Archipelago (2010)

Archipelago (2010) ½

Dir: Joanna Hogg, UK, 114 mins

Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Kate Fahy, Lydia Leonard, Amy Lloyd, Christopher Bake

Archipelago is set on the beautiful, windswept isle of Tresco, part of the Isles of Scilly. Patricia (Kate Fahy) invites children Cynthia (Lydia Leonard) and Edward (Tom Hiddleston) to the family holiday home. This is arranged as a farewell for Edward who is about to depart to Africa, embarking on charity work for a year. Patricia hires artist Christopher (real life landscape artist Christopher Lloyd) to teach her water colours and chef Rose (Amy Lloyd) to cook for the family. Patricia’s husband Will is due to join the family later on in the week.

To label Joanne Hogg’s third feature a family drama in the formulaic sense is to do it a great disservice. Hogg has no interest in conventions; her characters do not undergo life changing lessons that make them “better” people with remarkable last minute epiphanies. Instead what we have is a brutal dissection of middle class mores, the dysfunction beneath a visage that has to be maintained. In this sense it takes the stiff upper lip image used so often on screen to depict this class but instead probes deeper to unveil darker home truths, middle class social realism if you wish.

This is a proper director’s film and could rightly be accused of being impenetrable with its glacial style. The camera remains static and at a distance as scenes play out. It is only as long simmering tensions become inflamed that shots are framed closer to the protagonists. There is no heavy exposition, we learn about these people through the standard conversation they share, a tic or seemingly minor comment reverberating deeply. A dinner table scene where Cynthia belittles Edward’s decision to go to Africa is a prime example, illustrating his need to buck conformity and the loyalty Cynthia feels he owes his father who arranged a stable job for him. Although Will is never seen on screen his influence looms large over the entire family. It feels as if his force of personality and expectation has shaped their lives, right or wrong.

There are times where the viewer can feel clammy and overly voyeuristic at what they are witnessing. Nevertheless, it holds a strange hypnotic quality and invites us into a world not usually depicted with such raw honesty. Out of a nuanced, naturalistic cast special praise should go to Hiddleston as Edward, unsure if he is making the right turning at his crossroads, and Fahy who you suspect holds a deep reserve of melancholic regret towards her marriage. Archipelago is a film that will not suit everyone’s tastes. However, the meticulous execution cannot be doubted and to generate so much with such restraint and understatement is a rare achievement and to be applauded.

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Take Shelter (2011)

Take Shelter (2011) ½

Cast: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Katy Mixon, Shea Whigham, Kathy Baker

Jeff Nichol’s follow up effort to Shotgun Stories (2007) takes place in Elyria, Ohio with everyman character Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) as it’s focal point. Working on a building site to sustain his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and young daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart), Curtis’s life begins to disintegrate as he starts to have premonitions of harm to his family and a coming storm. Obsessively he sets about building a storm shelter in his back garden. Has Curtis succumbed to the schizophrenia that afflicted his mother or is he preparing for what he feels to be the inevitable?

It would be tempting to place Take Shelter into the category of Apocalypse film. This genre has provided filmmakers with grand spectacle over the years, think Planet of the Apes (1968) and Mad Max (1979), chaotic, barren wastelands where survival is the only goal. My personal favourite would be A Boy and his Dog (1974) where Don Johnson’s Vic shares a telepathic connection with Blood, a mongrel more eloquent than his owner. A spate of these films, perhaps best typified by Armageddon (1998) and The Day after Tomorrow (2004), appeared in the late 90’s and early 00’s, a mainstream response to millennial and global warming concerns.

Take Shelter is quite the opposite, effectively a study of one man’s mental disintegration. Like Ron Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Curtis has little reason behind his compulsion, albeit with a more dangerous edge due to the acknowledged family medical history. The premonitions when they come jolt the audience away from this idyllic unit set in a sleepy, rural community. The audience fears not only for Curtis but also those around him yet still with an empathy for what he is going through. This is in no small part down to Shannon who is onscreen for the entirety of the running time and magnificent in realising an unravelling psyche. This is an understated performance, a slow, subtle crack that draws the audience in. Like  Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) we are disorientated and unsure until the final reel where we stand with the lead, a difficult trick to pull off.

Note must also go to Chastain who adds more meat to a role that would usually be dismissed as that of the “concerned wife”. Her bewilderment in understanding her husband’s situation articulates that of the audiences. The interplay with her and Shannon in scenes such as when they go to a sign language class for their daughter is playful and makes the decline all the more painful to witness. I must also add any CGI is understated and used sparingly to delicately enhance, not to swamp proceedings as is so regularly the case nowadays. It is perhaps this that sums up Take Shelter best, a film that puts character ahead of spectacle and is all the better for it.

Killer Joe (2011)

Killer-Joe-Matthew-McConaughey-02

Killer Joe (2011)   

Dir: William Friedkin, USA, 102 mins

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Templeton, Gina Gershon, Thomas Haden Church

As part of the New Hollywood set that blew apart the studio system William Friedkin first rose to prominence with cop thriller The French Connection (1971). Detective ‘Popeye’ Doyle’s (Gene Hackman) obsessive pursuit in closing down a drug smuggling ring transporting heroin from France, was a game changer for the genre. Raw and gritty, enhanced by loose, free flowing camerawork, with an antihero protagonist, it’s after effects are still felt, though never matched, in the vast sway of procedurals we see today. After winning a best director Oscar follow up The Exorcist (1973) cemented his reputation. Although my agnostic beliefs never enable me to fully engage with the film, the conflict played out is devastating and an assault on the senses.

After the financial and critical debacle Sorcerer (1977), a remake of Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953), Friedkin entered a “Cimino esque” state, directing every few years but never hitting previous form. A rare high with To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) soon led to mediocrity although I would like to highlight underrated basketball drama Blue Chips (1994), a spiritual companion piece to sublime documentary Hoop Dreams (1994). Bug (2006), a chamber piece taken to dizzying, paranoid extremes, showed that there was life in the old dog yet.

Bug was written by playwright Tracy Letts and Friedkin has turned to him again for his latest Killer Joe. Set in a small, trashy Texan town we are first introduced to Chris (Emile Hirsch), a schmuck in severe debt to loan sharks who devises a plan with father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) to kill his mother, now Ansel’s ex partner, for life insurance money. To, literally, execute this plan they contact Detective Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) who specialises in hitman work as a sideline. Issues become complicated when Cooper demands Chris’s sister, the Lolita esque Dottie (Juno Templeton), as a down payment.

Friedkin takes this staple noir plot and transplants it into a grimy trailer trash locale. He revels in the sweat and grime, spit and sawdust bars and strip joints bathed in midnight blue. The easy going, tumbleweed town of The Last Picture Show (1971) this is not. Despite the noir element you could barely call this a thriller. The plot, perhaps due to its stage play origins, unwinds at a leisurely pace and the twists and turns will be familiar to anyone use to this genre. Any sense of tension is cut short by the limited intelligence of the characters. The supporting cast appear to have great fun here playing hick stereotypes to the hilt, particularly Haden Church as the monotone, luggish Anson and Gina Gershon as his brash, tacky wife Sharla. In contrast Juno Templeton’s nuanced performance adds an unexpected layer to Dottie.

Of course it is never a case of getting from A to B, more how you get there. Tarantino would be the touchstone for films of this ilk but his films have great dialogue, characterisation and a fresh spin in terms of plot (or at least the editing of plot), shot through with a rich black comedic vein. Killer Joe has the latter, something it takes to absurd levels in the guise of McConaughey’s Cooper.

McConaughey is, frankly, terrifying in this film. Yes, you did read that correctly, that nice bloke from the romantic comedies, terrifying. In a clever piece of casting Friedkin has taken his Southern gent persona and skewered it beyond recognition. For most of the film he is still, polite but with deeply sinister undertones, always on the edge of losing it, a time bomb waiting to go off. This eventually unveils itself as outright sadism to back up his twisted moral code, best typified in one scene that will have you seriously questioning your next purchase of the colonel’s finest.

Maybe Friedkin intended for Cooper to be some perverse moral crusader against a right wing, red neck America riddled with diminishing ethics, an extreme leftie in joke possibly. A family dinner choreographed by Joe, which is more akin to a scene near the end of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), would best represent this argument. This is probably a stretch but if it is the case it smacks of shooting down easy targets and if not it veers into territory that is nasty and misogynistic, shock tactics for little point or reward. Killer Joe is notable for McConaughey’s performance but there is little here that you will have not seen before. Well, apart from the one scene at the end. But that is by no means a recommendation.

Prometheus (2012)

Prometheus (2012)   

Dir: Ridley Scott, USA, 123 mins

Cast: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Logan Marshall-Green, Idris Elba

Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien franchise after a 30 odd year hiatus has a lot riding on it after a rapid decline since his 1979 classic. Scott’s original, for me, still remains the scariest film ever made, a twist on the teen slasher movies such as Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980) but ratcheted up to severely testing nerve jangling limits with its body horror and claustrophobic, sweaty tension. James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) opted for the all out action blockbuster route and was no less effective in its own ballsy way whilst adding more meat to the creature evolution. David Fincher’s Alien 3 (1992) and Jean Pierre Jeunet’s Alien Resurrection (1997) remain intriguing failures more notable for both directors unique flair melded to a franchise machine compromised with studio interference. No comment needs to be passed on the nadir that represents the Alien vs Predator films.

Mystery has shrouded this film since its announcement with Scott distancing himself from direct prequel links. According to press quotes this was a companion piece with Alien DNA but the focus on terraforming. Nevertheless the well orchestrated trailers and viral campaign hinted that more than one strand of DNA was visible. A cursory knowledge of Greek mythology alone unveils the true hand in the title.

Set in 2089, archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) uncover a star map in the jagged terrain of the Isle of Skye identical to others found at numerous sites around the world. Backed by Weyland industries a team is recruited and set off onboard the ship of the title to the moon LV-223 to unravel the ever green philosophical conundrum of mankind’s origins.

A stunning elegiac opening with a waterfall backdrop sets up the premise beautifully conveying a science fiction grandeur of 2001 (1968) proportions. However, the films rhythm soon settles into Alien homage territory down to plot mechanics and stock characters. This is by no means a negative point as part of the fun to be had is through piecing together the origins of what we have experienced previously. It is aided by great production design, H R Giger back on board for the interior of the artificial structure the crew investigate. The ship itself is a wonder of design but like most prequels looks more advanced than what it supposedly predated. Up until the entry of the structure a growing sense of dread is palpable.

Unfortunately after this stage the film goes off the rails and plot holes appear at an alarming rate. It’s almost as if Scott felt he had to cater for the summer crowd (the final shot exemplifies this) and amped up the action. Character actions lack motivation or, worse, common sense. By jettisoning the taught atmosphere initially set the audience is made to jump through a series of illogical hoops to shoehorn in the origins plot. This central conceit that initially appeared so beguiling in its ambiguity consequently goes off the rails. This comes off like a cut and shut of a film with random action attempting to compensate a watered down horror element (although one scene is particularly squeamish in its execution). A directors cut would be an interesting quantity.

Performance wise Michael Fassbender as the robot David predictably steals the show. Obvious comparisons are with Ian Holm’s Ash but I felt that Fassbender’s portrayal held a closer link to the replicants of Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). David tries to understand what it means to be human, studying his crew mates and their emotional peaks and troughs through a icy, mannered demeanour. This character ultimately succumbs to the leaps of logic mentioned earlier but Fassbender makes the most out of what he has. Rapace is fine as the Ripley surrogate but is never allowed to go through any real transformation. She at least has more to work with than Theron who is purely in the film as a plot decoy. The remainder of the supporting cast is solid enough but do end up as ciphers once matters unravel.

Scott has claimed Prometheus could be the first part of a trilogy of prequels and despite my misgivings an exploration of this new branch of the Alien franchise would be a fascinating prospect. Perhaps this would enable him to elaborate on the potential high brow preoccupations he set himself here but stopped short on. Overall this is classier summer fare than most, atmospheric and as austere as the original to begin with but descending into the ridiculous after the halfway point.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Moonrise Kingdom (2012) ½

Dir: Wes Anderson, USA, 94 mins

Cast: Kara Hayward, Jared Gilman, Francis McDormand, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Bruce Willis

Wes Anderson has always been a director who divides audiences. For every viewer who revels in the offbeat, almost Trumpton esque world his films inhabit there is another argument that considers these twee, overly precious and style over substance.

After enjoying Anderson’s debut Bottle Rocket (1996) and, particularly, follow up Rushmore (1998), for me personally the rot set in with The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), possibly his best received film. Despite admiring Gene Hackman’s central performance, overall I felt alienated and had little emotional empathy for the family of eccentrics on show. It is a film I shall go back to re-evaluate. Although I did not vehemently dislike, this seemed like old hat and lacked the freshness and vibrancy of both debut and sophomore efforts. Fantastic Mr Fox (2009), despite heavily Americanising Roald Dahl’s original text, was entertaining enough but his last live action The Darjeeling Limited (2007), did little to alleviate this notion. Here was a sprawling mess masquerading as spiritual journey that ends up nowhere very slowly with a “shrug your shoulders” finale.

Set in 1965 on an island off the coast of New England (days before a major storm the omnipotent narrator informs us) the plot focuses on Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) and Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), loners who become kindred spirits and ultimately runaways. This prompts a mass search encompassing everyone from local police Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), Suzy’s parents (Francis McDormand and Bill Murray) to Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) and his troop of Khaki scouts.

Old detractors will not be persuaded. Retro attire, music and the requisite kitsch 60’s and 70’s colour palette are all in place, this time legitimately you could argue. Thematically a strong sense of community and underlying issues within dysfunctional families reside all in a whimsical toy town setting. So far, so Anderson but the strength of Moonrise Kingdom lies in its focus on the two young leads and the innocence of youth and first love, relegating the adult actors to supporting cast.

This may sound sickly sweet but the slightly off centre tone never allows it to be. Both leads are engaging, particularly Hayward as the enigmatic Suzy (think a younger Margot Tenenbaum). To a certain degree this harks back to territory dealt with in Rushmore, which also had a young cast, albeit without the mild psychotic streak displayed by Jason Schwartzman’s Max. This burgeoning relationship is nicely paralleled with the dovetailing of Mr and Mrs Bishop’s marriage acknowledged in a brief, superbly played scene between Murray and McDormand, a note of resignation and the complexities of adult life to that of youthful exuberance.

Amongst the supporting cast Willis and Norton are standouts. Willis acts his age (no string vests here!) and turns in a subtle, world weary performance, refreshing from his usual wise cracking persona. Norton’s manchild Scout leader is highly amusing in his dedication to the job. We are first introduced to him on an early morning camp walkabout where he drills his chaotic troop as they embark on duties for the day ahead. Anderson regular Schwartzman also pops up seemingly channelling the gung ho spirit of Surfer Boy from the Apocalypse Now (1979) rip off play at the end of Rushmore.

Moonrise Kingdom is far from progression, it adheres rigidly to the template, but it is a return to form. A deviation would be an intriguing prospect at this point in Anderson’s career if only to see him outside his comfort zone, ideally with another screenwriters material. Perhaps the finale, without giving too much away, is symbolic of a change of direction, getting things out of his system so to term it. I very much doubt it but regardless I can ensure that it will bring a wry smile to any detractors face.