Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Grand Central

Rebecca Zlotowski’s Grand Central is a strange film. Its main thrust, a fraught adult drama, plays out in the ominous shadow of a hulking nuclear power plant, where the invasive klaxon pollutes the surrounding air as its core eats away at the health of the myriad low-level employees. In truth, however, it is the depiction of blue-collar life at the hazardous coalface, rather than anything else, that forms the most compelling part of an occasionally fascinating picture. 

Tahar Rahim plays unskilled drone Gary Manda, a willing worker who signs up for a place on the decontamination unit which spends its days deep in the perilous bowels of the reactors. They clean walls, carry out maintenance and try desperately to steer clear of the radiation levels that are likely to result in the sack. Exposure is unavoidable, goes the message, just don’t let it take your job away. 

Rahim, so impressive in Jacques Audiard’s exhilarating A Prophet, wields an unthreatening everyman quality which renders him likeable in spite of his character’s faintly needy edge and one is struck by the delight he displays in securing employment, in finding familial camaraderie with his workmates. As he conquers a mechanical rodeo bull on his boozy first night, there is a sense of genuine triumph in the way his peers carry him from the bar on their shoulders, an instant working-class hero. 

He even appears less than concerned that he might suffer contamination by ‘the dose’ which his more experienced colleagues talk about both with respect and casual disregard. Under the luckiest circumstances, a blast of ‘the dose’ might even result in a kiss from a beautiful woman, in this case Léa Seydoux’s sensual, watchful Karole, herself a plant employee and fiancée of flinty core-diver Toni (the ever magnetic Denis Ménochet). 

The blossoming romance between Gary and Karole, all bucolic strolls and riverside trysts, feels strained, marked by unspoken contradictions. Karole’s own complex relationship with Toni is potent and her feelings for the smitten Gary remain unclear until the end. Given the setting it is no surprise that the crackling chemistry between all three is tangible. Unfortunately for Zlotowski, this central love triangle grates, nibbling at elements of her narrative which are infinitely more interesting. 

The French dependence on nuclear energy — 58 reactors provide 75% of the nation’s power — drives a darker theme, one of stark socio-economic exploitation. Gary and his transient friends are more essential to keeping France ticking over than the almost invisible corporate snobs, yet all are entirely expendable. They keeps the lights on, enjoying no security along the way, and possess little beyond the community of their tranquil campsite existence. In all likelihood, of course, there are plenty to replace them. 

As one female character faces up to her own severe brush with radiation poisoning, the story barely lingers on her fate. This has happened before; it will happen again. That the wage slaves are essentially on their own in the depths of the facility is obvious, the higher-ups only appear to break bad news or dispense reprimands. Significantly, staff safety is dictated not by the pages of some human resources handbook but in direct, practical terms by plain speaking team leader Gilles (Olivier Gourmet).

In adapting Elisabeth Filhol’s 2010 novel, La Central, Zlotowski tries to keep a lid on the melodrama bubbling beneath an otherwise stoic surface. It leaks out occasionally at unpredictable, unwelcome moments and the director’s unfussy style counters this with varying degrees of success. In one respect her preference for gritty storytelling is welcome but in rushing to define her film by something other than its over-wrought emotional subplot, Zlotowski leaves strands dangling and angles unexplored. The ending itself is classic Euro-cinema: abrupt, opaque and utterly unfulfilling. 

Against this backdrop, Gary begins to cheat on his dose levels. He seems desperate to stick around, to maximise his earnings and remain in the orbit of the intoxicating Karole. As the sickly bleeps of the pervasive geiger counters become more pronounced Gary's fate appears sealed, though the reasons for his pre-finale distress are left unexplained. Maybe it is the radiation taking hold; perhaps it is down to Karole’s sullen embrace of married life. Neither explanation is favourable to him. 

‘DO NOT GIVE IN TO CURIOSITY’ warns a sign on the workplace wall. It is sound advice, swiftly ignored. 

An edited version of this article was first published here.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared

So, the Scandinavians are good at drama, everybody knows that. Wallander, Borgen, The Bridge, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, to name but a few, have impressed audiences on screens large and small, proving that a cool climate and a good story can amount to something seriously compelling.

If Felix Herngren’s (deep breath) The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared is anything to go by, they are also quite funny.

Based on Swedish author Jonas Jonasson’s acclaimed 2009 novel of the same title, Herngren’s film succeeds in conveying the book’s unmistakeable spirit while, at the same time, delivering an endearingly genre-free comedy-cum-road movie. 

Everything revolves around Allan Karlsson, who, on the day of his 100th birthday, casually abandons his bland retirement home, shrill nurse and crap party, heading out into the wide world for no apparent reason. As narrator, he proceeds to recall the days of his youth and the global adventures to which he was exposed.  

There is an obvious scale to the memories which might be seem silly if it were not for the eponymous centenarian himself, a man so vague, so uninterested in anything of consequence, that the events and figures sucked into his shuffling existence shrink around him. 

It is amusingly done, though accomplished with far less refinement than the similarly-themed Forrest Gump, the saccharine tendencies of which are eschewed from the moment Allan recalls the demise of his father, a bizarrely militant proponent of the humble condom — one particular condom, apparently — who made the mistake of establishing his own tiny contraceptive-conscious republic in the middle of Moscow only to find the Russians less forgiving of his ramblings than the Swedes. 

Indeed, Allan’s early years were a bit bleak altogether. Orphaned at nine, and obsessed with ‘blowing stuff up’, he would be packed off to an asylum during his childhood, not that he ever seems particularly perturbed by that fact. All of this is interspersed with the hardy old goat’s flight as he leaves absolutely no troubles behind him.

More grey than dark, less raucous than irreverent, Allan’s experiences, in both the past and the present, do not aim for side-splitting slapstick, employing a slyer take on his silly brushes with history, but the humour is broad and slightly populist, its protagonist unaware of the chaos he often induces.

He is an engaging character, likeable in spite of his preternatural capacity for destruction, and Gustafsson succeeds in portraying him as more than a mere savant. Whether it is detonating bridges with the International Brigades in Spain or saving the Manhattan Project thanks to a fondness for dynamite, Allan is mostly unmoved by all this because he simply does not care about any of it. 

A life spent dodging catastrophes by accident and crossing endless wires pays off as he winds up, on the day of his escape, with a suitcase full of cash belonging to scene-chewing, Bali-based scumbag, Pim. Played by Alan Ford, Pim is a somewhat more bronzed version of his psychotic Brick Top character from Guy Ritchie’s Snatch, and while the purpose of the money remains unclear, in the end it matters little. If Allan’s unstoppable, wonderfully ponderous forward momentum indicates anything, it is that the gangsters — comprised, mostly, of an unspeakably moronic Swedish skinhead outfit — are never going to see the cash again. 

If The Hundred-Year-Old Man veers, occasionally, into high farce, that should come as no surprise. Jonasson’s creation is a fine one but any film aiming for laughs can only go so far on the lead’s inimitable indifference. It almost demands a scene where an elephant sits on a man’s face, or for somebody to drop a hammer off the top of a skyscraper. In the opening scene Allan explodes a fox for killing his cat, Molotov, a suitably bizarre opening, perhaps, but strangely apt given the archness of the often meandering plot. 

Overall there is not an awful lot to tie the disparate flashback strands together. For all the central player’s wild travails, they lend little to his development as a character — maybe that is the point —  and there exists a distinct lack of subtext. Allan’s career in international espionage is as clever as it gets. 

Herngren tackles his feature with enthusiasm, however, as he works from a script crafted alongside Jonasson, whose presence surely maintains the quietly anarchic essence of his literary original. The author should be pleased, if nothing else, that this enjoyable filmic realisation of his vision has turned out, most probably, as he saw it in his head. 

An edited version of this article was first published there.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Chinese Puzzle

In introducing the latest chapter of his ongoing romantic-comedy series, which debuted with L’Auberge Espagnole (2002), and continued in Russian Dolls (2005), French director Cédric Klapisch offers up a startling contrast to Richard Linklater’s stylish, though increasingly dense, Before trilogy.

As Linklater has focused on the evolving connection between his central pair — most recently in Before Midnight — so too does Klapisch rely upon a stable of characters from previous instalments to convey a tale of jaded lives and weighty responsibilities. Mercifully, the outcome is an infinitely more likeable affair than the beautifully shot navel-gazing of the American auteur’s European troika.

In 2002, Xavier, Wendy and Martine were relatively carefree twentysomethings, with careers and lives to look forward to, bound together by Xavier’s government-mandated gap year in Barcelona. Three years later, the same characters would meet the sticky challenges of adult life in St. Petersburg, themes of love and sex being handled with a slightly silly exuberance that more ponderous films would certainly have jettisoned in favour of serious drama. 

Now, in 2014, the action of Chinese Puzzle is transposed to New York, its protagonists soundly anchored by families and careers. As Xavier, Romain Duris is fantastic in portraying a successful Parisian writer forced to uproot himself and move across the Atlantic, in the wake of a sudden separation from Wendy (Kelly Reilly), to maintain contact with his children. She has relocated to the Big Apple with her new beau and Xavier, a devoted father, follows with barely a backwards glance. As luck would have it, Audrey Tatou’s charming Martine shows up on business, allowing them to rekindle the flame of an old romance. 

Once in New York, Xavier must bed down in the cool Brooklyn apartment of his lesbian best friend Isabelle (a terrifically confident Cécile de France) and her partner, a particularly significant arrangement given the fact that she is pregnant courtesy of his generous sperm donation. Besides that he must liaise with a budget lawyer, secure an apartment, marry a willing Chinese-American girl to obtain a green card and negotiate the cultural chasm between France and the US. In the background, his fussy editor chases him via the world’s finest Skype connection. 

If all of this sound mildly farcical, then that is merely a passing impression, for Klapisch has crafted something deeper: an assured, stylish urban comedy in which the concept of family and the profundity of human connections are treated with genuine deference. It may wield a nod and a wink on occasion  expedient, perhaps, rather than entirely gratuitous  but there is no little ruggedness here. Xavier, more grizzled now and pushing 40, rarely complains; he flourishes. He accepts his lot for the simple pleasure of seeing his adorable daughter and sensitive son. 

From a stylistic point of view, this is an endearing and intensely multicultural picture. Myriad languages pepper the narrative, each richer than the next, and the outsider’s wonder at the majesty of New York never quite dissipates. Indeed, Klapisch is keen to dive right in. His street-level camera is itself a New Yorker before long, drinking in the sights and sounds of a thriving, humming cosmopolis and an evocative, graffiti-marked landscape of the metropolitan experience, all crowded subway cars and asphalt horizons, balances the film’s goofier edges. Xavier takes it in stride, too, slotting seamlessly into his gritty, yet cosy, Chinatown neighbourhood. 

There are occasional freewheeling elements to capture the imagination, of course. More amusing than truly anarchic, each is unexpected and brief enough to dispel any charge of overindulgence. Moody opening credits have the knowing whiff of some iconic 1970s cop thriller — The French Connection maybe — and, from time to time, Xavier converses on the meaning of life, in French, with spectral German philosophers Schopenhauer and Hegel. In one hilarious sequence, Duris, in full period costume, dissects the American perception of foreigners, a slyly hilarious Gallic jab at his mostly welcoming hosts. Delicate animations, and a wickedly original twist on an otherwise grim trip to the fertility clinic, round out the arch humour. 

That Klapisch desires more than just laughs is plain before the end as he channels François Truffaut’s female-obsessed Antoine Doinel (the title sequence features footage from the previous two films, à la Truffaut). A hint of melancholy might even be discerned. 

He places his leading man at the heart of a complicated Chinese puzzle, with its shifting relationships and tricky circumstances. Crucially, however, Xavier is a slave to the very existence of the women in his life: Wendy, Martine and Isabelle. They are a trio whose distinct qualities he may enjoy but never wholly possess; he will not find a woman to trump all three. Once he realises this, the riddle should seem less daunting. 

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Cold in July

Cold in July (2014)

Starring: Michael C. Hall, Don Johnson, Sam Shepard, Nick Damici

Director: Jim Mickle

Available on: Amazon Prime

As fiction genres go, there are few more popular at present than Southern Gothic. The success of HBO’s astonishing True Detective series has championed the clinging heat of the American South, with its good ole boys, murky secrets and underbelly as black as pitch. Thus, it comes as no surprise that Cold in July should feel so familiar. Its genetic code and that of Nic Pizzolatto’s acclaimed police procedural are, after all, similar in nature, if not execution. 

Maybe it’s the heat. As with True Detective, Cold in July is far from frigid. While the HBO action plays out in the sweltering climes of rural Louisiana, this perspires in the stifling humidity of an East Texas summer. That backdrop is not the arid expanse of desolate Texan oilfields but a verdant Americana, a place rich with good soil, solid values and lots of air conditioning. 

It all colours a sticky adaptation of Joe R Lansdale’s 1989 novel bearing the same title. With a twisting, restless plot that invigorates rather than confuses, indie director Jim Mickle — best known for low-key Zombie apocalypse movie Stake Land — channels his inner auteur, producing a picture of significant style to herald his arrival as a genuine talent to watch. 

Michael C. Hall portrays Richard Dane, a respectable small-town businessman who fatally shoots a home invader in the middle of the night. There are immediately clear echoes of David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence in this unassuming-family-man-kills-unwelcome-visitor theme, though Mickle is less committed to that film’s sense of rampant paranoia. Instead, he restricts the crucial event to the virtual beginning and focuses his remaining time on the fraught period thereafter.

Hall, who sweated through seven years of Miami-based psychopathy in Dexter, is a wonderfully elusive actor and in the lead role his discomfited exterior, both brooding and fussy, is heightened by sincere remorse for what he has done. His is an attitude somewhat at odds with the police who dismiss the incident like loyal second amendment disciples. Dane is a good man, however, and his mood is not lightened by the arrival of the departed intruder’s taciturn father, Ben Russell (Sam Shepard, on typically restrained form), a newly released convict with vengeance in mind. 

Cold in July moves swiftly through the gears at this stage, vaulting first from human drama to revenge saga and then, as the spectre of police corruption creeps into view, Mickle once more tacks in a new direction. Retuning the narrative, he subverts expectations at these important junctures; priorities are upturned. It is enough to keep everyone on their toes. 

Suddenly allies, Dane and Russell burrow to the core of a conspiracy best personified by urbane police detective Ray — played by Mickle’s quasi-muse and screenwriting partner, Nick Damici. In doing so they are aided by the quite fantastic Don Johnson, whose unpredictable, stetson-toting gumshoe, Jim Bob Luke, is as adept at sniffing out the truth as he is rearing pigs. 

This swirl of activity never feels crowded, mercifully, and Johnson’s especially anarchic presence remains relatively grounded. What is perhaps most notable is the feeling that a transformative journey has occurred, for this is a very different beast by its finale. 

Mickle straddles genres in pursuit of absolution and proves that such an episodic approach is eminently watchable if the distinct elements knit together properly. Accordingly, he strikes out for his slippery conclusion with kinetic purpose, moving from section to section without looking back, the tone ranging from slyly playful — the jaunty cleaning of a crime scene is both strange and compelling — to downright bleak. If the goal is to maximise each moment, then the ultimate result is triumphant. 

There is violence here, also, and it is in the closing minutes that the rage nibbling at the edges throughout, chooses to explode so spectacularly. Mickle’s final gambit, his last statement, is to paint it as an action and a consequence: violence does, of course, beget violence. There may have been a faintly ethereal quality to the cajun occultism depicted with skill by Pizzolatto but Lansdale’s tale is centres on something much grubbier, a foul blot calling for a bloody intervention.

That said, the true ambivalence exists in Dane’s experience. Is he committed to correcting this chaos because it is the right path to follow? Or is he simply in search of a thrill, a break from his normally cosseted life? The answer likely rests somewhere in between. That Dane ends up, literally, where he started is certainly symbolic but the intervening period has induced an unpredictable awakening, a possible rebirth. 

Stylistically, Cold in July is no less impressive. Taking place at the fading end of the 1980s, Mickle has sprinkled his movie with playful era-specific clues, a cassette player here, a video rental store there. Even Hall’s mullet, just the right side of obscene, plays to the gallery. In addition, the archly retro score — a synth-heavy soundboard given renewed relevance by Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive — appears, initially at least, out of sync with the overall mood yet, as the tension builds, so too does the power of Jeff Grace’s knowing composition. 

Indeed, speaking of Refn, the scene in which one character’s blood, artfully sprayed upon a ceiling light, fills the screen with a delicate scarlet glow should worry the Danish filmmaker for the simple reason that it is infinitely more visceral and stylish than anything in his studied, wildly indulgent Only God Forgives.

Taken as the sum of its parts, this is an undeniably impressive project but the expert manner in which the director attends to the distinct components, with enthusiasm and no little panache, stands out above all else. As muscular as its pulpy source material, Mickle’s thriller suggests that the South might still rise again.