Monday 22 October 2012

Review: ill Manors

Year: 2012
Director: Ben Drew
Screenplay: Ben Drew
Starring: Riz Ahmed, Ed Skrein and Natalie Press

Ben Drew A.K.A Plan B is a fascinating U.K creative talent. I first heard of him on a Hip Hop Connection (Defunct in print, now online magazine) mix CD with a storytelling rap song "mama was a crackhead". A decent hip hop track, a few years later, I picked up his first and second album. The latter had as young Drew changed from more underground hip hop to a more popular modern RnB Soul sound.

The album was a hit, but also came with its own problems. Drew's new mainstream sound comes at odds with the imagery observed in his lyrics and his own persona. It's no surprise that when ill Manors appeared on radars, I read  the sniping and sneering at the very notion that a Plan B film would be any good. At no point does it help the fact that ill manors comes at a time when Brits have been fed urban youth dramas ad nauseum. The cycle starting with the likes of Kidulthood.

Annoyingly, I get the feeling that due to Drew not being taken seriously as an film maker, many will easily dismiss a deeply ambitious début feature. The film is in no way perfect, however many scenes provide provocation, that lesser movies of its ilk could only wish for. Compare this to the deeply annoying Harry Brown (which also starred Drew) and this, to this blogger, is the stronger film.

For me, one of the reasons why this worked is that ill manors is not aiming for pure shock or middle class manipulation although the film often tries hard to provoke. The acts shown are despicable ill Manors clearly wishes to illustrate the same type of alienation that lies in the likes of La Haine (1995) or Taxi Driver (1976). The latter is referenced at least three times within the film.

Ill Manors shows its isolated characters in the same way as Kidulthood (2006). Any strong adult role models are replaced by near absent social workers, drug dealers and hotheaded gangsters. It's younger generation; are living and dying in a perpetual circle of violence and nihilism, suffering from the pain lived from their elders past. Fractured; much like Short Cuts (1993) or Pulp Fiction (1994), its narrative and character motivations are scattershot and unclear. Often a death knell for many movies, this only seems to stir the boiling pot for the movie. With morals and actions swivel on a sixpence.

Drew then bolsters the film visually with an array of different techniques. Home video appears to represent flashback, low-res mobile phone video to illustrate the immediacy of "happy slapping". Timelapsing rears it's head at night as transitions to pass long periods of time ultra fast. Drew pulls many rabbits out of hats. Often; such aspects are a sign of a young first timer doing too much too soon. However, the film is deceptively more assured than one would expect. Wearing it's influences and homages on its sleeve. In addition to this, the film is also part musical with the movies soundtrack narrating events and backstory as and when needed.

There's a lot to take in, and not all of it works. Its fragmented style lends us characters who are not as interesting as you may like, portrayed by little known actors who don't all nail their scenes. Such is the hopelessness of the world, that at over 2 hours of all this gets a little tiresome as the plot becomes more convoluted, searching for reasons for characters to intermingle. Drew does well to pull all of these strings but by the time some of the later characters enter the scene, it becomes to grim for it's own good. It doesn't help that Drew's work as a Rap artist becomes more prevalent within the feature itself. Often the music playing over a sequence paints a picture which is sometimes more vivid than what we are seeing.

This doesn't distract from the fact that ill Manor's is one of the most ambitious entries of films of it's ilk. With Drew showing hints that he is far more interested in the fact that the films despicable acts happen in the first place. The visual of firearms being thrown into the Thames in clear sight of the O2 arena is a challenging one. Released a month before the 2012 Olympic games and a year after the riots that shocked much of Britain. It reminds us just how ugly things can be under the surface.

Review: Dark Shadows

Year: 2012
Director: Tim Burton
Screenplay: Seth Grahame-Smith
Starring: Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Eva Green, Helena Bonham Carter, Chole Moretz, Jackie Hearle Haley

Synopsis is here

I never warmed too much to Tim Burton's work before 2001. However, after his "re-imagining" of 2001's Planet of the Apes, my already below average stock of the director plummeted. My thoughts on the likes of Edward Scissorhands (1993) or Sleepy Hollow (1999) may go against the grain of popular conscious, however, while I've never been moved by any of his movies, I could always respect the flashes of creativity that were placed within them.

However, since the turn of the millennium, I've found little of his input  in any way satisfying. The much discussed (and hated) ending of Apes is the most lively aspect of that blockbuster. The drudging rehashes of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland suffer from dubious characterisations and awkward turns from one Johnny Depp. The latter also happens to be one of the ugliest Burton movies of his canon. Something that most of his films can usually rely on.

Reliability also seems to be missing from his satirical soap opera Dark Shadows. The go to fundamentals that Burton usually reaches for, once again appear to be failing as we get yet another cursorily unfunny, uninviting Johnny Depp performance, up against a Gothic backdrop that seemingly looks mostly CGI. It doesn't suffer from the nasty, casino floored, colour palette that littered Alice in Wonderland but still has a detached feel that sorely distracts from the film. As a film that pokes fun at a creaky, gothic soap opera, is it just myself that feels cheated that Burton doesn't go the way of the original crossroads?

The tone of the movie is never found with the screenplay only going far enough with the filmsy soap opera structure. Dark Shadows goes all over the place, never establishing itself properly as a fish out of water comedy, a light take on the melodramatic nature of soaps or a gothic parody. It straddles over all these aspects and hurts it's privates by stretching too hard. The decent, more risqué jokes are too hard to come by. We don't spend the right amount of time with characters or their before we're subjected to silly revelation after revelation. It lacks the subversive nature of Twin Peaks and none of the scenes reach a decent peak. A shame, as the OTT Epilogue looked to be a solid starting point.

It's not as if the elements aren't all in place. The jaded, drunk doctor, the reluctant patriarch, the angsty pre-pubescent with a hormone imbalance. Everything is ripe for the plucking. Yet Burton never takes the bait. The film's comedy never reaches above sitcom level, only Eva Green and  Michelle Pfeiffer chew at the rich scenery and it's difficult not to think of other features that use the sum of its parts better. Even the likes of Death becomes Her drinks deeper from the forthy camp cup.

Dark Shadows feels very lazy in a post-twilight world. With the likes of True Blood, The Vampire Diaries and like all chomping at the supernatural soap bit. Dark Shadows does little to impress from either a melodramatic, Gothic or kitsch viewpoint. Burton does well to remind us that he created the likes Beetlejuice (Moretz = Ryder). However Dark Shadows is too clumsy in it's execution to provide any lingering effects. Much like Barnabas himself, the film is dead on arrival.

Review: American Reunion

Year: 2012
Director: Hayden Schlossberg, Jon Hurwitz
Screenplay: Hayden Schlossberg, Jon Hurwitz
Starring: Jason Biggs, Alyson Hannigan, Sean William Scott, Chris Klein, Thomas Ian Nicholas, Eddy Kay Thomas, Tara Reid, Mena Suvari

Synopsis is here

So after years of dubious direct to video sequels and poor casting choices, the original cast of American Pie are back. And depending on how you feel about the franchise, you could be gleefully lost in late nineties nostalgia, or have a deep feeling of despondence at the whole affair. To me a fan of the original film, I found this return all a little obvious.  Much of this stems from the American Pie franchise having never really escaping from the jaws of its DTV bretherin. While we are thankfully spared the zany, now-out-of-canon antics of Stifler's brother/cousins, the same flat, well trodden tone of sequels past remains.

Reuinon also has to contend with the fact that the series is no longer the grossest kid on the block. Things have changed since the Apatow clan cropped up, the class of 1999 no longer shock like it they used to. Not a terrible thing as one of the stronger elements that's often forgotten about American Pie is it's warm take of male comradeship. Much of this remains as Reunion focuses on misguided bravado, former past glories and the inevitably growing old. The chemistry between the cast is still solid enough to warrant laughs even though the set pieces never reach the heights of before. Some plaudits should also go Sean William Scott who carries one of the larger arcs extremely well.

However, having such a large ensemble cast means having to keep a certain amount of balance. Where Pie stood firm, Reunion falters. Many characters are smacked to the sidelines, why? Because there wasn't that much of a need for them afterwards. Everyone is shoehorned in awkwardly with actors who were mere bit parts, get expanded to to how their status grew since (Stand up John Cho) Such is the trouble with franchises, it becomes tough to trim the fat when you know some enjoy the chewy bits.

Reunion works intermittently, with more laughs than expected for a forth entry of a 13 year old franchise. However by the end, when everyone sprouts pronounced feelings based on quite small misunderstandings, it all feels like the late franchise entry it really is. Warmer than tepid, but you miss nothing if avoided.

Review: 2 Days in New York

Year: 2012
Director: Julie Deply
Screenplay: Julie Deply, Alexia Landeau
Starring: Julie Deply, Chris Rock, Albert Deply, Alexia Landeau, Alexandre Nahon, Dylan Baker

Synopsis is here

I wasn't surprised that my girlfriend could not get into Julie Deply's ditzy comedy. After half an hour, she gave up. It's a rom-com truly not for her tastes. A fan of the likes of Serendipity, I was not at all shocked that Deply's messy view on life, love and relationships got her. And not in a good way. Not a negative on my other half at all, but the romantic movies that she enjoys always lean towards the comfortable. Everything slotting into place, like a Disney feature. Deply, star of films such as Before Sunrise/Sunset has a far more disordered approach. All the better, says I. With so many comfortable romantic comedies languishing in the realm of diminishing returns, 2 Days in New York's disorganized yet light hearted resonance is a well needed shot in the arm.

Filmed in a very free wheeling, intimate style with its point of view is squarely set with it's bewildered lead, 2 Day's in New York has a zaniness that I did not expect. However, outlandish moments in the film that would sink other romantic comedies are invigorating here, purely because Delpy's Marion is a more in touch human being than the Heigl-types that have invested the romantic domain. Her oddball point of view is displayed in its purposely erratic editing, we connect to Marion as she tries to connect with everything else. Even when she fakes a brain tumour to try and stabilise an antagonistic encounter. We are with her because we can relate. Relationships of all kinds can be tricky.

The theme of relationships are cemented with the film main motif of art mirroring life. Marion; an artist, is selling her soul as part of an installation. Along side this, are photographs of Marion in past romantic relationships that have not worked in the past. From the start we see how her frustrations stem from making such thing try and work. What have her relationships done to her soul? Even if she doesn't believe in it enough, why is she selling it? Futhermore, who would want it?

The torment continues as Marion's father (Albert Deply) and sister (with boyfriend in tow) appear out of the blue and descend a truckload of dysfunction with them. Her sister, Rose (Landeau), brings with her a sibling rivalry that hasn't evolved since adolescence. Walking around scantly clad to warm the blood of the men around her and boil her sisters. Her father, is a kind but misplaced man, who doesn't fit well with the hectic city life he finds himself in. The less said about Rose's boyfriend (Nahon), the better.

The family's arrival, clash with relationship between Marion and her live in boyfriend, Mingus (Rock). The harmony is destroyed by a barrage of miscommunication through the language barrier, culture and New York's blurred lines of racial identity. Rose's boyfriend, Manu, with his Public Enemy t-shirts and chatter about Salt n Pepa, is bemused at Marion's ability to find the only "brother that doesn't smoke". Manu's observations are often key despite being politically incorrect. Reminding the audience of the typical established roles and traits that Afro Americans are often viewed by.

The film balances smart and insightful relationship issues, with a good humoured comedy of manners. Deply's desperate housewife tries to balance her sexuality, motherhood and bohemian lifestyle along side her quirky family, but it never talks down, or condescends, and much of its humour comes from a believable and grounded place. Such discipline continues with the casting of Chris Rock. Playing against type, Rock is a refreshing as an actual loving partner who doesn't fit into the mainstream, overtly masculine archetypes often portrayed by granite chinned mouth breathers.

The overall tone of the film; for lack of a better word, is playful. And while the final third descends into silliness with a infamous director cropping up and racking up hipster points, even then, it doesn't fully leave the general feel of the film. 2 Days in New York manages to be just as light as so many of its ilk and yet still happens to look at healthy interracial relationships with a keen eye, as well as the often troublesome role of family and how it ebbs and flows. One hopes that their girlfriend gives it another chance.