Review: MR TURNER (2014)

Years in the making, Mike Leigh’s first feature-length film since Another Year (2010) is a considered and sumptuous biopic of one of the greatest British painters who ever lived, JMW Turner.

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Of course whenever Mike Leigh and Timothy Spall team up, one cannot help but to hope for a spark of the magic that produced films such as Life is Sweet (1990) and Secrets & Lies (1996) and made an award-winning star of Spall. Though Mr Turner turns to the early 1800s, Leigh’s eye for composition, interesting characters and plot tension would seem to be a perfect fit for a period of seismic change. Every scene is a microcosm of the cultural landscape which Turner attempts to capture, be it an old ship solemnly tugged to dock or a skilfully hidden elephant, an exotic wonder of the growing empire.

The film is structured as a series of vignettes, often included without much explanation or immediate significance. We are fleetingly introduced to characters that come and go from Mr Turner’s social circle, from the stuffy halls of the Royal Academy to the fishing ports of Margate where he calls himself ‘Mr Mallard’. All these scenes are beautifully composed, making wonderful use of the natural light which was obviously such an important component to Turner’s own painted works. Because of this we are never entirely privy to the whole picture, as it were. At the start of the film, Turner has already abandoned his children, become an honoured member of the Royal Academy, a supposed favourite of the king and a regular in high society. We see that he blows hot and cold with his acutely vulnerable housekeeper, Hannah (an astonishing performance by Dorothy Atkinson) and has a warm working/familial relationship with his elderly father (Paul Jesson).

For most of the film, Spall’s Turner is a grunting, shuffling beast of a man who spits and sweats for his art. Spall, who spent a number of years learning how to paint in order to play the role, seems comfortable in front of the canvas and on the occasions we do get to see the final pieces are some of the most enjoyable moments of the film. The outside scenery is beautiful. A brief connecting shot of the White Cliffs of Dover stayed particularly long in the memory- the rolling waves like the swirls of a paintbrush.

Spall embodies the role completely,  but for me the heart of the story (if you can say that this film has much of a story) belongs to the women in Turner’s life. This is where I wish the film spent more time, but from the cluster of scenes we are party to, Turner had extremely complicated relationships perhaps spawned from the guilt over his late mother. From the abuse that his housekeeper suffered, to the infatuation he showered on his later companion, Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), we see a fractured and distant character display both cruelty and passion away from his art. Lesley Manville makes a brief but memorable appearance as Mary Somerville, a pioneer for the female practice in the sciences and highlights how Turner enjoyed the company of women but struggled to maintain healthy relationships with those already in his life.  A fantastical scene in which Turner speaks briefly about loneliness and solitude to John Ruskin’s wife is presumably imagined for cinematic licence but continues to confuse a portrayal of a man impossible to wholly understand. It certainly brings to mind Emma Thompson’s Effie Gray (2014) last month, a film which perhaps could be seen as a companion piece to Mr Turner.

Overall, though a beautiful film to look at (as one would expect with a film about art), the sparse structure and isolated scenes make it difficult to feel anything other than calm admiration for a film which was obviously a labour of love for all those involved and certainly begins to illuminate the darker sides of JMW Turner’s life-long genius.

 

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Review: INTERSTELLAR (2014)

WARNING: I’m not going to do a Peter Bradshaw and spoil you unless you want to be. Below is a review of Interstellar which may contain plot-points which some may consider to be spoilers. You have been notified. Quite sternly.


It’s that time of the year again for an intelligent blockbuster courtesy of Christopher Nolan (give us Inception over the Transformers series any time), and after what seems like a very long wait (unless you’re Cooper, that is!) Interstellar has finally arrived.

GIRL ON FILM watched this film three days ago and it is only now that I have formulated some sort of understanding of how much I enjoyed this film. Leaving the cinema, I was temporarily unable to speak. I wanted to discuss plot-points and theoretical physics and Matthew McConaughey’s tan, but instead I went to work and silently contemplated for the next few days.

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Here’s the basic plot: Life on earth has become a largely agrarian society following a worldwide famine. Think, the end of Gone With the Wind basically, except without any hope of another day. McConaughey is ‘Coop’, former pilot-turned-farmer who is unhappy with his lot in life. Persuaded to leave his young family in order to search for alternative habitats on other planets by scientist Dr. Brand (Michael Caine), his opportunity has arrived. The landscapes are stunningly horrifying, reminiscent of the pioneered West, a dust-bowl of stagnant opportunity and growth. It is unnervingly easy to imagine this non-specific future, a period where engineers only pioneer the technologies of their own tractors and education simply for education’s sake is seen as an extravagance and not for the good of society.

When we meet Dr. Brand in his secret NASA-funded lair, for the rest of the movie it is science jargon-overload. Aided by theoretical physicist to Hollywood, Kip Thorne, writers Jonathan and Christopher Nolan let us know they have done their research and are willing to tear it all up in order to confuse us in a good cinematic ride. The effects and scenes in space are undoubtedly revolutionary, and will surely cement the tradition of having a space cowboy every other year to showcase the newest in film trickery. Filmed in his beloved IMAX, it is a especially lovely to know that great-looking films can be successfully produced without the gimic of 3D or retrofitting.

Speaking of the third dimension, we then transcend time and space with Coop, Dr. Brand Jr. (Anne Hathaway), Doyle (Wes Bentley), Romilly (David Gyasi) and two monolithic robot TARS and CASE, who provide most of the much-needed comic relief.  The narrative takes care to try and adequately explain all the science-y bits (we even get a nice pencil drawing for the dimwits like me) just to make sure we aren’t left behind in deep space. Though there is much that we never fully comprehend, the struggles to cope with the changing speed of time on Earth and beyond the wormhole are effectively discussed, and it is Coop and the team’s constant battle with relativity that create most of the tension, aside from the death-defying action scenes. As Coop struggles to reconnect with his abandoned family, the conflict of the film boils down to whether of humanity should be saved at the sacrifice of others. As Dr. Brand announces at a crucial point, humanity are much more likely to push themselves to the limit if they believe that they themselves will also be saved.

There are a number of plot twists and signs of turbulence throughout the 2 hours and 42 minute running time, but of all the revealing cameos and breath-taking worm-hole sequences which reminded me of the ‘Star-Gate’ scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the most memorable manipulation was within the dialogue itself. Dr. Brand quotes Dylan Thomas to the embarking missioners:

“Do not go gentle into that good night; Old age should burn and rave at close of day. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Though it is a poem about being fierce in the face of approaching death, when we first hear Caine recite this poem, it is a rallying call of hope. It incites our intrepid space explorers to fulfil their destiny and to save the occupants of a dying Earth. However, when we hear those lines again later in the film it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, a twisted symbol of Brand’s devastating betrayal and pessimism for humanity and the Endurance mission.

The film is long, wobbly and ridiculously ambitious. But give me this over robots smashing each other any day. The scenes on earth were just as engaging, if not more so. Mackenzie Foy was excellent, and Jessica Chastain’s video messages to space-bound Coop were heart-breaking. A film as initially confusing as Nolan’s Inception, but hey, the puzzle’s part of the fun. I think…

If like me you could do with a friendly diagram, have a peek at this helpful guide by animator, Dogan Can Gundogdu:

https://www.behance.net/gallery/21179181/Interstellar-Timeline

Review: THE SKELETON TWINS (2014)

Saturday Night Live alumni have always made the natural transition to the big screen, some with more success than others. From John Belushi to Tina Fey we’ve seen many stars rise to the occasion. For Kristen Wiig, Bridesmaids made her a stand-out one-to-watch. Now in a more subdued but equally neurotic comedy, The Skeleton Twins with best friend and SNL chum, Bill Hader, the two shine as two estranged siblings.

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The film tells the story of Maggie (Wiig) and Milo (Hader) who are reunited after 10 years without contact. Both recovering from almost-suicides they are forced to reconnect and re-evaluate their lives and their relationship with one another. Milo is a gay, unsuccessful actor trying to get by in L.A., whilst Maggie is seemingly happily married to Lance (Luke Wilson), trying to get pregnant while also thwarting the efforts by continuing to take birth control.  Both characters return to each other and their pasts with both heart-breaking and humorous consequences.

Where the film works best are when Hader and Wiig are able to play off each other as they have undoubtedly done hundreds of times during their SNL days. A scene in a dental hygienist’s office is particularly winning, as well as a spontaneous performance of Starship’s ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’- a scene which acts as a turning point for the film and propels into the last half of the narrative. Luke Wilson is an excellent third player, being so nice and easy-going that it highlights the vitriolic and bitter exchanges that pass between Maggie and Milo. He has an unforgiving role but it is an extremely affective counterpoint for the twin’s deep-seated problems.

At its root is a serious family drama dealing with the aftermath of traumatic events and how a dysfunctional childhood can affect a pair of siblings who only had each other but were too troubled to realise it. Episodes from their childhood resurface to haunt them, like a spooky skeleton from hiding in the closet. A few funny moments and excellent performances, The Skeleton Twins is an effective indie film which won’t appeal to everyone, but does touch on the everyday family conflicts which can be recognised by many who view it.