Grim and gritty does work well in the North of England.
Scrappy fields and a landscape strangled with power lines is the setting for this first full-length feature from Clio Barnard, who both wrote and directed. Set on a Bradford, Yorkshire, housing estate, life is hard and its inhabitants poor.
Arbor, (Connor Chapman) is a small and volatile 13-year-old with ADHD (hyperactivity disorder) who takes Ritalin pills – if his elder brother hasn’t sold them first. His friend, Swifty (Shaun Thomas), has a more gentle soul and a way with horses. Expelled from school, the boys start “scrapping”, finding scrap to be stripped down for local metal dealer Kitten (Sean Gilder).
Kitten has a trotting horse, Diesel, which he trains for amateur (and illegal) road races.
The boys hire a horse and cart from Kitten to collect discarded household items to sell to him for cash. They quickly learn that stealing industrial cables and stripping them for their copper is more lucrative – if very dangerous.
The dynamic of the boys’ relationship changes with dire consequences after Kitten gives Diesel to Swifty to train, making Arbor jealous.
Adult males are mean and tough, particularly Kitten, and there is little humour. Swifty is one of seven children and the scene where his father sells the family’s leather couch – bought on hire purchase – is amusing but painful.
The narrative is unsettling and, ultimately, tragic. Performances are uniformly excellent and the characters well drawn. Regional authenticity is important but the use of subtitles (as in some of Ken Loach’s films with which it has been compared) would make the film more accessible to an Australian audience. Though raised in England’s north, I still found chunks of dialogue impenetrable.
The relevance of Oscar Wilde’ fable of The Selfish Giant, who learns the meaning of love only to lose the child he liked best, is a bit obscure. Kitten makes an unlikely giant but there is sacrifice and a note of grace at the end. Not one for the children.
Funerals are meant for the living. Still Life opens intriguingly with the same solitary figure at a series of burial services.
John May (Eddie Marsan) has worked at his local South London council for 22 years. Calm and methodical, he spends his days tracing the next of kin of local residents who have died alone and often had not been found for weeks.
He painstakingly tracks down their estranged families only to find they usually don’t want to be involved. But on John May’s watch, the unclaimed dead get a decent send-off at council expense, and he is there to ensure things are properly done.
John lives alone and leads a solitary and orderly life. When he closes a case, he puts photographs of the departed in his own album. It is yet another way he shows respect for his charges. It may sound morbid but it’s not.
Even when John learns he’s to be made redundant, he still insists on closing his last case, that of a Billy Stoke. John travels far and wide talking to Billy’s family and friends and finally tracks down Billy’s daughter, Kelly (Joanne Frogatt), and they make a connection. When Kelly eventually agrees to come to London for her father’s funeral, John’s mood lifts even though he will soon be out of a job.
A quirky and charming story despite its subject matter, there is some gentle humour and a scene where John drinks whiskey with two of Billy’s homeless pals is both funny and unexpected.
For his second feature Uberto Pasolini, has written and directed a tale inspired by real people and events, and his unassuming public servant with a big heart rings true. Marsan is wonderful in the role and makes us want John to have a warmer life with more people in it, preferably living.
To watch his face crumple slightly during a phone call is a lesson in acting minimalism.
With an upbeat if ironic ending, the subject matter is thought-provoking. How many people have died alone and unmourned in your neighbourhood?
Venus in Fur – a play within a play. Based on David Ives’ Tony Award winning play “Venus in Fur”, this two hander directed by Roman Polanksi opens innocuously enough in a small rundown theatre in Paris.
Thomas (Mathieu Amalric), is casting an actress to play Vanda in his adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s semi-autobiographical 1870 novella, Venus In Fur.
Unsuccessful auditions have left him frustrated and about to leave the empty theatre when who should burst in on him but Vanda – yes an actress with the same name as the character in the play. Crude and vulgar, Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) is the antithesis of what he seeks and he tries to get rid of her. But Vanda is determined and wheedles her way into an audition and grabs his attention from her first line.
They start to read the play together. As Thomas is sucked in, so is the audience. Reality and fantasy blur as they work through the play’s theme of sexual domination and submission.
To spell out the entire plot would be a spoiler. Like many small, local theatrical productions, a magical, and ultimately claustrophobic, world is created with a few props and a simple stage. Shot with one camera, in a single sequence, the mood is intimate.
Both funny and dark, intense and erotic, boundaries dissolve amid themes of sadomasochism and sexual enslavement. The excellent scores underline the screenplay – written by both Ives and Polanski.
Seigneur is stunning as she morphs from trashy to demur to vamp within a few breaths. It is the role of a lifetime and the direction ensures she makes the most of it. Thomas is the perfect foil for her machinations and we become embroiled in them as he does.
Many moviegoers will have different takes on the references to previous Polanski films along with Amalric looking cannily like a young Polanski. Interviews with Seigneur make much of the fact that she is married to Polanksi. However the director has crafted a film that makes the most of all the talent involved.
It is probably not for everyone but it is brilliantly done.
Rating MA15+ (strong language and sexual references) 96mins
Opens July 17
Language: French with English subtitles
Starring Emmanuelle Seigner and Mathieu Amalric
Directed by Roman Polanksi
Screenplay by David Ives and Roman Polanksi
Music by Alexandre DesplaPhotography by Pawel Edelman
There’s irony to be found in the recognition that the best Die Hard to be released in 2013 isn’t the franchise’s official entry, A Good Day to Die Hard, but the White House-based copycat, Olympus Has Fallen.
And, while Gerard Butler is no Bruce Willis, his Mike Banning is a better facsimile of John McClane than the guy Willis is pretending to play these days. There’s also an element of 24 to be found here, although Butler’s Banning, unfettered by TV ratings, is considerably more homicidal than Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer.
Despite being released in March, Olympus Has Fallen offers all the staples of a big summer movie: destruction on an epic scale, plenty of shoot-outs and battle sequences, and a kick-ass hero who, despite being battered and bloodied, never gives up. Although the film’s real-world credibility is shaky, it works on its own terms. The suspension of disbelief bar isn’t that difficult to clamber over. 9/11 shifted it down considerably for this sort of motion picture.
As if it wasn’t bad enough that Twilight defanged vampires, turning them into whiny emo Harlequin romance heroes, now Warm Bodies has done something similar for zombies.
Granted, that latter evisceration is more challenging than the former. After all, sexuality has often been associated with vampires. But zombies? Mindless, shuffling corpses that reek of rotting flesh? Warm Bodies has found a way to make them sexy. One might be willing to acknowledge the Herculean achievement if the movie wasn’t so hopelessly mediocre. It wants to be funny, charming, scary, and dramatic. It ends up being a little of each but not successful as any one.
This is Dawn of the Dead meets Romeo & Juliet with an Army of Darkness sensibility. Admittedly, that sounds like a great premise and I’m sure it got everyone all lathered up in the pitch meeting. But the tone is all over the place, the script is vacillates between witty and brain-dead, and the PG-13 sensibility neuters anything resembling edginess. At least the lead actors are capable and engaging and there’s some nice chemistry in place. But Warm Bodies left me more frustrated than satisfied because the film is content to underwhelm with fertile material and rarely attempts anything interesting.