Tuesday, 28 March 2017

LifeAnimated
Dir: Roger Ross Williams
2016
****
When Owen Suskind suddenly became withdrawn and silent at three years old after being a sociable and talkative child, his parents Ron and Cornelia sought medical help and after many test he was diagnosed with autism. Our understanding of autism is much better now than it was back then in the early nineties, the Suskinds weren't given a lot to go on with respects to how Owen could develop, if it was possible and what he understood. They describe the experience as feeling like their child had been kidnapped and hearing them speak of it in this documentary is heart-breaking at times. However, Roger Ross Williams's brilliant LifeAnimated is not designed to pull on the heartstrings or to be emotionally manipulative. This is the story of how Owen has essentially proven there is more to those with autism and how their minds can work. Owen was thought to be speaking gibberish, until he started to repeat dialogue from Disney films. This was shrugged off by doctors as just being echopraxia, a condition associated with autism where people with the condition repeat what they hear without necessarily understanding it. When what Owen repeated was clearly in context to a situation he was in, the Suskind knew that their little boy was in there, understood things but was somewhat trapped in his own mind. Ron Suskind, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist writing for The Wall Street Journal, documented Owen's progress over the years and released the biography Life, Animated: A Story of sidekicks, Heroes and Autism, the book this film is based on. As he developed, Owen became more and more obsessed with Disney as it was his only means of making sense of the world. When he was secretly bullied at school he wrote short stories about himself and how he was 'Protector of the sidekicks'. He saw the Disney sidekicks as being the ones that help the heroes to achieve their goals, whether it is getting the girl or saving the day. It was a complex alternative viewpoint but made perfect sense and helped his parents and therapists understand his thoughts and how he felt about himself. Watching Disney films, or just a few scenes, became a daily occurrence that Owen would enjoy with his family. It slowly helped him develop, communicate and understand the world. The film uses a few old home videos and inserts snippets from famous Disney films as well as fresh animation that features Owen himself with the Disney sidekicks. The documentary joins Owen as he is about to leave home and move into his own apartment and explores his and his family's apprehension. Nothing is forced, Owen is never asked difficult questions and Roger Ross Williams' approach is to just let things happen naturally. Owen is asked to make a speech at an Autism convention in Paris and we see him chair Disney club meetings for his friends but there is never any forced drama, no unnecessary intensity or false sense of suspense. Owen's father Ron is clearly behind much of what goes on but he never comes across as a pushy parent, just a proud one that clearly loves his son. In the wrong hands this could have been just awful, such is the state of documentaries these days. I'm glad Owen's story was handled the way it was and given the feature length treatment it deserved, rather than a made for TV hatchet job. Probably the most uplifting and educational documentary of 2016.
While We're Young
Dir: Noah Baumbach
2014
****
I love a bit of Noah Baumbach but I have to admit, I wasn't exactly thrilled at the thought of watching a Ben Stiller lead film about a couple in their early forties coming to terms with the fact that they're not that young anymore. However, just ten minutes into 2014's While We're Young my wife and I were agreeing that this was us, this was our life was like right now. I expected clichés upon cliché about what it is like to be in your early forties in 2014 and what the youth of today are actually like but I think Baumbach actually hits the nail on the head. The characteristics in both Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts's childless characters, their friends Marina and Fletcher (Maria Dizzia and Adam 'Ad-Rock' Horovitz), who have just had their first child and in new, much younger friends Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) are just like people I know who fit in the same category. The details are authentic and I to, as a childless adult, find my friends with kids as they are in the film and also find myself intrigued by the younger generation who do seem to have life sussed. While the film is uncomfortably real sometimes it is also nice to know that others are out there who feel the same. The performances are spot on and the characters are very well written, I wouldn't be surprised if they weren't based on real people. If the overall mood of the film wasn't enough of a pleasant surprise, the surprise appearance of the great Charles Grodin, whose brilliant timing, acting ability and overall presence, is still as strong as it ever was. There were so many moments in the film where I thought 'I do that', 'That's what I've always thought' and 'That's exactly what I do or would have done in that situation'. I liked that it was the adults who were always on the phone, because it is, and I loved it that the Sheman of the ayahuasca ceremony that Stiller, Watts, Driver and Seyfried go to, puts on Vangelis's Blade Runner soundtrack to soften the mood, as I would have totally done the same. I also like the subject explored with regards to the character's professions. There is interesting debate regarding acceptable levels concerning authenticity and craftsmanship and the overall worth of an idea. It's also fascinating how the youth of the story are in agreement with the older generation and vice-versa. It does sometimes feel that my generation have lived under the rules of the previous generation and that they are now congratulating the next generation for breaking them. Old people and young people, I bloody hate them and this film goes some way in voicing my own frustrations, and any film that achieves that is okay by me.
DrPhibes Rises Again!
Dir: Robert Fuest
1972
***
Robert Fuest's 1971 horror opus The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a cult classic, his follow up released the following year doesn't have quite the same impact or notoriety. Dr. Phibes pretty much did what he set out to achieve in the first film, his story was essentially over. This new adventure, that sees Dr. Phibes return to seek eternal life from the fountain of youth, which just so happens to be located in Egypt, in keeping with his interests and murder theme of choice. Now the first film made no sense and it really didn't matter, it was in keeping with the hokey humour, the camp horror and the altogether quirky quirkiness but, for some reason, the story kind of did matter here and the fact it made no sense was somewhat bothersome. In the first film Dr. Phibes killed the doctors he blamed for the death of his wife. Now we are told that these were the best doctors practicing in the world at the time, so when we learn that his wife is essentially in a state of status, you can help but wonder why he didn't force them to try and resurrect her, seeing as that is the mission in the sequel. What is even more confusing is that a few of the said murdered doctors come back in the second film, or at least the actors that portrayed them do. I find it hard to criticize any film that features the work of the great Terry-Thomas and Hugh Griffith but they both clearly died in the first film, quite horribly too. Both actors’ performances in the first were considered highlights but to include them again in the follow up is a bit lazy and doesn't have half the impact. The producers brought in new writers who didn't get on well with director and co-writer Fuest and this is obvious throughout the film's script. It's messy, not as well polished and just plain awful in places. Not one element of the sequel is as good as the first film, although I quite liked the conclusion. Too much was going on and too much was in preparation for a third film, when really they should have concentrated on making a decent follow up with a strong story. Vincent Price is on top form once more but his script isn't as strong, the set isn't as lavish and the horror, comedy and overall stylishness of the first is missing. It's almost too self-aware and the humour is too self-knowing. In this respect it feels like it is constantly self-congratulating itself, as if it has already become a great series of films, even though they had only made one film thus far. It all got ahead of itself too quickly and was made in a rush. There are moments of pure brilliance though, and these moments make it just about worth watching (as do Price, T-T, Griffith and the returning Peter Jeffery and Ronert Quarry as the alchemist Dr. Biederbeck) but it's not particularly easy watching.
The Abominable DrPhibes
Dir: Robert Fuest
1971
*****
Robert Fuest's cult classic The Abominable DrPhibes is a darkly humorous, Egyptian-themed, operatic, art-deco, horror masterpiece. The tag line used for the movie; "Love is never having to say you're ugly" is clearly spoofing Ryan O'Neal's Love Story that came out the year before, which ended with the immortal line "Love is never having to say you're sorry" but it is rather misleading, as this isn't a spoof or even obviously a comedy. However, it gives the audience a little idea of just how strange and out of sorts it really is. It is over the top and as camp as you like but even more so than the typical Hammer Horror or crime thriller of the day. DrPhibes, an expert in theology and music, is believed to have died in a terrible car accident, shortly after his wife dies in hospital. After rebuilding his own face and teaching himself how to talk again, Dr. Phibes goes about killing the doctors he believes failed his wife during treatment for an unknown illness and thus blames for her death. Simply shooting, stabbing or poisoning would be too dull, so the abominable doctor decides to kill them in the style of the Ten Plagues of Egypt, as seen in the Old Testament. Each murder is as flamboyant as the next, each being dastardly, horrific and also just a little bit funny. Phibes is like a satanic Bond villain, obsessed with revenge, money no object, a thing for masks and a dab hand at the old organ. The sets are about as elaborate as it gets, the stunning set pieces and back-drops make it look like a huge operatic production, and then you are met with Vincent Price in a child-like mask in the foreground, it's never clear when the film is being intentionally or unintentionally funny. I think quirky is the best word I can think of but it is a unique and very special kind of quirk. No one else could have played Dr. Phibes other than Vincent Price and it is one of the best characters of his career. The cast is impressive but it is the short but sweet performances from Terry-Thomas and Hugh Griffith that are the most enjoyable and most memorable. Peter Jeffrey is great however as Inspector Harry Trout, again, I now can't see anyone else playing the part as well. The story is flawed in many respects but it just doesn't matter, in fact, if it made any sense it wouldn't be half as compelling. It's one of the best examples of camp and hokey film making that the 1970s did so well, it's knowingly overblown but also quite subtle in its execution in many respects, like if Orson Welles had directed Carry On Screaming.

Monday, 27 March 2017

The Lost City of Z
Dir: James Gray
2017
****
I can't say I've been enamoured by James Gray's previous films but his 2017 adaption of David Grann's 2009 novel The Lost City of Z, the story of the famous British explorer Percy Fawcett, is a remarkably mature adventure story and a contemporary classic. Although not all the facts are given and explored, there is something extraordinarily realistic about the film, from the performances and attitudes to the era and circumstances. Percy Fawcett has been the inspiration behind many a fictional adventurer, Indiana Jones being the most obvious, and many a character has followed in his steps, such as Biggles (The Cruise of the Condor), Tintin (Tintin and the Broken Ear) and Arthur Conan Doyles' Professor Challenger, as seen in his classic novel The Lost World. The Lost City of Z is nothing like any of the adventures seen in these fictitious stories, although they are as equally exciting. Fawcett made several expeditions into the South American Jungle but only the more important ones are featured, including the first where he first met Corporal Henry Costin (who would become his aide-de-camp on several trips) and found evidence of an ancient civilization. A later trip that included James Murray (who accompanied Shackleton on the Nimrod expedition to be the first to reach the South Pole) who became gravely ill during the trip and caused much trouble for his fellow explorers, and Fawcett's last trip, that he would take with his eldest son, which is explored with a huge slice of speculation and mystery. The character study is quite impressive, I don't think the Amazon rain forest is even mentioned in the first twenty minutes, instead we see what makes Fawcett tick, his ambition and the relationship he has with his wife and with the army in which he serves. His famous ambition led many not to believe his initial claims that he had found evidence and that the so called 'savages' of the amazon had learned cultivation methods and sustained a civilized life, such was the ignorance and arrogance of even the most intelligent of Europeans at the time. This is all explored rather well in the film without usual clichés or stereotypical manner. The overall direction is beautiful, with rich yellow tints and blue-gray tones during the World War One scenes. It has 'epic' potential all over it but instead Gray makes the characters themselves the main focal point and not the landscape. I'm not sure Charlie Hunnam would have been my third or even thirty choice of actor after both Brad Pitt and Benedict Cumberbatch dropped out of the lead role but he turns out to be rather perfect as Fawcett. Robert Pattinson has proven his worth since Twilight and once again impresses as Henry Costin. Tom Holland joins the film fairly later on in the story but is good in his short but sweet performance and Sienna Miller is her perfect self as always, giving what could have been a fairly overlooked character a memorable tribute. The pace of the film is surprisingly steady, which works perfectly, and I didn't once feel uncomfortable during the whole 140 minute run time.  Certain characters are left out and certain events skipped over but the majority of the film is incredibly realistic. However, because the end of Fawcett's life is a complete mystery, Gray combines many different theories and comes up with what is a beautifully open visual eulogy, that works as a great tribute to Fawcett and pays respect to his family and reclaims the wonder and passion of what consumed him. The last scene is both subtle and stunning and says a million and one things in just one whisper. This switch from realism to fantasy made the film for me and reminded me of Breaking the Waves in many respects. It amazes me that Gray has gone from We Own the Night to this in just ten years. It's traditional but contemporary, an intelligent adventure full of intrigue, mystery and good old fashioned grit. 
Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon
Dir: Roy William Neill
1943
***
Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon is the fourth of fourteen in the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes film series and already certain cracks were starting to show within the franchise. The series is warmly regarded and I also love it but there are serious issues with the story, continuity and the overall fact that hardly any of it is the actual work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon incorporates an idea featured in the short story 'The Adventure of the Dancing Men' but apart from the famous dancing men code, it's absolutely nothing like it. Made in the early forties, The Secret Weapon sees Holmes contributing to the war effort, as only Holmes can. The initial scene sees Holmes travel to Switzerland to help smuggle out a brilliant Scientist who has agreed to help the British with a revolutionary bomb sight he has developed. Holmes adopts the guise of an elderly German bookseller (taken from Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock short The Adventure of the Empty House, which was famously parodied in 1963's The Pink Panther), tricks the Nazis and makes it back to London. There is a spy element to the story that isn't really present in the Sherlock Holmes books, it works in the beginning but soon gets tired and a little silly. When the Scientist goes missing, Holmes follows the clues to his whereabouts and discovers that his old foe Professor Moriarty is also searching for the bomb sight that he plans on selling to the Nazis. Now Professor Moriarty is lots of things but i can't say I ever saw him as a Nazi sympathizer. Like many fictional characters of the era, they were developed to take sides, which I understand but I don't think it really worked. Fascinating looking back at it now though but those continuity errors really do let it down. For starters, Professor Moriarty died in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes which was only made four years previous and was only two films before in the series. To confuse things further, Professor Moriarty is played by Lionel Atwill, who played Dr Mortimer in 1939's The Hound of the Baskervilles, the first film of the series. While Basil Rathbone was on fine form, I'm afraid the same can't be said of Nigel Bruce, although his Dr. Watson has a particularly poor script this time round. The climax is pretty ridiculous, which almost undoes the suspense of the code cracking story line. I'm rather fond of the series and I'm being kind with my rating but all in all, these films were rushed, there wasn't enough care taken with them and it really shows and they haven't dated well.
Winning
Dir: James Goldstone
1969
*****
Quentin Tarantino was once asked what his favourite race car film was and he replied that it certainly wasn't 1969's Winning, adding "I'd rather saw my fingers off than sit through that again". I'd be happy to send him the saw but then the film has a beautiful subtlety about it that isn't in Tarantino's remit. There have been a few notable racing car movies over the years, the 60s and 70s producing the best in my opinion, back when technology hadn't taken over and the driver really was the one in control, you won on skill and perseverance. However, of all the types of racing, I've always found Indy Speedway racing the least exciting. The cars are cool and everything but essentially they just go round and round and round. James Goldstone makes cars going round and round exciting and full of suspense, when it really is neither of those things. The 'off the pitch' drama featured in most sports movies isn't generally that great, it can make or break a film in that genre, but Winning strikes that happy balance. I'm guessing Tarantino didn't like the film because essentially it's a love story, rather than a racing film but personally I think it works as both. The direction is stunning with some of the race sequences bettering other racing classics. The film's final scene is also brilliant and a huge influence on many films that came out the following decade. Paul Newman is brilliant in the lead role as Frank Capua and a lot of what makes the film great is down to his performance. He is supported by the great Robert Wagner and by Joanne Woodward but keeping it together and still looking cool when you have the over the top and excitable young Richard Thomas yapping at your heals couldn't have been easy for him. Unfortunately, Richard Thomas's performance is something of a fly in the ointment, it doesn't ruin anything and he clearly learned lessons from Newman that helped him later in his career but he is incredibly annoying during intense and serious moments of the film. Overall, the film is as good as other classics in the genre but thanks to a couple of key scenes, I regard it as my favourite. I see a lot of the 1970s in the film and can see it being a clear influence on many of my favourites made soon after. James Goldstone is an underrated director and this is one of Paul Newman's most overlooked performances of his career.