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Rating History

Holy Motors
Holy Motors (2012)
4 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

Since its debut at Cannes, Leos Carax's Holy Motors has earned an impressive array of recommendations from some of the industry's most respected critics. Its beguiling mix of intrigue, A-list cameos and French eccentricity has had some viewers tripping over themselves with abundant praise, and the rave reviews have poured in. Sadly it appears Holy Motors' core audience is something of a niche that does not include any who haven't yet sold their entire soul to the art de cinéma.

It's always refreshing to be challenged by a film. As we are bombarded with watered down blockbusters and dim-witted screenplays year after year, how wonderful it is to be truly stimulated by a film that forces you to ask questions. Holy Motors certainly does this; 'what the f*ck is going on?' being the most prudent of all of them. However when a film fails to provide answers, or even give the viewer a gentle push in the right direction, the ensuing confusion can very quickly turn into frustration and ultimately tedium.

Carax clearly has a vivid imagination, filled with unique and really quite exceptional ideas. He translates them to the screen with confidence and elegant style, culminating in a number of hypnotic sequences that will raise more than eyebrows. However what lets him down is the glue that holds these sequences together, or more the fact that there isn't any. Holy Motors has virtually no narrative, leaving the viewer disconnected from the film, and likely feeling exasperated from trying to decipher the limited storytelling that does exist.

The general consensus is that this is an ode to cinema itself, built around references to many of Carax's favourite movies. Mr. Oscar, our enigmatic protagonist, slips from one scenario to another as if acting in a series of short films. In each scene he transforms himself, taking on a variety of personas; some dangerous, others gentle, many of them grotesque. Actor Denis Lavant excels in each and every role, and while many of them are difficult to like, no one could ever criticise the unfaltering commitment shown. His performance is one of the film's highlights. Likewise brief appearances from Eva Mendes and Australian starlet Kylie Minogue create added excitement. Neither has a great deal to do, yet each makes an impression, Minogue in particular, who performs one of the film's two musical sequences; a treat for fans who slogged through 90 minutes before so much of a glimpse of the long-established pop princess.

However it is all to limited effect when the films Carax references are so obscure, the majority of the audience will struggle to understand them. Granted, it may be my own shortcoming as a viewer and critic that these references seemed to fly-endlessly, one after another-straight over my head. Yet the fact remains that Carax's referencing has prompted no desire in me to seek out the films alluded to, in fact it has done quite the opposite.

I left the screening with a heavy heart. My patience had been tested, I felt inadequate in my lack of comprehension, and frustrated by the journey that had taken place with little resolution or purpose. All of this culminated in a feeling of intense dissatisfaction as I have not experienced in the cinema for some time. Perhaps it was in part a dissatisfaction in myself, but undoubtedly it came down to the fact that Holy Motors contains such imagination and promise that appears so rarely each year, yet Carax places it out of reach from much of his audience. It is selfish filmmaking and a crushing disappointment.

Anna Karenina
Anna Karenina (2012)
4 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes
½

Rarely has there been a tale so consistently revisited as Leo Tolstoy's universally beloved Anna Karenina. Since the turn of the twentieth century there have been countless adaptations, from operas to ballets, musicals to radio shows, and television dramas to almost a dozen big screen interpretations. Today we find Keira Knightley stepping into Karenina's oft-strung bodice, with regular collaborator Joe Wright bringing an ambitious slant to his director duties.

It's been said that all the world is a stage, and for Karenina and her 19th century Russian society pals, it really is. Wright stages his adaptation largely within the confines of a theatre, the imposing proscenium arch taking the place of the fourth wall. Consequently ever-moving sets roll in and out around the characters, as the camera dances through the unfurling drama. There's even an air of faux-musical to the way scenes transition from one to the next, moving to a very purposeful rhythm and Dario Marianelli's wonderful score, which should see the composer nominated for his third Oscar.

It's a daring move, although one reportedly due to budgetary issues, that begins as something of a curio, develops into a source of brief amusement before becoming an unfortunate distraction. When the action finally does leave the theatre setting, it's as if new life has been injected into the film. The stuffiness, no matter how purposeful, is overbearing when combined with the film's length and the seriousness of the story. That said, the sets are cleverly designed and absolutely beautiful, much like the costumes, cinematography and Ms. Knightley, who may well have to travel back to the Ice Age in order to find a period in time where she looks anything less than radiant.

For those unfamiliar with the classic novel, the story follows Karenina, a married socialite from St. Petersburg, who embarks on a torrid and passionate affair with a younger man whilst visiting her brother in Moscow. It's hardly original today but upon publication Tolstoy's encounters with hypocrisy, gender rights, divorce, and fidelity were launched into a society far less attuned with scandal than ours, at least on the surface.

Knightley, who has arguably become Hollywood's most divisive actress, is a fine choice for title role. We already know that few modern actresses look quite so comfortable in period films, but there's far more to her performance than a natural ability to work a ball gown. Knightley's rigid English frostiness is a great fit for Karenina's aloof anti-heroine. The character is a riddle of amorality, on one hand she loves her young son and respects her dutiful husband, yet on the other she willingly succumbs to every temptation regarding Count Vronsky, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Knightley handles these different sides of the character with ease. Her talents have developed hugely over the years, yet somehow this performance doesn't quite match her finest work. Perhaps it is the constraints of the character, or more pertinently that Karenina prompts so little sympathy from the audience, but this is not the potentially Oscar-winning performance that some were tentatively predicting.

In comparison Johnson as Vronsky has prompted the harshest reproach from critics, yet I found his performance perfectly adequate. The seductive quality he brings to the role is entirely believable, and while I must admit there is an element of a young boy playing dress up, for the most part he acts through it. Jude Law on the other hand, delivers his finest work in years. He convinces as Karenina's betrayed husband, displaying a newfound maturity and with the right campaign, could find himself firmly within the Supporting Actor mix. Outside of this the ensemble are just as impressive. The likes of Kelly MacDonald, Emily Watson, Olivia Williams, and Matthew Macfayden each make an impression for all of the right reasons, away from the central triangle.

However the fact remains that Anna Karenina is emotionally cold. Moments of brilliance, such as the Karenina and Vronsky's first dance, and the intensely staged horse race, are drowned in a sea of heavyweight drama that never manages to penetrate the emotional core of the audience. No amount of beautiful imagery, and there is plenty on offer here, can overcome the fact that unlike Wright's previous work on Atonement, where the central romance swept one up into the beating heart of every embrace between its lovelorn characters, the romance here is disconcertingly distant. This is a solid reinterpretation of the classic tale, that deserves all the attention it gets for artistic merit, but as a great dramatic epic it fails to deliver what is promised.

Wild Bill
Wild Bill (2011)
4 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

It takes a special kind of actor to avoid the pitfalls of child stardom, and an even more impressive individual to then turn a successful acting career into a directorial debut that flows with untapped potential. Dexter Fletcher has come a long way since his early film roles in The Elephant Man and Bugsy Malone. Wild Bill marks his first attempt at sitting behind the camera, where he follows fellow British actors Paddy Considine and Richard Ayoade into the director's chair, proving himself as yet another surprise talent with an unexpected point of view.

Penned by Fletcher and Danny King, the film follows one-time madman Bill Hayward on his parole release from an eight-year prison sentence. Returning home he finds his two sons, now 15 and 11, living alone after the abandonment of their mother, and realises that the welfare of these boys has become solely his responsibility. It's a big adjustment from the sheltered life he's become accustomed to behind bars, and an even bigger step away from the crooked path of drugs and gangs that filled his life before prison. However the most effective moments in Wild Bill are all built on this reluctant change, as Bill slowly adapts himself to this new, grown-up role of fatherhood.

Will Poulter, who you may recognise from the most recent instalment in the Narnia franchise as well as the charming family caper Son of Rambow, plays Bill's eldest son Dean. At just fifteen, he's already quit school to get a job and provide for his younger brother, however the shock return of his father is hardly a relief, but a reminder of the abandonment he's suffered at the hands of both of his parents. Poutler's performance is a definite highlight. Those familiar with his past work, particularly on sketch show School of Comedy, will know of his impressive charisma and comedic skills but this first foray into more serious drama proves to be no threat for the young actor, who brings an earnestness to the role that feels organic to the character and faithful to Fletcher's overall vision.

Likewise Charlie Creed-Miles as Bill, delivers a performance that makes me question why I've never noticed him before. His career highlights include a host of prominent film and television productions spanning back to the late eighties, yet it seems his talents have never been given the outing they deserved until now. He plays Bill with a surprising naivety. Prison has clearly tamed this once wild animal, but into something of an empty vessel. It's due to his renewed relationship with his sons that the vitality begins to return to his worn body, and Creed-Miles excels at portraying the measured evolution of this character from idle waster to a man of substance and purpose. This wonderfully executed character arc is without doubt the thing that sets Wild Bill apart from the army of similar movies out there.

Granted Fletcher does a tidy job of painting East London as the typical concrete jungle, filled with council estates and dingy pubs that these types of films love to portray. He also fills the scenes with just about every East-end cliché going, from the idiot rude boy to nameless gangsters and the hooker with a heart of gold, they're all here. Thankfully however there's more lying beneath the surface, as Bill's suppressed wild side adds an element of suspense that threatens to burst forth at any moment. The inevitable explosion of rage is perfectly timed and satisfyingly staged, drawing forth shades of Dead Man's Shoes and even a little of Shaun of the Dead, which seems like an odd comparison but Wild Bill actually contains a very solid streak of humour that prevents it from falling too hard into that too serious and overly-worthy area that some of its peers seem to strive for.

All in all this is strong debut. It suffers slightly from stunted narrative ambitions, but for anything the story lacks in scale, it more than makes up for in authenticity and unexpected charm. Furthermore Fletcher calls in a host of his acting pals, with appearances from Olivia Williams, Jason Flemyng, Andy Serkis and host of other familiar faces bringing further credibility to a film that is already more than worthy of your time.