Tuesday 31 December 2013

Review: Frances Ha

Year: 2013
Director:  Noah Baumbach
Screenplay: Noah Baumbach, Gerta Gerwig
Starring: Gerta Gerwig

Synopsis is here:

As a so called film fan; I don’t think I should say this, but Frances Ha is my first Noah Baumbach movie. I’ve wanted to dig into his filmography in the past but I simply haven’t found time to investigate yet another director who’s assesses the prickly lives of privileged middle class America. You must believe me on this, as for some reason or another, I find myself very attracted to this sub genre.

I found myself thinking about how crafty Frances Ha actually is in its execution. Like the works of Whit Stillman, Sophia Coppola, Lena Dunham and of course the mumblecore movement, Frances Ha is a film that delves into the habits of people that we honestly believe have little to worry about. An awkward and self involved twenty-something struggling to sustain a bohemian lifestyle within New York City. Frances comes from a decent family, is college educated and living in what is considered one of the greatest cities. Living in a state of arrested development with her best friend Sophie, Frances is quite happy with this idle way of life until of course, Sophie finds love.

Unlike Whit Stillman’s annoyingly condescending Damsels in Distress (also starring Gerwig), Frances draws us in because she thinks she knows it all. She pretends to those who listen and when she’s found out (quickly) she still holds enough charm to want you to just give her a hug. She balances precariously between irritatingly annoying and that best friend who never grew up but was always fun to be around. To some she may grate for the 90 minutes, but I loved Frances happy go lucky charm. It’s hard not to feel jealous of her care free spirit, although you want to shake her for not “growing up”.

This said, why should she grow up? Baumbach’s film wryly highlights the economic strain that is now beginning to press the moderately middle class as much as the poor. Frances may be scatty, but what we realise from her interactions with the people around her, even working hard in her creative outlet wouldn’t help things. Frances Ha is more of a character study than a political indictment, but knowing that Frances is coming of age defiantly in front of the sour faces of people that have very little to worry about, has a certain charm about it.

A playful homage to the French New Wave, Woody Allen’s Manhattan and the current America lo fi independents, Frances Ha’s look and feel (along with its casting) make sure it’s not as slick as Joe Swanberg’s sweet but knowing Drinking Buddies but holds a warmth and earnestly about its characters that many female lead movies sorely lack. Romance is hinted at but isn’t the be all and end all of Frances life. She’s just as gawky as the boys and while men come in and out of the frame of the story, they do not define the tale.

From a narrative standpoint, I fear those who need a more solid structure may be driven mad by Baumbach’s wandering plot. However France Ha is rich in other ways, such Sam Levy’s gorgeous black and white cinematography, which feels like the only way you could present a life like Miss Halladay. Meanwhile Gerwig performance improves upon her Hannah takes the stairs persona, giving us a much more rounded character from those we’ve seen from her before.

Frances not easy to like but has a persistence in her character that bites at the ankles like a terrier. This is a film fuelled on its distinctive sense of humour, its deceptively optimistic tone and a lead performance which has energy in spades. Frances Ha may be monochrome in conception, but like the lead character, it’s full of colour.

Sunday 29 December 2013

Review: A Hijacking

Year: 2013
Director: Tobias Lindholm
Screenplay: Tobias Lindholm
Starring: Søren Malling, Pilou Asbaek, Abdihakin Asgar

Synopsis is here

I must admit it’s a little unexpected to write about two Somalian hijacking films in the same year. It’s not really the type of subject you expect people to pull focus on. But it seems that 2013 quietly became the year of the pirates.*

Hollywood typically nabbed some top class British talent, a massive movie star and gave us the everyman over adversity narrative that the studios do so well. While Captain Phillips is the kind of physical, slap in the face affair you’d expect from its makers, A Hijacking is a more distilled creature that creeps up on a willing viewer. Like Chinese water torture, it’s a slow and quiet decent into various dimensions of torment. The film shows just how destabilising a long running hostage crisis could be. At first I questioned the need for title cards counting the days. Once we start to reach treble figures, it becomes near impossible to comprehend the pressure.

We see the complex strains of the shipping company’s relationships from the get go. The first scene captures the ships cook, Mikkel (Malling) already feeling the burden of being so far from his wife and child. He has to inform her that he’ll be away for a while longer. Meanwhile; miles away on land, the companies CEO; Peter (Asbaek), is on shaky ground conducting tough business affairs with an Asian office. It’s clear he can play hard ball, but possibly not as strongly as he hopes. Once hijacking occurs (off screen), the reason why become evident. It’s important to note that these opening moments are more economic and effective in their execution than the more perfunctory opening act of Captain Phillips. More already feels at stake.  

The strength of A Hijacking stems from how it deals with the politics of the situation. We observe tired men putting their bargaining expertises to the maximum. The crew struggle to keep on an even keel, while the kidnaper’s turn the screw with psychological war ware.   The translator and lead negotiator; Omar (Asgar), is an insidious beast, who claims he’s just as under the cosh as the shipmates, yet as the only portal their home life, his restrictions on the most basic of necessities become intolerable. There’s hardly any psychical violence and there doesn’t need to be, as the emotion of fear runs rife through the victims involved.

Back home; the clinical offices become secondary homesteads and pressure soon rises to boiling point. These sequences become vital as Peter tackles not only the worried families of those at sea, but the stern uncaring faces of those higher than him. As the situation drags on, both parties ask when things will be resolved, for two entirely different reasons. The film’s mean strength becomes a slight weakness as we’re forced to believe that Peter as a CEO is as caring about his crew as he is. Considering our real life political issues right now, one could feel that Peter’s unwavering stance could feel false. So much so it loses some of its complexity.

Never the less, A Hijacking wins us over with a succession of scenes that plough us through the wringer. The performances never miss a beat and the unpretentious direction only enhances the urgency and reality of the piece.  The film never loses its sombre tone and while quieter than Captain Phillips, A Hijacking holds scenes that penetrate the nerves like a slow acting poison. By the end of the film, we need little reminding that the scars still remain. When looking back at the films strongest scenes, it’s then we noticed just how distressing the filmmakers made singing happy birthday.  But that’s what makes A Hijakcing so effective. Without the Hollywood muscle and the Navy brawn, we get something a lot colder. The title sinisterly tells us that this isn’t just a physical undertaking, but an emotional one.

*Pirates that do not impersonate rock stars

Review: Oldboy

Year: 2013
Director: Spike Lee
Screenplay:  Mark Protosevich
Starring: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley, Samuel L Jackson

Synopsis is here:

If you type Oldboy into your favourite search engine, you should notice that the 2003 Korean thriller appears first, above this year’s remake. I say this now as it reminds me of one thing: Spike Lee hasn’t ruined Oldboy.  Has Matt Reeves ruined Let the Right One in? Has Gus Van Sant besmirched your memories of Psycho? No. They haven’t. If you think they have, then turn in your film fan card and give your original version DVD’s to someone else.

That said, while imitation is the highest form of flattery, such projects usually fail due to a misalignment of elements. The repeating of sequences may satisfy an audience who feel they’re above reading subtitles, yet these set pieces and narratives are regenerated without the reason why they were so beguiling in the first place. Often it’s something cultural that’s subtracted for the sake of boarding the perspective of the new viewers. Spike Lee’s Oldboy suffers because it’s full of such examples.

Unlike The Departed, Scorsese’s crime drama, which took the Hong Kong based Infernal Affairs and reformatted itself into a property that could stand on its own two feet, Oldboy merely eliminates the oddities of its Korean source material a simply movies the rest to American shores.  The Oldboy narrative is so peculiar and the original director so particular that a straight up reimagining just doesn’t cut it.

If we liken films to cooking, Lee’s has the basic recipe, but it’s possibly missing the unami paste that gives us a certain flavour. Maybe certain ingredients have been placed in the oven a tad too long (explaining Sharlto Copley’s over baked performance). Perhaps it forgets when the pot needs to simmer and when everything needs to be brought to the boil. This is a film which looks like it should taste the same, but will have you reaching for the seasoning. 

A scene we remember from the 2003 Oldboy has our lead protagonist devour a live octopus on screen as he wishes to eat something alive. After being locked up for 15 years, we are watching a character that is quite simply dead inside. He is consuming the creature for feeling. Fast forward ten years to the U.S counterpart. We have a moment in which Josh Brolin spies an Octopus briefly. We’ve suddenly shifted from an acute visual metaphor to a vague silly head nod. Now something which had significance is now rendered near meaningless.

Spike’s take on the originals infamous corridor sequence is one of the most striking moments of choreography of the year. It’s a solid piece of action filmmaking and yet still it misses the point. Instead of a character that is unsure of his capabilities, Brolin stomps on each stooge as if he was a superhero with little weakness. No weakness, no worry.

You shouldn’t really compare remakes to their original counterparts. However Lee’s Oldboy never strays too far from the original property, and when it does, it sways into the wrong direction. I can once again point you in the direction of Copley’s annoyingly distracting display, but here is also the matter of Elizabeth Olsen being left out to dry with the flatly portrayed character of Marie, as well as Brolin’s solid but overtly macho Joe Doucett who is set up as a raging animal from the start and little of the wounded beast which we remember Oh Dae-su.

You can sense that Spike is not that interested in the studio system. He’s avoided it for most of his career and Oldboy shows why. So many elements feel like studio influence as opposed to director’s choice. Take away a few Spike traits and Oldboy could have been filmed by anyone. There is little of Lee’s own persona or creativity to counterbalance the problems the translation brings, so the outcome feels like a mishandled exercise more than anything.

This American retelling loses much of the melodrama of the Korean film mostly because American retellings have little time for such things. Park Chan-Wook’s 2003 piece is a film that understands that stillness is as important as ferocity. It’s no surprise that when we look Park’s work in this year’s Stoker, it’s played with the same delicate touch. Spike's Oldboy is primal from the get go, but adds no layers to itself. Broiln is an animal that needs to be caged and that's it. There's little poetry to proceedings, the tragic nature of the outrageous twists is never really peeked at. Simply put: Oldboy is an opera that Spike tried to make a rap remix from.

Friday 6 December 2013

Review: Black Nativity

Year: 2013
Director: Kasi Lemmons
Screenplay: Kasi Lemmons
Starring: Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Tyrese Gibson, Jennifer Hudson, Mary J. Blige, Jacob Latimore, Vondie Curtis-Hall, and Nas.

Despite what my family and friends may think, I am more interested in the voices of others than my own. So listening to the assorted mutters and murmurings of the other patrons of this screening was far more exciting, than me sprouting off any so called film "cred". I shuffled myself into the corner next to the nibbles and earwigged on the nearby conversations.

As the screening of the film was for the new family feature "Black Nativity" the conversations were of course on just where the "Black" movie went. It was invigorating to hear excited voices talk about the 90's boom where films with an Afro-centric cast were a lot easier to discover then now. Even Tyler Perry doesn't make British shores (despite decent minority presence and Perry making top dollar in his native land). It seems fairly obvious that there’s an audience that wish for more movies of this ilk, and while the likes of Blue Caprice, 12 Years a Slave and Fruitvale Station have started to make waves, it still seems to be a struggle to see Afro-centric films in lighter affair. 

Enter Black Nativity which despite dealing with quite typical themes of poverty, religious elders and run away baby daddies, tries to imbue festive cheer by taking the Langston Hughes play of the same name and re-envisioning the material as a modern hip-hop musical. The outcome is more than a little uneven.

Jacob Latimore plays Langston Cobbs (check the namesake), a young and rebellious teen whose mother (a spirited but stilted display from Jennifer Hudson) forces him to move from his (newly evicted) home in Baltimore to his estranged grandparents in Harlem, New York. Here he finds himself on a spiritual and emotional journey which helps him find not only a meaning of Christmas but family identity as well.

Black Nativity is a film which likes to think that meaning well will be enough for it to get by. Its mawkish screenplay and awkward editing, do a lot to hinder a film that wishes to place a fresh spin on a well worn narrative. The film often leaps haphazardly from sensitive moment to heavy handed, obvious message musical at the drop of the dime. You can’t dismiss the quality of the music production and the cast, but you can really raise an eyebrow to the often awkward tonal shifts and simplistic lyrics. One may also wonder why certain famous faces appear in the film.  The likes of Mary J Blige and Nas appear if only to try and engage a certain target audience. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if we got more from their performances, but their aural displays haven’t lost their shine.

The film is left up to the older guard to pick up the slack and Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett happily oblige. Both Whitaker and Bassett light up the humorous and dramatic scenes that they feature in and give the film the grounding and energy that Black Naivety sorely needs. This is much needed as Latimore (Vanishing on 7th Street) struggles to carry the film where it needs to go. His surliness feels more wooden than anything and the character himself is tough to love at the best of times.

That said, this is the point of Black Nativity. It reminds us that family is not just in name but in blood and while the character’s themes and turns are obvious and the film holds no real surprises, the story that surrounds it has enough small moments to connect with its target base. I also have to say that while the film didn’t stir me emotionally, it did direct me towards the works of Langston Hughes; the black writer whose works became an integral aspect of what was known as the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement which explored the lives of African Americans during the 1920’s. While Black Nativity doesn’t have the same sense of commune and spirit that those works brought to people. It clearly shows a wish to try and reach such a depth. It’s safe to say that a cynic like me may find Black Nativity a little hard to swallow, however I will not be surprised if many get caught up with the films music and message.  I do feel the film will keep the people talking. Hopefully such talk will get louder and more interesting productions will be brought to the foreground because of it. The film may rest on its good intentions, but in comparison to bigger films I’ve seen this year, at least it’s has them.

Review: Captain Phillips

Year: 2013
Director: Paul Greengrass
Screenplay: Billy Ray
Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Adbi, Faysal Ahmed

Synopsis is here

I’m still trying to figure out in my mind if Captain Phillips is a stunning film all together, or if the films climax is so strong that we forget that its first act feels quite plain. I considered the film that helped make Greengrass such a viable director in America; United 93 and found myself more engrossed with how that film looked at preparation and meditation. United 93 had a perfect balance of dread and procedural in its beginning, with its quiet moments betraying the impending chaos. Here Greengrass tries a similar thing but with less success to the tone. We see the films two captains going through their routines, blissfully unaware of how both will place each other through their paces. Phillips (an on form Hanks) and his wife (Catherine Keener in a small cameo) debate their son’s future before he sets off for his long haul. On the other side we find Adbuwali Muse (Adbi) lead a group of Somali pirates towards Phillips ship in search of ransom.

Greengrass’ ace in the hole, much like United 93 and Green Zone, is his ability to remind us that there are two sides to the story we’re watching. The time we spend with the pirates is vital, as we witness just what survival means to them. Unfortunately while the build up of character is needed for later on, there’s a distinct lack of urgency and blandness towards proceedings I cannot place my finger on. I can honestly say I can’t remember too much of the film before the clash of cultures.

Once Muse and Phillips meet, the screws begin to tighten. The idle chit chats and work grumblings that littered Phillips’ ship before are exchanged for frightened glances and hushed tones. The Pirates invade the ship both visually and orally. Their demands are yelled at a near unintelligible pitch and tensions accelerate to their peak because of this alone. The fear of their guns is obvious, but the combination of this along with the alien sound of another language being screamed constantly brings a worry we don’t often think about. Is someone demanding for you to do something or a commanding someone else to shoot you? This maybe based on a true story and yet I still found myself gripping my chair arms until my knuckles went white. I feel now it’s important for you to look at my profile picture as you will then realise the extremity of the tension.   
From that moment on, Greengrass’ powerful use of space takes hold. We alternate from tight claustrophobic close ups of desperate faces before switching to vast landscape views which show a lifeboat as a mere pin prick on an endless sea. Like Gravity; power of Captain Phillips comes from just how powerless the protagonists are rendered.  Both films are also superb at using tech to shove us within their characters headspaces. Twenty years ago, this film would seem an even more arduous task to comprehend. The work of Greengrass’ crew is overwhelmingly intricate, that I’m not surprised that more nauseous viewers avoided it due to seasickness. It’s that seamless.

The cast are equally unerring with Barkhad Adbi and Faysal Ahmed keeping up with the ever dutiful Hanks at every step. It’s important to remember that these are first-time performers and their ability to show the right amount of intensity and humanity should be well noted. We should not enjoy their acts, but the displays shown by the actors create an empathy that is difficult to attain.   

Like all filmed true stories, Captain Phillips clearly takes liberties. It’s amusing to see that Phillips does the same walkie talkie move I witnessed two days after when I watched Harrison Ford in Air Force One (if that was actaully done was it life imitating art?).  It’s also clear that the pirates run under certain archetypes. We have The Captain, the Kid, and the hot head all on show so it’s fair to say that there is a certain poetic licence in play. Yet while it’s based on true events, we’re supposed to gain the feel of what it’s like and not a full documentation. There are places to gain “more truth” I came for the film. And this is what Greengrass brings after a rather mundane beginning.

I watched this on the opening weekend of Catching Fire and the film has already seemingly dropped out of critical discourse, as is the way of many movies these days. Would people still be writing about Phillips if the beginning was stronger, or is this how we treat all films these days? That seems a shame if it’s the latter as Greengrass’ final stunning moments hit harder than many others films complete running times. That in itself is worth talking about alone.