Saturday 27 December 2014

Review: We Are the Best!

Year: 2013 (2014 U.K Theatrical release)
Director: Lukas Moodysson
Screenplay: Lukas Moodysson
Starring: Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin, Liv LeMoyne

Synopsis is here


Lukas Moodysson broke this blogger's heart 12 years ago, with his brutally engrossing coming of age drama: Lilya 4-ever (2002). This was a film with such little compromise, that it's taken me over a decade to gain the courage to even place it near the top of my re-watch pile. It's the type of film that you need to be in a "good" place for, before you consider watching.

Moodysson has kept busy with very particular, left field offerings, but his latest entry; We Are the Best, appears to be his most accessible since Lilya 4-ever. Despite having the same unyielding temperament with similar dispassionate settings, Moodysson is clearly coming in this coming of age story (based on a graphic novel by his wife Coco), with a lighter, more joyous attitude.

At first there doesn't seem to be too much to We Are the Best. Three teenage girls from Stockholm look to form a punk band, despite holding limited knowledge of their instruments and forming with little more than their outsider status. Moodysson has never really been one for intricate plots, but as a filmmaker who considers himself a feminist, he really knows how to get a hold of his young female characters. What we notice about We Are the Best is Moodsson joyfully using these outcasts illustrate female unity as well as touch about the director's own feelings on religion and politics.

The 1982 setting is perfect for a film which is looking at how we observe particular subjects now. A group of women who are; like so many girls their age, gaining interest in boys, media and drinking. Yet the characters indulgence for left leaning socio-political punk and the conversations and overall acceptance of the Hedvig; the Christian lead guitarist, as well their bonding despite their differences, speaks volumes about what Moodysson find important within the coming of age sub-genre.

The sight of seeing these girls form a friendship because of their music and despite what others feel about them is genuinely heartening to the soul. The three leads are all so enjoyable in their roles, that we quickly realise that much like so much Punk music, the music itself isn't the most important aspect, it's the togetherness. When the grown-ups just don't understand, it's always been the rambunctious of your peers that will get you through. Moodysson has made a film to happily remind us.

Sunday 7 December 2014

Review: Cold in July

Year: 2014
Director: Jim Mickle
Screenplay: Jim Mickle, Nick Damici
Starring: Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson, Vinessa Shaw

Synopsis is here:

After reading a few of Joe R Landsdale short stories, I've found him to be an entertaining writer who manages to capture a reader's imagination quickly with his snappy potboilers. Tight Little Stitches in a Dead Man's Back, for instance, is a sharp sci-fi balanced with a somber heartache, which manages a considerable sense of scope, yet can be finished before the end of your train journey. Jim Mickle is a filmmaker whose filmography capture an unusual blend of American gothic and playful genre switching that is warmly welcomed for a film viewer such as myself.

I found it no surprise that Mickle's film version of Landsdale's novel; Cold in July, shows that the writers' material and the director's style of storytelling and thematic focal points provide a good foil for each other.

From the start of the film, I found myself gripped. Our mild mannered protagonist; Richard shoots a young trespassing burglar and find himself struggling with the moral concerns of taking a man's life. We sink further down the rabbit hole as we discover that the thief's father; Ben (an intensely stoic Sam Shepard), is out on parole and is looking for vengeance towards the man who killed his son. We soon find out that the cops haven't been as honest with the situation as they could have been what could have been a clear cut case, becomes a twisted noir, which brings both Richard together in ways they wouldn't have thought of when they found each other.

What looks to be a straight forward film about survival and revenge, soon bends into something different entirely. Mickle's film starts of as a Cape Fear style thriller by way of John Carpenter before morphing into a History of Violence tinged noir, in which the murky sins of the family slowly creeping into the present lives of the characters we follow. Micheal C Hall's awkward and frightened family man, may feel slightly one note at times, it's clear that he's enjoying being able to play a character who is clearly out of his element. Watching his face has the twisted sense of honour is revealed by both Ben and his P.I cohort Jim (a spirited Don Johnson) is quite a picture.

The chilly, stark backwoods of Mickle's Stake Land (2010) and We Are What We Are (2013) are replaced with a highly stylised, sun baked Texas, which, despite its rich, saturated colours feels no less dark than the films that came before it. What first appears as a clean cut man troubled by the moral quandary that comes with murder, descends into something much murkier when he finds his life inhabited by characters who have dealt with death before. We expect clarity from the situation at first, but Mickle is a filmmaker who enjoys clouding the ethics of the people we watch. He wants everyone to feel a little dirty.

The 80's setting and references work well with the story and never distract from it. It never feels like fancy nostalgia. Nor does it feel like it should be altered. Meanwhile Mickle's genre blending here, feels much like Stake Land, which happily moved between gothic and road movie with a quietly observed sense of satisfaction. Mickle once again easily shows how assured he is a director as Cold in July easily slips and shifts in tone, brings in dark humour and a cold sense of dread, and never feels jarring.

It is a shame that Vinessa Shaw's solid (although slightly shrewish) wife is pushed to the side, making sure the film is unable to truly create some complex family and gender dynamics. However, as a pulpy, contorted thriller about masculinity, fatherhood and just how far some are willing to stride into the darkness. Cold in July is one of most fascinating genre pieces of the year.




Saturday 6 December 2014

Review: Edge of Tomorrow (A.K.A LIVE DIE REPEAT, A.K.A All You Need is Kill)

Year: 2014
Director: Doug Liman
Screenplay: Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth
Starring: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton

Synopsis is here:


Despite seemingly being marketed by a group of drunks recovering from a 7 day bender (why all the name changes, guys?), and the profit margins being more delicate than a Sony studio password, Edge of Tomorrow is a relatively fun sci-fi actioner. One that reminds you that Tom Cruise (aged 52), is still the engaging A-list movie star he was before we found out about his great battle with thetans. Hell, I'm beginning to think his belief in Scientology is part of the reason he's been able to pick interesting sci-fi projects. I wouldn't be surprised if the presence of Cruise may have switched people off Edge of Tomorrow. Yet Cruise's personal charm is one of the reasons the film works. The other (greater) reason is Emily Blunt.

Blunt, whose Rita character shows the type of urgency which has been greatly missed from female roles in the likes of Godzilla or The Amazing Spiderman 2, once again displays her amazing capability to bounce off her Male counterparts. The reversal of roles here allows Blunt to blossom even more so than she did in similar high concept features such as The Adjustment Bureau (2011), however the nature of Edge of Tomorrow's material seemingly gives a lot of the emotional resonance back to Cruise in his role of cowardly PR man cum action solider.

I do wonder what the late Roger Ebert would have felt about Edge of Tomorrow. As a critic whose interest in video games was in the minus figures, he would have been faced with a film that is heavily drenched in video game aesthetic. The source material (A Japanese novel by Hiroshi Sakurazaka) is said to have borrowed heavily of the play, die, and continue aspect of video games, as does this film. Here, I found it hard not to think I was not still playing COD: Advanced Warfare as even though neither game, nor film were looking over each other's solider, the similarities in the battle suits I found quite remarkable. The film's play on the concept of "spawning" and repeating until you get it right, isn't that original (see Source Code (2011), Looper (2012), SO many classic sci-fi stories), however Liman's storytelling direction of the material is refreshing. Edge of Tomorrow never feels like the template blockbusters the comic book films are starting to feel like, while it's commentary on how this muscle memory element impacts the protagonist has a certain perceptiveness to it.

Doug Liman is in his element here. Jumper (2008) is a mere faded memory here as the punchy action sequences carry weight while the cast interplay hold a playful blockbuster chemistry that enjoyable to watch. Edge of Tomorrow may not shoehorn itself into the classic hall of Hollywood blockbusters, its good fun but nothing too out of the ordinary. However, as a piece of light sci-fi action fare, I found it a film that deserves to find a good home audience in the future. Here's hoping the replay value goes past the high concept.

Wednesday 26 November 2014

Short Read: The Ending of the Graduate

The first time I saw the ending, I was young and naïve. My mind was addled by seeing homage’s of it in The Simpsons and Wayne’s World. I first viewed it as a heroic ending. The Boy got the Girl, the antagonists were vanquished, if only for a little while. I never really watched their faces. Nor did I grasp what the shot was trying to say. To me, it was all so very… safe.

It was only during a re-watch with my girlfriend, that my ignorance slapped me in the face. The foolhardiness of the Benjamin’s “plan”. The fact that there is no plan at all. Their faces not only show their youth, but just how lost they are at such a tentative and esoteric point at their life. I saw echoes of Mrs Robinson and her reasoning behind what she was trying to do despite her methods. In their faces I noticed their realisation. There’s beauty fading in that take, and they’re only just finding out. The moment is bittersweet. Their decision may leave them as jaded as those they’ve just left. The film’s title becomes a cruel joke. The Graduate? Of what? Certainly not Life. He has a lot to learn.

When a filmmaker can crystallise all the fear, worry, jaded and misguidedness of youth, his characters feel throughout the narrative, compile it into one moment and make this captured malaise seem so universal and iconic, it is then that we have a real storyteller. R.I.P Mike Nichols.

Review: Interstellar

Year: 2014
Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenplay: Jonathon Nolan, Christopher Nolan
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Bill Irwin, Ellen Burstyn, Michael Caine

Synopsis is here:

I find it fascinating that Christopher Nolan has gone full Kubrick in order to bring to us what I consider to be his most heartfelt film to date. Nolan; like Kubrick, has often been considered a quite cold film maker, yet in spite of placing his clear 2001 influences on his sleeves for Interstellar, Nolan’s longest movie also holds one of his strongest central relationships. There were quite a few moments in the film, in which I found myself caught up not just in the scenes of Matthew McConaughey's Coop, his family and the intergalactic drama that plays out, but also the implications. 

Once leaving the cinema, however, unlike The Prestige (2006), Inception (2010) of The Dark Knight (2008), I found that my first impressions drifted away as quickly as they appeared. I had enjoyed the film and its playfulness towards relativity and physics. I fell in love with its ambition (a word used ad nauseam by critics/writers and myself when talking about this film) and often felt the tug of emotion when the film pulled the strings.  Yet Interstellar when I finally sat down to ponder it, never felt as complete as Nolan’s previous movies.

Thematically, I found the film enthralling, yet the concerns that many detractors have about Nolan felt more apparent here. The protracted nature of the film's structure and pacing for instance. Or the aspects of plot which felt far more convoluted than previous features did. When piecing the film together, the film often felt like a po-faced Fantastic Voyage (1966). The screenplay often played out more like a B-movie dressed up.

That is slightly unfair to the Nolan’s and B-Movies, but I did find the film's length, exposition and general sour-faced demeanour took away from some Nolan’s most majestic set-pieces, the film’s emotional core and its sense of adventure. I couldn’t care less about the science being exact. This new trend of factual nit-picking fictional films to death for accuracy, is tiresome, particularly for the likes of Nolan, who gets more aggression for his outlandish moments than others. Yet Interstellar is his biggest sci-fi sandbox and this time his need to keep everyone on the same page with exposition heavy dialogue was distracting. Particularly as I had already pieced together pivotal moments of the plot early on and found myself waiting for the characters to catch up.

Despite this, Nolan still manages to provoke interesting topics of thought. This is still a film which forces a viewer to have an opinion. The world of Interstellar is at times a compelling mixture of old school Americana and individualistic philosophy. While I didn’t think it didn’t hit that feeling of transcendence that I felt with Gravity (2013), the strength of Matthew Mcconaughey’s central performance helps realise just how large the stakes are, not just between him and his family, but with the world he has left behind.  

The dying America that has been left, is one that has decided to collectively dull down Earth’s scientific dreamers and explorers as mere delusions, in a reversal of how old school religion is sometimes viewed now.  The earth’s demise is scary for just how banal and accepting the people all are of whatever it is that may be destroying them. The Dustbowl small town America, we see is as authentic as I could imagine, but the behaviour of the people within it, also feels scarily accurate.
So do, the more fantastical set pieces. Nolan litters the film with imagery familiar to his own Inception, but still manages to provide a freshness to the action. One set piece (set sublimely to Hans Zimmer’s celestial score) involving the hard headed determination of Mcconaughey’s Coop, docking a shuttle back onto a rapidly spinning spacecraft, tingles the spine in a way little else has done this year.

With Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) said as a major influence, and its commercial objectives clearly in its sight however, Interstellar’s ambition gives way to an optimism that does appear a little forced. Abrupt character arcs and moments that were awkwardly placed in the movie finally give way to a final position that takes away a part of that ambiguity that a film of such a scope deserves. It brings the likes of a film like Alex Proyas’ Knowing (2009) into sharper focus. While a film I didn’t practically enjoy, its climax, though preposterous at the time hints at an amount of ambiguity that Interstellar takes a quarter step back from. Its closure hedges its bets somewhat.

Still, Interstellar is punctuated by small, remarkable moments of emotion resonance. While at times the film feels more surface level than Nolan’s previous endeavors, as a piece of mainstream spectacle, Nolan still sets a pretty high bar for grand adult orientated cinema. What I’ll really find fascinating is whether the film’s more engaging moments will find a way of burrowing in my psyche and finding some time to germinate. I feel there’s enough in Interstellar to do that.

Wednesday 12 November 2014

Review: The Babadook

Year: 2014
Director: Jennifer Kent
Screenplay: Jennifer Kent
Starring: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall, Hayley McElhinney, Barbara West
Ben Winspea

Synopsis is here

The horror films I enjoy usually contain what I call an "Exorcist moment". This is a single disquieting scene, sequence or shot that often slips past the major scares, but stains my memories like blood on a carpet. In The Exorcist, the moment in which Father Karras envisions his recently deceased mother on the bed, rarely gets mentioned amongst the pea soup vomit and head spinning, but it is the moment that unsettles me the most. There's something about that moment of disquiet that unnerves me. Something deeply primal.

The Babadook; a debut horror feature by Jennifer Kent, is so in love with primal fears, it's no surprise that it holds its own "Exorcist moment". The film's weary protagonist; Amelia, exhausted from lack of sleep and haunted by the grief of losing her husband, notices a near impossible image during a news report. It's a Lynchian moment played out just around the tipping point of the film. Kent's film had pulled me far enough through the ringer so that when this small moment occurs, I was genuinely spooked. I gained that same sense of unease I felt with Karras' mother. When it comes to scares, for me, it's always the little things.

The Babadook plays little a forgotten gem of yesteryear. Horror now often operates by trying to bamboozle the viewer with successive BOO moments. The Babadook isn't too interested in the cheap thrill. It wants to unsettle, and does so with an impassioned love of older cinema. Its title character is one that harks back to the expressionism of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and toys with similar psychological themes. Our protagonist Amelia (Davis); is a timid and haunted soul, who is struggling to cope with the loss of her husband, who died in an accident while they were on their way to give birth to their son. This mixture of survivor guilt and grief grows within the character like a festering wound. Amelia works in care, but seems repelled by her son. She longs for intimacy, yet is reluctant to allow herself to let go. Suddenly an intensely troubling pop-up book appears in her son's room and then the trouble occurs.

The Babadook feels much like Ringu (1998) or Paperhouse (1988) in that there's a horrid feeling of dread that is difficult to really shake off. The tautly wound performances from its leads keep the film's anxiety levels high, while its ashy grey cinematography and constant tight close ups, not only give the film a sense of texture but a foreboding sense of claustrophobia. This is combined with a screenplay with a strong emphasis on the banality and sadness that comes with loss and economical set pieces that are far more interested in what you thought you saw than what you going to see. If other films were as invested in its humans than its monsters, I feel I'd be scared at the movies more often.





Review: Gone Girl

Year: 2014
Director: David Fincher
Screenplay: Gillian Flynn
Starring: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens

Synopsis is here

Normally when I'm sitting in my hometown's mall cinema, I'm gritting my teeth at the level of inane chatter that stems from people with their "unlimited cards". For me there's nothing more frustrating at a cinema than an audience who spend more time talking to each than the watching the movie. My screening of Gone Girl on its theatrical opening was different. Yes, there were audible mutterings, but for once this was because everyone watching was absorbed with what was on the screen. Not only was I enthralled by David Fincher's spiralling thriller, but liberated at just how tuned in everyone was for the movie and its many twists. This wasn't the annoying, idle chit chat that grates, irritatingly on the ears. No, this was the rumblings of the post credit debate which had started before the film had finished. The audience were all part of the page turner. There's not many recent films that can do that.

There's a lot of Fincher's 10th feature to spoil, so I'll do my best to tread lightly on the narrative (however, note my warning of Spoilers) Films like this is one of the reasons I usually link the synopsis as opposed to writing it into the review. Any of the film's plot points could be a spoiler filled booby trap. So let's just say that Nick Dunne's (Affleck) wife, Amy (Pike) is missing, but all is not what it seems when it comes to her disappearance.

This is Fincher is pure pulp mode. Collaborating with cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth for the fourth time, Gone Girl is a film inflected with dark, noir-like imagery to match the films expose of a modern marriage which is decaying from the inside. The film's narrative is outrageous in the same way as OTT 90's thrillers such as Basic Instinct, but the films detached central couple, tap into that similar social crawl space of 'Jack' and Tyler Durden of Fincher's own Fight Club (1999), there's something eerily familiar about The Dunne's alienation. A creepy invasive feeling that connects with us in a way that we wish it didn't. The same way we wanted Tyler do blow everything sky high.

As the characters peel back each of their layers, trust suddenly becomes fluid. Each scene makes you question the last. Kirk Baxter's exquisitely timed editing gives lasts a split second less than you would have hoped. Time that would give away an awkward glance or to probe a clue for longer. Fincher's film primes us for this with its slightly too quick opening credits. We don't gain a clear image. We don't see everything, even when shown.

Working together with the novel's writer, Gillian Flynn, Fincher merrily toys with aspects of the book's structure to allow twists to occur parallel with other events. The issues of family become streamlined (ultimately lessening motives of certain characters), but the implications and scrutiny of the media is played up, made Meta and made even more tangible. Gone Girl beautifully allows Affleck to comment on his own relationship with the media as well as subconsciously taking pot shots at Robin Thicke, just because. The bolstering of the media slant is notable because it allows Fincher and the film's characters to play in a world in which image is indeed everything.

This is certainly true when we consider the so called failings of the film's gender politics. Gone Girl has been considered misogynist in certain circles and indeed for a film that explores an ugly marriage, it does seem to lean on the side of men. Yet as we move into a world in which ideas of femininity are becoming more intense, it does frustrate that so many of the think pieces that appeared after the film's release seemed to jump on the idea that the film clearly promotes rape culture as opposed to seeing a film which illustrates (many) complex women of the agency. It's understandable that we don't want to keep casting a negative eye over women in the film, but I'm also troubled by the idea that we are not allowed to have troubling women. The thriller is interesting because of its complications and dynamics between the film's women, with the film's most telling scenes displaying two women as the smartest people in the room while the males cluck around them and hold their balls.

Affleck and Pike head up a specifically cast, which highlights the best features of each member. Affleck has always been a decent self-affecting straight man (see: Changing Lanes) while Pike's mix of cool girl and ice queen has been something noted since her appearance as a Bond Girl. Without saying too much, she is dangerously effective in this role. Even the smaller roles are smartly picked. Carrie Coon is quietly tragic. Tyler Perry has a funky charm about himself while Kim Dickens has not garnered enough plaudits for her tough cookie cop role of Detective Rhonda Boney. There's also a knowing nod to How I met your Mother's Barney in the casting of Neil Patrick Harris as the wonderfully Naïve ex-boyfriend Desi.

Gone girl is not Fincher's best film, but it certainly is one of its most winking, with the film summing up the crumbling of a modern relationship in the most OTT way possible, but also doing a decent job of portraying a decimated Middle America which reanimates to an inhuman form by the pervading of the media. The Ace in the Hole style observations feel even more cutting than we give credit for as we observe a broken society that is easily forgotten while it glares mesmerised by flashing bulbs and gossipy chatter of a missing person who has the image of having it all. The film isn't perfect, with its resolution feeling slightly more obtuse than it should be. The novel also understands the headspace of these people more, while the film has a feel of punches being pulled. But there's clearly a reason why I saw Gone Girl twice. It's a delectably dark piece of entertainment.




Tuesday 4 November 2014

Review: Nightcrawler

Year: 2014
Director: Dan Gilroy
Screenplay: Dan Gilroy
Starring: Jake Gyllenyall, Rene Russo, Riz Amhed, Bill Paxton.

Synopsis is here:

There's still a belief that the American dream exists. The ideal that no matter who you are, you can work your way up to success, regardless of your creed or culture. Even if you're a psychopath. Dan Gilroy takes this concept to a cynical extreme in Nightcrawler; a blackly comic crime thriller which packages familiar themes of a morally bankrupt T.V news world for the YouTube generation.
The last words of the previous paragraph, may sound a little hackneyed, but Gilroy's tale of the unemployed yet unscrupulous Lou Bloom, who takes a fancy to freelance video crime journalism (read: trawling L.A at night and recklessly filming crime scenes) has a touch of the TMZ to it, despite the film's focus on local T.V news. Halfway through the film, Rene Russo's Nina; an aging, headstrong T.V director, asks how he seems to know so much about her. His answer is simple: "Everything about you is online." The sentence seems throwaway because these days, it's an obvious remark. Yet hidden beneath the surface is the reason why the film's characters seem to hold a whiff of desperation. I might be possibly reading far too much into what may be just a small piece of conversation, but its utterance has us fill in the gaps. The falling numbers of a local T.V news station, the unknown reasoning behind Bloom's unemployment, his quirky, self-help style knowledge. There may not be an ounce of fat on the film's narrative, but there's still more than enough in the screenplay to provoke thought.

One should not expect going into Nightcrawler to meet anybody nice. This is the point and the subversive notions that the film put forward are neatly observed. Morals and ethics are questioned, but are now well worn items in a playing field which is all about the getting the most eyes on screens. Standards in morality? They no longer apply. Just get the shot, no matter what the consequences are. Everyone here has an angle, from Russo's Nina, who channels her inner Diana Christensen, to the slick buccaneering of Bill Paxton; a fellow nightcrawler whose massive cheese eating grin rears its head in nearly each scene he's in. These are creatures that only seem to appear at night. Sucking up the tragedy and spewing it into digestible segments for the morning news.

Nightcrawler is headed up and carried by Jake Gyllenyall's unhinged Bloom; a Rupert Pupkin type whose ghastly lack of scruples and faux charm is only matched by his entrepreneurial spirit. Gyllenyall's gaunt, wide eyed visage and wordy, self-help mannerisms only hide the fact that Bloom is a soulless shark whose finally found out where all the best meat has been hiding. Emotional outbursts from others only gain vague acknowledgements. He's never interested in their aims, but they are part of his goal as the film works towards a bitterly droll climax.

Dan Gilroy's first feature is sleekly presented by Robert Elswit's cinematography (Capturing an alien L.A with a mixture of both digital and film for night and day, respectively) with a lean, neatly contained story from his own screenplay. Nightcrawler is almost too neat, with the film's final third wrapping up in a way that feels a little too well-kept for its own good. Refrigerator questions pop up a tad too early, and by the end of the film, the narrative only needs you to pull one or two threads to see it unravel. Yet, as a piece of grubby sleaze, Nightcrawler is certainly an enjoyable flick to muddy yourself with. From the first dubious act, the film is quick to draw you further down the rabbit hole. The thing that will get you going is just how hard it is to get the dirt to rub off afterwards.




Monday 22 September 2014

Review: Calvary

Year: 2014
Director: John Michael McDonagh.
Screenplay: John Michael McDonagh.
Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O'Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran, Isaach de Bankolé.

Synopsis is here

I enjoy films about faith. I feel much of this stems from my upbringing and my grandmother; a woman whose faith in the almighty seemed to never waver. When she was told about the ailment which caused her demise, as opposed to facing hours of operations and hospital treatment, she decided upon staying at home and going peacefully with her family as it was the “will of god”. I admire such a choice as much as I feared it. Possibly because I’m still young. I’m currently not sure I could make the choice so readily. Even if I was at the age she was.

For me, I find this to be an often neglected cornerstone of faith, often glossed over by the more arrogant members of the new atheist movement, who are very quick to inform us of the corruption and wars that religion plays a part in, or how scared people are to find solace in faith. We often never hear of these folk telling us about what moral good that they themselves perform. All wrapped up in the sins of the church, some seem to be far too interested in maintaining the view that the world is an insidious and ugly place. One of my favorite qualities of my grandmother is how she interpreted faith as a source for good, no matter what denomination. I love seeing that in films like Calvary, a film that beautifully illustrates the idea that the goodness in faith must stand defiant in front of those who only wish to mirror the ugliness that resides within the world.

Calvary’s focus on its weighty subjects start with what sounds like a dark absurdist joke. Opening with a beautifully composed shot of Father James (Glesson) sits solemnly in the confession booth as a voice whisper to him that they first tasted semen at age 7. The more depraved may crack a grin (sorry), but this moment is a telling one. The Irish voice, the line of abuse, the troubled grimace of the face as the ears register what is said. One of the films subtexts, the abuse carried out by the Catholic Church is richly brought to our attention within minutes. The conversation only seems to get worse. The exchange digs deep into each participant psyche till we reach the inciting moment: the person we don’t see on the other side of the confessional wishes to kill the priest. To kill this priest, a good one, will say more things about us than if a bad one was murdered.

Father James seems to know his killer and after being introduced to the town’s oddballs and eccentrics, most viewers will know too. Writer/Director John Michael McDonagh almost displays the identity as an open secret. However, Calvary is more interested in the mysteries of our morals and guidance than it is about a maybe murder. Calvary holds some the darker humor of McDonagh’s previous effort, The Guard, but is much more meditative and pensive thematically. Calvery is a film, much like the slightly more pious Of God’s and Men (2010), which helps question the place of faith in a messy modern world.  With his fate considered sealed, James continues to provide penance and advice to those around, while they do their best to condemn him and the church and frolic in their impurity. Why does Father James continue his work with such a cloud looming over him? Why does he seemingly do little to try and alter the course?

The eccentric village folk do very little to help matters. At one point a resentful publican belligerently questions James on why the church hasn’t done anything to attack the banks, and their part in the economic crash and yet amusingly such thoughts fit snugly into more questions of who why and how we observe faith. To snub one’s noses at religion and what it may bring to some is of course the easiest thing. It’s also clear that Father James feels his doubts prick at him like acupuncture needles that are slightly too large. Then again, when it comes to faith, doubt can hit anyone.

Calvary may set up the idea that its lead is Jesus-like, but the film also does well to ground him as a man who lived a life before the cloth a man who pushed past the wrong to allow faith into his life. This is not a man born into the burden and there are times that we see and know that it must be hard to keep the halo from slipping. For a man of Gleeson’s size, he manages to carry such vulnerability with great balance. The boorish behaviour from The Guard (2011) is not shown here, but the sensitivity certainly is. “There’s too much talk about sins. Not enough about virtue.” James utters at one point. This line, like many in the film's screenplay manages to get under one’s skin for the better.

The film is visually based on sparse paintings of Andrew Wyeth, and cinematographer Larry Smith’s bold compositions illuminate the darkness that lies between each scene, but Calvary is anchored by the weighty performance of Gleeson, who carries himself like every inch of his soul is troubled by the unsaid burden placed around him. Yet James plays on despite the prickliness of the village oddballs.

Whether or not our protagonist of the story embraces or fears death is one thing, but the fact that he acknowledges fate as he wanders through what may be his last week becomes suddenly profound. In the slightly distanting landscape of modern mainstream cinema, which is often invested in near immortals keeping all of us safe, James’ heroism isn't about saving the whole world, but doing his best to affect the close ones within his, despite their naysaying. The fact James decides to do this through faith brings poignancy as those around him feel that they know better but do a little better for themselves. Calvary, like my grandmother, gives insight into how the small steps of faith can bring clarity and courage. Not only to those who believe, but those who may not believe. I enjoy films about faith and Calvary is a welcome and inspiring one.

Sunday 21 September 2014

Review: Before I Go to Sleep

Year: 2014
Director: Rowan Joffee
Screenplay: Rowan Joffee
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Mark Strong, Colin Firth

Synopsis is here

Before I go to sleep is the type of pot boiler that you saw often in the 90’s. Usually late at night on terrestrial television. The film gets top marks for being thematically relevant, but its execution, is nothing to write home about.

Based on a popular bestselling 2011 novel, Before I Go to Sleep is another entry into “amnesia films”. Like Memento (2000), the film has a central character, whose ailment is so acute, it allows those around them to insidiously manipulate their fragile situation. When done well, you get Memento; an acidic thriller that is hard to shake off to this day. Before I go to sleep is a more neutered and neutral thriller. It’s as long as they come, but it’s so trim, there’s little to give it character. The film is smooth enough in its craft, but it's sanded down in such a way that there's no rough edges to make it stand out. Joffee makes a simple, moderate movie that does little to offend, however, after predicting the film's outcome in the first ten minutes, there wasn't much else to make me want to hang around. I stayed, however, because I’m not Rex Reed.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with Before I Go to Sleep. Nicole Kidman does the cracked porcelain doll thing well. Mark Strong and Colin Firth are cast for clear, obvious reasons and both play to their strengths. The film's most interesting element is how the texts could be considered within the feminist argument. Here we have a fractured and damaged woman whose world is controlled and manipulated by the men she knows. The incident which brought about her amnesia, as well as the amnesia itself, creates an interesting commentary on how abused women are viewed, and how the trauma affects the victim’s psyche. Kidman’s line of “I wish I wasn't scared all the time” is an all too knowing remark.

This said, the film's overall execution makes little waves. Before I go to sleep, may perhaps be a more interesting book, with the film's streamlined execution, doing little to make us grasp hold of its characters. While the storytelling allows the viewer to stay one step ahead of the film. Not the place you need to be with a feature like this.

The film trundles along, with Kidman trembling nervously through the film's intentionally drab blue/ gray cinematography and Hitchcockian conceits. Yet when comparing this to films of last year, which gave us ludicrous, stylised, yet highly entertaining thrillers such as Trance, Side Effects and Stoker, this slightly dour, workman-like effort may find itself as fodder for bleary eyed insomniacs more than anything else.

Review: Lucy

Director: Luc Besson
Screenplay: Luc Besson
Starring: Scarlet Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Amr Waked, Choi Min-sik

Synopsis is here

Note: The opening of this review contains spoilers for three Scarlett Johansson movies, including this one.

It happened with a hint of humour and romance with Her. It also occurred to a more devastating effect in Under the Skin. Now here, in Lucy, Scarlet Johansson once again gathers all the human information she can, gains a complete understanding of humans as a species, before dissipating into the atmosphere and exiting our existence when her capacity for us have reached her peak. In Lucy, this trait of the actress is perhaps at its most ludicrous and yet still provides a certain amount of engagement.

Lucy is ridiculous in the same way that Neveldine and Taylor are. Our lead character accidentally overdoses on an experimental drug, and begins to level up in percentage figures. It's not enough that we have a dump truck of exposition around every corner. No, said information is often visualised by overtly obvious metaphors. So when you see a wide eyed Lucy quivering like a gazelle mesmerised by a cheetahs glare. The film cuts to a direct, on-the-nose, visual of such an event. Heroes and villains are broadly defined in such a way, I’m surprised we didn't have their name and main characteristic tattooed on their forehead. The premise of the movie is built around the debunked theory that we only use ten percent of our brain. There's a feeling amongst some that brainpower was not at full capacity when thinking of the scripting.

Lucy is part comic, part video game and all lunacy. The film is equal parts Limitless, The Fifth Element and Crank and it revels in its nuttiness, as did I for the most part. The film's channel hopping, A.D.D craziness will irritate some, but I have to admit it's the first piece of Besson tinged madness that I've had a laugh in for quite a while. The fact it's clearly winking at the camera and acknowledging its silliness is one thing, but the gusto and lack of cynicism is quite refreshing. Lucy wants the viewer to hop on for the ride as opposed to push shock buttons obnoxiously. Something that often distracts me from the likes of Nev/Taylor.

A lot of Lucy’s fun stems from its casting. The doe eyed and anatomically pleasing Scarlett Johansson, already showed in Under the skin just how well she can do the flat, distant performance. Demonstrating that segregated from human beings look is difficult to pull off without looking like its “bad” acting. Johansson loses the more serpentine movements that inflections that were noted in Johnathon Glazer’s sci-fi, and instead fuses her overdosing action hero with sharp, analytical head swipes and eye darts. Again Johansson makes the whole not-of-this-realm thing seem effortless.  Morgan Freeman appears to bring forth the necessary “wisdom” to proceedings, kicking off with a tutorial that clearly drives the film's tongue into its cheek. It’s an actioner which drolly muses over its powered protagonist entering God mode. Set pieces don’t last too long here, and why the hell should they? Johansson has pressed iddqd. We shouldn’t expect a near tiresome display of stunts. Although the sequences we see have their quirks. Lucy manages to indulge into the silliness of superheroes with a certain cartoonish aplomb.

Maybe I’m just happy that Besson keeps his expansive (and silly) ideas, light, loose and under 90 minutes. The film doesn't offend me by being longer than it needs to be, although the execution of the film’s last act lacks a certain punch. However, by the time Lucy starts communicating with telecom communications through windscreens, I was already too immersed in films nonsense to mind too much. Feather-brained it may be, but Lucy once again showcases Scarlett Johansson as a sassy alternative to Jason Statham and has Besson finding the right vehicle for his lunacy.  There’s much talk about Johansson’s Marvel’s arrangements, but if Johansson wants to keep pursuing this type of madcap premise, count me in. 

Sunday 14 September 2014

Review: Blue Ruin

Year: 2013 (U.K Release 2014)
Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Screenplay: Jeremy Saulnier
Starring: Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves

Synopsis is here:

While reading the deftly crafted review of Blue Ruin from my good friend and accomplished cinephile Micheal Ewins, I couldn’t shake off my own feeling of indifference towards the movie. I couldn’t feel the way Mike does about this movie, despite the film really being something I’d usually devour.

Blue Ruin is the little revenge movie that could. A sophomore effort from its writer/director; Jeremy Saulnier, which gained it’s funding through Kickstarter and managed obtain a decent theatrical run along with its VOD release. It inhabits the same morbid humor that resides in the earlier Coen brother's efforts. Visually; its warm yet muted colour tones do a lot to hide the grim violence that punctuates certain scenes. The central performance of Macon Blair is a formidable one, balancing the character of Dwight’s fear, tragedy and confusion within his spoon wide eyes.  It’s clear in the film's craft, that despite the film's small budget, ambition resides in the filmmakers. Blue Ruin’s brittle tale of vengeance, features bold, messy acts of violence, spans across states and really wishes to speak about the circular hold of brutal revenge.

As the film draws into its second half, however, the film shifts into a slower gear, and never really push on the bonds that were forged in the early stages. Saulnier really sets the scene in the films beginning and deftly drives the film with its imagery over dialogue. You can feel the tension in the films first assault. The meeting of Dwight and his estranged sister; Sam (Amy Hargreaves) is one subtly fought with despair. By the time Dwight releases his true destination, however, the film itself loses steam. I never gained the sense of unpredictability that my friend Micheal enjoyed. While we should lose a certain connection with Dwight as he descends into this world of malice, I found myself losing the empathy that I felt back at the Diner where Dwight chats to his sister. I found myself simply waiting for the films beats to play out. An element of surprise had somehow been lost along with some pacing.

There’s still lots to take from Blue Ruin. A quiet pause for tea evokes one of the darkest moments of Goodfellas (1990). While the idea of keeping things “in house” is the disturbing thought that this may be the only way certain types of justice can be served in these backwoods. The performances are effective enough and the dark, offbeat humor does raise a smile. Yet when I compare this to the intentionally confusing and conflicting of Claire Denis’ Bastards (2013) or Shane Meadows powerful Dead Man’s Shoes, Blue Ruin feels a tad shallow. That said a film that manages to get me to chuckle at a wrongly placed garden rake is still a worthwhile view.  

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Review: The Sacarment

Year: 2013 (U.K. Release 2014)
Director: Ti West
Screenplay: Ti West
Starring: Joe Swanberg, Amy Seimetz, Kate Lyn Sheil

Synopsis is here

I didn’t give The Sacrament further thought after watching it and there lies the problem. The idea is a strong. Something that I usually enjoy pursuing. The writer/director behind the film is one I admire and generally enjoy his work. The problem I found is that the main influence of the movie, was much more terrifying in real life than anything The Sacrament throws at us. If you’ve seen the terrifying documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (2006), then this may seem like an unnecessary appendix.

Ti West is a curious filmmaker. I enjoy the genuine affection he has given to his previous, vintage tinged horror. I’m also a big fan of the unhurried pace of his storytelling. Allowing the unease to creep into the frame.  In both The Innkeepers (2011) and The House of the Devil (2009), West pulls off the difficult task of making the mundane feel macabre and does so by giving his scenes a touch more breathing space.  He once again tests the attention spans of some of the more easily distracted patrons, but giving The Sacrament a similar pace. The length has been never my issue with this film, however as the films other elements never seemed to gel.

Despite being a “found footage” horror, the film’s smooth camera work does little to instill the fear of god. Add to this the film’s flat dialogue, awkward performances and the films wish to try and recreate the Jonestown massacre like an overtly polished crime re-enactment more than a film in its own right. Unlike Kevin Smith’s grim and grubby Red State (2011), which holds the right balance between its influences and Smith’s fictional aspects, The Sacrament feels too much like mimicry to stand out on its own. 
Whereas Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple  manage to startle with its small inserts of grainy VHS footage, allowing the survivors recounting of the story to fill in the gaps. The Sacrament explicitness only ever feels forced. Small moments are effective. Reaction shots of children obliviously sucking down Kool-Aid are unsettling, while Gene Jones’ “father” has a distinct sleaziness to his charming speeches.

The film, however, never gets really gets under the skin as it should. Strangely, it feels slightly too close to the material, it’s influenced by, yet holds none of the power. It’s a shame the film never reaches the same woozy feeling that the likes of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) creates, although that movie is more intelligent with its usage of points of view. The Sacarament stumbles over simpler aspects. West’s found footage movie suffers from the tropes which annoy others when they watch similar films. A camera is dropped when a character tries to evade gunman. The solders fine the camera a leave it (after dropping typical explanatory dialogue) and then leave the camera, despite being extremely wary of the filming near the beginning of the film. Other cameras clearly get destroyed while filming, yet have footage that blend seamlessly with the rest of the film. The found footage is an interesting angle, but awkwardly utilised. That said, the film’s opening segments lend a certain web 2.0 authority to them.

The Sacarment never feels like it cracks the veneer of civility in the way that one would like. Certain parts feel too manufactured, while other aspects have a clumsiness about them I just wouldn’t expect. The Sacrament won’t put me off the next Ti West film, but this entry feels all very surface level. Particularly where other flawed yet provocative films about cults have been released recently. The Sacrament has a competency that raises it above a few one or two found footage films, but it never manages to capture the spirit of the time like it could. Better luck next time.  

Monday 25 August 2014

Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Year: 2014
Director: Matt Reeves
Screenplay: Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver
Starring: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smit-McPhee

Synopsis is here

For me, the biggest issue with the ever expanding summer film season, has a lot to do with the frequently changing narrative that occurs very Friday. As each tent pole gets released, last week’s film, and the column inches that come with it. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was released a week before Guardians of the Galaxy exploded onto the scene, yet it feels like the good word that came with the film had been lost by how to make dancing Groot pages. This is something of a shame. I for one believe that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the more effective film.

The nostalgia loving fans of Guardian of the galaxy were quick to label their film fun. In fact, to hold any argument to some people, that was the only statement given. “Shut up. It’s fun!” That’s all you need. The near obsessive call to have blockbusters that only seem to call back to the considered glory years of the 1980’s is more than a little strange. Mainly to the superficiality of it all. The likes of Chris Pratt’s slightly slobby space rouge gives a warm fuzzy feeling to those still whipped up in the eighties revival party, in that it’s different (new source) but not (comfortably familiar). James Gunn’s jovial yet frivolous feature utilises the slightly tiring template to a tee. Yet that doesn’t matter too much because fun is Chris Pratt. Whom I’ve already witnessed on meme replacing his face over Harrison Ford’s in Indiana Jones. New face, same feel. 
It is here I find Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as a much more forward thinking creature. It finds enjoyment in the grooves of the uncomfortable. It is also fun, but it’s prepared to suggest more than quick flashes of amusement. Its opening credits are an impressive world map of lights as the deadly simian flu slowly begins to take hold of the globe. From the start it primes us for risk, in a blockbuster world where we’re doing our best to ensure our heroes, like the goddamn Goonies, never die.

Drawing heavily from the themes, ideas and motifs that appeared across the whole of the original franchise; Dawn, like its processor Rise, is a taut and economic blockbuster. While the film still comes in at over two hours, Dawn observes the franchise’s important areas of focus and compiles in one film, what the four original sequels needlessly stretched out excessively. Much of this stems from a keener eye on the narrative from both the screenwriters and director. But Dawn’s highly praised technological elements, heavily improve upon the issues being placed across. The CGI allows apes with more distinction. The money spent allows world building of a grander scale and more plausible action. All this combined together gives us an action feature that is often, more the sum of its parts.

Bookended by a pair of watchful, unwavering primate eyes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is quick to throw us into the world of the apes before we ever see a human. The film forces us to absorb their world; a mixture of overgrown jungle and lost suburbia. We observe the apes; their ways of communication (mostly sign language) and their laws and social structure. What fascinated me about the film’s opening, is just how much the film is pushing us to relate to the apes way of being over the humans. Peter Jackson’s King Kong has elements of this, but nothing to this extent. By the end of the first act, I felt totally accustomed to their ways and habitat. Matt Brown expressed difficulty in relating to Ceasar and the apes in his always intelligent MAMO podcast, however when placing in consideration the socio-political aspirations and ideals that lie within franchise, (both old and new) as well as the unnervingly timely events that have occurred in St Louis, These new chapters in the apes saga seem quick to express that we as an audience need to address who or what we relate to within a movie screen. In a world where no one had a problem with a science teacher, becoming a drug overlord, we should be ok with intelligent apes. I certainly was.

Once the film's human characters enter the frame, Reeves’ carefully ratchets the tension from scene to scene. Tentative alliances are balanced in such a way that even smaller scenes lay delicately on tender hooks. We’re never too sure about whether the mood will change due to a gesture, tone of voice, or a stray bullet. Reeves’ film shows the assertiveness that came with the likes of Let Me In and Cloverfield, but Dawn has allowed his confidence to really flourish in his storytelling. The film’s screenplay is smart enough, but there are decisions in the visuals, characters and storytelling that are clearly showing a steady growth of a mainstream filmmaker. It’s certainly becoming extremely clear of the faith, directors have with Andy Serkis, whose positioning within the motion capture world is one of extreme importance, particularly within this world.

Dawn does struggle with a few issues. The films pacing in the latter stages is not ideal, with elements of the climax feeling a little tacked on. Granted the film underground section wishes to nod to Beneath the Planet of the Apes, but the film's pace slows right down and the film loses some of the tension that was built. The film also follows the blockbuster trend of not really knowing what to do with its female characters. Keri Russell has more agency as a nurse than Sally Field in The Amazing Spiderman 2 or Elizabeth Olson in Godzilla, but she seems hardly essential to the plot. The films action is well structured and delivers us a wonderfully iconic image of rampant monkey carnage on horseback, yet no set piece feels as strong as the Golden Gate Bridge sequence from Rise.

This maybe because I was more caught up in the film's storytelling than anything else. A small but smart touch is having one of the film's characters, teach Cornelius English with a certain graphic novel, which like the Trouble man album found in Captain America: The Winter Solider says more about the film's themes than is the first lead on. When a supporting character, Carver begins to sound off about apes and their aggressiveness, I’m suddenly reminded of real life behaviors sounding eerily similar. Such moments evoke a gut impact that’s hard to shake off.

Meanwhile, the behavior of the film’s two antagonists isn’t just “bad guy” plot mechanics, they stem organically character's history and past interactions. What’s significant about both “villains” is they’re not necessarily wrong in their actions. Both appear to want the best for each side.  Both antagonists are more engaging than anything Ronan the Destroyer can muster.

On its surface, Dawn of the Planets of the apes is a solid blockbuster. A thrilling popcorn cruncher when it needs to be. It’s a “fun” movie, which is what everyone wants it seems. Under the hood, however, is an emotional and intelligent piece, which provokes the kind of responses that have slowly been disappearing from the mainstream blockbuster. Dawn casts its eye over themes such as civil rights, humanity and survival with a keenness in its eye that a viewer like myself will lap up with a hungry enthusiasm. The Planet of the Apes are now eight films deep and span over four decades. Now, with this recent interruption of the material, we are once again reminded that if we take off the rose tinted glasses of “fun” we can still enjoy escapist thrills while taking on board thoughtful and on point commentary. Same face. Fresh feelings.   

Sunday 10 August 2014

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

Year: 2014
Director: James Gunn
Screenplay: James Gunn, Nicole Perlman
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio del Toro

Synopsis is here

You have to give it to Marvel. They really know to market something. It’s been hard not to turn my head without a webspot, social network status or puff piece about the film flying towards my face. A film in which for many of its audience ($300 Million International box office in counting at the time of writing), had probably never heard of the source material it’s based on before its announcement. The word of mouth from said audience has been solid also. While things are looking good for the Guardians, I’m not sure the crew will be taking me to the Awesome Mix party they're clearly having for their efforts. As while I enjoyed isolated moments of James Gunn’s energetic blockbuster, the film as a whole never quite truly bowled me over.

In the binary, all or nothing age of the internet, this isn’t allowed and of course, the moment those words were read, the geeks have already decided against hearing me out/insulting me. For this viewer, however, Gunn’s film is so tailor made for a group of fans, they would never want to know, nor care, that the seams can be seen.

Many of my reservations stem from the film's narrative, which cleverly avoids milling around with origin stories, but quickly slips into being here before territory. We’re once again witnessing an all-powerful glowing McGuffin which an underwhelming megalomaniac seeks. Our gang of heroes will have to do battle with said megalomaniac and his bunch of near infinite cannon fodder. Preferably climaxing in a third act where most of the action will take place in the skies. Yes, that sounds cynical and yes, I’ve enjoyed this Marvel set up previously, but Gunn’s moments of irrelevance are such a breath of fresh air, I found myself acutely aware of the more familiar and laboured.

Guardians work best when Gunn and the screenwriters meld the silly and the sweet. Gunn, who was probably best known for the twisted cult hit; Super, before this, is particularly adept at taking the slightly outrageous and fusing it with a certain amount of warmth that others wouldn’t be able to coax. This is an ex Troma director with a web series named PG Porn, so it’s no surprise that the film's main strengths stem when the films at its most preposterous.  Did I just see a walking, talking tree grows a flower out his hand for a little girl? My heart melted slightly.

As mentioned before, the film’s quirky subversions illuminate the film well. Take a WWE wrestler who started out as a silent enforcer and give him the grandest vocabulary of the bunch. Have Vin Diesel, who is known for his gravelly voice and get him to produce some of his best work with only three words. Lets have a star as handsome as Bradley Cooper steal scenes, not with his smile, but with a vocal performance as a racoon. These characters shine brighter than our Star Lord (Pratt) whose performance is full of fun, but not the second coming of Solo. This said I still rather Nathan Fillion’s Mal as my go to space rouge.  Once again Zoe Salanda shows her worth in her role as the most serious of the outcasts; Gamora. Despite looking like she should have a similar trajectory to Scarlett Johansson, we still don’t seem to hear enough about her.

Despite this there’s an irritable feeling that Guardians is gaining a high amount of praise despite holding similar issues that other modern blockbusters are reprimanded for. Reason being; look at Chris Pratt rapping to Eminem verses. It seems like the same go here to do this plotting that the Micheal Bays and Brett Ratners will be attacked for is fine in other movies due to brand charisma and PR charm and little else. The memes of Chris Pratt as Indy have already been doing the rounds, yet any of that first trilogy appeared to be more expressive (and economic) with their plots than what we see here.

The more interesting and seemingly less observed aspect of this space opera, however, is that it pushes to the forefront the fine margins that occur with Marvel and it’s more auteur orientated directors. I did wonder how much did Edger Wright and the studio couldn’t meet in the middle with their Ant Man vision. Whereas James Gunn’s amusing asides and reaction shots fitted in to the brand. It reminded me of just how difficult the balance is between filmmakers and the project. How everything is a fine tapestry. Guardians of the Galaxy has frayed edges, but they are more interesting than the body itself.

Wednesday 30 July 2014

Review: Boyhood

Year: 2014
Director: Richard Linklater
Screenplay: Richard Linklater
Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater

Synopsis is here

Describing Boyhood feels like it should be a gimmick. A fictional chronicle of a boy’s life from age 5 to 18, filmed with the same cast over a period of 12 years. Collaborated in a way in which we are literally watching the boy (Ellar Coltrane) grow up in front of our eyes, as his parents grow older. The parents are actors we know and have seen in films from before, so to see them slowly alter and change, plays havoc with our knowledge of them as performers. If we place the film's plot down in words, its uniqueness seems to fade. The narrative strands are not particularly out of the ordinary. Though to watch the film play out is to watch a cultural marvel due to its conceit. The ambition is not in the words, but on the screen itself. Linklater’s Before trilogy only hinted at the ambition. Boyhood helps cement his place as one of the most valuable documentarians of modern relationships.

Boyhood does what Linklater's films love to do: have people talking. The film lets things play out in the simple, natural way we often expect from the filmmaker. We watch the kids natter about childish things, and their (unmarried) parents argue. We note the hint of determination in the Mother (A never better Patricia Arquette), and the brashness of the Father (Ethan Hawke). The conversations they have may not be exactly like the one your family have had, but they certainly feel like ones a family would have. There’s a beauty in how Linklater gets such engagement in the seemingly mundane. It also makes the small rises in conflict (involving divorce, alcoholism and sibling rivalry) feel so profound.

It’s after we get comfortable with the quirks of these people does the subtle power of Linklater’s direction occur. The use of form found in Boyhood is beyond grand in scale and thought. Music choices and product placement are suddenly valuable time signatures. They not only tell us the year we’re situated in, but help signify the cultural changes and growth of this boy’s life. Is Coldplay’s Yellow an obvious choice of song? Easy to sneer at now. Yet that single feels synonymous with the year it was released, as does Mason’s sister murdering Oops I did it again. By the time we reach Lady Gaga on an iPhone, Linklater has subtly shown us the gradual shift of what media has changed (or stayed the same) and how it’s consumed.

Elsewhere; we watch young friends fleeting away in wide shots, only to be sharply cut from the view. When the family move away, the Mother swears they’ll be back to visit, yet we never see them again. Does Mason? Ask yourself about some of the people you knew at similar ages and how your relationships ended. But its accuracy of how Mason’s viewpoint is portrayed that’s so impressive.

The characters seem unaffected by the slow evaporation of time and yet they slowly succumb to realisation. We watch Hawke’s immature, forthright young man morph into a figure of some maturity (sweetly symbolised by what he drives). Mason’s Mother takes a hint of determination and utilises it to help shatter a typical outlook of the single mother. All the while, the human landscape changes. We see the beginnings of Bush’s war before we witness Obama placards on lawns.

How Linklater keeps hold of these strands and textures is remarkable, but his ability to keep the drama as honest as he does is astonishing. As facial features and certain elements of personality grow and form, we’re still aware of their flaws. It’s amusing to see Mason issues finishing homework follow him throughout his life, but it’s notably perceptive to view his Mother’s trails in relationships. Repeat patterns of ill behavior follow and flow through the family in the same way that it flows through our own. The conflicts never feel bogged down or over dramatized, while every performance is instinctive no matter which part of the time they occur. As stated in other reviews, could Linklater have any clue at just how well Ellar Coltrane would carry a film that would span his adolescence?

That said, this is the kind of film Linklater has been working up to. From the Errol Morris vibe given off in Bernie (2011) to the feeling of nostalgia that comes with Dazed and Confused (1993). By the time we see Mason in his teenage years, he’s well on his way to being the type of gentle philosophizing Linklater protagonist we’ve seen in Waking Life (2001) or the Before series. Yet in all of the films I’ve seen of the director, I’ve never experienced something that plays with such conviction of its scope and understanding of its textures. Cinephiles will be well aware of the similar features (Up series, The Apu Trilogy, Truffaut’s films of Antoine Doinel), yet the intertwining of the cultural observations that Linklater uses, make this a landmark that deserves a place to stand with them. At a time in which Hollywood is wrestling with its love/hate relationship with arrested development, Boyhood stands out as one of the most mature and moving films about adolescence and family I’ve seen in a long time. Can the U.S keep Richard Linklater safe, please? He’s a cultural asset.

Review: The Zero Theorem

Year: 2013 (UK Theatrical 2014)
Director: Terry Gilliam
Screenplay: Pat Rushin
Starring: Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Thierry, David Thewlis, Lucas Hedges

Synopsis is here:

The Zero Theorem frustrates in the same way that Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales (2006) does. The film feels it has something to say about the state of our world, but yells too much information way too loud to gain any real sense of clarity. I love Terry Gilliam for the simple fact that his protagonists are all dreamers. They throw caution to the wind as they become obsessed with their flights of fancy. The problem arises when the dream isn’t particularly interesting or involving. What we have here is a film that’s extremely loud about what it wants to say, but for some, they won’t really care about what is said.

I found myself reminded of The Ninth Configuration (1980) which treads similar territory of men who are looking for hope within the hopeless. Themes like this, I do tend to enjoy, as faith is that wonderfully human thing that brings up exciting conflicts within narratives. At the start of The Zero Theorem, I felt we were on to another winner. It’s clear that the budget was low but the imagination high, as we’re landed into an obscenely coloured and cluttered landscape which melds the grubby London setting of Children of Men (2006) with Gilliam’s own, satirical Brazil (1985). Orwell himself would be proud of the surreal production and art design on display.

It’s clear that Gilliam hasn't lost his sense of fun, filling the film with dry jabs of modern life. Advertisements of a church of Batman are slapped on walls, while the idea of party revelers dancing to their own iPods despite the room playing loud music is something that already feels closer than we think. There's even a certain dryness to Christoph Waltz’s character of Qohen working a pathetic number cruncher for an all-consuming company named Mancorp. Particularly when we find out Managements reason for being.

When summing the film up to more than its smaller parts, The Zero Theorem suffers from being a bit of a beautiful nothing. Waltz’ is having fun with a character far removed from what we know him for, but the character himself is far from engaging. The film's romantic relationship between Waltz’s Qohen and Mélanie Thierry’s Bainsley never really sizzles, while the feeling of wanting to replicate Brazil in more than just set design never really leaves us. The film blows a lot of smoke over the cruel search for purpose, unfortunately Gilliam’s worse indulgences take over and the film never really stakes a strong claim.

I say this as a bit of a Gilliam apologist at the best of times. I found Tideland (2005) nightmarish and evocative. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) pushes Gilliam’s love of the messiness of imagination and storytelling while The Brothers Grimm (2005) brushes past its flaws with an interesting look on fairy tales that one could say, may have helped usher in this new breed of “gritty” fairy tales. The Zero Theorem has many of the pacing and organised problems of the director’s weakest pieces. The problem is this time round, I found myself unable to find the golden nugget of significance that usually resides in Gilliam’s mind’s eye. As gorgeous as The Zero Theorem is in parts, this tragic tale of The Big Crunch felt more than a little soggy.  

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Review: Under The Skin

Year: 2013 (U.K Theatrical Release 2014)
Director: Johnathan Glazer
Screenplay: Johnathan Glazer, Walter Campbell
Starring: Scarlett Johansson 

Synopsis is here

Under The Skin's IMDB score currently stands at a middling 6.5 on its user ratings. This is understandable. For detractors, the film's lyrical pace will merely frustrate. The nuanced transformation of one of the most famous and attractive woman in the world into a blank alien vessel will be ignored and criticised for its alleged flatness. The films lack of exposition will be viewed has plotless, considering how most screenplays labour themselves with tell-all dialogue.

I understand those criticisms, but I do not agree with them in the slightest. When a film has elusive as this appears on screens, people will always confront those who enjoy it and ask: Why do you like this? Truth is, like a good joke, to deconstruct this film, as I am about to do (poorly), will not give the questioner the satisfying answer they require. After watching Under the Skin, I could only exclaim that it was an "experience". A few days on as I write this, I now consider Under the Skin possibly one of the most incisive science fiction films of the year, if not the last ten. I say this with love and apologies to Gravity (2013), Moon (2008), Children of Men (2005) et all.

Beginning with a grand and opulent 2001 style space sequence and finishing with delicate snowfall, Johnathan Glazer's third feature (9 years after the hauntingly tragic Birth), continues his particular detached observations of human life with Kubrickian precision. The protagonist 'Laura' (Johansson) stalks single men with the removed glare of a terminator. She roams the Scottish Highlands in the kind of white van we tell children to stay away from. Her beauty, however, makes it difficult who the horny males she picks up, who see nothing strange with this particular picture.

Despite the pleasantries that are exchanged, there's no free candy. As the men are seduced, they're are submerged into a thick abyss of liquid. What happens to them is best left to the film to explain, although the Michel Faber novel that the film is loosely based on, explains in clearer detail what happens to these poor souls.

Much has been said about Glazer's use of hidden cameras to film the interactions of Scarlet Johansson with the unwitting Scottish locals. The placement of the cameras often feels similar to the disjointed feel of CCTV cameras not only capturing the action and realistic, awkward conversations, but also slim and strange pockets of uneasy negative space. Glazer and cinematographer Daniel Landin capture seemingly banal moments of humanity with the aloofness of a playful street photographer. The most typical aspects of human life appear distinct and unnatural, with Glazer's visuals become a primer of sorts. It's the only way I can describe how he makes some of the films most unnerving sequences seem understandable.

This doesn't not mean justified. We may perceive much of Laura's behaviour as ugly, but when the "person" you're watching doesn't run on the same notions and emotions as ourselves, we're suddenly propelled into a new dynamic. A new plateau in which vacant gaze of Laura, unlocks parts of us we keep hidden. Johansson's placid performance provides an abyss for which we can throw our own feelings of humanity into. A cold, gray beach has Laura impassively watch a tragedy play out in front of us while playing her own part towards affecting the situation. Later we hear the development of what happened and we comprehend the situation. Laura's lack of reaction disconcerts, reminding us of our basic empathy.

Glazer melds base, predatory elements with this dispassionate, alien tone to overwhelming results. The film lacks the wry humour that litters Faber's book, but extracts the elements in-between the lines to create something bleaker in its explorations. Glazer adds sequences you couldn't imagine in the novel. Alison Wilmore neatly capsules how the male gaze is subverted within the film. What makes the film so provocative is, the more time Laura spends on our planet, she doesn't just become more "human" but she also encounters the predatory instinct that lies within men when they are not controlled. A small yet pivotal scene has Laura hounded by drunk revelers attacking her van in a way that reminds us of why the feminist movement should not be silenced. The film's final third lands us in survival mode with Laura facing what so many fear before blasting off into the metaphysical.

Under the Skin has faint shades of The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) along with tones of Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972) for good measure. Despite this, Glazer maintains his own touch throughout. Laura may be extra-terrestrial, yet she holds the same narrow view of Sexy Beast's (2000) Don Logan or Birth's Anna. Characters that are so unbelievably sure of their aims and goals that anything that displays a different orientation, shatters their comprehension. Here lies the smartness in Glazer's feature, in which, despite how densely alien this being is, she still remains bound by the trappings of the creatures she preys on. Something I'm sure many of us have felt from time to time. The abyss stares back at us.