Saturday, March 01, 2014


The Trainspotting comparisons aren't unwarranted. Filth is adapted from Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh's novel by the same name. Welsh relishes in portraying characters that dwell in a miasma of skullduggery, depravity and obscenity; scum of society who are highly puerile and cynical, almost compulsively on the verge of becoming (or already full-fledged) junkies. He glorifies their satirical and putrid views on society from the protagonist's POV, and then proceed to strip the reason behind it all, layer by layer, until we see the person behind this facade of filth and realize they're indeed as human and vulnerable as we all are. Enter James McAvoy, fresh from his Danny Boyle treatment in Trance, which also sees him warping in and out of dimensions through mind-bending hypnosis, right into the snort-line-paved streets of Edinburgh, which he polices as Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson.
Now Bruce as a career guy is as ruthless as we all know backstabbing, ego-whoring, jealous, arse-hole-savoring work-colleagues. He lies, cheats, plants evidence, takes drugs, blackmails young women into having sex, makes obscene phone calls and uses every ruse he can in his bid to win promotion at work. We all have one such person in our work-lives whom we'd be happy to see rot inside a hole in the ground before he/she gains an upper hand in the less than congenial work-environment. Bruce as a human being seems even worse. He wallows in his pantomime-style villainy, always seeming to be tipping us the wink as he dreams up his next act of skullduggery, running amok unhindered and unimpeded with his charismatic body language and of course, his Sergeant badge. He takes such relish in his own bad behavior that we can’t help rooting for him. Only slowly do we become aware of how damaged the character really is. Robertson, we gradually learn, is a manic depressive whose glamorous, Gilda-like wife has long since abandoned him.
It’s a measure of the strength of McAvoy’s acting that he is able to play Robertson as a larger-than-life Iago-type at the beginning of the film but then, later, to show his vulnerabilities and the extent of his self-deception. There is nothing comic at all about the sequences in which he roams the Edinburgh streets in drag or sits alone in his squalid home. Jon S Baird’s screenplay may chronicle his decline but it never lapses into sentimentality. Even at his most suicidal, Robertson isn’t asking for our sympathy.
McAvoy, who has gained weight and grown a scrappy ginger beard for the role, is fearless in his rip-roaring awfulness, yet conveys just enough of the chaos inside Robertson to suggest that – buried somewhere very deep – there is a seam of moral understanding. His wife and daughter have left him; his mental health is disintegrating; and a childhood trauma has convinced him of his own essential worthlessness. He has a bad case of the madonna-whore complex, but when a sweet-faced madonna appears before him (in the shape of Joanne Froggatt), she cannot make much dent in the headlong narrative of despair.
That Filth works is largely due to the fact that McAvoy is reversing the formula from Trance and Punch: there, we were asked to buy the good guy and take the possibility of the character’s darker moral shading on faith. Here, though, Robertson is so monstrous that the only way to get through it is to hope there is some glimmer of McAvoy’s usual humanity at the end of it, something Baird teases us with throughout. Around him, a great supporting cast has fun stretching the limits of realism: Eddie Marsan’s hilarious Clifford, a dim-witted mug we should feel sorry for but, somehow, don’t; Shirley Henderson as his mousy, secret goer of a wife; and Kate Dickie as Robertson’s bit-on-the-side, who enjoys a bit of “cutting the gas off”.
It’s a hard momentum to maintain, juggling all manner of extremes and digressions, but Baird does corral this berserk carnival into a cohesive narrative. As Robertson’s cool, calm amorality crosses the line into full-blown madness, only the strait-laced Amanda Drummond (Imogen Poots) sees what’s really going on, and he knows it, driving the misogynistic, domineering cop crazy. The final reveal brings us full circle, and though the pay-off might be tough for some to swallow, it is certainly in keeping with a film that sets out to be larger than life from the off.
The director, Jon Baird, has a knack for catching the visual grotesquery of hedonism without extinguishing its nauseous exhilaration: he leads the audience through scenes of rage-fuelled sex and desperate substance abuse like the implacable organiser of a particularly debauched, unhappy stag night. Indeed, there’s a peculiar extremism to Scottish self-destruction, faithfully documented by Welsh, perhaps because it has to work so hard to drown out the vocal little Puritan lurking in the Scottish psyche.
The central performance works superbly but the film around it doesn’t, quite: its wider landscape doesn’t convince in the way that the one  in Trainspotting did. Even allowing for the hectic stylistic stunts – the crazy psychiatrist, the visions of pigs and tapeworms – there is something off-kilter about its structure and tone. Filth often gets bogged down in its yearning to shock, letting the plot slide away, and its criminal villains feel weirdly under-drawn next to Robertson.
In the face of common opinion that it simply wouldn't work, and after years of development, Filth turns out to be a near masterpiece, whose recognition as such is only made less likely by the inevitable comparison with Trainspotting. It is a ballsy adaption of a hugely admired novel, as unpredictable as its central character and charged with the vitriolic energy of the author's writing. A well balanced juggling act of tones; in lesser hands this would have been a mess! It is not always a pleasant watch, but like the central character, it finds its way to a strange, engaging and even rather emotional resolution. Whilst there is likely to be a good forty percent of casual viewers who are left completely cold, the remaining will see a successful, proudly Scottish film that is by turns dark, shocking, comical and moving, which also goes out on an incredibly catchy and surprisingly fitting 70's hit! And do watch out for Clint Mansell's cover of Radiohead's Creep syncing to the film's most darkest point.

Thursday, February 27, 2014


The story of the Magdalene laundries is not exactly a chapter of Irish history that anyone wants to hang on a wall. For more than 200 years, the Magdalene laundries were an asylum engineered to incarcerate young girls who were either promiscuous or prostitutes or the victims of rape. It was little more than a sweatshop in which the girls were forced into hard labor – usually doing laundry - for a certain term and were regarded like inmates. These asylums were sanctioned by the Catholic Church, operated by nuns and privately funded by the government. Many girls were guilty of nothing. Some were pregnant and had children and were only allowed to see their children for an hour a day. Even still, a child could be adopted and sent away without the mother's knowledge or consent. You should know that this is not a story out of The Dark Ages. In fact, the very last of the Magdalene Laundries closed its doors in 1996.
Don't panic, though. Stephen Frear's film Philomena is not an expose of the Magdalene laundries. That story has already been told in Peter Mullan's hard-bitten 2003 drama The Magdalene Sisters. They do, however, serve as a backdrop to the story of one person whose life was affected, for better and for worse, by her time locked away behind the walls of the laundries.
Philomena tells the story of Philomena Lee, an Irish catholic woman who spent most of her life regretting one fateful event that never left her heart. A half century ago Philomena made a mistake, the consequences of which have haunted her ever since. Back in 1951, she was a teenager. She went to a carnival. She met a boy. Things got serious. Nine months later she was living in Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea where she gave birth to a son she named Anthony. Later, she was forced to stand by helplessly as her son was adopted by an American couple. Philomena, a devout Catholic, believed that her separation from her son was penance for her sin. Yet, it is something that she has never come to terms with. Half a century later, her sad eyes are a window into painful memories and regret.
Philomena, played in a lovely performance by Judi Dench, wants to know what ever happened to her son, and finds herself in the company of an out-of-work BBC reporter named Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, who co-wrote the film) who, at first, sees the old girl's story as a sellable human interest piece. Anyone with eyes can see that she is much more than just a sound bite. She's warm-hearted, a bit naïve, with a stubborn resolve, yet she's not a standard crabby old bat. She's a cozy soul with a twee Irish accent and too often the perpetrator of TMI.
At first, Martin is purely professional, but as the deep wounds of Philomena's story unearth, he finds himself taking it personally. He is at odds with her passionate faith, because he himself is a newly-minted atheist. He labels himself confidently, but we sense that he hasn't completely rid himself of all doubts. The two are not on equal ground. Martin's mind is a flurry of intellectual cynicism. He's a college-educated journalist who seems to have a quip, an aside, and an answer for just about everything. Philomena, meanwhile, is earnest and straightforward. She sees the world in terms that are purely black and white.
The search for Philomena's son becomes an awakening for both she and Martin. Travelling from rural Ireland to England and to American, the two dig up bits and pieces about Anthony, some of which are a relief, others are painful. What she finds will not be revealed here, except to say that it is not what we expect. Little by little, bit by bit, information about her son comes to light; yet, all Philomena really wants to know is if he ever wondered about her.
What is interesting about Philomena is that this is not a hard, maudlin melodrama. Frears allows a good deal of humor, especially in regards to Philomena's awakening to the rude shocks of the modern world. She's surprisingly calm, especially in her attitude about the sexual encounter that produced her son.
Judi Dench, whose presence in a film is welcomed no matter what she's doing, gives one of her best performances as a woman whose eyes betray a weary heart. Through the years, her missing child has never left her mind or her heart, yet the experience hasn't destroyed her spirit. She is a woman devoted to God, un-embittered by her experience that keeps her mind on the task and won't allow herself to be pushed into outbursts of emotion.
The outbursts are reserved for her travelling companion. Martin reacts more or less the way we would. He's outraged by what he learns about Philomena's experience. He's a man who has slipped away from God in the cold of a brutal world (remember, he's a journalist) and he can't understand her unbending faith. You expect a film that is emotional, but you don't expect one that brings in questions of faith and the meaning of God. During one roadside rant about the meaning of God, he asks her if she really believes all that she claims, and he is stunned by her straightforward, "Yes." Philomena is a very moving film. It is touching when it needs to be, humorous when it's appropriate and comes to an ending that never feels like a manipulation. If there is one weakness it is probably that it leaves several questions unanswered. Those are difficult to discuss without spoilers, but you walk out in deep discussions over some of the issues it raises. This is a beautiful film about the chasms of time, the measure of lingering heartache and the manner in which old wound are dealt with.

Friday, February 21, 2014

All is Lost

Talk about making a huge leap forward in your filmmaking abilities; J.C. Chandor can rest easy knowing he demonstrated the directorial style of a pro in his survival film All is Lost starring Robert Redford. Debuting today at the New York Film Festival, you can tell that many critics were simply captivated by what they were witnessing on-screen. An almost 40-page script and a team of amazing technical magicians encapsulate the awe and wonder of the upcoming Lionsgate feature.
The synopsis is pretty straight forward; a man is out in sea when finds himself fighting mother nature and his own psyche to survive out in the Indian Ocean.
Writer and director J.C. Chandor assembles a man without revealing any back story that the audience can latch onto. We spend a lot of time with "Our Man" - as he's named by end credits. It's a brilliant constructed character study focusing on human behavior. There have been plenty of survival films to screen this year showing the different perspectives that human beings take when faced with their own extinction. "Captain Phillips" has Tom Hanks react when another soul threatens that life while Sandra Bullock relies on her own instinct and brains in "Gravity." Redford envelops the body of a man who is surrounded by his own thoughts. Alone in the ocean, he utilizes tools provided by his boat as well as life experience. There are no asides or soliloquies for the audience to in tune themselves with the narrative. We rely on our senses. Chandor has an admirable aesthetic for telling his stories. Unafraid to get up close and personal with our main character and to observe the angles from the boat, air, and sea, I was mesmerized nearly the entire time.
At 77, Robert Redford gives a grueling, unrelenting performance that greatly relies on his facial expressions, body language and physical stamina that belies his age, mostly because he chooses neither to talk to himself, nor does the script allow him to even think aloud. In an already illustrative career, All Is Lost ranks along Mr. Redford's best ever. Only he could've tapped into the epitome of the human spirit, to bring in some quiet dignity to the role.
Frank G. DeMarco and Peter Zuccarini, dual cinematographers, gather gorgeous imagery especially those captured from beneath the ocean's surface. In our violent moments when nature shows her true aggression, the two find the pleasant bearings of Redford's dread.
As it would be expected in a film with no dialogue, the sound design becomes the forefront and star. Rain and ocean rush across the screen and speakers to place us right in the moment. A fierce intensity boils to the brim when the sound really takes off.
The film tends to be bloated a bit. At 106 minutes, a cut down to perhaps 90 might have tightened up some of the scenes and give a more clear and fluid cinematic experience. Trust that when the movie does take off, the Visual Effects team needs to be commended. It's not as simple as sitting in a life raft and watching the rain fall; in many ways, All is Lost acts as an independent action thriller with a strong narrative device, something we don't see too often. The music of Alex Ebert certainly helps and acts a strong companion piece to the sound work. All is Lost is one of the more pleasing and emotionally satisfying dramas of the year that had me at the edge of my seat. There are many that could see it as a guy just having a really bad week, or one of the few cinematic endeavors of the year that exemplifies the vulnerable parts of soul. If you're looking for a quality Oscar contender for 2013, All is Lost will offer you a delectable helping with all the trimmings.