Thursday 26 January 2017

Review: Jackie

Year: 2016
Director: Pablo Larraín
Screenplay: Noah Oppenheim
Starring: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt, Richard E Grant

Synopsis is here:

Everything is a tad oppressive in Pablo Larraín’s Jackie. It’s all a little bit constricting. Mica Levi shrieking strings from her Under the Skin score, rear their head once more in new arrangements. The aspect ratio is smaller, tighter than what we are used to. Natalie Portman, who features in nearly every shot gives a deliberate and affected performance. One that peaks on near consistent anxiety.
If separated in some way, it probably wouldn’t have been all that effective. Of course, the point of Jackie is to bring them together in such a way, that everything bears down on the viewer, as it would its titular character. This film about the days Jackie Kennedy spent between the assassination of her husband; President Kennedy and his burial, often seems less like a biopic or insight into grief, and more like an essay of unwanted fame and survivor’s guilt. JFK is only often witnessed in brief glimpses (we even see the infamous moment in grisly detail), yet his presence looms large. Such is the way of Larraín as a formalist. Nearly every aspect of the film seems to highlight how the cloud of this man’s death weighs down heavily on his now widow.

Jackie boils throughout with a quiet intensity. Despite its delicate pacing, there’s a restlessness that burns through every scene. When a man like Kennedy dies, how do you find time to mourn? Usually, when someone dies, those close them are often consumed in the mundanity of grief. Often there’s a privacy to proceedings.  Larraín’s film considers the idea that Jackie, known during Kennedy’s presidency for her wish for privacy and image control, is torn between her own private grief and the desire in to ensure that JFK’s legacy is preserved.

We don’t just see this in the technical aspects, like where Stéphane Fontaine’s camera does all it can to isolate Portman’s Jackie any opportunity it can by either crashing it’s subject with oppressive close-ups or pushing her out into wide empty spaces. We also find it in Portman’s wonderfully conflicted performance. The forced affliction in her voice and wide-eyed apprehension would feel out of place in the hands of a lesser director. Larraín’s control of the film’s form creates a perfect fold for Portman’s anxious performance. During these final days, Jackie wanders the near endless rooms and halls of The White House, like a lost spectre. Through Jackie’s conversations with Kennedy’s remorseful brother Rob (the never bad Peter Sarsgaard), we find a woman who's not only violently displaced by tragic events, but one who has never felt she was a piece of the grand puzzle. 

Despite this, there’s no backing down. The conversations we witness in this film may or may not have happened. That’s not the point. Much like the zany Miles Davis biopic Mile’s Ahead of last year, Jackie this isn’t really about an accurate “truth”. It’s about a heightened emotional one. Jackie never panders, but it certainly does give reasons to ponder. At a time when our political spheres are losing their heads, Jackie coincidently appears at a time when many are rummaging through the dying ambers of a certain kind progressive idealism. It’s fascinating to watch the Chilean director Larraín, explore the opening cracks of where America felt these ideals first began to fray. With Jackie, the filmmaker installs a brittle and enduring resolve that quietly emerges from an individual who helps to cope with a nation's grief with a defiant poise and a steely grace.    

Review: La La Land

Year: 2016
Director: Damien Chazelle
Screenplay: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone

Synopsis is here:

I write this review of La La Land on the day Donald Trump is sworn into office as the 45th president of the united states. Since November, the world has descended into a kind of mania, due to America’s decision to elect the businessman-cum-reality T.V star. With good reason, too. Strangely the only other thing that’s had as a cult of personality as strong as Trump on my twitter feed, has been Damien Chazelle's Oscar forerunner La La Land.

However, for all my liberal film writers despairing at The Donald’s apparent lack of progressive thought and seemingly regressive desire to shoot America back to a lily white 1950’s that never really truly existed, it’s fascinating to see many of them fawn over a movie which at times feels like it’s doing similar. La La Land is a film that doesn’t so much have one foot in the past, rather than a whole leg and while the film gives everything a lot of gusto, it’s fizziness falls into forgetfulness very soon afterwards. Is it because I’m not a musical fan? No. La La Land does really well with two actors that aren’t particularly known and watched for their musical talents. I feel one of the main issues I hold with La La Land is (that going back to Trump) it appears at a time where real life cynicism is so overwhelming, that the film’s colourful escapism has filled a void in many. Not a problem. We often need the fantasy. But second coming of MGM this is not.

Despite my apparent negativity towards the film, La La Land is actually easy to like. It’s two leads, Stone and Gosling have chemistry in their dancing as well as their acting, with Stone sparkling in her role of Mia, a struggling actress. It’s hard not to smile at the two bouncing off each other. We’ve seen this before in Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011), but in La La Land the two have far more time to fizz off each other and that’s a good thing.

However, this is a film pauses itself to have a little moment about how Jazz is all about conflict and yet decides against having too much of it. It does a lot to hark back to the MGM musicals of old, but never feels as radical or dynamic as the best of those movies. Bizarrely the moments that stuck in my head were not so much the grand song and dance set pieces, it was the smaller quieter moments which struck me. When the singing stopped and we saw two great looking performers give each just the right look into each other’s eyes.

Meanwhile, director  Damien Chazelle shows off his technical prowess with La La Land’s overcomplicated camerawork infiltrating the film’s simple narrative. The film’s visuals are often impressive but also very self-aware. Much like the film’s references, it’s enough to push a person out of the film. The film also lacks the same beautiful use of rhythm that graced Chazelle's Whiplash (2015). Granted we’re not looking for the rat-a-tat tempo of that movie, but at no point does La La Land feel like it’s going with the flow. Again, this stems from the film’s roaming camera, which never feels like it trusts it’s cast. It really should.

While this not meant to be as intense as Whiplash, La La Land has Damien Chazelle again looking into themes of art, jazz and sacrifice, although here the film holds a certain amount of artifice. This is not because of La La Land’s flights of fancy, but down to the suggestion that despite black innovation (John Legend in a small role) and an Afro-American old guard, the real heart of Jazz lies in hip, young, white traditionalist Ryan Gosling and his busy hands. Not so much of an issue in Whiplash in spite its New York Middle class setting. La La Land and its nosedive into the awards pool, shows itself to be a very “white” movie. Amusingly, this highlights why I try not to pay much attention of the Oscars. For all the debate around #OscarsSoWhite, the success of La La Land as we hurtle towards the academy awards is very telling and by no means surprising. Films like La La Land do well because it’s a film of a certain model, in love with its past glories. It just so happens that those glory days weren’t particularly diverse.

As much as film writers have been quick to hail La La Land already as a modern classic to be remembered, at times it’s no more a throwback to relatively easy nostalgia than Transformers or Marvel Cinematic Universe, although it is a classier one. It’s often sparkly, sometimes lavish, but certainly a transparent revert to type. A relatively frothy musical which is quick to remind us of older movies but not as memorable musically as one would hope. Musicals should leave a viewer with a spring in the step. This left my mind with some bright spells amidst a slight cloud of fog.

Review: Silence

Year: 2016 (U.K Release: 2017)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: Jay Cocks, Martin Scorsese
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver

Synopsis is here:

It's fascinating to me that after dividing audiences with The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), in which we watch a man sell his soul for greed with the greatest of ease, Martin Scorsese decides to follow up his rowdy and wildly successful dark comedy with a quiet passion project about two priests doing what they can to save their own souls.

What we have here is a religious heart of darkness. An odyssey about spiritual nourishment which strangely left me longing. Silence is tough to "get" and you feel it's length. But it doesn't transcend in the same way Tree of Life (2011) did, or nor does it ever becomes as replenishing as Of Gods and Men (2010).

Having recently seen The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), I was astounded by its simple elegance. A silent movie which as profound as it is simple. Perhaps due to the limitations, or simple artistic choice, the film's stripped-down nature and decision to shoot in mostly tight close-up was a masterstroke. Capturing the defiance, grace and catharsis of a woman, whose faith is put to the very test.  Silence is a meticulous exercise of craft in which very frame is a painting, every inch of blocking is precise and yet that seems to be what restrains it. It's beautiful to watch, with Scorsese highlighting his love for the moving image, even though the roving camera, we know him for is knowingly still. Here it is patient. Less reactive. It's a stillness, which feels likened to Ozu than the rock and roll director of Mean Streets. It is a choice made for contemplation, although I'm not sure it captures the emotion that flows through the likes of Carl Theodor Dreyer's film

Marty's so-called "lesser" modern works have often entertained due to the director being enraptured with the pulp of cinema. The long-distilled conversations that occur in Silence seem to try and force their way into the bloodstream, and at the films best, it moves with a quiet drama. However, I'm never transported as I am here than I am with his more trashier entries, maybe because despite their rich cinematic foundations, they appear to be more effortless. Silence's glacial pacing and combative conversations are never drawn out to the point of tedium, but they are not always easy to digest, even at when the conflicts reach their peak of friction. Silence often feels more like a sometimes-satisfying thesis, more than anything. At times the experience is draining, at some points compelling, but through its running time, it always felt distant. Even more so now after time contemplating.

Smaller gripes include Latin accents which fall out of sync while the English from some of the Japanese cast is at times difficult to pick up. While these are minor issues, they still all hold an ability to keep a viewer at a distance from its stoic protagonists. Both Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield give high tier performances, but neither performances are delivered to reel you in. Compared to Willem Dafoe complicated performance in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), both Driver and Garfield, never engage us at the same level. With previous Scorsese films, we could cope with the distance of his lonely men, often due to their villainy. With Silence, much of the space placed between the protagonists and the audience is due to arrogance. With this, it is difficult to walk alongside them. Unlike the ethereal Tree of Life (2011) or even visceral The Exorcist (1973), which both find ways to invoke ways to connect with the human element. This stays extremely difficult until it's coda.

In a world that is becoming increasingly more secular, a film like this feels like a diamond in the rough. For the viewer, it will be easy to see Silence as difficult to get to grips with. Sombre, solemn and deliberately paced. This is a film which requires its viewer to do the work, and even then, the rewards may feel fleeting.

Wednesday 4 January 2017

Review: Assassin's Creed

Year: 2016 (U.K release date 2017)
Director: Justin Kurzel
Screenplay: Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper, Bill Collage
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling, Michael K. Williams.

Synopsis is here:

2016 is dead, and therefore we can now look forward to the cinematic pleasures that 2017 should bring. I decided to start this year by trying to embrace a much-maligned sub-genre of cinema: The Video Game movie. Justin Kurzel’s Assassin’s Creed is the umpteenth attempt to bring a decent video game feature to fruition, and like so many of these dubious adaptations, relegated to cult status only appealing to those with morbid curiosity, this film stumbles and fumbles its way to conversation. It’s easy for film writers to mock these films as easy targets, however, in watching Assassin’s Creed, you realise that these films don’t really help themselves.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before on this blog, but I’m of the strong belief that video game adaptation needs a product managing executive in the way of Marvel’s Kevin Feige. Someone with a decent knowledge and love for the product at hand and whose acumen is clearly more than the bottom line. Assassin’s Creed is a film that understands that it used to be a video game but hasn’t got a clue on how to become a movie. Midway through the film, protagonist Cal (Fassbender) loudly exclaims “what the hell is going on?!” and we feel the same.  

Poor Michael Fassbender. This is a fully committed performance to something that only requires half of his skill and talent. Assassin’s Creed is a beautiful nothing. A film with a three-person (credited) screenplay which is happy to screw up any stakes by introducing factors which hold no risk to the protagonist. It’s all very good that Kurzel’s visuals are reminiscent of the game, and they appear as organically as they can in a film as nonsensical as this one, but once again, like Silent Hill (2006) before it, we’re given a film which thinks that plotting a film like the game it’s based on is the right way to go. It’s not. The film’s convoluted storyline is written with an eye to appeasing video game fans, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it has. However, Assassin’s Creed terrible McGuffin (an apple which holds the genetic code to free will) never feels worth the billions that the film’s antagonists have spent trying to obtain it.

Then again, the film does very little with its heavily talented cast to make anything worthwhile. Kurzel’s film has the likes of Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons and Charlotte Rampling joylessly muttering plot exposition, but gives them very little to do other than stand around and look sombre. All the action is given to Fassbender who gives it his all but is placing all his energy into thanklessly dull action sequences, which hold no actual risk until it’s omishambolic climax.

Praise should go to Kurzel and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw for once again bringing a keen eye to the visuals of the film. This is the best-looking video game adaptation by far, and if there would be a reason to ever re-watch Assassin’s Creed, it would be for an audio commentary by the two on the look of the film. However, let’s think about what I just typed there. I’d happily watch this film again if there were other people talking over the film's risible dialogue.

There’s very little to recommend here. If a character exclaiming “Leap of faith!” with no actual relevance to the viewer unless they’ve have knowledge of the source material excites you, then have at it. If not, I would ask you to consider just sticking to the games instead as they’re far more fun. In fact, I’m sure you could jump on twitch and watch someone play one of the games. It would be far more involving.