Directed by: Catherine Hardwicke; Runtime: 99 minutes
Due to her recent pop-culture stumbles with the likes of Twilight and Red Riding Hood, it's easy to forget that Catherine Hardwicke once directed a pair of semi-effective dramas, Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown, about defiance, skirting the law, and alternative subcultures. While neither are flawless, they discover a pulse within their topics that find relevant ways of expressing themselves, far away from the messy metaphors and love triangles of her fantasy-horror outings. At first blush, it appears as if her latest film, Plush, might steer her perspective back in the right direction, focusing on a rock-star wife and mother who taps into her darker side to explore her creativity, while also handling the pressure of an obsessive fan's adoration. Unfortunately, what takes center stage here is an eyeliner-adorned thriller that's both insipid and peculiar in equal measure, trying too hard to wallow in its edgy brooding as it descends into unpleasant thrills.
Following the loss of her brother and band's guitarist due to a drug overdose, popular singer/songwriter Hayley (Emily Browning) attempts to throw herself into her creativity to cope with the grief. Feeling detached from her children and journalist husband, Carter (Cam Gigandet), she tries to work out her despondent attitude by writing an album that's mostly dedicated to her brother, meeting a less than stellar reception while fending off the pursuits of a stalker-ish fan. Desperate for relief, she finds herself drawn to her new guitarist, Enzo (Xavier Samuel), a black-clad, gloomy guy with a look that reminds Hayley a bit of her brother. A dangerous relationship forms between them as they're on tour, mostly hinged on Hayley's need for a release, where Enzo's attention -- involving a little roughness and light bondage -- teeters on the darker side of things. Hayley doesn't realize that she's playing with fire this hot, though, until his attachment to her transforms into fixation.
At first, Plush plays out more like the soft-core exploitation drama you might find on late-night cable instead of an adequate character examination, seeming as if the film intentionally meanders until another opportunity arises to witness its surprisingly lurid alt-lifestyle hookups. Lengthy, uninspired scenes of Hayley's band performing on-stage commingle with rigid displays of her visceral attempts to cope with creative blockage, while the drama back home with her twin boys and handsome husband establish little emotional connection beyond those lingering responsibilities that might later result in guilt. Oddly, the most genuinely expressive thing to come out of Plush is a movie-within-a-movie: an abstract, provocative music video showcasing Hayley's transformation since her brother's death, which conveys how the film would like for its audience to view the young rocker's conflicted mind. Hardwicke gets that point across about turmoil and rediscovery, but it's not convincing.
Presenting little more than an dull younger starlet who seems reckless and out of her depth, Emily Browning flimsily encapsulates that creative frustration plaguing Hayley's psyche. Despite the soul-searching premise revolving around an artist's bleak inner turmoil and struggle to cope with the digital era's stream of instant feedback, Browning shows a surprising lack of versatility in her head-space, bested by her similarly tormented performances in Sleeping Beauty or even Sucker Punch. The most credible scenes, awkwardly enough, are the ones oozing with sensuality, where the trim, chiseled, goth-inspired Enzo provokes her senses in ways that seem intentionally designed to satisfy some of the "Fifty Shades of Grey" crowd. Xavier Samuel contributes a peculiar intensity into Enzo's aura as he menacingly seduces Hayley, escalating with her continued receptiveness, while his discomfiting rapport with Cam Gigandet's sturdy-enough portrayal of Hayley's husband might raise a few eyebrows.
It doesn't really matter whether Plush would prefer for those watching to seriously consider its twisted domestic drama and examination of the creative process once its darker inclinations take over, transforming into a full-blown, schlocky thriller hinged on obsession born of warped psychosis. Superfluous shock-value plot developments layer atop one another as Hayley sinks deeper into the hole she's innocently dug for herself, riding a downward spiral involving pregnancy, murder, and the contrived discoveries of mysteries surrounding her crumbling life. There's so much inane goings-on crammed within the final act that it's surprising how hollow director Hardwicke delivers it all -- partly because of the lack of empathy felt for the young starlet/mother, but also because the conclusion doesn't seem to know when enough's enough. Hardwicke might have another solid directorial outing stirring within her creative space, but she's missed an clear opportunity to realize it here.
Posted by Thomas Spurlin on 12/04/2013
Directed by: Geoffrey Fletcher; Runtime: 88 minutes
After earning accolades for his book-to-screen script of Precious, including a win at the Academy Awards, Geoffrey Fletcher could've played it safe and rode the waves of that success with yet another adaptation or similarly-themed project. Instead, he reveals some filmmaking gusto by taking up both writing and directing duties for Violet & Daisy, an adult fable of sorts with a brutal and surreal storytelling edge, which follows two young women who gleefully kill people for the money to pay for fancy dresses (and their apartment rent, of course). Down-to-earth storytelling and a grasp on reality are scarce in this peculiar brew of bullets, bubble-gum, and a combination of fantasy-violence farce and straight-face drama, drawing easy comparisons to the Tarantino-esque brand of provocatively mischievous cinema. What Fletcher lacks, despite a capable director's hand, is a clear perspective and an eye for sensibility, rendering his tale of young, bubbly assassins out of their depth into an absurd and unconvincing -- if oddly entertaining -- jumble.
Once upon a time, in a land not so different from ours, there lived two girls with willing trigger fingers: Violet (Alexis Bledel, Sin City), a headstrong killer with some dark life experiences under her belt, and Daisy (Saoirse Ronan, Hanna), her younger and loopier sidekick. Together, the pair knock off individuals as ranked assassins in a guild of sorts (they're #8 and #9 in the organization), which barely covers their living expenses and their fascination with Barbie Sunday, a singer and fashion icon whose dresses the girls must have upon release. With another line of clothing on the horizon and their funds a little short, Violet and Daisy decide to cancel some downtime and take what's supposed to be an easy job from their handler. When they arrive at their location, however, they're caught in a peculiar situation with a sad, sweet older man (James Gandolfini, The Sopranos) who has resigned himself to death and essentially wants to assist the girls in killing himself -- before someone else does. To say the least, the man's willingness provokes some curiosity and confusion in the girls.
Fletcher crafts a bizarre, inflated exploitation-style tone with Violet & Daisy at the start: our first glimpse at the girls features them as pizza-delivering, gum-popping nuns with little regard for life outside their own, somewhat distressed at the cancellation of a Barbie Sunday concert as they unload bullets into goons. This sardonic tone sort of works, at first, venturing into an odd portrait of two young women with simple desires, kitschy back-and-forth conversation, and a willingness to kill others to satisfy their almost child-like needs. Eventually, however, Fletcher's blithe handling of the violence and their role as assassins clashes with the simple scenario of executing a man who lives alone in his apartment. Their lack of even base professionalism hampers everything around the hit on The Guy: after giggling and skipping away from a crime scene torn asunder by their gunfire, their "innocent" difficulties with falling asleep, running out of bullets, and blindly firing at thin air come across as irritatingly farcical instead of convincingly comical.
That's part of Violet & Daisy's design, though, where it wouldn't be possible for the story's abstract seriousness to take shape without the girls' amateurish follies opening the door, as maddening as that might sound. Once they're in The Guy's apartment and considering what to do about their willing mark, the film develops a solemn angle as it ruminates on the certainty of death, secrets kept, and the mistakes of parenting, while Fletcher's absurdist angle remains at the forefront. The juxtaposition becomes fairly weird to absorb: run-ins with misogynistic gangsters, fetching bullets from a local shop, and dancing on corpses run concurrently with sensitive discussions about killing people and being truthful about one's past. It's a testament to the director's style that it even works as well as it does, where steady visual lyricism -- playful yet endearing shots of the girls in their costumes, concentrated close-ups emphasizing emotion underneath their candy-coated facades, and a few striking dream sequences -- clashes with a frustrating lack of responsiveness to reality.
Ultimately, Violet & Daisy becomes something of a soul-searching journey as its second half meanders in the stillness of The Guy's apartment, concerning itself with catharsis as little details about the assassins' lives emerge while the ludicrous situation continues with their somber target. While Alexis Bledel delivers little more with Violet than how I'd imagine Rory Gilmore to act if she were over-caffeinated and homicidal (which works just fine), Saoirse Ronan takes the opportunity to branch out against type with Daisy, crafting a compellingly loopy idealist who continues with her profession for obscure reasons. Also, their mark proves to be an interesting late-career performance for James Gandolfini, where the character's musings on death couple with the actor's reliably rich screen presence for glimmers of effective introspection amid the girls' reservations. Fletcher's film makes one curious about how each of these characters will handle their demons, both as individuals and as once fathers and daughters, so it's a shame to see them squirm within the confines of such insincere circumstances.
Directed by: Neil Jordan; Runtime: 118 minutes
Neil Jordan's Byzantium emerges just as the recurrent vampire "craze" has started to lower back into its grave, where those popular franchises that capitalized on the trend have either wrapped up or are settling into a formulaic reputation out of the spotlight. Instead of clashing with conventions that everyone knows and relishes, this marks an ideal time for inventive and restrained stories to break the genre's little unspoken rules for something beyond the norm, springboarding off what's familiar for subtler, more human concepts about immortal blood-drinkers in the modern era. It's tough to imagine a more apt director for the job than Jordan, a provocative and entertaining explorer of macabre folklore. What he's assembled in Byzantium is a reservedly mesmerizing and suitably melodramatic examination of eternal life, secrets, and survival through the eyes of two undying women forced to live off human blood, where mythology and brushes with horror merely strengthen its time-sprawling tale.
Making the transition from stage to cinema by playwright/screenwriter Moira Buffini, who recently brought to life the eeriness and melancholy of Jane Eyre in an elegant adaptation, Byzantium tells the conjoined stories of two penniless vampires who have been living together and harboring their secret for over two-hundred years. Clara (Gemma Arterton, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters) serves as the maternal caregiver of the two by working various erotic/carnal jobs to pay their bills, affording her easy opportunities to feed where needed. Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan, Hanna), on the other hand, mostly keeps to piano playing and her journal -- repeatedly writing down her life story -- as she takes casual strolls and minimizes contact with others, finding "nobler" ways of taking blood. Picking up as they're forced to flee their current living situation, the story focuses on how they resourcefully land in a ramshackle English hotel, while Eleanor's need to reveal her history materializes in a concurrent telling of how they became who they are, starting in the 1800s, and why certain people are tracking them down.
Eschewing the boundaries created by other vampire stories, Byzantium deliberately turns common mythology on its head: the absence of fangs and powerlessness of holy relics are implicitly addressed, while sunlight doesn't even factor into Clara and Eleanor's everyday routine. Down to the ritualistic, deeply-personal creation of new vampires, involving a gothic display of metamorphosis amid a cascade of blood and swarming birds, Buffini's script reduces those known conventions into a direct, somber reflection on what it'd be like as an unnatural immortal human who lives off the blood of others and ponders their moral deviance. It also doesn't shy away from the intimacy of loneliness that comes with the supernatural territory, the inability to build lasting relationships and the monstrous desires that surface with simple intimacy and the sight of blood. And when Byzantium actually does brush with conventions, from puncturing veins to invitations into homes, it shrewdly folds them within the story.
The moody photography from Shame and The Place Beyond the Pines cinematographer Sean Bobbitt pursues Eleanor as she struggles to hold onto her secret in the rustic seaside town, while inadvertently (and not so inadvertently) revealing her history through flashbacks and readings of her journal. Here, Neil Jordan's experience with Interview with the Vampire comes into play, where elegiac narration and glimpses at the past -- including quietly haunting scenes of Eleanor stalking visions of her younger pre-vampire self -- craft an antiquated, melancholy portrait of hardship and seclusion surrounding the origin of the two vampires. Clara's roots as a prostitute, her relationship with an oppressive naval captain (Jonny Lee Miller, Trainspotting), and the period's troubles with fatal illnesses and abandoned children linger in a downhearted mood that never really eases up. Restrained (albeit effective) usage of gore and slow-boiling suspense don't offer many visceral delights to compensate for its deliberate meditation on life eternal, very much rendering it into a horror-drama with an emphasis on the drama.
Some might find it odd that Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan spend most of their screen time apart considering the characters' codependence, yet it makes sense due to Clara's pursuits and Eleanor's burgeoning need for distance. Their separate performances are alluring, where they pour their innate strengths into the vampire mold. Arterton brings the fire and desperation she displayed in The Disappearance of Alice Creed to the role, driven by vitality as Clara's project to turn a rundown hotel into a brothel/safe haven echoes her past experience in the world's oldest profession. Conversely, Saoirse Ronan's willowy demeanor and piercing eyes mesh well with a "righteous" vampire coping with her existence, whose virtues and inner turmoil intersect with her appetite and killing techniques. They've not grown sensual, or prideful, or even particularly knowledgeable of the world over their years, instead merely aware of the passage of time, reflected in the actresses' cunning and consistent performances.
Byzantium revolves around the mystery stirring underneath their untellable story, growing complicated as Eleanor builds a reluctant relationship with a terminally ill local college student, Frank (Caleb Landry Jones, X-Men: First Class), whose curiosity suggests he might embrace her true nature. It's something quite harrowing for a two-hundred year old teenager to keep bottled up for so long -- a part of Clara's "code" that they follow for reasons beyond simply keeping a low profile amongst mortals. Eliciting shades of Anne Rice and John Ajvide Lindqvist as it approaches its conclusion, these pieces of Eleanor's history are disclosed in muddled, bluntly poetic expressions of eternal kinship and paternal bonds, reaching an unsurprising yet fitting bittersweet catharsis involving how they obtain the gift of immortality. While Byzantium might not have much new to say about the melancholy born of forever living with one's experiences and trespasses, the unique context of Eleanor's perspective mesmerizes in this gripping vampire curio.