Reviews: Coherence, Duke Of Burgundy, Kill The Messenger, Slow West, Z For Zachariah

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Recent releases available on DVD and VOD that didn’t screen in local cinemas:

Coherence 

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Directed by James Ward Byrkit | Written by Byrkit and Alex Manugian | 89 min

Eight dissatisfied urbanites gather for a party on a night when a comet burns through the sky. All their mobile phones go dead, and then the neighbourhood loses power but for one house a little ways down the road. A few of the party head out to investigate the lighted house and to hopefully borrow a phone. They find the house is, in fact, an exact replica of the place they just came from. A duplicate group of people are gathered within.

Then things get really weird.

The star of this film is the plot. Not necessarily the script, but the story idea and its execution are threads of brilliant, high-concept science fiction. Exploring the concept of parallel realities at a single location makes for a clever way to shoot something within a reasonably tight budget. Coherence is a companion piece to the scifi of Cube or The One I Love. The twists are the primary pleasure as we go deeper into the theoretical and the characters wrestle with their changing reality.

Unfortunately, the characters are duds: no one particularly shines in the cast (that includes Buffy The Vampire Slayer alum Nicholas Brendon). It doesn’t help that these are a selfish, unlikeable collection of people. And the conclusion leaves a bitter aftertaste. Are we supposed to assume the worst in people will win out? Or at least the most opportunistic?

Byrkit’s cleverness and ambition impresses, but the end result is still best described as a sharp midnight screener for hard-scifi completists rather than a genre-buster. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The Duke Of Burgundy 

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Written and Directed by Peter Strickland | 104 min

The raves I heard about this film at the 2014 Atlantic Film Festival compelled me to track it down when it came available. I’m really glad I did, and though I wasn’t as bowled over by it as some were, I was really impressed by its formalism.

It’s an insular, borderline experimental movie, primarily about the sado-masochistic relationship between two women. Their connection presents itself as one thing at the fllm’s start, but gradually reveals itself to be something else entirely. That journey is as fascinating as the production design is baroque, a lush reimagining of 1970s softcore erotica, all browns and yellows,  spliced with a 21st Century art house sheen. Anyone familiar with director Strickland’s Berbian Sound Studio will have some sense of what they’re getting in to.

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Huge props to the two leads for perfecting the slight wobble of lip and the delicate inhalation of breath—the camera captures every fluctuation in the expressions of Sidse Babett Knudsen (quite a change from her role as Statsminister in the Danish political drama Borgen) and Monica Swinn, along with acres of mahogany, velvet and lace. A decadent feast for those with a particular taste.

(The Duke of Burgundy is a butterfly, in case you were wondering. It’s an important detail.)

Kill The Messenger

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Directed by Michael Cuesta | Written by Peter Landesman, based on the book by Nick Schou | 112 min

Gary Webb was an investigative reporter for a California newspaper, the San Jose Mercury News, who wrote a series of pieces in the mid-90s about the CIA’s alleged cocaine importing/profits-for-arms exporting business, pieces that were later discredited by other, larger newspapers and by a so-called smear campaign orchestrated by the CIA itself. Depending on who you read—and this is a movie that inspires you to go get the real story, as elusive as that is—Webb was either a crusading journalist who got smacked down by sinister government agencies, or an overreaching muckraker who drew too many shaky conclusions from shoddy research.

The picture is determined to rehabilitate Webb’s rep (he died in 2004 from two [?] self-inflicted gunshots to the head), starring Jeremy Renner in the lead and Rosemarie DeWitt as Webb’s wife, Susan. As he pursues and writes his story opposite a supporting cast crammed with talent—including Michael Sheen, Andy Garcia, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Paz Vega, Tim Blake Nelson, Barry Pepper, Oliver Platt, and more—his career and personal life is shredded by the corporate (and conspiratorial) blowback.

Kill The Messenger manages to feel a little like Oliver Stone’s JFK—whatever the truth, it compels in its telling—but an Errol Morris documentary on the same subject would sure be appreciated.

Slow West 

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Written and Directed by John Maclean | 84 min

What a discovery this film is, and how I wish it had opened in cinemas so we could enjoy its widescreen vistas. A first feature from Maclean, it’s an astonishingly confident effort, the tale of a naive but forthright Scots teen, Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee), searching for his long, lost love, Rose (Caren Pistorius), across the lawless Old West. Silas (Michael Fassbender, channelling just a little of Josey Wales-era Eastwood) takes the kid under his wing, intent on keeping him alive long enough to get paid.

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The film is a bittersweet travelogue, the harshness of people’s treatment of each other in stark contrast to the beauty of the unspoiled wilderness around them, the plains (?) of New Zealand passing for 19th Century America, fully its own character. Whiskery support from Ben Mendelsohn also enriches the proceedings.

Like many great westerns, it ends in beautiful tragedy. Your patience with its circuitous plot might depend on your affection for the genre, but at a crispy hour and 24 minutes, it doesn’t dawdle. It’s a subtle return for the western, but a return none the less, especially considering other recent quality entires The Homesman, and The Salvation, along with what Quentin Tarantino has been up to lately.

Z For Zachariah

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Directed by Craig Zobel | Written by Nissar Modi from the novel by Robert C. O’Brien | 95 min

Ann (Margot Robbie) is a god-fearing woman surviving in the ruins of a West Virginia town after a nuclear apocalypse. John (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a scientist, stumbles upon her, and lucky that he does because she keeps him alive when he’s brought low by radiation sickness.

It’s a veritable Garden of Eden, especially when John’s knowledge improve their odds of making it through another winter.  The progenitorial responsibility hangs over both of them, despite being so different in so many ways. But things seem to be going well until the arrival of Caleb (Chris Pine), a local miner who managed to survive the blast and its aftermath by staying underground. He may be the snake.

Z For Zachariah, is a gorgeous looking film, one, like Slow West, that was shot largely in New Zealand. It has a deliberate, hypnotic quality,  and a scale and score that feels a little like what Christopher Nolan and Hans Zimmer might have done with their summer vacation. The trio are all so good, especially Ejiofor, armed with a magnetic naturalism and the ability to speak volumes with his eyes.

While the film plumbs some traditional “End Of Days” scifi motifs, what it’s really about is this: scrape us down to the essentials, is it our rational understanding of the world or our faith that gets us through? The film seems to make a fairly definitive call on the issue, but leaves us with an ambiguous conclusion. I found it entirely delicious, a haunting film that deserves to be more widely seen.

About the author

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Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.

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