Review: Tracks

Tracks (dir. John Curran, 2013) 

Tracks

Robyn Davidson’s nine-month solo trek across the Outback is a true-life legend in her native Australia, so its surprising that it only now finds a first cinematic transfer in Tracks, a handsome adaptation by John Curran starring a terrific Mia Wasikowska. Davidson – then 27 years old – walked the half the island’s length from Alice Springs across 1,700 miles of desert to the Indian Ocean, accompanied solely by three wild camels and her dog, Diggity. As much an attempt at personal emancipation as physical endurance, it was captured by National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan, whose parched photos of her trek made Davidson a cover star and story a sensation.

To read the rest of my review, click here to head over to CineVue.

#Venice2013: In review

There’s a lot to take home from Venice, not least a bit of sun tan and the pesky mosquito bites we’ve been subjected to for the last week. There’s also my uncharacteristic optimism to the state of upcoming cinema that I didn’t have last year. Granted, this is only my second trip to Venice and, even more granted, I didn’t even see Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master when it screened on the Lido 12 months ago, but to think my favourite films last year were Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air, A Hijacking, or a lesser Brilliante Mendoza film, is startling. Perhaps because I’m more initiated, or more likely because the films were just better, this year was a huge improvement. A strong showing from the Brits in Under The SkinPhilomena and Still Life, Nicolas Cage, Lukas Moodysson and Stephen Frears back on form, Tom Hardy finally proving himself, Terry Gilliam making a good (if not great) film again with The Zero Theorem, a handful of strong docs, and of course the endless (and very good) free coffee in the press room, made a sterling year.

And that’s even when I’ve been informed that audiences at the press screenings were down on last year, but many of the public screenings I attended (all my accreditation would allow) were full or brimming to the edges. We didn’t get into Daniel Radcliffe-starrer Kill Your Darlings (despite the screening room holding 1,300 people), nearly had to stand at the 1,600-seater PalaBiennale for Philomena, and found ourselves having to settle for the overflow screenings of Night Moves, Child of God and even the trashy schlock of Paul Schrader’s The Canyons.

What’s changed over the last few years is the rapid rise of both Telluride and Toronto, which overlaps the end of the Venice festival, and to where a lot of delegates had taken flight by the end of the festival. That’s why many hadn’t even seen the eventual Golden Lion winner, Sacro GRA, a fly-on-the-wall documentary on Rome’s ring road, which screened on the penultimate day of competition.

Sacro GRA, respected but not highly praised, was emblematic of the festival with its top-prize win. Lots of films here were well-reviewed, but few had universal acclaim. Under The Skin, which received rave reviews from British critics, was booed and torn apart by Europeans, while festival favourite and Grand Jury Prize winner Stray Dogs, the Tsai Ming-Liang slow-burner, split audiences. Others such as Tom à la Ferme and Night Moves were liked by many, but rarely out-and-out loved. Only Stephen Frears’ Philomena communicated to the masses, a great big crowd-pleaser that Italians lapped up even more so than the British, but most viewed it as too safe an option to win the top prize, although it did win Best Screenplay for Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope.

It meant there was something for everyone – indeed, the friend I took thought Philomena was his best film, while it doesn’t register in my top five. A good deal of people I met really liked Night Moves, but to me it didn’t feel the breath of fresh air that I wanted from a top film. I found that in Jonathan Glazer’s extraordinary Under The Skin, which hugely impressed me right until its rather clumsy conclusion, but my favourite was Miss Violence, still the only film I’ve been brave enough to call a five-star movie here (although I can see that changing in future for UTS), a bruising, challenging, stunningly constructed that highlights the great art coming out of Greece’s tortured society.

Rounding out the top five is the heartbreaking British drama Still Life, starring Eddie Marsan as a council worker who traces relatives for those who have none, Lukas Moodysson’s sweet but hard-edged We Are the Best, and this festival’s winner of the Ed Frankl Batshit-Insane Award, the penis-chomping madness of Moebius.

So here’s that #EdFrankl Top 5:

1. Miss Violence
2. Under The Skin
3. Still Life
4. We Are the Best
5. Moebius

Also shoutouts to PhilomenaJoeTom à la FermeLocke and The Unknown Known, all of which I’d heartily recommend when they’re out in cinemas; or catch Under The Skin, We Are The Best, PhilomenaTom à la Ferme and Locke at next month’s London Film Festival, where reviewed films Night MovesThe Armstrong Lie, plus Venice-favourites which I didn’t see, Gravity and Kill Your Darlings will also be showing.

And the worst film? Undoubtedly Lindsay Lohan vehicle The Canyons, but dreary costume drama A Promise starring Rebecca Hall, which I saw on the last night, comes a close second.

#Venice2013: Stray Dogs

Stray Dogs (dir. Tsai Ming-Liang) 

Stray Dogs

Many people’s top pick for tonight’s Golden Lion is Tsai Ming-Liang’s Stray Dogs, an admirable but agonisingly drawn-out drama that’ll be rapturously welcomed by Tsai’s fans, but leave those uninitiated in so-called “slow cinema” – like myself – struggling to understand the attraction.

The titular stray dogs are a poor father and his two children living in a dilapidated apartment block in an urbanised but run-down area of Taipei. We visit them, like a fly-on-the-wall in single takes of extreme length, some which clock in at well over 15 minutes. The drunken father (Lee Kang-Sheng) works on a busy crossroad as a human sign, struggling to make a living while being exposed to the harsh elements of the city. For one 5 minute unedited shot, we see him sing what appears to be an old Chinese anthem, clinging on to some sort of lost spirituality among the urban commercialisation of 21st century Tiger economies.

The children are less corrupted by the surroundings, finding solace in their games as they play on the sandbanks, or run through Taipei’s shopping malls. They’re ignorant to the run-down surroundings they inhabit, and to the people around them. The daughter asks a woman who takes care of them (who may or may not be her mother, such is the fluidity of plot in Tsai’s film), why the walls are so black, the wallpaper torn out and back exposed, she replies that “the buildings are crying”.

The extreme length of the takes – often without dialogue – often don’t even hint at the origins of the characters’ thoughts and feelings, and that’s a problem. For instance, a scene in which Lee eats a leg of chicken, munching into the camera, had no emotional effect on me whatsoever. While Tsai is a filmmaker with a taste for arresting images, here he hasn’t the flair for beauty and gentle spirituality that I’ve found in Brilliante Mendoza or Apichatpong Weerasethakul. An 11 minute scene when one character eats a cabbage and cries could only test my patience.

#venice2013: Under The Skin

Under The Skin (dir. Jonathan Glazer) 

The Venice Movie Village – a leafy garden area behind the Palazzo del Cinema with an overpriced cafe and chattering delegates – is abuzz with people arguing over Under The Skin. Jonathan Glazer’s third film, and his first for nine years, is divisive in the extreme, garnering as much applause as booing in screenings here (including, remarkably, in its star-studded gala screening), as audiences have taken to and struggled with its experimental mix of sci-fi and psychological thriller in the dark recesses of an otherworldly Scotland.

Scarlett Johansson, in perhaps the performance of her career, is a seductive, unnamed alien preying on lonely, adrift Glaswegians before they vanish forever. Even though she barely speaks, Johansson conveys instantly the confinement of being stuck in a lonely world. There’s something uneasy, uncanny about her appearance, at once beautiful and troubling, staring into the wilderness with big black eyes and caked in make-up. Scotland itself is at the heart of the drama, a wild, desperate place where the wind batters and the rain pours, and where its people’s accents – or perhaps the language itself – are impenetrable. It reminded me of that unplaceable terror found at the heart of Nicolas Roeg’s Venice-set Don’t Look Now, with its constant state of threat and disturbance.

Glazer’s choice to strip out the baggage of Michel Faber’s chilly satirical novel from 2000 may prove to be controversial (I rather took to the book’s strange vegetarianistic critique), but Under The Skin remains utterly engrossing, bewitching and beguiling, richly filmed and with a score by Micachu as eerie and dislocating as Jonny Greenwood’s celebrated music for There Will Be Blood. It’s also full of technical wizardry: early scenes evoke Kubrick’s futurist visual experiments in 2001. In others Glazer uses an immediate in-yer-face realism, with bravura sequences as covert cameras film Johansson mingling with the public in Glasgow shopping centres and seedy nightclubs. Indeed, many of the people her character interacts with are people off the street – non-actors – giving the film a rare but exhilarating mix of realism and impressionism.

But while the film is as much a meditation on loneliness and alienation, it’s also a fierce feminist retaliation: Johansson’s weapon against man is her beauty, and, when her curiosity about humanity deepens, she discovers it is her sexuality that defines how she is viewed as a human being.

I can’t deny I found its ending, which I felt too abrupt, rather clumsy – perhaps the heart of many people’s grievances with the film here – but Under The Skin will surely rank amongst the high watermarks of the festival, and certainly remain one of its most haunting, memorable, unique spectacles.

#Venice2013: Miss Violence

Miss Violence (dir. Alexandros Avranas) 

Miss Violence

New Greek cinema – films like Dogtooth and Attenberg – have a tendency to slowly build to a riotously shocking conclusion, tossing you out of the cinema like you’ve been through a wash cycle. It’s no different with Alexandros Avranas’ new film, Miss Violence, the most challenging, and extraordinary film I’ve seen in Venice so far.

Set among a financially struggling nucleated Greek family – grandparents, mother, children all live in a fourth floor flat – Avranas’ film begins at daughter Aggeliki’s 11th birthday. It’s uncomfortable and stilted, and when everyone dances it’s with fake smiles to Leonard Cohen’s Holocaust-inspired Dance Me to the End of Love. Then, in a state of nonchalance, the birthday girl leans over the balcony, stares into the camera – us – and falls to her death. It’s an electrifying sequence, and we spend the rest of the film working up to the shocking reasons behind her extreme act of self-violence.

The first hour goes at a meticulous pace, immaculately controlled by Avranas, who unravels the plot in just the right amounts to keep us riveted, helped along by the film’s excellent cast. Themis Panou is superb as the family patriarch, who struts around with an untapped violence buried in his straight-laced cheap suits, while Eleni Roussinou is greatly impressive as the mother to the family’s long-suffering children. She carries a shattered heart, hopelessly compliant to her father’s twisted schemes and yet aching with guilt.

But this drama is most notable in being a brave state-of-the-nation piece coming from a country in the grips of a burgeoning political extremity and financial hardship. When the film’s final pieces come together – a bravura, and very tough sequence which produced audible gasps from the audience with whom I saw the film – it’s a challenging watch, but it’s the most urgent filmmaking in Europe today.

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