Simon Killer (2012)

simon_killerIn many films, music provides an escape. We’re talking about that wedding party scene in End of Watch, or Pulp Fiction’s Travolta-Thurman dance-off, both of which offered a reprieve from the darkness festering elsewhere in the narrative. Not so in Simon Killer. Despite its throbbing, indie-cool soundtrack, music in this Sundance hit is used to keep us continually off-balance, uneasy, trapped. There’s no escaping the darkness in Simon (Brady Corbet).

As abrasive and frustrating as the music cues are in Simon Killer– electro-pop tracks build to a crescendo before being abruptly silenced – it’s entirely fitting for Simon’s story. He’s a young man doing the tourist thing in Paris. Except he’s finding it a lonely experience, roaming the streets and bars in search of a connection and, in one moment of spot on comic tragedy, even has an awkward webcam rendezvous.

Things seem to pick up when Simon meets prostitute Victoria (Mati Diop), a fragile young woman who takes pity on him and lets him crash at her flat. It’s this relationship that begins to unravel Simon’s personality, and in the harshest, cruellest of situations, he’s revealed to be a little more than the naïve, backpacker boy-next-door we’ve been led to believe he is. Like the music, he’s fractured and conflicted.

An ambitious second feature from Afterschool director Antonio CamposSimon Killer marks a definite evolution for the filmmaker. Stylistically, there are a lot of similar visual cues – elegant, slow pans, restrained framing – but Campos attempts to fuse his keen eye with an exploration of what is, essentially, a potentially dangerous sociopath.

Far from putting Simon under a microscope and dissecting him, though, Campos sets up a series of mysteries that may or may not hold the clues to his warped mind. Presented in snippets of dialogue, visual motifs and encounters with other characters, we’re left to come up with our own answers. Is Simon a predator? Or just slightly messed up? Most importantly, does he have the capacity to murder?

This emphasis on set-up with few answers is both Simon Killer’s biggest strength and its greatest weakness. It’s a beautifully-realised enigma, aesthetically faultless (the film was shot entirely on location in Paris using only natural light) and unashamedly provocative. Even the title is a puzzle, inviting certain expectations but then not entirely delivering on them.

“Can I just look at you?” breathes Simon whenever he gets within a few feet of a naked woman. Simon Killer invites us to do the same. It’s obsessed with perception, the power of looking (Laura Mulvey would have a field day), what it means to objectify and be objectified.

It should come as no surprise that Martha Marcy May Marlenedirector Sean Durkin produced Killer (Campos himself produced MMMM). The two films are like twin sides of the same scuzzed coin – one a portrait of a victim, the other of a victimiser. Both are haunting cinematic experiences and, at Killer’s centre, Corbet plays a wily game, slowly chipping away Simon’s veneer until we’re left with something genuinely disturbing. 4/5

Via Grolsch Film Works

Mud (2013)

Mud filmA coming-of-age drama that dirties up genre conventions with surprisingly adult concerns, Mud is the third feature from Take Shelter director Jeff Nichols. It also contains the latest in a string of increasingly solid turns from Matthew McConaughey, who emerged from his rom-coma around 2011 and is finally fulfilling the promise of 1996’s A Time To Kill.

Though Mud is named after McConaughey’s character, a grubby loner living in self-imposed exile on a remote Arkansas island, it’s the fuse that Mud lights in 14-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan) that gives the film its impetus. The pair meet when Ellis and best bud Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) head to the island in search of a boat left in a tree by the last flood.

There, they find Mud. Superstitious, romantic, a teller of tall tales, he’s in the middle of hatching a desperate plan to get back his love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), while evading the targets of vengeful bounty hunters. Resolving to help Mud out, Ellis and Neck become his willing aids. But could Mud be more dangerous than he’s letting on?

Told almost exclusively from Ellis’ point of view (there are only a handful of times that the audience is granted access to conversations that Ellis isn’t), Nichols’ take on the traditional coming-of-ager is an affecting, poetically-lensed exploration of how a teenager’s ideals don’t match those of a complex, contradictory adult world.

Example: Ellis’ certainty that Mud and Juniper belong together, which is both unquestioning and naive. “They love each other,” he tells neighbour Tom (Sam Shepard), and it’s no coincidence that Ellis’ own parents are on the brink of divorce. This idea of love and heartbreak beats through Mud, and it’s never more poignant than in Ellis’ puppy-dog affection for an older teen whose growing apathy he can’t understand.

For his part, Sheridan perfectly captures Ellis’ inner struggle, imbuing his thoroughly modern Huck Finn with pluck, warmth and not a little frailty. He’s as naturalistic as he was in The Tree of Life (Nichols himself shares that film’s love of gorgeous nature shots), and Sheridan’s relationship with Lofland’s comic-relief swear machine is just one of the many elements that keeps Mudrooted in a relatable reality.

As well as Huck Finn, there are also echoes of last year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, another tale centred around a youngster’s attempts to understand a discombobulating world while living in ramshackle riverside humility. While Mud doesn’t stray into the same fantasy-hued terrain as Beasts, they’ll make for a fantastic double bill one day.

Really, there are few stumbles in Nichols’ film, which forgoes the all-out crazy of Take Shelter for something slower and more intimate. It’s a film about family and love; themes that McConaughey brilliantly encapsulates in his chip-toothed anti-hero. Baked hard by the sun, he’s as much of a kid as Ellis; the world’s chewed him up and spat him out again. He’s everything Ellis wants to be, and everything he shouldn’t be. It’s this clever gambit that Mud enjoys toying with, and the result is an immersive drama that skips ‘adult rite of passage’ cliché by striking a killer blow to the heart. 4/5

Via Grolsch Film Works

Byzantium (2013)

ByzantiumThe shadow of Twilight stretches inexorably over Byzantium, an otherwise handsome vampire drama that marks director Neil Jordan’s return to familiar bloody turf 17 years after he made Interview with the Vampire. Giving neck-chewers back a little bite, Byzantium’s seedy, moody, bloody opening salvo attempts to reclaim the fangified undead from the tween crowd. It just about succeeds.

In a neon-blasted strip club, Clara Webb (Gemma Arterton) performs a lap dance in fishnets and heels. Meanwhile, her daughter Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) encounters an old man on their estate and goes back to his house. Within minutes we’re treated to a thrilling foot chase, some frantic blood-sucking and a spectacularly-staged beheading as this mother and daughter are revealed to be vampires.

Ronan provides lyrical narration (“love confounded her”) while Arterton is engagingly forthright (she’s a vampire and a vamp, hoho). Their relationship is, unsurprisingly, somewhat fraught, especially given they look more like sisters. Things simmer down, though, when Clara and Eleanor head to a sleepy seaside town and take up residence in a rundown hotel. As Clara establishes a brothel to pay the bills, Eleanor struggles with their secret and drip-feeds us the duo’s centuries-spanning history.

More often than not, vampirism in movies is used to comment on everything except vampires – The Addiction used it as a metaphor for AIDS; Blade to tackle racism. Where Byzantiumtriumphs is in employing vampirism as a device that heightens a mother-daughter relationship. Much like the more cult-y Ginger SnapsByzantium’s script – by Moira Buffini, who adapts her play ‘A Vampire Story’ – uses neck-chewers to pick apart not only female sexuality, but also the power of the maternal bond and the effect that otherworldly forces have on human relationships.

Given this thematic richness, it comes as a surprise – and a disappointment – that Byzantium ultimately ends up favouring aTwilight-aping romance. While Clara and Eleanor’s fundamental differences are briefly investigated – Clara’s punishment of men who degrade women, Eleanor’s refusal to feed from anybody under 70 – a will-they-won’t-they dalliance between Eleanor and mortal boy Frank (Caleb Landry Jones) bleeds much of the narrative dry.

True, Ronan and Jones have great chemistry, and their romance does occasionally hit upon surprising poignancy, but Byzantiumoften zeroes in on this been-there-moped-that saga at the expensive of Clara and Eleanor’s story. Despite some intriguing early interplay, their scenes quickly devolve into snore-worthy slagging-off matches that belong in EastEnders.

With Jordan at the helm, though, Byzantium is frequently ravishing. Like Interview with the Vampire, this spiritual follow-up involves lush flashback sequences that have fun with vampire lore. And while the stroppy teenager angle is on the stale side,Byzantium is a resolutely adult horror story with interesting – if not revelatory – things to say. 3/5

Via Grolsch Film Works

Populaire (2013)

populaire-romain-duris-deborah-francoisCan you imagine a musical without any show tunes? That’s pretty much what French director Régis Roinsard has created inPopulaire, a dazzling carousel of a film that, despite a noticeable lack of show-stoppers, will have you tapping your feet and clapping your hands nonetheless.

Why? Well, if you pop the cork on Populaire, you’ll find yourself pirouetting in bubbles. It’s impossible not to get swept up in its infectious satire, its swoonsome romance and its sepia-toned innocence. As 1950s village girl Rose (Déborah François) first lands a secretary job at a big city insurance firm, then becomes the pet project of boss Louis (Romain Duris), Populaire whisks along like a petal on a breeze – buoyant, bright, playful.

In the place of show tunes we get (wait for it) thrillingly-choreographed type-offs. See, Louis is coaching Rose to put her secretarial skills to the test in national (and later, international) competitions. If cut-throat type-offs sound like your idea of office-desk hell, it’s here that Roinsard impresses most, his singularly crafty eye transforming scenes that should be loud, clacking annoyances into the kind of visually-inventive sports-movie montages that get your temples resolutely thumping.

It’s part sitcom, part sports film, and Populaire is as immaculately groomed as its stars. The fifties setting is fastidiously, sumptuously recreated, though nothing looks even remotely lived in. The aesthetic is as artificial as a set of acrylic nails, but that’s part of Populaire‘s charm – this is one man’s dollhouse vision of a bygone era, glimpsed through gauzy window netting. Roinsard’s film is positively crammed with delicious sights – painted fingernails, haute couture and, in one risqué moment, a striking red-blue neon sex scene (mon dieu!).

Ensuring that there’s substance behind the style, François is an endearingly goofy lead. It’s no mistake that she has a picture of Audrey Hepburn tacked to her bedroom wall. Not only is François a likeable Hepburn double, her comedy timing is impeccable. Meanwhile, her chemistry with Duris crackles. Sure, the film follows the expected peaks and troughs of a screwball romance, but it’s difficult to complain when it’s played out this beautifully.

Consider Populaire the My Fair Lady of typing. It’s a poem to and pastiche of ’50s rom-coms, full of knowing sexism (“Your life! Everything a modern girl dreams of!”), head-spinning fashion and frothy, infectious fun. Like the prophetically-named typewriter that Rose first falls in love with, Populaire is a triumph. 4/5

Via Grolsch Film Works 

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)

Hansel And Gretel Witch HuntersIf you go down to the woods today… Well, don’t. You’re likely to find some wizened old hag living in a gingerbread house. That’s what happens to young Hansel and Gretel who, as the Brothers Grimm fairytale goes, incinerate the witch in her oven and live to fight another day. Literally, according to Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, as the ‘hero orphans’ grow up to roam the land in skin-tight bondage gear, kicking ass.

In the woods near Augsburg, Germany, something’s hunting children. These aren’t the rhapsodic woods of Terrence Malick’s imaginings – they’re positively stuffed with scabby-chinned witches.

Which is where strapping Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and whip-tongued Gretel (Gemma Arterton) come in, hired by the Mayor of Augsburg to take out Grand Witch Muriel (Famke Janssen) before the Blood Moon rises. If only Janssen could stop over-acting long enough for them to lop off her head.

Complicating matters is swaggering Sheriff Berringer (Peter Stormare, barking every line), who doesn’t like the idea of the heroes swooping in to save his town, and sends his own murderous posse to get rid of them.

Cue blood-splattered skirmishes in which Dead Snow director Tommy Wirkola demonstrates he’s still unafraid of the red stuff, but has no clue how to stage an edgy stand-off.

That lack of tension hobbles the entire film, not least in a studio-bound climactic witch-fight that feels like a lost scene from Xena: Warrior Princess.
The world Wirkola creates doesn’t make a jot of sense – our not-so-terrific twosome trade in oddly futuristic weaponry and for all the gore and F-bombs, H&G:WH feels too simplistic to be anything other than a kids’ film.

Shame; as a concept, it’s airtight: with Will Ferrell producing and Wirkola keen to inject more blood into Hollywood horror, this seemed primed for a good old-fashioned B-horror bum-kicking.

Instead of delivering a fairytale Evil Dead, though, Wirkola’s film stakes out similar terrain to 2012’s po-faced Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, bleeding its premise into a husk that’s devoid of life or humour.

It’s disappointing considering the strength of Wirkola’s amusingly barmy Dead Snow. Sadly, the Norwegian joins a long line of European filmmakers who’ve upped sticks to Hollywood, only to lose their verve along the way. By the time Janssen hisses, “The end is nigh”, you’ll be praying she’s speaking the truth.

Verdict: Though it gives good splat and the scenery’s to die for, Hansel & Gretel gets just about everything wrong. Hammy, boring, chronically unfunny – there’ll be nightmares before bedtime. 2/5

Via Total Film

Beasts Of The Southern Wild (2012)

One of the boldest and most original films to screen at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Beasts of the Southern Wild picked up both the Grand Jury Prize and the Cinematography Award at the closing night ceremony after surfing a roaring wave of positive buzz. And we doubt it’s going to stop there – this most auspicious of enviro-fantasies is Oscar-bound, and when it lands it’s sure to cause as much wonton destruction as its impressive central storm scene.

A tantalising hybrid of rugged fantasy, character drama and disaster epic, Beasts is a an enchanting oddity that’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen. At its heart is six-year-old Hushpuppy (newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis) who lives in a Southern delta community called ‘The Bathtub’ (because floods are a daily threat). When her tough love father Wink (Dwight Henry) falls ill, Hushpuppy sets off in search of her mother on a quest to put the world to rights again.

All bristly impudence and pouty bottom lip, Wallis gives a blistering central performance that imbues Beasts with a crude and affecting mood. Raw talent like this is gold dust in the movie industry, and Wallis carries the film with ease, her whimsical narration both quirky and stirring. She’s a fiery heroine, and leads a phenomenal cast of unknowns who are all equally impressive.

After a dreamy introduction, things really get going as a hurricane threatens The Bathtub (Hurricane Katrina is used as both a vague reference point and a thematic device throughout). Meanwhile, melting icecaps unleash giant, long-dormant monsters that charge across the globe towards our little welly-wearing heroine.

Part Where The Wild Things Are, part something else, Beasts is a feral, joyfully atypical fairytale. Debut director Benh Zeitlin – who adapted Lucy Alibar’s play Juicy and Delicious for the screen – creates a richly dilapidated world where you feel every creaking floorboard and every blast of wind.

True, it feels vaguely ostentatious at times, a consequence of its ambitious themes and dreamy language. “The entire universe depends on everything fitting together just right,” glowers Hushpuppy with wisdom beyond her years, just one of her remarkable if unrealistically mature observances.

Beasts, though, is the best kind of fantasy. Rooted in a believable, rough-and-tumble reality, its outlandish flourishes are grounded in stomach-flipping emotion. As told through the eyes of our young heroine, it makes a perfect kind of nonsense that defies explanation. It’s a draining, soaring, staggeringly original bit of storytelling that’s spellbinding from start to finish. 4/5

Via Grolsch Film Works