FILM REVIEW FOR MIFF 2014: TOM AT THE FARM

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Originally published on The Iris.

A Hitchcockian thriller in the country, Tom At The Farm is a grim exploration of homophobia, secrecy and family sustainability. Directed by Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan (I Killed My Mother, Heartbeats), the film is based on the play of the same name by Michel Marc Bouchard. Tom – played by Dolan – is a young copywriter who travels to rural Quebec for the funeral of his boyfriend, Guillaume. Upon arrival, he encounters a confused Agathe (Lise Roy) – Guillaume’s mother – who is unaware of Tom’s relationship to her son. Not sure whether to reveal the truth, Tom identifies himself as a close friend and comrade of Guillaume. That evening in bed, Tom is roughly woken by Guillaume’s brother, Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), who reveals his awareness of his brother’s boyfriend. After Francis threatens Tom into playing out the “close friend” role for the duration of his stay, the plot develops into a sinister, passive-aggressive game of cat and mouse between the two, the sadistic Francis motivated by the need to protect his family name.

Set in a desolate farmhouse, Tom At The Farm is hardly picturesque, artificially lit by harsh, cheap lighting. When filmed outside, the sun is barely visible, instead depicting a post-apocalyptic green- greyness that compliments the characters dour lives. It’s an alien town, devoid of human compassion and warmth. Francis and Agathe are isolated from the townsfolk, the former openly disliked by many. Trapped within the farmhouse – partly due to his own twisted affection for the brother that reminds him of Guillaume – Tom develops an ambiguous warped friendship with Francis that is eventually severed when Tom learns of Francis’ grave past. The film is Hitchcockian in its steady suspense, voyeuristic camera angles and passive-aggressive characters, both Francis and Agathe examples of the latter with their impassiveness and broodiness eventually erupting into hysteria by the film’s conclusion. Francis is determined to keep Tom imprisoned in the farm, his desperation motivated by a need to clutch onto his brother’s memory, a memory that was disrupted when Guillaume ran away from his childhood home.

Both leading men deliver strong performances, their antithetical roles as predator and prey performed with conviction and realism. Dolan projects an innocent humility that contrasts sharply with Cardinal’s fierce hostility. Dolan is effeminate and timid, Cardinal is chauvinistic and intimidating. Although an undeniable brute, Cardinal’s Francis is somewhat ambiguous, his indirect affection for his mother, his bizarre fondness of Tom and his love of tango separating his character from the archetypal sociopath. Roy plays the grieving and detached Agathe well, her confusion in regards to her son’s “accident” and enigmatic social life gradually boiling over into a powerful emotional breakdown that leaves her innumerable questions unjustly unanswered.

Delivering a perfect cast of almost inscrutable characters, Dolan as director has adapted a story of unforgettable presence. With a haunting score by Academy-award winning composer Gabriel Yared and contemplative cinematography by Andre Turpin, Tom At The Farm leaves its audience motionless by its climactic ending and surprising character development. A brilliant film, Tom At The Farm is a disturbing, radical example of preservation.

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

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FILM REVIEW: HER (2013)

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More than simply a tale about an alienated man who falls in love with his computer operating system, Spike Jonze’s Her is a thought-provoking and prophetic film about the future of relationships. Set in a futuristic sterile LA, the science fiction film is beautifully sick in its almost dystopian representation of human relationships. Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a lonely man struggling with the ghost of his married past. After purchasing a new operating system – which he initially uses as an email organiser – he quickly forms a friendship with it; a strong mental bond that is not dependent on physicality. Unable to sustain healthy relationships with real women, Theodore finds himself falling in love with Samantha (OS), played by Scarlett Johansson.

Theodore and Samantha’s relationship begins to emulate all the positive and negative aspects of a physical relationship. Samantha’s high-tech programming enables her to feel human emotions such as jealousy, lust and love.  A particularly disturbing scene involves Samantha hiring  a surrogate body to fulfill what she can’t physically with Theodore – the surrogate female being used as a means to an end in the same way a surrogate parent would be used today. Samantha is incredibly intelligent and communicative and consequently, their love grows into something even more genuine than other various physical relationships displayed throughout the film.

Her is prophetic in its depiction of the growing sterility of human relationships and our increasing dependence on computers. Our relationships with our operating systems is extrapolated as a means of hypothesising the extreme possibilities of technology. Instead of perpetuating new physical connections, we are hiding behind our screens, seeking solace in the virtual world and making friends with multiple avatars. Spike Jonze’s original screenplay creates a world in which operating systems are everyone’s best friends and intimate lovers, perfectly imperfect and available.

Both Phoenix and Johansson play the sweetest roles in their careers yet. While Johansson usually plays the ice queen in her physical roles, it is ironic to hear nothing but warmth in her vocal performance. The film also features Amy Adams as Theodore’s best friend, who like Scarlett has proved her versatility in both art house and blockbuster films (The Master, American Hustle, Man Of Steel).

The women in the film are hardly wearing any make-up and all look quite haggard, a nuance that only serves to reinforce the enigmatic Samantha. These female bodies are not objects of lust for Theodore anymore, as he has become completely fixated with the mind, voice and spirit of Samantha. So on the one hand, the film is magnifying the successful absence of physical importance and on the other, it is amplifying the unsuccessful relationships between real human bodies, i.e. between Theodore and his wife and between Amy (Adams) and her husband. Incredibly positive in one sense, it is still technically a dystopia in its disheartening portrayal of human connections.

A realistic insight into the inevitable (Yes, I am a cynic), Her is my pick for the Oscars.

5/5

TV SERIES REVIEW: DEREK (2013)

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Originally published in the AU Review.

 

In a recent photo shoot for The Hollywood Reporter, Ricky Gervais is captured flipping the bird to the camera, whilst burning money with the smoke of his cigar. Say what you will about him, but I think he’s brilliant. His aptitude in developing comic relief which showcase the raw reality of banal existence is spot on. Where shows like The Office and Idiot Abroad were particularly cringe-worthy – focusing on mockery, dehumanisation and cruelty – Derek takes Gervais out of his comfort zone and into a brand new territory: sentimentality.

Successfully re-commissioned for a second series, Derek is a dramedy set in a nursing home. Parodying the documentary form, the series explores the interrelationships between residents and workers and ultimately, their relationship with the outside world. Derek –played by Gervais – is the nicest protagonist the latter has created, the polar opposite of David Brent and Andy Millman. When you see Derek for the first time in the nursing home, you automatically shift in your seat. He is slightly simple, socially awkward, meticulous and a hunchback. Immediately you assume, ‘Fuck, now he’s making fun of autistic people?’ But no, the show isn’t about that. Derek probably is autistic (it is never discovered), but Gervais’ portrayal is so sincere and beautiful that you quickly put aside your reservations and start enjoying the show for what it is. Derek is not a comedy in the sense that Gervais’ other works were. Yes, there are a lot of funny moments, but Gervais’ objective is a lot more sincere this time round.

Derek is a worker at the nursing home, but he goes beyond his job description to help those residents that he cares about. Unlike Brent, he is selfless, kind, popular and actually funny. His favourite person is Hannah – a colleague and friend who has worked at the home for 15 years – who he says would be the beneficiary if he won “Secret Millionaire.” Along with Hannah, Derek also has two other best friends: Dougie and Kev. Dougie – played by Karl Pilkington – is the caretaker at the nursing home, a handy man who pretty much does “everything.” Although this role is pretty much an inflated version of his character in Idiot Abroad, we can’t look past Pilkington’s skill of portraying self-deprecating, cynical guys. Typecast he may be, no one does it better. David Earl plays Kev, Derek’s homeless friend who hangs around the home like a bad smell (literally), making crude innuendoes and shitting his pants. In some respects, Kev is a lot like Gareth Keenan: inappropriate, sleazy and just plain fucking weird. They are both sexual predators and they are both mocked by their friends. Unlike Gareth however, Kev is genuinely liked and looked up to by someone: Derek, however misguided it may be. Derek loves everybody and is proud of his infinite kindness “It’s more important to be kind than clever or good looking. I’m not clever or good looking, but I’m kind.” Essentially, this is what the show is about: human kindness and Derek is the incarnation of this.

Gervais’ portrayal of Derek is extremely moving. Everything about Derek is sweet. His favourite things are Hannah, YouTube, reality programmes, animals and frog sculptures. In a recent interview, Gervais stated that Derek is his favourite character. With his nervous flicking of his fringe, his big grin and his shuffled movements, you can’t stop looking at him. Particular adorable moments include the episode where Derek calls the ambulance in an attempt to save a dying bird and the pilot which shows a particular scene where he is cutting the toenails of a resident. His incessant displays of kindness and child-like naivety make it impossible for the viewer not to fall in love with him. Hannah – played by Kerry Godliman – comes close to stealing the show with her expressions and selfless nature. She loves Derek unconditionally and stands up for him when he is being picked on by outsiders. There is one particular tear-jerker of a scene where she stays up all night at the home to supervise the animals that have been brought in to pacify the residents. Like Derek, she’s a real sweetie and goes way beyond her job description to help and befriend those she cares about.

If you want to feel really good and gooey inside, watch Derek. It is hardly pretentious and there is no hidden motive. Gervais has delivered a really beautiful story in an attempt to highlight all the brilliant aspects of humility and kindness. According to Dougie, Kev and Hannah, Derek is the best person in the world, a person who “chose kindness” and who “hasn’t got a lot going on in his head, but what he has got going on is all good.” Where Gervais’ other shows made you cry from laughter, Derek makes you cry for real. It’s about a kind, innocent man who loves life. That’s all it is and its brilliant.

REVIEW SCORE: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)