Fish Tank (Arnold, 2009)

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Anyone familiar with Andrea Arnold’s first-rate feature debut Red Road (2006) will be well aware of her ability to generate compelling drama from a seemingly modest scenario. Interweaving a spell of ghosts from the past with a gripping voyeuristic compulsion, Red Road turned the dank back streets of Glasgow into something sinister and perverse. In her follow-up, Fish Tank (2009), the late-blooming Arnold returned to England armed with an insightful, uncompromising original screenplay of her own.

Set in the heart of a low-income neighbourhood of Essex housing estates, Fish Tank filters life through the eyes of sullen, moody 15 year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis) who lives with her indifferent mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing), and a smart-ass young sister, Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths), who she’s constantly feuding with.

Mia is like a boxer awaiting her turn in the ring: full of pent-up aggression, being slowly suffocated by the stagnation and poverty of her joyless life. Her only avenue of expression comes through the slowly evolving hip-hop dance routines she works on in the seclusion of an abandoned flat.

When her mother’s latest boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender), enters the frame, the household’s dynamic subtly shifts. Though she often displays over-compensatory aggression towards Connor, Mia finds herself intrigued by this overtly masculine figure, the kind of mature-bodied male she’s been oblivious to until now. A vaguely sexual yearning gradually comes to a head and with it the potential for dangerous consequences.

Arnold’s film is an expressive, powerful example of the British social realism most commonly associated with the films of Ken Loach or Mike Leigh. Fish Tank is deliberately toned down in visual terms, though as became evident in Red Road, Arnold has an uncanny knack for eyeing concise, hushed moments that reflect an evocative sensation of poetry in slow motion.

Here, Fassbender was already exhibiting the indefinable qualities that would fast-track him towards the allure of even meatier roles though at the cost, naturally, of integration into projects engineered more for the masses than the art house. His immersive, jaw-dropping portrayal of Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008) may still be regarded as a career highpoint years from now, but he has always provided a magnetic impression when on screen and Fish Tank was but another indicator of his gifts.

The rawness of non-actor Jarvis – plucked from real life by Arnold – makes for an interesting contrast. This is an accomplished, uninhibited debut performance by her, though she’s been gifted with a role in which she’s given plenty of room to manoeuvre by Arnold’s incisive, unsentimental screenplay.

Ultimately the film is more than a glimpse inside the fish bowl that holds the youth of a British underclass at arm’s length with little chance of escape. Forms of betrayal are experienced at every turn: in the apathy of a mother who is blithely neglectful of her maternal duties; in the moral betrayal of a man who exploits Mia’s underdeveloped sexual potential, pricking her into action in a way that places the safety of innocents in jeopardy. Even the dance audition she earns is merely a euphemism for further exploitation, choking off an additional avenue of escape.

Considering the grim circumstances and relentless grip of this decaying urban dwelling, how does Arnold achieve some kind of catharsis for Mia? Though there are times when Mia rubs us the wrong way, it’s hard to not be moved by the painful choices she’s ultimately forced to make. None of this is easy to watch but Fish Tank is grippingly alive with people, emotions and consequences that are all, too often, devastatingly real.

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Michael Clayton (Gilroy, 2007)

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Tony Gilroy’s 2007 debut behind the camera is brimming with smart, slick dialogue; some of it may come off as stagy, but by the time the noose of tension is being tightly drawn, I didn’t really care, hooked by the weight of its juicy cover-up and justifications for murder. George Clooney is the film’s heart and soul, and luckily he’s able to project the kind of introspective intensity required to ensure Michael Clayton is a believable, even if not entirely empathetic, character; his motivations seem dubious in the establishing scenes, though his clinical command of a situation is counterbalanced by his own weakness for a deck of cards.

Clayton is a jaded but highly proficient “fix-it” man for his law firm, a term replete with malleable qualifiers. He cleans up the mess of others, mockingly referred to by friend and co-worker Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) as “a janitor” – the connotations of which seem a little dismissive of his true importance – an integral component, plugging holes with occasional recognition but with neither fanfare or, to his chagrin, a shot at a partnership.

Gilroy begins the film with a 15 minute flash forward, though ending this first act with an explosion, which seen for the first time without any context to rationalise it, deprives it of real impact. But quickly the ship is righted as Gilroy sets about unravelling the sly backstory, commenced four days prior with Arthur’s very public, semi-naked descent into a medication-deprived relapse; a manic-depressive episode which seems to stir his troubled conscience, illuminating his overworked mind with clarifications that must seem like divine messages from on high.

Suddenly, a case in which Arthur’s been swimming with the tide, takes on the proportions of something else: connivingly engineered, amoral culpability; swiftly, the ruthless uNorth, a profiteering chemical company and makers of a weed killer that has seemingly claimed hundreds of human victims, begin their defensive strategizing in order to minimize backlash or harm to their reputation.

The clarity of a re-awakened conscience has dangerous potential and uNorth’s reflexive measures, initiated by its edgy, bundle-of-nerves attorney, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), become a relentless pursuit of concealing injustice for the sake of their own hides; Arthur becomes a liability, an internally diagnosed “cancer” whose silent removal would benefit both parties.

Slowly the pieces of the puzzle come into sharper focus for Clayton who only vaguely senses the conspiracy afoot at first, but has the added insight of his long friendship with Arthur to clear away any marginal doubts of their obstructive presence. Here, Gilroy’s steady writing builds a subtle, but compelling momentum as a race to find, and gently inform authorities, of the truth becomes paramount. This is a somber drama with the added dimensions of a thriller, and although reaching a neat, predictable conclusion, it does provide satisfaction – meeting that comforting sense of ‘vengeance is sweetest when served by the just and righteous’.

Clooney wears his steely-eyed compunction like a mask and with murky grey lines of fallibility – an ostracised brother, a dud investment and up to his armpits in gambling debts – soaking him in dour duty, he follows the one clearly detectable straight line to its unequivocal conclusion, subverting the intentions of his keepers, the men assuming he’ll stay blind to the truth and follow their orders. Swinton, as the jumpy, reluctant negotiator with shady, dark denizens of the night, and Wilkinson as the impassioned but deeply troubled Arthur, give excellent support, whilst the late Sydney Pollack adds a measure of real gravitas to the role of Clayton’s superior.

A writer with a sizable body of work already behind him (The Bourne trilogy, Proof of Life), Gilroy thrives in his first shot at the director’s chair; Michael Clayton is a fine drama and a highly entertaining one, with a compelling, watertight screenplay and tidy, unobtrusive direction. It’s dense with detail yet never strays into impenetrability, with just enough flesh on its bones to make us care for Clayton’s quest and Arthur’s sad plight. Similarly effective, James Newton Howard’s ominous, simmering electronic score creates tension of its own, whilst Robert Elswitt’s wintry, reduced palette fits the tone of the film like a glove.

Only God Forgives (Refn, 2013)

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With the cool quotient amped up to mega-freeze, Ryan Gosling’s performance in Nicolas Winding Refn’s second most recent film establishes a new frontier for minimalist acting. It’s as though the pair have re-imagined ‘Driver’ from their previous collaboration before bleeding every last vestige of emotion from him – emotion he didn’t exactly possess in spades in the first instance. The result is a vacuous, unctuous portrait of violence and revenge, lacking not in cinematic power but in subtext and delicacy.

Only God Forgives is, predictably, stunning to behold: every frame bears the mark of Refn’s extraordinary gift for stylisation for its own sake, fetishistically inflicting striking reds into intricate, painstakingly arrayed set-ups. It’s a shame then that such remarkable care in sculpting scenes with vivid gradations of light and colour is squandered on a transparently empty narrative that barely registers. Gosling’s Julian is a mamma’s boy, held fast in a rigid psychological grasp by the poisonous Crystal, (Kristin Scott Thomas). When she decrees revenge for the killing of her other son, a conscienceless murderer in his last moments as well, Julian becomes her pawn.

But revenge takes a while and Julian’s nemesis-to-be, absurdly corrupt and murderous Thai policeman Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), has a few bodies to sadistically add to the pile as well. This slow motion dance of death will have its inevitable denouement to be sure, and whilst the vacancy that fills out Refn’s lacklustre narrative ultimately sinks it, there’s a trail of memorably staged scenes to admire along the way.

Cliff Martinez, seemingly often channelling Vangelis through a retro synth sound, produces a savage musical beast in accompaniment. His score, more often than not pushed to the foreground by Refn for maximum impact, gives the unfolding drama its contrived sense of horror. It’s one of his finest scores, though its life beyond the film may be limited.

Is Gosling even acting here? If so, he’s establishing new borders for what the term encompasses; his lone, abstract expression, monotonously worn, has revealed suggestive subliminal powers in the past – in Drive (2011) of course, and even recently in The Place Beyond the Pines (2013). Here, it becomes a wearying device employed by Refn to deflect any definable human cognisance of what’s to come. These are not to be taken seriously as humans anyway; Julian and Chang are just near-statues being robotically manoeuvred into place for the inevitable final confrontation.

Only God Forgives (2013) is a disappointing step backward for the prodigiously talented Refn; his screenplay is absolutely the worst of his career. Yet, his garish, deliberately provocative intermingling of violence, colour and aesthetic perfectionism still guarantees a feast for the senses, if not the intellect.

The Paperboy (Daniels, 2012)

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What a wonderfully lurid, sleazy, twisted southern jewel this 2012 film from Lee Daniels is. Replete with off-beat characterisations, pointless diversions, and a swampy, murderous atmosphere, this is certainly a film that defiantly marches to its own beat. Does it have mass appeal? Not on your life. Is it packed with unsavoury elements sure to repel certain audiences? Yes, yes, yes!

In the 1960’s a lawyer, Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey), returns to his small Southern home town to investigate the case of a man, Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), he believes has been wrongfully arrested for murder. Aided by his Miami co-worker, British writer Yardley (David Oyelowo), naïve younger brother Jack (Zack Efron), and the woman, Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), who, through letter exchanges with men in prison has finally settled upon Hillary as her perfect man, Ward begins to dig deeper into the case. The whole deliriously colourful episode is viewed as a flashback and narrated by the Jansen family’s all-knowing maid Anita (Macy Gray).

Though the narrative clearly plays second fiddle to the characters that heedlessly drive it along, a rough, raw vitality is what energises Daniels’ left-of-centre vision for adapting Pete Dexter’s novel to the screen. This rawness is also reflected in the often unconventional visual approach which sets a dulled, dirty colour scheme against strangely incongruous perspectives. You could argue the whole project has been haphazardly wrought but the approach feels daringly original in its own crazy way.

There are memorable scenes aplenty, including the notorious but hilarious urination scene involving Charlotte and Jack, and another vividly realised sexual encounter of sorts in the jailhouse. But it’s the work of the performers that will linger longest in memories. For McConaughey this the continuation of a hot streak which peaked again around this time with William Friedkin’s Killer Joe (2012). Efron proves he’s capable of striking out successfully against his wholesome image whilst negotiating some tricky scenes with Kidman. Then there’s the startling Cusack who blows perceptions of his once romantic lead status to smithereens.

But it’s Kidman who shines brightest; her daring, luminescent turn is a wonder to behold. Rarely has she been more magnetic on screen, channelling every white trash vixen from a back-catalogue of Jerry Springer specials. Offensive, demented, lazily plotted and overflowing with extraneous lurid asides, The Paperboy (2012), for all its shortcomings, is at least a memorable, deliriously idiosyncratic concoction.

 

Biutiful (Innaritu, 2010)

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Like a grease-stained fog, misery descends on Barcelona and the life of one of its anonymous inhabitants, Uxbal (Javier Bardem). This man’s life is a fractured mess; a puzzle reduced to a jagged, tortured essence, his daily existence a relentless grind that becomes the source of copious bleeding.

Masterful Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu – now a richly deserving two-time Oscar recipient – was working for the first time here without regular collaborator, screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga. He quickly initiates us into his oppressively bleak worldview but it reveals a tone we’re familiar with. Anyone who braved his second film 21 Grams (2003) will know of the void into which his characters are swallowed as they struggle for grace and comprehension.

With Biutiful (2010), Bardem fortifies his reputation as cinema’s most compelling presence, pouring all of Uxbal’s anguish and pain into his devastating portrayal. Encased in sunless skies and drab interiors, Uxbal is like a bull chasing phantom movements along the streets of Pamplona. Inarritu’s unnerving gaze is unremitting; there is room to manoeuvre but little in which to entertain the possibility of escape. A spiritual dimension occasionally intrudes upon proceedings; Uxbal is either cursed with the ability to perceive troubled spirits of the dead or the ability to convince vulnerable outsiders of his extrasensory perception.

As a defining medical judgement descends with the weight of a soothsayer’s final proclamation, Uxbal tries to juggle the various strands of his life, including dodgy dealings with illegal African workers he has doling out low-grade drugs. In conjunction with his brother Tito (Eduard Fernandez) he has further trouble brewing with the equally illegal Chinese labour crew he’s using to produce cheap factory gear. Yet it’s difficult to hate this man who has his childrens’ best interests at heart. He valiantly tries to organise a stable domestic existence for them whilst fending off the self-pitying advances of his self-destructive, bi-polar ex-wife Marambra (a gutsy Maricel Alvarez).

Biutiful offers the impression of a man being sucked into a whirlpool with his arms tied behind his back. Through the elaborate, dense layers of bleakness, a humanistic flicker keeps us subtly entranced in a view of Barcelona that the city’s tourism bureau will be desperate to negate. This will be, at around 135 minutes, a tough slog for even the most hardened of cinemagoers, but Biutiful is a powerful, unforgettable, almost transcendent experience.

 

Swimming Pool (Ozon,2003)

 

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Imagining a writer as a major character often affords a filmmaker the luxury of artifice, like a wilful blurring of the lines between truth and fiction. Such is the case with Francois Ozon’s tantalizing Swimming Pool, a slow-burning drama from 2003 with sinuous hints of a darker mystery that only resolve themselves in the perplexing conclusion.

Charlotte Rampling plays English crime fiction author Sarah Morton, disillusioned by her continuing series of Inspector Dorwell novels, despite their success. She’s desperate for fresh inspiration and tired of the special treatment she once received being foisted upon much younger upstarts by her publisher John Bosload (Charles Dance).

The two were apparently lovers at some point, a relationship Sarah would like to rekindle. John, however, only wants to offload her and suggests his scenic and peaceful French retreat, a remote house nestled away near a small village in the South.

Sarah settles in and begins to write, her creative energy – stifled by her inner turmoil of late – soon returning with a rush. The environment seems like the perfect antidote………….…..until the unexpected arrival of John’s estranged daughter Julie (Ludivine Sagnier), a provocative, carefree party girl and whirlwind of loud noise who likes to parade around semi-naked, bringing different male companions to the house every night.

The two women, with their vastly different personalities, are soon at loggerheads though both are determined to compromise – or at least to not give an inch, and so an implicit understanding of sorts is reached. It’d be cruel to reveal much more of the plot as the third act builds momentum and changes direction a number of times; it’s definitely a film which relies on as little in the way of revelations as possible for maximum impact.

Ozon uses music sparingly, his composer Philippe Rombi foreshadowing the darker plot developments with his bleak and ominous theme as early as the opening titles; it raises an expectation of murkier turns to follow but Ozon drags the drama out, teasing with his absorbing set-up and follow-through. His deliberately languid pace adds another dimension of anticipation whilst not a lot is really happening other than the two women jostling for supremacy, trying to find common ground on which they can exist in something close to harmony.

There’s sublime skill in the way Ozon reveals details about these women, like the eccentric, almost childishly guilty cravings of Sarah’s hunger, and the way she steals from her reluctant young companion to secrete the machinations of her latest narrative. These details begin to take shape as clues to Julie’s life, some of which are attached to the personal demons of her mysterious mother’s life and, possibly, death.

We never question what might not be real, only because Ozon’s world is so convincing created, but as the surprising climax nears, there’s a sense he’s readying his audience for a fall, the rug about to be pulled out from underneath our feet. It’s here, at the most crucial moments, that the lines separating fact and fiction are blurred by clues disguised as authentic details – clues that may require a second viewing to convince us that they even existed at all.

Rampling and Sagnier are a perfectly matched duo, both giving uninhibited and provocative performances, whilst Ozon – who had first directed both women in Under the Sand (2000) and Water Drops on Burning Rocks (2000) respectively – provides another fascinating film to his expanding, impressive body of work. Refined, subtle and, ultimately, complex and confounding, Swimming Pool can be viewed as exotic manipulation or cheap entertainment – or a masterful combination of both. Either way, you won’t be bored.

 

The Hidden (Sholder, 1987)

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Maybe once in a journeyman director’s career all the pieces will line up, the stars mysteriously aligned; if so, there’s a chance for something remarkable to occur, and in the case of veteran Jack Sholder, the fateful project was 1987’s The Hidden. Intelligently blending a police manhunt with strong elements of horror and sci-fi, it has – I was pleasantly surprised to discover – survived the intervening decades remarkably well. Earning a shot in the director’s chair on the back of the first Nightmare on Elm Street sequel two years previous, Shoulder delivers the goods with a superbly executed thrill ride featuring two memorable central performances.

L.A. detective Tom Beck (Michael Nouri) and his men are the trail of a ruthless thief and killer engaged in a random spree of terror across the city. With a propensity for stealing Ferraris and blaring heavy-metal music at full blast, Jack DeVries (Chris Mulkey) needs to be stopped, and after an exhilarating chase in the opening sequence, he crashes his car before being ruthlessly pounded by a police artillery. In hospital and near-death, it seems the city’s most wanted criminal has finally come unstuck.

In fact, it’s only the beginning of Beck’s trouble, for DeVries’ body has been nothing but a shell harbouring an alien lifeform, a slithering black worm-like creature that hops from body to body once it senses the weakening physical capabilities of its host. A quiet, undemonstrative FBI agent arrives from Seattle, Lloyd Gallagher (Kyle MacLachlan), his assignment to track down the now dead DeVries, but his concerns are hardly alleviated by the sight of the man’s mortal remains. Confounding Beck with his oblique suggestions of a danger still at large, he keeps the detective frustrated, uncomprehending but intrigued.

Together they hunt for the body-hopping alien, Beck at first convinced of an elaborate scheme tying all the participants together. Before long however, even he becomes a believer as Gallagher, with a secretive past of his own, realises the need to spell out their predicament in black and white to ensure a legitimate chance at tracking the alien down and exterminating it once and for all.

The Hidden succeeds on so many levels, not only as a riveting police thriller, but as a genre film and wicked satire with cleverly suggestive moments of ironic dark humour. Beck and Gallagher are an odd but inspired pairing, with Nouri’s physicality and wearied, hardened edge complemented by MacLachlan’s minimalist underplaying of the outsider and his motivations.

There are clever touches aplenty in the screenplay by Bob Hunt, including a series of light-hearted jabs at the gulf separating the pair’s working processes, the reasons for which remain elusive until well into the film. It’s never clear how it all might end either and even when it seemingly does, Hunt has another neat trick in store for the film’s poignant coda. It’s rare that alien life forms are given the dimensions they are here, with qualities that clearly delineate the hunter from his prey, including empathy for earthly compatriots and a constant pining for simple family values.

Unlike so many films from its era, visually The Hidden has retained a toned-down, drab but gritty appeal that isn’t marred by glaring, grossly anachronistic fashion or style; much of that can be attributed to the fine work of production designers Mick and C.J. Strawn and cinematographer Jacques Haitkin. Another successful component are the many well-chosen pieces of rock music regularly inserted into the action, fitting comfortably between the harsh, jagged electronic daggers of Michael Convertino’s score.

Sholder has been a prolific workman over the years but nothing in his subsequent output – which seems to have ended in premature retirement in 2004 – comes close to what he achieved on The Hidden, a mostly forgotten but genuine treasure from the ‘80’s, one still highly regarded today as more than just a B-grade or cult classic.