Thursday, 17 December 2015

Review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens


JJ Abrams "Star Wars: The Force Awakens", probably the most anticipated film this decade, is a familiar thing, with the usual abundance of spectacle, dogfights and derring-do. It reminded me, in a good way, of John Peel's maxim regarding his favourite band, 'The Fall'; this new Star Wars film is always different, but always the same. The most immediate frame of reference for most people is going to be whether it's better than the dreadful prequel trilogy, or as good as the canonised original trilogy, and my answer is that it is probably good enough for us to forget the prequel trilogy, and if the next two films in this go around the fountain are as good as this one, then there could well be longstanding debate as to which trilogy is better.

What makes it more than just a new Star Wars is that it has a blistering immediacy and deep currents of emotional verisimilitude that for me were lacking from any other aspect of the saga. This is entirely the work of three new lead actors, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac. Ridley is Rey, a scavenger on a lonely planet called Jakku who spends her days raiding the corpse-like shell of the fallen Imperial Star Destroyer; Boyega is Finn, a Stormtrooper from birth who, after being instructed to destroy a village, finds himself disillusioned with killing and escapes from his ship to Jakku, where he meets Rey. Isaac is Poe Dameron, the best pilot in the Resistance, who are this film's updated Rebel Alliance.

All three of these actors have charisma and charm; Isaac in particular, after Drive, Inside Llewyn Davis, and Ex Machina, is turning into one of those actors that Philip Seymour Hoffman was; magnetic, captivating, willing to transform himself for each role. Every time he was on screen I cheered for him, not just because it was him, but because he brings exactly what is required for each performance, and in this it was enough that we wanted him to survive.

But his character is the least developed, and the real weight of the film hinges on Ridley and Boyega, who make a fantastic central leads and without whom the film would fall apart. They are broadly working types, Ridley is Hermione-esque, uptight and guarded, but hiding deep inner-pain, and Boyega is eager to please, brave, and with a dash too much bravado. But within those types they find contours and modes in which to paint entirely new pictures, and we end up caring deeply about them. For me, the pair felt as well-drawn as any characters from a serious drama. I was deeply rooting for them, and I wanted them to succeed, and in an age where there is nobody to root for and too many special effects, that was the most pleasant surprise of the whole film.

The plot is, as I say, familiar, and is simply the Resistance attempting to defeat the new First Order, who have been set up to continue the work of Darth Vader. The name "The First Order" screams "Reich", and there is indeed a moment where Domhnall Gleeson's General Hux mobilises troops in a way that is reminiscent of Reifenstahl's propaganda films, and Gleeson, all but spitting into the camera, seems to be channelling his inner Adolf.

But the main big bad this time is Adam Driver's Kylo Ren, who has been painted in the promotional material as the new Darth Vader, but in reality comes across more as the new Anakin, his story not quite complete yet and there's plenty of material left to work over in the next two films. As Tom Hardy says in Bronson, "I wasn't bad, I wasn't BAD bad- not yet". But he is a convincing and watchable screen presence, and as various people have noted already, he does in this film what Hayden Christensen failed to do in three, which is give some sense of inner moral conflict and make us believe in him.

And, of course, there's the factor of Harrison Ford's Han Solo, Carrie Fisher's now General Leia, and Mark Hamill's Luke Skywalker, who do just what they did thirty-odd years ago, and bring the required grit and glint to make us believe in them, as we have before, as we will do forever. So much has been speculated as to each character's prominence and role in the film, so I'll keep it brief, other than to say that you won't be disappointed, and the fact that as a collective consciousness, we've come to care so much about these characters, goes respected.

It's fun. That's the big draw, here; it is tonnes of fun. The film reassures you from the opening scene that it's going to be what you'd expect, but done well, and with care and love. I felt like everyone involved had put their all into it. John Williams' score fits alongside the others; cinematographer Daniel Mindel has clearly studied the old films and replicated the look well; Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt's script gets the tone, balance and weight right, with an almost mathematically precise formula for what to get right.

It works on an immediate level and on a subtextual level (along with the Nazi parallels, there's also some good feminist and post-colonial stuff in there that I may write about later). It's a film that works for all people, and has been crafted immeasurably well. It won't satisfy everyone and it probably doesn't live up to the hype, but nothing was every going to. This is far better than we could have ever had reason to expect, and I already cannot wait for Episode Eight.

What a masterful piece of blockbuster film-making this is!

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Review of Carol (2015)

Todd Hayne's "Carol" is a remarkable film, remarkable because it is sensual, sad, sorrowful subtle and supremely stirring, simultaneously emotionally complex and rich and yet telling a very simple story. Composed almost entirely of shots that take place outside of the rooms where the action is, with the viewer peering in, it is remarkable how immersive a film experience it is. A close friend remarked how it resembles a painting by Edward Hopper, and I think this is fitting; it is the principally a mood piece, that in any scene you are watching transports you to that scene. It draws you in on a profound, and not a superficial level. 

Therese (Rooney Mara), pronounced "Teh-rez", (which immediately indicates something of the wilfulness about her character), works on the toy floor of a large department store, stuck to her counter, as she puts it. After a prologue which serves as framing device, the first ten or so minutes of the film are spent observing her behaviours. She lives alone, but a man named Richard (Jake Lacy) calls on her each morning. At her workplace, she is henpecked and ordered by her boorish staff. Her mind wanders, and she often has to be called back into the task at hand by others. You immediately sense her lack of fulfilment; she needs more than this. 

One day she spots Carol (Cate Blanchett) playing with a train-set on the other side of the store; Carol approaches her, asking Therese's opinion of what is a good present for a young girl. There is a richness to their interaction in this scene, something unspoken, a harmony in between the words which technically constitute their exchange. They are at once, palpably, in tune. It is the first great scene in a film which has several. Therese recommends a train set; Carol immediately, almost without thought, buys it. It will be delivered to Carol's house in the next few days. 

Upon leaving the store, Carol leaves her gloves behind; Therese posts them to her, Carol rings the store thanking Therese and inviting her for lunch, and from there, the central love story begins to blossom.

But there are other factors, and this is no easy love story. Carol is going through a divorce with her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), and there's a nasty custody battle looming involving their daughter Rindy. Harge clearly is deeply, deeply in love with his wife, and whilst some might interpret his actions later on as those of a selfish, piggish man, whilst he's no saint I think everything he does is because he does care for his wife, and is incredibly hurt by her refusal to be with him. The central portion of the film is essentially a road trip, as Carol and Therese trek across America throughout Christmas and New Year, going from hotel to hotel, escaping Therese's mundane life and Carol's difficult divorce proceedings.

What makes the film great is in the composition. This is a delicate piece in theme and in how it's been made, and there are five or six individual moments which transcend the film itself and become transportative. The central love scene between the pair is the most prominent example; it is a profoundly erotic scene that works not because of lurid detail, but because of sensitive detail. The way their hair almost fuses together into one; the way they break their kissing to place their faces into one another, like they want to become one; the way they communicate to one another about what they both want from this exchange. 

It is cinematic poetry, and the film sings. Every technical aspect is perfect, and I mean perfect; Judy Becker's production design is exemplary, and every location feels in service to the theme; Edward Lachmann's creamy and dreamy cinematography conjures up a magnificently immediate sense of place; Carter Burwell's score is unobtrusive but delightfully mood-setting, rising to the occasion of each scene and placing a perfect stamp on it; Phyllis Nagy's script, working from Patricia Highsmith's novel, is an unfussy delight, with some of the richest and most understated dialogue I've heard in an American film for some time. 

The acting on all sides is magnificent, but Cate Blanchett's performance goes beyond even the highest expectations you could have of her (and will likely net her an Oscar). The control she displays in her posture, placing and inflexion is masterly; it's the kind of performance you can picture drama students studying years down the line. Her near constant sense of hurt, and longing, are within arm's reach for the audience at all times, and she walks a thin line between desperate and needy, and someone with a lot of love to give. Her courting of Therese is believable, and you can believe this pair as a couple, the kind you can't picture not being together. The way they reach out for other is a most beautiful thing, and little details, like the gifts they buy for each other, left me with an unashamed lump in my throat (and, indeed, I quietly cried through the credits).

Most thankfully of all, the film seems reticent to peddle a trite or patronising pro-LGBT line, or to make a comment about how things "back then" weren't so great, and how much better society reacts to non-hetero people. There are maybe two brief discussions of homosexuality in the film; ultimately it is about nothing more than Carol and Therese's relationship and the surrounding plot, and it is not serving a higher agenda or making a point about anything else. As a result the film feels pure, and this is what, I think, gives the film its greatness.

Ultimately, "Carol" represents a triumph of the melding of form and content; a film of the highest craftsmanship servicing a love story that runs deep and has rich multitudes. It does not proffer a cheap or an easy outcome, and understands that things involving people don't tend to really resolve themselves for the movie's sake; it relies on character motivations, and thankfully we are given two characters here who will endure, in a film that will no doubt go on to be a received and respected standard classic in so many years time. I cannot fault it, and I cannot wait to revisit it. 

Friday, 23 October 2015

Review of Last Orders (2001)

"Last Orders", Fred Schepisi's 2001 film about a group of very old friends travelling to Margate to scatter the ashes of their friend Jack (Michael Caine), based on the novel by Graham Swift, is an accomplished, good looking, verbally expansive film, acted to perfection, that suffers from near-terminal preciousness. I loved so many aspects of this film, the performances, the look, the stunning dialogue, but it is sentimental to the point of suffocation, and it feels hermetically sealed. Nothing can get into this film.

The performers involved are almost like a who's who of the top brass of British acting talent; Bob Hoskins plays Ray, who we sense was probably closest to Jack; Ray Winstone plays his son Vince, who always disappointed Jack by not going into his butchers business; Tom Courtenay plays Vic, who's the most peaceable member of the group; and David Hemmings plays Lenny, the one of them all who's the biggest sucker for a pint.

Helen Mirren also plays Jack's wife Amy; she doesn't come with the boys to scatter his ashes, instead staying at home to visit their severely disabled daughter June, who Jack has never wanted anything to do with. Theirs was not an unhappy marriage, but we sense that at some point after June's birth their marriage forked, and they spent large parts of it walking side by side but down two different roads.

The whole film is told through an interplay of flashback and the present day, but with flashbacks sometimes leading back to different flashbacks and the flashbacks coming forward not always to the present. Any narrative ambiguities are quelled by good makeup work and well-chosen younger actors who resemble the main stalwarts in motion and gesture if not in the face itself. So we see this old group meet each other, fight in the war together, get married together, and so on. It's a lovely if astoundingly obvious setup.

And it is in the flashbacks that the films preciousness begins to drag it down. There is nothing revealed in them that one could not attempt to decipher simply by watching the first 20 minutes and figuring out the relationships between the characters. For a film dealing ostensibly with grief and the measurement of what your life has been worth in its sum achievements and relationships, it all feels hopelessly safe, more than a little staid. There are the requisite reveals, the conflicts, the ultimate reconciliation with peace, and... What then? It just ends.

Perhaps I am being too harsh on the film;maybe I am expecting more; but I honestly cannot stress the calibre of the technical qualities enough, and the acting alone almost warrants watching it. But they are all in service of a flimsy piece of fluff that has nothing much to say about the subjects that its dealing with; it's almost as if it was directed to Radiohead's maxim of "no alarms and no surprises, please".

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Review of A Girl At My Door (2014)

July Jung's 2014 film "A Girl At My Door" is many things at once; it is simultaneously a partial police-procedural, an exploration of two very different types of alcoholism, a story of a mother-daughter type relationship, and the tale of a young girl escaping her abusive father (with time to address issues like illegal immigration and LGBT rights in the workplace). It also has a philosophical bent, and is one of those rare films that is content to leave the viewer with more questions than answers (and not because it wasn't intelligent enough to know the answers, but instead because it was intelligent enough to understand that audiences can actually think for themselves).

For a film, looking back, does so much, it is remarkable how mannered it is and how unfussily it moves forward in the act of watching it. The core of the plot is essentially a three-hander; Young-Nam (Doona Bae) is a recently disgraced police officer who has been relocated to a small seaside town after an unspecified incident. After establishing herself as a steely, determined and stoic piece of work (one awkwardly effective scene sees her refusing to participate in office karaoke), she finds herself drawn to a young girl named Do-Hee (Sae-Ron Kim), who is being brutally abused by her father Yong-Ha (Sae-byeok Song).

Do-Hee keeps turning up at Young-Nam's door in ever-increasing states of distress and dishevelment until Young-Nam is forced to take her in, not entirely to her chagrin but not to her great pleasure either. But eventually a warmth comes to pass between them, and a maternal relationship of sorts is formed.

There are various late-in-the-day revelations, and the plot builds to a conclusion that isn't so much tense as just messy, one where sympathies slide and motivations can only be guessed at; and this is a good thing. Jung's writing and direction is so surehanded that any attempt to have actually explained anything would have been cheap and forced. This is a film with a commitment to reality such that it understand that some motivations are hidden even from those performing the action.

It's also, technically, a very accomplished piece of work with a visual style to match the fairly bleak subject matter. The score from Yeong-gyu Jang is sparse, with strings and piano chords flaring up quietly and very occasionally, only really coming dominating the soundscape for the finale. And the cinematography from Hyun Seok Kim is wonderfully understated, grim, grey and bar maybe two shots, expressly unvibrant, capturing the sense of place in this town, framing the washing lines, the docks, the stone pier, Do-Hee's red house. It might not be a nice place, but it's a place we come to know.

It does all hinge on the acting, however, and thankfully all three performances work very well; I was particularly impressed by Doona Bae, who gives a composed, dignified performance even as her life, seemingly, falls apart, and she keeps pouring the alcohol. Contrasted with Song's performance as Yong-Ha, also an apparent alcoholic, I was reminded of the maxim from 2005's Capote that two characters grew up in the same house, but one left through the front door and the other through the back.

What's ultimately so effective is that the film consistently trumps audience expectations without every coming across as exploitative or smarmy; every twist seems rooted in what these characters might actually do, and that's the kind of intelligence which is uncommon in movies like this. It might not be a happy film, but it is rewarding, thoughtful, morally cogent, and doesn't disappear after you've left the theatre. It dares to ask, "who do YOU feel sorry for?"

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Review of Mommy (2014)

Xavier Dolan has long been one of the premier auteurs working in the cinema, a Quebecois maestro whose films are often barnstorming, bruising, blistering achievements of emotional content married to extremes of stylish form. Ever since his debut in 2009 with the tour-de-force "I Killed My Mother", one of the great, and most devastating, portrayals of parenthood that I've seen, I've approached each Dolan film afterwards with an almost spiritual expectation such are the depth that his films seem to reach into my soul and stir my innermost feelings.

His films are so soulful, and come from a place of such sincerity and feeling, that each successive effort hasn't failed to transport me to a world that only the greatest films can, where every action on the screen holds you in rapture, where the characters fill you with love and contemplation, where the visual style is so in tune with the themes and thought; his films are whole, they are events, and they transport the viewer, this viewer, to a world that is often painful to leave. They are the cinema working in full force.

So for me to say that Dolan's latest film, "Mommy", is by far his most emphatic work to date, his most alive and vibrant, and his most mature and complete, then, is a compliment of the highest order. But few films have enraptured me so, even including films of his own oeuvre. From the very opening, in which we are introduced to Anne Dorval's Diane ("Die") in a car crash which doesn't leave her injured so much as leave her swearing and angry, we can immediately sense her irrepressible spirit.

She's on her way to a meeting with a counsellor in a detention centre who tells her that her son, Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) has set fire to a canteen, causing another child to be hospitalised. A faulty walkie-talkie reveals a barrage of crude cursing, insults, swearing. Die smiles; this is her mother's son.

The following scene was one of the best of the film, because it did what it was trying to do so simply, and with such skill in the writing; as we follow Die and Steve on their way home, their relationship is drawn out in full. He is a profane, almost violently exuberant young man who is nevertheless filled with a love for his mother that is almost overwhelming. She, equally, loves his son to the end of the world, but there is tragedy to how she is regards his energy; she knows this is him, she accepts him, but she is also scared of how that energy can sometimes overflow into violence. His actions, loving though they are, have a roughness to them, a force, which comes directly from his overabundance of feeling.

This is all down to Pilon's performance, which is a masterclass in movement. His whole body is his own puppet, and he is in complete control over it. You sense he has gone away and thought about his character, reflected on him, and then inhabited him completely. The performance, and hence the character, is organic, real, home-grown. His violence is not a tic or a cheap acting trick; it feels so real, and hence the tension between them also feels incredibly real.

And on, and on, their relationship, incredibly intimate, almost Oedipal (Steve doesn't shy away from his masturbation habits in front of his mother) is carefully defined before us. On an afternoon where Steve and Die's play-fighting becomes something more serious, however, a neighbour, Kyla (Suzanne Clement) from across the street who has only waved at Die before now enters the house, and almost instantly has a calming and embalming effect on their dynamic. She dresses a cut on Steve's leg, reveals her quiet, stuttering nature, and leaves. Die is in awe; someone like this is sorely needed in this loving but volatile environment. She takes a bottle of wine over as thanks (poured from a cardboard carton in the fridge), which is received by her taciturn, enigmatic husband.

Soon, Kyla is a regular fixture in their house, a teacher on Sabbatical (we sense a breakdown, but Dolan doesn't paint this out) who is drawn in by the pair's energy and enthusiasm.

From here, the film is nothing more and nothing less than one of the most whole, funny, touching, heartbreaking character studies I have seen, observing the behaviours of these three misfits through highs and lows, peaks and troughs. If it all sounds very soap-opera ish, then maybe there is a case to be made that it is, but this is elevated soap-opera, with every frame imbued and embellished with feeling and care; Dolan wants us so deeply to love these dysfunctional people, and we do. Their pair have such rapport, and care so deeply about us, that our feelings are stirred and we too become involved in their fates; we want nothing more than for them to be okay. Think about the last time you cared about characters in a film to this extent.

A word must go to frames, however, as this is easily, on a technical level, the most audacious film Dolan has yet made. Shot in a 1:1 aspect ratio (the film is a square), what could have easily been a gimmick is the film's coup-de-grace. In isolating each character, it is as though they are singled out whenever they are on screen. It allows us to focus on them and consider them untouched by others, and so on whenever each character is placed centre-forward. It's a daring trick, but it works brilliantly.

This is also the most visually beautiful and direct of Dolan's films, a smorgasbord of colour, action and activity, where almost artificially blue skies meet never-ending grey roads, and character bounce along the middle on bikes, skateboards and with shopping trollies. There is an almost cartoonish sense to the film, as if heightened reality, allowing the emotions to take on a palpably prescient quality. This is amplified through the cheesy songs on the soundtrack; even Oasis's Wonderwall is used well. (yes, the most overplayed and over-rated song maybe of all time is used effectively).

And that's the film. I have no flaws, nothing to pick apart. I laughed and cried with ferocity and in equal measure, and I didn't want to leave this world. This is a fairly long film at over two-hours, and Dolan uses that length to startling effect. It is a whole and complete work, and one that lingers in the mind and the spirit for some time afterwards. I am grateful that Dolan made it, because it is more than a film, it is a lesson in empathy and a treatise on the irriducibility of the human spirit.

I, as ever, await the next work by this great master, and if he manages to top this towering piece of work, then he may just cement himself in the pantheon of masters for good; that is, if he hasn't done so already, and I'm certainly arguing his case.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Review of Conversations With My Gardener (2007)

Conversations are as much about what goes unsaid as they are about what is said, and it is this principle which underlines and defines Jean Becker's 2007 French feature "Conversations With My Gardener", a film which is more or less what the title describes. It is in the moments where things fall silent, or we feel aspects of the conversation being edited, held back, embargoed, that we truly get a feel for what is actually being communicated.

To this end, a great deal, both verbalised and not, about friendship, love, and all manner of things, is being communicated in this most wonderful film.

The gardener in question is played by Jean-Pierre Darroussin, who replied to an advert placed by Daniel Auteil, that most reliable and versatile of French actors, referred to simply as "Dauber" in this film. They were once friends, back at school, years and years ago, which is established simply in a flashback where they place a firecracker in their teacher's birthday cake. The easiness and ease between them is apparent immediately, laughter coming quickly, the rapport being palpable. The garden is set to work on right away.

This is about as much plot as we are given, until about twenty minutes before the end when things take a shift; what that shift is, I will leave you to discover. Instead of plot, the film is a study as we piece together the characters slowly as the film goes on. The Gardener is a working man, uneducated but not stupid, an ex-railwayman who is fiercely devoted to his wife. The Dauber is much the opposite, a city-man, an artist, who recently moved to his country house after relations broke down with his wife. There isn't much doubt that The Dauber loves his wife as well, but then we also get the impression that The Dauber loves his wife in much the same way that he loves woman, and maybe even Woman. He's that kind of guy.

The central dynamic of the pair rests on the principle that friends are often opposites in a way that often rounds the other out. The Gardener doesn't drink; The Dauber offers wine at almost every social opportunity, and it becomes a motif in the film. The Gardener is openly in love with his wife, and can't help but mention her; The Dauber mentions his wife almost grudgingly, if it comes up. And so on, and so on.

Since the film is literally just about their friendship as it grows and deepens, it is most fortunate that the characters, and dialogue, is crafted with care, and we come to care. Jean Becker, a director I am unfamiliar with, has been directing films, I gather, since the early 1960's. The lightness of touch in this film belies an accumulated wisdom that, to me, is reminiscent of Rohmer at his best. The film is directed with fluidity, grace, and assuredness, knowing when to be still, when to be nimble, when to be sombre, and so on. Mood and tone are expertly handled, almost invisibly, and the gorgeous colour-palette, composed predominantly of greens, is expertly handled, and entirely evocative of gardens, trees, woods. The natural setting is almost the third main character of the piece.

The camera movements, courtesy of cinematographer Jean-Marie Dreujou, are unassuming and expertly placed, gently hopping along no particular plane to reflect the ambling conversations held by the two main characters- and what wonderful conversations they are! Adapted from the novel by Henri Cueco, Jean Cosmos, Jacues Monnet and Becker's script gently cycles through themes such as woman, death, love, politics, illness, old friends and the like, they are conversations we have all had and should all aspire to have. Indeed, The Gardener and The Dauber are two people I would love to have as friends; seeing their friendship develop like the garden being tended to, is delightful.

This is a humanistic, compassionate film, with emphatic undercurrents, that tugs at the heartstrings as well as the mind. It has plenty to recommend it; a slight and sprightly film, resolutely in a minor key, but no less resonant for that.

Monday, 3 August 2015

Review of Inside Out (2015)

Inside Out, the latest offering from Pixar studios, is an animated film with a deceptively simple premise, charting the adventures of the anthropomorphic emotions living inside the head of a young, eleven-year old girl called Riley. The film may be about Riley, but the main characters are Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lucas Black), Fear (Bill Hader), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling).

The film is there with Riley from the very beginning; as she is born, Joy stands up to a giant computer-like console and sees her parents smiling down on her. She presses a button, and Riley smiles; a glowing yellow ball travels down into the lobby area; and we have just seen the creation of Riley's first memory. From here, the film effortlessly skips through Riley's first few years of life, in a manner that recalls the opening ten minute tour-de-force of Pixar's earlier masterpiece "Up". The other emotions are introduced at other defining moments of her life; Fear, as she becomes conscious of tripping over a wire; Anger, as she refuses to be fed broccoli, and so on. The film also introduces personality islands, such as an island for family, the hockey that Riley loves, friendship, and so on.

There is unity amongst the emotions with the exception of Sadness. It is apparent that Joy, the predominant emotion of Riley's life, does not know what to do with Sadness, so sets her menial tasks like reading emotional handbooks and sitting in a circle. When it is announced by Riley's parents that she is to move to San Francisco, even this doesn't stop Joy from forcing everything to be seen from a positive light.

The film works predominantly on two levels, micro and macro. On the micro level, we see the conflicts and situations at play inside Riley's head. There is an inherent turmoil in the relationship between Joy and Sadness, whereas the other emotions are quite content to let Joy rule the roost. On the macro level, we see Riley's struggles in school, how she copes with losing her friends, her attempts to fit in, and so on.

The catalyst for the film, then, comes at a point where Sadness tries to actually have an input into the emotional Life of Riley (which would have been a far better title). As she touches Riley's "core memories", they turn from yellow to blue; Joy views this as sullying the memories, and a fight ensues whereby Joy and Sadness are locked out of the control room and banished to the far reaches of Riley's mind; aka, puberty has begun.

We see this reflected in Riley's sudden mood swings; her sense of goofiness has disappeared, and she is now all-too quick to snap at her parents. The final hour of the film has an intriguing structural congeniality around this conceit as Joy and Sadness's attempts to get back to Riley's emotional centre are paired off against Riley's sudden transformation into being a moody pre-teen.

It looks gorgeous, with directors Pete Doctor and Ronaldo Del Carmen having conjured up a subtle, inventive world that trades showy and flashy animation for a more plainspoken unfussiness. The film has moments of great humanism, feeling, wit and invention which are offset, I feel, by inherent flaws in the material itself. There is no denying that Pixar are onto something with this latest film, but it never, quite, feels fully realised. A large part of this is how the central emotions are placed at the forefront, but by their very nature they are one-dimensional characters. They exhibit varying degrees of understanding, perception and thought, but they are ordained by themselves. There is great truth and honesty to the idea that Sadness and Joy are coefficients, yet the proscenium the film is hung on almost derails itself by having an abundance of structure, and too many "rules" within the narrative itself (which the film flouts and breaks in the third act anyway).

I also wish that the film had evened the balance between screen-time devoted to Riley, and screentime devoted to Riley's head. I wanted to care about Riley, but it felt like by showing her emotions in an almost entirely different context (of an adventure film, their attempts to get back), we would, without any effort, care about her. I did not find this to be the case. A deeper union of the twin poles of the film, to me, would have paid dividends.

I am being, negative, but then as I have said before, when a film promises greatness and delivers goodness, that is sadder than a film that promises nothing at all and delivers mediocrity or worse. There are moments that feel up there with the passions of a Renoir, and a Chaplin (yes, really). but it never quite overcomes its ingrained faults to deliver something masterful throughout.

The emotions dominate, then, which acts as a fairly apt metaphor for the Disney model. Except this time the emotional pay-off is sorely lacking.

(As a final point, this is ostensibly a kids film, coming from a studio who have made morning but over it's 20 year run. Yet this doesn't quite feel like a kids film. When the climactic scene of the film involves nothing more than a character bursting into tears, moving though it is, I feel like some kids may not appreciate the poet of the scene and instead just come out feeling, well, sad.)

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Review of Better Call Saul

We are now eight episodes into Vince Gilligan’s prequel to "Breaking Bad", “Better Call Saul”, which concerns the exploits of the wheeling-and-dealing titular lawyer, a character portrayed by Bob Odenkirk, who after his first appearance in Season 2 quickly became a fan favourite.

His position in the original show was of the Shakespearean fool, and a sort of moral half-way point between evil (main character Walter White) and good (all those standing in his way). His waiting room, generally stocked with ne’er-do-wells, vagrants, drug addicts and prostitute-looking types was often a punchline after or setup before his shady dealings with the (self-made) drug kingpin. He was only ever known through his business with Walt, but even then he was a fairly fully-realised character; by turns a somewhat pathetic, fast-talking con artist, monetarily motivated and morally conflicted yet good at heart (whatever that means in this world). That Saul was not even his real name added an element of theatricality which fit his character quite well.

The spin-off has been successful. Taking place some years before "Breaking Bad", it charts Saul (now called Jimmy McGill)’s rise to legal power. That’s, and this is not a complaint per se, it. It is just showing how he came to be one of the iconic characters of the show.

Within this remit, the show is fantastic. It’s emotionally involving, has strong, well-drawn characters, the plot-lines are well-written and convincing. The show is relentless in its presentation of Saul’s opportunism. As with "Breaking Bad", it prefers the slow-burn to the flashy exposition; we are drip-fed bits and pieces about how Jimmy got into the profession, and the show even hands a lot of time to Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), another popular figure, a sort of perennially crabby handyman, forever doing the nitty gritty of his superiors. Again, we only ever got to know him by proxy through the inner workings of the meth empire, but here his character, and how he came to be, are laid open for us. It’s a sad arc, and it does lend an extra poignancy to the already poignant scenes of Mike with his family.

And yet, despite this, "Better Call Saul" is not a Great Show in the way "Breaking Bad" is, and in all honesty I doubt it could have ever been. There are a number of reasons, the primary one being that there simply isn’t as much at stake. In "Breaking Bad", everything was at stake; indeed, no more and no less than one man’s soul, the eternal struggle between good and evil. The show reached a curious Milton-esque perfection in its presentation of morality. Superficially, the show might have been about a meth empire, but Walt could have equally been a pimp, a politician, a movie producer. The meth business always played second fiddle to the characters; proof of this is everywhere, from the way the meth-making always played out in 90 second montage, or even how Walt’s eventual rise to power, everything he’d fought for, was conveyed in all of five minutes, again of montage. More time was given each episode to his arguments with Skyler, his quasi-paternal relationship with lackey Jesse, the manipulations of power with his superiors. Meth is not a good barometer of evil, but other characters are; that’s what the show is really about.

The continually evolving visual style was another signifier of this; this was a show unafraid to present things in a sometimes gothic, sometimes surreal, sometimes horrifying way, when the subject matter saw fit.

And whilst there is no doubt that “Saul” takes place in the same universe (the show does look equally as beautiful as “Bad”), it is simply not of the same calibre. This is evident in how it spends much, much more time on the minutiae of Saul’s cases; there are times when the show more resembles a legal drama like Boston Legal, as opposed to a spin-off of one of the great morality plays of our time.

These are not cons necessarily; I found myself incredibly involved in Saul’s attempts to bring down a care home rinsing its citizens of money through overcharging and very, very small print. But where I like Saul, and find him endearing, and think it refreshing to see a character who is honest-to-god good at heart, he isn’t consistently fascinating in the way Walt was, his machinations are simple as opposed to cryptic and debatable. It’s all there in the text.

This is not to say it needs subtext, or to be deep, or anything like that. The show purports to show the journey of one character, and it does that very well, far better than most shows out there. Gilligan is a genius, that much can be said. And not everything can be great; where would be the fun in that? These are just observations, not criticisms. Indeed, my only criticism of the show is that thus far it has a relatively limited pool of stories, and I hope it opens up a little before the season’s end, at risk of stagnation. But again, I am sure Gilligan knows exactly what he is doing, so this doesn’t worry me much. The show is making the best of what it has. And there are many shows which could never even dream of being as good as "Saul".

If anything, one should just take this moment to re-appreciate "Breaking Bad", what it did right, the bravery of the choices the makers took, the sheer lightning-in-a-bottle quality, that indefinable aspect. And then be glad that there are still interesting stories to be told from its world. 

Monday, 12 January 2015

Review of Whiplash (2014)

"Whiplash" works because it is a film about understanding. It places us in the company of two very different characters and by the end, we feel as though their arcs have been fully drawn, and an understanding, or acknowledgement of sorts has been reached, where another film may have settled on base Mannichean motivations. It also works because the writer/director Damien Chazelle has created a piece of primal, almost tribal film-making. It is about a young jazz drummer studying at Shaffer Music Conservatory, Andrew (Miles Teller), who yearns to be "one of the greats", as he puts it. He practices alone in a room. returns alone to his apartment at night, and seemingly does not do much else, until one day Fletcher (J.K Simmons), a seasoned and spiteful music tutor, spots him and gives him a place in his band. Andrew has waited his whole life for this.

Fletcher, it is revealed, is a creature of pure malice. Simmons' (sure to be Oscar-nominated) performance reminded me of Peter Capaldi's spin-doctor Malcolm Tucker from the TV series "Thick Of It", although R. Lee Emery's drill sergeant from "Full Metal Jacket" may be the more recognisable comparison. Every other word from his mouth seems to be a profanity, a sexual exclamation, or a combination of the two. He quickly browbeats Andrew, brings him to the brink of tears, playing malicious mind-games. It is here that one should pay attention to the dialogue; look at how sharply the exchanges are worded, and how Fletcher so incessantly picks apart what Andrew says.

Fittingly, this is Simmons playing new notes, a sort of fleshed out version of the kind of persona he hinted at in his work in Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy. It's also the kind of performance that tends to overshadow a film- as I say, it will likely net an Oscar nomination, and rightly so. But the core and heart of the film is Andrew. Aside from his performance in Project X, he is an actor I am unfamiliar with, but I truly felt like he bared his soul for this film, emotionally and physically. The nature of the drumming he does is brutal and intense, and as best I could tell it was his drumming and not the work of a stand-in or CGI.

But more than this, the film is the most wonderful example of the Bildungsroman, and it all hinges on the fact that Teller is a supremely drawn character. I was reminded of Patrick Fugit's intrepid Rolling Stone report in "Almost Famous", and the eponymous Jack in A.M Home's masterful debut novel; two beautiful, believable characters. He navigates the pitfalls of early adulthood with as much confusion and guile as the rest of us did, but he also carries at his core and undervalued characteristic in American films; determination. I believed that he wanted to be the best drummer he could possibly be, and he carried me along with him. The fantastically drawn scene where he tells his potential love interest Nicole (Melissa Benoist) that he cannot be with her because he must prioritise his drumming almost seemed like an affront to all those films where the principle interest of the teenage characters is sex. He even has a loving relationship with his dad (Paul Reiser). How rare is that in a film about teenagers!

This determination also creates an unusual dynamic with Fletcher. Andrew, understandably, resents the barbaric treatment Fletcher dishes out, but almost against himself he can't help but be drawn in by how Fletcher pushes him into being the best drummer he's capable of being. As I have said, the film is about the pair trying to understand each other, and this is principally a film about understanding. When we do learn about Fletcher's philosophy, we nod along with Andrew.

The film is also as physical as the drum solos Andrew puts himself through. It has a constant, under-lit, high contrast look throughout which has the effect of making us feel like we're constantly in the backrooms, rehearsing, and never in the limelight; a nice mirroring of Andrew's feelings throughout. It is also the work of a director who knows how every single scene, every single shot, should play out, whether it's by shaky-cam, or mounted tripod, or with a shot arrangement to match the throbbing drum solos (in the magnificent, nine-minute finale). Were this not the year of "Birdman"'s one-shot tour-de-force, this would be a lock for best editing and perhaps best cinematography.

Finally, the film has a commitment to credibility and character which is unusual in American underdog movies like this. There is the feeling that at any point, the film could have turned into a thriller, or aped the Rocky structure with the "will he win the final concert?!" tropes. To its credit, it does not. Two-thirds in, it completely abandons structure and instead pursues the course of action that would have followed, instead of egging the audience into anticipation. As a result, it's far more tense and taut (I was wriggling in my seat in places) than if we were being dragged along by third-act revelations and the like. And it most certainly does not settle on some hokey epigram like "follow your dreams".

I believed this film completely. I believed the characters, the scenarios, the relationships, how it was made, and the things the film stood for, and it was a joy to believe in them. It moved me, exhausted me, touched me and thrilled me. It's a faultless exercise in technical and emotional content, and a supreme piece of entertainment, one that will, if there is justice in the world, go on to become a modern classic.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Review of Kelly + Victor (2012)

Kieran Evan's "Kelly + Victory", based on the book of the same name by Niall Griffiths, opens with a sequence in which the eponymous Kelly (Antonia Campbell Hughes) watches a moth fly against a window. She is passive. does she empathise with the moth? Is she torturing it? Enjoying it suffer? We don't know, and will never know. Already an ambiguous tone is set here, in which we are shown the actions of characters without being told what they symbolise. The next scene, where Kelly meets Victor (Julian Morris) in a night-club on his birthday also highlights perfectly a certain poetic realism the film tries, and succeeds, and juggling throughout. Deep, romantic cello music plays, signalling a romantic union, but it also fades into the thumping 4/4 beat of traditional club music. The scene is also shot in a way that recalls a similar scene in Xavier Dolan's "I Killed My Mother", all red-lighting and smoke. In a sense, we are being given a real view and a romanticised, stylised view.

This, bravely, does not let up throughout the entire film, this expert balance of feeling and description, the simultaneous poeticisation and commitment to realism. It works brilliantly.

We follow Kelly and Victor home. They flirt. Talk. There's a certain spark here, and it's testament to the actors that we feel it ourselves. They are even comfortable enough around each other to take drugs. As sure as night follows day, they are making love, in a wonderful, beautiful scene. And before we know it, in the throes of their love-making, she has slipped her hands around his wrist and is strangling him. Wordlessly. There's something at the outer fringes of communication going on here, a mutual bond happening before us.

I've described up until about ten minutes into the film, and won't describe much more other than to say that, as you have probably guessed, their relationship is charted from this point onwards, and that the film is equal parts dual-character study and wonderfully rendered love story. I was impressed at the length to which Evans allows us to come to know the pair, and as a result the length to which we come to care about them. I have rarely become so invested in the fate of two characters, and a great, quivering, fragile emotional intensity is achieved by the final frame. There's a master's touch at work here, and it surprises me that this is Evan's first feature. This is the kind of masterpiece a director can only really dream of achieving.

What it hinges on, primarily, is its presentation of human sexuality, and whilst you may be thinking from what I have described that this is a document of an S+M relationship, this is no British '50 Shades of Grey'. Look at the scene where Kelly goes to an actual dominatrix's dungeon, and is visibly uncomfortable, where surely she should be in her element from how she's treated Victor. Instead of being about sadism and masochism in the traditional sense, the film is a document of two people who happen to satisfy each other in the most peculiar ways. The film is more of a rumination on the ways we psychologically medicate and express ourselves through sex.

It also, lovingly, describes British life in a way I greatly related to. I loved the scenes set in pubs, pub gardens, art galleries, and the countryside. Victor so adores the countryside is a lovely little touch that draws out his character and inspires awe in the viewer; we almost feel as one with nature as we watch it. Cinematographer Piers McGrail, who had worked in short films before this, has drawn a picture of the world as sensuous as the kind found in a Malick film, and as sensual as the kind found in a Marquez novel. And he has composed two masterful shots which will stay with me for some time; I won't say what they are, but they are climactic scenes in more ways than one, and focus on the solitude of the characters at respective points. Even picturing them in my head stirs deep emotions in my heart.

This is a rare, rare film. It's a cruel, harsh, wonderful, tender piece of work that with skill and precision uses two actors and their bodies to highlight the minutiae and great wonder of human sexuality. I was reminded of a number of other masterpieces of sex; Crash, Secretary, Shortbus, Shame, and in fact this film stands among them. It is a poem, requiem, hymn, soliloquy to the human body and the things we are capable of doing to ourselves and others.

It could even be one of my films of the decade come 2019, and believe me reader, that is not something I say lightly.