I think that sometimes there may be a certain expectation set when an already minted Hollywood superstar branches off from the acting game and tries their hand at writing/directing, a vague conjecture that their foray into filmmaking will be more of the same stuff that fans are used to. Well, Ryan Gosling has no use for any of that in his stunning, surreal, masterful and wonderfully otherworldly directorial debut Lost River, a haunting, dreamlike slice of Detroit Gothic wrapped in a dark fairytale that casted a spell on me like no other film has. This is arthouse stuff through and through, Gosling has no interest pandering to the masses or sculpting his work into something wieldy or palatable, he courageously dives headfirst off the map into uncharted territory where there be monsters and visions the likes of which your screen has never seen. In a crumbling, decrepit borough of old Detroit, single mother Billy (Christina Hendricks) struggles to keep her family home from being seized by the bank and demolished, so she takes up employment from oily loan officer Dave (Ben Mendelsohn) working at the club he owns as a moonlight gig, where dancers like the beautiful Cat (Eva Mendes in a wonderfully playful turn, her last acting gig to date) pantomime being murdered on stage for a rapt audience. Meanwhile Billy’s son Bones (Iain de Caestecker) runs wild in the overgrown, labyrinthine basilicas, ragged chain-link fence desolation and jungled ruins of their Lost River county, collecting copper piping for cash, evading a very strange and violent bully named, uh, ‘Bully’ (a feral Matt Smith) and forming an ethereal bond with a lonely wandering waif called Rat, played by Saoirse Ronan in a lovely study of calculated, underplayed wonderment. Many have complained that this film is style over substance and that there isn’t really a plot to speak of supporting all the visual and auditory splendour but they’re kind of missing the point here; this is an abstract parable that refracts aspects and elements of our waking material world through a very primal, subconscious and childlike prism of images, impressions and emotions, I don’t think Gosling ever meant to tell a constructed story with delineated edges and beats, he strives for the fluid, the intangible, the kind of film you feel your way through as opposed to think. There is a strong undercurrent of deep, essential meaning here that can be very, very finely tuned into as a sort of subconscious frequency and in that sense what the film imparts to you could be called a ‘plot,’ but if you’re not tuned into it well… that’s your problem, really, and to say there’s no story or meaning just because you can’t quantify it with your waking consciousness is simply narrow, lazy criticism. Gosling employs the talents of musician Jonny Jewel to compose a suitably synth soaked, absolutely gorgeous score that is accented by several cast members doing singing of their own including Ronan and Mendelsohn, who belts out a transfixing, unforgettable rendition of Marty Robbins’ Cool Water in his eerie nightclub. The cinematography is bliss, from said club to it’s austere archway entrance that can be seen on the film’s poster to a ghostly underwater town long flooded to develop neighbourhoods that are swiftly falling beautiful ruin and the spectral, vegetative barrens of their environment around them, speckled with broken architectural curios and slowly being reclaimed by nature. I try not to use the ‘M’ word too much in my writing (that’s a big fat lie) but there are some films that I just vibe with so deeply and care for so much as immersive experiences that one can scarcely put into words (I hope I’ve made out alright here) that there’s just no way around it: to me, Lost River is a masterpiece, Gosling and everyone involved should be immensely proud of what they’ve made and how it will affect many like me who were powerfully moved by it.
I struggled with Nikole Beckwith’s Stockholm Pennsylvania on several levels, despite it having a wicked strong cast and premise so full of potential I almost want to write my own version that does it more justice than this incredibly frustrating film. Saoirse Ronan gives a typically superb performance as Leia, a young woman who was kidnapped when she was very young by doomsday obsessed, ill adjusted Benjamin (Jason Isaacs) and raised in his captivity and care for over a decade. When she’s eventually found and freed, she returns to a life she barely has memory of, to two parents (Cynthia Nixon and David Warshofsky) who feel like strangers to her. Her life with Benjamin was never filled with abuse or horror or anything like that, beyond kidnapping her and filling her mind with all sorts of end of the world, anti-humanity nonsense he actually cared for her as his own kid and treated her decently, all things considered. So there’s this alienation from the real world, this wall of separation from parents who desperately try and reconnect with her and this strange bond with her captor who is still out there in jail, thinking of her. How does the script take this situation and evolve it into something challenging, believable and emotionally resonant? Well, it doesn’t really. Ronan, Isaacs and Warshofsky are terrific but Nixon gives this shrill, unpleasant and altogether inexplicable portrait of tyrannical maternal instinct gone wrong that curdles into her own version of holding Leia captive when she can’t reconcile that her daughter just isn’t the same person she used to be. I’m not sure what Beckwith was going for or drawing on with this original script, it seems as if she is deliberately trying to tell a knowingly obtuse, in-your-face uncomfortable story and the result is a maddening experience, or at least was for me. It’s a shame because the idea, setup and execution of the first act is really good and drew me in and then it just goes off the deep end appears to lose itself in histrionic, grim, unnecessary Mommie Dearest nonsense that feels like it walked in from a much lesser film, and as such it drags the whole experience down and you just feel emotionally depleted afterwards, with no reward, pathos, thought provocation or narrative satisfaction. An interesting experiment that needlessly nosedives and betrays both the audience and its characters to masochistic doom and gloom that doesn’t feel warranted.
It still amazes me that Kevin McDonald’s How I Live Now didn’t endure to become a more widely known or appreciated film, because it’s one of my favourites and in my mind one of the strongest, most affecting pieces of work in recent decades. I guess it kind of comes across as this Young Adult Book adaptation if you check out the cover and trailer but the film therein is extremely honest, disarmingly disturbing and very, very brutally frank about how widespread disaster may hit any region and those who live within it. It’s not without poetry, authentic romance, beauty or hope though and there’s this beautiful, life affirming balance between light and dark that makes for the perfect mixture.
The always exceptional Saoirse Ronan stars as Daisy, an American girl who suffers from severe anxiety and feelings of alienation, sent overseas to rural UK to live with an aunt and a whole pile of cousins she’s never even met. Slowly, bit by bit she comes out of her shell and warms up to this family, especially local boy Eddie (George MacKay) who she begins to fall in love with. Gradually the place she’s in and the people she’s with start to feel like home… until something unspeakable happens. Hundreds of miles away in London, a nuclear bomb goes off, cataclysm sets in and oppressive foreign forces slowly invade across the land. Her Aunt is gone doing humanitarian crisis work and so herself and Eddie, the closest thing the family has to leaders, must embark on a cross country odyssey fraught with dread, misery, peril and bleakness everywhere they turn.
This film hits me hard because of how real the danger and horrific aspects feel, how potent and believable the acting and relationships are and how brisk yet dense, heavy yet wistful and dark yet light the story ultimately feels. This is not a children’s film and it is most definitely *not* one geared solely towards teenagers either, there’s scenes of abject horror (it’s got an R rating that it more than earns), children thrown into impossibly complex and harrowing situations beyond their comprehension and is steeped in the harsh reality that in life things can go horribly wrong and if you find something anywhere near a happy ending you’re incredibly lucky rather than owed one by a pandering narrative. Ronan and MacKay are incredibly heartfelt and genuine, their romance and resilience anchoring the whole family as well as the film. Few films with children and young adults in the forefront have the bravery and honesty to show that the world can be just as harsh to them as to any adult protagonist, and show in the same token how said youngsters can have a tremendous amount of survivalism, intuition, spirit and courage to overcome adversity and do the best in an unforgiving world. This film is light and dark to me; the womb-like, sun dappled meadows and rivers of the English countryside where these children play and begin to grow up and then the blackened, nuclear poisoned land they venture out into and must find their way back to the light from. Light and dark. The blossoming romance between Daisy and Eddie, a force of great light in the face of encroaching evil and callous destruction approaching them, and the decision to use that love as a weapon in order to get them through, no matter how it might change either of them. In this film, the light wins and I watch it whenever I need a reminder of that. Masterpiece.
Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird soars on wings of beautifully blunt dialogue, a traditionalist comic of age story that just somehow feels endlessly fresh with each new scene, three miraculous central performances from Saoirse Ronan, Beanie Feldstein and Laurie Metcalf, plus an editing style that creates lovely organic momentum and never falters for a beat. Coming of age stories are usually structured fairly similar across the board, and although all the recognizable chips are in place here, Gerwig has just managed to spin it in a way that still seems fresh and surprising. When you see that a film stars Saoirse Ronan, you pretty much know that it’s going to be an interesting project, if not an instant classic, she just seems to be a magnet for great scripts. The actress is on a career high here as Christine, or ‘Lady Bird’, her self given name, a feisty high school girl navigating the slippery terrain of being a teenager in a Sacramento Catholic high school. Exploring sex and relationships for the first time, clashing with her hotheaded mother (Metcalf in a fiery, complex and compassionate turn that practically demands an Oscar) over what college she’ll go to after grad (she has her sights set on those lofty east coast boroughs where “writers live in the woods”). Her father (understated, excellent Tracy Letts) is more laid back than her mom’s fire and brimstone approach, but both love her more than anything in their own way. All the restless turmoil and transformative angst of being that age is captured spectacularly by the story, somewhat of an autobiographical take on Gerwig’s own life in the early 2000’s. Broadway actress Beanie Feldstein is especially great as Lady Bird’s best friend Julie, and the scenes between the two have an un-coached, ‘fly on the wall’ realism that’s an admirable feat of acting from both. The film is very episodic, employing a brisk ‘fade in, fade out’ tactic with the editing, but despite that never feels staccato or segmented, all of it’s modest ninety minute runtime a fluid, flowing, near free-form anti-structure, a choice which works wonders and one that Gerwig and team should be very proud of. These types of stories always need a good dose of biting humour, a pinch of sadness and something unique to set them apart, as well as simply being well crafted and authentic. This one blasts off the charts in every category, and is one of the sweetest, most endearing and terrific films all year.
Joe Wright’s Hanna started as a Vancouver Film School script, funded through grants that would make it the catalyst for the positively unique, incendiary action fairy tale that it is today. It’s crowd pleasing without any superficiality, straight to the point without being over serious, and is made with a slick, vibrant aesthetic that will have your pulse dancing a jig in time with the thumping score by The Chemical Brothers. I held off on seeing this one for years after its initial release, jaded by the prospect of another ‘killer genetically altered female assassin’ flick. One night I finally caved and took a peek on Netflix. I then kicked myself hard for not taking notice sooner, purely on the notion that I wouldn’t dig it based on its formula. I suppose I learnt a little ‘book by its cover’ lesson there, as I was completely enamoured with the film and have seen it at least ten times since then. The tired ingredients of any old formula can be whipped up into a tantalizing new recipe, providing all those involved have the commitment and passion. The filmmakers of Hanna go for broke with one of the best thrillers in years. Saoirse Ronan is an explosive, feral waif as the titular hero, raised in isolation by her badass ex CIA father Erik Heller (underrated Aussie Eric Bana nails the German accent to a T). They reside in the frozen tundras of Lapland, where Erik trains her in the ways of a warrior, instilling survivalism in both physical and intellectual measures, preparing her for their inevitable separation. An enemy from Erik’s past surfaces in the form of evil CIA witch Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett practically breathes fire with a naughty southern accent and a red hairdo that looks acidic to the touch), and both Hanna and him are forced to run, separated from each other. She escapes from a remote facility and begins her journey across Europe, befriended by a lovable squabbling family of travellers, igniting a yearning for companionship in her that Ronan expertly shows the camera. Wiegler enlists the slimy help of a euro trash club owner who moonlights as some sort of freelance über villain (Tom Hollander almost walks away with the movie as the psychopathic, bleached blonde pervo Deutsch-bag) who relentlessly pursues Hanna along with his neo nazi skinhead henchman. The thing about this film is that it’s all been done before, but they find a way to make it fresh, exciting and strike chords which simply haven’t been hit in this sub genre before, providing a film experience that really sticks. Ronan has never been more virile and effective, also proving a mastery of the German accent and embodying Hanna with intense physicality that’s achingly punctuated by a gradual awakening as a person as well. Impressive balance is shown in her character arc, through writing and stunt work alike. This is the first movie to be scored by The Chemical Brothers, and damn I hope we get more. They belt out a technicolor rhapsody of electric music that flows beautifully with the story, hitting every beat, ramping up suspense when needed, being surprisingly weird at times and kicking around your head long after the credits roll. The actors are all easy listening with the dialogue, never feeling forced or making us doubt for a minute that these aren’t real people engaged in genuine interaction. The film neither drags nor rushes, arriving at its often grisly, sometimes touching and always entertaining conclusions exactly when it needs to. It shows uncanny intuition with its pacing, an absence of the need to show off with unnecessary fights or effects which don’t serve the story, and above all a keen desire to entertain us. Terrific stuff.
Peter Jackson’s dreamlike adaptation of The Lovely Bones gets unfairly beat down way too much. While I will concede that, having never read the book myself, I’ve heard it differs considerably in story, I view the film on a standalone level. And what a film. It’s an absolute stunner, on every level, from effects and casting to acting and production design. It contains elements of the subconscious and astral planes which are a huge draw in any film for me, and are visualized here spectacularly. Saoirse Ronan plays Susie Salmon, an adolescent girl barely coming into her own when she is cut down like a flower that has jus begun to bloom. Her killer, a skin crawling creep named George Harvey (Stanley Tucci) is a neighbor and well disguises his inner nature, making the search for her murderer lead to cold dead ends. Her father (an oddly cast Mark Wahlberg makes it work) doesn’t give up for a minute, tormented by not knowing what happened to his little girl. Her mother (Rachel Weisz) and grandmother (Susan Sarandon) slowly come apart at the seams from the insidious trauma that such an incident inflicts on loved ones left behind. Only her plucky sister Rose (an excellent Rose McIver) is able to find any clues which lay the blame on Harvey. She quietly scopes him out for proof of the murder, providing a scene of hair raising suspense that will leave you needing a change of pants. Meanwhile, Susie finds herself in a place beyond space and time, a dazzling purgatory filled with the sights, sounds and memories of her short life all projected through the abstract prism of the unconscious mind, and is simply the most innovative and eye opening look into the unconscious dream world of the human mind since Tarsem Singh’s The Cell. Ronan is a beacon of hope in her performance, projecting resilience frayed with the vulnerability of a young soul achingly wounded at the tragedy of her outcome, yet determind to set things right and make peace with the life she was ripped out of so soon. Tucci is flat out genius as Harvey. Gone is his usual spitfire cameraderie, giving us an empty, psychopathic shell of a human with a reptilian gaze that causes shudders all round. He’s made Harvey a truly harrowing movie villain to rank as one of the very best, and when viewed alongside other performances of his, one can scarcely comprehend his versatility, let alone believe it’s the same guy in both roles. Peter Jackson has a yearning for every project he takes on to be the longest, flashiest, most opulent vision he can conjure up, and while that sometimes causes his own masterful technique to buckle in on itself a bit, here its employed wonderfully to make the very best version of this story that anyone probably could have. He also doesn’t shy away from showing the blunt brutality of the situation, or the undeniably ugly event, which is hard to sit through yet neccesary for the arc of the story to have full impact. In the end, elements of the story both nasty and uplifting alike combine with a set of impressive visual effects and earnest acting all across the board to create a treasure of a film.