Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Mary and Max
Dir: Adam Elliot
2009
*****
It is rare that a film is both heart warming and heart breaking at the same time, but 2009's Mary & Max is a wonderful exception. Adam Elliot has excelled himself after the success of his short film Harvey Krumpet - which was a hard act to follow - and has cemented himself as one of my favourite writer/directors of all time (just after two films). Mary & Max is a claymation (I hate that description) tale to be cherished, although your enjoyment is probably based on your general outlook on life. Are you a half full or half empty sort of person, can you see the silver lining to every cloud, can you see truth beyond the fog of uncertainty and do you see beauty in that which is generally considered ugly? If not, Mary & Max can still show you the way, just give them that chance and you will be rewarded. If you’re a sour old philistine who loves a bit of glorious misery from time to time (like me) then I envy you seeing this for the first time - I wish I could again. Inspired by Elliot’s own pen-pal relationship of twenty years, Mary and Max tells the story of a young Mary (voiced by Toni Collette) who lives in Australia. Lonely, bullied and neglected by her mother and stepfather, Mary only has her pet rooster Ethel for company. One afternoon she visits the local post office with her mother and spots a New York City phone book near a phone booth. On uncharacteristic impulse, she decides to pick an address at random and write to the occupant, who turns out to be Max (voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman), an obese Jewish atheist in his mid-forties who has Asperger’s syndrome. The pair write to each other and form a close bond but are constantly effected by their social anxiety, depression and families. The things that happen to the pair are hilarious and utterly tragic at the same time. Both Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toni Collette are brilliant in their voice work but I love that the whole film is narrated by Barry Humphries. Mary and Max is the only film I can think of that not only explores subjects such as autism (Asperger syndrome in particular), childhood neglect, loneliness, isolation, depression and anxiety, but represents them honestly. What movie producer wants to try and sell a film with those subjects and who really wants to go and see it? Adam Elliot has taken things that people don’t talk about, things that are still ridiculously taboo and has made an honest, funny and touching film about them, that is terrifically entertaining and universal. The animation itself is perfect, I am sure it was as painstaking as it looks (Filming lasted over fifty-seven weeks, using one hundred and thirty-three sets, two-hundred and twelve puppets and four-hundred and seventy-five props, including Max’s fully functional typewriter that took nine weeks to design and build alone) but very much worth it. The choice to make it mainly black and white and in muted colours was also brilliantly conceived and it should be regarded as one of the most remarkable neo-noirs of the last few decades. It’s of a unique sort of humour but one that I adore, there is no other film like it, it’s a true gem and one of my very favourites.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Justice League
Dir: Zack Snyder
2017
**
I didn't like it. I really wanted to, but I just didn't like it. Man of Steel was mediocre, Batman vs Superman was underdeveloped and Wonder Woman, while being the best from DC so far, was overrated. I had no expectations from Justice League, however, as ever, I went into it with an open mind. The big problem I've had throughout the DC movies so far has been the casting. Apart from Gal Gadot, who is brilliant as Wonder Women, and Ben Affleck in Batman vs Superman, I haven't agreed with any of the casting decisions, and I still stand by that. Unfortunately, in Justice League Gal Gadot isn't given as much to work with and Ben Affleck already looks as if he has tired of the role. I have no emotional investment in any of these characters, and when you don't care, you don't enjoy. The action scenes were samey and uninventive, the interaction between each character was lazy and non-eventful and the story was lame. I really don't want to compare any of the DC films to the Marvel ones, but Justice League really does feel like a cheap copy. The infinity stones seems to have been replaced by three boxes, Thanos is replaced by Steppenwolf - who looks like a poor mans version of Skeletor and the whole thing just seemed like a hurried Avengers Assemble. Anyone who has even the most vague knowledge of comics will know that Marvel and DC have been in competition with each other for many decades and would often compete with different versions of what were essentially the same characters and situations. I wouldn't have cared in the slightest if DC had gone for a total carbon copy of what Marvel had done, I don't think anyone would, but instead they've tried to compete, copy and rush things, and it really has been detrimental to the characters and the story. Watching Justice League is like watching a story with no ending, a film with so many rewrites that it doesn't know what it is, only that it had to be released on a certain day. There is no character development whatsoever. Wonder Woman has had her own film but Batman, Aquaman, The Flash and Cyborg haven't. I can't say I have any interest in an Aquaman, Cyborg or a Flash film either after their inclusion in Justice League. This is a colour-by-numbers superhero film, with nothing of interest or originality. Steppenwolf is possibly the least scary/impressive bad guy DC have ever produced and he could have wiped the floor with the Justice League and I wouldn't have cared less. I don't feel the film was made with much confidence either. They needed to take a risk, inject something of their own, but instead they produced the most predictable film they could have ever come up with. The only scene I liked came half-way through but even that was a huge wasted opportunity. This was meant to be an event, instead it looked like a sad cosplay party. The one thing the film should have pointed out was, that following the death of Superman, the combined efforts of the Justice League could take on all evils without him, but they couldn't. Batman has spent ages putting the team together, only for them to fail without supes. Literally, the only exciting moment of the film was the post-credits hint at what is to come next. How ridiculous. Maybe they just wanted to get it out of the way, do the whole team up thing and get on with new and exciting stories, but so far they've barely managed to get anything right and even then I feel that they got lucky. Okay, so both versions of Quicksilver have made The Flash a tricky character to make original, but I would argue that Flash comics are so much better than Quicksilver ones. DC needs to have a bit of confidence and also to pull their finger out. There are some great stories within their archive, they just need to steer away from the more successful ones, because as popular as Doomsday/Death of Superman etc were, they are by far the most overrated. The seriousness doesn't work, the attempts at comedy really don't work but most importantly, nothing seems to gel together. The special effects are also pretty horrible. The last big action scene sees civilians being chased down a road by what appears to be a purple worm that looks like it could have come from an episode of cult 90s sci-fi show LEXX. That said, LEXX was far more interesting, was way more inventive and had better characters. I'm not having a go at DC because I'm a Marvel fan either, I base my opinions on merit, I want to be a fan of both, and classically I have always been a DC reader. I love my Superman and I love Batman and Wonder Woman but I just don't see this incarnation of Justice League as authentic. The story is basic and old, nothing held my attention, there was no suspense or intrigue and, apart from the Marc McClure cameo, there was nothing that impressed me. It feels like the DC films are being made by people who have little passion for DC characters, or who have totally lost focus on what they should be doing, what they could achieve and see the films as more of a race against Marvel then anything else. They are the ones making us compare them to Marvel, when really they should be making us do the exact opposite. At this point I'm not even disappointed, I'm just perplexed about how wrong they got it - again.

Rocky VI
Dir: Aki Kaurismäki
1986
****
Aki Kaurismaki’s Rocky VI is the director at his most playful. It’s a short parody of the Rocky films that was released in 1986 – coming a year after Rocky IV, the specific Rocky film is pokes fun at. It actually came a whole two decades before the actual Rocky VI and is no less ridiculous. It’s clear aim was to make fun of Rocky IV’s silly USA vs. USSR storyline and shows a fight that sees both countries in a completely different stereotype, with the American boxer being weak, unprepared and malnourished, while the Russian opponent is overweight, drunk on vodka and a little more thick-skinned. There is less to the fighters than there is of their managers and promoters, who are seen to enjoy many luxuries, gourmet food and plenty of drink. Unlike the real Rocky, the American boxer loses after being knocked out fairly early on in the fight. Kaurismaki relishes every minute, later describing the short film as “my revenge on Mr. Stallone, who I think is an asshole”. It’s a lovely little protest against American films that were fuelled by cold war themes that were a little too black and white for the rest of the world. It has become something of a favourite at film festivals and is staple education at film schools around the world. I like everything about it, but more than that, as a huge Aki Kaurismaki fan, it’s a wonderful example of his development and the source of many of his greatest works. It’s playfulness and the comradery within is a clear influence on the Leningrad Cowboys films and plays like a short but mature advance of Calamari Union. However, it also marks the last time Kaurismaki moved about as much. His films soon became rather static, like oil paintings, more refined if you will. Rocky VI is a bit punk, a playful protest but without the anarchy. There is an element of controlled chaos about it, which is a wonderful bit of sleight of hand that made many of his early works so appealing. It was great seeing such European directors fighting back as it were against the onslaught of tiresome Hollywood blockbusters. I can think of many who protested like Kaurismaki did but none that did is so directly and with such panache.

Friday, 17 November 2017

I Am Not Your Negro
Dir: Raoul Peck
2017
*****
Born in New York in 1924, James Baldwin was the eldest of nine. His mother left his father because of his drug abuse and James was left to look after his eight younger half-siblings. His stepfather, a Harlem preacher, was tougher on James than on his biological children and the persecution he suffered had a lasting effect on him. He found solace in a local library and by age fourteen, he knew he wanted to be a writer. At age ten, James was abused by a couple of New York police officers, something that was repeated a few years later as a teenager. He witnessed it happen to other young black men and decided to write about it in his first essay. His intelligence was recognised and encouraged at school and at the age of thirteen, he wrote his first article titled ‘Harlem – Then and Now’. His stepfather died in 1943 and his funeral was held on his nineteenth birthday and on the day of the Harlem riot of ’43. The day had a profound effect on James for many reasons and he wrote about it in the critically acclaimed essay ‘Notes of a Native Son’ in which he tried to find an answer, or at least explain, social and family rejection and to attain a sense of belonging and selfhood, which a consistent theme in his work. Baldwin wrote essays, novels and plays, most of which explore fundamental personal questions and dilemmas of fictional characters amid real complex social and psychological pressures thwarting the equitable integration not only of African Americans, but also of gay and bisexual men, while depicting some internalized obstacles to such individuals' quests for acceptance. His work, including; Notes of a Native Son (1955), Giovanni’s Room (1956), The Fire Next Time (1963), No Name in the Street (1972) and The Devil Finds Work (1976) are now considered modern classics. In the mid-eighties Baldwin began writing Remember This House, a manuscript that was his own reminiscences of close friends and murdered civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr, as well as his personal observations of American history. Baldwin died in 1987 of stomach cancer, leaving the manuscript unfinished. Following Baldwin's death, his publishing company sued his estate to recover the $200,000 advance they had paid him for the book, although the lawsuit was dropped by 1990. Director Raoul Peck wanted had wanted to make a film about his hero for some time; the question was just what kind of film it would be. "We tried everything," “We tried different forms. I worked with a playwright. I worked with a screenwriter at one point. They were not bad ideas – they just weren't the monument I felt I had to do that would make Baldwin who he is and ensure that his legacy would stay forever. I knew that I had to find an incredible, original form that would be at the level of something that he could have done." Peck approached Baldwin’s estate a decade before work started on the film. "The strange thing is that I couldn’t say to them, 'Well, I do not want the option for one particular book. I want an option for the whole body of work and the option to the man, to the biography ... everything.'" It was rare for Baldwin’s estate to provide access to his archive, but he got approval because Baldwin's sister Gloria Karefa-Smart, the estate’s executor, had seen several of his previous films and liked them. "I just told the truth, I told them what he meant to me, why I wanted to do a film – but also that I did not know yet what the film would be. I said, 'I just need the time to work on it.'" Eventually it was decided that a feature documentary based on Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, that was just a collection of notes, letters and accounts of meetings, was the perfect and logical way of tribute. It took the best part of a decade to put together the narrative and to attain archive footage, by which point America had gone through some changes. The Black Lives Matter movement had become prominent in the news, as was a string of shootings of unarmed black men and women. Baldwin’s voice rang true once again and Peck explored present day with the history of America that Baldwin had spoken of to paint a broad picture of inequality. Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson in Baldwin’s voice, I Am Not Your Negro is a brutal account, through observation, of a history of troubled relations. Not only are the approaches of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr compared, but the nature of persecution is explored, through the effect that religion, teaching, media and film can have on society. While I wasn’t a huge fan of the way the documentary is structured, I do think that Peck gets across the overall message of Baldwin’s that in order to challenge such issues one needs to challenge oneself. It is easy for a white man like myself to proclaim that racism is about ignorance vs understanding, rather than Black vs white but I’ve never been persecuted or seen as less than human. Thirty years after his death, Baldwin’s words still ring true, hearing them inter-played with images of today come as an important and sobering reminder of not how far we’ve come but how far we’ve yet to go.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Coneheads
Dir: Steve Barron
1993
****
May I have 698 words with you? Based on a Saturday Night Live sketch from the early 80s, critics and audiences panned Coneheads upon its 1993 release but personally, I think it has aged remarkably well. I didn’t see it when it came out, it looked a bit rubbish if I’m being honest and I thought in 1993 that it was a little passed its sell by date. While there is something very ‘80s’ about it, I would argue that it intentionally avoids certain clichés of the decade. For instance, the Coneheads – a family of aliens stranded on planet earth – are never registered as different by any of the humans they encounter. As their name suggests, they have huge cone-shaped heads and speak scientifically but their colleagues and neighbours see them as eccentrics and nothing more. This is quite refreshing and helps move the story along so it can concentrate on the more comical and less obvious aspects of the situation. Since 1993, the issue of immigration has become heated debate, so on reflection it is rather nice to see a cheerful and upbeat film that expresses the positivity of the subject. The Coneheads have their own belief system, customs and traditions but they also embrace America and its way of life. There is actually very little that is ‘alien’ about the film. While it may come across as a goofy film about funny shaped extra-terrestrials, it is actually a rather tender look at society, belonging, adapting and embracing. It’s pretty funny too. It might be that in 1993, many comedy films relied on catchphrases and certain characteristics that made them stand out. It seemed that most Hollywood scriptwriters were more concerned about getting one of their new made-up words into society’s consciousness than they were actually writing memorable stories. I remember many a classmate adding the word ‘not’ after saying something they didn’t mean (Wayne’s World) and it becoming quite tiresome, but thankfully the rather meaningless ‘Sta-tion’ (Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey) came and went within a week or so. I do remember people referring to their mothers and fathers as ‘Parental units’ though and a few of them still do. While Coneheads may have seeped into some people’s vocabulary, it is purely out of good writing and I would argue that its script is one of the best comedy scripts of the early 90s. Tenderness and comedy are not always the easiest things to merge but Coneheads manages it effortlessly; “If, for some reason your life functions ceased, my most precious one, I would collapse, I would draw the shades and I would live in the dark. I would never get out of my slar pad or clean myself. My fluids would coagulate, my cone would shrivel, and I would die, miserable and lonely. The stench would be great.” It is classic Dan Aykroyd, and the last lead performance of his that has been truly great. I love his and Jane Curtin’s chemistry; she is brilliant and perfect in the role. I love the silliness of their ‘alienisms’ and how it is actually observational humour, making point on our own funny rituals. I like the cheesy poster. I really love it all. Unappreciated at the time, I feel now, with lady nostalgia by my side, that this is something of a delayed classic. Seriously, there are not many comedies of its ilk made since that are as funny. The supporting cast is awesome, it includes; Sinbad, David Spade, Michael McKean, Adam Sandler, Drew Carey, Dave Thomas, Parker Posey, Jason Alexander, Michael Richards, Ellen DeGeneres, Jon Lovitz, Tom Arnold and the late Phil Hartman and Chris Farley. Comedians and Saturday Night Live regulars all at the top of their game at the time. The physical comedy is actually brilliant, each cameo performance is delivered perfectly, no matter how short and simple it may be. You may not like the film but you cannot deny its charm. Seriously, when Dan Aykroyd’s Beldar confesses to his daughter “Your positive perception of me is vital to my existence. Besides, it is not every day a father can give the world to his child.” I nearly almost cried. Coneheads deserves some love and it gets plenty from me.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

The Ridiculous 6
Dir: Frank Coraci
2015
***
I’m about as far from being a fan of Adam Sandler as you can get. Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, Little Nicky, Big Daddy – I couldn’t stand them. Everyone loved The Wedding Singer when it came out apart from me. That said, I loved Punch-Drunk Love and I thought maybe things could be different for the comedian, but no, he remade Mr Deeds Goes To Town the same year, one of my favourite films of all time and he made a horrible mess of it. I do have a soft spot for 50 First Dates but again, it’s frustrating to see how great he can be and then throw it all away on a lame gross-out comedy. While he didn’t star in it, I think it is important to remember that Sandler wrote Bucky Larson: Born to be a Star – easily the worst film made in the last couple of decades – maybe even of all time. Like I said, I’m really not much of a Adam Sandler supporter. However, as low as ratings were for The Ridiculous 6, I gave it a go with an open mind and to my surprise, I didn’t hate it. I actually laughed a couple of time. I can’t believe it myself but I found the film to be rather likable. It’s no masterpiece and many of the jokes fell flat but there are some lovely characters here and quite a few of the jokes worked. Sandler has been rather generous and has given most of the best lines and scenes to the other cast members, all of who are really good in their roles. I’m not much of a Rob Schneider fan either but he’s great, as is Terry Crews, Luke Wilson, Nick Nolte and Steve Zhan. I thought Jorge Garcia and Taylor Lautner were very good in their unexpected roles and Danny Trejo, Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi, David Spade, Jon Lovitz, John Turturro and Vanilla Ice provided a rather rich and fruitful collection of cameo performances. Also, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but The Ridiculous 6’s cinematography is brilliant and a far more impressive than that seen in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. The two films came out together and The Ridiculous 6 was clearly a poke at The Hateful Eight and the hype it had accumulated. Sandler and Tarantino are friends, so it was all done in playful jest but seriously, The Ridiculous 6 has some of the best western-style compositions I have ever seen. I liked the story and the little sub-plots that occurred within it. Certain scenes, the baseball one staring John Turturro in particular, were quite clever satires. Sure, the donkey would have projectile diarrhoea now and again but more often than not this silly western would use situations of old as clever explorations of just how ridiculous many of the daily rituals we partake in these days really are. Of course, one of the biggest reasons why The Ridiculous 6 also works is because we are watching a big group of old friends having fun. It doesn’t matter whether you like them or even know them but there is always something very appealing about watching the interaction and chemistry between old friends being silly together. There is something a bit ‘Three Amigos’ about the film. It actually steals a character and three jokes from Three Amigos but beyond that, it never takes itself seriously, it’s likably silly, with a funny sort of tenderness about it. I can’t really explain it, maybe I was tired and maybe my guard was down but I enjoyed it. Maybe, just maybe, someone who you generally don’t like can make a film that you do like once and a while. I can’t understand why The Ridiculous 6 is Sandler’s lowest rated film, I guess people wrote it off before even watching it – which I understand as I almost did the same. It’s no masterpiece but I’ve seen a thousand times worse (see Sandler’s other films).

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Fences
Dir: Denzel Washington
2016
****
The cinematic adaptation of August Wilson’s play Fences was a long time coming. Wilson had worked on a screenplay for many years and finally finished just before he died in 2005. His play was a hit when it was released in 1985 and again in 2010 when it enjoyed a successful revival. Wilson had always stated that if it were to be developed into a film then he wanted an African-American to direct it and he finally got his wish in the form of Denzel Washington. Washington knew the play backwards, as he played the main character in the 2010 revival. He decided to bring back the entire cast from 2010 for the film and the results speak for themselves. Fences was written in 1983 and was the sixth story in Wilson’s ten-part ‘Pittsburgh Cycle’ that were a collection of stories that dealt with race relations and the ever-evolving African-American experiences of families and individuals in the 1950s. I’ve seen clips of the 1985 and 2010 productions online and I wish I had been able to see them in real life. It is clear when watching that it is a piece of theatre, a wonderful one at that, but then so it comes with an age-old issue that such adaptations have. It doesn’t quite have that cinematic feel that convinced you that you aren’t watching something that was meant to be seen in a different format but at the same time it is too cinematic to capture the true intensity that only a theatrical production can deliver. However, you can pretty much forget all of that because the performances are of the highest quality. Denzel Washington couldn’t have been more perfect for the roles of lead character or director. Viola Davis is as equally perfect and the rest of the 2010 cast join them and bring the story to life beautifully. Screenwriter and playwright Tony Kushner was asked to build on Wilson’s screenplay but was not credited as writer, only executive producer. Producer Todd Black explained that Washington insisted that they remain faithful to Wilson's work, saying, "The star of the movie is the screenplay and August Wilson's words. What Denzel said to me, to Scott, to all the actors, the cinematographer, and the production designer was, 'Don't make any decision without August Wilson's words leading you to make that decision.' Whatever you do, let the words inform your decision first. That's what we all had to abide by." The script is perfect and the performances match. There are only three or four locations throughout the entire film and yet I felt as if I really knew these people and their lives, although their characters are built on and stripped away scene by scene. There is so much going here, so many emotions and so much raw tension, it’s impossible not to be transfixed throughout. I didn’t care much for the conclusion in many respects but it worked rather well for the type of story. There is a lot of harsh truth in the story that is respected but told with a bold and forthright dignity, it’s meant to provoke in many respects but is very easy to understand and relate to. I would argue that you don’t have to be an African-American who grew up in the 50s to totally understand it, as many of the characters are familiar to all walks of life, of different ages, from different places. However, as universal as it is, Fences is a bonafide American classic.