Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Review of Weekend (2011)

Andrew Haigh’s “Weekend” is a British film about two gay men who meet on a Friday night, have a one-night stand, and try not to fall in love over the eponymous timeframe as they contend with the knowledge that one of them is going away to America in two days to do a two year art course. For ninety-odd minutes we observe the pair, Glen (Chris New) and Russell (Tom Cullen), as they make love, take drugs, pontificate, philosophise, and tease their feelings for each other. They barely know each other, but that spark is there, and it burns ever brighter as the weekend goes on.

It’s a torturous state of affairs, and it’s one that the film understands perfectly. Rooted in the minutiae of British life- think high-rise flats, dodgy nightclubs, and cups of tea and coffee- this film has a certain enchanting aura to it, bolstered by Ula Pontikos’ dreamy photography, the floaty shot composition (one scene seems to echo the apartment sequence in Godard’s Breathless) and the naturalistic acting. The film sticks by Glen, and director Haigh takes time to observe his behaviours; he keeps his trainers in their shoebox, for example, and he is clearly made uncomfortable by crowds of people. He’s quiet, and softly spoken. He takes baths, not showers. His eyes have a warm, dark quality about them. He is not one to talk about his feelings, and we sense a loneliness about him.

Russell is different. He’s loud, excitable, and friendly in that way which comes across as subduing a certain sadness, and as we find out, he is. Glen and Russell go together in that way that opposites tend to, introvert and extrovert; they fill in each other’s gaps. Russell has an ongoing art project interviewing strangers after sex, which Glen is reluctant to be a part of, but he nevertheless gives it a go, in part out of curiosity. His words are mumbled, and forced. He is not a man especially comfortable in his own life and skin, and to an extent the film represents his personal flowering. He does one thing at the end of the film which he would not have done at the beginning; there’s genuine development going on here.

Haigh, who also wrote, is careful to keep one eye open regarding society’s views of homosexuality. Early on, Glen hears homophobic slurs coming from Russell’s window, and he shouts down angrily. It is not the first time we hear homophobic slurs in the film. What I found especially interesting was that the film does not come across as having an axe to grind, and it takes care to present both sides. Glen, being who he is, seems to want more rights for gay people, or at least more recognition. He’s indignant that “the straights” tend to box gay people up. Russell, on the other hand, simply wants what everyone else has; cosiness, comfort, happiness. He’s less concerned with agendas, and more with overcoming his loneliness.

We hear the pair share their stories. One particularly painful moment sees Glen talk about how he got walked in on by a friend when he was masturbating. He wasn’t friends with that person any more, and “I wasn’t friends with anyone else after he told the school”

“That’s awful, Glen”
“It is what it is”

This is ultimately a tender and truthful film with a detached, observant style that really allows us to get under the skin of the characters. It contains moments that are genuinely moving, genuinely sexy, and genuinely tragic, and the film as a whole is genuine. It’s the kind of movie with characters who reference other movies. It takes care to suck the viewer in, and it’s far more than simply being a gay Before Sunrise. It’s a spellbinding experience from beginning to end that has similarities with Lost In Translation in what it says about human connections.

I was moved, plainly and simply, by the plight of the characters in this bewitching love story, which understands that true love isn't easy, it isn't always convenient, and yet is sometimes painfully unavoidable.

Review of X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

The X-Men saga has been running for 14 years now and remains notable, in my eyes, for being the only superhero franchise to actually care about. It’s developed a solid bedrock of characters, it actually has an inner core and message, there’s an appropriate level of subtext, and, crucially, the films remember to be good fun. This was exemplified in the best of the lot, 2011’s “X-Men: First Class”, a prequel which eschewed being a cheap cash-in and carried itself along with a highly energetic tone, prestige acting, and a genuine sense of wonder at these awesome mutants with their powers.

What a shame, then, that X-Men Days of Future Past foregoes all that in favour of being, well, frankly dull. Don’t get me wrong, the components are there, but the film seems too unsure of itself, and never strikes any note of consistency. Characters are bought back, just to be recognised, and then dropped again. The film blinkers its vision with too much plot, too much faff and hassle, and not enough thought.

The core story is interesting enough, and takes its inspirations from a comic of the same name written in the 1980’s, which I have read and enjoyed. In the present day, mutants and their sympathisers are outlawed and guarded by giant machines called “sentinels”, which were designed in 1973 by an anti-mutant engineer called Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage). Except in 1973, Bolivar Trask was assassinated by shape-shifting mutant Rogue (Jennifer Laurence), which only exacerbated the anti-mutant situation and brought about the dystopia in the present day. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Erik Lehnsherr (Ian McKellen), better known as Professor X and Magneto, enlist the invincible mutant Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), who I’m sure you’re familiar with by now, to go back in time to 1973 and stop Trask being assassinated, thus averting the anti-mutant movement and preventing society from falling to ruins. You still with me? In all fairness, the film does take its time over setting up the plot, and the film is never as confusing as it could have been, given it’s a time travel movie. So the film does have that.

You may have spotted certain parallels with discrimination and prejudice, and it is worth saying that the films have never been coy about their themes, which is something I’ve always admired about the franchise. The mutants have always been a metaphor for the oppressed, in particular gay teenagers (the mutantism always has a tendency to manifest itself along with the first feelings of sexuality). The first film was about an anti-mutant senator, the second film was about a general who experimented on Wolverine, and the third one was about a “cure” for mutantism. This one, though, doesn’t really go to many places with its subtext, despite it being placed at the forefront. There’s also some misguided symbolism; note the heap of bodies at the beginning of the film, which is designed to recall the Holocaust. Magneto was even a young Jewish boy in the time of the war. The mutants of the future have an “M” carved into their face, a shocking image, and there are some gruesome pictures of mutant experiments, but these points never align themselves into something overarching, or bigger. It just bumbles along, making plot points.

The acting, too, is hampered by the film itself. The film combines Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Michael Fassbender (in my eyes, one of the very best actors currently working), Hugh Jackman, Jennifer Laurence, Halle Berry, Nicholas Hoult, James McAvoy, Ellen Page and Omar Sy. That is a talented roster, and the film does not use them. Ian McKellen, for example, maybe gets about five lines. Michael Fassbender is wasted and limited to a special effect, and any attempts to plumb his character are shallow and vague. Hugh Jackman, who has been the subject of two separate films, is given some wonky lines and the occasional inspiring monologue. And so on, and so on. There’s always the risk with ensemble casts that you end up drowning the audience with too many characters; that’s what happens here. The films have always tended to pride themselves on a family unit and relationships that are resolutely not Mannichean, that could feasibly exist in the real world. Yet this film is all surface, no depth.

This leads me on to my biggest issue with the film; it’s simultaneously a baggy film which could have been a bit longer, and I hopefully envisage a director’s cut out there in which all of these aspects are given their dues. In an age where most films are half an hour too long, it seems odd that I can view this film sitting comfortably as a TV miniseries, or a three hour epic. It feels too compressed.

Finally, it also doesn’t distinguish itself visually. One sequence, which had the power to awe, sees Magneto lifting an entire baseball stadium into the air and carrying it across Washington, and it simply comes across as flat and dull. The film has a pervasive grey look about it which disappoints. It’s fresh from the school of clean and polished Hollywood cinematography, and it looks like everything else that’s been released in the last ten years. We are truly living in the time of Nolan now, and this film proves that.

It reeks of disappointment and unfulfilled promises. A tighter focus, perhaps, or a longer running time, may have saved this film, but as it is it seems stuck in limbo, unsure, timid, dull. The fact that one of the highlights of the film is borrowed from the 2006 animated kid’s comedy “Over The Hedge” says an awful lot. 

Monday, 26 May 2014

Review of I Stand Alone (1998)

Where does one begin with a film such as Gaspar Noé’s “I Stand Alone”? A slim, 90 minute descent into hell, it conveys such images and thoughts of horror that were it played straight, it would be unwatchable. Yet Noé is always there, winking at the viewer, and this just about makes the film bearable. But does this justify the film? I do not know. What I do know is that I have a perverse admiration for this brave and genuinely shocking piece of work, which manages that rare trick of self-awareness that isn’t annoying.

Ostensibly a character study, regarding an unemployed, middle-aged, overweight, sulking and very violent man known only as “The Butcher”, on account of his former profession and also his derogatory attitude towards foreigners, women, gays. Played by Phillipe Nahon, his performance is an act of bravery. Few people would ever want themselves to be associated with this character, and even fewer could muster up the loneliness that The Butcher frequently does. He is a man who blames everyone around him for his woes, and frequently labels himself to be a hypocrite. Take the moment where he muses that sex isn’t for him, yet shortly after decides that anyone who can’t have sex is “past it”. The hell this man is living in is self-created.

There are also moments in the film where Noé simply lets the camera run as The Butcher is walking along the street, and his thoughts fill the screen. The Butcher does not think happy thoughts. “You can live with a guy, or a girl, or have kids, but you’re still alone. You live alone, you’re born alone, you die alone. Even when you fuck, you’re alone.” See also; “Love, friendship, it’s all bullshit.” Noé is careful to frame The Butcher nearly always in complete isolation, and this contributes to a near-palpable sense of fear.

The constant talk of being alone lends itself to a claustrophobic atmosphere which Noé conjures up effortlessly, spurning a traditional approach to the material and flirting with faux-documentary, Kubrickian shot composition, Godardian invention and witty intertitles. It’s a film that’s giddy with the ways in which films can be made, and this probably saves it from being unwatchable. It’s also, crucially, blackly funny in places, although that may be because if I wasn’t laughing, I’d be crying.

It’s an unflinching experience. One early scene, for example, sees The Butcher beating his pregnant lover in the stomach, over and over. It’s right there, in front of us, and I had to look away. What is the purpose of this scene? Noé is portraying such overt misanthropy that one could be tempted to say that the film is misanthropic. Not quite, in my opinion. Noé is careful to make The Butcher the very worst thing in his film, and portray his reactions to the things around him as entirely disproportionate to the things which have spurred on his anger. He keeps getting turned down on jobs, for example, and with each reaction his anger grows. Yet the people he gets rejected by are polite, sympathetic. As I have said, a lot of this anguish is internal. The Butcher is his own worst enemy. The film understands this, and him.

The Butcher also has a daughter, played by a predominantly mute Blandine Lenoir, who is the only thing that The Butcher feels any semblance of a feeling towards that isn’t hate. The final scene is a reconciliation of sorts between the two, as The Butcher weighs up the possibilities of rape and murder, but instead bawls his eyes out and yells “don’t leave me alone”. With Pachelbel’s Canon playing in the background, I found myself moved against myself. Why should I feel sympathy for such a pitiful, evil man? And yet I did, to an extent, because who doesn’t want to be alone? The film represents a depiction of the extremes of our innate fear of loneliness, an even more hellish “Taxi Driver”, if you will.

This is a difficult, problematic film that is ultimately successful because, I think, Noé understands exactly what he is doing and the results he is striving for. Some people may not be able to handle it (although it’s notably less harrowing than the director’s later, more renowned “Irreversible”), but a ready and open mind will pay you back in dividends. 

Review of La Belle Noiseuse (1991)

When I was younger, I had an art teacher called Mr Davies. An aloof, scatterbrained man who fit the absent-minded professor role very well, he often found himself despairing at our classes’ general cluelessness and ineptness at creating art. One day, he decided to show us how it was done. He took a canvas, and some charcoal, and he drew one of the buildings in our school. It took about twenty minutes, and not one of us stirred. We watched, intent, as he shaped the outline, and seemingly at random, drew grooves, alcoves, windows, the ivy, the brick shapes, which resulted in a drawing which was utterly unique, yet conveyed something intimately familiar to us all. His hand seemed possessed by something not inside him, and he carried an air of effortlessness with every stroke. Each one of us was in awe.

I thought of him, and that moment, when I was watching Jacques Rivette’s “La Belle Noiseuse”, a four hour film about an aging artist called Frenhofer (Michel Picolli) who, ten years after abandoning his masterpiece, picks up his tools and attempts it anew with the young Marianne (Emmanuelle Béart) as his subject. This is the cause of much disturbance amongst Marianne’s boyfriend Nicolas (David Bursztein) and Frenhofer’s wife Liz (Jane Birkin), although if you are expecting a straightforward drama around these straightforward themes of jealousy, then you may be disappointed. This is instead a film which asks, what does it mean to bare your soul for the artist? Is allowing yourself to be painted a form of violation? Especially when the nature of the painting is one that is presenting you in your most honest form? To what extent is the artist in control of his material, or subject, or vice versa?

I was absolutely enthralled for every minute of the leisurely runtime. This is a film steeped in beauty, and it blossoms like a flower right in front of our very eyes. It is the first work I have seen from Jacques Rivette, but I am certain it will not be the last, as his directorial voice in this film is one that is as strong as any other masters I have seen the films of. He presents a formal, classical and sumptuous control over his material which leaves the viewer spellbound.

But is he really in control? This is a central paradox which the film itself explores. I read that the film had no script, and was simply made up from day to day based on what came before. In this respect, we must observe that the actors, Rivette’s subject, are as much responsible for what we see as Rivette is. Sure, Rivette arranges his camera around them in the way he does, and edits around them in the way he does (although there isn’t much editing in this film; it plays out mostly in gorgeous long takes), but to what extent is the work his, or the actors?

This arises often in the film. We will see Frenhofer arrange Marianne in one pose or another, and she will move ever so slightly, twist her neck, arrange her back, shift her balance, because that’s simply what humans do. We are not meant to stay still. Positions are not fixed, and they are not permanent, yet surely when the artist is drawing, he is trying to capture something permanently? “La Belle Noiseuse” understands this dilemma.

The performances in this film are all perfect; quiet, subdued and observant. Let us observe Frenhofert; he is an old man, with white fluffy hair adorning the sides of his head, and he has craggy features. He is often expressionless, but never more so when he is painting. We slowly realise that he is a man gripped by a certain fear. He understands the true nature of his artwork, and that scares him. Should human nature be explored that honestly?

Marianne is simpler. At first she doesn’t even want to be the subject of Frenhofer’s painting, but she eventually gives in, I guess because we all like to be made idols of. She and Frenhofer maintain a respectful relationship which is notable for how sexless it is. Marianne is naked in a number of scenes in this film, but any erotic tension is purely invented by the viewer. It is not hard to see that Beart is a beautiful actress, and her character relies on this beauty. Yet Frenhofer manhandles her, pulls her to and fro, and seemingly never sees the sexual potential that lies between the two. The art has gripped him.

This disturbs Marianne’s boyfriend, who can’t quite handle the fact that Frenhofer, through drawing her, knows her more intimately than anyone ever will. Frenhofer’s wife, on the other hand, is not prone to jealousy and at first seems overjoyed that Frenhofer has found the resolve to finish his masterpiece (which was originally to be drawn with her). But even she, as the film goes on, finds one of Frenhofer’s actions hurtful, and we see that sometimes the nature of art can be destructive, as opposed to creative.

Look for little clues. Rivette plays up the sound of the crickets on the soundtrack, and when they are absent (mainly when Frenhofer is in the studio), we focus on the silence. Several scenes play out in silence, such as the spellbinding sequence where Frenhofer draws Marianne for the first time. Frenhofer goes about his studio, picking up and putting down brushes, paints, easels, and when he does settle on his tools, we find ourselves on the edge of our seat, because we have just witnessed the whittling down of innumerable possibilities. This film is as gripping as any thriller.

Finally, what contributes so heavily to the success of this film is the fact that we witness key events in real time. Most films truncate their time-frame, so as to give the illusion of a certain amount of time having passed whilst not actually subjecting the audience to it. This film is four hours long, and it takes place over the course of a week. We live through that week, and all of the key moments happen as they would actually happen. The camerawork, which is beautiful, makes great use of all the space on show. The 4:3 aspect ratio, which could have been stifling, instead allows the actors to appear comfortable in their surroundings, and this comfort seeps into the viewer. Far from being boring, we come to know the characters, their actions, and the film takes on rhythms and movements all to itself. The ending, which is frustrating and delightful in equal measure, is the only one that could have fit, although for the life of me I will always want to know what is behind that wall.

This is a film you settle into, and it’s one of the most immersive I have ever seen. It contains movements and shots which I will likely never forget, and it is one of the very few films I have witnessed which I didn’t want to end, because I grew so accustomed to the tale and its manner of telling. “La Belle Noiseuse” translates to “the beautiful nuisance. This film is “La Belle Masterpiece”. 

Sunday, 25 May 2014

What Roger Ebert Did For Me

This is my opinion, a thought-piece, if you will. It is not a review of anything, it is a transcription of my thoughts, about Roger Ebert. If this doesn't interest you (and believe me, I would understand if it doesn't), then please stop reading here.

As I write this, I find myself listening to a TED talk where Roger Ebert, his wife Chaz and close friends talk about the nature of voices, why we use them, how we use them, their importance, and what it means to talk. It was some years after Roger Ebert had his operation, for cancer, to remove his lower jaw. It saved his life, but it removed his ability to speak. Luckily, he was living in the 21st century, where Apple computers come equipped with robotic voices and you can more or less type out anything you want to say and it will be received, as is (I could be mute, and none of you reading this would know). Such is the nature of communication in the global age; in this respect, Ebert was very lucky, and indeed he looks positively over-joyed simply to be present at that talk.

It's a truly heart-warming video. He is a man full of love, and surrounded by love, and it comes through. But the video has made me think.

I would not be here were it not for that man. The reason I write, the reason I watch films, the way I watch films, and the way I write about films, all come from him. I have never really given much thought about the nature of role-models, or someone to aspire to, but sitting here, writing this, I have now come to the conclusion that if I am to choose one role-model, then it would be him. Not a day goes by when I don't visit his website, his Great Movies articles, or YouTube some review or other that he did in his days with the Siskel and Ebert review show.

What set him apart from just about every other film critic, or culture critic, or person I know, was his compassion. He was a man filled with a boundless love, energy, and optimism, his understanding of human nature going far beyond anyone I have ever met, or known in my life. He wrote, and spoke, with an immense warmth and a certain candour and honesty which I have yet to find in any other critic; he used anecdotes in his reviews, for example, and whilst this could backfire and seem like vanity, it never did with Roger. He was a man with stories worth telling. His review of the regrettable and forgettable "My Life In Ruins" (Driving Aphrodite in the UK), for example, contains this in the final paragraph;

"There is, in short, nothing I liked about "My Life in Ruins," except some of the ruins. The tourists are even allowed to consult the Oracle at Delphi. That scene reminded of when Chaz and I visited an ancient temple at Ise in Japan. Outside the gates, monks sat on platforms inscribing scrolls. "You may ask anything you want," our guide told us. "Will there be peace in our time?" asked Chaz. The monk gave a look at our guide. Our guide said, "Ah, I think maybe a better question may be more like, 'How many monks live in temple?' ""

What a wonderful piece of writing that is. It shows how soulful, sensitive, thoughtful and genuinely interested in the nature of human experience he truly was; a born wit, with a keen and observational eye.

Why am I telling you all this? The anniversary of Ebert's death was nearly two months ago. The trailer for the documentary about his life, "Life Itself", premiered a couple of days ago, so I guess it's that. But the truth is, from the moment I discovered him as a critic, he became the watermark by which all others were to be judged. What I instantly responded to was how he tailored each review to the film; serious films were given a serious review. Dumb films were given an irreverent review. If Ebert grappled with a film and didn't "get" it, more often than not that frustration would manifest itself (as in his infamous review of Blue Velvet). If a film angered Ebert, that anger would also manifest itself.

Above all, Ebert responded most to films which championed, celebrated or highlighted the worth of human life, and this is probably the greatest gift he has bestowed upon me as a critic also. It is, to me, the best approach there is to films. This year's Calvary, for example, moved me deeply and profoundly because I knew to approach it, or rather, I was attuned to the fact that it might be making a comment on human nature. That was Ebert.

He also responded to "pure" cinema (take his review of The Fall, of El Topo, or Prometheus). This, too, has helped me in terms of watching and reviewing films; the way in which he viewed cinema as a legitimate artform in itself, with methods and practices informed my own approaches. I understand he's hardly the only critic to treat cinema like this, but he was certainly the only one to open my eyes to the extent that he did.

Ebert's legacy is immense. My writings here are but a crude attempt to try and convey what other, better and more talented writers have felt about the man; that he was more than a film critic. He was a noble, honest man who viewed his films through the prism of his own very interesting life. He was a paragon of virtue. And, wherever you are Mr Ebert, I want you to know that I am grateful for all you have done for me.

I'm off to watch La Belle Noiseuse right now; were it not for you, I probably wouldn't have ever heard of it.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Review of Godzilla (2014)

Anyone who has seen his 2010 feature debut “Monsters” knows that Gareth Edwards can direct a film. With that effort, he proved that he had a good eye for little details, a willingness to dwell on the small moments which draw the viewer in, and a capability for handling big, emotional scenes (the closing moments hit me like a sledgehammer). The film remains one of my favourites of that year, and is crucial on one tiny aspect; it forewent actually having many monsters in it, is basically a romantic drama, and treated the fact that there was an alien invasion as if it was part of the scenery. It was a fresh, confident, low-budget effort with a lingering natural style.

And now, four years later, we have his studio “remake”, or “re-imagining”, or “re-interpretation” of Godzilla, that famed Japanese lizard-dragon-dinosaur thing. Originally a nuclear-allegory, we’ve seen Godzilla morph into an icon (“Godzilla VS King Kong”) and the centre of an action movie (Roland Emmerich’s 1998 “Godzilla”). Here… I can’t say for sure what it is. It’s the main attraction used to sell a huge, dumb, problematic, overlong, overcooked, boring, joyless romp, I guess.

In fact, the title Godzilla is a bit of a lie. The titles “Heavy-Handed Exposition”, or “Extraneous Characters and Plot Details”, or “Giant Winged ‘Muto’ Monsters Given More Attention Than Godzilla” would have been much more of a fit. But you can’t really sell those with Happy Meals, can you?

No, what we have here is a film made in the Christopher Nolan model (think lumbering and dark), right down to the very last moments, which are basically a foggy rehash of The Dark Knight Rises. We have two prologues, set in 1999; the first, shows us Ken Watanabe’s awfully under-used Dr Ichiro Serizawa discovering a sight where one of the first signs of monster were displayed, and the second introducing us to Bryan Cranston’s work obsessed family man Joe Brody, working in a nuclear power-plant, worrying about some readings on a seismic graph. We know he’s work obsessed because he forgets his own birthday, despite being told by his wife (Juliette Binoche), literally right in front of him.

But, that’s okay, because maybe the film will go on to develop his character in a way where we learn how scatterbrained he is. Or, maybe not. After a huge accident means he has to let his wife die, in one of the films’ first and many attempts at delivering emotional impact, we then move forward fifteen years to the present day, with his son Ford (Aaron Taylor Johnson) all grown up and living in a big city with his wife and child. He’s a military man and a bomb defuser; upon returning home from duty, he gets a phone call saying his father was caught trespassing on the nuclear power-plant. Back to Japan we go.

And so on, and so on, for a good forty minutes before we get to the feature attraction, a ‘Muto’, (aka a clone of the monster from 2008’s “Cloverfield”). It promptly flies away. Then we get a good half hour more of exposition. Then there’s a big fight between Godzilla (who appears from the sea) and a Muto. Then more exposition. Then, finally, a whole city has to be evacuated to make way for the big fight between the Muto, another Muto (which is declared female despite anyone getting a look at its genitals), and Godzilla.

A word about the Muto’s (Muto? Muti?) and Godzilla. They “eat” nuclear radiation. The film handily introduces a nuclear bomb, which the final act of the film revolves around Ford’s attempts to defuse. I am not sure quite what the nutritional value of nuclear radiation is, but something here doesn’t add up. I’m willing to buy that the nuclear-radiation created the monsters in the first place, but does that mean that nuclear-radiation is the only thing that the monsters can eat? What about humans, or other monsters? Just because you and I were created by sperm and eggs... You get the idea.

Perhaps I’m being too nitpicky, But, devoid of allegory or metaphor, emotional clout, or pacing, the film tires quickly. It is an exercise in extraneous details. Several characters could be removed very easily, the dialogue could be snappier, the film could try and have some life. There’s an abundance of mist, fog and smoke in the film, which does little but obscure the details of Godzilla itself. The whole film is very dark; I saw it in 2D, and found myself uncertain where to look at times. Anyone seeing it in 3D, with light loss, is going to have a hard time.

Here’s the thing. If this film had been a character based film with a monster backdrop, it would have worked, as Monsters did. If the film had been a mindless romp, it also probably would have worked, within that remit, and been a good bit of fun. But the film is both, and neither, and gives the distinct impression of a work of auteur near-greatness torn apart by studio heads. It flounders.

(A quick note on Godzilla itself; I grew fond of it (he? She?). It shows determination, it isn’t strictly bad, and it doesn’t want to mindlessly destroy things. It is given more dimension and weight than any of the human characters, we feel a certain strange sympathy for it, and the CGI used to create its’ scarcely seen facial features is probably the film’s crowning achievement. In the inevitable sequel, I recommend basing the film around it more. Like the title kinda, y’know, implied). 

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Review of The Book of Revelation (2006)

“A lot of men would pay to be in your position.”

“If I paid, this would be my choice. This is not my choice”

This dialogue, between a rapist and her victim, occurs about one third into Australian Ana Kokkinos’ “The Book of Revelation” (based on Rupert Thomson’s novel) a film which is not about the Bible, and to my mind has few Biblical allusions. It is instead about a dancer called Daniel, played by Tom Long, who is out buying cigarettes when he is abducted by three hooded women, taken to a secluded shack, and sexually assaulted for twelve days. Then he is released, and the rest of the film details his attempts at piecing his life together, and re-integrating himself into society following his traumatic experience.

If it sounds like this film might be too harrowing, then it is and it isn’t. This is not an “easy” film, in the sense that people who are sensitive to graphic sex or sexual assault will likely be put off by two or three scenes, yet the scenes of assault largely occur in one ten-minute stretch, and the film is careful to surround them with scenes which are real. This film could not be less exploitative.

No, this film is more difficult because it raises a number of questions about the nature of rape, and the so-called rape culture that is contained within our society.  As David is being assaulted, as a man myself, I found myself aroused, purely as a physiological reaction, in much the same way David was aroused against his will. This echoes Michael Haneke's Funny Games, which made the viewer complicit in the torture of a middle-class suburban family to make you think about the true nature of screen violence; I admired that film for its nobility of purpose, and I feel much the same way about this film. You may note that the film is directed by a woman, but this is not an overtly feminist film, and it does not subvert the rape revenge genre in the way Baise Moi did. The film forgoes the revenge entirely. It instead has a vivid sympathy for all suffering, irrespective of whether it is a man or a woman who is suffering, or whether it is a man or a woman who is inflicting the suffering.

What massively helps the film is the central performance. Tom Long is incredibly adept at conveying mental anguish behind a stony exterior, and whilst there is only one real moment where we see his anguish get on top of him, his emotions appear to be painted on his face. I was surprised at how involved I became in his journey and attempts at piecing his life together following what he went through. His behaviour may not make logical sense at times, but he makes us understand how sometimes we behave illogically under pressure, and that’s a tricky thing. Excellent performances also come from Greta Scacchi as David’s dance tutor, and Deborah Olsen, who plays Julie, the woman David attempts a relationship with following his ordeal. They care for David, and again their performances seem real and convincing; this helps, in a film which could very easily have been highly implausible.

The film also has a clinical detachment, echoing the texture and tone of 90’s Cronenberg, which I came to appreciate. The camerawork has a certain classical quality, placing what we need to see plainly at the centre of the screen, whilst also leaving time for little details (the film is very good at drawing out smaller moments, such as when David traces his finger over objects in extreme close-up; instances like this, far from being amateurish film-school tics, bolster the film’s realism and subtly draw the viewer in). Note also the infrequent symbolism, such as the planes and boats flying away from David. Just because what it symbolises is obvious doesn't make it any less effective. 

I understand that this may not be a film for everyone. It asks difficult questions, and does not pretend to have the answers. It doesn’t explain things that people accustomed to a traditional narrative may expect, such as who the rapists are, and why they are doing what they are doing. The conclusion is far from tidy, and those who are averse to interpretive dance may be advised to stay away. The film to me is more depiction of what would happen if a man was placed in the same scenario women are placed in every single day, as we see and read in the news. It understands socially perceived notions about the male and female libido (one brave scene sees David try and tell the police what has happened; they say he must be a “lucky guy”), yet overlays this with the principle that all forms of violation are bad. The film sticks to its guns with a certain determination, remembers to be emotionally involving, and can genuinely claim to make you think. Here I am.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

This Year In Movies So Far

I think it's fair to say that so far has been a cracking year for films. The Lego Movie, Frank, Calvary, The Double, The Grand Budapest Hotel have all been riotous, touching, perfect, fascinating and adorable in equal measure.

We've also had a few fair efforts; Asghar Farhadi's The Past was nowhere near as layered as A Separation, yet still had more human interest than a dozen other movies. José Padhila's Robocop remake was far better than it had any right to be, bolstered by genuine human interest, actual performances, and coherent and exciting action sequences. Darren Aronofsky's Noah was an intriguing, occasionally beautiful, and slightly bloated film which had more than a few moments of searing cinematic power which justified the ticket price.

Hell, even the Clooney cheese-fest The Monuments Men was a decent, if minor, watch.

And we've even had two utter disasterpieces in the form of Stuart Beattie's odious "I, Frankenstein", a smear on the original Mary Shelley story and an incomprehensible piece of pulpy-gothic action cinema, along with Pascal Chaumeil's botched adaptation of Nick Hornby's novel "A Long Way Down", a film that somehow manages to take a premise which could have been unbearably moving (four suicidal people meet on the same rooftop on New Year's Eve and form a pact to see each other through the year) and muddies it with bad casting, a ham-fisted script and lifeless direction. But, it's better to have two films which fail spectacularly than middling trifle indistinct from the rest.

The thing with the films of last year was simply that there were no stand-outs, no films which felt like they had any staying power. 12 Years a Slave was very good (although I have a post about that one lined up too), and whilst About Time, Philomena, Stoker and Only God Forgives and Before Midnight feel like films I'll fondly revisit over the years, even if the Oscar fare was middling. Wolf of Wall Street will go down as a footnote in Scorsese's career; it was funny, yes, and DiCaprio's performance had the comic determination of Keaton, but it lacked the nuance and purpose of Goodfellas, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, or even the Departed. Gravity was a one-trick pony, American Hustle proved the inherent lack of longevity that self-consciously twist-y movies have, even Inside Llewyn Davies felt like minor Coen, especially after A Serious Man.

But, yes, we're here now and already this year has left last year in the dust. And with Boyhood, Tom A La Ferme, Ida, Under The Skin (which I tragically missed and am trying to catch up on), Guardians of the Galaxy, Gone Girl, Maps to the Stars, and countless more on the horizon, it seems only fair to say that this year will go from strength.

If you have any thoughts on this year in movies so far, I implore you to comment below. 

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Review of Frank (2014)

Frank, here embodied by Michael Fassbender in a Frank Sidebottom head-mask, is one of those magnetic types, all too common in the cinema, who people tend to gravitate towards whilst himself lacking his own centre. Just look at how willingly Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) drops everything, including his job, nest egg and secure suburban life, to join Frank and his band as a keyboardist in recording an album. 

In fact, before we delve into Frank’s persona (which I fear many people will take this film to be about, and which the film is being marketed as) let’s look at Jon for a moment. We first meet him as he is unsuccessfully trying to piece together lyrics through observing the world around him. “Woman with a pram”, we hear in voiceover. He has an idea for a song about suburbia; he runs upstairs, starts singing the lyrics and pounding at his keyboard. All is going swimmingly, until he finds himself playing the notes to Madness’s “It Must Be Love”. He swears, and slams his keyboard. Then he Tweets about it. These scenes are effective and side-splitting, and do a superb job of setting up the rest of Lenny Abrahamson's film, which was written by Peter Straughan and is based on Jon Ronson's memoirs of playing in Chris Seivey/Frank Sidebottom's band.

Shortly after his musical failure, Jon chances upon a man trying to drown himself in the sea. It turns out that this is the keyboardist for the band “Soronprfbs” (nobody else in the film knows how to pronounce it either). The rest of the band look on in relative apathy; Jon claims to know how to play the keyboard. He gets a gig. He’s happy.

But this is no ordinary band, and their gig consists of half of one song, before one of the instruments blows up and the theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) storms off. It is here that we also meet the titular Frank. He is at once an energetic, vague man who gives off a very good impression of genius. Jon leaves the gig a little forlorn, and seems poised to go back to his existence as an office drone; yet, he gets a phone-call from the band the next day offering for him to go to a retreat and record the album with them. And there he finds himself. The rest of the film consists of the various attempts by the band to get the album made, and perform it live, along with the experiences of Jon and the rest of the band, including the increasingly thorny Clara, and the depressed, albeit normal-seeming band manager Don (Scoot McNairy, whose excellent turn in this I fear will be overlooked).

Little details accumulate, such as the film’s frequently hilarious use of Jon’s Twitter and Youtube feed. Observe early on how Jon checks whether the keyboardist is definitely going to be out for the count. He is fundamentally a good person, but as becomes clear, a ruthless opportunist. We do delve into the persona of Frank, mask and all, and it comes as no surprise late into the film that he has mental health issues. There is also a fair amount of suicide too, although regarding who and where and why I will not say.

It all adds up to a very funny film; not a masterpiece by any means, but a gleeful, abundant and unhinged work of energy that, among other things, proves that Michael Fassbender is one of the best actors working today; to suggest the lifetime’s worth of struggle that he does, and make it look so effortless, belies a certain rare genius. The dialogue is witty and snappy, with more than a few excellent one-liners, and the musical interludes are by turns charming, hilarious, and actually incredibly good; I can’t find a soundtrack released for this film, but I’d certainly buy it. The film also has a pretty and punchy look about it, with very bright colours which match the tone superbly.

Ultimately, what makes the film is its heart. It’s not an especially serious film, but it does care for it characters and that care shines through. It also understands perfectly the razor-thin line that exists in indie music between the sublime and the ridiculous. It is nearly the match of such films as This Is Spinal Tap and Almost Famous; it certainly warrants mention in the same sentence. I have no doubt that a devoted cult following will ensue, and this film deserves it.

Also, mark my words; Domhnall Gleeson will go on to do some very great things indeed. His performance in this, along with his brief turn in the recent Calvary and last years’ masterpiece About Time, show him to be a versatile and fearless actor with immense range, an expressive face and a certain rare dignity, who fully understands the characters he is portraying. Look out for him. 

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Review of Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

The Grand Budapest Hotel recalls a great opera written by a virtuoso; such is the mastery of Wes Anderson’s direction that I simply cannot imagine another film being made like it. Every single aspect falls into place neatly and perfectly, and the whole film feels so pure of intent and spirit that to watching it feels like taking a long, relaxing soak in the bathtub. You feel cleansed afterwards.

M. Gustave, played by Ralph Fiennes, is a concierge in the legendary Grand Budapest Hotel, which is located in the fictional republic of Zubrowka, in between wars. Gustave is a warm, “well perfumed” man who is loved by his clientele and seems to command respect at all corners. One day, one of his most adoring patrons Madame. D (Tilda Swinton) dies in mysterious circumstances, and he is left the painting “Boy With Apple”, much to the chagrin of Madame. D’s son M Jean (Jason Schwartzman). Gustave is suspected of foul-play, and as a result has to go on the run with his loyal lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori).

Except, Gustave and the painting and everything else are all in a story being told by an older Zero (F. Murray Abraham) to an unnamed author (Jude Law and Tom Wilkinson); and the whole thing is simply being read by a young woman in a cemetery at the films’ beginning and end.

The cast, which is the definition of “all-star”, is frankly superb. Anderson is good at assembling casts like this, and is also very deft at using them; he seems to have a knack for stripping them back to their core essence as an actor, and using them wisely. For example, Willem Defoe is an actor who is very good at exuding menace, and in this film he plays a near-mute assassin called J.G Jopling. Harvey Keitel has always been good at playing the gruff man with an unspecified past who lives outside the law; he plays a tattooed convict called Ludwig in this film. Jeff Goldblum has always been adept at displaying a certain administrative neuroticism, and in this film he plays a bespectacled lawyer and bookkeeper called Kovacs; it says a lot that his first reaction, when being pursued by Jopling, is to take refuge inside a museum.

And so on and so forth. Except, it must be said, for the core duo of Finnes and Revolori as Gustave and Zero. Fiennes, simply, is a sensation, and if the film did not have Anderson’s exemplary camerawork, you still would not be able to take your eyes off the screen. He is a dashing, cursing, gentlemanly figure who recalls Alec Guiness in Kind Hearts and Coronets, a careful man of integrity (and, as Zero notes, a certain vanity). Revolori is also excellent, playing a wide-eyed young man with a certain timid loyalty. We learn slowly that he has no family, he has been tortured, and this lends a certain honour to his actions; he is deeply loyal to Gustave, and the two come to have a respect and care for each other.

And yet, there is much more to this film than simply actors. There is an unmistakeable “Anderson” feel to this film, arguably the most potent of his films so far, and every single shot could be mounted and placed on a wall. It is a dazzling symposium of images which are undoubtedly his, with the quick pans, silhouettes, symmetry and a luscious colour pallet.

And yet, there is even more to the film than this; as the film draws to a close, the feeling comes that you are watching something great, and something timeless. I have come this far without mentioning the war, for example, which underpins the entire film and provides it with its message, which for me is that we must not forget to appreciate the past, and that it must be preserved at all costs. The film may have moments of humour, but they all seem to be in service of a nobility, and the notion that we can learn from what has gone before; making the destruction of it through warfare a tragedy. This might appear to be a light film, but deep down it is deadly serious about the points it is subtly making.

It all amounts to a one-of-a-kind film. An unconventional, melancholy, funny, beautiful cinematic experience that is unforgettable. I was deeply moved by it, and I connected with it more than a number of other films I’ve seen lately. It is a masterpiece.