Sunday, 22 February 2015

Review: Foxcatcher

Year: 2014 (2015 U.K release)
Director: Bennett Miller
Screenplay: E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman
Starring: Channing Tatum, Steve Carrell, Mark Ruffalo

Synopsis is here

There’s a mordant sense of humour running through Miller’s Foxcatcher that creeps up from time to time. Something you shouldn’t think should appear and yet is quite welcoming when it does. Watching protagonist (Tatum) strain his reasons on why winning Olympic gold is important, to a bunch of wide eyed, befuddled children has a quiet drollness to it. As is the twisted matter of Bennet Miller’s American true crime drama is ultimately a Greek Tragedy of dysfunctional families, set within the world of competitive wresting, which of course became prominent in Ancient Greece.

It’s too bad that despite having such a sense of self, Foxcatcher is such a distancing slog to get through. It’s a film which is competently crafted and features a trio of performances which, with their differing areas of physicality, do raise an eyebrow from scene to scene. The first, awkward engagement between Tatum’s Mark Schultz and his brother Dave (Ruffalo) is such an interesting jumbled mess of sibling tension and force I had high hopes for where the rest of the film was heading. Unfortunately, two considerably long hours later, I found myself still no deeper than the scratches that may have been caused during this first grapple. The tragedy between these brothers is indeed upsetting, but Miller’s remarkably static film did little to stir.

The film is understandably meant to be a little cold, as the characters we follow the most are not only unlikely bedfellows, but difficult people to engage with due to their simmering tensions between class and family. The scene in which Steve Carrell’s John E du Pont first meets Dave and his family is one of the more potent moments. Miller’s simple blocking of the scene easily show the division between the blue collar yet connected family, and the isolated aristocrat trying to purchase his way into such a warm relationship. Such moments highlight the discomfort accordingly.

Despite this, I found myself so alienated by the films blunt, matter of fact approach, I struggled to identify fully with the proceedings. This is obviously not a film to “enjoy” in the typical sense, yet at no point did my own defences go down for what was happening on the screen. The films immensely dour approach and turgid pace overshadowed the films main attractions: The cast.

Channing Tatum’s Mark is brusque and stoic creature. His jutted out jaw, furrowed brow and physical stature, hides his character’s naïve ideals which slowly seep through as the film pushes on. The roles help show the actor’s ability to corrupt the dumb, man child nature that many have known him for when cast the amusing Jump Street films. Mark Ruffalo; ever the effective character actor, morphs his poise beautifully as he becomes the film’s heart. He makes being the film only emotional link look far too easy for his own good. The intensely creepy Du Pont has Carrell channeling his inner Bela Lugosi to good measure. However, observing the real Du Pont, makes the clipped mannerisms of Carrell feel a tad overblown. There’s also a feeling that delving into the grey matter of such a troubled being is a step too far. As such, Du Pont feels a lot like a cartoon boogeyman stuck in a high class crime reconstruction. The heavy makeup doesn’t help matters.

Between this and Moneyball, Bennett Miller is locating fascinating subject matter within modern sports to focus his energies on. Foxcatcher however, does little to make me delve into the backstories of this unfortunate event in the same way that Moneyball opened my eyes to the modern ideas that lay within America’s favourite pastime. If I saw myself viewing this film again, there’s a good chance I’d be tapping out early.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Review: Inherent Vice

Year: 2014 (U.K Release 2015)
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Screenplay: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio del Toro, Jena Malone, Joanna Newsom, and Martin Short.

Synopsis is here:

I don’t know where to start or what to say. Inherent Vice; Paul Thomas Anderson’s seventh feature film, is scuzzy, meandering and near meaningless. It’s a shaggy dog story, which is even less accessible than Anderson’s previous film; The Master (2012), which had many screaming in maddening frustration. I say this as if I had an issue with the film. I write those words as if I had hated my time I spent with Doc Sportello and the gang of misfits we’re introduced to.

I didn’t hate Inherent Vice. If anything I may have already found my first favourite film of the year. By the time Vice had its final credit run up the screen. I had myself having to convince myself that I didn’t have the time to watch the film again. I went to the nearest retail store and brought the soundtrack instead, to tide me over until I have the space in my schedule to for some more cinema time, or even worse, wait until the Blu-ray. I just wanted to spend more time in this world, with these characters immediately. I loved the film that much.

If anyone was going to create a rambling, blissed filled homage to the noirs of old, it had to be Anderson. Inherent Vice maybe an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s equally as wandering novel, but it’s also another chance for Anderson to let his shoulders droop, reference his favourite influences and get a little loose after two of his most austere features to date.

It may be a cop out to say this, but Inherent Vice is a film about mood and character rather than story. It's a film dictated by its time and location as opposed to anything else. A world of mumble mouthed hippies, jive talkers and dopers, whose time is spent stumbling around looking for what they've lost. Plot flitters into view and yet remains out of reach. Red herrings swerve manically into view, taking time to roll up some grass and talk about nothing. This is a vacuum left by the death of the swinging sixties. The revolution lost by the dreamers and won by the squares. It’s a tad silly to try and pinpoint the logic of these people and the shaggy dog tangents they cook up. Spend enough time with these guys and you release: “What makes sense to these guys?”

“We blew it” was the hotly contested line of 1969’s Easy Rider. Often considered as a remark that hints at the end of the counterculture lifestyle enjoyed by Billy and Wyatt. Vice often feels like we’re watching the walking dead of that culture, looking to soak up any remnants that may exist. Doc (yet another superlative Joaquin Phoenix performance) appears to be taking case after case to fuel his drug habit more than anything else. Yet the real drive of the story is the disappearance of his girlfriend Stasta, who originally sets him on his merry way of missing real estate developer, shady crime syndicates and new age cultism. Each “case” shows at least one aspect of how the hippie culture slowly began to eat itself. As does the recurring talk of Charles Mansion, whose crimes linger in the air like a sour stench. Once Stasta disappears, we nearly only ever see her again in hazy flashback and drifting transitions, almost as if she was a dream and that as an actual entirety, never really existed.

Younger, alleged film writers like myself can only really dream of this era, but the way Anderson and cinematographer Robert Elswit capture the sun kissed beaches, creepy upscale asylums and run down brothels is so remarkably textured and authentic that it makes a strong impression. Yet despite its lazy, slightly woozy surroundings, a strong element of farce and slapstick often pervades and punctuates scenes. Much Like Elliott Gould in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), Doc is a private eye whose street smarts give him high cultural currency, yet his cluelessness about just how the strings of his cases are being pulled, allowing a large amount of comedy at his expense. For a film which is often at times highly melancholic, in a genre that was always considered to be grim, it’s refreshing to see just how often Anderson (a big SNL fan) goes for hard laughs.  Gleefully aiming at the sheer preposterous of it all.

Despite the talk of the film’s murky and multiple plot lines, I found the main intentions of the film to be abundantly clear (in my eyes). Of course, while the actual message of the film lie within the eye of the beholder, I feel it’s safe to say Inherent Vice is a wistful film about loss. Every character is found wanting and chasing for something that either no longer open to them or disappearing in front of their eyes. Like all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest period of films, Inherent Vice has its director peering into both the deaths and beginnings of eras and revolutions and observing the fallout through their failed relationships. Vice is not only is the most nostalgic of Anderson’s recent endeavours, amusingly harking back to the heady days of Boogie Nights (1997). Looking at Vice with all its exasperated plot strands, paranoid theories and generally warming glances back at nostalgia, manages to help establish Anderson as one of the most entertaining chroniclers of modern American history currently working.

Review: A Most Violent Year

Year: 2014 (U.K Release 2015)
Director: J. C. Chandor
Screenplay: J. C. Chandor
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Albert Brooks
Synopsis is here:

It is extraordinarily cliché to say, yet you suddenly realise that while watching A Most Violent Year, the implications behind the words are what give the film its power, rather than the words themselves. It’s a film that has garnered a muted response, despite solid word of mouth.  A part of me feels that A Most Violent Year’s more restrained approach may be the reason. In spite of the film’s sharp and pointed moments of violence, it’s a film that hints at a world that has already suffered bloodshed. The film has no need to be overtly explicit because we feel it’s already been down that road. The disorder is being normalised.

The film, like Oscar Issac’s immigrant businessman; Abel, is on a constant simmer. We wait impatiently to see Abel be pushed into the murky depths of corrupted competitors, bias D.A’s (A solid David Oyelowo) and secretive wives, but we should know that he’s already keeping his head above water. Issac looks like he’s channeling Godfather era Pacino, but this man is struggling much harder to push back from darker forces that wish to consume him. Set against the bankrupt, crime ridden era of the early 1980’s which New York City was at one of its lowest ebbs, Issac plays a man who throttles his frustrations so they only ever so slightly peak over the surface. His drivers are scared, he implores them to be strong. His wife (a steely, Lady Macbeth-like Jessica Chastain) suggests fighting the violence in the city with a force of their own, and he tries hard to refrain.  J.C Chandor taut screenplay and direction paints Abel as a delicate blend of honesty and anti-villain. A clean looking screw, being wound tighter by tighter by the grimy tools around him. Yet Isaac’s poker faced portrayal veils Abel with an added layer of complexity.  We’re never sure if he’s been swayed or remaining strong.

As opposed to the romanticised view of gangster dealings in line with the likes of Coppola and co, this film shares a brittle tone with films like A History of Violence (2005) and We Own the Night (2007). Chandor’s film envelops each scene with a similar suffocating sense of foreboding. With A Most Violent Year however, the film often feels chillier. The warm, golden colour tones are not only juxtaposed with the soft white snow (a fortunate accident during production), but cinematographer Darius Khondji’s use of negative space. Characters often find themselves isolated within the frame, only smothered by the crooked environment.

This is why I loved A Most Violent Year. The film never builds to a typical, clichéd crescendo. There’s no orgy of violence despite the film’s title. Each scene burrows under the skin and festers in a way that’s hard to wipe off. Its climax is unsettling in its subtlety while the outcome chills the nerves with its tiny reminder of how far the films particular type of corruption reaches and who exactly gets hurt. That’s the thing about the film. It’s difficult, it’s adult and holds more shades of grey than Christian.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Review: Fifty Shades of Grey

Year: 2015
Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Screenplay: Kelly Marcel
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dorman

The Fifty Shades of Grey feature film arrives amidst massive hype, awkward promos and in house fighting between the film’s director and the book's writer. Such fighting appears to be common with adaptation, but as Director Michael Haneke states in an interview about his 2000 psychosexual drama The Piano Teacher (and I paraphrase):
“You must be glad if you translate a third of the content as you can’t convey the richness of a novel which is 300 pages long.”
From what I’ve read of Fifty Shades, it seems clear that there’s little penetration (snigger) or richness to be found, with E.L James’ lead character, Anastasia Steele feeling like an awkward mixture of Mills & Boon and Robin from the 60’s Batman series. As a book, 50 Shades gives hope to crummy writers in that, however naff your writing can be, there’s still a chance you can make a bucket load of money (there’s hope for me yet).

Originally based on a piece of Twilight fan fiction, Fifty Shades of Grey, was originally described as “Mommy Porn” and while Sam Taylor Johnson’s cinematic adaptation may only really help compound such descriptions with its vanilla sex and antiqued gender views, I found it difficult not to admire its stylish production and knowing wit at certain points. It is taking on a film with no real richness to speak of, yet it’s at times, a slyer film than those who have been quick to debunk it say (there’s a quantity of people who react venomously to it while knowing very little) and its clear that the film is seeking a crowd of people who are clearly asking for adult drama, a certain amount of titillation and of course escapism.

It’s a film that seems to clearly acknowledge its sparkly vampire roots, opening to an ever grey Seattle, which not only alludes to the looming shadow of one Mr Grey, but also reminds us of the Bella Swan’s Forks. Fifty Shades amusingly never really escapes the Twilight shadow, despite its adult leanings. It’s easy to see the similarities between the main couples in each of the first film entries. However, Johnson’s film feels far more playful with the material. The moment after Anastasia Steele leaves her first meeting with Christen Grey all hot and flustered, the heavens open outside and give her a cold shower. Dakota Johnson’s breathy performance has garnered a mixed response and yet it seems clear that both director and actress are aiming for more pithy representation of the awkward inner monologue that features in the book. Hell, the film features the ludicrous close ups of Anastasia nibbling on company pencils with the word Grey on them. So often the film understands what type of movie it really should be.

Frustratingly, the film’s source material hampers much of the playfulness. The character of Christian Grey is a manic pixie dream guy. Not only successful, talented and knowledgeable in nearly everything he touches (including her "sex"), but fantastically sculpted, and generically handsome. Anastasia’s sexual naivety is made to look even more dubious (in 2015) by the sheer fact that the two are so instantly compatible in bed. He is the type of guy that the fedora wearing meninists can't stand. Wish fulfillment? Yes, but the plot’s explanation of Christian’s main flaw (which is dreadfully cliché and inaccurate when looked at along with his sexual preference) never gives us true insight. While his manipulation of Anastasia through material goods and sex are displayed far too much like perks than flaws. Only the agency and fight back of Anastasia’s character claws back some balance, although much like Bella Swan, all it takes is the raw sexual magnetism of Mr Grey to cloud her judgement.  Both lead character’s goals in reality could easily be considered dangerous. The BDSM aspect doesn’t even need to come into it. Although the nativity and treatment of the material renders this element flaccid anyway. Such an uneven portrayal fails the drama substantially.

Fifty Shades the film helps destroy some of the naff writing that came with the book and yet it still suffers from dubious dialogue, naïve views to relationships and sexuality, as well as general awareness. This man is so rich and clearly has a certain amount of fame around him and yet he manages to slip in and out of clubs like a ninja with no one noticing him. After the first time Christian and Anastasia have sex, to see him playing the piano like such a tragic haunted phantom is more laughable than emotional. Jamie Dorman does his best to make Christian a restrained and controlling figure, but unlike his impressive abs, he has a character which lacks any real definition. Anastasia drives the narrative throughout and yet her need to change Grey is the kind of thing that's been making both men and women sick for years.

Yet the film is gorgeous to look at (shot by The Avengers' Seamus McGarvey), the performances often hold more chemistry than the net gossip and early reviews suggested. Although the sex itself is mechanical and stiff it at least suggests at female pleasure more over male. I do feel there’s a certain amount of female gaze at play over the more typical male.

The biggest problem with a film like this is there's not enough decent female led and female driven features, not enough decent western films dealing with sexuality and not enough mainstream movies interested in outright adult situations. There needs to be more films with similar material to make our basic appreciation of cinematic sex and romance stronger. To see a more effective look at the role of BDSM and sexual power play, you would have to go back at least 13 years to 2002's indie feature Secretary. Foreign features such as the aforementioned The Piano Teacher are still light years ahead in digging into the complexity of material such as this. David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1984) dealt well with the idea of such transgressive sexuality having a corrosive edge, but that's as old as myself. That said, I have to say I'm fascinated that the film looks set to be one of the biggest 18 rated films dealing with such material, coming from a female perspective. Along with Gone Girl (2014) it’s clear that a certain type of adult orientated fare is desperately being asked for and yet is only being nurtured through quite narrow channels.  

It's best to remember that there will be many who are seeking this film out who will be able to remove the right amount of reality in order to enjoy the fantasy. The more complicated talk about the male character's abuse and manipulation is important, but ineffectual to a certain crowd who will be able to paraphrase the infamous tagline from Last House on the Left (it’s only a movie) in order to enjoy the film. I feel this is important, as many people's abrupt disregard for others people’s enjoyment of something like this not only spurs the hype machine on, but also illustrates a massive gulf of why people sought out and found enjoyment of the text. As bad as the book’s writing is, and as uneven as the film shows itself, if we as an audience were more willing to embrace adult situations within our entertainment, and hold up more female driven fare, Fifty Shades would have more likely been a footnote rather than a landmark. 

Fifty Shades of Gray will in no way enter my list of favourites of the year. It's simply not that great a film. But no doubt the money made and the reactions garnered, in a climate which is consistently infantilizing its entertainment, shows to me that the film is possibly one of the most important entries of the cinematic calendar. Fifty Shades does enough to translate a third of the books content and while there's no richness of the source itself, there is a certain amount of the devil in the details.   

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Review: Ex Machina

Year: 2015
Director: Alex Garland
Screenplay: Alex Garland
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac

Synopsis is here

I’m currently reading Dataclysm, an irreverent view of data dating, social science and human behaviour by Christian Rudder, one of the founders of OK Cupid. The book is a sharp and witty insight into how social networks, search engines and the internet are quickly revealing more about ourselves and our urges than we would like to think. Unfortunately, I saw Ex-Machina while I started reading Dataclysm and I found myself more than slightly unnerved.

Ex-Machina holds two moments for me, which not only feel eerily plausible, but frighteningly close. One conversation is between Nathan (Issac) and Caleb (Gleeson) in which we discover how the female A.I. obtains her knowledge. The other is a grander reveal within the plot, which is almost brushed away like a small aside, yet had me wonder why certain, powerful companies have now poured vast amounts of cash into drones and robots. Ex-Machina doesn’t expand too far from an episode of Black Mirror, however the film’s three central leads, and Garland’s evocative screenplay engages with our anxieties with conversations and mind games in a way that feels fresh as well as frightening. 

Garland’s directional debut, reminiscent of Frankenstein, is a remarkable clash of contrasts. It’s deliberately paced yet we always get the feeling we’re hurtling towards something. Its cinematographer Rob Hardy shoots the film with impressive wide angles, and yet the films isolated locations and limited cast, give a grim sense of claustrophobia, much like The Shining (1980). The film lingers on the form and physique of the female Machina, Ava (Vikander) which it wants us to admire, yet the male characters Nathan and Caleb indulge in profound conversations which not only progress the screenplay organically but hint at the ugliness of human nature. This constant disharmony, which appears in so much great sci-fi, is what drew me into the film.   

The film’s leaning on the male gaze, as observed by some female writers, while feeling problematic to some, actually felt to me as an accurate portrayal of the shallowness of human and the ease of how their emotions can be manipulated. Also the lead female character, clearly inhabits the most agency. Garland’s film delivers us an A.I. that not only holds our knowledge but may also make better use of our mistakes and flaws. The most fascinating thing about the film however is how the combination of Vikander’s elegant performance and the great use of the film's premise, like Under the Skin (2014), has the audience question both gender politics and human connection in a deeply absorbing way. From a surface view, the treatment of female characters within the film can be seen as deplorable, and yet that is only if you consider the female characters to be “human”. If the film hits you in the right spot, you go with your gut. I do not mean this as a criticism of female writers who find some of the film's sequences problematic. However, I must stress at, not only the motivations behind the more sinister characters in the movie, but also how well the mechanisms work within the story. Even I felt perturbed by some of the aspects I witnessed in the film. I feel this is because I felt for Ava.

Dominic Gleeson and Oscar Issac create the kind of combative foil you would expect from a feature like this. Issac embraces his inner Victor Frankenstein with added boozing, gym visits and creepy dancing. It is a completely bombastic turn around from his performance in A Most Violent Year (2014). Gleeson brings his likable charm to the table. Caleb’s pining for Ava is believable and his paranoia towards his situation is palatable. Watching the three characters trade blows against each other strangely reminded me of Richard Linklater’s Tape (2001), but the resonance I felt between them was far more effective here than anything I found in films such as Her (2014) or A.I (2001).   

Ex-Machina does what good sci-fi should, which is, despite the more fantastical elements we may witness within the narrative, it never loses touch of the human element. My knowledge of the singularity may be a little light, but I found ideas the film poses to be well presented, while the way the story uses those ideas to toy with its characters and the audience to be thoroughly invigorating. Garland’s debut directional feature stride into those darker areas of our grey matter with the sort of confidence that I wish the likes of Transcendence (2014) could attain. Let’s hope Garland can continue making his science fiction so good that it continues creeps me out when I read my non-fiction.