The Kreutzer Sonata (Bernard Rose, 2008, USA)

Mostly famous for having made effectively creepy slasher Candyman (1992), British director Bernard Rose’s career since has seen him tackle the life of Beethoven in Immortal Beloved (1994), as well as twice adapt Tolstoy for the screen – a lavish Anna Karenina (1997) followed by the contrastingly low-key Ivansxtc (2000) – so it seems only logical that he eventually turn his attention to The Kreutzer Sonata, the Russian’s famously notorious tribute to the eponymous work by the German composer. Artistic notoriety, though, seldom lasts long, and though one can argue that many of the overriding themes of the novella happily abide, if there is a major flaw with Rose’s film then it is that at its foundations the original story simply fails to shock today in the same way it did on its publication over a century ago.

As with Ivansxtc, which transposed The Death of Ivan Ilych from Tsarist Russia to modern-day Los Angeles, we are once again situated in affluent Beverly Hills, this time around in the spacious mansion of Edgar Hudson, director of his family’s charitable foundation and whose life is divided somewhere between apparently pious philanthropy and schmoozing with the city’s socialite set. As the film opens, though, he lies distraught on his bed having committed an as-yet unspecified act, apparently inspired by a performance of the Beethoven sonata, and which has caused him to recollect the history of his relationship with pianist Abby, who also just happens to be his wife.

Through flashbacks we see how their relationship came about: they meet at a cocktail party: he single and on the prowl, she attached but unmistakeably interested. He succeeds in seducing her away from her then-partner, and the two become involved romantically, leading to her eventually falling pregnant. The demands of childbearing force her to abandon her burgeoning career as a concert pianist for which she begins to harbour resentments, straining the couple’s relationship and leading to Edgar proposing hosting of a charity piano recital to appease her. Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata is chosen, a duet with which she begins to rehearse with violinist Aiden, who an increasingly paranoid and frantic Edgar suspects she is conducting an extra-marital affair with.

This exposition offers, stripped of the setting and more minor details of Tolstoy’s novella , offers up one its main themes: the apparent incompatibility between monogamy and long-term sexual fulfillment. Through a series of increasingly bizarre internal monologues, we hear Edgar’s obsessive commentary on the rise and fall of the couple’s relationship: from their early lust-filled encounters – shown in surprisingly graphic detail – through to his more-and-more paranoid ruminations on her perceived dissatisfaction and possible infidelities. Given the circumstances of their initial coming together, these thoughts are understandable, and in one of the film’s more perceptive moments, we see Edgar appear to observe his wife giving Aiden the very same look of desire that she gave him all those years before. No sign, though, of the theme of sexual abstinence, central to Tolstoy’s writing of the novella, but apparently incompatible with Rose’s story. Its absence is noticeable, and renders hollow much of what remains.

As with adapting, say, a Kafka or a Nabokov, the key issue with Tolstoy is in trying to evoke the original tone, and Rose’s film seems torn between this demand and that of telling the story, to the point where it at times feels like two separate films. The first is the more straightforward passive observational film charting the couple’s courtship, played at a steady pace and naturalistically acted, which takes us through the essential storyline. Like Ivansxtc, the eschewing of film for use of DV cameras does an effective job of capturing the intimacies and details in almost fly-on-the-wall documentary fashion, though the overly shaky handheld work suggests a rather excitable fly. The easy charm of Danny Huston, who excels is this kind of role, and the coy sexiness of Elisabeth Röhm create a very watchable pairing.

Interleaved between these more laidback scenes, though, are moments of light farce, first-person narration placing us somewhere inside Edgar’s frayed mind through which echo the notes of that damned sonata, apparently sending him off somewhere near David Helfgott territory. Their presence successfully convey the sense of an unreliable narrator and provide both both oddly comic moments reminiscent of Curb Your Enthusiasm as well as darker insights into Edgar’s soul, or absence thereof. However, though on the whole blending into the storyline well, the dichotomy between these scenes and the more observational ones makes the film feel tonally uneven; funny in places, but not satisfying in its entirety.

Given the slew of films emerging from American independent cinema featuring highly superficial and almost wholly dislikeable characters whom we are apparently supposed to identify with – prime among them the characters in Jonathan Demme’s painfully irritating Rachel Getting Married (2008) – it is pleasing at least to see a film where repulsion is the desired reaction to the protagonist. Sure, Danny Huston’s Edgar is charming, but so too is he shown to be philistine and ultimately solipsistic, a man who sees in a worthy charity event only an opportunity to set a trap for his wife. Viewed by Los Angeles society as a benevolent do-gooder, as we penetrate his psyche he comes across increasingly as a selfish, misogynistic sleaze. This, though, is as much comment the film has to make about its character, who ends up just a little too two-dimensional.

In placing the film in modern-day USA, the film goes some of the way to replacing the mores of nineteenth century Russian society with twenty-first century American ones, but it does have the effect of making the denouement seem unnecessary – surely quickie divorce would be the simpler outcome in L.A.? Ultimately there isn’t enough in Rose’s film to replace what has been jettisoned from Tolstoy; in removing the thesis of sexual abstinence from this story of the unknowability of women, this tale of the fall of a charming misogynist falls a little flat.

Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, 2010, USA)

Those a little perplexed by the sheer pulpy excess of Shutter Island, Martin Scorsese’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning The Departed (2006), should remember that, like Quentin Tarantino after him, the director’s famously encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema has long placed on equal par the genre picture and the art-house classic, a democracy in which Gun Crazy (1950) is as important an influence as Ossessione (1943). One ought not to forget either that Scorsese was a graduate of the Roger Corman film school, an early brush with exploitation which can be betrayed to varying extents in his output ever since Boxcar Bertha (1972) gave rise to Mean Streets (1973). The problem is, running to an overlong 138 minutes Shutter Island if anything needed to be a little more Corman and less Cimino.

The year is 1953, and we begin aboard a ferry carrying US Marshal Teddy Daniels and his newly-appointed investigative partner Chuck Aule, who together have been sent to the small titular island, home to the Ashecliff Hospital for the criminally insane, a forbidding place established from these early shots aboard the boat – the hold all clanking chains and handcuffs – to their arrival through the high-security electric-fenced perimeter of the hospital. On arrival, the hospital’s head psychiatrist, the charming, smooth-talking Dr. John Cawley, explains that it is his liberal-minded philosophy that these dangerous prisoners may be ‘cured’ of their mental traumas by allowing them to act out their anxieties rather than by punishing and medicating them; this awakens hostility from Teddy, who in a series of dreamlike flashbacks recalls not only his wife’s death in an arson house fire but also his presence as a soldier at the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp, dually haunted by the ghosts of a loved one and strangers he was unable to save from mechanised slaughter.

Ostensibly Teddy and Chuck’s mission is to investigate the mysterious disappearance of one of Ashecliff’s patients/inmates, Rachel Solando, who had been locked up for the brutal drowning of her three young children. But just how did she manage to escape from her locked cell, barred at the windows? Within the opening reels, this is the apparent central mystery, but slowly the detective story mutates as it transpires that Teddy has other, hidden reasons for coming to the island: not only has he reason to believe that his wife’s killer has been sent there, but he also suspects that the facility has been conducting mind experiments on its inmates. Thus, he is conflicted between two motivations: on the one hand avenging his wife’s death, and on the other crusading against what he sees as the appropriation of the Nazi thought experiments he fought against during the war.

This is only the piano terra of what quickly becomes a complicated Memento-like (2000) house of cards representing the fractured psychology of Marshal Daniels. Communicating to the ghost of his dead wife, who seems to be urging him on in his investigations, albeit then decaying into a pile of ash, he begins to question the trustworthiness of all around him – inmates, staff, even his own partner. Most of all, he is suspicious of Dr. Jeremiah Naehring, the German ex-pat colleague of Cawley’s who seems to suggest a link to the wartime experiences he is unable to forget. But can he believe even himself, led by ghosts of his own memories?

Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, whose comparably more sober Mystic River (2003) and Gone, Baby, Gone (2007) have also been filmed, Shutter Island is the kind of story which translates very well to the visual medium, and Scorsese employs a full gamut of camera techniques in order to send us hurtling around the menacing prison’s corridors and its surrounding windswept island in a whirlwind fashion. Hitchcock seems the key reference point in terms of storytelling, reflected most obviously in the Bernard Herrmann-esque score as well as visual nods to Vertigo (1957) and Psycho (1960), but one can’t help but think that Hitch might have trimmed the running time down by a reel or so; the drawn-out ending in particular makes the full 138 minutes feel just too long, and the sheer obviousness of the big plot twist makes it seem as if Scorsese is showing his cards more than a little too early.

The length issue is reflective of the film’s essence as a hybrid of detective story and psychological autopsy, and the film ends up feeling a strangely schizophrenic mish-mash of visual styles. The opening reels feel strangely old-fashioned, an homage to the classic post-war film noir tradition right down to the apparent use of very retro-looking back-projection placing the island ferry atop the ocean waves, and veteran DP Robert Richardson’s camera and lighting take ecstatic delight in showing the period mise en scene. And yet despite the hokey, over-expositionary dialogue, there is an unease about those early scenes, largely thanks to some odd jump-cut editing and subtle use of minor temporal discontinuities to set the viewer on alert that all is certainly not what it seems. The dream sequences, though, are pure Tarkovsky, undercranked and littered with symbols and associative elemental imagery, with a feeling of po-faced unease that occasionally threatens to turn into slapstick.

The pastiche of film noir tropes is unsurprising for the director whose films always seem so enamoured with cinema history, but the evocation of the Holocaust seems flippant, almost frivolous, to what is ultimately an insubstantial story, if an entertaining one. Of course, noir owed its existence to World War Two, not only as a reaction to its horrors but as a product of its resultant immigration to Hollywood of the likes of Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder, and it is certainly possible to use experience of it to great achieve great empathic effect – see how Nabokov subverted the apparent comedy of Pnin with the haunting tragedy of Buchenwald – yet here it feels like Scorsese is unable convincingly to work it in to the story, at least with the unresponsive DiCaprio as lead. Not that DiCaprio is bad – in fact he seems well suited to this period hokum – but for a film which about interior psychology his performance is simply too opaque.

For its problems, Shutter Island remains enjoyably entertaining, and a film unashamedly soaked in love for the history and traditions of cinema, and for the sheer craft of old-fashioned thriller filmcraft. Still, it is an obtuse, awkward work, and will surely baffle many more than it will delight, but this seems to be where its charm lies; file under ‘personal projects’ alongside The Aviator (2004) and Kundun (1997). Maybe this is where the true value of his work has resided all along.

The Road (John Hillcoat, 2009, USA)

Perhaps it is the recent passing of the fiftieth anniversary of his death that brings it more readily to mind, but the spectre of philosopher Albert Camus seems unquestionably to hang over the characters in John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road. The film is, in a very broad sense, existential, but more specifically it seems to be confronting those issues which troubled the French-Algerian writer throughout his life: how are we to live our lives in a universe so apparently devoid of meaning? If all is ultimately futile, is there anything which makes suicide an unacceptable escape? Can a morality still exist, and how, if at all, may one achieve a ‘happy death’?

In McCarthy’s vision, death is the only certainty, and one that constantly looms so close as to be able to touch it. An unspecified disaster has befallen the Earth – viewers may speculate as to its exact nature – which has set in motion an unstoppable environmental catastrophe: the sky grows ever darker, life has all but died out, and what remains is a deserted world of ashen, moribund tree husks and the abandoned wreckage of buildings, roads and vehicles. A handful of starving humans roam around in cannibalistic tribes scavenging for any remaining food and commodities, and as the story progresses we will see glimpses of the desperate, horrifying depths to which they have sunk in order to survive.

Also roaming this barren wasteland is an unnamed man and his young son, struggling with their cumbersome trolley loaded with what goods they have managed to forage for themselves. Through parallel flashbacks interspersed through the story we see glimpses of past events: golden-hued memories of ‘before’ and the man’s loving relationship with his wife, the coming of the apocalypse and their child’s traumatic birth, and finally the couple’s increasingly disparate reactions to the ongoing destruction, resulting in her complete abandonment of hope and flight from the family home.

In the present timeframe, the man has determined that the pair head south and towards the coast, and so the story follows their labourious journey, flanked by the twin vultures of death by hunger and murder at the hands of a cannibalistic gang. Their significant other companion is the man’s gun, loaded with one bullet for each of them, and which the father repeatedly and frantically reminds the son how to use on himself if the worst happens; better this than the prospect of being raped and eaten alive. As in reality, the role of the parent is to prepare the child to face the world without them.

Tales of earthly apocalypses are ten-a-penny in Hollywood, but however bleak their outlook, there is always the certainty in such films that their protagonists will in some way save the day in the last two reels. Not so here; the tone is unremittingly bleak, the world terminal decline and in the process of taking its last few gasps of air before expiring forever. Where, then, can any sense of hope be derived from this situation? How can the father make the son believe that life is worth living for a second longer?

It is a truism, if a trite one, that the road movie is seldom about the destination but the journey itself, and this is never a more correct observation than in The Road, though here it is a more philosophically abstract idea. Take two comparable films; firstly, Children Of Men (2005), also set in a world where life (and hope) is slowly dying out, but which observes the narrative trajectory of a thriller once the key plot point is revealed. Similarly Stalker (1979), which is more philosophically complex, yet still has a clear destination end point – the mysterious ‘Zone’ to which the characters are heading.

The question in The Road, perhaps related to the MacGuffin of the nature of the disaster itself, is why is the man so insistent in heading both south and towards the coast? Does he know it is safer there? His reasoning is never made explicit, likely because there isn’t one; it is just important that they have a direction, some form of purpose. In a later scene, when the pair discover an underground cache of supplies, enough to keep them alive and more comfortable for months, they continue on nevertheless. Survival is not enough; existence precedes essence, but it is not enough on its own; the man has embraced the Absurd and transcended it.

Director Hillcoat’s previous film, the superbly grimy The Proposition (2005), took the template of the Western and reinvented it in a nihilistic late nineteenth century Australian Outback where the rule of law is unenforceable and morality is an unobserved luxury. The Road takes this further: law is not only unenforceable but has been dispensed with altogether, along with any value attached to money or property. What remains of humanity?

What is fascinating is the divergence in political attitudes between father and son. The older, more world-weary character sees fear and danger behind every corner and in every person they meet, and is careful to delineate to his son the idea of they as the ‘good guys’ and others as the ‘bad guys’; the child, seeing through kinder but perhaps more naive eyes is less inclined to believe his father’s snap judgements, and as the film progresses is clearly forming a moral code of his own, constantly questioning that of his father. Perhaps ‘before’ the father was less wary of others, while the child, born into this new world, lacks this frame of reference. Their moralities, then, are hugely subjective, borne out of circumstance and forged by experience.

A story which is so unremorseful in its depiction of a future deprived of any sense of hope might seem like an unrewarding, morose watch, and yet the overriding message is a positive one. Camus wrote The Myth of Sisyphus in the darkest days of World War 2, exiled and alone in Paris, staring down the barrel of an oppressive, authoritarian future. And yet he looked to Greek myth and found the most hopeless of all characters – the man condemned to spend eternity rolling a rock up the side of a mountain in the knowledge of the certainty of its fall – and found hope, and laughter, in its Absurdity. It is the triumph of The Road that it also manages to find, even the the face of the most unrelenting despair, enough to suggest that life must continue be lived, and embraced.

Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze, 2009, USA)

The brevity of Maurice Sendak’s children’s book Where the Wild Things Are its story contained in only a few hundred words and a few dozen pages of illustrations – shows the other side of the coin of the problem of literary adaptation to, say, Watchmen (2009). Instead of what Zack Snyder had to do with that film, i.e. condense a large, sprawling work down to a coherent audience-friendly narrative, the job for director Spike Jonze and his co-screenwriter Dave Eggers has been to conjure up a feature-length picture from the bare bones of a relatively sparse source.

In theory at least, this should be the easier task, and one which opens up the possibilities of exploring avenues of theme and character absent or not fully fleshed-out in the book. In fact Jonze and Eggers have gone one step further in overlaying broad new ideas over the story’s template. The approach has worked to a large extent; Where The Wild Things Are has benefited greatly from this room for manoeuvre which has allowed both of their distinct authorial voices clearly to emerge in its story. Yet the lack of narrative meat in the source material proves to be the root of film’s biggest weaknesses.

Sendak’s simple story centres on a young unruly boy named Max who one day travels by boat to an island populated by large hairy monsters; they duly appoint him king and he remains for a while as their monarch before returning home. The most immediate difference that Jonze and Eggers make is with Max himself, rounding out his personality and back-story by making him emotionally isolated – apparently friendless, his mother frequently busy with work or with her gentleman friend, his teenage sister hanging out with her friends – an isolation which causes or at least exacerbates his tendency for violent tantrums.

Max is a creative child, a teller of fantastical stories, so when he eventually runs away from home to set sail for the imaginary island of monsters we can expect it to be a product of his imagination. Once on the island and acquainted with its inhabitants, what swiftly becomes apparent is that there is something deeper going on: again supplementing the original book, here in the film the monsters are all physical manifestations of the different sides of his personality: most immediately the short-fused Carol, quick to lose his cool and throw a wobbly, represents Max’s ill-temper, but so too the timid, seldom listened-to Alexander who personifies (or monsterifies?) his loneliness, and the elusive K.W. who appears to be a product of with his longing to be close to his sister.

It is a novel approach to interpreting and expanding on the book, and is particularly effective in developing the bildungsroman idea of maturity deriving from a loss of naïve innocence and the discovery and acceptance of both one’s own imperfections and those of others. The stories we tell, whether we are a child or a successful filmmaker, are in some way reflective of our own subconscious. As such, as Jonze has been keen to point out, this is an often melancholy film about childhood rather than for children, and a PG certificate and a frequent sense of fun should not be enough to dissuade otherwise.

This setup is very elegant, but such pop-psychology does not make for a good film in itself, and for all of its merits there is a feeling incompleteness to the film as a whole, a problem which seems to go back to the paucity of the Sendak source. The thinness of the plot renders large stretches of the film whimsical and at times, much worse, boring; it is the absence of what forms the basis of many classic films from The Wizard of Oz (1939) to Labyrinth (1986) and beyond: a central quest or goal to sustain the film for its duration.

Max’s self-discovery comes as a character development but not a dramatic one; indeed his decision to return to reality comes late into the film and more as a product of fear of the island’s inhabitants rather than anything along the lines of a there’s-no-place-like-home feeling, by which time the inconsequentiality of the goings-on on the island have become more than a little tiresome. If Jonze’s previous feature films – Being John Malkovich (1999) and, ironically, Adaptation (2002) – have been narratively obtuse then it has been the sheer ingenuity of their Charlie Kaufman scripts which has kept them so watchable; here Eggers’ psychological insights come at the expense of a tight storyline.

It is a shame that Sendak’s wonderful book has not made for the great film that it perhaps could have done, but I suspect there may be something inherent in the simplicity of the story which prevents it from translating to the 90-minute-plus mark. A shame, because it proves to be a rich resource of visual imagery, the scale of which translates comfortably to the big screen; the island and its natives are delightfully brought to life through a winning combination of puppetry and CGI, giving them a tactility and warmth lacking in so many other purely-rendered fantasy realms. And a shame, since Jonze’s and Eggers’ vision of Where the Wild Things Are as a parable about innocence and maturity feels so very right.

Zombieland (Ruben Fleischer, 2009, USA)

Thanks to a resurgence in its popularity following the box-office hits Dawn of the Dead (2004) and Shaun of the Dead (2004) earlier in this decade, the zombie film has been enjoying something of a renaissance in the past few years, culminating in the relatively low-key Zombieland topping the US box-office chart ahead of its bigger budget screen rivals. Its arrival is something of a significant one; while Shaun, and to a lesser extent Dawn, were clearly produced by die-hard fans of the genre, Zombieland’s existence appears to be largely a product of the increasing mainstream appetite for what could be happily dubbed the zom-com; in short, the undead have become socially acceptable.

The standard formula for this kind of film is a simple one: take some easily-identifiable stock characters, preferably of radically different demeanours and outlooks on life, throw them together and allow them to run amok in their newly-deserted surroundings, give them enough time to learn to rely on each other in a survival situation, add some witty one-liners and some inventive zombie deaths, and wrap things up fairly quickly before the audience starts getting twitchy. Easy, yes? Of course, it really isn’t that straightforward, and Zombieland, for its enjoyable performances and at times very witty script, fails to satisfy not for want of containing all of the above constituent elements but on a more basic, fundamental level – the underlying story really isn’t up to much.

Not that the setup isn’t without promise. We are instantly thrown into the immediately recognizable post-apocalyptic world of the undead, seen first through the eyes of a highly neurotic young man who explains that his very survival is surprisingly a result of these. He narrates us through his Scream (1996)-like list of rules key to the surviving of a zombie invasion, rules which will be pretty well familiar to anyone who has seen more than a couple of these films – fitness, making sure the zombie is fully dead, and the all-important observation of proper seatbelt-wearing procedures – the narration accompanied with the text of the rules graphically incorporated into the unfolding carnage. While it is hard to argue with the rules themselves, the exercise itself is gimmicky, mildly irritating and, on a purely practical level, not nearly comprehensive enough.

Our young guide wants to travel from Texas to Ohio to find out whether his parents have succumbed to the living dead or not, and eventually strikes up with a rather deranged truck driver, insistent that they refer to each other by the impersonal names of their hometowns, Columbus and Tallahassee respectively, in case one needed to expediently dispose of the other one. Tallahassee, it turns out, is also on a mission, though a rather less noble one: to find out if this post-apocalyptic world still contains any Twinkies before they all pass their expiry dates.

There is, however blackly, something inherently funny about a world being overrun by the living dead, and the film-makers here are clearly aiming for the audience’s funny bone rather than the cerebellum. In terms of comedy they largely succeed, thanks to their trump card of the choice of actors playing the two male leads – Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson. With the former playing an even more nervous Michael Cera and the latter seemingly playing a less restrained version of the his Natural Born Killers (1994) role, the two together make for as amusing a chalk and cheese duo as could be imagined; not only does the dialogue fizz with glee at their unlikely partnership, but both actors share a gift for physical comedy which is well exploited by director Fleischer.

Zombieland seems to tick a lot of other boxes too. The duration – a crisp 82 minutes – is on the money for a light comedy, and it is creditable that rather than carefully set up the world of the undead we are dropped immediately into it, dispensing with the all-too-common rigmarole of a long-winded prologue. Comedy is clearly what the director is best capable of handling, and in keeping matters light and frivolous never falls into the trap of either lurching into any kind of inappropriate sentimentality, or attempting to shoot anything genuinely nerve-jangling. Last but not least, a cameo in the film’s second half, while gratuitously shovelled into the storyline, offers some unexpectedly rich avenues of mirth – just wait for it.

Yet for all of what the film does right, there is too much of a lacklustre feeling to it all. Individual reels are fairly well self-contained, but the narrative threads linking them together are ragged and poorly thought out, and as such the film feels like a series of short sketches rather than a unified homogeneous story. One might easily forgive these inconsistencies in the plotting and tone if the film had more of a sense of charm or innovation, but these appear not within its ambitions. The film actually becomes a something of a bafflingly obtuse genre puzzle, for here is a film with horror elements but which isn’t even remotely scary, a road movie but which lacks any real sense of direction, and a character-based comedy but where the most clearly defined motivation is one man’s search for a sugar-rich cake snack. Eisenberg may be a funny performer, but his nerdy loser schtick was fleshed out much better in the recent Adventureland (2009), while the main female character Wichita is relegated to being the all-too-easily identifiable Hot And Fairly Kickass Horror Female. In sketching out such predictable, two-dimensional characters, when the film slows down and tries to form a romantic sub-plot, it falls woefully flat.

Zombieland entertains more than most comedies, largely thanks to its two leads, but the flaws in its conception and execution betray a certain degree of disingenuousness surrounding the film. The reflexivity of Columbus’ ‘rules’ appears to suggest an homage to the zombie movie genre, yet the film-makers fail to display this anywhere else; is the film therefore as much a superficial cash-in on contemporary big-name successes as the likes of Scary Movie (2000), Meet the Spartans (2008) et al? It is a mark of how far zombie movies have come from the realm of exploitation into the mainstream consciousness. But like the elusive Twinkie that Tallahassee is seeking to find, Zombieland may taste superficially deliciously sweet, but it leaves an uncomfortable sickly feeling in the stomach afterwards.