Film reviews – Cosmopolis (2012) and Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

30 August 2012

The latest films by Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg and American filmmaker Wes Anderson are on the surface wildly different works, however, a comparison of the two films suggests that they are two-sides of the same cinematic coin. Both are films that seem to have taken several cues from Stanley Kubrick in the adoption of a minimalist visual style that relies on meticulous framing, symmetry and an almost self-aware set of conventions surrounding camera movement. Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis and Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom are about self-contained spaces that reflect a version of reality that is recognisable enough to connect with the real world despite containing so many abstract elements. Both are films with child or child-like protagonists who are surrounded by a strange ensemble of supporting characters. The major point of difference is that while Cosmopolis is set in the not-so-distant future to depict the metaphorical end of humanity, Moonrise Kingdom is set in a stylised version of the past to present humanity at its most hopeful.

The child-like character at the centre of Cosmopolis is the young billionaire Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) who slowly cruises across a gridlocked Manhattan in a stretch limousine to get a haircut. Packer is not a child in the sense of being vulnerable and innocent, as instead he displays a childlike view of being the centre of the universe and entitled to everything around him. His domain is the limousine and while he has the privilege to enter and leave it as it suits him, it nevertheless serves as a protective womb for him when he wants it to. Unlike the limousine in Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012), which functions as a transformative and transitional space, Packer’s limousine in his command centre, completely insulated from all intrusions – including external noise – and totally ‘safe from penetration’.

Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) and Elise Shifrin (Sarah Gadon)

At the centre of this self-made contained universe sits Packer’s who carries out the most mundane and the most intimate activities with the various associates he picks up on the way or briefly stops off to visit. Whether discussing politics, having his prostate checked while speaking with an employee or having sex, Packer maintains an air of detached boredom as if he can’t wait for the apocalypse to arrive. Pattinson is ideally cast as Packer since he is a man-child with power and influence way beyond the capacity of his years, existing as an idealised version of success and beauty without the emotional depth to channel any real feeling. He’s like a character from a previous Cronenberg film Crash (1996), or many of the other novels by Crash author JG Ballard, in that he craves some kind of stimulus or sensation to wake him from the lethargy of his controlled and convenient life, whether that be illicit sex, acts of violence or risking his life by seeking a confrontation with somebody who wants to kill him.

Closely adapted from the 2003 novel by Don DeLillo, it is remarkable the extent that Cosmopolis feels like a post-GFC, post-Occupy and post-Facebook film. On the surface level there are the news reports of political assassinations, glimpses of anti-capitalist protests on the streets and an early scene between Packer and his young associate Shiner (Jay Baruchel) that feels like a reenactment of any number of scenes between Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield in The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010). What really stands out is how much better DeLillo’s almost absurdist dialogue sounds when spoken in the film rather than read on the page, and how much Cronenberg uses the dialogue to capture the death of meaning.

Words that DeLillo may have intended as dark abstractions about the decline of western civilisation become the basis for comedic performance pieces throughout Cosmopolis where the characters have extended intense and purposeful conversations about economics, politic and philosophy without actually saying anything. Like the symbols on panels and screens littered throughout the interior of Packer’s futuristic limousine, the building blocks for communication are there but they aren’t arranged in a way that makes sense anymore. All that is left are signifiers broken down to their basic components by a character who despite his wealth and assumed sophistication is still a mere mortal who pisses, shits, fucks, eats and bleeds. Spiralling into self-destruction because language has lost all meaning and there’s nothing else to do, Packer is a classic Cronenberg hero who has engineered his own annihilation.

If Cosmopolis deconstructs language and ideas into meaninglessness to present a darkly funny satire about destruction (it’s Cronenberg’s most humorous film since eXistenZ in 1999) then Moonrise Kingdom does the opposite. Dialogue in Wes Anderson films is typically reduced to essential words and phrases, to be spoken deadpan by actors without emotion. However, instead of the absurdist illusion of meaning that is presented in Cosmopolis, Anderson strips down language and other cinematic conventions to reveal something far more pure and sincere. In the case of Moonrise Kingdom it is adolescent love and hope for the future.

Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton)

The child protagonists in Moonrise Kingdom are 12-year-old Sam Shakusky (newcomer Jared Gilman) and Suzy Bishop (another newcomer, Kara Hayward). The pair live on an island off New England and run away together; Sam abandons a Scout camp he is attending and Suzy leaves home. While two unknown young actors are in the lead, the supporting cast is filled out with very experienced and recognisable actors who represent different levels of authority over the children; from Edward Norton as Scout Master Ward, to Bruce Willis as police Captain Sharp to Tilda Swinton as a social services worker, to Bill Murray and Frances McDormand as Suzy’s parents. The inverse of having big name actors in supporting roles to unknown child actors reflects Anderson’s playful inverting of ideas throughout Moonrise Kingdom where the most serious relationship is the one between the children and where characters representing the police and the military-like scout troop become more sympathetic to the plight of the children than characters representing social welfare and the family.

While the production design and wide angle cinematography of Cosmopolis evoke Kubrick films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971), the gliding dolly shots, precise movements that almost appear choreographed and theatrical framing of Moonrise Kingdom seem to be inspired by Barry Lyndon (1975) and The Shining (1980).  Anderson also repeatedly uses military-style percussion through Moonrise Kingdom for both rhythmic editing and a comedic soundtrack in a way that even suggests Kubrick’s war films. Anderson’s approach perfectly suits the focus on ritual present throughout Moonrise Kingdom.

Sequences of social interaction, most notably the inspections at the scout camp, are orchestrated as a complex dance where every element of the interaction is broken down into an isolated action for a singe character to perform in order to contribute to an overall cohesion. If language is deconstructed in Cosmopolis to reveal a loss of meaning, the dynamics of community and relationships are deconstructed in Moonrise Kingdom to reveal the importance of human interaction, both on a public and on a personal level. Every element needs to play a part for the whole to function and rather than remove a disruptive element (for example, Sam) the community adapts to accommodate new dynamics.

The breaking down of social interaction into segments to form a whole is reflected in both Suzy’s preference for looking at the world up close through binoculars and the use of Benjamin Britten’s music throughout the film. Most notable is Britten’s 1946 work ‘The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra’ where all the separate elements of an orchestra are isolated and described by a narrator to demonstrate the importance of every instrument. The irony of the piece of music is that the formal descriptions don’t do justice to the overall sensation when all the elements come together, and Anderson seems coyly aware of this with his film. Moonrise Kingdom is a very formal work in terms of style and narrative, but the overall effect of the film is very different to what would be typically expected from such a deliberate approach to cinema. Instead of feeling detached and cold, Moonrise Kingdom is an extremely sweet and heartfelt portrayal of young love and how such love inspires the lives of others who encounter it.

Both Cosmopolis and Moonrise Kingdom are glorious contradictions. Cosmopolis deconstructs language, symbols and theories to present a sprawling and dense post-GFC Heart of Darkness. Cronenberg reveals himself to be a prankster as it becomes apparent that Cosmopolis is ultimately about arriving at a cultural and philosophical end point where nothing has any real meaning anymore. On the other hand, Moonrise Kingdom is an overtly stylised work set in the past where human behaviour is drolly reduced to ritual and routine. However, through this shines new love and the potential for many of the characters to find happiness. Anderson is a prankster too, appearing detached and indifferent and yet producing one of the year’s most warm and humane films. Cosmopolis and Moonrise Kingdom are beautifully crafted works that breakdown the way people relate to themselves and each other. One film offers a vision of our death, the other promises a new world.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – A Dangerous Method (2011)

29 March 2012
A Dangerous Method: Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen)

Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen)

One of the few working directors who deserves to be recognised as an auteur is David Cronenberg and a signature element to his films is how much they invite psychoanalytic readings. So to have Cronenberg direct a film about psychoanalysis founders and pioneers Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) is something of a cinephile’s dream come true. In A Dangerous Method, which was based on the play The Talking Cure (by Christopher Hampton who also wrote the screenplay) and the non-fiction book A Most Dangerous Method (John Kerr) Jung is using Freud’s talk therapy on Spielrein shortly after the First World War. Spielrein, who later became a psychoanalyst herself, becomes a forbidden object of desire that is too much for Jung to resist, resulting in an affair. Jung is therefore a quintessential protagonist for Cronenberg.  In his 2001 book The Artist as Monster: The Cinema of David Cronenberg, William Beard describes Cronenberg’s dominant theme from Videodrome (1983) onwards as a focus on ‘a pathfinding, transgressive [male artist/creator] figure delving into hidden or repressed realms where others do not wish to go.’ Jung is that transgressive creator and the realm where nobody else wishes to go, which is both hidden and repressed, is the unconscious mind of Spielrein.

While very much a dialogue-heavy historical film, all the recognisable elements of Cronenberg’s preoccupations can be found in A Dangerous Method. Given Cronenberg’s previous exploration of psychoanalytic concepts such as the monstrous feminine as defined by patriarchal culture, it could almost be argued that A Dangerous Method is the most obviously Cronenbergian film to date, despite the absence of visceral bodily horror that so defined his earlier films. In place of abject gore is Knightley’s portrayal early in the film of Spielrein suffering from hysteria, which has resulted from her intense self-loathing and guilt towards her own sexuality. Just as psychological conditions manifested physically in films such as The Brood (1979), Spielrein’s inner torment spills out into her body as she sits close to the centre of frame, almost looking at the audience, and contorts and writhes while Jung talks with her. Knightley is all chin and forehead, at times threatening to stab the audience with her face in a truly confronting and remarkable series of scenes.

Stylistically the film begins with a sense of melodramatic urgency to mimic Spielrein’s distressed state of mind. The music is full of dramatic flourishes as she is rushed into hospital by horse and carriage. As Jung’s methods take hold the film calms right down into the clinical style that is so common in Cronenberg’s films. The cinematography is crisp and in deep focus, carefully composed close-ups lovingly portray the different apparatus used in Jung’s tests and white dominates every scene. The hospital walls are white, the patients are dressed in white, Jung’s wife Emma (Sarah Gadon) dresses in white and all the bed sheets are white. The use of white is not only clinical, but it suggests Jung’s detachment from not only his family and work – he by contrast always dressed in black – but from his own sexuality, despite being part of a new psychosis treatment that involves talking explicitly about the sexuality of others. We never see any sense of true physical or emotional affection between Jung and Emma, and even the birth of his child is deliberately kept off screen with the baby first appearing in the film not being nursed by Jung or Emma, but by an anonymous nurse.

The main source of tension in A Dangerous Method is Jung having serious doubts about his view of sex as a somewhat functionary act, needing to be controlled and at best something that can simply be described as ‘tender’ between man and wife. Continuing Beard’s arguments about the characteristics of Cronenberg’s protagonists from Videodrome onwards, Jung desires a transgressive transformation that will ultimately prove to be destructive, although in the case of the far more subdued A Dangerous Method, melancholia is the price Jung plays rather than literal obliteration. The transformation is to become somebody who indulges in their sexual whims to the extent that it means the ultimate betrayal of the doctor/patient relationship.

One trigger for Jung’s transgression is Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), who is the other extreme to Jung in terms of advocating indulging in every sexual desire possible and therefore both horrifies and fascinates Jung. Then there is Spielrein, the closest thing A Dangerous Method has to a monstrous feminine, whose passions twice spill blood into the pristine white colour scheme of the film and who becomes the figure that Jung spills his anxieties onto. Earlier in the film while Jung is treating Spielrein, they walk across a bridge high above a wild forest, suggesting an attempt to cross the divide between the conscious and unconscious mind. Later in the film they are depicted together adrift in a lake in a boat with suitably red sails, as if now lost together in the unconscious.

The final trigger for Jung’s transgression is his desire to undermine Freud, his father-figure type mentor whose methods he deviates from in classic Oedipal defiance. (And the Oedipal dynamic is completed by Spielrein who is first the object of Jung’s forbidden desire and then becomes a symbolic maternal figure after she aligns with Freud). Freud is differentiated from Jung in numerous ways including class, wealth and race, but it is once again the depiction of the spaces Freud occupies that combines the most interesting comparisons. While Jung’s offices and home are sparse and controlled environments, Freud works in a warmly lit cramped office that is filled with books, cultural artefacts and photos. Jung floats at sea or stands above a forest, while Freud walks through an elaborately manicured garden that allows for abstraction without loosing its sense of order and control. A statue of a sphinx stands in the garden, yet another reminder of the prevailing imagery of the monstrous feminine in folklore, mythology and psychoanalysis. Jung smokes a pipe, which requires careful preparation to arrange the tobacco in a concealed space to be respectfully enjoyed. Freud smokes a… does it even need to be written out?

A Dangerous Method is a puzzling film as despite being directly about psychoanalysis, it’s the most surface level of all of Cronenberg’s films. Rather than delving into the murky depths of the human mind, A Dangerous Method is more an opportunity for Cronenberg to stage an extended dialogue between historical figures whose work clearly means a lot to him. This is nonetheless compelling cinema, especially for audiences resigned to the fact that more questions are going to be asked rather than answered. Is sex an act of liberation, denial of the self or surrender? Strong arguments are put up in all instances and like all matters of sexuality, it seems the ones who are least comfortable with their own are the ones who make the most fuss about it.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – Taxi Driver (1976)

4 July 2011

Taxi DriverIn 1983 director David Cronenberg curated a science fiction retrospective for the Toronto Film Festival and his provocative selections included Martin Scorsese’s 1976 masterpiece Taxi Driver. In the program notes Cronenberg explained this choice by describing Taxi Driver as:

[A] better Blade Runner than Blade Runner. New York is a nightmare LA/Tokyo of the future. De Niro is a sleepless alien who does a poor job as passing himself off as an earthling. He can’t really figure out human sexuality but he wants to get involved anyway. It doesn’t work.

It’s as good a reading of Taxi Driver as any since it captures the extent to which Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle character is something of an impressionable outsider in the urban jungle of New York. A Vietnam vet working long hours as a taxi driver due to his insomnia, Travis is a product, victim and observer of late 1970s America, but also a terrifying force of violence, determined to ‘wash all this scum off the streets’. Scorsese’s subjective camera follows Travis and his taxi through the streets of New York as he searches for a human connection, fails and then takes the role of a very confused avenging moral crusader, culminating in the film’s still shockingly violent ending.

Travis is locked in an infantile state that is suggested throughout Taxi Driver in his speech, limited comprehension and xenophobic curiosity/paranoia towards African Americans. Like so many soldiers trained to fight in Vietnam, as depicted over ten years later in Full Metal Jacket, he seems to have had his personality stripped away, leaving him as a blank slate with a simmering, barely repressed rage. In later scenes when he does give himself a purpose beyond mere existence, the ticking clock sound on the soundtrack is accentuated to mimic the sound of a time bomb.

Taxi Driver: Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro)

As the opening chords of Bernard Herrmann’s brilliant (and sadly final) score crescendo over the soundtrack during the opening of the film, we see Travis’s taxi emerge into the cinema frame out of a cloud of steam as if it is being born into the world of the film. Throughout the film Scorsese shoots both Travis and his yellow taxicab from every angle possible, ensuring all components of the man and the machine get their own close-up at least once. They are one and the same; cruising the less desirable parts of New York like a predatory animal and slowly being changed by the city. The taxi picks up dents from hurled objects and stains from the passengers in the back seat, Travis picks ups some disturbingly peculiar ideas about women.

Without any family of his own Travis searches for substitutes. Turning to the senior taxi driver Wizard (Peter Boyle) for some kind of fatherly advice turns out to be futile as all he gets is an almost comically useless pep talk. Travis projects purity upon Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), seeing her as a perfect woman who may be his lover and in Oedipal terms his substitute mother. Not long after the scene where Betsy spurns him Travis encounters a passenger (played by Scorsese) who delights in telling him about his intent to murder his cheating wife. Ever impressionable, Travis channels this misogynist fury into his feelings of rejection from Betsy and plans to hurt her by assassinating the politician (and alternate father figure) she is campaigning for. Finally, Travis encounters child-prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) and this time takes on the role of protective father/potential lover towards her, which involves confronting her pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel), another father figure.

Taxi Driver: Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro)And what of the peculiar ending? Is it a cynical joke by Scorsese about how cinema celebrates the use of violence to restore order or is it a sort of delusion dream sequence where Travis imagines an idyllic outcome that vindicates his actions? The camera filming the haunting aerial shot over the room where Travis’s rampage ends then seems to float down the stairs of the building and out into the night as if his soul is departing. It’s a deliberately ambiguous ending, but the outcome is that the film ends with the audience in Travis’s world. A montage of shots of the city streets at night evoke his collapsed reality and the final sudden glare he gives to the camera suggests that wherever he is – in the physical or imagined world – he could snap at any moment.

An urban fusion of themes and images from the western, film noir and, if you agree with Cronenberg, science fiction, Taxi Driver is a brilliant study of alienation, obsession, paranoia and perverse desire.  There’s an undeniable power and grittiness that very few films have come close to capturing since. Perhaps it’s the dangerous vicarious and visceral thrills that Travis’s actions provide. Scorsese shows us the world through Travis’s eyes and like with Alex in A Clockwork Orange we rationally condemn such an unhinged individual who is all too ready to respond to the aggressive stimuli around him. However, once we’ve seen the world the way Travis sees it, on a purely emotive level there is something disturbingly seductive about God’s lonely man and his deranged crusade. In this regard Taxi Driver is dangerous cinema and it’s all the better for it.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – Splice (2009)

16 August 2010

SpliceYou know that you’re in for a wild ride when the film begins with a point-of-view shot of a genetically synthesised organism being born in the world. The ‘parents’ of this manufactured life form are Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley) and Clive Nicoli (Adrian Brody), a hipster scientist couple widely celebrated for their research in gene splicing. When their work is threatened they covertly cross the forbidden ethical and legal barrier to include human DNA in one of their experiments. The result is the creation of a new creature they name Dren. As she rapidly grows, matures and goes through puberty, Elsa and Clive are confronted with their conflicting ideas of her as an experiment, a surrogate child and a sexually aware being.

Splice is not a David Cronenberg film but it comes closer to capturing the sensibility of Cronenberg’s films from the mid-1970s to the late 1990s than anything Cronenberg himself has done in the past decade. From Shivers to The Fly to eXistenZ, the films of the Canadian auteur have explored ideas of science kick-starting evolution, sexual transgressions and bodily horror with a distinctive flair for visceral gore and pitch-black humour. All of these elements flourish in writer/director Vincenzo Natali’s Splice; a glorious blend of science-fiction, horror, melodrama and psycho-sexual thriller.

Splice: Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley)

Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley)

Previously best known for his 1997 low budget science-fiction thriller Cube, in Splice Natali demonstrates how well he can work with big budgets, known actors and challenging material. Splice is at times genuinely frightening with early scenes evoking the unknown terror of Ridley Scott’s original Alien film. The uncanny strangeness of the infant Dren also strongly recalls the nightmarish ‘baby’ in David Lynch’s Eraserhead. The concept of mechanically reproduced life and the film’s perverse representation of ‘child birth’ are confronting and taboo breaking, and in Splice Natali does everything that he can to make the audience squirm, tremble and laugh in a mixture of disgust, dread and wicked delight.

Underpinning the stylish production values and moments of shock are strong characters and engaging writing. What holds your attention throughout Splice is the changing sympathies you constantly have for Elsa, Clive and Dren as they all constantly shift from positions of being the aggressors to being the victims. Splice is science-fiction/horror at its best, underpinning its daring moments of bodily horror and sexual anxieties with flawed characters to care about and moral issues to wrestle with.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 360, 2010

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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An interview with Geena Davis

24 April 2010

On screen she’s dated an insect, been haunted by the living, driven into the Grand Canyon, discovered her inner assassin and been president of the United States of America.

She is one of the stars of the new Australian film Accidents Happen and when I spoke to her on Friday 16 April 2010 we mostly talked about her roles in The Fly, Thelma & Louise and The Accidental Tourist.

The interview was then played the following day (Saturday 17 April 2010) on Film Buff’s Forecast on Triple R (3RRR 102.7):

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Later the same day I moderated a Q&A with Geena Davis and Accidents Happen director Andrew Lancaster at Cinema Nova. Some of the highlights are in this video:

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Book review – The Artist as Monster: The Cinema of David Cronenberg

20 September 2002

Beard, William, The Artist as Monster: The Cinema of David Cronenberg, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2001

William Beard’s extensive critical analysis of the cinema of David Cronenberg considers Cronenberg as a filmmaker with a strong authorial voice whose films make up a powerful body of work containing very specific re-occurring themes, attitudes and style. From Videodrome (1983) onwards Beard identifies the main theme of Cronenberg’s films as an existential-romantic ideal of “a pathfinding, transgressive [male artist/creator] figure delving into hidden or repressed realms where others do not wish to go”. (257) 

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Shivers

25 February 2002

An annotation for the Melbourne Cinémathèque

In 1975 David Cronenberg assaulted audiences with Shivers, his third feature, introducing many of the interests and themes that would preoccupy his subsequent films. These themes include an exploration of the relationship between humans and technology, a fascination with the fragility and mutability of the human body, and the radical possibilities of transcending evolution by using science to drastically alter our bodies and minds.

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