Friday 29 November 2013

Article: Doing The Right Thing

I’m starting to hate open letters. I actually think there should be an open letter to everyone about open letters clearly stating that we don’t need any more open letters. Much like constant barrage of baby/engagement/wedding photos that litter my Facebook feed, it seems that now, an open letter must be posted on the internet to try and put a stop to a particular beef or irritation. I often have no problem with the intent of most of them. In fact; I’d probably back the topic that the writer is speaking out for. My issue is that the more you see these things, like an internet petition, they slowly become more trivial. Open letters have almost become memes. You can sense the groans as yet another ask for the school board/Tory MP/Miley Cyrus is retweeted through the internet’s many tubes to your eyeballs asking for the madness to stop.

This said I found myself alerted to an open letter that made its way on my twitter feed earlier this week. The letter is from Juan Luis Garcia, a freelance designer who writes (to influential Afro American filmmaker Spike Lee) that his initial poster work for the film remake Old Boy may have been stolen by an ad agency working on the project. Legal action has reared its head and it appears that Garcia has reached out to Spike as a fellow artist to see if he can intervene in any way. The letter talks about the money that the agency has allegedly not paid Garcia, but it seems quite clear that Garcia is asking Lee to use his influence as the director of the film to see if this can be settled in a civil and respectful way.

Lee (who  appears to be Brazil working on his latest project) had this to say:
It’s interesting to see that Spike has written the tweet in-between two celebratory communications for Thanksgiving. It’s almost as if he wished to call himself out on the irony. Then again Spike as a filmmaker and a personality, has never been one for tact.

Lee has never shied away from the controversial, yet his boldness both in-front and behind the camera has been important to so many film goers. It’s difficult to find black filmmakers or critics who have not been influenced by him. I remember gaining the only words of praise from a fellow student for a talk about him during my time at university and he became an inspiration since. Further insight in his work clearly shows just how many future stars benefited from working with him in the early days. Names like Wesley Snipes, Halle Berry, Samuel L Jackson and Laurence Fishburne may never have been known if not for Lee, who cast them in his early features. If Hollywood didn’t take a chance on you, then you got the feeling that Spike would. This includes the crew, who may not have been able to get a foot in the door in “white” Hollywood. 

For a director whose politics and confrontational style have often made him tough to embrace, one would have thought that Spike would have been less abrasive to something like this. The incident feels much like the problems that aroused with Lee when making Malcolm X. When the studios and bond company didn’t give him the money he asked for to complete the film, Spike had to inject his own cash and was able to get financial help from prominent members of the Afro-American community.

We should also consider Spike’s position before Old Boy, where work on the likes of Inside Man 2 were halted and Spike himself stated that he couldn’t get projects off the ground. Now with a film hitting theatres with talk of it being one of the least “Spike” movies in a long time and a Kickstarter project which brought many mixed feelings to proceedings, the fact that Spike’s own fierce independence has again been placed under the microscope makes the situation even more uncomfortable. This designer isn’t asking Spike himself for a handout, he’s chiefly asking for empathy.

I know young graphic designers and I’m currently in a position in which I work with one. It’s not pretty. In an age in which the audience will cheerfully download your film for nothing, studios are only chiefly interested in the next comic book cash cow and the idea of working for nothing/scraps in the media is becoming way too much of the norm, freelancers are doing what they can to stay afloat. Artistic and creative careers are still being seen as flights of fancy or “phases” despite the fact that our way of life has us engaging with them even more. If Garcia is merely a chancer, leaping on to a coat tails of a hotly debated film, then shame on him. However the question I would ask is why Old Boy? The film doesn’t look to be the runaway hit some are hoping it to be. It’s a violent and bloody remake of a superb yet cult Korean film. It’s hardly a film with deep pockets.

For me, the saddest thing comes from a brief exchange from a friend (and freelance writer) who reminded me of the one other thing that none of us really wanted to bring up: race.

If there’s one thing that ignorance thrives on, it’s moments like this; a chance to sink their teeth into a perceived flaw and show the world that we’re nowhere near evolving yet. The problem is Spike seems to be more than happy to throw a bone to his enemies. Spike once again viewed the moment as a confrontation as opposed to seeing this as a chance to help a fellow creative (or even consider this to be a great PR opportunity for Old Boy) Spike’s bluntness as done little to help anyone, even himself. Yet this is the same guy who sought an injunction for Spike T.V as it sounded too much like his moniker. This is the same Spike Lee who wrongly tweeted the address of an elderly couple, thinking it was the home of George “Trigger Happy” Zimmerman. It’s almost like he enjoys casting the first stone within his just patched up glass house. It seems clear to me that Spike can easily let these things roll of his back, yet it becomes a minefield for those who love his work. Spike is still the best known American black director and at a time were black characters in film are getting shat on by ignorance, it would be nice to have Spike tone down his “sharper” elements and remind us of the statesman he often can be. After the Django debacle (another Spike moment), the one thing I would love to see is sodality, because we damn well need it.  

This of course is in an ideal world; where freelancers don’t get screwed for their work, and if they do, the at least they can reach out to a director who will hear them out first as opposed to a 140 character cold shoulder. We can only dream. Unfortunately in reality I find myself yelling at yet another open letter and liking Spike Lee to how Chris Rock feels about Hip Hop. I love him but I’m tired of defending him.

Saturday 23 November 2013

Review: Mud

Year: 2012 (U.K Release Date 2013)
Director:  Jeff Nichols
Screenplay:  Jeff Nichols
Starring:  Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Sam Shepard, Reese Witherspoon.

Synopsis is here:

The man whose been known for learning on cheesy film posters continues his reinvention with yet another sun-kissed, deep fired southern performance. Matthew McConaughey used to be a named that would strike certain film fans with fear.  Whether McConaughey sacked his agent or just started rejecting the easier script, now, we have a leading man who isn’t afraid to take risks and skew with that honey smooth charm that he is known for.

McConaughey plays Mud; a mysterious drifter who befriends two young boys and drags them into the fractured world of adult relationships. Ellis (A sweet yet commanding display by Sheridan); the more dominant of the two boys, has had his life flitter around such troubled matters through his parents, but his wish to help the enigmatic Mud hurtles his transition to adulthood into overdrive.

Much like A Room for Romeo Brass (1999), we have two boys who encounter a man who appears to be locked in arrested development. As Mud resists confronting himself and his past which has finally caught up with him, the boys have their own ideals challenged because of it. Like Romeo Brass what makes the dynamic so engaging is how Nichols, like Meadows, develops this story and characters such a rich atmosphere. The cold overcast hues of Nichols’ Take Shelter have been replaced by golden hues. Mud’s tanned skin seems to match the background, becoming part of the backwater Arkansas’ setting. When Mud first appears, it’s if by magic, suddenly drifting into view, as if he’s always been there as part of the thrown out furniture. The more the boys learn, the more that Mud becomes a cautionary tale. Such broken hearted stories feel part and parcel of people’s lives in these parts.

Both Ellis and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are industrious and pure of heart protagonists who, like Moonrise Kingdom, are thrown into the messy and childish lives of adults. Mud shows them a well worn path and the two’s reactions against the tide are what makes the film worthwhile.  The plot is not as balanced as Take Shelter, and the sub-plots are a little undercooked. But Nichols draws wonderfully natural performances from his cast and enriches the drama with gorgeous cinematography to create a sensitive and good natured piece of American cinema that people still honestly believe doesn’t exist. More fool them. 

Wednesday 13 November 2013

Review: Blue Caprice

Year: 2013
Director: Alexandre Moors
Screenplay: R.F.I. Porto
Starring: Isaiah Washington, Tequan Richmond, Joey Lauren Adams, Tim Blake Nelson, Leo Fitzpatrick

Synopsis is here

It’s an obvious theme to draw on but identity rears its head so much in Black African-American lead movies. So many “black” films deal culturally who they are as people, who they wish to be and of course how White America often perceives them. What interests me about Blue Caprice is the true story of the DC snipers that inspired the movie. When the story first broke, the suspects of the crimes we considered to be white gunman, who were army trained. This alone touches on the depth our cultural perceptions. The idea that the gunmen could be black seemed almost alien to people.

For me such institutionalised thought makes crimes like the one dramatised in Blue Caprice all the more frightening. To think that only some people will commit certain transgression will only allow the evil to flow quicker and easier.  Alexandre Moors’ film toys with the audience with this information. Hearing of America “striking back” during the Iraq spew forth from old T.V sets. The murderous plan that slowly uncovers during the film is full of jihad-like talk and yet it feels more like convenience than a true “calling”. Even more concreted elements of the plan fall to the wayside once we begin to follow the titled Blue Caprice which prowls the Washington highways like a rusted monster. The car takes on a persona of its own with its ordinariness becoming the most remarkable and threatening thing about it.  When we watch, we consider Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976). In the same way we wouldn’t suspect the taxi to hide such malevolence, we wouldn’t think twice about the Caprice.

Blue Caprice may not be as potent as Taxi Driver, but the comparisons are still strong. Caprice shows us lonely, confused men, hurt by the women in their life.  We see a mother who selfishly care only for herself and another (unseen) ex-wife and mother who does what she can to keep her children away from their father. We have an unfortunate boy with no parental figure and a father who only seems to create misfortune, by the way of kidnappings and restraining orders.  These men with no outlets for their repression meet through an unexpected circumstance and begin a relationship forged on their hurt. They blow off stream with shooting practice and wrestling in the woods.

 At first we pity the films youth; Lee (Richmond), as he like so many young black men is left with little guidance from his own parentage. As John (Washington) enters his life, he also enters his mind. Clouding it like the overcast weather that inhabits Washington DC. John’s behaviour reeks of deception, he mutters about his old neighbourhood as ghosts who ousted him once his relationship ended yet flitters around Lee (and the frame) like a malevolent apparition. Speaking to his protégé with an eerily calm yet forceful tone. At first their conversations never sound dangerous. Like the Caprice there’s an anonymity about them that shades the villainy.

Blue Caprice constantly hides in the grey and the shade, chilling the bones with its quietly tense nature. It’s the flecks of blood that creep you out more than the full act. The killings are non-descript and never gratuitous, their victims just seem to disappear or drop down dead. The fear hangs in the air like a foul smell. Any sadness we felt about the plight of the two swiftly melts into horror and frustration. It sympathy was felt, it will definitely be lost by the final frame.

But that’s if we had any to begin with. Moors’ film may feel a little too “sundance-like” with his shallow depth of field shots and remind one of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant with much of its blocking of Lee. But from its opening it craftily foreshadows the characters demise with its Hitchcock like framing of characters behind gates and bars. The film's use of light and shadow often obscures the faces of the lead, particularly in the beginning. The film keeps us at distance. Already making sure these people remain “unknown” to us. The last line is a question posed to a person of authority and us ourselves. It burrows to a depth we need from such a drama.  Despite having some of the screenplay’s weakest dialogue, it is far more open ended than you think on first glance, but plays into so much of what I’ve mentioned. When the question is asked, we wonder too. Because we realise what identities broken or missing can cultivate.

Monday 11 November 2013

Review: Gravity

Year: 2013
Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Screenplay: Alfonso Cuaron, Jonas Cuaron
Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris

Synopsis is here:

What I write here is information you can take or leave. My reviews are not so much about “telling people what to watch”: a belief which that many people feel about the idea of reviewing and criticism.  No, I write to merely state a personal view on whether or not a film works on me based on my own values, prejudices and otherwise. If one shares similar attitudes, enjoys and agrees with me, that’s the humble reward for my so called work.

I mention this because I know not everyone will feel like I did about Gravity, but that's fine. I’m so often on an island when it comes to my film taste I’ve set up my own coconut selling store.  But I’m still naive to think that honesty is key and I wholeheartedly believe that Gravity is one of the most moving and life-affirming films I have ever witnessed.  Beyond the films slight narrative and unsurprising plot elements is a film that is simply breathtaking in its execution.

Gravity not only squeezes tension out of each minute of its runtime, giving full weight to the hostile environment these characters inhabit and displaying their fragility, but the film, like others of Cuaron’s, grounds the film with a heart that pulsates it’s humanity on the screen. Cuaron notes his intentions with small visual cues (note the religious artefacts set up almost like a gag), but the ground work is done here by Sandra Bullock.  An actress whom I’ve never really given my full attention (although I love her work in Demolition Man), blind sides us with her powerfully expressive display. She has been formidable in her more expected roles, but here she has such forcefulness in her physical performance we realise that despite the thinness of character on the page, we understand her fears ad emotions by even just the slightness of gesture. Clooney’s work is mostly one of a voice of reason. Bullock not only does all the heavily lifting but does so with such astounding ease, it’s made me realise just how much I’ve been missing from her previous works.

With so many films asking inviting us to watch heroes save the world, what makes Gravity stand out is its wish to show somebody save themselves. The film roams in the same realms of the likes of Buried and Cast Away, but Gravity’s setting, performance and direction invigorates the dynamic. We see Earth, our planet; hovering in the distance in such a way that you feel you could reach out to it. Yet it’s clearly so far away that it seems to taunt our characters, mocking our frailty. When we see what may happen to Bullock’s Ryan, we get the very real feeling of the risks she must take and the enormous effort she will need in order to survive. I watched the film in 3D and marvelled at how the filmmakers use it to illustrate the depth and dimension of the infinite. This is the first time that I did not muck around with the glasses. I found myself too enthralled with the film and what I felt it was saying. Matt Zoller Seitz states the film evoked the imagery of The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), I was reminded of the imagery of Bergman with close up’s that staring into the void. Searching for meaning within a seemingly hopless existance I found myself so into the headspace of Ryan, I asked the same questions that she asks herself. Unlike many other films of its type I’m not looking at the mechanics, scientific inaccuracies aside, this feels organic. When films get like this, we been to fret for the character in a unique way. We don’t called the actors name, we call out for the character themselves. I muttered to myself at least three times.

This was the effect Gravity had on me. My popcorn sat uneaten and my fizzy pop was left, going flat.  I created new creases on the inside of my jeans at each new set piece.  There are moments of humour in Gravity but often I didn't laugh. I was trying to regulate my breathing. Terror has never been so alluring, so beautiful and yet by the end I found myself moved by the experience. Its technical prowess is there for all to see (many have asked how did they achieve what they did) but beyond that is a simply tale of morality that shook me to the core. This year has been a tough one for me and took these 90 minutes to reinstall a faith in me that has been missing for quite a while. We all find ourselves staring into the blackness, Gravity confronted our (read: my) fears in a way only a few other films have. As I said before, not everyone is going to feel the same way about Gravity and that’s fine. I fully get if you came here for a normal film review and came across ponderous nonsense. You can take or leave the information. I will say that after the film finished I walked home I did so in silence. I refrained from jamming my headphones in my ears. The heavens opened and I listened to the patter of the rain on the ground as I walked. During the 30 minute journey I didn't mind getting wet. I was just happy to be alive.

Wednesday 6 November 2013

Review: Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters

Year: 2013
Director: Tommy Wirkola
Screenplay: Tommy Wirkola
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton, Peter Stromare, Famke Janssen

Synopsis is here:

Hansel and Gretel clearly wishes to be a cult comedy. The names Adam McKay and Will Farrell flitter up on the screen during the film’s opening credits, which play on an idea of fairy tale land newspapers. There’s a riff of Shrek in the air as you watch. This doesn't leave easily. Later on when Hansel narrowly avoids an oncoming arrow, we get a moment of bullet time. Shrek played with Matrix effects in what seems to be quite an age. Hansel and Gretel makes it feel like 2001 all over again.

That comes off a little harsh, considering the vast amount of films which have borrowed from the popular effect that The Matrix series help make popular. That said Hansel and Gretel wants to join in with some of the popularity made with po-faced fairy tale revamps such as Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), while trying to make sure that everyone’s forgotten that Terry Gilliam toyed with Grimm tales with mixed results in the tortured Miramax project The Brothers Grimm (2005).

Hansel and Gretel lacks the spiritedness that a director like Gilliam embraces wholeheartedly. His film may not work fully to certain viewers but many can take solace in the offbeat humour he tries to install within his piece as while of the ambition of a few of the ideas.  Tommy Wirkola’s H&G:WH is more about sexing everything up, as is the way with this cycle of fairy tales. See the aforementioned Snow White and the Huntsman.

The off pace Hansel and Gretel has no Monty Python gene and it shows, establishing itself with violence and swearing to try and endear itself to the dream audience of teenagers but perhaps lacking in the askew view that would give it a true cult feel. Yes this faux old timey period has makeshift tasers and defibrillators but these aren't felt has fun gags, more mediocre asides. Meanwhile the conceit of Hansel having diabetes feels more like a forced plot device than anything substantial. Then again that’s no more uncomfortable than Renner’s performance, with his Hansel feeling less like a womaniser, and more like a tepid, reconditioned version of his Hawkeye. Arteron also struggles with her Gretel despite having a lovely corset but little brassiness in her actual character. Although the screenplay is wise enough to make sure that she not just a sex pot with a crossbow that falls in love, but does little to truly highlight the attentiveness that makes her more emotionally in tune to her surroundings. No matter what Hansel mentions, I just didn't get the feeling.

But Hansel and Gretel isn’t about feelings, it’s about heads a popping. And the claret spills in a frustratingly messy style, doing little to show of the impressive monster design of the villains. The film holds a lot of practical effects, but still feels more like a retread of the early 2000’s. Watching this after a kinetic and pulpy found footage feature like Frankenstein’s Army (2013) is a shame, as this film pales in comparison. Then again the same goes for the films modern trappings that lack a decent subversive quality. The f-bombs and lame quips that litter the film can’t hold up to even the weakest parts of Hanna (2011) with revels in mucking around in the same ballpark with better effect.  But Hansel and Gretel is never completely sure of itself, as a fairy tale throwback, or a twisted genre jolly.  Peter Stromare stars in both this and The Brothers Grimm. He seems to be having more fun in 2005. 

Monday 4 November 2013

Review: G.I. Joe: Retaliation

Year: 2013
Director: Jon M Chu
Screenplay: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Channing Tatum, Adrianne Palicki, Byung-hun Lee

Synopsis is here

What do you get if you mix the Director of a couple of Step Up movies with the writers of Zombieland? You get a tonally awkward and erratically plotted sequel to a silly but entertaining franchise. It’s clear that G.I. Joe Retaliation’s issues are not the complete fault of its writers and director. The film has obviously been tinkered with. The studio had held the film back for re-shoots (involving more Channing Tatum) and there is a longer cut available. That said without Stephen Sommers; Retaliation becomes an extremely po faced exercise which lacks the knowing silliness that Rise of the Cobra featured.    

Retaliation hops from place to place with of real sense of time, while introducing us to a glut of brand new, bland characters not worth writing in depth about. Not that a G.I Joe film is looking for poignancy, however it’s troubling that an actor like Dwayne Johnson has less moments of interest than Marlon Wayans. The reshot scenes that involve Johnson and Tatum are of no real importance. Then again nor is the major city that is destroyed in an instant. Even when Paris went the way of Team America in Rise of Cobra, there was at least a reference to what had took place. Then again it’s hard to argue with a film that feels that a woman dressing down to a bra and panties produces more harm to young minds than the amount of cannon fodder which bit the dust during each limp action sequence.     

It’s bizarre to think why the studio has such disregard for its franchise and it’s fans. Why chuck away half the characters and actors we got to know for little reason? Do people really deserve such forgetful action sequences? Why was the original tone for Rise of Cobra replaced with something more gung ho and hawkish? These questions will never be truly answered and only the most militant of fans will happily paper over the cracks with their own resolutions. I'm glad for them. Others on the other hand may find themselves more than a little confused.