalist is about a man who survived the end of civilisation by any means necessary, who finds his life threatened when two women discover his weakness, which is desire.

Now tell us what is it actually about?

The film’s really about what people are like when you take civilisation out of the equation. Who are we? Because so much of our lives are based on our jobs, our names and the expectations placed upon us. What if you take all of those away and see what’s emergent? If all those hidden desires were at the surface…

“Everyone on-screen is a killer…we’re looking at the effects of that”.

How did you begin in creating the dystopian world of The Survivalist?

I began the film when I heard about “peak oil theory”, which is the idea that fossil fuels go into decline – not when they run out, when production slows – the economy’s need for continual growth will mean there’ll be a huge price spike and eventually it’ll lead to economic collapse and I thought it was fascinating. Our dependency on resources, whether it’s credit, which is just a financial instrument, or fresh water or fossil fuels, lead me to imagine how I would survive in such a circumstance.

The Survivalist is an act of fantasisation. If you look at most post-event films or series like The Walking Dead, to some extent they’re about wish fulfilment. We feel so constrained by our lives and by societal strictures that we like that idea that we could survive by our wits and be ourselves, truly, in a world which is “survival of the fittest”. There’s something exciting about that.

It’s about characters who have lost everyone they’ve ever known and they have been deformed by that process, they’ve had to kill to survive – everyone on-screen is a killer – and we’re looking at the effects of that.

Essentially it’s a suspense film about three characters in close proximity who don’t necessarily trust each other, but who begin to grow closer and that raises interesting questions about who they are and whether civilisation is something we agree upon as a functional way of organising things, or whether it genuinely reflects the kinship, that is in our genes, between us.

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What prompted certain stylistic choices, such as the absence of the musical score? Or the use of graphics at the beginning?

Primarily it’s about tension. How do you get an audience invested in what’s going on? In my experience, you treat them as adults and you let them do the investigation, you get them to look for clues, you get them to realise – just as in life – there isn’t a dramatic music cue before a car hits you. I was very interested in not editorialising, not providing the context, because the context isn’t relevant.

There’s very little dialogue – maybe 100 lines – again, you have to investigate the characters to work out what’s happening and hopefully the audience will be a lot more involved if they make that investment. In the first 15 minutes of the film, there’s a single character on-screen and it’s like an induction course – this is going to be the grammar of what we’re doing, this is going to be the journey. When a really interesting story emerges, it exceeds what the audience expects will happen.

The absence of the music came down to the fact this is a world without electricity, therefore music doesn’t really exist. People play acoustic instruments, but why would they do that, because it might attract attention? I do have characters in the film who play music on occasion, in their safe haven, but every time they play that music it reminds you of how much it’s fallen silent. So its presence emphasises its absence.

It also allowed us to focus on the sound design. Almost everything you hear on-screen was re-recorded afterwards. Every rustle of a branch, every creak in the floorboard, every bit of wind. My sound designer Jamie Roden and his team spent a huge amount of time creating that so we could control every element of the audience’s experience. We mixed the film in mono, and we tried to create a very heightened suspension of disbelief, it’s a very interesting experience in that regard. So much of the film is told through sound and because you can’t always tell where it’s coming from, it’s more tense. It’s an aural experience.

One critic has cited that The Survivalist is like “Interstellar Meets Cabin in the Woods”, were there any films, or filmmakers you drew from particularly in the making of this film?

That was my favourite comment. It got it down. It’s an expansive story in a small space.

I’ve always been influenced by Christopher Nolan and his making a micro-budget film and then a bigger film and a bigger film. This is my Memento… it was a twist on the murder-revenge story and The Survivalist is a twist on the Cabin in the Woods story. Typically it’s about a group of people discover a cabin and all is not well or there’s a strange man there. This film is told from that strange man’s perspective.

There are other influences as well, like Robert Zemeckis, who I’m a tremendous fan of. Marty McCann and Marty McFly aren’t so adjacent in terms of how likeable they are, even though they’re from completely different worlds.

And my big influence was Andrei Tarkovsky; a Russian filmmaker whose made some incredible films, including Stalker, which was a science fiction film but not really. It was all about the choices the characters made and I thought that was wonderful. It was so strange and spiritual and where The Survivalist really works as a film are some of its most spiritual moments and the moments I liked most in Tarkovsky are like that as well.

What was the biggest challenge of making this film?

The biggest problem with a lot of films is your cast; if you haven’t cast correctly or had the time and I made a decision in this that I was going to cast it right and get the time I needed on-set. And so I would spend a lot of time rehearsing on set with the cast. The process was so centred around them and that meant sometimes I ran behind because I was so focused on getting the best performance from him. So making sure they had the time to do that when you’re surrounded by a big production machine was one of the big challenges.

The other major challenge was creating the sound, which we were making from scratch. To make it sound realistic but totally controlled as well was the thing that took the longest out of any aspect of the movie.

Did your short films – one of which is a prequel to The Survivalist – provide a good starting point from which to direct your first feature?

Short films are essentially sketchbooks for oil paintings. We did a prequel to the movie called Magpie which was funded by the BFI as a trial run for how I would direct The Survivalist and I cast Martin in that and he was so good I cast him in the feature and we were shooting within a matter of months. It was a great experience – we had a lot of the same crew – it was fascinating beginning to establish the language of shooting a feature film. It’s a brilliant idea, if you get the chance to make 15 minutes of the movie you’re going to do you find out what works and what doesn’t work. In Magpie the performances are really good, but the one thing I didn’t like, if this is set in a world where everyone is starving, the actors look very well-fed. So I knew for The Survivalist they had to lose weight. So for 10 weeks prior to the shoot Martin began dropping his eating massively. We had a nutritionist who advised Martin (McCann), Mia (Goth) and Olwen (Fouere) on cutting back their diet. Olwen remained on the diet throughout the whole production. That’s something that came from the experience of shooting Magpie.

“The biggest lesson I’ve always taken forth with me – and it’s taken a long time – is that the actors tell the story”.

The film is a very lean, tense thriller, was that the case from the get-go or did you have to leave a lot on the editing room floor?

The premise was fundamentally suspenseful because you have three characters in a cabin and there’s not enough food for all of them. So whatever way you cut it, every scene should be full of tension. Every single scene. Anytime anything is happening on screen, one of the characters could die. I’ve sat through screenings with 300 people where nobody goes to the toilet because it’s so tense.

A lot of that as well is to do with my editor Mark (Towns; Lilting), who has a strong background in documentary and has won a BAFTA for it, and we’re very disciplined in making sure the audience have the best experience. It’s essentially a cable we’re running the audience along and the tighter that cable is, the better the experience.

What was your favourite scene to shoot?

There’s so many great scenes in the film because of the decisions the actors made. My favourite sequence is probably the arrival of the women through to the shaving scene and walking that scene through with the actors really added to the realism of it. When Martin takes the actors inside [the cabin], I didn’t tell the actors I was going to film that. I kept the camera rolling, so when Mia walked into the cabin for the first time it’s the first time she’s seen it. She’s looking around and the focus-puller is a bit caught off guard and he’s trying to keep her sharp. There’s a really magic to the first time you do anything. In fact in that scene one of the actors is wearing a microphone but you don’t notice because you’re looking at their faces. That was absolutely fantastic. It’s going to be rare for me to get the opportunity to work with three actors as talented as Martin, Mia and Olwen and have the freedom to do that on set. When you move to a bigger production, it’s more controlled, there’s less chance for improvisation and one of the special things about this is you’re rarely going to see a better cast given the space to make interesting choices.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned as a filmmaker?

They’re all really important. The biggest lesson I’ve always taken forth with me – and it’s taken a long time – is that the actors tell the story. When I got into filmmaking I was obsessed with the camera, with formats, dollies, cranes but I’ve worked for a long time with my editor and he says the most important thing is what you’re cast do. He says I can’t do anything if the cast haven’t given me something to cut with. And I had to make a lot of choices and compromises, as you have to with any low-budget film, in order to protect the actors so they could deliver their performances and it’s really reinforced that in the process because as long as the actors can tell the story, you’ll be alright.

The Survivalist is out now, alongside two more of Stephen Fingleton’s short films; Insulin and Away Days, only on We Are Colony.

 

6 Films To Watch After You’ve Seen The Survivalist

Originally published on We Are Colony.

In The Survivalist, BAFTA-nominated Stephen Fingleton creates an intensely realistic vision of a post-collapse world. The loss of modern luxuries and amenities force three survivors to collate all their wits and resources to avoid encroaching danger.

To celebrate its release in cinemas and on VOD, I recalled six other films that pit their protagonists against extreme circumstances and make you more than glad to be inside watching them…

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Mad Max: Fury Road (DIR. George Miller, 2015)

A post-apocalyptic movie on steroids, Mad Max is arguably last year’s most talked about film. Where The Survivalist is sparse and introspective, Fury Road is a ferocious whirlwind of CGI spectacle. Still, there’s a reason Indiewire labeled Fingleton’s debut “Mad Max in the countryside”. Each bring a vivid sense of detail to the ‘end of the world’ scenarios they have created to startling effect.

The Survivalist revels in the muddy minutiae of a post-collapse environment.”

Snowpiercer (DIR. Bong Joon-ho, 2013)

Set on a train trapped in an infinite loop around a frozen planet, the world’s dwindling resources inspire a group of ‘third class’ passengers – among them Captain America (Chris Evans), Billy Elliot (Jamie Bell) and the Elephant Man (John Hurt) – to overthrow the oligarchs that power the engine.

Refreshingly different in its take on disaster, Snowpiercer is an absurdist piece of cinema. Visually it might not have much in common with The Survivalist, which revels in the muddy minutiae of a post-collapse environment, but it’s a stellar example of how to inject a bit of humour into what’s typically a sombre genre.

Equal parts suspense and horror, Snowpiercer is contemplative yet entertaining and where both films excel is in their ability to tell an expansive story in a small space.

The Road (DIR. John Hillcoat, 2009)

Speaking of sombre, John Hillcoat’s The Road is the often held up as a litmus test against which apocalyptic films are inevitably compared. As Viggo Mortensen shepherds Kodi Smit-McPhee across a ravaged, cannibalized America, it’s hard to recall a film that has so frighteningly depicted austerity.

The result is something remarkable and haunting, but which, at times, feels excessive. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s elegiac score orchestrates certain moments to detrimental effect and there are sequences where silence alone could be more fitting. The Coen brothers, in their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, left the soundtrack devoid of music, a choice which subsequently maximizes tension.

Indeed, where The Survivalist is most effective is in its absence of music; when pregnant silences and the threat that fills them, linger.

“Cuarón and Fingleton exhibit a flare for kinetic filmmaking, utilising tracking shots to explore a primitive landscape with poetic flourish”.

Children Of Men (DIR. Alfonso Cuarón, 2006)

The world is a battleground in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men and Clive Owen must act as bodyguard to society’s last hope at regeneration. Now twice Oscar-anointed, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki demonstrates striking visual prowess. His recreation of a war-torn dystopia, where characters live in perpetual fear of being struck by a bullet or a bomb is astounding.
The Survivalist employs a similar aesthetic of dirt and drizzle, and both embrace a costume and production design that feels chillingly plausible. Likewise, Cuarón and Fingleton exhibit a flare for kinetic filmmaking, utilizing tracking shots to explore a primitive landscape with poetic flourish.

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The Rover (DIR. David Michôd, 2014)

Australian director David Michod’s follow-up to Animal Kingdom sees Robert Pattinson and Guy Pearce exchanging blows against the backdrop of a desolate, dystopian society.
Perhaps most similar to The Survivalist, what separates both these films from the lesser iterations of their genre is the focus on the human condition as opposed to the context. The reasons for economic and societal collapse are for the foremost left a mystery, and in a world where supplies and a sense of order are scarce, The Rover and The Survivalist question what’s left of mankind when civilization and its organizing principles disappear.

“An immersive, intimate experience against the backdrop of a sublime and primal landscape”.

The Revenant (DIR. Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2015)

The film that might finally secure Leonardo DiCaprio his long awaited Oscar, sees him take on a bear, a perilous journey and a Tom Hardy with an agenda. To say it’s deserving is an understatement.

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Whilst The Survivalist’s scale might be smaller, both films test the endurance of their protagonists as they are confronted by punishing situations that push their bodies and psychological strength to the limit.  In a world that is as exquisitely beautiful as it is brutal, the imminence of death seems omnipresent.

With little dialogue, our only window into the pain that DiCaprio’s vengeful frontiersman Hugh Glass suffers is the nuance of his performance and he more than delivers. In The Survivalist, Irish actor Martin McCann likewise has to experience the woes of maggots and using fire to self-heal, though he’s spared the grizzly encounter. In each film, the result is an immersive, intimate experience against the backdrop a sublime and primal landscape.

The Survivalist, alongside two exclusive short films, is now available on We Are Colony with behind-the-scenes extras: http://www.wearecolony.com/the-survivalist

Review: Room

A film ‘inspired by’ the notorious Josef Fritzl case and warning of a ‘strong abduction theme’ could easily be dismissed as harrowing awards fodder, replete with tearful reunions and traumatic flashbacks.

But Lenny Abrahamson (last seen unleashing quirk in full throttle with Frank) is a smarter director than that, and screenwriter Emma Donoghue knows the source material better than that (she did after all pen the novel it’s based upon). Together, they’ve stripped the story back to its most gripping core and Ma (Brie Larson) and Jack’s (Jacob Tremblay) story is ultimately one of survival.

Despite assumptions, it’s not all desperately sad. At its heart, Room is about a mother and son, and if nothing more, it tingles with the triumph of the human spirit.

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Room immediately depicts a sense of claustrophobia, using tight close-ups to showcase the sparsely-furnished prison – objects all personified by 5 year old Jack – and to illustrate the startling intimacy of a mother and her child, obligated to breathe the same squalid air day in and day out. However, by envisioning the space from a child’s perspective it becomes a canvas for his imagination, as yet unburdened by the agonising circumstances of his existence.

As a result, their relationship is both fraught with the frustrations of their limitations (Jack is mad at Ma for forgetting the candles on his birthday cake, not awed by her ability to whip one up at all), and the site of overwhelming tenderness. Ma has lovingly created a routine (involving ‘track’, reading, play, tea and bath-time) and a sense of normality for her son. In some regards she has sacrificed her own sanity to enable her son to live freely and contently, for Room is all he has ever known.

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When their captor ‘Old Nick’ – a man only ever glimpsed by Jack through wardrobe slats, as he pay regular visits to restock their cupboards and rape Ma – reveals his on-going struggle to provide for them, Ma knows his ‘kindness’ wouldn’t extend to keeping them alive. It’s at this point Room becomes a story of gripping intensity, as Ma hatches a plan to escape, reliant on Jack’s ability to both understand and operate in a world he has never been a part of, let alone knew existed.

Despite assumptions, it’s not all desperately sad. At its heart, Room is about a mother and son, and if nothing more, it tingles with the triumph of the human spirit.

Brie Larson avoided the su64176n and lived on a protein-rich diet to gain the pallid complexion and sinewy limbs of a young woman forced to spent 7 years of her life in an 100 square foot room. But her transformation runs deeper than the appearance of obvious deprivation. For an actress predominantly seen in comedic supporting roles (21 Jump Street, Trainwreck), you could be forgiven for describing her performance as revelatory. More than that, it’s astonishingly layered. In Ma’s eyes, we witness every strain and every patience tested. We feel the urgency of her revealing the truth to Jack and we glimpse her remembrance of a life outside of Room, of a childhood innocence brutally snatched away. Even in acts of seeming cruelty – wrapping her son up in a rug as he plays dead and willing him to repeatedly roll himself free – we sense nothing but unconditional love. Ma is a woman on the brink and Larson imbues her with a tenacity and shrewdness, conveying both her devastating vulnerability and bristling with a maternal fierceness.

Of course the very nature of the plot requires a young actor able to hold his own against Larson’s powerhouse performance. And Jacob Tremblay does just that. It’s not surprising he calls Larson his ‘best friend’, for the closeness they exude is remarkable. At every turn Tremblay manages to express Jack’s innocence, petulance, curiosity and finally, his wide-eyed wonder in experiencing a series of firsts.

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Joan Allen and William H. Macy provide reliable, understated support as the parents having to adjust to their daughter’s return and taking small steps to introduce their grandson to the realities of the world. The clever design of their home and the suffocating presence of the media also hint at whether Ma and Jack are just as much captives outside of Room.

RoomLennyAbrahamson1We’ve seen Abrahamson achieve a balance between absurdity and hilarity with the wondrous Frank and with Room he proves himself adept at crafting an intelligent and intense drama from a child’s perspective without succumbing to mawkishness. He never milks Jack’s naiveté, but rather carefully harnesses it to create moments of severe poignancy and potency. Tremblay’s scenes with the underrated Allen (who isn’t seen in enough movies) are particularly wrenching, as Jack innocently reveals details of the torment he and Ma endured.

As agonizing as the transition process is for all involved – the audience especially – it’s a testament to all involved that you can never tear yourself away. In a malevolent and unpredictable world, where Ma’s kindness was met with an act of unimaginable cruelty, Abrahamson finds a beauty and solace.

Verdict: Disturbing and absorbing in equal measure. Whether or not it takes home the Best Picture Oscar, Room is a real win for independent cinema, and a brilliant showcase for how a film – small in scope and budget – can have a big impact.

Review: The Danish Girl

Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl, is a sensual and occasionally moving film, but one that altogether lacks gumption or dynamism.

Telling the story of Lili Elbe, an artist who became one of the first recipients of gender reassignment surgery, Hooper employs a sedate and sumptuous approach that may have suited his Oscar-winning biopic The King’s Speech, but feels somewhat inappropriate here.

We first meet Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander) as the picture of marital bliss. Flirtatious, loving and both artistically-inclined, theirs is a relationship of complete affinity, so much so that Gerda describes her first kiss with Einar as though it was like ‘kissing myself’.

It is in these quiet moments of realisation that The Danish Girl is at it’s most hypnotic. Sadly, it’s a tone that Hooper fails to sustain.

The couple are bohemian royalty, with Einar enjoying relative fame and success as a landscape painter and Gerda – though slighted by her own lack of recognition as a portraitist – content to frolic at society parties and lavish amid the dreamy surroundings of Copenhagen circa 1926.

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However that happiness is no sooner established than quickly punctured by Einar’s apparent fetish for femininity and all that comes with it. Asked to sit in for their ballet dancer friend (a playful Amber Heard), whom Gerda is painting, Einar – feigning reluctance, though visibly animated – dons stockings, shoes and a dress and adopts an elegant pose. The picture is all too funny for Gerda, but for Einar it stirs a feeling of deep-seated dissatisfaction with his masculine identity. Touching the silk fabrics, there are already glimmers that he might feel more complete, more himself, were he to embrace a different persona altogether.

It is in these quiet moments of realisation that The Danish Girl is at it’s most hypnotic. Sadly, it’s a tone that Hooper fails to sustain.

Gerda, still caught up in the heady hilarity of her husband’s pantomime, encourages Einar to attend a party with her dressed as a woman. Together they conjure up Lili, a bashful cousin of Einar’s, whom bears a striking resemblance to him. As Lili gradually begins to manifest full time, the film become more parodic.

Redmayne does a marvellous job of conveying Einar’s inner turmoil, and certainly as he gazes at himself in the mirror, distorting his own body to adopt a womanly form, one can’t fail to be convinced of the transformative talents of the very actor that became Stephen Hawking for last year’s The Theory Of Everything. But here the very casting a cisgender man lends falseness to the entire film, for Redmayne cannot very well become a woman. Despite his earnest attempts at delicacy and elegance, he is ultimately playing dress-up and his performance often consists more of certain poses, movements or facial expressions than it does of an underlying sense of womanhood. Redmayne captures the subtleties of body language, but all too often it feels affected and superficial.

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As Einar begins to consider the possibility of becoming Lili full-time, and consulting doctors that could grant his wish, Gerda’s career begins to soar. Her portraits of Lili find an audience in Paris and as she becomes increasingly visible to society, her husband slowly disappears.

Alicia Vikander, the young Swedish actress who’s on the precipice of going stratospheric, is the beating heart of this film. Where Redmayne is all poise and grace, hers is a performance that feels spontaneous and raw, every emotion possible flickering across her face as Gerda grapples with Einar’s new identity. The scene where Gerda begs Lili to give her her husband back is perhaps the most gut wrenching.

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It’s hard to fault the filmmaking. Hooper is a director obsessed with perfection and wherever you look there is more exquisite scenery and furniture and fabric to absorb. The protagonist’s lives might be falling apart, but dammit their sofas can be flawlessly upholstered. It’s this tendency to prettify that becomes the film’s and ironically, Lili’s, undoing.

Alicia Vikander, the young Swedish actress who’s on the precipice of going stratospheric, is the beating heart of this film.

The precise, calculated style feels too measured and not messy enough for the subject matter at hand. The painterly aesthetic might reflect its protagonist’s craft, however it doesn’t do justice to the challenge and trauma of Lili’s transition. Even when threat looms in the form of prejudiced assailants or dangerously conventional doctors, it feels tentative and performative rather than real and frightening.

Hooper and co-wreddie-redmayne-alicia-vikander-the-danish-girl.jpgiter Lucinda Coxon have not only neatened Lili’s story and presumably made it more palatable for mainstream cinema-going audiences (and no doubt Oscar voters), but rather worse cut it short. Lili died at the age of 49 from a fatal womb transplant after enduring a series of operations, and therefore it seems unlikely she had a moment of epiphanic self-acceptance before conceding to death in Gerda’s arms, shortly followed by an overwhelmingly saccharine scene – that practically yells SYMBOLISM – where Lili’s scarf drifts across the Danish landscapes she hitherto committed to canvas.

Indeed Gerda’s own life took a sour turn. She did not get swept off her feet by the dashing Matthias Schoenaarts (as Hooper would have you believe), but married an Italian officer who drained her of all her financial resources. (Read more about the true story here).

The Danish Girl, for all its good intentions, is a contrived vanity project that sadly diminishes the struggle of Lili’s transformation. I walked away from the cinema thinking it was all very lovely, which I fear, was hardly the point.

Review: Slow West

Slow West is far more electric, and fleeting experience than it’s title might suggest. Accumulating bodies at the rate of a Tarantino movie, and hurtling towards a dramatic shootout with agility and wit, this is tense and artful cinema.

images-5The film opens with Michael Fassbender’s distinctive voice declaring that this is Jay Cavendish’ story (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a romantic young Scotsman who is undertaking a pilgrimage across Colorado to rescue his love Rose (a stoic and bewitching Caren Pistorius who proves more than capable of rescuing herself).

In the first leg of his journey, after a near-fatal rendezvous with some soldiers, he happens upon Silas Selleck (Fassbender), a cynical outlaw who takes Jay under his ruthless wing and promises him safe passage out West; though his own reasons for traveling across the perilous frontier become increasingly sinister.

Indeed, we are soon informed in dramatic irony that Rose and the father with whom she escaped her native Scotland with have bounties on their heads, and that Silas has offered his protection to Jay only to reach them first – surpassing the troop of bounty hunters also on their tail.

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First time director John Maclean conjures up a smorgasbord of villains for Jay and Silas to confront, cultivating a mood of unwarranted jeopardy and injustice at every turn; most pointedly when a desperate Swedish couple whose heist-gone-wrong is just one of the many ways to die in the West.

Accumulating bodies at the rate of a Tarantino movie, and hurtling towards a dramatic shootout with agility and wit, this is tense and artful cinema.

There are elements of Wes Anderson in the off-kilter storytelling, with outbursts of violence at once alarming and almost comical (an injured man gets salt in his wound and a dead one is forced to de-trouser in a bid for another’s survival). The encounters are increasingly ephemeral and Machiavellian, like something borne out of a feverish dream. No one – even under Fassbender’s watchful eye – is safe in this neck of the woods.

slow-west-ben-mendelsohnOne such bandit takes the form of Ben Mendelsohn’s fur-coat wearing, absinthe-drinking maverick, expanding on his colourful repertoire of madmen (see Animal Kingdom, Killing Them Softly and Starred Up).

Picaresque, immaculate scenery provide the backdrop for the brutal lessons in survival that Jay must learn. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan (Philomena, Catch Me Daddy – and The Karman Line, a breath-taking short film which you can see here) captures the heightened, glimmering terrain with a startling clarity. His compositions feel fresh and vivid, saturated with fluorescent colours and crisp juxtapositions. It may subtract from the film’s authenticity, but here it works, reflecting the illusory nature of the Manifest Destiny upon which Westward Expansion was justified and echoing Jay’s own misguided idealism.

The companionship between Jay and Silas is touching but never maudlin – a highlight of which is their inventive way to dry off their clothes after a flood. Whether through guilt or a paternal sense of obligation, Silas feels compelled to protect for his teenage ward; a sentiment never more apparent than when he enlightens Jay about the art of shaving. (An act still laced with menace thanks to the presence of a machete).

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Fassbender’s steely, unnerving Silas confirms his status as one of the most diverse, and masculine actors to have graced our screens. Meanwhile, Australian actor McPhee (doing a credible Scottish accent) gives his best performance since The Road. His Jay is determined yet naïve; a boy in a man’s world and a romantic unsuited to the harsh wilderness.

Tonally the film is quite jarring, but no less brilliant for it. It’s a melting pot of influences just as America is of cultures; with it’s blending of biting witticism, lyrical romanticism and visceral bloodshed particularly reminiscent of the Coen brothers’ Fargo. Mixing native chants with plucky strings, the elegiac and playful scoring from Jed Kurzel also lends the film an air of contemporary quirkiness.

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Still, for a genre so iconographic and plagued by convention, Maclean has created something that riffs, but never rips, off its predecessors and remains outstandingly original. Slow West is a film of considerable artistry – both aesthetically and narratively – and certainly one of the best to have come out this year.

Verdict: Striking, surreal and spiky, a Western unlike anything you’ve ever seen.