DVD review: Maps to the Stars

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In the film industry, when you make it, you generally go to Hollywood, and the famous hills have become synonymous with the silver screen stars. With fame and fortunes comes power which can bring out the very worst in those who absorb themselves in the glamorous entertainment business. Swinging a brutal bat at this world and those who inhabit it with a satirical study is daring director David Cronenberg. With a powerful cast including Julianne Moore, Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska, ‘Maps to the Stars’ is a shocking piece of cinema that sinks its teeth into celeb culture and refuses to let go.
   This jagged filmmaking takes the darkness of Bret Easton Ellis’ brat attack Less Than Zero into the 21st century in a way that Coppola’s Bling Ring couldn’t, every scene coated in a thick artificial gloss along with Bruce Wagner’s biting script that rips into the fragility of stardom. Failing actress Havana Segrand (Moore) represents the has-beens of Hollywood as she yearns for the opportunity to play her iconic dead mother on-screen, in a desperate attempt to use her family name to her benefit. A mess of a human being, her crazed lifestyle is disturbing but vital. She hires young Agatha Weiss (Wasikowska) as her personal assistant, a girl who has been quite literally scarred by her showbiz upbringing, with serious burns on her face, neck and arms. The other key player is Agatha’s brother Benjie (Evan Bird), a Bieber-esque rich kid whose moral compass is non-existent due to the material world he has been raised in. These horribly fascinating characters cross paths in an increasingly interesting narrative that joins dots into a warped image of celebrity.
  There is very little innocence amongst the tortured souls portrayed, perhaps only Wasikowska’s character showing slight signs of having principles despite her unpredictably dangerous tendencies. She gives a note-perfect performance and every twisted layer of it is impactful. Equally as impressive is Julianne Moore as we’ve never seen her before. She is maniacal, lost in a bubble of Freudian trauma. Slightly underused is Robert Pattinson, who plays a wannabe screenwriter who chauffeurs the wealthy around in a stretch limousine. He is subdued but quietly effective, befriending Agatha and talking passionately about their aspirations. The supporting cast is made up of John Cusack and Olivia Williams who play Agatha and Benjie’s controlling parents, so absorbed in their glamorous careers that they’re more concerned with their tabloid reputations than their children or each other.
  This is the first film of Canadian filmmaker’s that has been made in America, and down to the subject matter it couldn’t have really been filmed anywhere else. Cronenberg is a vicious vulture, preying on pop culture with oily streaks of jet-black humour. I imagine that after this deadly assault, it’ll be a while before he thinks about spreading his wings in Hollywood again, if ever. ‘Maps to the Stars’ can be a difficult watch, but it is engrossing and involving, shining the unflattering satirical spotlight directly above the unglamorous, turning the so-called American Dream into a self-obsessed nightmare.
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DVD review: Gone Girl

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When best-selling novels are adapted for the big screen, it is fair to say that they are not always well received. Spending less time with the characters can affect how much investment and interest you have in them and sections can be added or taken away to aid the transition. It is important though that the essence of the story is maintained and having Gone Girl’s author Gillian Flynn on screenwriting duty for director David Fincher’s cinematic take on her mystery thriller certainly gives it authenticity. Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike star as the dysfunctional couple Nick and Amy Dunne who appear to have the perfect marriage. On their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick finds that there has been a disturbance at their home and his wife is nowhere to be seen. The search for Amy quickly escalates into a media circus and the finger of blame soon pivots to her doting husband.
  It is tricky to discuss the plot in any real depth without giving anything away but the twisted narrative is definitely what makes it so enjoyable. Those that have read the book beforehand may feel it is less impactful because of this. The clever unreliable narrator technique is nicely implemented with the use of voiceover, and the tense score really adds weight to how perceptions are played with throughout. Fincher is no stranger to controversial subject matter and his style is a good match for the material. He earns the certification of the film with the darkness he is associated with. The complexity of the non-linear delivery is dealt with incredibly effectively as Nick and Amy’s relationship is picked apart through flashbacks. It is bold and intelligent and has dashes of spiky humour, despite dabbling into cliché now and then, particularly with the good cop bad cop detectives on the case.
  Affleck and Pike more than do their bit to illustrate the highs and lows of married life. The former is charismatic yet brooding, and latter is everything you would want from a leading lady. They both appear so polished in what seems like an idyllic marriage from the outside looking in, yet have more sides to them than a dodecahedron. I would go as far to say that this is my favourite Ben Affleck performance and Pike is equally as impressive. As the plot thickens, key figures are introduced such as fast talking attorney Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry) and Amy’s ex-boyfriend Desi (Neil Patrick Harris). Both are fresh ingredients to the flavoursome developments, offering intriguing angles and bringing out additional attributes of Nick and Amy. Carrie Coon is also very good as Nick’s twin sister and confidant.
  A solid example of when a book to film jump really works, ‘Gone Girl’ excellently showcases how writer and director can collaborate to good effect and this will go down as one of David Fincher’s strong ones alongside Fight Club and Seven. Boasting a track record for sophisticated visuals this is noticeably less stylised than his norm, focussing directly on the substance. The muted colours make up the ideal canvas for this jolting psychological drama that really digs deep into the subject of marital happiness…or lack of it.
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DVD review: In Order of Disappearance (Kraftidioten)

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It is a common occurrence in film for directors to go back to the same actor again and again if a fruitful working relationship is formed. Hans Petter Moland’s go-to guy is the acclaimed Swedish star Stellan Skarsgård and the Norwegian black comedy thriller ‘In Order of Disappearance’ marks their fourth collaboration. In the desolate mountains of Norway, Skarsgard stars as snow plough driver Nils Dickman; a well regarded decent citizen who is pushed to his limits following the murder of his son. The Nordic fjords and landscapes provide a breathtaking setting for a story that achieves a satisfying blend of violence and humour as a father hunts down justice, spilling rich red blood upon thick white snow.
  The craft and creativity of Moland’s vision enhances the classic vengeance setup as he applies an inventive flair. The script is sharp, saying something about the current state of society in Norway, or in Europe as a whole, as well as including subtle jokes and culture references. The many deaths provide great physical humour as Nils mercilessly takes out members of the Oslo underworld  The victims in the film, mostly undeserving of any sympathy whatsoever, have their deaths brilliantly noted by a still black frame with the departed’s name underneath their applicable religious symbol, marking each untimely demise with comic effect. At the heart of the film though, behind the stylish coating, is a very solid character study. Skarsgard gives a stellar performance depicting a man whose contentment with life is cruelly decimated.
  The eccentric supporting characters enrich the plot, as a drug war ensues around Nils between the Oslo gang and a group of Serbians. Before long snow isn’t the only white substance on screen in abundance. The pony-tailed crime boss known as The Count, played by Pål Sverre Hagen, is an absurdly entertaining villain. Thinking the world owes him a favour, he whines and moans when things don’t go his way, and attends shady meetings armed with a revolver and a flat white. Veteran Swiss actor Bruno Ganz also appears as the amusing Serb leader Papa. Like an Eastern European Don Vito, his delivery his hoarse and his actions are deadly.
  ‘In Order of Disappearance’ is a visually stunning cinematic piece of work that refuses to be compartmentalised as it mixes genres comfortably and with glittering results. It works as both comedy and thriller, and the acoustic score even gives Western elements which is evident again in a gunfight finish. Scandinavian cinema continues to impress hugely and with the success the film has enjoyed on the festival circuit set to result in a nationwide release, it would be criminal to miss it.

Click here for my interview with director Hans Petter Moland

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Director interview: Hans Petter Moland – ‘I see humour in a lot of places, when others would think it is inappropriate’.

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At the Edinburgh International Film Festival, I saw Hans Petter Moland’s new film and was lucky enough to get the opportunity to ask him some questions. The Norwegian revenge thriller stars Stellan Skarsgård who is best known in the UK for his roles in films such as Good Will Hunting, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Avengers. ‘In Order of Disappearance’ is released on 12th September 2014.

You are known for your collaborations with Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård. What is it about him that makes him so good to work with?
‘Well he’s probably one of the best actors in the world so it’s not terribly hard to go back to him each time. He’s a wonderful actor and I’m sure other directors who’ve worked with him would say the same. He not only gets it but he is really good at contributing to a process so he’s a lot of fun to work with.’
Where did the inspiration come from for In Order of Disappearance?
‘I’m a father of six and of course I am terrified of my children being in dire straits so this is a story I’ve toyed around with for years. I’m being a little bit facetious but what I mean is that the idea is about how we, especially in Norway, think of ourselves as being peacemakers – we award the Nobel Peace Prize each year. It’s about a man who thinks he is not only subscribing to the virtues and ethical codes to society but is recognised for his good work. It looks at what happens to him when he encounters something so animalistic and horrific and loses his sense of humanity in a way. That was the philosophical departure point for the whole project and where the story originates.’
In the EIFF brochure, it is described as ‘Death Wish set in Fargo’. Do you think that is a fair comparison and did these films have any influence on yours?
‘I’ve seen both Death Wish and Fargo and they haven’t gone by unnoticed so yes I guess they have but so have a lot of other films. I think it’s too simplistic to say that just because it’s a revenge story it has much in common with Death Wish or the fact that it is set in snow and has some violence that it has a lot in common with Fargo. That being said, I enjoyed both when I saw them but don’t want to make a ridiculous claim that they’ve made a contribution.

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  The point is that it is just a likely in this world where there’s so much cross-pollination and influences from other cultures that I’ve seen the same Billy Wilder film as the Coen brothers did. You know I’ve spent the past eleven years or so of my life in the United States and I think it has greatly affected my sense of humour. I lived in New York which was known for having a sort of hardcore black humour at the time and it affected me so much that when I came back to Norway, people thought I had become a bit callous when in fact it’s just the New York survivor humour which in New York isn’t considered callous at all. I guess the point of this long answer is that influences come from a lot of places!’
Trying to find a good balance between violence and humour can be difficult in film. Was this a challenge to pull off or do you find that in comes natural to you as a director?
‘I think the humour part comes to me quite easily. I’m not sure if it’s natural but I tend to see humour in a lot of places, sometimes when other people would think it is inappropriate. Of course not all films have the ambition of being both violent and funny at the same time but in this film we tried not to be restrained or harnessed by any genre. To have suspense and the thriller aspect as well as the tragic moments juxtaposed with humour was one of my ambitions but I didn’t want to compartmentalise. It was one of the experiments of this film.’
From watching the trailer and reading about the film, I can imagine it was very cold on set. Tell us a little about the filmmaking process. What is a long shoot?
‘Well I don’t think it was long enough but I’ve never met a director who said he has too many days to shoot…It was a bit cumbersome to shoot in the snow but at the same time I enjoy it. I enjoy being outside and I enjoy the snow. I like to see my co-workers dressed up in big bulky clothing! That brings out the child in me which is good when making a film. It is always challenging when it is 20-25 below but everyone worked hard and at times when we felt we were roughing it, we thought it was better being out making a film than in some boring office like normal!’
Scandinavian cinema is becoming more accessible in the UK with stand out directors such as Nicolas Winding Refn, Daniel Espinosa, Lars Von Trier and yourself. What do you think has caused this change and where do you see Scandinavian or, in particular Norwegian cinema, going in the future?
‘That is a good question…I think we’re very appreciative of the attention. I’ve been making films for around 25 years and I’ve shot in the UK when making Aberdeen. I think it can be attributed to a couple of factors. One is that we are making films that have the ambition to reach out and communicate with a lot of people. Also, because we are being allowed to create films with good stories, with is in our tradition of filmmaking. Our films can reach greater audiences as long as it has a good story at the bottom of it or a good storytelling impulse. That’s one thing and the other is that of course the world is in many ways shrinking and so I think it’s just as much a debt of gratitude to UK audiences that are willing to shift their gaze and pay attention to something outside their own culture. I am very grateful of the curiosity shown to not just see home-grown cinema but to see foreign films. It is great!’
Finally, I know that you enjoy showcasing your work at the Berlin film festival. Is this your first time at Edinburgh Film Festival and have you enjoyed the experience in Scotland’s capital?
‘Yes I’ve enjoyed being a part of the competition in Berlin three times which is a great honour. It is my second time in Edinburgh. I was here with Aberdeen in 2000 I believe it was and it was good to come back for the festival after being there for two to three months filming. It was terrific to be able to meet and connect with the Scottish audiences. The Edinburgh Film Festival has always been a wonderful experience for me.’
My  review – ‘In Order of Disappearance (Kraftidioten)’

DVD review: Life After Beth

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The zombie genre is versatile and has many branches, and these can be twisted and pulled to form canvases for many types of film. Whether it’s horror, comedy or action, the undead can find their place. A popular slant of late is the zom-rom-com, which is where  Jeff Baena’s debut feature ‘Life After Beth’ can sit comfortably. The eponymous Beth is played by US comedy actress Aubrey Plaza and the plot surrounds her death and the grief caused by it, both to her family and doting boyfriend Zach (Dane DeHaan), whose mourning is interrupted by her unexpected return. This modern take is lifted by some excellent performances, and is written and directed with care, focussing in on an amusingly doomed relationship as Zach now not only loves Beth, but is scared of her too.
  Unlike other zombie movies in which victims seem to transform instantly into blood-thirsty monsters as soon as they’re infected, here our expectations are toyed with as we are presented with Beth’s slow transition from sweet girl-next door with a love for long walks to a gibbering maniacal mess. This drawn-out trajectory allows a steady establishment of setting and characters and we build a rapport with heart-broken teen Zach before his love-life takes a bizarre turn.
  DeHaan and Plaza take their complicated roles in their stride, the former playing ‘the straight guy’ note perfect as the latter goes completely bonkers. Not known for humour, Dane DeHaan continues to impress and is surely set to become one of the most in-demand names in the industry. Plaza brings a consistent aura of unpredictability to her performance which is forever fascinating. The supporting cast provide a richness to the piece, in particular comedy veterans John C. Reilly and Cheryl Hines who are the protective parents of the piece, have the funniest lines of the lot.
  In its progression, Baena bites off more than he chew so to speak, as when the proceedings inevitably descend into chaos, the originality begins to fade. The physical comedy used as the story develops does result in one or two big laughs but the indie spark fizzles out as the ridiculous verges on being a little too silly. ‘Life After Beth’ has a unique edginess in its field, and while the complexities of the characters are charming and interesting, overall it lacked the defibrillation required to really come to life.
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