The Red Riding Trilogy (Jarold/Marsh/Tucker, 2010)

“This is the North – we do what we want.”

This horrific credo repeats throughout The Red Riding Trilogy, a reminder of the massive evil infecting the fabric of everyday life in Yorkshire, England during the 1970’s and 80’s. It’s also just one of the many menacing symbols connecting this trio of films (individually titled 1974, 1980, and 1983), each dissecting the limitless corruption and crime plaguing the city’s infrastructure and citizenry. Part faded memory, part archaeological dig, Red Riding envisions years of murder, greed, and cover up fading together along a gap-riddled timeline, churning three individual films into an overlapping Goliath of historical darkness and shadow. No sadistic rock is left unturned, and the worst villains rise from the most trusted of institutions.

The separate heroes of Red Riding – Eddie (Andrew Garfield), a naive young journalist in 1974, Peter (Paddy Constantine), an embattled police detective in 1980, and John (Mark Addy), a cynical lawyer in 1983 – all stem from a place of broken purpose and identity. Haunted by skeletons in the familial and professional closet, each crusades against the obvious deception of the present to rectify the innocent ghosts of the past, attempting to shift Yorkshire’s culture of fear in the process. All three unearth clues to the poisonous acts perpetrated by police, politicians, and corporate businessmen, but none fully relinquish public perception and control from the multi-headed snake. This ambiguity makes Red Riding an extremely effective, complex, and ambitious procedural, transcending murky tangents and unnecessary characters to highlight the connective tissue of history, one that records the consequences of action and silence in blood.

And the walls of Yorkshire get painted red by all types of demons and devils. Brutal child killers, heinous cops, and compromising wordsmiths prey on the expectations of the weak, creating a facade of safety while plucking innocent victims at their leisure. While the heroes of Red Riding exist within their respective narratives, the evildoers transcend time, popping up in each episode, repopulating the stormy grey mise-en-scene with deadly influence. Mutilated bodies, missing children photos, and coffin namesakes become their narrative calling cards, artifacts of a collective ideology warped by manipulation and fear. One bureaucratic Beelzebub calls it an “oasis”, and for his kind he’s right.

Directed by three very different filmmakers (Jullian Jarrold, James Marsh, and Anand Tucker), Red Riding should be viewed as a singular cinematic experience. The strong thematic connections between 1974, 1980, and 1983 speak to the power of Tony Grisoni’s expansive adaptation of David Peace’s novels, a meandering serpentine layout linked by hazy flashbacks, complex remembrances, and haunting allusions. The films don’t just deal with the struggle between good and evil, but the relationship between remembering and forgetting, repetition and tradition. But the screenplay is also Red Riding‘s worst enemy, as it’s often too big for the respective filmmakers to successfully interrupt and clarify. This forces certain segments, specifically 1974 and 1983, into messy and unearned dramatic conclusions, disavowing the non-linear nature of the whole in favor of specific genre conventions.

Still, Red Riding is consistently fascinating in scope, delving deep into one community’s array of dark passengers strangling justice from the inside out. Eventually, the funerals, disappearances, and crime scenes overwhelm even the most condemned characters, forcing them into action after a decade of detailed decay and compromise. But there’s a disturbing sense of cyclical inaction at the heart of these films, one that cannot be cured by narrative closure. If history is written by the victors, then the wolves and rats of Red Riding strengthen their grasp of the record by interpreting their vile conquests as progressive acts, devouring morality and honor to feed their selfish little weaknesses. Red Riding suggests that one way or another everyone plays a part, whether we stand in futile protest or bury our heads in the blood-drenched sand.

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Fish Tank (Arnold, 2009)

In Andrea Arnold’s lethargic sophomore effort Fish Tank, subtle winds of change blow 15-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis) from casual teen angst into seriously disappointed adulthood. Throughout the tonally schizophrenic narrative, Mia’s rocky coming of age moments (disappointing relationships, serious father issues, fractured identity) barb the quietest sections of the film with overblown confrontations between key players. Despite Mia’s undeniable need to transcend situational conflict, her trial and error learning curve ultimately flops around like the film’s simplistic centralized metaphor – a plump fish plucked from a country river left to waste on her family’s dirty kitchen floor. Unfortunately, Mia’s elongated plight produces only knee high symbolism.

The social scales tip against Mia from the very beginning, as she loses (or alienates) a best friend and relentlessly battles with her promiscuous single mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing). To complicate things, Joanne begins seeing a charming stranger named Connor (Michael Fassbender), a tender bloke who might be slightly morally askew. Arnold treats early interactions between Mia and Connor with exciting urgency, clouding the air with the drowsy tangents and fanciful innuendo. As they spend more time together, Mia’s perception of Connor begins to dangerously coagulate, clogging the reality of their relationship with dangerous gusts of emotion. Mia’s consciousness often screeches to a halt as Connor becomes part father figure, part love interest, all poison for her impressionable state of mind. Arnold makes certain we understand this layered connection, using slow motion and heightened sound design to lyrically construct fleeting moments. In one particularly beautiful sequence, Connor tends to a gash on Mia’s foot during a countryside day trip, Arnold favoring the sensuality of elements (blood, water), instantly pushing the film into emotional overdrive. Close-ups of Connor’s masculine figure and Mia’s stricken face merge together, creating an unnatural poetry to a relationship destined to come crashing down.

Friendship, family, and community represent Mia’s own version of the Medieval stocks, institutions trapping her in a relentless vice of uncertainty and unrest. As with her breakthrough film Red Road, Arnold stalks her tormented heroine around every corner, through windowpanes, and from various vantage points surrounding the low rent London projects of the film’s setting. But the visual precision and menace of that film has all but vanished in Fish Tank, replaced by a messy handheld scattering of stagnant high rises, cramped mechanical dumps, and lonely dirt fields. Lyrical parallels to Mia’s bursting humanity and hope jump out amidst this volatile world, like the image of an old mare chained in the center of a junkyard, or when Mia’s younger sister eases her head out the car window to soak in the fresh air of the lush countryside. Mia’s salvation resides in the details, yet Arnold can’t muster enough of them to making a lasting impact.

Fish Tank exists primarily to explore Mia’s need for connection, be it with another human being, her passion for hip-hop, or nature itself. But Arnold shoves Mia toward a tragic shift in motivation during the last act, and the film’s various themes come to fruition rather haphazardly as a result. Fish Tank doesn’t bare enough teeth to make these potential conclusions valid, and Arnold seems content merely suggesting them instead of completely darkening her protagonist’s desires. If Red Road signfyed a talented filmmaker grappling with the dark interior motivations behind torturous guilt and retribution, Fish Tank submerges these considerations in a leaden vessel anchored by burdensome trauma, suffocating under the pressure of its own superficial surface.

The Ghost Writer (Polanski, 2010)

Roman Polanski creates cinematic quicksand, watching gleefully as his modern day heroes subside into the madness, disillusionment, and terror of the unseen threat. His films revel in the slow burn of subversion, where the devil’s casual glimmer fuels the kindling of everyday guilt and desire. Rosemary’s Baby frames the institution of marriage (and family) as a demonic grift, while Chinatown soaks up the failures of law and order within an overflowing well of greed. And even though recent films like The Pianist and Oliver Twist find Polanski hopscotching through time, each addresses a similar thematic concern, whether it be the grand disavowal of humanity by the Nazi’s or the pomp and circumstance of social standing inherent to Dickens’ classic. In the end, injustice transcends period and genre, leaving only a dreadful sinking feeling for comfort.

In the terrific opening shot of his latest film The Ghost Writer, Polanski immediately reminds the viewer we’re traversing a similar minefield of stylistic isolation. Seemingly born out of the foggy darkness and Alexandre Desplat’s booming score, a gigantic ferry emerges, its hull slowly opening as if to swallow the frame whole. Cars depart, leaving only an expensive SUV behind. Polanski then cuts to a body washing up on the beach. The juxtaposition clearly sets the stakes of the game, and Polanski never wavers from this visual threat. The razor-sharp sequence introduces a modern alternate universe brimming with eerie doppelgangers and familiar political follies, but proves improvised explosions of tone will replace timeliness as the main focus.

The Ghost Writer shifts Polanski back to our current political/social strata, where the director uses the cronyism and corruption of the War on Terror to frame an expansive network of suspicion and foul play. When a newly hired “Ghost” (Ewan McGregor) begins to revise the clunky memoirs an exiled British Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan), he gets embroiled in a deepening web of uncertainty, and the end result could incriminate the governments on both sides of the pond. While unforgivably long-winded at times, The Ghost Writer brilliantly darkens an already cynical, pitch black political climate. As The Ghost submerges deeper into the ploy, Polanski focuses on the isolation of not only character, but ideology. It’s all about the process of lying, covering up, and plotting. In this shady world, we are only as safe or successful as our least loyal friend, and The Ghost takes on Hitchcockian turn after another until he’s danced with the devil full circle.

The modern day political thriller has been dumbed down substantially of late, so there’s a danger of giving Polanski’s ample substance and keen wit too much credit. But The Ghost Writer remains incredibly satisfying, especially as a display of Polanski’s prolonged excursion down a thematic river of no return.  Like all of the director’s tormented protagonists, The Ghost can’t see the forest for the trees, not so much because of ignorance or fear, but due to lack of imagination. The rot always goes much deeper than expected, and the unflinching symbolism throughout creates a diabolical double-edged sword for The Ghost between justice and arrogance. Offscreen violence, sex, and most notably words become the weapons of choice in this battle, and Polanski seems right at home showering his characters in the sleaze of modern day corruption and murder. This sort of grime never washes off.

Micmacs, Looking For Eric, LAFF

Hello All. Here are direct links to my latest reviews for my new favorite writer’s haven, In Review Online – Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Micmacs and Ken Loach’s Looking For Eric. Also, in the upcoming weeks I’ll have reviews of The Killer Inside Me, Restored Metropolis, The City of Your Final Destination, and Solitary Man for EInsiders. And in other big news, I’ll be covering the Los Angeles Film Festival for the aforementioned site in June, hopefully all 11 days of it! My elaborate preparation has already begun!

A Very Young Girl (Breillat, 1976)

Catherine Breillat’s debut shocker signifies everything that’s fascinating and maddening about her entire filmmaking career. For the first half, A Very Young Girl offers a daring glimpse into the warped fantasies of Alice (Charlotte Alexandra), a pubescent young vixen who returns home from boarding school to her French countryside home for Summer vacation. Like many of Breillat’s suffocating heroines, Alice is bored with her daily routine, understands the contradictions of her family life, and pines for some enigmatic fix by drifting off into heightened sexual fits of surrealism.

Breillat doesn’t mince the extreme imagery either, pushing Alice’s sexuality front and center so it’s unmistakably brazen and at times sensational. Alice bikes around the small town with her skirt up, flirts with older men by touching her privates, stalks an attractive young logger, and fights with her parents tooth and nail about her role as a daughter. These dalliances cause quite a stir in the town, but Alice’s parents end up caring more than the girl herself. But every action has a reaction, and with most Breillat’s films it’s the most minor moments that end up destroying the characters in the end.

The most disturbing element of A Very Young Girl might be Alice’s incredibly singular outlook on power, control, and ultimately manipulation. Breillat allows Alice to sway through scenes, part chameleon, part shark, scanning the shoreline for victims while also blending into the background. Her mere presence upsets the balance of communal stasis, and Breillat uses Alice to weed out the wolves in sheep’s clothing, those who watch from afar and both judge the provocateur and yearn for their undivided attention.

Unfortunately, Breillat can’t sustain the visceral power of the first half, and Alice’s experiences grow less fantastical and more realistic, depressing in the sense that conformity seems to be eroding her very soul from the inside out. A Very Young Girl provokes the audience into witnessing the emergence of a girl grasping at sexual straws in order to fill a gaping void. Breillat sees her heroine as both victim and aggressor, a great if not predictable foreshadowing of the more complex female forces to come.

The Book of Eli (Hughes Brothers, 2010)

As a not-so-subtle religious parable, The Book of Eli treads on dreadfully serious ground, putting the salvation of post-apcalyptic Earth in the hands of a wondering Western samurai. Denzel Washington plays the titular ronin Eli with honest poise and conviction, traversing this laughably violent world as if he’s the second coming (and he might very well be).

The arid landscapes are clogged with contorted metal wreckage, dead bodies, and ravaging gangs of thieves/rapists, framed by the constant lethal glow of the sun. Director brothers Allen and Albert Hughes bring their love for roving camera movement to The Book of Eli, an aesthetic that works best during the dynamic action sequences.

But the story itself is fraught with inanity, especially a subplot between Eli and a Solara (Mila Kunis), a young woman who bonds with the warrior and inexplicably turns into a badass by simple symbiosis. This small plot point ends up submerging the entire ending, rendering the whole “passing the torch” scenario completely moot. Still, there’s enough energy and skill with The Book of Eli to label it as a mixed bag, a sometimes engaging action film hindered by thematic posturing.

Pause For Effect: Best of 2009

This essay has unfortunately long been on hold waiting to be published at the now defunct Gone Cinema Poaching. Looking back, I should have published it myself long ago, and I won’t make that mistake again. I fully recognize that it’s a half year late and is certainly dated, but I wanted to go ahead and post it anyways because it was a labor of love for me. So, try and remember back not so long ago to 2009, because it was a great year for Cinema that deserves it’s due.

Masked by the epic considerations and conclusions of a decade in transition, the solitary year of 2009 quietly produced a wealth of fascinating cinema. In the West, some of the year’s finest came in strange, challenging packages (The BoxThe Limits of Control), while others toed the line between the familiar and the sublime (UpSomers Town). One unforgettable debut sprung from an uneasy place of self-evaluation reflective of our current consciousness, challenging what it means to be human while immersed in the horrors of modern technology (Afterschool). But Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox managed to mix all of these aspects into one incredible mosaic of whimsy, comedy, and tragedy, creating a bustling alternate universe where humans and animals naturally battle and communicate. Color and texture highlight both the dimension and danger of Fox’s world, defining relationships out of the smallest details. The consequences of redemption and togetherness remain hauntingly realized on the fringes of each frame, glaring reminders that life can suddenly begin and end in a single moment. Continue reading