Film Review: When Marnie Was There

Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi

Japan 2014, 103 mins. 10 June 2016 (UK)

Playing London Film Festival 2015

RATING:  ★★★☆☆


Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s (Arrietty) new animated film is being touted as the final Studio Ghibli picture for the foreseeable future, as the Japanese animation powerhouse seems set to go into a period of extended hiatus following the retirement of its long-serving director Hayao Miyazaki. The charming and elegantly designed When Marnie Was There is not a bad note to go out on for sure, showcasing as it does that hand-drawn aesthetic and an admirable focus on female characters that is part and parcel of the Ghibli brand now, even if it never really feels like it is reaching the soaring heights of the imagination of Spirited Away, or hitting the emotional depths of Grave of the Fireflies.

In terms of tone, When Marnie Was There feels more in line with the ‘realistic’ Ghibli films like Up on Poppy Hill and Whisper of the Heart, as in this story the fantastical elements - this is pretty much a sentimental ghost story - are low-key and only intrude occasionally into the real world. Once again we have a young and troubled female character as our window into this modern-day story, in this case the sickly and withdrawn Anna, who is sent to live with relatives on the coast in order to get some fresh air. Fascinated by a crumbling mansion that looms over the nearby marsh, she befriends the spirited young girl Marnie, who claims to live there. Marnie and Anna become close friends and Anna starts to slowly open up, but as time goes on, and she starts to dream about her new friend and the strange house, the line between the real and imagined and past and present becomes more and more blurred. 

Visually and aurally there is plenty to enjoy in Yonebayashi’s film, with rural Japan lushly recreated right down to the lovely chirps of the cicadas and high angle views of bullet trains winding through the green valleys. The generations-spanning mystery at the heart of Marnie’s existence (the story is in fact based on Joan G Robinson’s novel, making it an interesting West-East translation), isn't entirely hard to figure out though, and the coming of age/emotional healing arc that Anna goes through, although quite touching, feels more than a little familiar at this point in Ghibli’s output.


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: The Club


Director: Pablo Larraín

98 min  |  Drama  |  25 March 2016 (UK)

Playing London Film Festival 2015

RATING: ★★★★★


Pablo Larrain's The Club is a biting, searing indictment of the Catholic Church and all of its hypocrisy. Yet the director, as with his previous films which have explored in various ways the Chilean experience over the last few decades (Post Mortem, No), avoids going for the immediate and heavy-handed knock-out blow. Instead, he relies on a gradual pace, a blackly comedic and unsettling tone and well-crafted scenarios of banal cruelty and pettiness to critique how institutions, and the people within them, justify their own actions to themselves and to others. 

There are actually few initial clues that the four men introduced in The Club's opening scenes are priests. The setting is a small seaside chateau/monastery atop a gentle incline, overlooking the town, where four men of various ages potter about attended to by a fastidious matron. We see these middle-aged and elderly people mostly just watching TV, strolling along the beach or wandering around. They also have a hobby in placing bets on the local greyhound races, or, to be more precise, having their matron take their prize running dog down to the track for them, while they watch with binoculars. This low-level gambling by this gang of misanthropes is comedic, but also unsettling, as the way the men are careful to distance themselves from the general population is the first time we sense something is different, wrong even, about these men. 

Suspicions are confirmed when Chilean Father Lazcano (Jose Soza) suddenly comes to join them.  A nervous, quiet man, Lazcano is evasive as to why he has come. Barely has the newcomer settled in than a drunk, deranged local man appears outside the monastery, shouting that he was molested as a child by this newest member of The Club. There is barely time for viewers to process this new angle however, as Lazcano promptly commits suicide courtesy of a gun that the other residents - now revealed as other priests - somehow have kept handy. Lazcano’s death is the catalyst for an insightful and haunting demonstration of how The Club operates as a microcosm of the Catholic Church’s darker impulses to police and protect itself. The process begins when the Church, fearing a scandal, sends pious young Father Garcia (Marcelo Alonso, who is mockingly referred to as “one of those new priests”) to interrogate and counsel the fallen Fathers and possibly close The Club down to avoid further scandal. But any hope that this new priest can clean house is swiftly disabused.

As Garcia talks to the men - Fathers Vidal (Larraín regular Alfredo Castro), Silva (Jaime Vadell), Ortega (Alejandro Goic), and Ramirez (Alejandro Sieveking) - their various transgressions are revealed. Varied though their offences were, and though each man reacts differently to the probing, what unites them all is a sense of moral righteousness, and a sort of victim complex. Each has found a way to justify themselves via their faith, whether it be concealing military crimes or taboo sexual urges. Yet the cast and script never make them any less than totally, pathetically believable. Despite being in a form of excommunication, the priests seem to instinctively rally round each other to conceal exactly what happened with Lazcano, gathering in little whispering enclaves and agreeing the line they will take with Garcia. The self-preservation instinct of the Church is alive and well out here, even if much of the anger is directed at Garcia’s denial of their petty pleasures, such as good wine, and racing the dogs for money.

Perhaps the strangest figure in all this though is the matron; the permissive Sister Monica (Antonia Zegers). Despite having a face fixed permanently in a wide-eyed, innocent mask, she over time gives off more and more of the impression that she is really the one who knows where all the skeletons are buried. Soon Father Garcia is himself put in a compromised situation, as Monica makes it clear that the death of Lazasco could implicate him, as he is the senior figure on the spot. Desperate to protect the Church and/or his own reputation, Garcia finds himself complicit in the terrible repercussions that occur when the abused man returns, defiantly positioning himself outside their front door and threatening to disrupt the harmony forever.

Larrain and DP Sergio Armstrong go for a striking, muted and foggy colour pallette; the interior of the chateau seems always gloomy despite the vivid outside light, giving the sense that this is a place where there is a desire to keep the light of discovery out. It really gives the impression of men living at the edge of the continent — and far beyond the moral boundaries of their faith. The bizarre range of characters and events, and the way dark humour is twisted tightly into the narrative, do not detract from the seriousness of the questions raised by the film, in fact they give the proceedings more punch. The banality only makes the sinners in the club more tragically human, stripping them utterly of the last vestiges of the cloth’s grace. A powerful, essential film that confirms Larrain as a master filmmaker.


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: The Witch

Director: Robert Eggers

USA-Canada 2015, 90 mins. 11 March 2016 (UK)

Playing London Film Festival 2015

RATING: ★★★★☆


Though Robert Egger’s impressive debut film (which he wrote and directed) shows its hand pretty early on that something supernatural really is out there in the woods, much of the intrigue and tension in The Witch comes from the well-drawn, and very earthbound internal conflicts within one settler family. Surely the only thing more frightening than an evil spirit is seeing your family members turn against you, and to feel that your own faith has lost its protective shield. The setting and subject matter obviously suggest the infamous Salem Witch trials of the 1690s, but Eggers actually sets his story decades before those events, in an isolated, gloomy part of the New World where the European colonists are already in a battle to survive the elements even before this new unnatural menace starts tearing at their sanity and faith.

Egger’s certainly knows how to find the right locations, and use the tools of cinematography and skill of cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, to create an atmosphere of unrelenting bleakness. For most of the running time, save a brief opening section where we see them banished from their plantation by the ruling council for the father’s excessive devoutness, we are alone with a pious Christian family on a remote and very humble farm situated on the edge of a dense forest. Egger’s drains his film’s colour pallette, so the sun never seems to shine through here onto the toiling people below. A coat of mud seems to cover everything, this land is sticky and boggy. He often shoots the forest trees, both when in close-ups with the cast and with the wider shots, so they are towering above the people, overwhelming them. Humans are insignificant here, and the strange enemy that starts to torment these people might be seen as symbolic of the power of the land to resist these interlopers. The father’s corn crops seem to wither away no matter what. The family are starving.

With the elements already taking their toll, the family are thrown into greater despair when their youngest child inexplicably goes missing, in a creepy “peek a boo” scene that lets your eye’s ability to be distracted by peripheral motion do most of the work. Some flashes of mysterious, magical evil are shown to us at various points, often in obscure close ups shrouded in gloom. But the real grip this film exerts is in the display of how tensions and paranoia breed within the family; all this witchcraft has done is reveal the hypocrisy and doubt what was festering there all along. Maybe the witch is feeding off this, or was created by it. 

Stoic father William for example has sold a precious cup that belonged to his wife Kate and cannot bring himself to confess even when the mother accuses her children of stealing it. Another sin of his, pride, refuses to allow them to leave this hard land and thus admit defeat by crawling back cap in hand to the plantation.His very patriarchal position is undermined with ever rotten corn they drag in. Kate, the increasingly harried mother, finally breaks and reveals her faith is shaken to the core, and longs to return home to England given how riven by guilt she is at bringing her children here. Tomasina, the eldest daughter, is under suspicion from the start as it was in her care that the baby, Sam, was taken. Caleb, the eldest son, finds his thoughts preoccupied by budding sexual desire and the guilt that follows it like a shadow, especially as it is his sister that his infant lust is directed at. And the petty conflicts and bullying between Tomasina and the spooky younger twins (one of the film’s weak points, spooky children are an overused tool) threaten to escalate into accusations of witchcraft at the drop of a hat.

The path of the family’s breakdown is refreshingly unpredictable. William seems early on to be exactly the kind of stern, fanatically devout patriarch who will not hesitate to put his children to the sword when the scent of witchcraft catches him. But instead of becoming the film’s equivalent of The Shining’s Jack Torrance, he turns out to be a far more deeply conflicted and self-critical man, redeemed in many ways by one final confession later on in the film that all his own flaws have been laid bare in this madness and he only wishes his children could be spared. Much is left uncertain elsewhere. When Tomasina and the twins hurl accusations of sorcery at each other, is it just childish play taken too far in the heat of the moment, or something more? The family are constantly menaced by the animal life around them, “Black William” the goat constantly runs wild, and a rabbit with an intense stare is frequently seen at the edge of the wood, always startling the horses when it appears from nowhere.

Eggers effectively builds the terror up gradually until it eventually supplants the bleakness and leads everything spinning into a tornado of hysteria, punctuating the flow sparingly with the odd jolt of fright, and the occasional glimpse of something more explicitly arcane. The eerie, discordant score ensures things are always on edge. Though much is left unexplained by the delirious final sequence, the characters remain relatable, all too human in their fears and flaws. There are fine performances from all involved, with the cast admirably handling the antiquated olde english, which adds to the surreal, fable-like atmosphere.


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: Trumbo

Directed by Jay Roach

USA 2015, 124 mins. UK Release 5 February 2016.

Playing London Film Festival 2015

RATING: ★★★☆☆


The Hollywood blacklist, the paranoia-driven anti-Communist purges that saw thousands of Hollywood personnel put out of work and publicly shamed during the Cold War, seems like dark subject matter for any drama that seeks to explore how the many jobless victims coped. But director Jay Roach and screenwriter John McNamara deploy a light touch in their dramatisation of the mischievous ways screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (played with gusto by Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston) got around the blacklist, along with his eclectic group of paycheck-hungry comrades. It is a shame though that, despite this period being so rich in potential subject matter, this admittedly handsomely-mounted, nimble and quite funny film chooses to take a pretty much conventional ride to a victory-lap finish.

For the uninitiated, the Hollywood blacklisting emerged from the hearings of the spookily-named House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947. As the red-hunting Senator McCarthy rampaged across America, smelling communists in every corner, the American screenwriting profession came under scrutiny, as did other talents. The ‘Hollywood Ten’ remains one of the best-known stories of the McCarthy era, and writer Dalton Trumbo (a member of the american communicant party) and other’s refusal to testify as to their knowledge of the industry’s communist sympathisers is one of the enduring myths of the period, the lonely stand of a heroic few. In other words, it is perfect material for a Hollywood screenplay. The irony of this seems not to have been lost on Roach, who constructs his film in such a way that it feels like it could've been made during the actual period it is set in. Dramatic license has clearly been taken. This is a brightly-lit film, spritely in tone, seamlessly stuffed with classic plot contrivances (count the number of times a character will notice something on the TV right in front of them as they are on a phone call talking about the same issue), and set to rousing music, a story that digs the knife into Hollywood, but clumsily and never too deep. Even if you didn't know the history, you would never doubt watching this that the good guys are going get home safe in the end.

Bryan Cranston seems to be having a blast playing Dalton Trumbo, the Hollywood screenwriter who would go on to pen Academy Award winners Roman Holiday and The Brave One, as well as the blockbuster epics Spartacus and Exodus which helped bring him back into the mainstream. Trumbo is a debonair rake of a figure, all checked blazers and shiny cigarette holders, a classic eccentric egotistical archetype from the Hollywood heyday. He necks fine bourbon regularly, and speaks like a character from one of his screenplays, as his typically exasperated colleague and fellow left wing traveller Arlen Hird (a low key but sympathetic Louis CK) acidly observes. Trumbo is a perfectly pleasant guy to spend two hours of film time with, even if the screenplay doesn’t really gift him with a huge amount of complexity. 

The narrative gets the blacklisting and media furore out of the way quickly, leaving much of the running time for Trumbo and Arlen’s attempts to find a way round the blacklist, which they do by ruthlessly exploiting Hollywood’s need for them.  It turns out that is there is one thing Hollywood hates more than a Communist, it is a series of box office flops. Soon Trumbo and a team of out-of-work writers are getting regular work once word gets around the town’s gossip channels, most of the bill-paying work coming from the churn factory known as King Pictures, run by the booming self declare pussy-hound Frank King (John Goodman, seemingly channeling his role from Argo and deploying his skill at roaring out profane one-liners). 

This is where the film is at its most purely enjoyable and sly, as we watch Trumbo and his louche companions hop between studio offices (naturally decked out with gorgeous classic posters) and low-lit smoky bars, artfully exploiting the hypocrisy of tinsel town, bashing out C-grade scripts about giant aliens and outlaws, all while getting through cartons of cigarettes. Roach and the filmmakers clearly love this period too much to make it seem too scary.

It is quite interesting to see the system Trumbo and his team set up to ensure work kept coming through their doors; scripts being delivered in the middle of the night direct to studios via family members, fake names being attached to scripts, or name swaps being arranged with other writers who weren’t box office poison. As a result of Trumbo’s blacklisting, several Academy Awards for writing went unclaimed at the Oscars, a strange occurrence which we see via archive footage. His English writer friend Ian McLellan Hunter (Alan Tudyk, with an odd accent) actually ends up taking home the Oscar for Roman Holiday as he allowed Trumbo to use his name as cover, resulting in the strange situation of him trying to hand it over to an embarrassed Trumbo in a diner. Trumbo did get credit for that film eventually…in 2011.

In moments like this Roach does capture this sense of banality around all the barely secret manoeuvring (Trumbo and his friends are hardly master spies), which is something Trumbo is shown as being entirely aware of. He is counting on the ludicrousness of it all eventually collapsing the blacklist system, although the film does touch upon the contradictory nature of such a plan in that it conveniently synchs with Trumbo’s ambitions for money and glory. This increasingly irks the more firebrand leftie Arlan, who hates having to write anything, even shit, without his name on it and worries that they've lost their way. Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G Robinson, the Little Caesar actor and friend of Trumbo’s, is also there to remind us of how even those who named names suffered; damned if they did, damned if they didn’t. The film never really slows down to explore these debates about creativity, art and morals though, it is too busy getting to the happy ending and having a chuckle as it does so.

There isn’t much for Diane Lane, as Trumbo’s wife Cleo, to do except be loyal and enact the standard routine of reminding her husband of the times when he is losing himself in his cause, likewise Elle Fanning as his feisty elder daughter. Helen Mirren is quite fun as the infamous and fabulously-attired gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, out to do her bit to defend Uncle Sam by cooly delivering threats and barbs through a cloud of cigarette smoke. But Hopper and the other villain characters are never any real threat, we know all these exaggerated villains will get both righteous comeuppance and humiliation. Where the jaunty approach really works against the film is when it tries to slow down to take a more sombre tone, to remind us of those writers who never recovered from the blacklist, some of whom took their own lives. Though enjoyable, overall this film isn’t quite funny or sharp enough to work as a comedy first and drama second, and it never surprises, leaving it feeling like a missed opportunity, especially given how much rich source material there is here for an examination of Hollywood’s period of shame.


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: The Assassin

Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien

12A  |  105 min  |  Drama  |  22 January 2016 (UK)

Playing London Film Festival 2015

RATING: ★★★☆☆


The master of stillness and doyen of quiet realist narratives, Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, turns his attention to the wuxia (martial arts) genre in The Assassin, combing all the ravishing costumes and elegant sets you would expect but fused with his tendencies to favour lengthy takes, diffuse narratives, and to track character interactions through languid back-and-forth camera pans in confined spaces. Though Hou won the Best Director prize at Cannes for his new 9th Century-set epic, this writer found the film hobbled by the flaw of having characters lacking the same level of vibrancy as the visuals. The last Hou film this writer saw was 2001s Millennium Mambo, which also starred The Assassin’s lead performer Shu Qi (who also worked with Hou on Three Times), and unlike this new piece, Mambo’s characters felt compellingly alive. In The Assassin there is maybe too much of that trademark stillness.

In the dying days of China’s Tang Dynasty, Shu Qi’s titular assassin character - Nie Yinniang - is given a new set of orders as punishment for letting her emotions stay her hand on her last mission. The warrior nun who abducted her as a child and trained her in the deadly arts is most displeased at her pupil’s hesitation at killing her target (she caught sight of the man’s young son and retreated). But this nun has a unique way of showing displeasure. Yinniang's fate is thus to be sent back to her homeland to kill the man to whom she was once betrothed - the governor of the powerful Chinese state of Weibo Tian Ji'an (Chang Chen from Three Times and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). But the governor Tian Ji'an also happens to be Yinniang's cousin. This twisted test of loyalty is designed to purge any last feelings towards family and the past from Yinniang’s soul.

We actually first see Yinniang’s killer instinct on display in a pre-credit scene shot in crisp high contrast Academy ratio black and white, as she carries out a hit with brutal grace. Hou cuts away from this action scene abruptly, not giving us the kind of lengthy, ballet-esque dances of death intrinsic to the wuxia genre. Thus approach continues throughout the film; fights only intermittently occur, and are usually concluded quickly, or shown from a distance. This, and other Hou-like flourishes, make the film feel much more grounded than that of a typical wuxia, even though The Assassin sure looks the part. 

As Yinniang, Shu Qi cuts a striking, intense figure, capable of handling the physicality of the role, but the film never gets us close enough to her to feel her inner turmoil as she skirts the edges of the governor’s household, teasing him with evidence of their connection. It doesn’t help that it is a challenge to get on top of all the motives of, and connections between, the various characters around Yinniang whist aligning these with all the political manoeuvrings in the background. Not least when much of this is being passed on via deadening exposition delivered very, very haltingly by various characters. Hou has been able to bring us into character’s lives even with murky narratives in the past, but doesn’t manage it quite so well here. Things are just too cool, especially when compared to Hou’s last film that played at Cannes, Flight of the Red Balloon, which was far more richly involving in terms of character.

At least the film remains an exquisite visual experience. You frequently shoots his decorous, low-lit sets through curtains or gauze, whilst opening up the film later on with wide shots of misty valleys and lush forests. The visual approach, handled by Hou’s regular cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bing, actually shifts as the film runs on, from the aforementioned high-contrast black-and-white Academy ratio in the prelude, to more expressive colour and a 1.85:1 ratio when Yinniang arrives in Weibo. The costuming is magnificent, the flowing robes worn by a cast who all seem to move - or as more often as not, stand still - with an unearthly grace. This does succeed in creating a dreamily rich atmosphere appropriate to the mythos of wuxia, but couldn't Hou have matched this to richer characters and an ever so slightly less baffling plot too?



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.