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.