Antiviral (Cronenberg, 2012)

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Brandon Cronenberg does indeed prove to be a chip off the old block. His superb directorial debut Antiviral (2012), despite a limited budget, is rife with fascinating ideas and striking visuals that reflect the alternate world in which chief protagonist Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones) finds himself. And yet is this incarnation of Toronto really so far removed from the present day equivalent of a western city in which all sorts of weird obsessions consume the populace to an unnatural degree?

March is employed by a medical clinic that specialises in selling blood-harvested samples of the latest celebrity viruses. These are injected into paying customers whose obsession with their idols includes experiencing their pain and distress first hand. March also smuggles samples of these viruses out of the clinic inside his own body to sell illegally via a butcher who, when not cooking up ‘celebrity cell steaks’, moonlights as a black marketeer. But things become murkier for Syd once he allows a diseased sample from dying celebrity Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon) into his bloodstream. From there things begin to get a bit messy – in more ways than one.

There’s much to admire about Antiviral, a film which exposes and satirises the various malignancies that blight our world – chiefly, that of celebrity obsession that leads to disturbing, harmful, and of course – for this is a Cronenberg film – perverted transformations of the mind and physical self. At our basest, Cronenberg shows us, we’ve become parasites hungering for experiences that mirror those of idolised non-entities.

In peculiar and audacious ways, Cronenberg’s film harkens back to the early ‘body horror’ films of his father David, like Videodrome (1983), The Fly (1986), Rabid (1977) and The Brood (1979), with a sustained tone of bleakness and sterility exquisitely engineered through the striking use of stark white interiors. True, the third act is wonky, with the impression of a narrative losing coherence and eating its own tail. But the pros far outweigh the cons for me; this is a promising, at times startling debut, handled with the aplomb of a veteran – not so surprising given its director’s pedigree. Cronenberg was hardly likely to be fumbling in the dark upon taking the plunge into cinema. He also makes canny use of E.C. Woodley’s music to provocatively support his images, something Cronenberg Sr has done for years with the aid of the incomparable Howard Shore.

The director’s real masterstroke may have been in casting Jones in the lead. The directness and intensity of his haunted eyes are remarkably persuasive, non-verbal indicators of the doom that descends upon March as he’s swallowed up by the ugly ramifications of his viral theft. The relatively inexperienced actor, best known for his work on The Last Exorcism (2010) and a small part in X-Men: First Class (2011), gives the impression of being far older than 23. Antiviral is both a wonderful throwback – like an old, unscreened gem rescued from the vaults of Cronenberg senior’s back catalogue – and refreshingly original. A follow-up is still eagerly awaited.

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Compliance (Zobel, 2012)

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A fast food outlet in small town America receives a phone call from a man purporting to be an officer of the law. The store manager Sandra (Anne Dowd) is informed by Officer Daniels (Pat Healy) that one of her front-of-house employees, Becky (Dreama Walker) is guilty of stealing money from a customer, a fact backed up by his own team’s surveillance. Unable to attend the scene he instructs Sandra to perform a series of actions on his behalf.

A ritualistic violation by proxy begins through the harried Sandra and other employees, progressing from an invasion of privacy to far more serious crimes. Inspired by true events, Compliance (2012) is a frightening examination of our darkest fears and the threat of being exposed to our most base weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Alternatively it may be viewed as a less than enlightening illustration of humanity’s continued descent into a zombified state of rank stupidity.

The chief implication of Craig Zobel’s film is that when the authority of law enforcement is invoked, individuals often act like pre-programmed rats in a cage. Are we really so susceptible to suggestions that contravene our basic knowledge of the world and the way it operates? In this case, as Sandra robotically follows orders, the assumption of innocence is deleted – as is the need to assert basic rights and question a series of commanded actions in the light of their moral and ethical inappropriateness.

Compliance certainly makes for compelling viewing. Is the fact that it angers, infuriates and becomes harder to stomach as it progresses a testament to the effectiveness of Zobel’s film as an instructive tool, or a depressing reflection of the inanity which blights humanity and allows such absurd miscarriages of justice and moral surrender to occur?

Zobel certainly poses fascinating questions. Perhaps the cut and dry conclusions you’ll rashly jump to camouflage deeper, more disturbing truths. The performances of all cast members are excellent and generally naturalistic, especially those of Dowd and Walker in the key roles of the acquiescent store manager and her accused employee. True, Becky’s generally meek submission may test credibility but who’s to say how any of us might act under these circumstances? At key junctures, the Philip Glass-influenced minimalistic figures of Heather McIntosh’s excellent score act like jagged accusatory refrains underlining the downward spiral of humanity’s loss in the face of this insidious strain of evil.

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.

The Great Gatsby (Luhrmann, 2013)

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As subtlety, nuance and ambiguity are battered aside by excess in the initial half hour, you wonder if Baz Luhrmann’s take on The Great Gatsby (2013) can ever recover. Thankfully, to a large extent it does, the skeletal framework of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s still left standing after the multi-faceted cinematic assault of the director and his legion of artistic accessorisers. For devotees of the novel, however, the saddest aspect of this overblown production will be how the margins are filled out with amorphous, far less complicated shapes poking through the evaporative mist of classic storytelling misdirection.

Luhrmann’s ploy to reconstruct a classic is an elaborate one, ornate, expensively staged – and almost swallowed up by the impression of heightened artificiality it takes pains to exaggerate. In the opening stretch, the effect is of recreating a famous work of art as a cartoon cell. Still, on a fundamental level only the glimmer of a great tale is required when it’s the ghost of Fitzgerald who is doing the telling.

Leonardo DiCaprio brings genuine presence and star power to his portrayal of Gatsby, even if the depth of his pining for an irretrievable perfection is flattened out into too generically palatable doses. The hollowness at the core of a life spent lavishly entertaining for pitifully little reward hits home, his yearning for true love Daisy cancelled out by an American Dream going horribly sour. Carey Mulligan is a passable Daisy, stripped of interesting layers, whilst Tobey Maguire is a feeble, slightly bland Nick Carraway, his voiceover narration unavoidably tainted by the actor’s less than steely presence.

Once it finally settles into the narrative, relegating the glitz and glamour to the backdrop, The Great Gatsby works closer to being a more entertaining, even legitimate piece of cinema, though distinctly of a piece with its director’s uneven past work. Simplified and commercialised, certainly, but it becomes a reasonably compelling reflection of its source material even if only a small proportion of what constitute Fitzgerald’s timeless themes can be glimpsed between the lines.

 

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.

 

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.

 

Bad Day at Black Rock (Sturges, 1955)

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Nobody comes to Black Rock. Not ever. Barren, washed-out, and desolate – that’s what it is. And home to a terrible truth carefully concealed beneath its dusty exterior. Until now, perhaps, for here comes a train, hurtling through the desert in its direction; for the first time in four years it stops at this remote place, ejecting a lone figure into the cauldron of a summer’s day. He’s John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy), a one-armed man on a mission, soon to instil fear of the unknown into the stilted and menial lives of the town’s few inhabitants.

John Sturges’s 1955 masterpiece Bad Day at Black Rock rolls across the screen like distant thunder, slowly accumulating existential force. Macreedy’s arrival is such an anomalous occurrence he immediately draws the fascinated attention of the suspicious locals. Figuring intimidation will be the most effective means of uncovering his closely-guarded intentions, they set about testing his mettle, to see if he’s got “any iron in his blood.”

Macreedy is a fascinating, complex character: cagey, cool, but above all, dignified in the face of their torment and scare tactics. Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), a landowner and figurehead of the town, who walks over the presiding sheriff (Dean Jagger) as if he doesn’t exist, is cordial and amenable to Macreedy, whilst using his heavies, Hector (Lee Marvin), and the dimwitted Coley (Ernest Borgnine) to unnerve the stranger and scatter his secret into the light of day.

Black Rock is guarding a nasty secret, openly acknowledged by pensive stares and the whispered query of their inner circle’s weakest link, Pete Wirth (John Ericson), begging “What if he finds out?” More than anyone, Smith is alert to the danger signs and potential ramifications, for it’s beginning to feel as though Macreedy is some insidious and rebellious part of their collective conscience, arriving with the express purpose of opening their wounds and exposing them to their guilt. But what exactly are they guilty of?

Macreedy’s queries revolve around a Japanese farmer who lived some ways out of town but seems to have vanished. Under the nervous scrutiny of Smith and his men, he visits key figures: the pathetic, ailing sheriff, the lone female (Anne Francis), the mortician (Walter Brennan); on each occasion extracting tiny measures of discord from what remains of their weakening defences – a barrier constructed against any conscious acknowledgment of the past. The guilt, he finds, is a pervasive force, clinging to their thoughts like dust to their lapels. At first outnumbered, he finally uncovers the allies who might help him thwart Smith’s plans to bury him deeper than the Japanese farmer.

Bursting with portentous meaning, Sturges’ film, based on a story by Howard Breslin and adapted by Don Maguire and Millard Kaufman, remains a screenwriter’s masterclass. Set in 1945, just months after the end of the war, it’s overflowing with wordy interplay; sharp, caustic dialogue that zings off the page, illuminating the tortured souls of Macreedy and his combatants with bleak insights and jagged poetical allusions.

Tracy’s portrayal of Macreedy is one of his most memorable roles and the film’s heart and soul. He arrives in this godforsaken place broken and disillusioned, regarding himself as no longer a viable member of the human race, and yet, in drawing out the ugly details of a terrible dark allegiance – forged in blood and a deep-seated racism – he rediscovers a resolve to preserve his own mortality.

At an economical 80 minutes, not a word, not a gesture, is wasted or misplaced. This magnificent film, shot in glorious cinemascope by William C. Mellor and featuring an ominous and, at times, propulsive score from Andre Previn, works its timeless magic again and again. With every viewing it’s like revisiting an old friend but with more knowledge and depths discovered anew. A truly must-see cinematic experience.