Tuesday, April 30, 2013


‘Oblivion’ is a masterpiece of production design that desperately wants to be a cerebral Tarkovskian study of ravaged landscapes, existential turmoil and questions of identity … but has to, y’know, throw in some hamfisted mainstream narrative tropes in order to justify its budget.

Opening with a slab of voiceover exposition, we learn that an alien antagonist destroyed the moon (causing all manner of natural catastrophe) prior to invading Earth. Someone on Earth authorised the use of something called “the nimbus” (I’m guessing the President of the United States in the first instance and a heavy duty piece of thermo-nuclear kit in the second), effectively “winning the war but losing the planet”. Now there’s a radiation zone, a number of power plants that process Earth’s remaining air and water power to provide energy for off-world space station The Tet, and an atmosphere-straddling platform occupied by Jack (Tom Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), technicians who maintain the power plants and the drones that safeguard them. Oh, we also learn that Jack and Victoria had “memory wipes” in order to protect “the security of their mission” prior to taking the job. I assume this was done before their induction course. As the film begins, Jack is experiencing pre-destruction-of-Earth hallucinations which he assumes are memories, while by-the-book Victoria just wants to dot the i’s and cross the t’s and jet off to Titan (Jupiter’s moon, where the last enclave of humanity are holed up) when their detail ends in a fortnight.

Anyone who hasn’t even hazarded a guess about where this is going by now will probably view ‘Oblivion’ as an entirely original and genre-defining work. The rest of us will happily tick off its many and unsubtly referenced influences while we sit back and bathe in the visuals.

Because that’s the thing. For all that ‘Oblivion’ is a derivate piece of work (particularly in the increasingly hackneyed second half where it becomes a patchwork quilt of ‘Independence Day’, ‘I, Robot’ and ‘Moon’), it’s the most genuinely gorgeous thing I’ve seen on the big screen this year. Jack and Victoria’s cloud-based operations centre is kind of like a two-up-to-down designed by Frank Lloyd Wright complete with helipad and swimming pool. A scene in said swimming pool comes close to a sort of visual poetry. Director Joseph Kosinski and DoP Claudio Miranda conjure eerily effective visions of a dune-covered New York which are a million miles away from the usual post-apocalypse imaginings. The technology is memorably rendered, too: Jack’s scout craft and the drones themselves have a propulsive sense of movement and engineering, while also looking careworn and, despite their sleek profiles, realistically utilitarian in their design. Only the late-in-the-day visualisation of a maleficent supercomputer as a slightly misshapen amplifier covered in sentient mould lets the side down.

Performances vary: Cruise delivers with a likeable everyman persona; Riseborough finds nuances in a character who could have been decidedly one-note; Olga Kurylenko is saddled with a nothing role and does even less with it; Morgan Freeman continues to be one of the coolest blokes on the planet, claiming entire scenes for himself by doing little more than lighting a cigar or wearing a knee-length leather jacket.

The script is anodyne at best, edging into total mess on more than one occasion. Example: Jack gets shot in the shoulder at one point and the wound is never reference, depicted or treated for the rest of the movie. He’s shot and then, oh fuck it, he needs to do some heroic running, jumping and falling down stuff, so let’s all pretend he never took that bullet in the first place, ’kay?

Ordinarily, I’d have marked ‘Oblivion’ down for its failings, consigned it to the file marked “ho hum” and probably not ever bothered writing about it for Agitation. But I keep coming back to how damned good it looks, and to the world-building and attention to detail of its first half as Jack goes through the motions of a routine job in an extraordinary situation; a guy who punches the clock, patches up the drones, patrols the wastelands and somehow isn’t satisfied with the way things are; a guy who’s just starting to think beyond the accepted parameters.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Place Beyond the Pines

I’ve always been suspicious of people who describe the narrative of cinema as “acts” – that’s the argot (and indeed the structure) of theatre. Film is different medium, and fluid in a way that theatre could never be. Theatre doesn’t have edits and, as Bunuel pointed out, where you cut from one scene to another is where the magic happens.

But fuck me, it’s difficult to approach Derek Cianfrance’s ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’ without discussing its three acts. And believe me, I really don’t want to talk about the structure because that would mean, at the very least, heavily hinting at a spoiler which occurs at roughly the one-hour mark. A spoiler, moreover, that genuinely took me by surprise since the trailers and advertising for the film had led me to expect a self-contained crime drama focussing entirely on Ryan Gosling’s stunt rider turned bank robber.

What we have instead is a sprawling melodrama that stretches across two generations. The basic set up is simple: the circus comes back to town after a year (“town” being Schenectady; a tip of the hat to the American friend who explained that the name is a Mohawk word for which the title is a literal translation, otherwise I’d have scratched my head for two hours twenty minutes wondering what bearing it had on anything) and Gosling tries to rekindle things with old flame Eva Mendes. Only to find that she has a child and a new bloke. Discovering the child is his, he tries to edge out the competition but when he’s reminded that his familial responsibilities have a fiscal element, he resorts to desperate measures. So far so good. In fact, so far so freaking excellent. The first hour of ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’ showcases a measured but intense filmmaking style redolent of the 1970s. Gosling is superb and the robbery scenes are immediate, exciting and squeamishly tense.

Then the focus drifts from Gosling’s loose cannon with, if not a heart of gold, then at least a vaguely human centre, and Bradley Cooper’s idealistic rookie cop assumes centre stage. An idealist rookie cop who soon finds himself hemmed in by his colleagues’ corruption. And before you can say “ ‘Serpico’-lite” we’re hauling ass for Cliché Central. But even this second act benefits from the best work Cooper has done onscreen, and a genuinely murky moral quandary as, in trying to extricate himself honourably, he comes to rely on the Mephistophelean guidance of his high court judge father, a man whose whiskey exterior belies a cynically political mindset.

Even with this dip in quality control, I’d happily have considered ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’ something of a success. Sadly, the third act swandives from the top storey of Cliché Central into the fetid alleyways of Shit City. A jarring flash forward has Cooper’s character simultaneously enjoying the rewards and paying the price for his earlier decision while his over privileged asshole son forms a manipulative relationship with guess who’s offspring. At this point I was face-palming in the cinema, wondering if even Dickens would have back-pedalled from this kind of coincidence. Not only are the stakes lower in this concluding section, but the young actors do a pretty shabby job. Whether this is due to their lack of facility, or Cianfrance being more at home with mature actors, I’m still not sure.

The prosecution would also like to introduce into evidence how little Mendes, third-billed, is given to do, and how similarly wasted the talented and highly capable Rose Byrne is.

Following the Cianfrance’s previous collaboration with Gosling on the unflinching honest ‘Blue Valentine’, it’s tempting to file ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’ under D for disappointment … except that its first hour is just so damn good. I almost wish the whole thing had been a POS. That would have hurt less than watching it lose the way on what should have been a straight-as-an-arrow route to modern classic status.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Papadopoulous & Sons

In some respects, writing about film should be easy. When every narrative beat plays out exactly as you anticipated, when the romantic subplots conclude with pairings-off straight out of Rom-Com 101, and when the central conflict that gives the film such dynamic as it has is resolved in crowd-pleasing, heart-warming fashion, writing about that film should be easy, right? Toss out the words “formulaic” and “predictable”, cite a couple of examples, job done. And given the aforementioned tendency to crowd-pleasing and being heartwarming, you could write the thing up for schmaltz, as well.

But here’s the rub. Occasionally – very occasionally – you come across a film like ‘Papadopoulos & Sons’. The debut feature of writer/director Marcus Markou, it trades on a highly familiar narrative arc, some stock characters, and an ending of such unalloyed optimism that the protagonists literally dance in the streets. It doesn’t have a single original idea. And yet it’s the most pleasurable hour and three quarters I’ve spent in a cinema auditorium this year.

Opening with a montage of London as a monument to Big Business, Harry Papadopoulos (Stephen Dillane), a heavily Anglicized Greek immigrant, is introduced as the recipient of a European Business Award. He’s a restaurateur and food manufacturer, and he’s about to move into the property market with a mall development – the grandiloquently named Papadopoulos Plaza. In doing so, and demonstrating the kind of hubris that’s almost guaranteed to presage failure, he overstretches himself to the tune of £30million. And when the banking crisis suddenly explodes, he finds his business on the knife-edge and his palatial home swiftly inventoried by the administrators.

Harry’s a widower; his three children – eldest son and reluctant heir to the business James (Frank Dillane), daughter Katie (Georgia Groome) and wannabe businessman youngster Theo (Thomas Underhill) – react in different ways to the loss of their privileged lifestyle, the reappearance of black sheep uncle Spiros (Georges Corraface), and their removal to a cramped and decaying bedsit above The Three Brothers chip shop, the last untouchable bit of Papadopoulos property on account of Spiros’s joint ownership. Estranged for a decade, Harry sheepishly implores Spiros to sell the property (it hasn’t been an active business in years) and let him have his share. Spiros, however, sees it as a chance for them to rebuild their relationship and insists instead that they reopen the chippie as joint managers. This doesn’t go down well with Hassan (George Savvides), owner of the kebab shop across the road, and tempers are further inflamed when Katie strikes up a relationship with Hassan’s son Mehmet (Cesara Taurasi).

Meanwhile, Harry engages shady business advisor Rob (Ed Stoppard) and his ex-pat American colleague Sophie (Selina Cadell) to put together a rescue package, even at the cost of selling out the Papadopoulos name. The oily Rob eagerly courts a Scandinavian bank who propose a Mephistophelean solution while Sophie, increasingly drawn to Harry, suffers pangs of conscience at the inimical financial brutality at the heart of the business world.

There’s a lot going on, and all of it treads a well-worn path. Riches to rags moralising. The importance of family. (The incremental Harry/Spiros reconciliation is played out against Sophie’s transatlantic separation from her family.) Heritage. The villainy of corporationism vs the heroism of the independent trader. Love conquering all. Additionally, there’s a handful of caricatures, character-wise, not least the shiny-suited Rob, a Viking-obsessed Nordic banking executive, and two gay repossession agents. Fortunately, though, the script delivers a proper degree of characterisation and emotional investment in the main characters.

In almost every scene, the sense of familiarity works. It made me think of P.G. Wodehouse’s ‘Jeeves and Wooster’ stories, or John Mortimer’s ‘Rumpole’ tales: there’s a formula at work and it’s aesthetically (but not rigidly) adhered to; and the result is that you relax in the company of the characters. They become like old friends. And when you don’t have to bother about the narrative with Wodehouse, you can concentrate on and enjoy all the more the wit and wordplay. With Mortimer, you get a whole lot more out of the satirical broadsides by dint of letting the plot get on with itself.

‘Papadopoulos & Sons’ pulls off the same trick: you know exactly where it’s going (the predictability staying just on the right side of comfortable and never lapsing into tedium), which makes it easier to appreciate the performances – Markou definitely has a facility with actors; Dillane is pitch perfect, Corraface does his best work in ages, and Groome is often hilarious as the spoiled fashionista gradually dipping a toe into the real world – and the script’s inherent warmth and simple faith in the things that truly matter.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Marley Shelton

Happy 39th to Marley Shelton. I feel a viewing of 'Planet Terror' coming on ....

Saturday, April 06, 2013


Imagine you’re a highly respected director, albeit one working under the strictures of state censorship. You’ve poured two years of your life and all of your creative endeavours into an epic science fiction movie. So epic that it’s going to boast a running time of three and a half hours. So epic that it’s the biggest budgeted movie ever to come out of your home country. Imagine that it’s almost in the bag when the Minister for Fucking Over Artistic Endeavours (or whatever title the shitty little apparatchik is glorying in) decides on a complete whim that your film is contentious. Before you know what’s happening, the production’s been shitcanned, the sets torn down and burned and even the motherfucking costumes have been buried in fucking big hole in the middle of nowhere. You’re left sans film, there’s a very real possibility that your career is over, and the powers that be have marked your card as a dissident.

That’s a pretty grim scenario, right? Now imagine, on top of all this, that your marriage disintegrates and your home is snatched away from you as brutally as your film was. I’m guessing that you’d be a tad pissed off. You’d be pissed off at the government, pissed off at politics, pissed off at petty bureaucrats who are allowed to wield too much power. Pissed off your ex, pissed off at whomever she’d throw you over for, and pissed off at the callous, unfeeling, utterly disinterested world that was continuing to go about its business without giving a shit about the heartache, rejection and soul-destroyed angst that you were going through.

Ladies and gentleman, please give an empathetic Agitation of the Mind welcome to Andrzej Zulawski. And someone get the guy a drink, he’s earned it!

‘Possession’ – a film as brutally cathartic as David Cronenberg’s ‘The Brood’ (also inspired by the director’s divorce) – starts with Mark (Sam Neill) trying to reintegrate with his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) after a period of separation. It’s quickly established that during their time apart he’s been engaged in some level of espionage. The exact nature of his mission is never made clear, even when Zulawski revisits the subplot as Mark’s enticement back into the field ends violently in the final reel. Whatever Mark was engaged in, all we see is the aftermath – a debrief by a bunch of pompous men in suits; a payoff in grubby used notes; and finally a burst of gunfire. This, Zulawski’s saying, is politics.

A similar aesthetic characterises the scenes between Mark and Anna. They tear into each at every opportunity. Jealousy, recrimination, suspicion, dependency issues, sexual hang-ups – so much dirty laundry gets aired you’d be forgiven for thinking that the address Anna goes sneaking off to (much to Mark’s chagrin) is a laundrette. This, Zulawski’s saying, is marriage. Or, more explicitly, marriage in its death throes. Caught between the couple is their son, Bob (Michael Hogben). Between the significance of Anna’s name and the importance of their son in the drama that unfolds (or rather, the drama that spills messily across the screen), I’ll throw out a one-off reference to Tolstoy: ‘Possession’ as the most fucked-up take on ‘Anna Karenina’ ever made. Discuss.

In fact, file under “fucked up” in general. Let’s revisit that address Anna keeps sneaking off to. It’s a tenement in a shabby area of Berlin, the wall running alongside it like a scar. The wall is almost a character in its own right, but it never gets the monolith iconography that even the most dour spy thrillers afford it; here, it’s more of a presence, forever in the background or glimpsed from a window; unwanted, but a constant. Mark has a private detective follow her. MILD SPOILER (because frankly, when an overtly gay detective takes any case in a European film he’s got very little chance of making it to the end credits): a scene of violence ensues that’s as grand guignol as anything in Argento, but without the rococo stylisations. The lurch from downbeat character drama to geysers of bloodletting is sudden and disorientating, but it’s only a prelude to the major revelation: Anna’s liaisons with …

Ah, and there’s the rub. If you’ve seen ‘Possession’, or even know it by reputation, you’ll know what I’m referring to. If you haven’t seen, then I really don’t want to ruin the headfuck for you. Let’s just say that ‘Possession’ comes complete with the kind of imagery that earned it a place on the DPP’s “video nasties” list back in the 80s. European arthouse rubbing shoulders with exploitation quickies? Thank the tabloid-wielding guardians of public morality that my home country seems to breed. Needless to say, they missed the point.

‘Possession’, despite its title and imagery, is not horror. It is not exploitation. It exists at a pitch of emotional hysteria, the intensity of which never wavers. There’s a heightened emotionalism to all of Zulawski’s work. It’s present here in Mark’s confrontation with Anna’s new lover, Heinrich (Heinz Bennent) – a confrontation that commences with Heinrich’s homoerotic overtures to Mark and culminates in the revelation that he, too, has been cuckolded; in the scene where Heinrich’s fragile, self-delusive mother (Johanna Hofer) comes belatedly to terms with her son’s philandering; in Mark’s burgeoning obsession with Helen, Bob’s teacher and a dead ringer (if polar opposite personality-wise) for Anna; in Bob’s imploration to Helen at the end of the film, after an act of rebirth/substitution has brought an entirely new and unexpected dimension to the proceedings, not to open the door and admit … ah, but that would be telling; and it’s present, most spectacularly and disturbingly, in Anna’s almost balletic meltdown in a subway, a scene that seems to last longer than you can bear to watch it, that proves Adjani as both an utterly fearless actress and a force of nature, and that – cumulatively – renders Anna as desperate, delirious and – again, despite the title, dispossessed.

‘Possession’ is a difficult film to watch, even harder to like, and one that you’re only likely to forget if you’re clinically dead.