Sunday, 6 August 2017

Review: It Comes at Night

Year: 2017
Director: Trey Edward Shults
Screenplay: Trey Edward Shults
Starring: Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo, Kelvin Harrison Jr, Riley Keough.

Synopsis is here:

It Comes at Night has been marketed as a typical horror film. I’m sure that there were a few people who saw posters and trailers and assumed that it would be the type of bland, stereotypical nonsense that leaks out into cinemas at the arse-end of January or the back end of the Netflix new release queue. Not so.

It Comes at Night found itself referenced in Steve Rose’s Guardian article which tries to make that argument that the film is part of a newly termed (by Rose himself) post-horror movement, in which films which don’t run the course of a so called conventional horror film, like say The Conjuring (2013), are slowly taking over at the multiplex. The problem with a term such as post-horror is that quite simply, it's the type of term used by people, who don’t seem to be particularly interested in the genre. At one-point Rose states as a result of successful titles such as Split (2017) and Get Out (2017) means, as a result, there’s now a market for horrors with low budget and mass appeal. Most people who enjoy horror films know that this has been the case for decades and not just now.

The same goes for the very idea of post-horror. In the documentary The American Nightmare (2000), director Adam Simon details many of the so-called aspects of post horror that Rose depicts. While true that a modern glut of films has brought around a sense of “refinement” to the ideas Rose describes. What Trey Edward Shults brings across in his second feature are the same types of concerns and societal anxieties that inhabit horror films since the likes of George A Romero appeared on the scene. Things don’t jump out at you during Romero’s Martin (1978), David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988) or Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973), but we certainly accept the existential dread that comes with them.

Much like Shults first film, Krisha (2016) It Comes at Night is a film in which the horror comes from regular people reaching deep inside them to do horrific things. It opens with a family being forced into the difficult decision to extinguish the life of an elderly member suffering from an unknown epidemic which has – from what we know – ravaged America as we know it.  Shults opens his film almost exactly like his debut feature: with an older face framed in extreme close-up. Despite looking at a stranger, Shults manages to portray familiarity, uncertainty and fear in a few short moments. He also sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

The atmosphere is one of intense grief and paranoia as we follow a family struggling to survive a contagious disease which has taken hold of the nation. Tempers flare when a second family interrupt their secluded sanctuary.

It Comes at Night feels quite plain when laid out on paper. In execution, it’s an exceptionally deft piece of work from a filmmaker who has quickly developed an authoritative vision on screen. Much like Get Out (2017) or Polanski’s apartment trilogy, Shults is an auteur that understands and utilises the idea that what can destroy us is simple mistrust. The horror that unravels within the film comes from the simple fact that with the right amount of pressure, decent people will do horrific things.
Shults mostly eschews overt violence and, like his previous feature focuses fully on mood. Save for one sequence, there are no ‘BOO’ moments, merely a steady feeling of unease that parades throughout. The camera set-ups are simple. Nothing complex. But the use of slow foreboding zooms, tight close-ups and powerful use of sound help bring around an inescapable feeling of dread. Tension builds as we quickly realise that the events that occur could be easily avoidable, yet the very real craving for self-destruction makes everything seem unavoidable. The terror stems from our wish to pick at the frayed edges of our humanity. To tongue the cut roof of the mouth. To pick at the scabs.

It Comes at Night picks an exceptionally on point cast to bring the terror home. You can feel that both Joel Edgerton and Christopher Abbott’s father figures are striving to make things work for their families. You can really feel that search for catharsis through Kelvin Harrison Jr’s display as Travis. Carmen Ejogo and Riley Keough are well drafted as the film’s motherly characters and each actor manages to tap into the right amount of feel to bring round the fraught and delicate bonds needed for such a story. Bonds which have their fragility heightened as uncertainty creeps in.

The beauty of the film’s ugliness lies in how well Shults navigates and toys with those processed ideas of the American family. This theme has lingered in American horror films since Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1960). It’s apparent that it is these generational and social tensions which trigger something within the filmmaker. It also highlights why the idea of “post-horror” garnered such a negative reaction. It seems to be quite clear that Shults is updating tried and tested ideas for a different generation. For this writer, It Comes at Night works exceedingly well. Understanding the pitfalls of what could be considered “lesser” horror, the film manages to destabilise and unnerve viewers without the simple need to throw guts at the screen or use flagrant jump scares to catch the attention. It Comes at Night’s fears comes from the simple fact that the darkest monsters are the ones who we instil our trust in. When we look back at so much horror through the ages, we realise that it has always been that way.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Review: The Beguiled

Year: 2017
Director: Sophia Coppola
Screenplay: Sophia Coppola
Starring: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning.

Synopsis is here:

The more I think about The Beguiled, the more I fear it might not have worked for me. While watching the movie, I enjoyed its opulence. I was occupied in that feathery, dream-like bubble that Sophia Coppola creates with her film. The Beguiled is no exception to Coppola’s ability to craft succulent images. This is southern gothic by way of Vanity Fair. It’s nigh-high impossible not to drink in the lavishness.

However, it was with a second viewing of Don Siegel’s original cinematic adaptation of The Beguiled (1971) that I found myself feeling a little duped. Thinking back to Coppola’s film, I discovered that I had found it lacking. Much was said about Coppola’s decision (and weak explanation) to “whitewash” her civil war film, by omitting the original feature’s only black character Hattie. After watching Coppola’s film, I was first of the opinion that this could have been merely the force of progressive politics imposing itself on to yet another film because it didn’t adhere itself exactly to how a particular left leaning audience would want it to. So often I often feel that we can, and will, find anything to criticise (read complain about) as it may not fit directly into our agenda. But that second viewing of Sigel’s film said even more than expected. Coppola’s film pales in contrast to it, not just because of its refusal to talk about race in a war in which race was a key part of. The Beguiled ’17 sands down more than race, but also the seedier elements which make the 71 version stand out.

Coppola is a director who knows her bread and butter and does well when she sticks to it. Here the girls of the school, like so many of Coppola’s doe-eyed, wonderfully dressed females, embrace the ritualistic elements of being in such a private school in that era, the prayers, the sewing, the music and the repression. Set it in the 70’s and we’re only a few steps away from The Virgin Suicides (1999) with the way these girls gated away from the evils of the world. That is until the devilishly handsome Colin Farrell shows up.

Where the original and remake diverge is in more than just the omittance of slave girl Hallie.  Gone is the more troublesome elements of Martha Farnsworth’s incestuous relationship with her brother which draws a cloud over so many of the women previously. Also removed is a late-night sequence involving southern state soldiers who imply their wish to explore their desires on the girls. Another element which gives more reason to view John with mistrust. The inner monologue of the female characters, illustrated via voice over, also disappears. Something which was clearly used in the original novel, where the male character does not hold a point of view. This motif only enhances and highlights the agency between the girls and their relationship to John. Who is played with a far more predatory manner by Clint Eastwood than here by Farrell, who is given far more sympathy.

Coppola’s decision to omit Hallie from this updated version of the movie is a strange one. In doing so, Coppola dismantles some of the balance and richness found in Siegel’s film and stops from ever exploring some interesting dynamics. Farrell showcases his Irishness in the film and one could only imagine the conflict that could come from a black slave and an Irish soldier fighting for the north. But also, the conflict between Hallie and Eastwood are among the more potent exchanges in the film. Why deny us this? Instead, Coppola goes down a more swooning, safer route of “white woman feminism” which, shouldn’t really be a surprise to a fan of her films such as myself, but only highlights how superficial some of the films discourse can feel. Coppola makes her version of the tale a film full of lavish costuming, pinpoint blocking and near slavish ritualism but it never wants to challenge its viewer.

This causes a conflict. The Beguiled once again shows that Coppola is an auteur of a truly singular vision, observing womanhood in a way that only she can. Her dream-like visions still provide intriguing entertainment to those who are interested. Her cast and their performances are formidable (although 1971’s list of players is more alluring) and the film never outstays its welcome.
However, The Beguiled (race elements aside) holds no controversy, and Coppola is no radical. She never really has been. What we see here is a wonderfully framed period piece, but it has none of the rough edges that the film before it holds. Coppola has fun toying with elements of the women’s repression (Kidman’s face while washing Farrell is a picture), but the playing down and removal of the aspects which made the original so remarkable softens the blow considerably making The Beguiled feel like an entertaining piece but also a missed opportunity. You get the feeling that Sophia Coppola went out and does what she does. It’s just a damn shame it feels all so safe.

Review: Baby Driver

Year: 2017
Director: Edgar Wright
Screenplay: Edgar Wright
Starring: Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Eiza González, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, and Jon Bernthal.

Synopsis is here:

Now that filmmaking is so invested in the digital age, from creation to distribution methods, one thing I’ve found myself noticing a lot more is long tracking shots. A very good colleague and I found ourselves labelling the technique as the film equivalent of the guitar solo. We also certainly didn’t believe that all long shots are considered equal. While technically impressive, the tracking shot can easily lead to pretension. A flashy directional flourish which only asks the audience to look at the director as opposed to what’s in the frame. Since taking up photography and watching more older films (hence the lack of blogging on here), I’ve grown to appreciate a good cut even more.
This brings us to Edgar Wright, a director I’ve greatly admired since watching the sitcom Spaced (1999) on Channel Four all those moons ago. Wright is a particularly stylistic filmmaker, who utilises visual flourishes in a way that, like say, Spielberg, makes his films as instantly recognisable to audiences. The crash zooms are nearly always a dead giveaway. Another telltale trademark of Wright's is his love for the long tracking shot. Unlike many other directors, Edgar Wright apricates, and more importantly understands, a good tracking shot.

What’s this got to do with Baby Driver? A vibrant modern take on the heist movie? Well, it’s all to do with the film’s giddily delirious introduction to its main character; Baby (Ansel Elgort). After a breathtaking opening chase sequence, perhaps Wright’s most technically proficient of his career, Baby Driver decides to give us a breather, without giving us a breather. We are given a beautifully choreographed tracking shot that introduces us not only to the character of Baby but also how he sees the world. One full of music and movement. Wright has pulled this trick on us before in Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007) but never has he done so with such joy. Like with previous sequences of Wright’s, the moment is packed with so much visual information, that it will most likely take a third viewing to pick up on everything that it’s packing. However, such a moment also builds upon its character. While it looks cool, it’s not done just because it is cool. It’s a truly harmonious blend of sight and sound. Dare I utter the words pure cinema?  I will. But perhaps only in my point of view.

The opening moments of Baby Driver are so joyous, that the film, almost never truly recovers. Nothing afterwards really tops what occurs in the beginning. Wright’s film soon becomes a more typical affair, which reminds high on fun, despite its problematic narrative. It is in here in which the argument of Wright has a director of style over substance becomes more apparent, particularly when it comes to his portrayal of women.

Much like the hyperactive Scott Pilgrim (2010), the love interests within the films universe come across more like prized trophies than characters with agency. Where Baby Driver throbs with the same kind of kinetic vivacity which made Scott Pilgrim so enjoyable, by the final act, both films feel uninterested in the plights of their female leads, this is despite their solid performances. The females in Baby Driver, as with Scott Pilgrim, feel more like extensions of the men they love and fully formed characters. This doesn’t take away from Lily James’ delicately vulnerable display, but the films development of character, or rather lack of, stunts what the films love interest could have been.

The same goes for an awkwardly placed motivation of a character during the films third act. Said character, decides on a noble act from out of nowhere which feels false and unbelievable. Annoyingly, said moment slowed the momentum and had me start of question more of the film. It rather unfairly made me wonder just how important cornetto trilogy writers Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are to Wright’s creative process. Said character twist was so out of the blue, I can imagine a DVD extra of the three of them explaining the screenplay moment, a la Shaun of the Dead. With Pegg and Frost missing a second-time round, one wonders what they would do if they could have had a hand in crafting the screenplay.

Such negatives do not detract from the fact that Baby Driver is a whole heap of fun. Its action sequences are key to this, running at a blistering pace, yet maintaining a solid sense of space. Baby Drivers set pieces are also wonderfully varied. A mixed blend of car chases, foot chases and shootouts. No sequence feels repetitive. Nothing outstays its welcome and everything is crafted to the rhythm of whatever is playing in Baby’s ears. Musical organised chaos.

While the basic plot doesn’t much stray from the usual “one last job” narrative of so many heist movies, the real glue that connects the wild set pieces is the cast who are more than up to the task of keeping up with the film. Ansel Elgort does more than enough to show off his star quality. Much like Scott Pilgrim, this boy with the “hum in the drum” is socially awkward but particularly skilled. Baby Driver gives Elgort a film that allows him to let him run a little wild with his charm. While the whole white slightly stunted man child isn’t in vogue in certain circles, Elgort clearly has a good time with the material and it shows. The same goes for the likes of John Hamm, Jamie Foxx and Kevin Spacey. All solid comic performers when they want to be. It seems that all three were chomping at the bit to be let loose on a film like this. Each performer has a chance to shine and does so with the type of panache you expect from them. It’s a shame that the screenplay lets the likes of Lily James and Eiza Gonzalez, down. They do very well with what they’re given. Special credit should go to deaf actor CJ Jones who provides the film heart as Baby’s foster father.

Baby Driver is a juvenile delinquent of a film and I mean that in a somewhat good way. It shows that despite its faults, Wright’s departure from Ant-Man was probably a good thing. The fact that afterwards, he can brush off a decade's old script get it financed for less than $40 Million and make one of the more eye brow raising summer films of 2017 is quite heartening in more ways than one. It’s a film that reminded me of the same blend of chaos and crooning that made The Blues Brothers 1980’s such a delight. Times have changed, and Baby Driver isn’t as anarchic as Landis’ irreverent musical comedy. It’s clear however that its heart is in a similar place.   

Monday, 29 May 2017

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2

Director: James Gunn  
Screenplay: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn, Sylvester Stallone, and Kurt Russell.

Synopsis is here:

After the first Guardians of the Galaxy, I remember being placed under interrogation for not proclaiming my undying love for the first film. To not place the film in you top ten of the year/all time, meant there was something wrong with you. I remember sitting at a BBQ and trying to explain that I found the first film to be rather forgettable. People could bend their head around it. Why wasn’t I like everyone else? Why didn’t I fall into line like a loyal foot solider?

I enter Guardians Vol 2 with a sense of optimism, despite my quiet apprehensions towards the approach towards the modern franchise. Again Guardians is quick with the gags, packed with set pieces and the characters still have a lot of colour (set aside how it leaves its female leads floundering). These come in thick and fast and yet this also does well to remind me that narratively, I found Guardians Vol 2 a haphazard affair. One pivotal point has a character ask why doesn’t (redacted Guardian name) want to be special. Said Gaudian obliges with an answer that basically suggests that he wants to conform like everyone else. This should really play in the mega-franchise world, where passive protagonists are simply issued with extraordinary powers and ushered to be “special” merely because they are. This sits uncomfortably within Guardians Vol 2. Our characters are meant to be a certain type of renegade. Why are they so down with a certain type of conformity?

Much like the first film, Guardians Vol 2 works best when it knocks out silly visual gags (the opening fight without Groot is wonderful) or when it’s more secondary characters get their time to shine (I really love Bradley Cooper’s voice work again). However, the films main plot point, which drearily comments on fatherly sins, feels dry and uninvolving. Gunn’s visuals capture of the world punctuates the bold colourful landscapes with neatly captured moments of isolation but struggles with a screenplay which does little to excite.

The whole thing does little to carry any weight. This is a creeping feeling that film writers get with a lot of modern mainstream fare, but certain features make it hard to make a fighting case against this. Guardian Vol two is not an exception. The secondary antagonists are considered so perfect genetically, that they do not go into battle, they fight via automated space drone which is controlled like a video game. It makes a cute gag but eliminates feeling even more that the CGI hordes that litter other comic book movies. A shallow criticism, but one that feels valid to a film in which it’s anti-heroes bode no real consequence. Hell, they want to be family, just like us.

This is, of course, a family who wish to kill in glorious slow motion (even the baby!) to 70’s pop classics a la Tarantino. Again, this probably wouldn’t be a bad thing if Guardian could drop its 12a rating and really let loose, but alas no. Guardians titters perilously between gleefully subversive (was that a sly S&M joke just then?) and tonally frustrating. We might be a little so happy to see Baby Groot become a killer so easily for instance. These guys are badass but bloodless. These are bandits that just need to be hugged. Amidst all this, there’s still a feeling of incompleteness about proceedings. Everything rumbles on with the knowledge that this is (again) leading up to the next episode, so there’s little time to really take on board what’s happening. In-depth analysis on if a baby plant should care about its sins maybe far-fetched, however, the film’s more prominent relationships also feel short changed. There always feels like there’s more to say about some of the dynamics at play. Every character gets their time to quip and wisecrack, and they do so with gusto. It’s just hard not to wish for a little bit more in their development. There’s little to unpeel, which something like Guardians may not really need as a summer flick, but for this writer, again, there’s no real desire to go back for a second viewing. Easter eggs are fine for the well initiated, but they may not work for everyone.  

So again, I brace myself for the BBQ inquisition. More probing about why I don’t conform and indulge in killer Baby Groot like everyone else. I’ll probably come up with a cumbersome analogy of a certain fruit-named company, which asked everyone to “think differently” before drowning the market quite considerably with its slightly varied but very similar toys. I’ll bemoan that we all think differently like everyone else. Like Guardians Vol 2, which rebels with one eye on its parents (think Disney). Then I’ll continue with my plate of special recipe wings.

Friday, 31 March 2017

Review: Logan

Year: 2017
Director: James Mangold
Screenplay: James Mangold, Scott Frank, Michael Green
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Boyd Holbrook, Stephen Merchant, Richard E. Grant, Dafne Keen.

Synopsis is here:

I cannot say I loved Logan, although I do admire it. The superhero movie that’s making grown men cry has gained many apostles, but I’m just not a devout follower. I fear part of this may be down to how I feel about The Wolverine character as a whole. There’s also the issue of how we finally got to a Wolverine film that’s actually interested in the character. If the other films had done their jobs fully, I could feel myself having more resonance with myself. For that, we could blame some poor choices on Fox’s part. Getting James Mangold to take the mantle a little earlier could have helped amongst other things.

Logan’s stripped down, 90’s road movie aesthetic is actually quite appealing after the overtly slick, all spectacle approach of X-men: Apocalypse. Marigold’s intention to make something that is clearly set within the world, yet not of the same style is the approach that has been deeply needed in the growing hemogenic realm of the “superhero movie” sub-genre. The irreverence of Deadpool and the cynical nature of Logan are steps in the right direction. Not just a refreshing change of pace but a change of focus. By sliming the stakes and adding finality to proceedings Logan doesn’t feel like yet another piece to a needlessly complicated puzzle. It finds a solid reason for a viewer to care about what’s on screen. We might not see everything reset itself two years down the line. Even though as I say this, words about the future of these characters have already been hyped.

For now, Logan appears to be a somewhat fitting conclusion to an awkward spin-off series. It plays with meta well and doesn’t feel the need to aim towards humour to keep things interesting. It’s also generally quite upsetting. Death follows our characters throughout this movie. Unlike the shallow lip service paid to the likes of Ironman 3 (2013), there’s a true feeling that regret weighs heavily on Weapon X. That everything he touches simply makes things worse. A tragic sequence during the second half of the movie is particularly despairing for this very reason. When Logan lets his guard down. There’s a good chance that innocent people could get hurt.

The film is a rather crowning achievement for its main star; Hugh Jackman. After 17 years of inhabiting this character, Jackman’s performances have always remained relatively consistent even if the film’s stories and plots have not. In Logan, Jackman infuses his character with far more bitterness and resentment than before, but also more pathos. Some of the films more compelling scenes come from the now fraught relationship that is held with Logan's former mentor; Charles Xavier (an on-form Patrick Stewart). Again, seeing the tension displayed here is as frustrating as it is entertaining. There’s a dull ache that resides in scenes in which they talk about what could have been. It’s painful not only because of the strength of the performances, but because there’s always the slight feeling that it’s a meta nod to the incoherency of the X-men film series itself.

The big question for some is whether Logan is better than The Dark Knight (2008). Not in my eyes. While it’s easier now to see flaws with Nolan’s comic book hero works, I still find The Dark Knight a better-paced blockbuster, featuring a stronger antagonist and set pieces which stick in the mind long after the film finishes. In terms of personal taste, I also found Logan’s cynicism harder to contend with. It’s a film in which death weighs heavy on the shoulders and even the outcome of secondary characters is tough going. One can’t help but think that some of the plaudits are simply because we see more bloodshed. If that is the case, it is somewhat troubling as Logan never truly feels cathartic.
Let it be said, however, that Logan is one of the more notable Superhero movies of this cycle as it dares to be different. The film’s finality is a shot in the arm for the superhero genre in general. The film’s grim tone, may not be for everyone, but this third and possibly final entry in the wolverine series does well to remind the audience that the stakes don’t always have to be saving the world. They can be about saving one soul.

Review: Kong: Skull Island

Year: 2017
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Screenplay: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Terry Notary, John C. Reilly.

Synopsis is here:

“Everything here is something” - Marge Simpson Ep15 – Season 13 - Blame it on Lisa

King Kong has been refurbed three times before Kong: Skull Island. That’s not counting his 60’s Japanese stints. Before this iteration, audiences were given at least a 20+ year period before the great ape roared back into screens once more. The fact that Kong: Skull Island has taken 12 years to reach audiences only reminds us of just how rapid the acceleration of reimagining/rebooting/rehashing cinematic brands has become. Yes, it is still over a decade but the gap is remarkably smaller, particularly when we consider studios churning films of anything that may rouse even a passing notion of nostalgia. While I don’t wish to turn this review into a rant about “original” stories, it is important to note that the high volume of going back to the well should hopefully mean bringing a fresher angle to the material. Kong: Skull Island decides that while harking on past success is the only thing. People like giant apes. You get giant apes.

Kong: Skull Island is a far more kinetic beast than Peter Jackson’s more romanticised project. This is straight up B-Movie thrills. No dilly dallying. We get to see Kong from the get go. There’s no mystery here. Spectacle is key. This is a Kong for cinematic universe goers. We know what to expect, so it just needs to be confirmed. Does Kong go rampant? Check. Is nearly everything these poor humans touch actually a beasty designed to kill them? Check. Are the human characters not worth a dime because giant apes? Double check. Skull Island merrily fills the frame with known character actors and unceremoniously stomps them out the picture, without a care in the world. We’re here to see Kong smash and indeed he does.

There is a distinct feeling of hollowness about the whole thing. We expect a film about a gigantic ape to have a bobbins plot, but there isn’t much to really grasp on. Oddball crew find a strange island. There’s a massive monkey on it. The film hangs the Vietnam war and Nixon over itself as window dressing, but all the Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now references seem to be shallow lip service to an audience that wouldn’t be interested in Samuel L Jackson going mental over a huge ape. The films disposable cast is well picked and they’re a little more fun to watch than the dour performances that appear in the recent Godzilla (2014) remake. However, as the film isn’t really interested in their plight, it’s still hard to be really invested in anything that happens. The action is tight and well-constructed and there a general knock around fun that comes from some of the set pieces, but it is all empty calories. While it’s vaguely amusing to see people not even able to sit down on anything without said seat trying to eat them, nothing really lingers in the mind, nor feels worth watching again. Something I do get from previous incarnations.

A brief but obvious spoiler hints at a larger universe filled with ancient creatures, but I find myself asking why. The answer is as clear as day, but the films are quite weak. At least Kong: Skull Island acknowledges that it's a B-movie. It seems pointless to tie all these films up this time around, but now that the Marvel cinematic universe dictate the market trend, we now have to realise that everything here is something.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Review: Moonlight

Year: 2016 (U.K Theatrical Release 2017)
Director: Barry Jenkins
Screenplay: Barry Jenkins
Starring: Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Janelle Monáe, Ashton Sanders, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali.

Synopsis is here:

It’s been almost a week since I came out of a mid-afternoon screening of Barry Jenkins second feature length film Moonlight. Despite the rave reviews and its surprise Oscar win, I knew little about the film itself. As a massive fan of Jenkins quietly touching debut feature Medicine for Melancholy (2008), I kept myself away from anything that delved too much into the actual film. Now, a few hours since my viewing of the film, I can honestly say I was astonished. In the same way that many wouldn’t believe they would see a Black U.S president in their lifetime, I never would have believed that an unapologetically black art film would win Best Picture. But here we are.

Of course, we can talk about the embarrassing Oscar mix up that occurred. In which Oscar favourite; La La Land (2016) was announced as the winner of the award before notification of the mix-up was discovered. The fallout from the error once again highlighted some of the many problems that many find with the Academy. However, this doesn’t take away from what this film as achieved. When something as elliptical as Moonlight wins Best Picture, it can chip away at our expectations about the Oscars. While you can say that the film’s theme of homosexuality seems to fit into the so-called “worthy” agenda of the awards, almost everything else does not. From its near abstract structure, down to the small production company who made the film. What the win did for cynics such as myself, is suggest the alterations of academy voting members may not just change who may win what at the Oscars, it may affect artistic taste. The beauty of Moonlight is in the respect it gives its audience. It is not heavy on dialogue and its plot is streamlined, yet the execution of its story, which seems to owe more to the mood driven world cinema of the likes of Wong Kar Wai, along with the films cultural relevancy is what makes the film stand out.

In some ways, Moonlight is similar to Jenkins debut feature. As with Medicine for Melancholy, Moonlight navigates ideas of black identity and relationships and the need for connection in a world in which many elements seek to isolate. In Medicine, the conflict lies within the class struggle, gentrification and interracial dating. It debates that there is still a struggle between race and class when it comes to love and despite our wish to ignore such arguments, a division is still created from outside judgement and long-standing resentment. In Moonlight the conflict at first appears more insular. It details the interior identity crisis of a young black man at three pivotal moments of his life. Sexuality is explored, along with the complex emotions that come through with the character’s age and the fraught relationships of youth. Moonlight also factors a socio-political element which, if isolated, would seem well worn on the surface, but due to its setting and characters, brings forth a fresh angle towards its subject. A young man’s search for his sexual identity is often used subject matter in cinema and in that sense Moonlight is no different. However, the film’s predominant setting of Liberty City, Miami speaks volumes. This is a lower-class area with African-Americans making up 95% of the demographic. The waspish comments that have emitted from white commentators such as Camilla Long only help illustrate that complex queer cinema has long been a Caucasian exercise. The complicated affections that take place in the likes of Carol (2015) and Brokeback Mountain (2005) appeared to be accepted far more readily. Here with Moonlight, questions of universal appeal quickly rose their heads. Whether subconsciously or not, this does not come as a big surprise. However, much like Medicine for Melancholy, Jenkins’ main weapon in his armoury is his capability to infuse his characters with earnestness and vulnerability. There is a tenderness between these characters here that is not often seen within films that deal with Black masculinity, if at all. Apologies for being glib here, but it’s not a shock that the film's emotions may be lost on certain writers and viewers. Black masculinity has so narrowly defined for so long in cinema, you can almost forgive people for black characters for not acting in the way that they expect. For some black audience members for which this film’s warm, emotive response will connect to, we now expect this so much in our real lives, we should merely roll our eyes and move on.

The characters and dynamics at play in Moonlight defy so much of what is often suggested in other areas of black culture. In particular Rap and Hip Hop music, which has been long dominated with allegations and allegories of homophobia and toxic masculinity for nearly thirty years. The film does slightly lean towards the ghetto escapism that defined the Afro-American cinema of the 90’s, but it also toys with our expectations. For instance, Mahershala Ali portrayal of the drug dealer with the heart of gold is shifted into a new perspective when in conversation with a young 9-year-old boy about the word “faggot”. A near unrecognisable Naomi Harris takes on a role of a drug-addicted mother, delicately balancing the performance between despicableness and heart-wrenching empathy. It could have been easy to shoehorn this portrayal with previously seen roles such as Mo'nique’s villainess display in Precious (2009). But Jenkins understands that humans aren’t that straightforward. What we see throughout with every character is the knottiness that comes with their decisions and the tumultuous results which stem from their history.

Like Boyhood (2012), Moonlight notes upon the small details rather than the larger ones. We are given intimate moments which help define the young protagonist; Chiron, but the film decides against highlighting certain outcomes. Characters fade into the distance, but they’ve made their mark. This is a film of looks, not dialogue. Lines are read on the character’s faces. This is where the depth of the film is found. On the surface, we think we know the story, yet this is a tale differs from what we think we know. The moments Moonlight declines to show us, an off-screen demise, for example, doesn’t need to be shown. The audience has seen in many guises before.

The likes of Camilla Long will state that the film as a whole has been told on countless backdrops. But no. Take away the likes of Campbell X’s Stud Life (2012), the work of Charles Burnett, or at a push, Six Degrees of Seperation (1993) and the canvas is nearly always white. Often of a social class higher than seen here. It’s one imitate love scene holds a tenderness that has not been held on a mainstream screen by two Afro-American black men. It displays a tenderness with a poignancy that even Todd Haynes Carol (2015) doesn’t reach. It’s a moment which truly suggests that we now comfortable with queer sex which is not out to titillate or to shock. It is one thing to dislike a film for an honest reason but is slightly troubling to dismiss film in the way the likes of Long does, asking a mood piece to have more plot. To rebuff the film as something that doesn’t break any new ground as if films like this are a dime a dozen. How often do we see films as personal as this? With African Americans framed with such tenderness? Long’s banal comments are a smart way to try and take away a marginalised voice, but while Moonlight may not be a universal and easy expression for more conservative ears it’s certainly one that needed to be told.

It’s difficult to produce a coming of age film which is so nakedly honest. It’s harder to do so with three different actors inhabiting the same role. Even Boyhood kept hold of its child actors for all of its 12 years of production. The performances that come from the three lead roles are not only uniformly consistent but they also all highlight the fragility that can lie within black male masculinity. It’s difficult to pick out the strongest dramatic moment. It could be the subtle and heart-breaking exchange that occurs between Alex Hibbert’s 9-year-old Chiron and Mahershala Ali’s Juan. It could the soft romantic moment on the beach between a teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders) and his childhood friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). One part of me believes that films final scenes between and adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) and Kevin (André Holland) are the most deserving, yet to say that seems unfair on everything that we’ve seen before it. What I can honestly say is each display is deeply compelling.

The three performances, when combined, create a complex and wrenching portrait of longing and regret I can honestly say that I have not seen in an American movie lead by people of colour before. Such a statement is hyperbolic, but one I say with a similar earnestness that this deeply expressive piece of art provides. It will not surprise me if the film’s Oscar win will disarm those who will now try and see what the fuss is about. Moonlight is a film which is not interested in easy answers and comforting closure. It’s a film which requires meditation. This is a film which is not only unapologetically black but also a film that is not universal with its emotions. Nor is it ever trying to be. It’s a film which belongs in the same realms as George Washington (2000), This is England (2006) and Ratcatcher (1999). Coming of age films from the skewed side of the tracks which still maintain the ability to sense the sweet within the sour. In a film world, which appears to be falling into the trap of homogeneity, Moonlight’s beautifully abstract and visually poetic rhythms are a timely reminder of just how bewitching the seventh art can be. I await Barry Jenkins next feature with baited breath. His Oscar win suggests I may not have to wait almost a decade for it this time.

Review: Get Out

Year: 2017
Director: Jordan Peele
Screenplay: Jordan Peele
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Caleb Landry Jones, Stephen Root, Lakeith Stanfield and Catherine Keener

Synopsis is here:

Note: Get Out is a film that is best seen stone cold. I’ve tried not to talk too much about the plot of the film as to avoid spoilers, however, this review may have enough in it to hint at certain elements.

An ex-work colleague was once talking to a group of us about how they felt uncomfortable when travelling to Southall, a suburb of London with a high Islamic Asian demographic. They were quick to note that they had nothing against Muslims mind. They just felt uncomfortable around that suburb as that was "their neighbourhood". One must laugh when hearing things like this. When you're a POC in England, dependant on where you are, you are almost constantly surrounded by white people. You cannot say that you feel uncomfortable around them. It’s just not cricket. Although technically, going by the standards set by my colleague, I should feel uncomfortable from when I get up in the morning until I go to sleep.

This is often the underlying issue when we look and talk about race. It's Farage feeling uncomfortable about not hearing English being spoken on the tube. It's Camilla Long dictating to (mostly white) readers that Moonlight was written for especially white people to feel a certain way, despite being created from a black person's own personal experiences. It's Piers Morgan trolling on the word Nigger. Everything is always seen through the prism of whiteness, which is of course considered what you should call normal. Another example of this? A swimming teacher telling my father that my genetic make-up dictates my swimming prowess. Another would be a previous ex-girlfriends mother always skirting around what to say to me as her daughter had never brought home a black boyfriend. Often me and my friends and family nod and smile about certain "white" tics that occur around us. There's still the belief, even with the more liberal amongst us, that we are somewhat different in our makeup. An element of the exotic and otherness that compels and discomforts people. It could be Ebonics, it could be athleticism (see the shit Serena Williams deals with). There is always SOMETHING.

That something is what is what Jordan Peele candidly deals with his directorial debut Get Out, a dryly amusing and deeply disconcerting horror comedy that has been noted as an updated take on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), in which Chris (Daniel Kaluuya); a young black photographer, visits the mysterious estate of his girlfriends (Alison Williams) family to terrifying results. Get Out gleefully riffs on Stanley Kramer’s wonderfully composed social commentary with a tongue firmly implanted in its cheek. Peele’s film grabs hold of something that I had wished the likes of Neil LaBute's remake of The Wicker Man (2006) had been more interested in. Get Out timely exploration of racial framing is not only relevant but blazingly incisive. It would be too easy to make the villains of this piece the type of overtly hostile, backwards evildoers that littered Red State (2011). With Get Out, Peele isn’t afraid to expose that not only the racial inequities that inhabit the veins of western civilisation run deep. They can also be well hidden in the blood of those that people who call themselves allies.

Get Out is not a typical horror film in that we are overload with abject viscera and telegraphed jump scares. Jordan Peele is far more interested in creating an atmosphere similar to the likes of The Twilight Zone or even Black Mirror. This is done with the adeptly crafted screenplay which utilises its main conceit with a dark wit and an affecting sense of truth. Unlike so many horror films which often deal with white suburban fear, Get Out revels in the perversity of treading lightly in white spaces while black. Not since Halloween (1978) has a horror film played so subversively with the uniformity of suburbia. It’s a film which pulls no punches with this theme starting from the first frame, which arouses the fateful tragedies of Trayvon Martin, to a subtly chilling encounter with a policeman that may feel all too familiar to a black male. Nothing is taken to chance here. When we observe the scene with the police officer, note that the actor cast holds a resemblance to ex-officer Darren Wilson. I’ve watched this sequence twice now at the time of writing. I still marvel at how tightly crafted the dynamics of power play out. Believe me when I say this. When you watch it again, you see something different a second time. Let’s just say, in situations like that, we’re often not just scared of the officer.

This is a film which indulges itself in the power plays that occur when it comes to race relations. The film is clearly satirical and makes sure we are aware of it, but it knows how to strike a nerve with the audience it’s catering to. So much of the film nods knowingly to the painful awkwardness of being the only minority in a crowded white room. From the supposed well-intentioned gestures that carry soft offences to the outright obnoxiousness that people feel that they can spout because of the colour of your skin. Peele’s film neatly taps into the fear that many people of colour hold.  That by merely existing, you stand out more. By being a minority, your feelings should come second to a white person’s desires. The master stroke of Get Out is to suggest that it’s within more liberal whites that the most insidious racism occurs. But how could that be? They’re on your side, right? What makes Get Out so engaging is how it toys with ideas of white privilege. It’s not just enough to occupy wealth and opportunity, but even if you are the white elite, it may just be easier to own the black existence, just because you like it.

To say anymore may be telling, in fact, I may have already said too much. However, it’s safe to say that Peels film plays out like a race-themed version of Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973). Its densely-packed screenplay captures the sense of paranoia and helpless that many feel when operating with certain spaces and each scene adds another layer of commentary and creepiness to proceedings. The film’s crowning achievement, a painfully awkward, remarkably on point house party sequence is one that resonates with me from a deeply personal standpoint. It’s a scene that plays out as if it knew me. Every conversation that takes place, every micro-aggression which gets thrown towards Chris (a superlative Kaluuya) feels as if it’s been lifted from situations I’ve been involved in. As exaggerated as the film is (and it is exaggerated), this one sequence, amongst others, holds a candour that’s difficult to shake off the shoulders.

Peele; an attentive sketch writer in his own right manages to balance this with a spiky sense of gallows humour. The film’s funny because it’s true. It’s also terrifying for the same reasons. It’s a film that’s clearly cine-literate. Name-checking the likes of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist 3 (1990), and Night of the Living Dead (1960) and The Stepford Wives (1975), but not letting its references get in the way of the message of benevolent racism.  It is rounded off by an expertly picked cast who are all allowed to play to their strengths. Special credit should go the likes of Marcus Henderson, Betty Gabriel and LaKeith Stanfield who steal scenes from under the noses of the principle cast with the type of nuance one doesn’t expect from a film which operates under B-Movie mechanics.

If there are any flaws with the movie, it would be with its final third, in which the action shifts from the wry observations of the first two acts into more notable horror film fare. While Get Out still manages to keep a couple of tricks up its sleeve, it travels down the route of many films of its type. Mostly because it’s difficult to see if it could go anywhere else with the material. This shouldn’t detract that Get Out is operating at a higher level than most horror movies. It’s a film in which it’s motifs have already appeared to have penetrated the zeitgeist. This no mean feat, but Peele’s film comes from a place well known to many who will watch it. It will not change the minds of bigots, but that’s not the point. There are moments in this film which struck a chord in me (possibly many others) in a way that other films will not. The beauty of Get Out is that finally in 2017 we get an intelligent genre piece that people of colour can really call their own. The pain of Get Out is that it’s 2017 and we still have to acknowledge it’s truisms.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Review: T2 Trainspotting

Year: 2017
Director: Danny Boyle
Screenplay: John Hodges
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle

Synopsis is here:

The 90’s seem so very far away now. Talking to some people I know, it’s ancient history. Time makes fools of us all, and trying to explain dial up internet, Ibiza Uncovered and Gazza’s goal at Euro 96 to younger generation millennials will no doubt leave some us feeling foolish. The same could almost be said for Trainspotting. When first released in 1996, the film was a cultural phenomenon. For us Brits, it was as iconic to the 90’s as Britpop and bleached blonde hair. If you didn’t know that Irvine Welsh’s series of vignettes was a novel, you certainly knew it was a movie. Shallow Grave (1994) introduced us to Ewan McGregor and Danny Boyle, but it was Trainspotting that truly broke them out. From the thumping drum of Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life which launches the film, it’s uniquely comic yet bleak portrayal of junk addiction, to the simple yet brash mugshot poster, everything about the film screamed iconic.

20 years after Boyle introduced us to “perfect day” overdoses on skag, we are reintroduced to Mark Renton and his so-called friends in a film which isn’t really aiming for the same never say die exuberance that infiltrated our hearts. Why would it? Danny Boyle, one Britain’s more idiosyncratic directorial exports, is quick to let us know that two decades have really slapped these guys in the face. So much so, that even the consideration of playing Lust of Life pains the listener. Of course, this is not about the loudness of the track, but more the memories it digs up. We re-encounter Renton hit with physical health problems, but, like all his mates, he is haunted by his moment of betrayal which in turn left his friends in the gutter.

Instead of revelling in golden-hued nostalgia, T2 works best when its characters are reminded that their past is rife with sin. Trainspotting was drenched in a youthful nihilism which motivated every character, T2 has Renton and co look deep within themselves with a deep sense of regret. The film’s poignancy lies within what the characters have thrown away in the last twenty years. There’s no doe eye back slapping at the heady days of their youth. These people hurt each other and it shows. We like to think that such deep old wounds will heal over fine. They don’t. There’s always scar tissue.
T2 is pretty much what a life of toxic masculinity can get you. Whether it’s Begbie’s resentment towards his son, despite not being in his life, to the fractious relationship between old “pals” Simon (Sick Boy) and Renton. Boyle accurately details the dissipation of youthful energy within the angry young man. Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting was originally released around the same time as Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club (now well known as a 1999 film), and both Boyle’s film and Palahniuk’s book do a remarkable job of showcasing one of the main issues of the so-called 90’s man: that they had very little to rebel against. Therefore, they turned amongst themselves. T2 has Boyle explore what would happen if these Scottish roustabouts tried to salvage some of the remnants of themselves, and each other, after the damage is done.

This is all done with the smoothness you expect from a director like Boyle, who decides early on that while he and screenwriter Hodge may be able to give us anything exemplary from a narrative perspective, he’ll certainly work hard with Anthony Dod Mantle to ensure that visually the film will retain interest. The askew compositions, metaphors and visual motifs to Irvine Welsh’s own novelistic off shoots, are never indulgent and playfully highlight the cock-eyed viewpoints of our Scottish antiheroes.

It’s little surprise however, that much like the original film, T2 is quite top heavy. While the scams that are pulled off here don’t feel as rambunctious as before, they still show that wickedness doesn’t rest easy, even as our protags stumble into middle age. Like its predecessor, T2 loses a little bit of shine as it dives into the final third. The plot descends into something rather mechanical and uninspiring, while certain character decisions feel rather unconvincing.  When T2 focuses on dubious antics, it excels. When it becomes bogged down in actual plot, it stagnates. This doesn’t stop the cast from giving it their all. Both Mcgregor and Miller slip back into the groove easily. As does Robert Carlyle whose Begbie still excites in spite of the film spending a bit too much time with him. The film’s secret weapon however, is Ewen Bremmer, who’s role as the dopey Spud fully establishes him as the film’s emotional core. Unlike the previous film, Bremmer’s role is more fleshed out, giving T2 something Trainspotting never had and was never really looking for: Heart.

That’s never been the reason to watch Trainspotting though. It’s always been the scams and shenanigans. That’s what the audience is here for. Dodgy plot be dammed. Whether it’s robbing Unionists of their credit cards, or some dubious blue pill action, the bleak lolz are there for the taking. T2 Trainspotting gleefully obliges.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Review: Jackie

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

Synopsis is here:

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

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

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

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

Review: La La Land

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

Synopsis is here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Silence

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

Synopsis is here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Review: Assassin's Creed

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

Synopsis is here:

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

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

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

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

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

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