The Paperboy delivers the Sweat

Matthew McConaughey & Zac Efron

Matthew McConaughey & Zac Efron

Maybe it was wishful thinking, but I expected Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy to be a lot more like Wild Things. This was no doubt a result of the similar South Florida setting, with its serenely sinister swamps and sweat-inducing heat. And both films open with a who-dunnit murder mystery, but where Wild Things is primarily concerned with who is killing/fucking who, it quickly becomes evident that The Paperboy couldn’t care less about who murdered the horrible town sheriff (who is grossly overweight, to emphasise his horribleness). Rather, it is the story of a handful of people who are all looking for gratification (both romantic and sexual) in the wrong places.

The film is set in 1969, when racial tensions are simmering but not quite explosive. The setting provides an interesting backdrop to the story, although it doesn’t have a strong influence on the proceedings. Matthew McConaughey plays reporter Ward Jansen, who returns to his home town to investigate the murder of the sheriff. A man has been convicted (John Cusack at his most greasy), though he professes his innocence. Nicole Kidman plays Charlotte, a local woman who has been writing to him in prison and has fallen in love with him. She also believes that he is innocent and assists in the investigation, to the delight of Ward’s horny younger brother Jack (Zac Efron).

Nicole Kidman

Nicole Kidman

The plot here is not particularly interesting, especially when compared with more traditional thrillers. This is partly because the film has the set-up of a thriller but then eschews the tropes of that genre until its final act; after the who-dunnit opening, the film turns into something of a family drama. What keeps this section engaging is the performances, which are strong across the board. McConaughey continues his 2012 winning streak, while Kidman steals her scenes as the deliciously trashy and determined Charlotte. She hasn’t been this much fun since To Die For, and a scene of her dancing in the rain evokes fond memories of that film. Efron already showed some acting chops in 2009’s Me and Orson Welles, but this is a stronger, more confident performance. He easily holds his own against his older colleagues. But the real surprise here is singer-turned-actor Macy Gray. She appeared in Daniels’ debut feature, 2005’s Shadowboxer, and returns here as the Jensens’ maid. She has a warm, resonant chemistry with Efron, and gets most of the film’s best lines.

But while the performances are strong, the characters themselves are only interesting to a point. They mostly feel like puppets in a vague allegory, and often act in ways that seem to suit the script more than their personality. Why is Charlotte in love with the convicted Hillary Van Wetter? The film makes it clear that her affection is misguided (or driven by some perverse masochism) but never offers even a superficial reason for her actions. Similarly, Jack’s infatuation with Charlotte feels more like plot machinations than a genuine emotional attachment (the lust however, rings true). I  was happy to accept the story as camp fun, but I suspect that the film was trying to elicit a more emotional response. The only moving scenes are those between the two brothers, or between Efron and Gray, who share a much stronger rapport than the one he has with Kidman.

Macy Gray

Macy Gray

The Paperboy is Daniels’ first feature script and while it has some strong scenes – and is impressively ambitious – it is rather messy. Major turning points happen off-screen, often papered-over by Macy Gray’s rambling narration (which is sometimes hilarious but mostly just clunky). At other times, the narration is redundant, telling us exactly what we are about to see, or a crutch, telling us things that are not shown at all (like when she tells us that Jack is fiercely jealous of another character, despite no on-screen evidence of this). To some degree, I like that Daniels is more concerned with plot momentum than with scenes of exposition, but it takes a while to get used to this hap-hazard style of storytelling.

Throughout the film, Daniels’ direction is striking, as is Roberto Schaefer’s beautifully grainy cinematography. There is a distinct lack of subtlety here (perhaps most evident when Daniels cuts from Cusack acting like a pig to a shot of an actual pig) but it fits the rather hysterical tone of the scenes in question. The camera lingers on each of the main actors, often sexualising them, at other times emphasising their vulnerability. Such visual flourishes help to carry the film through some of its more clunky scenes.

Where the film really picks up is the final act, when Daniels plunges us into the swamp and the thriller elements return. Sure, this section is incredibly silly, but the film seems more comfortable in this territory, embracing its exploitation side. It is here that Daniels’ direction is also at its strongest; the swamp is a superbly atmospheric setting, and he maintains an impressive sense of tension.

Kidman & Efron

Kidman & Efron

It is hard to tell how history will position The Paperboy. It is slightly too earnest to be a camp classic like Showgirls and much too silly to be an indie darling. I suspect that it will fade from public consciousness like the great Black Snake Moan, another film that occupies that dreaded space between exploitation and self-important art. It is definitely a fun excursion into steamy, fairly ridiculous territory, and even manages a couple of affecting moments. I sense that Daniels’ striking images will linger in my mind, even as my memory of the story quickly fades.

Film Review: Compliance

Dreama Walker

You want me to what?!

Compliance is one of those films that you can’t wait to discuss afterwards, regardless of your opinion on it. It’s edgy and thought-provoking, sometimes subtle and sometimes blunt. It operates like a horror film, starting with a familiar, benign set-up and then slowly escalating to a fever-pitch of insanity. If it flies off the rails at times, it’s at least due to ambition rather than laziness.

The film centres around a phone call that is placed to a fictional American fast food restaurant, the ChickWich. The caller says that he is a policeman, and that he has proof that a staff member has stolen money from a customer’s purse. He speaks to the manager, Sandra (Ann Dowd), and asks her to hold the suspected staff member, Becky (Dreama Walker) and keep her under observation until he can get there. Becky vehemently denies having stolen anything. The caller remains on the line, monitoring the situation remotely and providing further instructions. The film is about how the various characters in the restaurant respond to these instructions.

Ann Dowd

Ann Dowd as Sandra

The film recalls the classic Milgram psychological experiment, conducted in 1961, which tested its subjects’ obedience to figures of authority. It demonstrated how people can often divorce themselves from the responsibility of their actions if they are ‘following orders.’ Unsurprisingly, it is often discussed in relation to Nazism.

Furthermore, the film is based on a real incident that occurred at a McDonald’s in Kentucky in April 2004. If you are not familiar with the incident, wait until after you have seen the film before reading about it. While a couple of moments suggest that the filmmakers are taking ludicrous liberties with the facts, some quick research suggests otherwise. The filmmakers stick remarkably close to the actual events, and were tasked with making an unlikely series of true events seem credible.

You want me to what?!

Dreama Walker as Becky

For the most part, writer/director Craig Zobel’s film is very well-crafted. The script quickly introduces the characters and establishes their interpersonal dynamics. It effortlessly captures the feel of working in a customer service job, and the relationships that people have to different types of co-workers. At the start of the day, Sandra is already on the back foot due to a freezer being left open and a large amount of food spoiling. When the call arrives, her ability to competently do her job as manager is already in question.

The characters  feel believable, and their different reactions to the situation are fascinating, especially as it starts to escalate. The acting is uniformly excellent, with Ann Dowd particularly good as Sandra. I also really liked Philip Ettinger and Ashlie Atkinson, who play two of Becky’s co-workers. There is a wonderful moment in which Ettinger’s character almost laughs at the instructions that the caller gives him. It’s a horribly uncomfortable situation, but the character can see the almost comical absurdity in it.

As I mentioned before, there is a stretch in which the film seems to fly off the rails, pushing things well beyond reality. The realisation that the events depicted actually happened doesn’t change this instinctive reaction, but puts it in perspective. The filmmakers clearly struggled to portray a logical character progression that led to these scenes. But since the actual events occurred during such a heightened, hysterical situation, there is little logic to them. It’s a shame that the script wasn’t able to better integrate these moments into the story, but I certainly sympathise with the difficulty of the task.

Ashlie Atkinson as Marti

Ashlie Atkinson as Marti

What makes Compliance work so well is that it never condescends to its characters. Zobel  presents their actions as deeply flawed but not beyond our understanding. They are humans, not puppets in some morality play (which this could have been in the wrong hands). Zobel leaves you to judge the characters or empathise with them or flatly claim that you would never do such a thing in that situation. He doesn’t tell you how you should view this situation; he simply tries to present it in a believable fashion and leaves you to draw your own conclusions.

There are several moments of brilliance during Compliance. There are a couple of moments that seem utterly stupid. Research into the actual event throws new light on the entire story. The script is very good, and the acting is excellent. Zobel is confident behind the camera. Compliance is not an easy film to watch, but it is incredibly fascinating, and whatever your reaction to it, it will give you a lot to talk about afterwards.

Note: Compliance is now screening at Cinema Nova in Melbourne

The Top Films of 2012

The idea of listing, ranking and culling the films of the year is enjoyable to some, reprehensible to others. I am one of those people who finds the process enormously enjoyable (sometimes disturbingly so). If you find the idea of ranking films counter-intuitive, then ignore the numbers and simply treat this as a celebration of some of the best films of 2012.

Before diving in, here are a couple of observations about how my picks of 2012 compared with my picks of 2011. Of course, these observations merely reflect my personal tastes; they are not intended as blanket statements about what was available to viewers.

  • Last year, every single film in my top 20 was in English, unless you count the documentary Senna, which features interview excerpts in multiple languages. This year, however, I was delighted to find that seven non-English-language films had made my list.
  • Last year, there were no animations in my top 20, though Kung-Fu Panda 2 came close. This year, there was only one animation that I loved. This is rather sad when you think back to the animation boom that occurred a few years ago. Consider that the following films all came out in 2009: Cloudy with a Chance of MeatballsCoraline, The Fantastic Mr. FoxPonyoUp and Waltz With Bashir. Hopefully the next few years see a resurgence in quality animation.
  • Last year, there were two Australian films in my top 20 (Burning ManOranges and Sunshine). This year, there are none, though it wasn’t for lack of seeing local content. For the record, I quite enjoyed Not Suitable for Children, though it didn’t quite make the cut…
I didn't make the list?!

I didn’t make the list?!

This list is based on Australian release dates. The following five films were released in Australia in 2012, and I loved them all, but they have not been included because they appeared on my Best Films of 2011 list:

  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
  • 50/50
  • Martha Marcy May Marlene
  • Shame
  • The Artist

20. Cabin in the Woods

Kristen Connolly in Cabin in the Woods

Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard offer up a sharp horror-comedy that simultaneously pays homage to classic horror tropes and skewers them as well. The characters are well drawn, the script is filled with wit, and Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins steal the whole show. I had quibbles with the second act pacing, and the third act is something of an endearing mess, but overall it’s a much-needed dose of imagination to a frequently predictable genre. Click here for full review.

19. A Separation

A Separation

At a certain point during the first half of this Iranian drama, it occurred to me that it would probably end up being my favourite film of the year. But after a key incident about halfway through, I felt the tension – and my engagement with the film – slowly waning. There’s no denying that this is a well made, absorbing story. I only wish that it had maintained the incredible tension that is present in the flawless first half of the film.

18. Safety Not Guaranteed

Safety Not Guaranteed

Sweet, low-key indie approaches potentially heavy subject matter with a light touch, and features likeable performances by Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass. It’s hardly groundbreaking, but it’s incredibly charming.

17. Skyfall

Daniel Craig in Skyfall

Skyfall is my favourite blockbuster of the year, and the only one to make this list. There were great moments in The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, but neither felt as cohesive as the latest James Bond outing. Which is not to say that it doesn’t have its flaws; its approach to female characters is hopelessly outdated, and like most recent blockbusters, it’s about 45 minutes too long… Nevertheless, I found it to be a gripping experience, filled with exhilarating action sequences and breathtaking cinematography, courtesy the great Roger Deakins. Click here for full review.

16. The Interrupters

The Interrupters

Absorbing documentary by director Steve James, who made the great Hoop Dreams. It follows the remarkable efforts of a group called CeaseFire, who are dedicated to preventing violence in Chicago. The film features thoughtful interviews and some nerve-wracking footage of CeaseFire members intervening during street violence, putting themselves at risk for their cause.

15. The Raid

The Raid

After a slow start, this Indonesian action film kicks into gear and never lets up. Filled with brutal, superbly coreographed fight scenes and generous splashes of blood for the gore-hounds, this was one of the most exciting films of the year. Click here for full review.

14. Margaret

Margaret

It’s rare for a film to feel so messy and yet so enthralling at the same time. Famously delayed by several years, and edited down from a longer director’s cut at the insistence of distributor Fox Searchlight, Margaret is a sprawling, often disjointed affair, but it possesses an intimacy and a complexity rarely seen on-screen. Anchored by writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s strong characterisation, and superb performances by Anna Paquin and J. Smith-Cameron. Click here for full review.

13. Young Adult

Charlize Theron in Young Adult

Writer Diablo Cody offers her most mature work yet, with this caustic, frequently uncomfortable but captivating film. It is a portrait of a narcissistic, self-destructive author who returns to her small home-town, intent on winning the affection of her high school crush… who is happily married. Charlize Theron is phenomenal in the lead role, as is Patton Oswalt as her only ally in town. Click here for full review.

12. Frankenweenie

Frankenweenie

I never expected to like this film. I had seen Tim Burton’s wonderful 1984 short, and felt there was nothing to add to it – it was perfect as it was. Not only that, but I had all but given up on Tim Burton as a director, and was especially wary of any projects that were adapted from pre-existing material (Alice in Wonderland, Dark Shadows etc.) But there was one factor that made me give this film a shot – the absence of Burton’s over-used ‘muse’ Johnny Depp. And I’m so glad that I caved, because this film has restored some of my confidence in Burton. Based on a warm, charming script by John August (Go, Big Fish), this is an incredibly affecting story (I teared up at least three times), one which smartly builds upon the original idea without diluting it.

11. Searching for Sugar Man

Searching for Sugar Man

Like last year’s Catfish, this engrossing documentary begins as a mystery film (tracking the elusive 70s musician Rodriguez) and ends up somewhere completely different. Taking several turns along the way, this well-crafted film builds to an enormously affecting and immensely satisfying conclusion.

10. Argo

Argo

There is little doubt now that Ben Affleck belongs behind the camera (unless he gets another jack-ass role like in Dazed and Confused or Mallrats; he seems to flourish with those characters). After one great film (Gone Baby Gone) and one good one (The Town), he brings us his strongest film yet. This is the first of his films that he didn’t write, which may or may not have helped matters. Either way, the script is well-paced and wrings maximum tension out of this fascinating true story. Occasionally, this practice undermines the story (the events seem increasingly unlikely as the film powers towards its climax), but for the most part, it serves to keep the audience in a vice-like grip. Special mention must go to the editing in the opening scene, in which the furious Iranian protesters breach the American embassy. It’s a superb start to the film, and one of the most gripping, pulse-pounding scenes of the year.

9. Tomboy

Tomboy

This beautifully crafted film centres on a young girl, Laure, who wants to be a boy. When her family moves to a new neighbourhood, she seizes the opportunity to live out her fantasy, and introduces herself to the other kids as a boy named Mikael. This deception ignites the film’s ‘ticking bomb under the table’, which threatening to explode at any moment when the kids get closer to discovering the truth. With a wonderful balance of harsh reality and tender warmth, this a truly moving story. Click here for full review.

8. Headhunters

Headhunters

Headhunters boasts what is surely the tightest script of the year. Clocking in at 100 min but feeling like 80, it has no extraneous touches; every element is important. And it’s an absolute blast. As I wrote in my full review: ‘One of the primary rules of screenwriting is to give your character a clear goal and then make things really fucking difficult for him. The Norwegian film Headhunters embraces this rule whole-heartedly, and the result is a cracking comedy-thriller.’

7. Your Sister’s Sister

Your Sister's Sister

Director Lynn Shelton follows up her charming film Humpday with another thoughtful character piece, which is more polished than her previous effort. The characters are richly detailed and the actors disappear into the roles, turning in amazing performances. The film boasts an incredibly naturalistic style, partly because the actors contributed to the design of their characters, and were allowed room to improvise in most scenes. This is a beautifully-crafted, often hilarious, moving film, and comes as a welcome antidote to concept-heavy Hollywood fare.

6. The Giants

Les Geants

Like Your Sister’s Sister, the Belgian film The Giants has a remarkably intimate focus. It revolves around three boys who have been left to their own devices over the summer while their parents are away. Brothers Zak (Zacharie Chasseriaud) and Seth (Martin Nissen) are in the care of their grandfather, who is incapable of monitoring them, while Danny (Paul Bartel) is under the care of his abusive brother. The film does an amazing job of communicating their restless energy and suppressed hurt at being abandoned by their parents. Director Bouli Lanners elicits wonderfully nuanced performances from his young actors (recalling Rob Reiner’s work on Stand By Me), while Jean-Paul De Zaeytijd’s stunning country-side cinematography provides a nice contrast to the characters’ desperation. As the story progresses, the stakes increase dramatically, and the conclusion is incredibly powerful. While the story may seem slight – it’s not as plot-driven as Stand By Mefor example – I found The Giants to be one of the most affecting films of the year.

5. Berberian Sound Studio

Berberian Sound Studio

Peter Strickland’s debut film Katalin Varga was a dark, unsettling film in which the threat of violence hung over the entire proceedings. This tone is carried over to Strickland’s second film, Berberian Sound Studio, which also injects a dash of comedy as it follows British sound designer Gilderoy (Toby Jones, superb as usual), who is completely out of his element, working in Italy on a giallo horror film. Gilderoy is increasingly uncomfortable with the intensely violent content of the film (which is – quite hilariously – about an evil equestrian academy), and as he becomes slowly sucked into the world of the film, his reality begins to distort. This is a truly unique film, and it had me enthralled from start to finish. As expected, the sound design is superb. The full review is contained here.

NB: Berberian Sound Studio will be playing in Melbourne at ACMI from December 27 2012.

4. I Wish

I Wish

Writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda (Still Walking) has crafted another fantastic film, with his usual intimate focus. The characters are beautifully drawn and the performances wonderfully naturalistic. Like The Giants, it treats the concerns of the child protagonists with the utmost sincerity, and the end result is enormously affecting. The full review is contained here.

3. Kid With a Bike

The Kid With a Bike

Between The Giants and Kid With a Bike, 2012 proved to be a great year for Belgian coming-of-age films (although if you want to get technical, both are 2011 releases). The latest film from the Dardenne brothers is a frequently harrowing, emotionally draining story that manages to offer enough sense of hope so as to not leave you in a suicidal funk. Thomas Doret gives a heart-breaking performance as the young Cyril, who is determinedly searching for a father who abandoned him. Like the Dardenne brothers’ film The Son, this is a beautifully crafted work.

2. Tyrannosaur

Tyrannosaur

Paddy Considine’s feature directorial debut is a magnificent portrait of two characters who are deeply wounded when they meet, and it explores a connection that gradually forms between them. Featuring brilliant performances by Peter Mullan, Olivia Colman and Eddie Marsan, and a nuanced, complex script, Tyrannosaur is a truly powerful film, and announces Considine as a confident director.

1. Weekend

Weekend

It was a great year for British dramas, and Andrew Haigh’s Weekend was the best of them. It traces a relationship that forms over one weekend between the outgoing, openly gay Glen (Chris New) and the quieter, less comfortable Russell (Tom Cullen). What starts as a one night stand quickly develops into something much stronger, but Glen is about to move to America, so their time together is limited. This is an astonishingly intimate film, with a remarkable sense of immediacy to each scene. I truly felt like I was there with the characters, more so than with any other film in recent memory. Given that it creates such a strong sense of identification with the characters, it is no surprise that the emotional beats hit hard. The ending was so emotionally draining that when I walked out of the cinema, I was in a daze, and couldn’t shake that feeling for days after. Weekend is not only my favourite film of the year, but one of my favourite films period. Click here for full review.

Film Review: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Charlie & the Wallflowers

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is writer/director Stephen Chbosky’s film adaptation of his semi-autobiographical 1999 novel. Apparently set in 1991, though boasting a 1980s look, the film centres on Charlie (Logan Lerman), an awkward, withdrawn student in his first year of high school. His social life is ignited when he meets siblings Sam (Emma Watson) and Patrick (Ezra Miller), who are in their final year of school, and who introduce him to a world of fun-loving social misfits. There is an instant connection between the three, but as the they grow closer, their repressed personal problems begin to emerge and threaten their friendship.

The film works because of the friendship between the three characters, which is both convincing and affecting. Each character is skilfully drawn, and the three actors embrace their roles, inhabiting them with ease. Lerman is especially good in his leading role, playing Charlie’s shy awkwardness without ever feeling forced. The characters of Sam and Patrick are appropriately magnetic; it is easy to see why Charlie is drawn to them. Elsewhere, the script is curiously uneven, combining scenes that feel overly familiar with scenes that feel dynamic and fresh.

Emma Watson, now available in soft-focus

Emma Watson, now available in soft-focus

Chbosky elicits good performances from his actors, though his visual approach is less dynamic. Andrew Dunn’s cinematography is deliberately hazy, seemingly intended to reflect the characters or the time period (or perhaps their relationship to their environment). Some have found this approach successfully immersive; I found it to be distracting, occasionally getting the sense that I was watching a commercial. The script’s evocation of 80s/90s nostalgia treads a fine line between endearing and cloying, from its delight in cassette mix-tapes to a scene in which the characters hear David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ for the first time (though it’s hard to believe that Sam and Patrick, hipsters that they are, have never heard the song before).

One of the script’s limitations is its unmistakably novelistic feel (hardly a surprise, given its origins). There are several passages of voice-over that sound as if they have been lifted from the page, and the plot structure is quite episodic. Neither of these is a huge problem (the voice-over is explained as being letters that Charlie is writing to an unseen friend), but they feel more televisual than cinematic. Having said that, the majority of the scenes work very well as individual pieces; it is only when taken as a whole that the lack of a strong narrative becomes apparent.

One of the less successful script moments is a major revelation towards the end (as apparently happens in the novel), when it feels like the credits are about to roll. The script enters an unexpected additional act, and while the scenes themselves are quite effective, it feels structurally awkward.

Lerman, Miller and Watson

Lerman, Miller and Watson

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is an engaging but uneven film that ultimately works because it makes you care about its protagonists. Sure, there are weaknesses in the script and the visual approach, but when you enjoy spending time with the characters, such things hardly matter.

Film Review: Skyfall

Skyfall

Daniel Craig in Skyfall

Daniel Craig returns as Bond

I have never been a huge fan of the James Bond films. I can obtain some scattered pleasures from the kitschy classic films, but I can only watch the character’s escapades through various exotic locales and brain-dead cardboard women before my mind starts to wander. However, this all changed with Bond’s 21st outing – 2006’s Casino Royale. For the first time, the script made Bond (now played by Daniel Craig) feel like an actual person, no doubt due in part to the success of the more grounded Bourne films. And the Bond girl, Vesper (Eva Green), seemed to have more than penis on the brain. They were still stylised characters, but the emotional beats rang true. That was the first Bond film that I really loved.

Sadly, 2008’s dismal Quantum of Solace ruined much of my Bond good will with its forgettable plot and incoherent action. The key question when approaching Skyfall was: which of the previous Craig films would it most resemble?

The good news is that Skyfall falls firmly into the Casino Royale camp. It’s not as good as that film, but it’s a return to form after Quantum. Crucially, the action scenes (always the primary concern in a Bond film) are clearly and excitingly staged, and the entire film is beautifully shot. Cinematographer Roger Deakins has collaborated with director Sam Mendes previously, on Jarhead (which features stunning imagery) and Revolutionary Road (which is possibly beautiful but all I can recall is the incessant, mind-numbing screaming).

Skyfall opens with a spectacular action sequence in Istanbul, complete with a roof-top motorcycle chase. After this cracking start, the pacing slows considerably as we wait for Bond to return to the action. This is arguably the weakest section of the film, but thankfully, the pace picks up again once Bond sets off for Shanghai. The Shanghai section features the film’s most breath-taking sequence – a back-lit fight in front of a giant neon screen. It’s a truly remarkable piece of cinema.

Berenice Marlohe as Bond Woman #2

Another key components of a Bond film is the Bond Girls, although they are apparently now officially called ‘Bond Women,’ in a rather lame attempt to hide the franchise’s hopelessly outdated approach to gender. This is easily the film’s weakest point, although not cripplingly so. There are two Bond women here and the script gives neither of them much to do. They are certainly nowhere near as interesting as Vesper from Casino Royale for example, although both actresses (Naomi Harris & Berenice Marlohe) do a fine job with the material they are given. The script is far more concerned with the character of M, played by the always excellent Judi Dench; she gets more to do here than she has in previous installments.

The final key component – the villain – is Raoul Silva, played with camp relish by Javier Bardem. In one of the film’s more entertaining scenes, Silva captures Bond and instead of torturing him, attempts to unsettle him by stroking his chest and flirting with him. Bond’s response shows that he’s not as homophobic as Silva assumes, rendering him momentarily powerless. But what makes Silva a great villain is his back story; (minor spoilers) he was also an MI6 agent, reporting to M, and he was essentially used like a puppet and discarded. He is now hell-bent on vengeance against the mother (M) who he perceives to have abandoned him.

Javier Bardem does Villain Duty

Skyfall is fascinating in the way that it uses its villain to make the James Bond character more interesting. Bond himself is something of a puppet, and his past is not dissimilar to Silva’s. The difference is that Silva refuses to accept the callous treatment he received, whereas Bond reports back for duty, no matter what MI6 do to him. Thus, the script makes Silva’s motivations more relatable than Bond’s, asking the question: if you were treated like this by someone you ‘belong to,’ which of these emotional responses would you be more likely have?

The film never dwells on this comparison, but it lurks there throughout, and the more we learn about what happened to Silva (and the more relatable his motivations become), Bond’s psychology begins to seem more and more bizarre. It reminded me of the character of Brody on Homeland – another fascinating character who is a puppet to all around him and who cannot muster up the strength to break free. Why does Bond accept his treatment? He appears to have little sense of self outside of MI6; he is nothing without his job, and in that sense, the script presents him as being seriously emotionally deficient. This is rich territory for a giant blockbuster, and is only touched upon through the juxtaposition between Bond and Silva, but it makes Bond’s character much more interesting than he usually is.

Skyfall is a slick, gripping (albeit bloated) action film, and it shows that the 007 franchise isn’t close to running out of steam. Hopefully the next instalment will retain this film’s curiosity in the psychology of Bond, and grant its Bond Women some complexity as well.

La Mirada Film Festival Review: the excellent Sleep Tight

Luis Tosar as César

Blending comedy and suspense is an extremely difficult task, and more often than not, one element succeeds at the expense of the other. The Spanish film Sleep Tight is rather remarkable in the way it achieves this tonal balance, often hitting both notes simultaneously.

The film revolves around hotel concierge César, played with wonderful precision by Luis Tosar (Cell 211, Even the Rain). We meet César as he stands on the hotel roof, contemplating suicide. He is deeply unhappy, but he is kept afloat by his single mission in life – to make others unhappy as well. His nemesis is the always positive Clara, played by the luminous Marta Etura (Cell 211, the upcoming The Impossible). The film then offers the most unusual protagonist goal: César is determined to wipe the smile off Clara’s face.

I won’t say much about the plot here, but suffice it to say that César has a key to Clara’s apartment, and his methods for making her unhappy are both creative and incredibly unsettling. He spends most nights inside her apartment, starting out underneath her bed, in a touch reminiscent of the Jerry Skolimowski film Four Nights With Anna. From the outset, César’s methods do not appear violent; he is determined to break her spirit through psychological torture rather than physical pain. There is not much psychological complexity to his character, but his methods are fascinating. Crucially, we are not sure exactly what he is capable of, so the threat of violence hangs over the film and augments the ever-present tension.

A roach infestation in Sleep Tight

As with films like Man Bites Dog or Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, the audience spends most of the film following a sociopath, which creates a perverse identification with César’s actions. There are scenes in which the film beautifully toys with the viewer’s empathy for Clara (which demands that César be caught) and our simultaneous anxiety about our protagonist being captured.

A key element to the film’s success is the character of Clara, whose positive outlook could easily have been a source of mocking comedy. However, her optimism is never undermined or revealed to be a mask for some deep-seated unhappiness; rather, it is a marvellous source of strength. Every time César enacts one of his plans, he waits for her to emerge from her apartment the next morning, hoping to see the anguish on her face. But every time she walks past the concierge desk and flashes him a good-natured smile, it is a triumphant slap in his face. For the film to work, César needs a worthy adversary, and in Clara, writer Alberto Marini has crafted a unique and refreshing opponent.

The design of the hotel is eye-catching without being distracting. The metal gate that shield the elevator is especially effective in the scenes where César watches the descending vault, waiting to see which of his victims will emerge. Director Jaume Balagueró (Rec and Rec 2) uses the spaces within the hotel and its apartments effectively, and makes great use of point of view shots when César is lurking in Clara’s bedroom or spying on her and her boyfriend.

César the voyeur in Sleep Tight

Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of Sleep Tight, as indicated at the start of this review, is the balance of comedy and horror. There are scenes of great tension when César is lurking in Clara’s apartment, and there are wonderfully comic scenes, including a subplot about a spiteful young girl who lives across from Clara, has cottoned on to César’s behaviour, and is blackmailing him in exchange for her silence.

There is a delicious cruelty to the humour, on a level that we don’t usually see in films. It reminded me of Neil LaBute’s controversial jet-black comedy In the Company of Men, in which two misogynistic businessmen psychologically bully a deaf female colleague, as a form of revenge against her entire gender. Sleep Tight is less confronting because the comedy is lighter and the protagonist less grounded in ugly reality. Still, the blend of comedy and cruelty is both startling and perversely entertaining. I was also impressed that film doesn’t pull its punches; there are a few occasions where it ventures into territory that is darker than expected.

Sleep Tight isn’t a perfect film, but it is terrifically entertaining. The script is sharp, and pits two nicely defined, strong-willed characters against each other. The climax gets a little hysterical, but this is at least in keeping with the sense of farce that underpins the film. With its effortless balance of chills and laughs, and its lightness of touch, Sleep Tight is a real joy.

Film Review: Looper

Writer/director Rian Johnson makes films that are ambitious, fascinating, and that fall just short of greatness. Looper is no exception, although for my money, it falls further short than his previous films – 2006’s Brick and 2009’s The Brothers Bloom.

The film centres on Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a sort of underground assassin (or ‘looper’) who kills people sent back in time from the future by his employers, who have access to not-yet-invented time-travel technology. Joe kills them in the present, which prevents them from… well, doing things in the future. It’s not clear who the loopers usually kill, since so much of the film involves them killing their future selves – their contract stipulates that they are richly rewarded for their services, can live happily for 30 years, and must then be sent back in time to be killed… by their younger self. Or something along those lines. Joe’s life is drastically altered when his future self (Bruce Willis) is sent back in time to be killed but manages to escape.

I am not generally drawn to time-travel films (or plot-lines in TV shows like ‘Misfits‘), as the logic never seems to add up. It works well in Back to the Future, which somehow keeps things simple. It works very well in the 2004 micro-budget indie Primer, because writer/director Shane Carruth focused on being as scientifically accurate as possible. Looper is more complicated than Back to the Future, and much less sophisticated than Primer. Carruth served as an advisor on Looper, though he apparently worked on the visual design of the time-travel effects, as opposed to the concept.  To his credit, Johnson has conceived of some fascinating ideas in relation to time travel, but hasn’t quite found the clarity required to really buy into these concepts. It almost makes sense… until you really think about the logic (especially in relation to who knows what and when) and then it falls apart.

To be honest, I could have over-looked almost all of the plot-holes in this film if the story had worked on an emotional level. Johnson’s previous films have been emotionally rich affairs, be it the melancholy of Brick or the charming warmth of The Brothers Bloom (particularly in Rachel Weisz’s character). Looper, on the other hand, is mostly devoid of emotional impact. There are a couple of nice scenes involving Emily Blunt’s character and her son, but even these seem to fall short of Johnson’s intention. The dynamic between Gordon-Levitt and Willis is also strangely muted, apart from an entertaining conversation in a diner. By the time the film arrived at its underwhelming climax, I had little investment in the story beyond a basic hope that Gordon-Levitt’s Joe would emerge unscathed.

The primary flaw in Looper‘s script is the fact that the film starts on an epic scale (the first act is pretty spectacular) and progressively zeroes in until the scope is extremely small. This could have worked wonderfully if Johnson had achieved strong identification with the characters, but given that he didn’t, it is frustrating to be stuck with this handful of characters. The plotline involving Emily Blunt and her son supposedly has epic implications, but what we see on-screen is standard stuff, reminiscent of several feature films, as well as multiple episodes of The X-Files (nerd alert: off the top of my head, the climax recalls the episodes Born Again,’ ‘The Calusari’ and ‘Chinga’).

The direction throughout is solid, with some great action set-pieces, particularly Gordon-Levitt’s escape from his employers. Elsewhere, an ‘action’ scene in which Willis mows down people with an endless string of bullets plays as if it is the coolest sight imaginable, and left me cold… and slightly unnerved that this is an image for the audience to admire. Don’t get me wrong – I can appreciate a good shoot ‘em up scene in certain action films, but this film seemed smarter than that.

What redeems Looper is its ambition, which is undeniably impressive. I would much rather see a director like Johnson attempting something with so much promise – and with such inventive touches – than see anything directed by Jon Favreau. It also boasts another fantastic performance by Gordon-Levitt, who once again proves why he is one of the best actors working today. Despite being top-billed (for contract reasons presumably), Willis doesn’t have nearly as much screen-time and doesn’t make much of an impression. Blunt is also given little to do, though she is charming as always.

Looper is not destined to be a science-fiction classic, but it is an entertaining – if rather emotionless – effort from an always fascinating director. Hopefully with his next film, Johnson will return to the character-based story-telling that drove his previous films.

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