My review of Dietrich Brüggemann’s unforgettable Stations of the Cross is over at Flickering Myth now and also appears below…
As an examination of the stark series of messages sent out by the most extreme of monotheistic religions, Stations of the Cross stands out as a beautifully pained and stylistic piece of cinema.
Taking an episodic approach to the troubled Maria’s (the alternately tough and ethereal Lea van Acken) life and attempts to become more like Jesus, the film is mostly composed of static scenes, with the poetically translated dialogue (from the original German) and soul searching looks and glances revealing a masterpiece of reserved high-impact film-making. Recalling the central themes of faith and belief of some of Ingmar Bergman’s best work, the emotionally affecting film uncovers just how unquestioning faith impacts on individuals, families and communities.
The film focuses on the fourteen year old girl Maria as she struggles to make sense of her life and her surroundings. All standard coming of age stuff of course, but in Maria’s case, it is a little different. With an upbringing centred around extreme Catholicism and a domineering, bullying mother (Franziska Weisz), Maria has plenty of strange thoughts running around her head.
Chief of these is the firm belief that she needs to replicate Jesus’s journey to the crucifixion – the so called Stations of the Cross. Little can persuade her to think any other way- not the sympathetic but ultimately powerless family au-pair (Lucie Aron), and certainly not her doormat father. Not even a charming choirboy from another more mainstream church who takes an interest in her can divert her from her prophetic visions of spiritual abandonment. The powerful feeling that she has had no choice at all is overwhelming and tremendously disturbing. As a psychological horror story, this is about as real as it gets.
The first scene involving Maria and her religious class receiving instruction and details of their upcoming confirmation from their young priest (Michael Kamp) subtly illustrates the levels of extremity involved in this rural church-offshoot. Operating as a kind of cult, the church is expressly interested in absolute conclusions and absolutist types of belief. Once talks turn around to a ‘modern crusade’, there is little doubt as to the old school approach to dogmatic thinking and theory on show.
In a set-up such as this, the introspective and resolute Maria hangs on every word. Taking the word of the priest as absolute and uncontrolled truth leaves her with only one route to go.
The following chapters challenge the ideas of faith as a necessary route to spiritual understanding. Indeed, there is little doubt as to how the film’s maker Brüggemann stands on the issue, with Maria suffering the sort of psychological abuse that leaves her eventual journey to replicate her personal Jesus as unsurprising as it is sympathetic. The subtle and controlling measures of the most extreme theocracies are exposed here in a demanding and ultimately rewarding tale of timeless clarity.
My review of God’s Pocket is over at Flickering Myth and appears below.
Directed by John Slattery.
Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christina Hendricks, Eddie Marsan, Richard Jenkins, John Turturro, Caleb Landry Jones, Jack O’Connell and Bill Buell.
God’s Pocket’s blacker than oil humour is undoubtedly given extra poignancy by the fact that it will be one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last films. This sense of tragic loss hangs heavily over the film and is difficult for viewers to wholly put to one side, but in terms of objectivity we can give it a go…
With that said, God’s Pocket – the directorial film debut of Mad Men actor and sometime episode director John Slattery – is a distinctly patchy affair. It does manage to show some real glimpses of comedic drama of an absurdist sort, as Hoffman’s character attempts to extract some kind of meaning from an unfriendly and unlikeable town. However, these segments drift off into a uncollected rag tag of jumbled motivations and causes.
Based on Pete Dexter’s 1983 novel, the film’s rambling plot takes place at some point in the late 1970’s. Following the frozen meat salesman and driver for small time crooks Mickey (Hoffman) as he negotiates the precarious path of the tough district, the film is full of unpleasant characters going about a self-consciously bleak existence.
This grimness is aggressively accentuated by Mickey’s rabidly racist step-son Leon (Landry Jones) who one day gets what most think he deserves during an argument at work. Only his mother, played with an overwrought intensity by Christina Hendricks, has any real sympathy for her boy, who she clearly only saw one side of.
Into this mêlée of ill-feeling and confusion arrives Jenkins’s grizzled Philadephia local newspaper reporter who senses something amiss. His hard-drinking noir-lite journo isn’t much of a struggle for the ever-reliable character actor, but sadly the voice over is stilted at best. Bringing all sorts of shifts in gear to the production, from noir-detective to black comedy and ill judged romantic drama, the setting of a city journalist in blue-collar town could work, but here it doesn’t. Basically, it would need a much tighter hold of what it’s trying to do and precisely why in order to do that…
Presumably striving for a sense of small town Americana noir-comedy akin to a Coen Brothers type level, this falls pretty far short of its aims. Not entirely without merit – the scenes involving Hoffman and Eddie Marsan’s take on a Philly undertaker give out an enjoyably dry form of slapstick – the film’s visual sense is well distributed as it shows off a less than glamorous side of urban life in full colour. John Turturro is another welcome addition to the already well packed roster of stars in this uneven production. His local mob organiser and florist is a not entirely believable character but the American indie stalwart gives it his usual mixture of out-there humour and chutzpah.
Central to the story is the question, when is it right that someone should die? Unfortunately, the story does not grip enough for this question to actually have the power that it imagines it might. Ultimately, the characters are so unlovable that it is difficult to care exactly what happens to them…
My review of A Most Wanted Man is over at Flickering Myth and appears below..
Directed by Anton Corbijn.
Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Daniel Brühl, Robin Wright, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Derya Alabora and Nina Hoss
With this release Corbijn has once again proven himself to be a director with no small amount of style. Ever since his feature debut with 2007’s powerful and understated Ian Curtis biopic Control, the Dutch photographer and music video director has brought a tremendous amount of fluidity and depth of style to his body of work. This, a measured and considered adaptation of John Le Carre’s 2008 stirring liberal response to the ongoing – and currently escalating – war on terror is a fascinating and artful take on the spy movie genre.
Similarities can and have been drawn between this terrifically moving piece and another recent Le Carre adaptation the more classically tuned-up Tomas Alfredson movie Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy from 2009. But while that film and story was looking back at a world of tension, misunderstanding and political confusion, this film is an examination of the present and the future…
Focusing on Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final role before his still incredibly sad untimely death, the story follows his Hamburg based spycatcher Günther Bachmann as he sets out to entrap a recently arrived immigrant who has set in motion a whole series of potentially world-shattering events…
This ‘wanted man’ – played with solemn profundity by Dobyrygin – pulls in widely disparate groups led by Hoffman, the CIA chief Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright) and a big-time banker eager to set everyone off against each other (Willem Defoe) An artful moral ambiguity of the piece sets out to ask decidedly tricky questions of its audience and the subtle shifts in character’s loyalties and perceptions brings out the complexities of political judgements in style.
These political, security and economic bigwigs are finely contrasted with the asylum aid charity worker played with tremendous sympathy by Rachel McAdams. Excellent support is also provided by Nina Hoss and Daniel Brühl as Bachmann’s leading members of support staff. The witty interplay between him and Hoss is particularly exact and memorable.
Corbijn’s rich palette of colours and steady handling of the plot’s twists and turns provide a superb platform for the gifted cast to show off their full range of talents. Ultimately the film belongs to Hoffmann who, for a final time, has shown us what a spell biding performer he truly was.
My review of the mind-mangling picture appears over at Flickering Myth now.
It can also be read here… go see it though. Seriously good.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve.
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mélanie Laurent, Sarah Gadon and Isabella Rossellini.
Taking its cue from a José Saramago novel, Enemy is a film that further displays evidence of Denis Villeneuve’s extraordinary ability to tackle essential psychological and philosophical concepts in compelling and provocative fashion. Following the flawed but ambitious first English language feature Prisoners and the incredible political/fantastic mind-map of Incendies, this film should confirm the Québec born Villeneuve’s status as one of cinema’s most in-demand directors…
Telling the richly metaphoric and symbolic journey of university lecturer Adam (Gyllenhaal) as he feels the pressures of a failing relationship with Mary (Laurent) and a studious but uneventful life, in many ways Enemy shows us a look beyond the mirror. Recommended a movie rental by a work colleague, Adam is stunned to see a film bit-part actor who is his exact doppelgänger. Consumed by an obsession to find this double, Adam seeks out Anthony, a comfortably well-off bit-part actor living with his pregnant wife Helen (Gadon). From then on in, the two play out an extreme form of attempting to justify each other’s existence…
Deliberately kept as open as possible, Enemy is a lyrical study of society’s ‘big ideas’. Opposites and doubles obviously play a big part, with order and chaos, light and dark and reality and fantasy all being intensely scrutinised in various tones and shadows. It is a impressionistic piece essentially, and to offer too much guidance on the plot would minimise the impact of the on-screen document. Suffice to say, I wholeheartedly agree with my fellow FM reviewers that this is absolutely an unmissable film.
As well as Gyllenhaal once again showing himself to be one of Hollywood’s finest actors, the film also benefits from superb performances from Gadon and Laurent as Adam and Anthony’s partners, and a haunting appearance from the legend that is Isabella Rossellini. All of the players bring a sense of fractured identities and a theatrical sparseness to the storytelling that is intermittently blown up by another dimension of unsettling oddness.
The webs and tangles of the Kafkaesque plot brings to mind another recent identity fable, 2013’s The Double, another film concerned with duality and opposing forces. However, whereas Richard Ayoade’s film took a darkly comedic approach to the subject, this picture is strictly of the nightmarish variety.
For UK viewers at least (it has impressed at many festivals worldwide and has already been shown in many), it is the year’s first must see movie. Go see, don’t blink.