Film Review: The Innocents

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Director: Anne Fontaine

15 | 1h 55min | Drama | 11 November 2016 (UK)

RATING: ★★★★☆

Despite its wintry setting and grim subject matter director: Anne Fontaine’s intelligent and moving drama The Innocents –based on actual documented events- gradually blossoms from its chilly, early scenes into a quietly uplifting tale of female solidarity. It bears more than a few similarities to Pawel Pawlikowski ‘s acclaimed drama Ida from 2013; both films feature nuns, a stark Polish rural setting, and explore crises of faith. Both films have as their backdrop a dark, event-filled period of Polish history. Both are deserving of high praise, though The Innocents is undeniably the more straightforward piece.

The setting is a ravaged, snowy Eastern Poland in 1945 under Soviet occupation, where young French doctor Mathilde (a quietly intelligent and determined turn from Lou de Laåge) is serving with the Red Cross on a mission to treat Second World War survivors in Poland.  Talented and beautiful, it is no surprise that the senior doctor, the idiosyncratic Pascal, is besotted with her, even if he affects a casual attitude.  The Red Cross mission is nearing its end though, and Mathilde seems content to move on to the next war zone. But then a distressed nun from the local convent appears at the clinic one night seeking medical help, though she won’t say why.

Wary but still determined to help, Mathilde allows herself to be brought to the convent, where 30 Benedictine nuns have been living, seemingly cut off from the world both by the ravages of war and their own deep faith. The semi-ruined and gloomy convent is a striking gothic location, seemingly symbolic of the cold, miserable wreck that Poland has become, the tiny nation having been a battleground of imperial ambitions and genocide for decades. Soviet ‘liberation’ has been anything but, with drunken, lawless soldiers and ideologically-driven commissars wandering the nearby forests, and Mathilde’s journey to the convent involves passing by crowds of homeless orphans. But inside the convent, she finds a very different war going on.

To her shock, Mathilde discovers that several of the nuns are due to give birth, with the breech birth scenario affecting one young nun being the reason Mathilde was called in. The cause of the pregnancies is deeply disturbing: as told to her by the hushed and watchful Sister Maria (Agata Buzek), the nuns were all raped by gangs of Soviet soldiers once the area was liberated.  The assault has a double agony, aside from the grotesque physical violation (which we are told lasted several days; truly unimaginable), the ordeal left the chastity-sworn nuns to try somehow to reconcile their faith with both their pregnancies and the shattering of their vows. 

 

A believer in medical science and a committed communist, Mathilde’s decision to stay and help the nuns give birth whist keeping their secret from the outside world (to avoid shame) seems certain to result in a clash between faith and science. And to an extent, that does happen, as the nuns refusal to expose themselves or immediately agree to certain medications and procedures proves frustrating. The tension between Maria and the nuns, and the ever-present risk of discovery by the outside world, gives the film plenty of edge in the middle sections. But over time Mathilde and the nuns start to bond, and a well-drawn relationship based on more universal values starts to emerge, particularly that between Mathilde and Sister Maria, with Maria becoming an increasingly intriguing and open character the longer the film runs on.

Initially severe in appearance and demeanour, and suspicious of Mathilde’s presence, over time Maria’s compassion for her sisters and a surprising sense of humour start to win over the doctor, as well as giving her an ally against the uncompromising and ruthless Abbess. Interestingly, Maria reveals she joined the convent later in life than many, and has known things like the “touch of a man”. This presumably gives her the ability to bridge the two worlds, so to speak. The film gives enough space for several quiet but meaningful moments between the two similarly aged women, and overall the faith of Maria and the nuns is treated with a great degree of respect (though one character, somewhat inevitably, starts to use faith to justify extreme measures). Mathilde herself, despite presumably having never picked up a bible or sung a hymn for years, is clearly deeply moved by how these sisters rely not just on prayer, song and self-denial to survive in such a place- but each other. The longer the film runs, the more Fontaine shows us moments where we see the Sisters showing care for each other in the margins of their lives of piety, whether a hug or the placing of a hand on a shoulder. If there is a faith the film promotes, it is in the faith that you can survive the deepest nightmare if you can just reach out to your fellow human over class and religious lines.

 

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Film Review: Creepy

Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

2h 10min | Thriller | 25 November 2016 (UK)

RATING: ★★★☆☆

Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who directed the hit film Pulse, eschews the supernatural thriller genre for something more grounded but which still hints at mysterious, dark forces at work. The danger in his new film, Creepy, very much comes from humans though, not ghosts or goblins. It is a pretty effective chiller that follows the adventures of world-weary former detective inspector Takakura (Hidetoshi Nishijima), who quit the force and moved to the Tokyo suburbs to teach criminal psychology at the local university after a case went bad. But when Takakura’s former colleague asks for help in an unsolved missing person’s case that has baffled all other cops, the ex-cop is inevitably drawn into trying to solve the mystery, only to find himself believing that his strange new neighbour, Mr Nishino, could in fact be the one responsible: a killer who has the uncanny ability to insinuate himself into families and destroy them from the inside. To his horror, Takakura not only finds he can’t marshal any evidence against Nishino, but his own wife Yasuo (Yûko Takeuchi) starts to act strangely. But is Nishino really the killer, or just another misanthrope of a neighbour? 

As Nishino, actor Teruyuki Kagawa is a suitably unsettling antagonist: smarmy one minute, obsequious the next, yet mostly walking on nail-biting line of behaviour where polite characters around him feel they can’t rise to the bait. The slow-burn atmosphere benefits from the lensing of the Japanese surroundings, which emphasise the dull, lifeless and run-down neighbourhood Takakura has moved to: a place where seemingly no one gives a damn if their neighbours are even alive. The dismal responses the Takakura’s get trying to integrate themselves in with their neighbours only rams this home more. There is a particularly macabre body disposal method revealed later on in the film as the killer’s modus operandi finally becomes clear, which involves bodies being packed into vacuum-sealed plastic bags, with sound effects viewers are not likely to forget any time soon. But the film feels overlong, and there are more than a few holes in the plot when it comes to certain character motivations, particularly the behaviour of Takakura’s wife. Her vulnerability to such a disturbing figure lacks credibility even if it raises the stakes, though maybe Kurosawa wanted to give his killer an almost supernatural ability to manipulate families into carving themselves up without lifting a finger, so making him an allegorical figure for 21st century alienation.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Film Review: Paterson

Director: Jim Jarmusch

15 | 1h 58min | Comedy, Drama | 25 November 2016 (UK)

RATING: ★★★★★

Adam Driver swaps the robes and lightsabre of the Star Wars universe for a more low-key, ruminative role in Jim Jarmusch’s endearing, richly textured new drama, Paterson. Dialled-back even by Jarmusch’s usual, laconic standards, this restrained but warmhearted film, about an amateur poet getting by in a blue-collar job while drawing inspiration from the world around him, not only is a showcase for another great performance from the increasingly intriguing Driver, but also evokes a very tangible and frankly irresistible sense of place. And yes, it is very, very “cool” overall, though in a less in-your-face way than some of Jarmusch’s brassier works.

Paterson, for those who don’t know, is actually both the main character’s first name, but also, in what seems to be a quirk of fate that probably isn’t at all, the name of the compact post-industrial city that he lives and works in: Paterson, New Jersey. This strange twinning occurrence pops up again and again throughout the film, one of the little semi-magical touches Jarmusch sprinkles throughout what is otherwise a story very much about the very everyday goings on - over the space of seven days - of the titular character. Driver’s character is a bus driver dutifully handling one of the central-to-suburb routes in Paterson. The film largely follows the rhythms of his life: and he rarely deviates from his routine. He gets up at 6.15 every morning, walks the same route to the quaint little bus garage which seems to be based in an old brick factory (one of the many former, reclaimed industrial locations the camera lovingly dotes on), and drives the same route every day. Nights are for walking the drooling mutt Marvin, and stopping off at for a brew at a twee local bar called Shades, which, of course, is run by the garrulous barkeep Doc (the great Barry Shabaka Henley) who knows Paterson and just about everybody else inside and out. It doesn’t seem like a particularly exciting life, but it sure is being lived in a pleasant place, with the city giving off that seductive feel of being quieter and spacier than a major metropolis like New York. A city where people probably know their neighbours, and everyone on their block too.

But in between the spaces of all this activity - days taken up crisscrossing the city, overhearing snippets of passengers’ conversations - Paterson is slowly but steadily filling up his ‘secret notebook’ with short, down-to-earth (and thankfully un-corny) poetry. Throughout the day, Paterson mulls over the words flowing through his mind, observing fragments of life and constructing verses out of lived experience. As played by Driver, Paterson is neither a raging romantic not an introvert when it comes to how he handles this clearly powerful artistic drive. He’s quiet, observant, obviously intelligent (his bookcase at home is testament to his curiosity), and his distinctly non-artistic job makes him something of a totem for the refusal of creativity to be limited by salary, class or projections about what kinds of paid roles are “suitable” for an artist.

Driver doesn’t have a lot of dialogue on screen, Paterson being the ruminative type, but thankfully that gap in the film is filled nicely by the character of Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), a freelance artist, baker and homemaker who is Paterson’s long-term partner. They live together in a small but impossibly quirky house with the bulldog Marvin, and one of the film’s most enjoyable recurring gags is watching Laura’s artistic impulses run away with her whenever Paterson is out at work. She is driven to make everything monochrome and groovy, including curtains, cupcake toppings, and the house seems to have been further repainted in this colour scheme every time Paterson returns home. There is something so charming about watching Driver’s face take on a look of affectionate resignation in the face of his girlfriend’s enthusiasms. It is easy to think that Laura, being almost comically hipsterish, is Jarmusch’s way of quietly poking fun at his own well-known predilections for the Beat life.

Though not a lot seems to happen across the seven days shown in the film (probably the most dramatic is Paterson’s bus breaking down, and one of his friends scares everyone in the bar by waving a toy gun around) the film is rich in the incident detail of everyday life in this everyday city, and Driver effectively communicates to us how constantly attuned his character is to the extraordinary and poetic in the seemingly ordinary and un-poetic. The screenplay really captures the way things nestle in our minds. Thus, the first poem we see Paterson hammering into shape is about, of all things, the blue box of matches with the retro logo that he and Laura find really cute. He and Laura have, independently of each other, so fallen in love with these matches that they have collected a ridiculous number of them, and Paterson sees allegorical material here for a love poem.

Not everything that he experiences seems to make its way into his notebook during the film, but you can imagine some of it will surely make its way into his work by osmosis at some point: be it the weird number of twins and identically-dressed people he keeps seeing get on and off his bus, the collection of endearingly mundane Paterson-oriented news cuttings Doc is pinning to his the wall behind his bar, or his friend Everett’s extremely unsuccessful, desperate attempt to shock his girlfriend into acknowledging his undying love. Paterson even meets a young teen girl outside his bus station one morning, she too brandishing a notebook that he seems to instantly know as a marker of her status as a fellow traveller . His curiosity encourages her to offer him a reading from one of her poems, which sports a pair of opening lines that resonate with the older poet all day long.

In its own quiet, unhurried way, Jarmusch’s film gradually invites you to ease into it, to flow with its gentle rhythms, with moments of sweet comedy scattered throughout to prevent things getting too ponderous. There are also plenty of appealing retro stylings applied to the setting and characters that Jarmusch fans will recognise as his signature: Paterson naturally eschews smartphones and laptops, and though we don’t really see him talk about music, you can bet he has a vinyl collection down in that basement somewhere.  Irony is absent, and there is no mocking of Paterson’s poetry or the quiet civic pride he seems to have in the city he is named for. There isn't even any real conflict in the film beyond Paterson counting down the days before he takes up Laura’s challenge and finally makes some copies of his notebook - and it never feels like there should be. Instead we have a heartfelt, subtle but confidently-drawn depiction of how lovers can co-exist and support each other’s creativity, and a joyous and unpatronising celebration of small town life.

 

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Film Review: Dog Eat Dog

Director: Paul Schrader

18 | 1h 33min | Crime, Drama, Thriller | 18 November 2016 (UK)

RATING: ★ ★ ★ ☆☆

It is kind of hard to blame writer/director Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Blue Collar and American Gigolo) for wanting to cook up something quick and easy. His projects of late have either not been well received critically (The Canyons), have been cut up by studios (Dying of the Light), or both. But now he has come back with this darkly comic, ultra-violent and fast-moving crime drama that aims squarely (and safely) at the terrain ploughed by the likes of Quentin Tarantino. In fact, the Tarantino link goes beyond style and content. In 1992, Tarantino revealed his love for cult hardboiled crime author Edward Bunker by casting him as Mr Blue in his breakout crime thriller Reservoir Dogs. Schrader's Dog Eat Dog is actually an adaptation of Bunker's novel of the same name as penned by screenwriter Matthew Wilder, though it shifts the action from Los Angeles to Cleveland. It is a film that is clearly enjoying being nasty, does nothing particularly original, and the already short run time could have done with yet more trimming. But it does offer up some undeniably juicy treats for fans of nihilistic, gritty crime action - the kind laced with streaks of black comedy and where the capers are executed by sad-sack losers in the back alleys of nowhere, USA. 

For one thing, you have Nicholas Cage and Willem Dafoe -masters of playing unhinged types - in the same film, both playing low-rent Ohio-based gangsters looking for the big score that will finally pull them out of the big leagues. Dafo is admirably off the chain as Mad Dog, an old time prison buddy of hitman and armed robber Troy (Cage), who is recruited by his old friend along with the hulking shaven-headed ex-con Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook) o kidnap the baby of a drug cartel middleman so as to enthuse the man to clear his debts to his big boss. As Mad Dog, Dafoe is both prone to fierce outbursts of temper and sadistic violence, but is also pathetically needy and lonely; spouting self help mumbo jumbo and pleas for empathy even when rolling bagged corpses around into hiding places. Like all the main characters in this film, he has been institutionalised to a crippling degree, so much so that he is prone to losing himself in the ecstasy of rubbing his bare feet on carpet- a pleasure denied him in the piss-stained stone corridors of prison. It is the kind of outsized role you'd actually have expected to go to Cage, who instead is playing (and this isn't saying much) the brains of the outfit. As fun as Cage and Dafoe are, Christopher Matthew Coo as Diesel also makes a real impression, a huge bear of a guy who, despite being as ruthless as the others, betrays a sort of profound sadness and frustration with how prison has left him with no options.

Needless to say, it all goes wrong from the start (their first victim is actually the guy they are supposed to be blackmailing, for one thing), and the trio seem to know that it will, making a coke and booze-fuelled oath before their scheme launches that they will go out 'samurai style' rather than risk going back to prison. Their journey to perdition is told in stylistically eclectic fashion - think druggy slo-mo sequences, rapid fire edits and lurid colours- that keeps the film diverting even if the combination of flourishes aren't anything that hasn't been seen before when it comes to this kind of material. Most of the laugh-out loud moments come courtesy of Cage and Dafo's blunders and banter; at one point the Smoke Screen was sure he caught sight of a brief clip of the two of them squirting mayonnaise on each other's chests while coked up and jumping on a hotel room bed. That can't be unseen in a hurry.
 

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Film Review: Indignation

Director: James Schamus

1h 50min | Drama | 18 November 2016 (UK)

RATING: ★★★☆

Logan Lerman is superb as a young Jewish college student struggling with emotional and spiritual crises in a conservative university in 1950s America, in James Schamus’s debut film which adapts Philip Roth’s highly personal novel of the same name. It’s a handsomely mounted piece with a nuanced, interesting young character at the heart of the story, though viewers shouldn't go into this expecting loud emotional fireworks. This is film that deals more in mournful sadness and poignant reflection than screams. It also is very much, being a Roth story, in the business of sex, morality, death, faith, class, and guilt. Don’t go in expecting catharsis.

Death, or the spectre of it, is actually the first thing we see in the film, as we open in the war torn landscape of Korea, where America is embroiled in its police action that will ultimately lead to war with China, and an unsatisfactory peace later. It is not clear at first why we start here, or if the narration by Lerman, speaking as the main character, means he is here too in this war zone, but we soon pull back to a USA a thousand miles away, with all the riches of the post war boom in place but the shadow of the draft hanging over its youth. Despite the peaceful homefront, death is still the main pre-occupation of overbearing Newark-based kosher butcher Mr Messner, the father of a promising student, Marcus, who we soon learn is about to dodge the draft by being packed off to Winesburg College in Ohio; a conservative but prestigious institution. Mr Messner cannot bear to relinquish his son to the world beyond the protective shield of the family, given he is the family’s sole child, and Marcus is clearly growing tired, even frightened, of what he sees as his father’s growing paranoia. 

But at college Marcus finds no peace. For one thing, despite his desire to escape from what he clearly sees as stiflingly conservative household and upbringing (he is a proud athiest, which immediately sets him apart from his family and the campus) he is sexually naive and thus confused by the advances of the beautiful and confident classmate Olivia Hutton (a beguiling Sarah Gadon). When a date leads to her giving him oral sex, he is literally stumped as to how to respond, leading to their relationship becoming rocky right from the start. Marcus can’t stand his socialist-leaning roommates either, who he sees as prying, rude and loud, even leaving his dorm at one point and moving into low-rent digs outside of college. His atheism means he resents the college’s demands that he attend the droning weekly chapel sermons, which he is told are mandatory for graduation. His working class background - he is the first of his family to go to college - is also an issue.

Lerman’s nuanced and passionate performance is married to a script which teases out his character’s believable intricacies, contradictions and flaws nicely over time. Marcus is not easily put into any one box, which is why he and his conflicts within the college structure are so interesting. Though initially a sympathetic figure, who it is easy to relate to with his desire to get away from the bearhug of his parents, Marcus is also revealed to be conservative and very tightly wound in his own ways: clearly having an issue with Olivia’s sexual confidence, for one thing. He is also insufferably self-righteous and hypersensitive; and in what is probably the film’s pivotal scene, where he is called into the Dean’s office and a battle of ideologies and wills slowly develops, his passionate quoting of Bertrand Russell’s defence of atheism leads to him leaping up and stamping about the Dean’s room, even puking and passing out from the effort.

This fiery sequence should be where Marcus states his case for the audience as a sort of heroic victim, but the scene doesn’t play out as you might expect. The Dean (played by the superb Tracey Letts) might be a conservative, patriarchal figure who it is easy to want to rail against, but he is shrewd as hell at picking out Marcus’s sensitivities about his background - the Dean notices for example he didn’t write “Kosher butcher” on his application form when describing his parent’s occupation - and never loses his temper even as Marcus shoots from the hip no matter how hard he tries to keep his cool. The Dean has clearly seen his fair share of high-horse riding firebrands before, and knows the college will survive them. He actually admires Marcus’s guts, even though you sense he correctly has guessed that Marcus, at 19, is unlikely to be as smart as he thinks he is. The Dean’s stated concern that Marcus’s inability to compromise, to be self-critical and unwind, will lead to negative consequences for him in the end turns out to have a ring of tragic, ironical truth to it.

Though this scene remains the film’s high point, Schamus’s film always remains watchable thanks to Lerman’s committed, totally relatable turn, and the way the various layers of complex crises are shown to slowly pile up on the youth’s shoulders. It all make for a pleasingly unconventional and very mordant tale about trying to “come into your own”, and a commentary on how ridiculous that idea might be in the grand scheme of things.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.