A review of Gerardo Naranjo’s Miss Bala

•October 31, 2011 • Leave a Comment

There is a Mexican proverb which asserts “a golden cage is still a cage” and this seems a fitting accompaniment to writer / director Gerardo Naranjo’s thrilling and often extraordinary Mexican set anti-fairytale Miss Bala. It’s story follows the unassuming Laura (Stephanie Sigman) whose dreams of winning the local beauty pageant are set against the ugly world of the pervasive criminality rife throughout Mexican society. After a midnight nightclub slaughter Laura finds her subsistent life turned upside down and without meaning at the whim of its enactors. As their hold over her grows she becomes tragically ever more entangled in the criminal underbelly that knows no other treatment than to chew her up and spit her out.

Naranjo’s Mexico is one of dark, bleak corruption, so shallowly hidden it takes Laura merely a slight misstep to fall full blown into the underground nasties of guns, gangs and narcotics. This is a world well beyond her experience and as such beyond her methods of control. Her resulting panicky complicity with the gangs and in particular one leader has the duel effect of advancing and improving those aspirations and achievements she craves while facilitating them in corrupt and unhealthy fashion.

The film’s focus is acutely drawn on Laura. Not once do we witness happenings or emotions outside of her range of sight or feeling. The audience is only kept abreast of the ensuing gang-fighting and subsequent socio-political meltdown through fleetingly overheard conversations, warbling radio chatter or flashes of news reports. In a refreshing manner we are truly only aware of the quantity of information Laura herself is aware of. It’s an arrestingly personal journey anchored by a breakout performance from Sigman who feels at once delicate but resolute, elusive but committed.

It’s striking that despite the memorable abuses of Laura herself and those she witnesses that she remains a passive recipient to them. Her apathetic acceptance makes you wonder whether this new life may in fact be better than her old one. And whether indeed she’s so shaken, so upset by the changes that are befalling her at all. Not only for this puzzle but for the dazzlingly strange detours from the muddy reality – into beauty contest finals and pristine breakfasts – is this film remarkable. However these scenes only serve further to remind how interconnected and deceptively close the worlds of right and wrong are intermingled in contemporary Mexico.

The intimate focus on Laura lends the film a permeating aura of unpredictability as we are both trapped by a lack of knowledge of the wider contextual landscape of Laura’s misery and consumed by a desire to see her relinquished from it safely, at least in the beginning. And this unpredictability through being kept in the dark instils every scene with a taut, tense and ominous sensation as we learn the hard way not to trust anyone but Laura herself. Gang allegiances shift, cities are divided and her captor’s motives are indecipherable. The dehumanised portrayal of those around Laura and the dark imagining of Mexico leaves little room for sympathy or empathy and few character to garner either.

Least of all Laura herself – who after a tragic beginning – becomes a guarded, unfathomable quantity whose actions and reactions seem to conflict with our own rational responses to the situations she’s forced into. No longer concerned with the triumph of the pageant crown – though it’s an honour she’ll ironically wear once she becomes embroiled in the ugly side of life – it’s her own survival which she’s now in a contest for. And Sigman conveys the mixed emotions of her disturbed and determined protagonist with admirable conviction and unspoken fears and hopes come through vividly. In one memorable section Laura must juggle smuggling money, fearing for her family, becoming the mistress of a gang leader and to top it all off – and though it remains unsaid – what’s clearly her first experience of flying. It’s mundane moments like these that keep a torch of sympathy alight for the otherwise obedient, almost sterile Laura.

Thrilling Mexican corruption, quietly powerful performances and a stylised, if low-key, filmmaking fashion combine for an at times extraordinary and always gripping cocktail of a film. Paradoxically though it never fails to feel measured, purposeful, controlled and composed in its direction – as if it has taken the best parts from the Hollywood template and improved on the rest. A from the ground, long take POV of a visceral gun battle stands out and provides a glimpse into how very dangerous and claustrophobic street warfare really is. As well, time outs from the breakneck pace of Laura’s down the rabbit hole story are achieved with static shots of her weather-beaten face, which essentially serve to chart the increasing metal degradation and manifest hysteria the nefarious events are having on her.

The rushed message at the end feels a little disingenuous but maybe only because the previous 113 minutes have been so thrilling and enjoyable for us? If so there’s guilt stitched into the film and a wakeup call too. Perhaps transplanting the violence and corruption of the Mexican streets into a Hollywood-lite crime thriller only serves to push home the horrifying notion that for many this is reality, these events are experienced daily and witnessed far closer than those watching it in a cinema screen.

Miss Bala is so engulfed by Laura’s thoughts, motivations and emotions that it transcends its gritty surroundings and high energy action sequences to become actually a rather delicate character study of a woman merely trying to survive. In this way it excels with every scene taut, tense, thrilling and captivating; and ultimately it serves as as a sad, hallow reminder that all the greatest movies are based on distressing facts.


A Review of Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin

•October 21, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Just click the link below to read the review…

A Review of Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur

•October 5, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Just click the picture below to read my review…

The Real Life Timon & Pumba!

•October 4, 2011 • Leave a Comment

“If it bleeds we can kill it” Predator: The Musical

•September 30, 2011 • Leave a Comment


A Review of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive

•September 20, 2011 • Leave a Comment

History has shown that if you choose to get into the car with Nicolas Winding Refn you’re in for quite a ride. He showed this with Bronson, where Tom Hardy played Britain’s most insatiable and inimitable criminal, and now he shows it again coaxing another brilliantly nuanced performance from an equally gifted – and equally man of the moment – actor Ryan Gosling. Interestingly Gosling himself discovered this upon offering Refn a lift home after an awkward failed first meet and greet for the film. After a few minutes Refn preceded to scream the car down, belting out the lines to a song playing on a radio, and from that stage on the two were locked in, partners in crime in the eventual brilliance that is Drive.

Gosling plays the unnamed Driver; a taciturn, reticent, modern day knight in shining armour – here it’s a champagne silk jacket dazzling in the day and attracting in the night complete with scorpion artwork, influenced itself from a story referenced in the film. Upon encountering his next door neighbour Irene, the luminous and delicate Carey Mulligan, he becomes entangled in a quest to protect her which tragically leads him further and further from the life he wishes to lead. And the fairy-tale zeitgeist is completed by the presence of characters that beset and poison our Driver’s oily Prince Charming quest to save his damsel in distress.

It’s ironic that a film so tightly edited and with such a conservative running time (at just 90 odd minutes) should begin with the ticking of a clock. For in truth every second of this movie gone is a second you’ll wish back. It feels both fresh and old, both contemporary and timeless, as if you’ve stumbled upon a long forgotten classic and from the first moments it grips you entirely. After a beginning getaway scene that’s full of suspense and technically novel – keeping the camera in the car registering every look, thought and emotion on the Driver’s face – College Electric’s delectable and hypnotic song begins to echo out across the architecture of Drive. “A real human being…and a real hero” plays as Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography beautifully frames the LA backdrop as a sprawling fairy-tale emerald metropolis.

College Electric’s fragment of the delicious and deliriously good soundtrack that rumbles beneath the film is also the most telling description of the nature of Gosling’s Driver; truly a man who lives half in the daytime, half at night. But Drive is more than the character of its magnetic lead. It’s an effervescent Los Angeles fairy-tale cocktail channelling elements of desperate desire, dedicated love and uncompromising ultra-violence all set to the pulsating rhythm of 80s synth pop that’s both masterful storytelling and utterly captivating. Part thriller, part noir, part iridescent mirrorball it’s been hailed as neon-noir and the description is not ill-fitting.

Its beginning is just one of so many fantastic scenes. Others stand out including a dreamy, whimsical car journey along a golden sun drenched waterway on the outskirts of LA. But it’s Refn’s virtuoso elevator scene that displays his talents most affectingly. It’s a whirlpool of conflicting and communing emotions, and it is the last sinew of possibility left between the Driver and Irene that disappears in such a beautifully tragic and heart breaking fashion as the lift doors close, obscuring her from his sight and his life. It’s also a transformative journey, a liminal one, in which Gosling’s character emerges afterwards in Refn’s own words a “superhero”. And he is, from this scene on, a man at once above it all and in the thick of things – the true definition of a superhero, the moment he decides to protect Irene rather than be with her.

As we come to learn more about the Driver we realise his driving has an existential quality about it, as if the only way he can process his feelings or commune with his thoughts and emotions is behind the wheel, embedded in the metal he moulds himself too – his way and meaning of life. And in the final moments as two shadows burn against a granite car park it’s the Driver’s gloves that distinguish him from the other, nothing more. Gosling’s embodiment of the character shines through throughout the movie, likely due to his preparation for the role by building the car he drives from the ground up. It’s this kind of dedication and commitment to a character that allows him to completely convince as a man with so much obvious past that we never get to see.

The initial focus on its score, dreamt up by Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ ex-drummer Cliff Martinez, isn’t a fleeting mention either as it does so much to illicit feeling in a film that is itself taciturn. The music evokes a tactile imagination of the beating heart of the movie. Refn captivates the senses with a score that has the effect of stitching us into the very fabric of the film, so enveloping is the music and the imagery on display here. In a similar fashion to Xavier Dolan’s Heartbeats earlier in the year, Refn utilises dazzling audio and visual affectations to create emotional motifs that capture the heart and convey the narrative emotion in a dialogue lite, effect heavy method. It’s a truly stylish, sublime and immersive technique honed to perfection in this piece.

Refn’s sumptuous visual masterpiece quite literally oozes swagger and rightly the Cannes jury saw fit to furnish him with the prestigious Best Director prize for his work here. Blending contained moments of sheer violence, fantastic performances from all involved and a cavalcade of songs and imagery that entrance and thrill the senses, this is very much an instant classic. As well as being achingly good – in that it hurts when you’re not watching it – it’s undoubted to leave you catatonic with cool.


A Review of Warrior

•September 19, 2011 • 2 Comments

What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? And what if these two sides of the coin are long suffering brothers, victims of a familial fallout? Ok, despite this clear central contrivance director Gavin O’Connor has created in Warrior a penetrating and blistering emotional drama, full of visceral flair and exhilarating entertainment that delves deeply into the reservoir of family crisis, blending deftly an emerging phenomenon with an age-old fable.

Here the immovable object is Joel Edgerton’s Brendan Conlon, an all-American family man and teacher on the verge of economic bankruptcy and a masculinity breakdown. Feeling the pinch and needing to provide for his growing family he takes to the ring, dragging up his fighting days complete with black eyes that only serve to get him suspended from his position at the school. Brendan’s quiet desperation and stalwart instinct to survive are juxtaposed to the opposing side of the aforementioned paradox; Tom Hardy’s unstoppable force, running from something and forgetting it by involving himself as well in his own fighting past. Where Brendan is calm and introspective Tommy is a barely restrained, positively frightening on screen presence. At once disturbing and mesmerising, his mad eyes intimately revealing his own distorted picture of the world. As the two embark on their separate journeys to the top of a Grand Prix Mixed Martial Arts tournament, SPARTA, there collision is obvious but its happening is remarkable.

In pitching brother against brother O’Connor has infused his ultra-contemporary sports fable with a grand and classical emotional beat. In similar fashion to Thor the brothers circling of each other and eventual confrontation rips layers away from their grimy pasts, exposing piecemeal the tragedies that have led to their estrangement. An estrangement caused by pain of both body and soul and thus can only be undone the same way. In this piecemeal fashion the film builds slowly but with a simmering intensity that matches the fierceness of Tommy’s eyes. And to its credit the film takes time to truly develop each side of the juxtaposed paradox. In successfully balancing our sympathies O’Connor keeps us wholly invested in each corner right up until the climactic face-off.

The brother against brother narrative is supplemented by an equally classical sins of the father emotional catalyst in which Nick Nolte turns heartbreaking ex-alcoholic, ex wife-beater as a tender sore of a man; a barely healing scab that all the time feels he needs only to be delicately picked to bleed afresh. The revelations of familial abuse and abandonment may be a bit clustered and over-imposed but the trio of leads hold the portrait together with such superb character arcs that they demand their pain becomes your own.

Here is where Hardy excels. If one was to call a lead actor it would undoubtedly be him, for his are the scorched shores upon which the waves of the other character’s actions break. He’s an explosive, tortured, uncontrollable soul; but whose motivations and origins are sadly never given satisfactory exposition. Nonetheless Hardy’s demented rage and raw power overcome these narrative niggles as Tommy’s fractious fraternal and paternal relations fray at the hands of vice, love and war. Building on Bronson and showing hints of Bane his animalistic portrayal is nothing short of stunning. At the same time, though, his is the character and performance of a child, unknowing of its own strength. Even the most detached audience members will struggle to overcome the urge to comfort, the hope to heal him in some fashion.

Whether audiences will accept the presented outcome is questionable but there’s no doubt the bittersweet culmination of Tommy and Brendan’s face off is deeply moving. Here O’Connor has successfully managed to subvert an incorruptible trope of the sports movie genre cum family drama. By supplementing Brendan’s all-American instinct to survive and win out for his family with Tommy’s damaged child he instils the ending with both relief and happiness, as opposed to calls of clichés, from a prepared audience.

Some will smirk at the fights as very blatant metaphors for the deeper battles going on between the protagonists but this is crisis of masculinity stuff and little heals more than reconciliation forged in the fires of testosterone. That said unfortunately the fight scenes are, for all their brute physicality and shock violence, one of the weaker elements of the film. Lacking the tight direction and coherent finesse of The Fighter earlier this year they feel confusing and frantic, but perhaps this does truly mirror the sport itself.

As the brothers expel their pain and aggression, trapped by years of isolation from one another the last narrative paradigm comes into focus; a coming of age tale for both the individuals and the family unit. Yes, we all know daddy issues hurt, but O’Connor’s film achieves a remarkable, swirling torrent of emotion: an epic, patient, unflinching deconstruction of a family at war with itself.