Thursday 28 January 2016

Review: Room

Year: 2015 (U.K Threatical Release: 2016)
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Screenplay: Emma Donoghue
Starring: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, William H Macy

Synopsis is here:

Despite the film’s slow build, and it’s sometimes misguided moments of tone, Lenny Abrahamson’s adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s novel; Room, is an involving drama led brilliantly from the film’s main cast. To say too much about the plot, is to ruin things. The film’s marketing has already perhaps let in too much air. Although it would be difficult to sell Room without hinting at least some of its dark premise.

The film's bleak introduction is tough going. For some, it will be the very idea of what’s happening within the enclosed space. Despite being a work of fiction, Donoghue’s story was inspired by a very disturbing true story. One which may switch off one or two in the audience, but would surprise fans of Abrahamson’s previous works. For myself, I found the films first act difficult to get my teeth stuck into. Its situation is troubling, the cast brings forth the right chemistry, yet the stodginess of the piece (while seemingly intentional) becomes slightly overbearing.

Room becomes a far more engaging film after a pivotal event, to which we are suddenly pushed forward into a new range of dynamics. All from the viewpoint of a small child. There’s a slight echo of Terry Gilliam’s Tideland (2005), but while Abrahamson never delves into the recesses of a disturbed child as vibrantly as Gilliam, he maintains a similar innocence while keeping in place a wonderful eye for detail. Room is a film of close ups and reactions, both captured expertly by (cinematographer) Danny Cohen, who manages to display the disorientating effects of an encapsulated youth with a disturbing accuracy.

It is the leads who pull off the films real power. Brie Larson’s darting eyes and troubled glances are matched with the brevity of newcomer Jacob Tremblay. Neither performance is easy to pull off. Both are layered with emotional and give the film's extraordinary situation its pull, even if the catharsis isn’t as powerful as expected.

As an introduction to Abrahamson’s work, Room is far more accessible than the deeply affecting What Richard Did (2012), or his macabrely quirky Adam and Paul (2004). It still brings about some difficult watching and while it doesn’t home as hard as previous efforts (does the film need to lean on its score as hard as it does?), it’s certainly a solid piece of work from an upfront and ambitious director. It’ll be easy to see audience members ignore my heart of stone and flood a screening room in tears.  

Review: Youth

Year: 2015 (UK Theatrical release: 2016)
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Screenplay: Paolo Sorrentino
Starring: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda.

Synopsis is here:

It's funny that amidst all the #Oscarsowhite nonsense, we have Michael Caine telling black actors and filmmakers to "be patient" when it comes to award nominations. Caine says this while promoting yet another film which once again highlights the first world problems of very wealthy white creatives. A film in which its director, Paulo Sorrentino, has already graced his presence with two years ago. Only this time we get more Paul Dano.

The rather gruff old man I sat next to in the screening picked up his stuff and left swiftly though the second act. A film about apathetic old men was just too much. Life's too short. At one point I too considered such an option. As a film, Youth isn’t a badly made piece. Its visual opulence is remarkable. The performances from all the cast hold sensitivity and humour. But I feel that I could have edited my review for Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty and would only have to change less than 100 words.

The second reason behind possibly leaving was that unlike its leads, I still, at this point, have my youth. I will wholeheartedly admit that what Sorrentino is aiming for, I may be too immature to fully appreciate. This doesn’t explain why The Great Beauty tickled the right spot. Maybe it’s because the texts are just so similar. There's little to be said here that wasn't said better in Sorrentino’s 2013 acclaimed feature. We go over the reminiscing, fear and lost loves of both Fred (Caine) and Micky (Harvey Keitel) as they grow old disgracefully during a holiday in the Swiss Alps. The feelings of desire and the wish for more time and energy witness are relatable to anyone who holds a close relationship with their parents/grandparents. Yes, we must embrace life, as to look back with regret is most disheartening. It’s not that what Sorrentino’s saying doesn’t hold a sense of truth. However, this was said with more bite two years ago. Toni Servillo wandering the ruins of Rome, looking back at his own feelings of unfulfilment within a city of such succulent culture gave an entertaining dynamic. Having Caine conduct music with cows wearing bells is cute, but doesn’t really do too much else.

Cute is what Youth often is. Having an aging Maradona reflect on when he had the world at his feet is a highlight. As is the film’s gorgeous compositions of the human body which range from the young and voluptuous to the aged and decaying. Sorrentino is quite skilled at conveying certain emotions and moods wordlessly.

It is difficult to believe a lot of Youth however. The narrative thread of Rachel Weisz’s character is weak on many accounts, not just for the bizarre meta reference of using Paloma Faith as a Homewrecker. Despite the amusing end gag at Miss Faith’s expense, the film often derails itself on such indulgent flights of fancy.

Should we have expected anything thing else from a film like Youth? Probably not. I do have to admit that the film is a bit of a let-down. While holding the same visual elegance of The Great Beauty, it lacks that film's sense of place. While lovely to look at, nothing really seems to stick. Although the screenplay tries incessantly to do so with its more obvious dialogue.

Amusingly, Fred states at one point that “Intellectuals have no taste.” Another cute moment in a film that could likely be highly acclaimed by intellectuals. My mind wandered back to the gruff man who exited early. I wonder if he left to watch a movie where robots fight aliens or something similar. That’s what I would have done.

Tuesday 19 January 2016

Review: Creed

Review: Creed
Year: 2015 (2016 UK Theatrical Release)
Director: Ryan Coogler
Screenplay: Ryan Coogler, Aaron Covington
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone. Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashād, Tony Bellew,  Graham McTavish.

Synopsis is here:

The bad news is that films like Creed, which has racked up a more than decent Box Office gross since opening on the 40th anniversary the original Rocky, again highlights that the cry for originality is only voiced by the minority. 2015’s top grossing hits have shown that despite the bleating, we’re pretty much through the looking glass. The good news however is that if such spin offs/sequels/reboots, etc., can be executed in the same manner of confidence that is exuded by Ryan Coogler in Creed, then the minority shouldn’t complain too much. Creed is a Rocky film through and through. Board because it has to be, sensitive when it needs to be, and bold because it’s expected. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree here, and despite there being the odd bruise from the drop, the results are still sweet enough.

With Creed, Coogler manages to transport the same feelings of candour and displacement felt in his first feature Fruitvale Station (2013), and tones down the anger and injustice. Here in Creed, similar issues and events are witnessed. Again, we have an angry young black kid who feels engaged by his surroundings and senses what he can be through application. Yet while Fruitvale Station was a dramatic re-enactment of an unjust and tragic event, Creed is infused with the kind of hope and spirit that only a fairy tale like Rocky could provide. Just knowing that the film lies in the same universe lets us know what we’re going to be in for. All the same Coogler is quick and wise to infuse Creed with smart updates. Tessa Thompson’s Bianca needs little coaxing out of a timid shell a la Adrian. The film’s first two fight sequence, set within a detention centre, dining halls and the back alleys of Tijuana, only highlights where the new fight for representation is occurring.

A potent blend of old and new, Creed is a fitting way to regenerate the franchise. As the renowned former heavyweight, Sylvester Stallone not only reminds us of how competent an actor is really can be (see also Cop Land, Rocky Balboa), with his sensitive seventh display of the down but never out Balboa. Jordan’s Creed is a perfect foil for the old hand. Jordan plays Creed with a brooding swagger and a magnetic presence. Watching the two bounce off one another and develop a credence for each other is genuinely entertaining to watch. The film is rounded off with solid support from the aforementioned Tessa Thompson as well as a welcoming appearance from Phylicia Rashād. Although her role sometimes feels a tad light.

What also feels a little featherweight, is the person who becomes the film's main antagonist; Pretty" Ricky Conlan played Anthony "Tony" Bellew. What Bellew has in physicality (he is a professional champion boxer) he lacks in the charisma. If there’s one thing that Creed really needs, it’s an Apollo.
Coolger does allow the spirit of the All American Champion hang over the film like a dense cloud. He frames the young Adonis shadow boxing against a projection of his father fighting Rocky. The first back and forth between Adonis and Rocky is tinged with the late boxer’s shadow. Even Adonis’ reasoning behind stepping into the ring is at complete odds with Apollo’s, yet it melds perfectly with why audiences loved Rocky. Even with heritage behind him, the fight for being personal identity stepping out of the crowd is just as strong with Adonis as with Balboa. Coolger exploits this element whenever he can, ensuring that once again a so called “urban” feature can feel universal.

When Creed updates, however, it really updates. The film's fights still have the “silly” knock around feel to them, but are made far more dynamic with Maryse Alberti’s wonderful one take photography. The fights are not realistic in the truest sense, but are brutally immersive in their own right. Coolger also shows his age (29) as well as his audience’s with visuals that seem to mimic that of EA’s Fight Night Series. If correct, Coolger shows that he’s not only smart with how he wishes to show black representation (highlighting Creed’s former work place is notable), but also showing new influences effectively. Too often films are criticised for feel too much like a video game. Coogler shows out to replicate such imagery, yet stay involved with the work.

It’s unfortunate that Creed stutters slightly as it hurtles towards its climax, the ease of how it’s conflicts are resolved, remind us just how simplistic the Rocky universe is. The film is clearly interested in continuing the franchise and sometimes gets a tad too carried away with such things. This doesn’t take away from the fact that when Creed hits right, it hits hard. The film holds blockbuster broadness, yet that doesn’t stop it from being a solid sports drama of its own accord. A durable spin off. With the sequel pencilled in for the near future, I’m happy to place originality to the side for this one.

Saturday 16 January 2016

Article: The Year That Was: 2015

When we were hurtling towards the end of another year, I was politely asked by two online outlets, if I would be so kind to deliver a top ten list. After a brief rumination, I decided why not? I may not invest too much into lists any more, but the internet still wolfs them down like the sweet clickbait candy that they are. Remember who you're writing for, I guess.

Apologies for the slight snark. I mean no harm. However, since last year, I’m finding myself more interested in things I found in the year overall, rather than a scything down the favourites in order to separate the crop.

Subjects like sex and erotica had a torrid time in the few films I saw, which focused on them.  The over hyped, unevenly baked 50 Shades tried to sell vanilla sex scenes as more than they actually were (or could ever be), because whips and chains. Shades may not have been the total turkey man had thought (and secretly hoped). Its box office gross clearly showed that, be it hype, curiosity, friskiness or a mix of all three, there was an adult (mostly female) market to be exploited. It’s a pity that despite a rise in sex accessories, the film’s vanilla sex scenes do little to take it’s ideals of sensual escapism further.

The Arthouse scene, which has far less qualms in explicit material gave us Gasper Noe’s self-indulgent Love. A plodding, underwritten sex fest with a narrative of angsty Sundance aspirations. Noe’s shoe gazing feature not only pales in comparison when observing the trillions of gigabytes of internet porn (which deliver their cumshots with far more earnestness), but feels vastly inferior to mumblecore features of a decade ago. Lest we forget Lars Von Trier’s flawed saga Nymphomaniac (2013), which despite being also indulgent and overlong, at least attempts to say something greater about how our emotions conflict and contrast with our physical intimacy. Love’s narrative, give or take a few elements, wouldn’t feel too out of place in a line-up of overegged young adult features. 50 Shades may have been born from young adult fan fiction (Twilight), but Love’s self-conscious anxieties make E. L James’ opus feel like a heady brew of maturity.

Documentary Chemsex did its best to spread moral panic, while feeling light on facts. Important insights of isolation and community almost get lost between a vast mass of talking heads and stories, which never give us enough time to breathe. It’s main conceit; that sectors of homosexual males are mixing a deadly cocktail of drugs and unprotected sex, is so focused on one sector of Britain, it feels inconclusive and incomplete.

The winner for me when it came to any discussion of sex or sensuality within cinema, was Peter Strictland’s dreamily shot The Duke of Burgundy. The film comments on sex, kink and love with the type delicacy and emotion we should expect from erotica. The film’s Crown Jewel? It’s all woman cast, which help provide a fresh take on dominance, submission and obsession. Losing the need of the all-seeing, all-encompassing male gaze.

This brings me on to 2015 bringing forth some engaging features which give a positive engagement of the dreaded word of diversity. The films that lingered in my head, were often great with their commentaries and ideas of gender and race. Dear White People updated Spike Lee’s School Daze with a grander scope and little Do the Right Thing structuring. Straight Outta Compton was a blockbuster biopic, which did quite well in depicting N.W.A as a glossy, urban version of The Sex Pistols. The aforementioned The Duke of Burgundy and it’s all female cast, Carol, were all well put together. The 7th Fast and Furious once again revelled in its multi-racial cast and multi-million box office haul.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens illustrated organic progressive qualities, while Fury Road gave us a new, well rounded female hero wrapped within a Mad Max film. It’s important to remember that Fury Road’s white male director made the most of its female editor. Rebecca Ferguson’s covert agent in the fifth MI entry also helped the aims and intentions of the Internet film culture, if not the wider culture, in terms of gender.

It was, however, the Martian that I found to be the most warming and heartening in a world that's feeling increasingly isolating and dangerous. Now an Oscar nominated feature, it’s we are the world commentary may feel a little trite, but god damn it made the idealist in me smile.

Ryan Coogler’s (Fruitvale Station) Creed has made waves recently, revamping the Rocky franchise with an African American lead. I have yet to see it at the time of writing this, yet its solid word of mouth is showing us that both Coogler and Michael B Jordan may certainly have something to say in the realms of representation. The fact these aforementioned films with their successful attempts at bringing across diversity show that the passive white male hero can be joined by others quite easily. Just make the material compelling. It's important to realise that roughly around 500 Hollywood movies get released each year. The fact that The Huffington Post can only find 11 films with black cast members (not even leads) of that average, worth watching that's not even of the same percentage equivalent. You can see the frustrations. It's more troubling when we place into consideration that we're seeing artists break down the speaking parts of the POC cast by the minute. We don't a complete reversal of the casts. But we do need at least try and achieve the percentage representation.

I say this as social media and ignorance has seemingly helped warp the ideal of progressiveness on both sides. American cinemas felt it necessary to bulk up security for Straight Outta Compton for reasons that are quite transparent to people like myself. That said, things such as the push for Idris Elba to play everybody, or the internet outrage which sparks the moment a z-lister feels hard done by, are well intentioned but often feel short sighted. For me the push for more BAME filmmakers in a stronger position to create their own stories is far more important to me than forcibly seeing a POC become James Bond or fighting to get Ava DuVernay to do a Marvel film. Particularly when we see just how clear these franchise films run on a track. Coolger’s positioning into the Rocky franchise may hold a certain amount of transparency (all about the franchise Benjamins), but its success for both director and star may help open up new pathways for POC artists. The same certainly goes for Straight Outta Compton.

I have missed a load of films for the simple reason that either they've been smaller release that don't enter cinemas. Or mainstream fare that looks like tripe. Annoyingly, with the likes of Disney owning Star Wars, Marvel and of course, their own product. There's a bleakness that sometimes hovers over me like a dark cloud. Films that will look and sound the same, now dictate openings with such velocity, it can feel depressing. Avengers Age of Ultron did little to remain in my thoughts. Only really adding more characters to a larger film that doesn’t wish to end. Other franchise entries such as Spectre felt exactly like the name suggests; a ghostly re-tread of Bonds of the past with what little deviation gained from the earlier Craig movies being rubbed out. Franchise films are beginning to feel rushed and neglectful of their scripts. When Marvel and Disney release their timelines and release dates for their ongoing franchises. May mind was instantly cast back to When Alien 3 (1993) had a release date before a finished screenplay. There’s been many examples of this, although none stick out as egregiously as that one.

Yet now fan demand and the demands of commerce outstrip artistic creativity in mainstream cinema so perversely, it’s sometimes hard to see the forest for the trees. The Mamo Podcast gave the perfect description of the 2nd biggest film of the year: The good enough blockbuster.  Jurassic World is dumb, weakly scripted and spiteful, yet has enough branding and call backs in it for fans to be happy and the book with its palatable themes can be forgotten once more. A shame.

Also worrying was while Star Wars: The Force Awakens was a fun re-entry to a much loved cinematic world, it also felt like a re-polished Episode 4. A film with no real surprises (despite the cries of no spoilers), and an insurance that nothing will be really tampered with. Lest we upset fans by offering something new.

That both titles made a ton of cash with the audiences trading in the more solid storytelling of the previous films for the chance to hear the music, see the characters and feel like a child again is quite perturbing. Escapism is fine, but I wish these films would be scrutinised as much as other films which are just as fictional but don't have the nostalgia to lean on.

For all the issues the Sony hack delivered, isn't it funny that The Interview, the film that was called to be banned, still pooped out a cinema release, before cropping up on Sky a few months later? It is now widely available and not much happened about the hack since. Although a fair damage certainly hit Sony at the point of impact, like so much of our view of such events, everything was quickly forgotten. Meanwhile the revealing talk about race that came from some of the executives’ emails, including the dubious riff what Obama’s film tastes, help highlight why I’m not surprised at yet another Oscar whitewash year. I wonder if such attacks, along with the PS4 hack may become more familiar. Though how it will affect our entertainment is another story.

So we’re three weeks into the New Year with more franchise features and sequels to look forward to. In the past four weeks, we’ve lost four artists (Haskell Wexler, Alan Rickman, Vilmos Zsigmond and David Bowie) whose contributions to cinema will certainly inspire many for years to come. In light of my aforementioned ramblings, I certainly do hope so.  Film critics will of course lament where the medium of criticism is going. Soon after expect the same critics to attack audiences/other critics/filmmakers with cheap snark and not see the connection. Twitter will get angrier. Brands will amass more cash. But as long as the films get made and entertain, things will be interesting.

Review: The Hateful Eight

Year: 2015 (2016 UK Theatrical Release)
Director: Quentin Tarnatino
Screenplay: Quentin Tarnatino
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demián Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern

Synopsis is here

By the end of The Hateful Eight, I found myself at a loss. As a huge admirer of the filmmakers' work, I found the eighth film from the idiosyncratic director to be slightly uninspiring. Not a bad film by any means. The dialogue holds that sing song prose we often expect. The humour has more than a touch of the gallows to it. The references, as always, have the type of richness we’d come to expect from the energetic, egotistical pastiche picture maker.

As a fan, it’s hard not to hold a fondness for the films brutal, bloody and bold filmmaking. Clocking in at 167 minutes (general release version), it’s still great to see Tarnatino as the diehard hip-hop auteur that he has always been. The novelistic narrative, the political incorrectness, the characters who hold a sense of depth despite their cartoonish nature. At times it feels like a medley of greatest hits.

Despite this, The Hateful Eight seems diluted. A reminder that many enjoyed the filmmaker when his were more streamlined. It’s easy to see elements of Reservoir Dogs (1992) crop up throughout The Hateful Eight. What I realised is just how much the limitations pushed the filmmaker in his early days. Characters are nailed down quickly while payoffs are executed sharply. The Hateful Eight, much like Tarantino’s Death Proof (2007), seems to put out a lot of posturing, but while impressing from a technical standpoint, never seem to deliver that pleasurable gut punch we know that the director can easily provide.

Something that has dropped into the pit of peoples stomach, however, is Quentin's love for the word nigger, which like Django Unchained (2012), is used to convey the post-civil war era setting as well as the racial tension, which are stirred within the film itself. Of course, liberal commenters were quick to react towards Tarnatino consistent use of the word and with good cause. To a point. Tarnatino’s racial politics can often feel troublesome and problematic. The film could probably easily tone down its uses of such a slur. Yet in watching a film called The Hateful Eight, made by a man whose viewing pleasures are often occupied by the sleaze of exploitation and Grindhouse, while I don’t condone it. I can at gain a sense of understanding. In comparison, Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope (2015) is equally infatuated with the word, yet has little else to back up its overuse. Interestingly, both films, gender politics also come into play. The Hateful Eight features deplorable violence towards women sometimes cartoonish, often troubling. Yet still works towards making its lone lead female (a fantastic Jennifer Jason Leigh) a compelling feature of the movie. Unlike Dope’s various sketchily drawn females, Leigh’s Daisy Domergue is an actual character with motivations worthy of watching. One may not agree with what she does, at least she is not window dressing.

Despite this there are some understandably awkward stereotypes which raise their head during a pivotal point of the movie. Combined with a strange, beguiling, sexually aggressive monologue by Samuel L Jackson. These sequences distressing to some due to their displacement of black women and the connotations of black sexuality respectively. While Tarantino tries to remain canny by once again making his black and female characters the smartest players in the room, he’s doing so in a film that could really do with some decent chopping. Critics have been trying to unpack the deeper themes of the film as best they can. I don’t care too much about that. Mostly because the film isn’t as strong from a fundamental standpoint. The elements are there, but everything feels far too surface level. Yes, even for a Tarantino movie.

Despite a gruff Kurt Russell, the film never reaches the fever pitch of tension found in The Thing (1982). The film's visuals are attractive, but never deliver the same creeping feeling of dread that occurs in previous Tarnatino features (Inglourious Basterds for instance). The film’s performances are all enjoyable, but the outcome of everyone is not. It’s a strange feeling to have in a Tarantino film but, one I felt all the same.

Is this a misfire? Not really. A few of the reasons on why I watch Tarnatino raise their head. No doubt, I’ll see movies this year with a dazzling amount of inaptitude. Something The Hateful Eight certainly doesn’t have. The Hateful Eight, however, seems to suggest that Quentin Tarantino may do well to step out of his own head for a while and take a breather. If what he says is true, then he only has two films left. He should go out with a bang.