FILM REVIEW: The Rover (2014, Michôd)

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“If you don’t learn to fight, your death’s gonna come right soon.”

Relentlessly bleak, The Rover‘s dystopian context bears no signs of optimism. Its desolate vastness is vividly represented by the post-apocalyptic Australian outback setting, and yet – it never fully explains its full background. Michôd’s ambiguous plot only outlines one certainty: the world is in disarray.

The Rover opens with Eric (Guy Pearce) – desert-tanned with buzzing flies around him – there is an immediate look in his eyes that strikes him as hopelessly lost. He lives a mechanical existence — one that encompasses the primal necessity of survival. We are then taken to a scene of 3 friends in a car, they crash their own car, steal Eric’s car and drive away. Pearce’s character chases after them, capturing one of the thieves’ brothers (Pattinson) – where they develop an uneasy bond throughout the journey. The length of the film never hints at the specific uniqueness of the car, but this significant plot device drives the film with increasing suspense and uncertainty.

Michôd’s examination into a world where crime and justice have completely collapsed, presents no explanation. Only focusing on the effects of these circumstances, Michôd presents a nihilistic outlook, deliberately pacing the film to reflect the endless torment induced by such ramifications. Its slow shots depicting the barren emptiness of the outback, assisted by its stunning cinematography, provides a unwavering uncertainty which permeates the film. The instantaneous and unexpected violence shocks in comparison to the relatively subdued tone which exacerbates underlying tenseness. Few words are spoken by the characters in the film, and it propels this overwhelming tension, which is supported brilliantly by creative decisions by Michôd. Antony Partos’ minimalist score is extremely effective – from its opening drones from the cello, it provides a powerful accompaniment to accentuate the ongoing uneasiness of the film.

Here, both Pearce and Pattinson are at the top of their game. Subtle, nuanced yet exceptional, their transformative performances render their characters with additional intrigue and interest. But it’s Pearce who leads the film – his dirt-ridden face, and face which displays unexplained emotions – adds to the layer of mixed feelings to these circumstances: pain, suffering, hopelessness, sentiment.

The contrast between Pearce’s and Pattinson’s characters is a fascinating exploration. An unlikely pair, Pearce’s character emits a certain ‘wise’ quality about the changing world, in which Pattinson’s “dim-witted” character cannot face. Michôd’s startling reminder of the innocence of Pattinson’s character is exuberantly blasted by Keri Hilson’s track in the most implausible scene — bringing yet a diverting tone, which is curiously comical. In fact, Michôd, once again, emphasises the devastating impacts of this broken world on humanity.

The Rover is an enthralling watch – its unanswerable questions intertwine with its unpredictability – ultimately ensuring the film’s deliberately paced unravelling remains acutely powerful.

THE ROVER
Directed by David Michôd
Produced by David Michôd, David Linde, Liz Watts
Starring: Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson

RATING ½ out of 5

 

FILM REVIEW: A Most Violent Year (2014, Chandor)

J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year offers a glimpse into one of New York’s most violent years, but ultimately offers a unique exploration into the breakdown of the American Dream, classism, and morality itself. Soaked in a relatively dark palette, Chandor’s film contrasts from his last project, All is Lost; containing a fleshed out screenplay, while managing to divert his film from traditional crime conventions.

A slow burner, Chandor’s directional abilities to create tension stem from drawn out shots, and choices to steer away from constant graphic violence. Instead of focusing solely on the events of the winter of 1981, he uses this setting to create a gripping thriller, while enveloping relevant ideas. Set in this period, the film centres on an immigrant, Abel (Oscar Isaac), and his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), who have built their business empire in New York City. Yet, the paradox is that while the very act of violence surrounds them, Abel constantly desires to preserve the ‘right’ and legal way of doing business. He acts as the good face of the company, always insisting that he has always been an honest man – while his wife fiddles with the money behind the scenes. But as an investigation into their company by the police progresses, questions arise to the necessity of violence and corruption to advance in society. It isn’t a new idea, but Chandor nevertheless keeps it fresh and intriguing, by stretching out the film’s ideas through its slow pace and distinctive plot.

While concurrently challenging the very essence of the American Dream, the attacks on Abel’s business from an ‘unknown source’ express the uncertainty of existence itself, and the arbitrary way the world grants success. Is it through hard work? Is it through violence? Or is it just completely random? Chandor leaves us guessing with these ideas, but also doesn’t forget to leave his mark on the film too, by positioning a dramatic foil to Abel to offer an interrogation into why others are not deemed to be destined for success, compared to others.

Additionally, the strain between Abel and Anna’s marriage adds another layer to the already tense subjects regarding morals. Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac deliver astonishing and wide-ranging performances, and lead this film with their compelling chemistry and strong-willed natures. Isaac’s acting reminds me of his looked-over performance in The Two Faces of January, but with more screen time, he gives a nuanced and riveting performance as a man tortured by his ideals. Chastain can still do no wrong, and that is exhibited through her dynamic ability to raise the stakes of the film’s already palpitating drama.

Collaborating with Alex Ebert, whose score drove All is Lost beautifully; this time, Ebert’s score is much more subtle. It rumbles, broods and is seemingly less extravagant than his already unconventional All is Lost material. But it provides the right atmosphere to the film’s permeating uneasiness.

This isn’t your typical ‘gangster’ movie. In fact, that’s what makes A Most Violent Year so fantastic. Chandor’s niche vision expands to a never-ending critique of corruption, and how violence will continue to exist in different forms – if not, physically, then within systems of power.

A MOST VIOLENT YEAR
Directed by J.C. Chandor
Produced by J.C. Chandor, Anna Gerb, Neal Dodson
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Oscar Isaac, David Oyelowo, Albert Brooks

RATING out of 5

FILM REVIEW: A Bigger Splash (2016, Guadagnino)

This review was originally posted on ImpulseGamer.com

We are all obscene…”

While it begins with a deafening rock concert, A Bigger Splash’s use of silence is perhaps one of its most powerful tools. The immediate cutaway of the sanctuary of the Italian island of Pantelleria is interrupted after a presentation of a calm recuperating location; a phone call, a plane darkening over white sand—the return of Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes) and the arrival of his daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson) into Marianne (Tilda Swinton) and Paul’s (Matthias Schoenaerts) lives forebodes chaotic tensions. Swinton’s deliberate choice to render her rock star persona primarily voiceless and raspy whispers proves effective, allowing the film to revel in its sensuality, contrasting the exuberant with the quieter moments.

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Director, Luca Guadagnino masters this juxtaposition, with the audacious editing (Walter Fasano) and cinematography (Yorick Le Saux), creating an aesthetic that is beautifully alluring to look at, and yet borderline dangerous. In fact, the cinematography is not just crisply shot, but experiments with interesting quick zoom and close-ups, crosscutting between facial expressions and focusing quirkily on smaller material objects, as a way of foreshadowing later events. The way the camera moves thus becomes a mechanism to form certain subjectiveness to the film, merging the four leads’ perspectives into one – an inevitable havoc about to ensue.

And while jutting silence plays an impressive part in the cumulative tensions, the energy of the film is not achieved without its distinctive soundtrack, consisting of contemporary rock, operatic pieces, and a pulsating, grating score. It makes the merging of the flashback scenes so seamless, cleverly intertwining score as a way to progress narrative and provide background context about the characters.

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But it is ultimately the dynamic between the cast of four that sparks the sheer anticipation of A Bigger Splash. The slow-build up of tension is unrelentless, assisted by the glances of desire and jealousy that sneak into a relatively calm setting. It is one good-looking cast and Guadagnino is not afraid to use that to his advantage by complicating new attractions with old relationships and illuminating that nothing can really go right. Water serves this metaphor well; the pretence of tranquillity is exacerbated in the constant return to the swimming pool, a place of cooling down. However, this temporary resort is shattered at the hazardous consequences of concealing true emotions and base impulses.

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Unsurprisingly, it is Fiennes’ dancing that is the most delightful of all scenes, where the ebullience of his character bursts into a euphoric dance sequence, cementing his character as the vitality of the film. His presence is the provocation of the messy entangled relationships that incur and this release provides energetic liberation from the tight strains of the characters’ complex relations. It is a shame that these enticing qualities falter once the film hits its third and final act, where it endeavours to hit more emotional beats than it needs. Nevertheless, A Bigger Splash captivates through its gorgeous aesthetic and cracking chemistry between its cast, providing a sensuous and thoughtful experience.

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A BIGGER SPLASH
Directed by Luca Guadagnino
Produced by Michal Costigan, Luca Guadagnino
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Dakota Johnson, Matthias Schoenaerts

RATING out of 5

The Animal to the Animation: King Kong (1933, Cooper & Schoedsack)

Disclaimer: This is a continuation of a collection of my thoughts for a personal film portfolio; ideas deriving from Karen Beckman’s Animating Film Theory (2014) and Julian Murphet’s ‘King Kong Capitalism’ in Animal, Life and the Moving Image (2015).

It was Beauty who killed the Beast” is the final line of dialogue as King Kong (1933) closes off its monstrous adventure tale, and it becomes clear that the film transforms into a magnificent beast and disintegrates, like the film’s gorilla itself. The impossibility of glossing over animation as an inferior type of cinema is illuminated in King Kong – a film which challenges yet encapsulates modernity, showcasing the potential of human capitalism to both create and destruct.

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The significance of animation stems from its ability to push the boundaries of the mediated real, asking its viewers to take a “leap of faith” into an unrecognisable world. King Kong is one example of such a parallel world; where Denham’s travels onto the island of Skull Island sees the re-creation of extinct dinosaurs, and most essentially – a giant gorilla of the name Kong. In the words of Beckman, nature becomes “remolded”, transcending the shapes and lines of the ‘natural’, and instead defamiliarises live-action time and motion, to shape itself as a traumatic reanimation of the living. In this way, it invites its own audiences to think about the constructions and reconstructions of the medium itself – an examination that is not uncommon amongst the animated genre.

Chuck Jones’ Duck Amuck (1953) is a prime case, a short film that is self-reflexively aware of itself as a hand-made product, playing with technical aspects of cinema, such as sound. But it is concurrently conscious of the power of the artist to manipulate bodies and objects within film, suggesting that control lies in the hands of the filmmakers/animators.

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Duck Amuck, Chuck Jones (1953)

While Duck Amuck is relatively apolitical and good-natured, Murphet contrastingly emphasises King Kong as a commentary on capitalist ideals. Animation, in this instance, creates a language to take hold on modernity, placing itself as an industrial template to tackle the tension between capitalism and the primitive.The technological developments of the era saw the rise of production and labour, creating seemingly useless specialisations which derevolutionised men into unintelligent machines.

But Murphet suggests that the tension between advancement in science and brute labour cannot be compromised, similar to a way naturalising capitalism is futile. The visual juxtaposition of Kong and the Empire State Building serves as a symbolic reminder of the preexisting strains between monopoly capitalism and primitivism – also epitomizing how both cannot coexist – where the devastating death of Kong by technological machines sees his downfall onto the grounds of New York.

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Ironically, it is King Kong‘s construction as a stop-motion animation that reinforces its argumentative point; the film itself embodies the labour-intensive process of capitalism. Kong’s gestures are literally derived from human motorial functions, shown through the artificial and staccato-like movements, which self-reflexively exposes its fabrication by humans. However, while Cooper & Schoedsack aim to use the very mechanisms of animation to interrogate the building blocks of capitalism, the act of creating such a large spectacle to audiences (attracting a box office figure of $2 million) paradoxically contributes to the commercially-driven film industry. In this way, it embraces its own status as a bi-product of the Hollywood capitalist enterprise.

Despite this, King Kong illustrates the way the ‘animal’ of animation can subvert traditional fairytales often seen in live-action films (Beauty killing the Beast), opening up the possibilities of a romantic dreamworld only seen at the hands of human handicraft.

 

A REFLECTION: Nosferatu (Murnau, 1922)

Disclaimer: This is a collection of thoughts for my personal film portfolio; ideas deriving from Anton Kaes’s Shell-Shock Cinema:  Weimar Culture and the Wounds of War (2010): ‘Introduction’ and ‘The Return of the Undead’ & UNSW lecture conducted by Julian Murphet (March, 2016).

The effects of the war on national identity are on full scrutiny in Murnau’s Nosferatu – the shellshocks of Weimar Germany – a war and memory that was never officially acknowledged, is instead manifested into a horrific and frightening depiction of a vampire that preys on the blood of humans. Nosferatu’s victimisation of innocent victims most overtly highlights it as a social product that reacts to its specific contextual concerns , questioning the significance of living and the dead, where mass killings occurred in WWI.

Kaes notes that Nosferatu doesn’t rely on character flashback, but rather uses an unidentified narrator whose comments “periodically interrupt the flow of the story”. It is this fluctuation between fantasy and the ‘real’ that works to shock the audience, yet concurrently distances them – allowing them to reflect upon the dangers of a technological war that reduces the value of humanity to nothingness. Murnau thus emphasises his desire to interpret, rather than to reflect contextual determinants, by playing and stretching the possibilities of nightmare dimensions within his story.

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The backlighting works to create a fearful image of supernatural preying.

In the opening sequence of the film, the naive love between Hutter and Ellen is shown by Hutter’s giddy excitement as he peers through a door to hand Ellen a bunch of flowers. But while this pure innocence is momentarily endearing, Ellen’s immediate response, “Why did you kill them…the lovely flowers,” punctures this love, showcasing a worryingly disturbing motif of violence against nature. This portends Hutter’s stripping of any remote innocence, as he confronts the realm of death. It is a trajectory of war, as Kaes writes, that is inevitably despairing. As the old man warns at the beginning of the film: “No one can outrun his destiny.” In this case, the only “destiny” Hutter can foresee is one where he blindlessly but enthusiastically walks into death.  The continuous cross-cutting between story and aerial shots of the natural landscape serve as a persistent reminder of the tragic loss of living things and the depravity of warfare on humanity.

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A momentary innocence between Hutter and Ellen that is shattered at his departure.

And where Murnau points out the destructive nature of war, he links this to the brutal reality of death itself. “Laying bare the primal man in each of us…” states Kaes – and indeed, the breakdown of the glory and heroism of man is shattered. Playing with the tension between life and death – human’s curiosity and secret cravings for danger – Murnau haunts his audiences with a resonating message: that the fictionalising of death becomes insubstantial in representing the impact of mass deaths occurring under acts of blind technological elimination.

The link between clinical issues and hallucination is realised in the hysteria exhibited by Ellen, who is subjected to a supernatural delusionary state – emphasising the secondary trauma by those on the homefront. Her signs of ‘hysterics’ is shown through her vulnerability to outbursts and the ultimate hypnotisation that leads towards her self-sacrifice. Importantly, Murnau suggests that this hysteria derives from a telephatic identification between Hutter and Ellen – that the suffering between battlefront and homefront may be closer than one thinks – epitomizing that the war devastates everyone.

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A wide shot depicts Ellen staring wistfully out to sea, amongst a desolate backdrop of death crosses, foreshadowing the tragic consequences of Hutter’s return.

But perhaps the most fascinating self-reflexive tool that Murnau employs is the relationship between vampiric features and the art of film itself. The act of filming mirrors the phantasmagorical characteristics of Nosferatu, through the procedure of turning life’s pictures into shadows. In this way, Murnau blurs the distinction between the real and unreal, questioning cinematic representation and the power of film to give life to the dead. He never holds back when amalgamating both these elements, stretching both technology (stop-motion and double exposure) yet maintaining a semi-documentary style, to interrogate our consumption of film as a mode of real-life.

Personal Note: There is some kind of lovely incentive being able to write for my blog, collect my thoughts about a film that I have never seen AND complete part of an university assignment, so this was really a joy to write. Stay tuned for more collections of thoughts in the next coming weeks.