Jun 19, 2009

Review Post 29: Everlasting Moments / Beyond the Fire / The Disappeared

DIR: Jan Troell
CAST: Maria Heiskanen, Mikael Persbrandt, Jesper Christensen

In early 20th century Sweden Maria Larsson (Heiskanen) lives with her husband Sigge (Persbrandt) and their ever-expanding family. Looking for things she can sell to make ends meet while Sigge is on strike Maria finds a camera, but when she tries to pawn it the photography shop owner (Christensen) won’t let her, instead teaching her to use it. Over the next 12 years Maria escapes into her photography when home life with her womanising drunkard of a husband becomes difficult.

Maria Larsson’s Everlasting Moments, like any kitchen sink type drama, has some very grim moments. Sigge is an unpleasant character who is sometimes abusive to his gentle wife, and those scenes are genuinely uncomfortable, but for the most part experienced director/cinematographer Jan Troell’s latest isn’t some misery epic about dysfunctional families, rather it is an enveloping and often very charming film about the road not taken, and about the power of film, in all its forms.

As befits a film about the art of taking pictures Everlasting Moments is sensational to look at. Troell captures a real sense of place and period with his camera, but he also lets us see how beautiful even the most mundane of things look through Maria’s camera. Particularly beauttiful is a haunting image of a dead child, taken for her Mother as a memorial. Even outside of Maria's photography the film throws up many memorably lovely shots. A moment when two young people, who are busy falling in love, glimpse each other through a curtain of flowing water; Maria, silhouetted against a sheet she is hanging out to dry, and the final shot of the film, a perfectly fitting and entirely moving image of a developing negative that closes this story on just the right note.

That’s the other thing about Everlasting Moments; it always manages to find the right note. With Sigge it manages to make him objectionable and occasionally scary, but without dehumanizing him and rendering him a cartoon. With Maria it makes her staying with her husband seem a chore and a struggle, but one you believe she would undertake. It moves these people through their lives in a way that doesn’t feel like they are pieces being moved to serve a story, and that’s a rare and special achievement. In this Niklas Rådström’s screenplay is more than matched by the performances, especially those of the leads.

Maria Heiskanen and Mikael Persbrandt are both new names to me, but both impress immensely. Heiskanen has perhaps the easier task, because our sympathies are always with Maria, but she imbues the character with such basic and believable humanity that we never question the reality of her situation. Her work, like much of the best acting, is small, detailed, and hard to describe. What works really beautifully though is the way that she subtly allows the character to find her strength as the film goes on and she comes to love her photography more and more. Most striking is the moment when Sigge attacks her with a straight razor and she dares him to cut her throat.

Persbrandt gives a larger performance; all hard edges and drunken bluster, but he’s not hamming it up and his is a character it would be so easy to play turned up to eleven. That Persbrandt doesn’t do this is one of the things that allows Everlasting Moments to remain so entirely grounded in reality.

Another fine choice is made in relation to Mr Pedersen, the photographer who takes to Maria, played by the outstanding Danish actor Jesper Christensen (seen as Mr White in the two most recent Bond films). If this were an American film the obvious attraction between Pedersen and Maria would be paid off in some obvious way, likely involving one of them having to run through the street after the other. For a while it looks like Troell will indulge this idea, but he instead sticks to creating a genuine and moving story of a platonic love, but also a missed opportunity.

I loved Everlasting Moments, it is a vibrant and vital film that casts a spell on its audience, envelops us in the lives of a family and sweeps us up in beautiful imagery. If you get the chance I urge you to see it.

DIR: Maeve Murphy
CAST: Scot Williams, Cara Seymour, Hugh Sachs,

Both Katie (Seymour) and Sheamy (Williams) are survivors of sexual abuse. When Sheamy, newly released from prison, comes to Liverpool he and Katie meet and begin to form a tentative relationship, complicated by their respective sexual pasts.

You know, as much as I complain about some of them, most movies these days are, at least at a basic technological and technical level, competent. Beyond the Fire, an extremely low budget British film which, unconscionably, won a prize at last year’s Raindance Film Festival, is the first film I’ve seen in a long time that doesn’t even achieve this basic competence. Maeve Murphy’s film (her second) is shot on digital video so poor it looks like Hi-8 that has sat in a vault for the last 10 years. It’s so grainy that the entire film appears to have been shot through a thick grey teabag. It’s also shot in the 4:3 academy ratio, no bad thing in itself, but Murphy seems to have constructed a great deal of her shots for a wider format, resulting in many cramped frames and many more in which characters end up leaning out of frame at crucial moments. The film is clearly set in Liverpool, but one shot shows a roadsign reading ‘Bethnal Green’, ah, continuity. The fact that these shots weren’t left on the cutting room floor and retakes demanded speaks to an almost Ed Wood-esque allergy to a second take. The lighting is also shockingly poor. One scene in a park is so poorly lit that you can barely see Cara Seymour in a key emotional moment, and the many scenes at gigs are so dark as to be near imperceptible. No film should be released in this state.

Yet it would be easy to forgive some of these faults were Beyond the Fire a better film as a whole. If it could tell its story well, if the acting weren’t wretched, if the screenplay rang true, if it had anything of substance to say on its important subject matter, then you could look past the ugliness of the movie. But Beyond the Fire isn’t a good film overall, in fact it’s a dreadful one.

To give a modicum of credit, before I really rip into what is wrong with this film, two things do work. The first scene of the film promises much. An impressionistic telling of Katie’s rape it is disturbing and impactful, and primes us for a harsh but resonant experience. The other thing that works does last longer than the scant minute of that opening, and that’s Cara Seymour’s performance as Katie. Seymour is a fine actress who I first saw in American Psycho and has since impressed in small parts in a number of impressively varied films, always with an American accent. She’s English, something I never knew before seeing Beyond the Fire, which should give a clue to how strong an actress she is. Here Seymour is worse than I’ve ever seen her be. She struggles with the dreadful dialogue, and can only inject feeling into a little of the film, but she still acts every other performer off the screen.

Those are all the positives though. The biggest problem with the film is the unrelenting fakeness of it, the completely unconvincing nature of every plot twist (the reason Sheamy has been in prison is convoluted to the point of hilarity), the fact that nobody ever says or does anything - from Katie accepting this ex-con stranger into her life, to the way she draws him explanatory diagrams when he confesses that he’s a virgin, to Sheamy’s final act regarding his past - that sounds or feels remotely plausible. When I remarked to a friend how fake everything was he said that that wasn’t fair “her breasts were lovely, and real”. This is true, but hardly a compensation. Character driven drama has to have the ring of truth, it’s about making you feel a part of people’s lives, and if you don’t believe those people and their situation could be real, everything else crumbles.

The acting is absolutely dreadful, with nobody bar Seymour ever doing anything other than reciting their lines, as if off sight read cue cards. As Sheamy Liverpudlian Scot Williams does work hard on his Northern Irish accent, but he spends so much time and effort on that that he doesn’t bother with little considerations like saying lines with emotion, even when the subject matter doesn’t merely warrant but absolutely demand it. The rest of the cast could have wandered in off the street; in fact if they had I’d expect at least one wanderer would give a better performance than the actors in Beyond the Fire. The worst offender is Hugh Sachs, whose dreadful performance as Father Brendan undermines the entire film. As a couple Seymour and Williams mix like oil and water, their sex scenes calling to mind someone desperately trying to force like magnetic poles together. This lack of chemistry only further removes any hope of generating any feeling between the characters, or any sense of investment in them as a couple or as individuals, because it’s one more thing we just don’t buy.

Hackneyed, dull, forced and completely implausible in every way. Beyond the Fire adds up to an utterly trivial film on an extremely important subject.

DIR: Johnny Kevorkian
CAST: Harry Treadaway, Greg Wise, Ros Leeming,
Tom Felton, Alex Jennings, Georgia Groome

Matthew (Treadaway) comes home from 18 months in a psychiatric hospital. His eight-year-old brother is still missing. He and his Father (Wise) have a fractious relationship, brought about by the fact that they blame each other for the disappearance, his friends view him with trepidation, and just to complicate matters he begins to have visions of his brother, who seems to be trying to tell him something.

Johnny Kevorkian’s directorial debut is a confident one. For most of the running time that confidence is entirely justified, as Kevorkian fashions something that not only impresses with its technical qualities, but also shows an ability to pluck an audience’s nerves like guitar strings. The Disappeared is, at its heart, an old fashioned haunted house movie, set on a working class estate in London. What really impresses, especially in the first hour, is how much more than that it is. Kevorkian and co-writer Neil Murphy create a compelling central character in the sick, damaged, Matthew. By having him as the central figure, and letting us in on his history they create a sustained ambiguity about whether the scares are real; whether Matthew’s brother is actually appearing as a ghost, or whether Matthew is simply returning to being ill. This is very well used, and gives both character and film a depth not often associated with horror films.

Of course this places a lot of responsibility for whether the film works on the shoulders of Harry Treadaway, as Matthew he gives a performance that anchors the film in a believable and sympathetic way. He is quiet and introverted, but it’s not a blank performance, indeed there is a lot of small detail in what Treadaway does, and a feeling of simple, down to earth, reality that is tough to fake. A throwaway moment when he attempts to kiss girl next door Amy (Leeming) and is rebuffed stuck with me, when he scolds himself (“knob”) after she leaves it’s a simple reading, but one I recall using myself, to myself, on many occasions. Little things like that help anchor this performance and this film in reality, and thus allow it to be scarier. That’s not to say that Treadaway is less effective in the big emotional moments – hearing his brother, confronting his Dad – because he also hits all those notes perfectly.

The rest of the main cast is equally excellent. Greg Wise, who I’ve seen several times before, but never really noticed, pulls out a muscular, inward looking, performance that’s packed with both emotion and, when required, menace. Tom Felton, so awful and stilted in the Harry Potter films, serves notice that he could become a gifted young character actor as Treadaway’s best friend and Ros Leeming may be Kevorkian’s real find of the film; a beautiful young actress whose sensitive performance, along with Treadaway’s, helps create an atypical, entirely platonic, bond between the young leads.

I can often sit down in a movie and, twenty minutes in, tell you what’s going to happen beat for beat - hell, sometimes I can do it from the poster - but The Disappeared manages to surprise with almost all of its twists and turns, including a moment, coming from a child’s drawing, that really pulled the rug out from under me. The one twist that I did see coming I didn’t mind, because it fits so perfectly with the tone of the film. Many of the scares, particularly those involving Matthew’s brother, aren’t especially original, calling to mind almost every J-Horror film I’ve ever seen, as well as the more recent likes of The Orphanage.

However, Kevorkian does execute the scares well. Jumps are parceled out through the film at regular, but generally unpredictable, intervals. The visual scares work well enough, but it is the sound design that really makes The Disappeared an eerie experience, and a film that ought to be experienced in a big dark cinema. Sounds reverberate round the room, appear behind you, in front of you, beside you, even when what’s on screen is entirely benign there might be something sneaking up on you on the soundtrack, and that keeps you parked on the edge of your seat.

The film only really falls down with its finale, which is sadly more conventional than the rest of the film had led us to expect, and has one fight that isn’t especially well executed. The answer comes together a little too quickly and easily to have the impact that it should, and the sudden shift in tone isn’t quite carried off, despite this sequence still being shot with style, and having several memorably nightmarish images (Treadaway waking from a literal dirt nap will stick in the mind).

Still, for the most part The Disappeared is chilling and scary, and it's also often quite unexpectedly moving. Visually speaking, Johnny Kevorkian has made a beautiful film, it’s style is chilly and heavily designed, and the clear thought that has gone into the look of the film, from camera placement to digital colouring, makes for a striking looking piece of work. With many shots that stick in the memory and several accomplished performances, The Disappeared bodes well for its director’s future. It is baffling to me that you can only see it at London’s ICA, given the shit that is being distributed in the horror genre (Tormented, Eden Lake, Last House on the Left) original and striking films like this one deserve to be seen. IFC Films will be releasing it in the US, so make sure you don’t miss this one if you get the chance to catch it.

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