A Review of Céline Sciamma’s Tomboy

•September 17, 2011 • Leave a Comment

There is a moment in Céline Sciamma’s Tomboy which shows a father and the older of his two daughters – the eponymous character – playing a game of cards; Happy Families to be precise. This intimate scene is significant in so much that upon completing a set – mother, father, daughter, son – he turns to his daughter, smiling triumphantly and contently, as he utters the archaic phrase “family unit”. The loaded phrase escapes from his lips to polarize the mood of this naturalistic, domestic scene and the relaxed atmosphere is shattered, replaced by heavy air thick with emotion, expectation, misunderstanding and melancholy. And it’s the conflicting and confusing sentiments on display across this scene that are at the heart of Sciamma’s delicate and touching tale of young life.

The French cinema is well known for its exploration, studies and portrayals of the fraught journey of youth and the sensitivities of coming of age. Indeed Sciamma is no stranger to these themes with her last featureWater Lillies focusing on that sacred moment of burgeoning sexuality. If Sciamma then doesn’t depart drastically in subject she certainly takes care to refine her latest effort, presenting an ethereal tale about the ambiguity of gender in a tender and touching fashion.

The film begins with no mention or exposition of past events; a girl and her family simply move to a rural French housing estate. The new found anonymity and subsequent liberty this affords her empowers the girl to play with her own, and others perception, of her gender as she negotiates the experiences and events of adolescence. It’s a remarkably assured and nuanced, almost duel, performance from the young Zoé Héran who is ambivalent enough about her own sex as to challenge our supposed certainty of it.

Focusing the lens on this precious moment of life where the dough of our own personalities is maleable enough to shape has the power to evoke personal, cherished emotions. But Sciamma’s subject inflects the happy and familiar memories presented on screen with doses of bizarre, alien moments which has the contradictory effect of provoking nostalgia and shock in equal part; both luring you into the shoes of the titular questioner and keeping you at arms length – fascinated by what’s on display. Nostalgic, half-remembered moments of first dances and first kisses sit alongside surreal moments of anachronistic fake willies and forced nudity. Sciamma’s distorted idyll is complemented by bucolic, lost-in-the-woods imagery and scenery, reminiscent of Quillévéré’s Love Like Poison, that serves to reaffirm young life as an immersive, enthralling, disorienting and threatening place. And the isolated feeling of the estate itself only adds to the notion of adolescence as a mazelike training ground for the future to come.

Whatever makes a man a man or a women a women, it’s clear for the children of Tomboy that it’s the presence or absence of something physical. However Sciamma’s film seems to suggest that there’s something less superficial to the allignment. Not least the presence of a younger sister to protect or a set of parent’s happiness over an impending baby boy to join the family. Sciamma is thoughtful and tender enough with its subject and the figure of its study to offer deeper, more penetrating motivations for the choosing of a gender.

The little drama that occurs is intelligent and purposeful. With a muted mid-film wrestle between a boy and our tomboy revealing much about her motivations as well as being a striking and beautiful movement encapsulating wonderfully the quiet, understated struggles we experience in life. Sciamma’s warped mirror at once reflects the familiar and the unfamiliar of adolescence and the result is an ethereal, mesmerising piece as given to profound, powerful scenes as it is to quiet, unsaid strange beauty.

3.5/4

Advertisements

Not All Angels Are Innocent…A Review of Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures

•September 12, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Peter Jackson’s fourth feature – winner of the 1994 Silver Lion and definitely his most mature work – Heavenly Creatures had the effect of rocketing him well and truly onto the international stage, and for good reason. It’s a spectacular multifaceted gem of whimsical obsession, dangerous love and tragic irony; part New Zealand kitchen sink drama, part bizarre horror, part warped love story it’s the film that set Jackson and its debut stars, Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey on their fated trajectory for Hollywood.

Bathed in warm blues and fierce reds Heavenly Creatures follows the journey of disaffected Pauline Parker (Melanie Lynskey) as she sleepwalks and doodles her way through a bland New Zealand adolescence. However when the witty and wealthy expat Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet) enrols in the school and enters Paul’s life the mundane becomes the magical as the two’s rapid friendship cultivates a rich and elegant fantastical world. And when the duo begin to be consumed by their introverted self obsession, and through their detachment from the world around, they are sent down paths and towards actions that are in turn more and more untethered from the real.

As the two girls become slowly consumed and corrupted by their obsessive friendship, their addiction to each other unravels in a very sympathetic fashion. Jackson balances his narrative well captivating and dazzling us with the whimsical while all the time feeding us the unnerving and the tense. The disturbing romanticism of its heroines is ravishing and intoxicating and perhaps the film even deals a tad too sympathetically with its protagonists given they enacted a “crime that shocked a nation”. But Jackson’s direction is distinctive and extravagantly realised; and although it’s not right to always reference his crowning achievement in The Lord of the Rings his handling of landscapes and attention to character personified in his trilogy is equally on full display in this beautiful piece.

The surreal imagery littering the film is representative of the bizarre nature of the friendship of the titular creatures. And at its core there lies a harrowing truth – and an inevitable, straining poetic irony – that’s tinged with real melancholy. The once happy and harmless friendship that blossoms between Paul and Juliet – although their names change the further towards the surreal they go – to unsolvable madness is perfectly paced and elegantly turning for a fully realised study of a slowly relinquishing grip on reality.

But where the film is both most astonishing and most terrifying is in its climax. And this is not only for the fact it holds the culmination of this twisted trip down the rabbit hole. Indeed it is so striking because when all is said and done we realise on this journey down we’ve become so enthralled and allured by the world on display here we’ve become completely complicit in the terrible twosome’s love affair with themselves. In this way the end exhibits a true snap back to reality; and it’s worrying – and telling of Jackson’s burgeoning talent here – that it takes an event of such magnitude to bring us back.

3.5/4

Heavenly Creatures is released on DVD and Blu-ray today

The Academy Award Winning Movie Trailer!

•August 30, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Some of you might have already seen this but if not it’s well worth a watch!

Courtesy of Britanick

The Hunger Games Footage

•August 29, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Coincidentally timed with the article I wrote last week – I imagine Lionsgate were waiting for me to make the first move -some preview footage for The Hunger Games was released last night at the VMA Awards. It’s not much and there’s no hint of the broad vision of Collins’ series books as of yet but with shooting not long under way it’s likely that these are some of the first scenes of the film to have been finished. The clip which shows heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) traversing a forest flaw is taken from inside the arena itself and the voiceover is that of her hunting buddy Gale (Liam Hemsworth) consoling Katniss just after the announcement of her partaking in the games themselves. Enjoy.

What’s the skinny with The Hunger Games?

•August 29, 2011 • Leave a Comment

The Hunger Games are a series of novels penned by Suzanne Collins, previously of The Underland Chronicles fame (which I’m assured “don’t shy away from death, war and other starkly honest horrors”). Acclaimed by critics and contemporary writers alike The Hunger Games are pandemonium popular with our American brethren and the series has started to gain momentum with the British populace. And this is surely no doubt partly a consequence of their upcoming translation from printed word to moving image, with The Hunger Games movie set to be one of the biggest films of 2012 and with a sequel, Collins’ second part of the trilogy Catching Fire, already slated for release in 2013.

So what’s the skinny with the books? Collins claims the idea came to her while channel hopping between an evening of news – showing countless images of war – and a reality television show – in which she presumably wanted to kill off every last one of them – and thus The Hunger Games were born. Set in a future dystopian world after an unspecified apocalyptic event North America has been transformed into the fragmented country of Panem; where government is held by the authoritarian – and for all intents and purposes fascist – elite in the city of Capitol. Panem itself has been split into 12 districts of unequal wealth and stature, and after a failed rebellion occurring some 75 years before our entry into the world the Capitol created the hunger games as a means of keeping its monopoly on power. The hunger games themselves exist as an annual televised event where said government selects one boy and one girl from each district to take part in a fight to the death to exhibit its total control over even the children of the districts. The 24 children, labelled as “tributes”, enter the killing arena under the guise of honour and pride but most of all as a warning that rebellion is futile and attempts at it bear bitter fruits.

A brief who’s who of The Hunger Games is probably in order here. So far Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar-nominated for Winter’s Bone earlier this year, has been cast as the central protagonist of the books Katniss Everdeen, a natural survivor and provider for her near-catatonic mother and younger sister Prim, played by Willow Shields, since her father died in a mining explosion. Her District 12 hunger games partner Peeta Mellark, a baker’s son who’s already rescued Katniss from the clutches of death once, will be played by Liam Hutcherson, known for The Kids Are All Right. And Liam Hemsworth, brother of Thor and star of the amazing but little known psychological thriller The Triangle, will be taking on the role of Gale Hawthorne, Katniss’ best friend and hunting partner prior to her entrance into the games.

Other actors and actresses confirmed for tribute roles are Jack Quaid and Leven Rambin who will play Marvel and Glimmer, the tributes from District 1 and Alexander Ludwig and Isabelle Fuhrman who will play Cato and Clove, tributes from the Capitol’s favoured District 2. These tributes, known collectively as “the careers”, have trained, although illicitly, their entire lives for the games and are in fact volunteers for the event, hoping to bring themselves the virtues and honour winning the games bestows. Elsewhere, however, in the more geographically distant, deprived and tortured District 11 involuntary tributes Thresh and Rue will be played by Dayo Okeniyi and Amandla Stenberg. With the districts ranging from 1, richest, to 12, poorest, expect to see some serious fighting style differences in those that have had to fight for survival already outside the arena.

In a flawless bit of casting the ever brilliant Woody Harrelson will play District 12’s only past hunger games victor. Gruff, irascible, full time alcoholic Haymitch Abernathy, who acts as mentor to Katniss and Peeta in their roles as tributes, and is thus responsible for securing them sponsors in the arena to provide for them when the going gets tough. And rounding out the District 12 cohort will be Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket, the tribute’s guardian from the moment they’re drawn for combat in the reaping to, effectively, the grave. Her disdain for District 12 and its meagre mannered inhabitants, as well as the poverty that plagues it, is barely contained but her buoyant enthusiasm and charming efficiency convey a maternal edge to her character that both Katniss and Peeta, far from home, desperately need.

The books are, despite some flaws, infectiously brilliant. Utterly captivating, they provoke an inability to put them down – I read all three in two weeks. While neither of the sequels quite beat the immersive world creation and excitement of the first they do thankfully bring a reprieve from Collins’ repetitive allegorical condemnation of first world consumerist greed (in the Capitol). And thankfully give way to some more convincing and profound dissections of the nature and role of power, evil, love, humanity and friendship. If the books then are truly mesmerising they also throw up some very difficult to overcome problems for translating them into on screen magic. Here I’ll attempt to address what I perceive to be the four biggest hurdles the films will have to conquer in order to be successful, and in many ways faithful, and offer my two cents on how to do just that.

I’ll begin with the most glaring problem of the series by expanding a bit more on the narrative, but no need to worry about spoilers! What I mention as the most glaring problem is in fact the heroine herself, Katniss Everdeen. In Katniss, Collins has perhaps created the most frustrating, limited and unsympathetic protagonist in literary history (exaggeration alert!) but in honesty her lack of agency is remarkable, as is the lack of any sense of character development. Stuff, very literally, just happens to Katniss and we almost exclusively witness only her reactions as opposed to autonomous actions. How Collins overcomes this issue in the novels is by externalising our empathy for Katniss by projecting it inwards, towards her, through other characters in the text, principally Peeta, Gale, Haymitch and Prim. Through their feelings, emotions and experiences for and with Katniss we are drawn into both caring for and loving her in spite of her own inadequacy as a protagonist. The danger here with transferring this to film is that with the limited running time of a movie and the structural difficulties this will throw up, as well as the obvious chunks of text that will need to be cut, character relations will likely suffer. Moving the focus away from Katniss’ relations may amount to a very unlikeable and alienating on screen representation as we witness only her movements in a vacuum, divorced from the integral presence of those around her. This will be especially true due to a potential early blockbuster slot of March and the need to create something that’s more action and adventure heavy – and thus not character driven – to appeal to as wide a demographic as possible. And although the books are themselves full of exhilarating action and adventure the difference is that this serves very much as a stimulus for an ever developing array of relationships with Katness, rather than being a dialogue necessity in a pure romp. How to solve this? Basically structure the first film in almost exactly the same way as the first book, accept that it is a set-up piece. I’ve never read anything that felt more like a teaser for future novels; something that so exclusively laid the groundwork for what’s to come. Allow the series to lay its foundations and resist the temptation to heavily focus on the action and adventure side of the novel and instead focus acutely on developing the relationships for this will undoubtedly pay dividends in the future films. And with a sequel already announced and agreed upon this is made far easier by taking the pressure to ‘impress’ of considerably.

Moving on to what is arguably a concern of equal proportion in my mind to that of the alienation a movie version of Katniss might engender is the tone of the books compared to what I fear the tone of the film will become. The books are, to put it lightly, at times horrifying, especially for teen literature, but they overcome their sickening imagery by being printed, not visual. The horror, so to speak, becomes even more apparent as the series goes on with Collins at times substituting an immersive prose and affecting narrative with deeply manipulative imagery and a reliance on the superficial shock and awe of what’s happening on the page. There is absolutely no doubt that a pure adaptation of the violent events of the books would result in, at the very least, a 15 certificate, and to be honest that’s a generous estimate, with it far more likely to be verging towards an 18 – indeed that would be a definite by the final adaptation. Thus to include the target demographic, which is ironically likely to be the same as that of the hunger games themselves (12-18 year olds), there is simply no other way than to cut the more extremely violent moments of the text from the film. This I can’t abide, for despite their obvious manipulative intent, they serve as the whole momentum for the development of the grander narrative at work, which I don’t want to allude to here for fear of ruining the books. The atrocities of the Capitol – as well as the atrocities the tribute’s hands are forced to commit through the Capitol’s abhorrent method of control – are integral to a belief in and empathy with events that transpire later in the series. So to take them out would only damage the narrative of the later films and trivialise the motives of the character’s actions. How to solve this? Quite simply accept the demographic change from novel to cinema and create a moving depiction of survival through the looking glass. A science-fiction Winter’s Bone that is uncompromising and violent, brutal and revealing

Speaking of the grander narrative which courses through the books raises my third concern with a cinema adaptation. The scale of Collins’ world is quite staggering, though unfortunately never feeling completely fully formed due to the scant time and detail spent outside of the Capitol and District 12. Nevertheless Collins blueprint is there – twelve districts, each with particular characteristics and symbolisms, and one almighty Capitol presiding over them across vast swathes of unknown and inhospitable terrain. Although we are never treated too much more than a whistle stop tour and small windows into the other districts we are certainly aware of their existence and several elements of their personality; and Katniss and Peeta will visit each one in their travels. So to fully convey the imagination and depth of Collins’ world director Gary Ross’ adaptation will also likely have to spend time building up portions of a world, areas which we may only see briefly, but that are integral to locating Katniss, Peeta, the Capitol and District 12 within a broader collective of populations, that together form a whole. My worry is similar to the last one – that the film will focus on the eponymous action of the games principally and relegate other deeply important factors such as the world creation – which is so much a part of the enjoyment and exhilaration of the book itself – to the audience’s straining imagination. And again this will only serve to damage later films with audience’s lacking an investment in or notion of the wider battleground and landscape future events are set to play out across. The chess game type moves of later books in which other districts come to represent power and control, if only when mentioned in conversations, will mean little to viewer’s who haven’t been briefed before on their importance or position in the context ofThe Hunger Games world. How to solve this? This is a hard one to do without creating some sort of cheap looking montage across Panem. Perhaps creating pre-movie marketing ‘District Profiles’ could serve as a way to introduce the different areas to unfamiliar audiences or a short amendment to Collins’ work in the form of an introduction that describes the rebellion, its effect and the personalities of the now disunited districts. Other than this a solid focus on world creation is the only effective way to ensure a fully versed audience for later films. To look out across the upcoming series as a whole and create what amounts to an origin story in the initial film thus being able to fully immerse and enthral viewers in the later adaptations.

My fourth fear is centred on the omnipresent love triangle dynamic between Katniss, Peeta and Gale that often in the text lacks proper justification or explanation. As stated previously Katniss isn’t one to be in control of her own feelings or emotions and her long-running indecision and simple inability to commune with her own heart verges a little too much towards teenage dithering. The toe-tapping nature of the dynamic becomes wearying in the book, in the least, and reproducing that on screen will be a tough sell, even if the love triangle aspect has become a well loved genre staple through phenomenons like the Twilight saga. How to solve this? Adaptations have the right, as adaptations, to cut the wheat from the chaff. Despite my harping on about staying true to the text there are elements of Collins’ book that don’t work and are in fact distracting and plain trivial compared to the more esteemed themes she grapples with. Simply flatten out the padded dialogue and scenes that concern themselves with portraying Katniss as an object of desire and apple in the eye of the two central male protagonists – which also verges at times on self-indulgence on the part of Collins – and coax a more traditional love story between Katniss and Peeta, and a traditional friendship narrative between Katniss and Gale. Rather than attempting to justify a three pronged love plot that only works successfully in theTwilight series because that is exactly what the whole set of books and films are about; whereas The Hunger Games entertains a far more complex and broad thematic and moral landscape. I understand this will likely be a much maligned and controversial suggestion but I perceive it to be the only way to fully progress the full, intellectually and emotionally resonating, thematic complexity of the books while avoiding devoting precious running time to a tiresome trope of teenage literature and subsequent cinema adaptations.

I hope that my seeming assassination of a possible adaptation doesn’t appear to be too churlish or indeed premature as I am myself highly excited for the first film and eager to see how the director and produces pitch the film after being such a fan of the books. This article was mainly meant as a piece to provoke discussion for those that have read the books or to perhaps contemplate what it takes to create a successful adaptation. If there’s one final piece of advice you’d allow me to bestow it would be to read the books because they’re blooming marvellous.

The Skin I Live In Review

•August 26, 2011 • Leave a Comment

A women’s body stretches hauntingly, seductively, across a chair. Elegant but twisted, graceful yet disturbing. These are the images that open legendary Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar’s latest work The Skin I Live In. A sublime and deeply compelling film; and one in which Almodóvar has created his most enjoyable and accessible work to date. Crafting in his own distinctive and unique style a masterpiece of intrigue with a twist so menacing and calculated it can never be alighted upon or revealed.

Skin marks a reunion for Almodóvar and his estranged choice leading male Antonio Banderas after a twenty or so year break since their last film, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!. And Banderas is on Oscar winning form here, shedding the could have been histrionics of the melodrama and substituting them instead for what feels like an on screen emotional void. An expressionless, leathery faced, black hole; poisonous and insidious, deadly and delectable in equal measure. He plays Dr. Robert Ledgard, a plastic surgery expert, who uses his skills with a scalpel and prowess in the operating theatre to undo, or perhaps just live with, the tragedies that have taken those he loves. In his palatial home cum private surgery he holds prisoner the perfect, fragile Vera (Elena Anaya) with the help of his – although unbeknownst to him – mother and caretaker, Marilia (Marisa Paredes). Later on we leapfrog through time experiencing the occasion of his daughter’s death and its horrifying effect in the present.

It’s a difficult story to tell, unfolding as it does in dual timelines. And one feels it very well could have fallen apart in another’s hands but Almodóvar keeps the plates spinning and reconciles both narratives in a climactic middle act which is frankly the less talked about the better. This non-linear narrative has the effect of folding back over itself in the second half to reveal answers to a mysterious array of questions that are presented in the first. Assumptions and allegiances audiences may well posses at one stage can morph later on – a clever trick mirroring what is also happening onscreen – and effectually challenging and re-challenging out moral sensibilities.

Almodóvar has always thrived on putting psychopathic or unempathetic characters on screen and making us care for them and Skin is no different. For despite Ledgard’s evil the tragedies afflicting him evoke and demand an empathy. His characterisation is reminiscent most clearly of Javier Cámara’s Benigno in Talk To Her, a slave to torturous, possessive, misplaced love. In structure and tone the film mirrors its mercurial lead male; premeditative and calculating. Nothing about Ledgard’s movements or actions feels reckless or unplanned and the same can be said for the film, as the limited action that exists, exists with purpose, to cause ripples across a perfect surface, much like that of Anaya herself.

Part drama, part thriller, part body horror there’s also something exceptionally biblical about the piece. Almodóvar not only evokes the parable of the twins but overlays explicit imagery of the story of Cain and Abel. And compounding the biblical milieu with which Almodóvar infuses his film is the fulcrum on which the central plot tips – the reversal of the most enduring and original of all biblical lore.

Employing a flat visual tone and camerawork Almodóvar instils a sense of normality and believability to the bizarre proceedings, merely documenting events in a never flashy fashion. The resulting feeling is one of total complicity in an exquisitely turning narrative that is never predictable or mundane thanks to its macabre and perverse content. Wisps of potentials and what ifs are conjured creating a delta of narrative possibility which branch out and diverge in ever more spectacular options before Almodóvar instantly swipes these away to be replaced by a reality even more unimaginable. What’s most thrilling and sublime about the film however is Almodóvar’s ability to have Ledgard’s quest for lost love and vengeance dovetail in a menacing but fantastical fashion. Never giving too much away Almodóvar evidently revels in his unique ability to mesmerise us with both style and substance.

3.5/4

‘The Rum Diary’ Trailer

•August 26, 2011 • Leave a Comment