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.

Sunday 6 July 2014

Review: Chef

Year: 2014
Director: Jon Favreau
Screenplay: Jon Favreau
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sofía Vergara, Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Platt, John Leguizamo

Synopsis is here

When I worked at a multiplex, a peculiar thing happened during the release of the first Fast & Furious film. The moment all the track suit decked, boy racing audience left the cinema, a distinct rev of engines could be heard, while the smell of burnt tires filled the air. We were always surprised that we didn't witness any accidents. The Fast and The Furious is not high art, but the effect on its core audience appeared more profound than many of the more obscure, artier features I frequent. Now, after watching Jon Favreau's Chef. I found myself producing this calorie drenched monstrosity at 11pm at night:

Returning to the type of stripped down affair Favreau was known for before blowing up big in Hollywood, Chef presents itself as the little film that could. The film wants to earnestly touch upon the role of the artist, but it's obvious that things have changed for Favreau since Swingers. The subject of food is easily substituted for film as Favreau casts himself as a Chef who finds himself critically and creatively stifled. It's not only clear to see where Favreau is heading with his lead character's arc (filmed off the back of Iron Man 2), but with his cast too. It's a smart touch to cast Dustin Hoffman as a restaurant owner (read Producer) whose stumps up the money for his chef but has no time for the distraction of a diverse menu. Having Hoffman, who came to prominence during the director led New Hollywood era, as a blinkered bean counter of the establishment, hints at a subversive bite. No blood is drawn from the chewing, however, as Favreau can now slap Dustin Hoffman into his movie.

Chef does spend some of its time balancing precariously between a film about an artist being an artist and not wanting to be too damning about its real subject. While its notes on criticism and how it affects a person's work and family life are much more mature than Lady in the Water (2006), it doesn't beat the deft commentary delivered by Pixar's Ratatouille (2007). This doesn't mean that Chef isn't being honest with itself, despite needlessly shoving Robert Downley Jr and Scarlet Johansson into roles due to being work colleagues with the director.

The fact is, to expect Favreau to merely distill every aspect of his filmmaking to a late 90's indie, is naïve. Scarlet Johansson and Sofía Vergara are somewhat smugly cast as love interests for the now more portly Favreau (still a genuinely likable screen presence), but this was the slubby actor who had himself swing dancing with Heather Graham in a script he had written. The film's outward narrative tension isn't particularly strong, yet like Swingers (1996), a film about a man looking inside himself once more to get back on the horse, Chef works because the characters have such an affectionate and easy going sense of charm, that they're hard not to like. It's interesting to see that in terms of structure, humour and general sensibility, when the budget drops, Favreau hasn't really changed, despite some thematic flaws. What he delivers is a light and enjoyable comedy with wholesome characters and a cast that's game. Yes, it's a thinly veiled chance to show off a catchy soundtrack and gorgeous street food (Favreau refitted his kitchen after filming), but Chef at its heart of hearts is a sincere attempt to leave you feeling fuzzy. Chef doesn't have the barbs to put it on the level with the likes of The Player (1992), but there was enough in there to make me bring out the pots and pans and indulge in a little passion.