Friday, 30 September 2016

BatmanThe Killing Joke
Dir: Sam Liu
2016
**
Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's 1988 one-shot classic The Killing Joke is a huge deal in the comic world. Both authors have since declared the comic as unsatisfactory but to hard-core fans it is one of the great classics and both Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan have cited it as being the influence on both of their versions of the Caped Crusader.  It's pretty dark and highly controversial, splitting opinion among comic/Batman fans right down the middle. So far all of DC animations have been somewhat watered down versions of the original comics, so I wasn't' expecting a 100% pure adaptation but I also didn't expect an almost re-written version either. Mark Hamill, the many time voice of The Joker had quit the role and said years ago that the only way he would be tempted back is if DC made The Killing Joke. He stuck to his word and fan favourite Kevin Conroy also returned to voice Batman. A dream come true for fans. DC announced that this would be the first DC animation to be rated R-rated, fuelling the belief that this would be an authentic adaptation. There are key elements that made the original comic so controversial and so memorable. Batgirl is raped and shot by the Joker, Commissioner Gordon is fed LSD, Batman pleads with the Joker to end their feud and Batman kills the Joker in the end. Of these things only the shooting of Batgirl happens in the animation but this is unsurprising, given she has been Oracle ever since in the comic world. Now the original story was harsh and a little too much. You could argue the violence had a purpose but both Moore and Bolland regret it, particularly Barbara Gordon's treatment. How women are portrayed in the comic world is still a hot subject and The Killing Joke is largely where the debate started. Boundaries should always be crossed and I would argue that comics is the best medium to do this. The original idea was to bring mythology to life, to make the characters more real and the Joker more evil. I think they certainly achieved this. The fact that now everyone involved with the project are saying they didn't think there was a suggestion Batgirl was raped is pretty ridiculous and I find it all a bit of a whitewash. If something is worth doing, it is worth doing properly and The Killing Joke just doesn't do this. DC have said the book was too short to cover a 75 minute run time, so they had to add to the story. This comes with a confusing and utterly pointless inclusion of a new villain and a horrible sexual encounter between Batman and Batwoman. I can sort of understand why they would leave the rape scene out but this combined with her being paralyzed real gave Batgirl a unique edge, a huge fight of overcoming adversity. A harsh treatment of a character that didn't deserve it but it gave far more of a complex persona to a rather two-dimensional superhero that really didn't have much of an origin story. It was a way of empowering one of the original female superheroes, the only way Alan Moore could. Like I say, controversial, but by replacing that with simply making her into one of Batman's conquests it didn't humanize her character at all, it made her character even more of this cliché that females superheroes are seen as, totally sexualised and even more two-dimensional as before. The scene where Batman begs the Joker to stop their on-going battle before one of them is killed is an amazing piece of comic literature. It was one of the first times we realize that without the Joker Batman couldn't exist and vice-versa. None of that came through in the animation. Worst of all, the epic suggestion that Batman kills the Joker at the end was gone. One of the biggest, most controversial talking points of Batman legend and they completely ignored it. Why? What a waste of time. Read the original instead, even if it is for the hundredth time. Conroy and Hamill reunited was nice but other than that this was just another exercise in diluting great art for profit, missing the point of the original in the process.
Romantics Anonymous (Les Émotifs anonymes)
Dir: Jean-Pierre Améris
2010
****
The synopsis of Jean-Pierre Améris' romantic comedy Romantics Anonymous reads like a cross between Lasse Hallstrom's 2000 adaptation of Joanne Harris' Chocolat and Jean-Pierre Jeunet's whimsical romance Amelie. There are a few similarities; it is set in France, it features chocolate as a main theme and the leading character shares a similar quirk to that of Amelie. The similarities pretty much end there though, and I would say while it isn't quite as enjoyable as Amelie (I love Amelie), it knocks the socks off Chocolat every day of the week. Each week Angelique (played wonderfully by the brilliant Isabelle Carre) attends a Romantics Anonymous support group where people discuss their social anxiety disorders. For years she has kept her chocolate-making talents a secret but when she is forced to look for new employment, she is drawn to a suffering chocolate factory and soon falls for the manager who, as it turns out, has a far worse anxiety issue than she does. It is a beautiful idea that these people are seen as hyper-emotional (or romantic), rather than negatively abnormal, indeed, it is the sensitive characters in the film who end up looking the most normal by the end of the film. Benoit Poelvoorde is brilliant as Jean-Rene Van Den Hugde, the manager and owner of the Chocolate mill. His performance displays some of the best physical comedy I've seen in quite a while and his timing is impeccable. I couldn't quite believe it when I realised this was the same Benoit Poelvoorde who played Ben the serial killer from the cult classic Man Bites Dog. The chemistry between Carre and Poelvoorde is magical, you really do believe in their characters which only enhances the romance of the story. The story is beautifully written, not as predictable as you may expect either and it is shot beautifully with lots of rich colour and charming composition. It's something of a hidden gem, one that is well worth seeking out. It'll make you want to fall in love (all over again if applicable) and eat lots of chocolate, full of passion and charm, it is an absolute delight of a film.
Freeheld
Dir: Peter Sollett
2015
***
Freeheld tells the story of Laurel Hester, a police detective from New Jersey who was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in 2005. Hester asked the county board of chosen freeholders that her pension would go to her registered domestic partner Stacie Andree whom she shared the cost of a house with but she was denied her request on the basis that pensions where granted only for married heterosexuals. Hester then started a campaign for equal pension rights with the limited time she had left. Cynthia Wade chronicled the story in her award winning documentary (also called Freeheld) in 2007, the year after Laurel died. Screenwriter Ron Nyswaner began writing a dramatized adaption of the documentary back in 2010 and the film was completed in late 2014. The film stared Julianne Moore as Laurel Hester and Ellen Page as her partner Stacie (Page had been part of the film from the beginning and also co-produced). Michael Shannon plays Hester's detective partner Dane Wells and Steve Carell took the role of lawyer and activist Steven Goldstein. Despite the films big name stars, it had a rather unspectacular release. It wasn't that the performances were bad or that the film's story wasn't accepted, it's just that the film itself is unspectacular. It is such a wonderful story but it just doesn't come across in this film. Julianne Moore is great, Ellen Page less so I’m afraid and Steve Carell is unfortunately on Judd Apatow mode. He may well have got Steven Goldstein's persona down to a t, I don't know but that was Steve Carell being Steve Carell in any number of films he has already been in. Michael Shannon plays a rather conflicting character also, never really convincing me of his actions. The problem is the real life people depicted in the film are nothing like they are in real life. The people and the story are woefully undermined by the formulaic structure and dramatizing of the important real life events. I'm never too sure why film makers feel the need to dramatize a documentary in the first place. What on earth is the point? In this case it was a way of telling this important story so that more people might learn about it but the truth of the matter is that they short changed everyone involved. I'm probably being generous with my 3 star review but it really isn't a bad film, it is just that the story, and most importantly Laurel Hester, deserved better.
Shaun of the Dead
Dir: Edgar Wright
2004
*****
Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg's Shaun of the Dead is probably in the top five funniest British films of all time. It is definitely the best British Zombie film of all time, competition is minimal but the genre is gaining popularity and some fantastic additions have been made as a result of its success. On a personal level I would have to say that Shaun of the Dead is one of my very favourite cinema experiences and was the only time I've actually rolled on the floor with laughter (you can ask my sister, she was in the floor next to me). It’s an absolutely brilliant homage to George A. Romero's Zombie films but while it spoofs them all, it does so in a very affectionate manner. Indeed, both Wright and Pegg (dressed as Shuan) appear in Romero's Land of the Dead as a sign of mutual respect. Shaun of the Dead is pretty much a continuation of Wright and Pegg's TV series Spaced that was about a group of twenty-somethings finding their way through life and about every pop-culture reference you can think of that would appeal to like-minded twenty-somethings. The premise that it is a about a man who tries to win back his girlfriend during a zombie apocalypse could have easily have come from a Space episode, indeed it did, and most of the Spaced cast appear and if you look closely even some of the character can be spotted, albeit in zombie form. The reason I think Shaun of the Dead works so well and appeals to so many is, not just because it is written by and performed by people who are both funny and know their zombie films, but because it is based in an unlikely place. We don't have guns in the UK, you rarely see a wood-chipper either and I'm pretty sure are lawn mowers aren't as powerful as they are in the States. If (when) the zombie apocalypse happens we are going to have to get inventive as Shaun and best mate Ed (Nick Frost) did. There is something uniquely British and nerdy about choosing which records out of one’s collection you should throw at a zombies head. Being a British nerd it appealed greatly. The references to other zombie film come thick and fast, so if you're a fan of the genre you will find the film a treat from beginning to end. As well as friends from the Spaces cast, Wright and Pegg chose the best talents of British TV comedy of the day including Lucy Davis and Martin Freeman (The Office), Dylan Moran and Tamsin Greig (Black Books), Reece Shearsmith (League of Gentleman), Matt Lucas (Little Briton) as well as many blink and you'll miss them comedians who cameo as zombies such as Joe Cornish, Rob Brydon, Paul Putner and Russell Howard. I think what I love best about Shaun of the Dead is that although it is ridiculous, it's also quite realistic. What would most Brits do under the circumstances? Go to the pub is probably the first choice for a large cross section of society. The zombie genre had been well explored up to this point and while it coin the sub-genre the rom-com-zom, it also opened it up to so many more possibilities. Sometimes it take a relatively simple film made on a relatively small budget to show the way and that is what Shaun of the Dead did. Hugely influential, brilliantly inventive and downright hilarious. A modern classic.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

The Magnificent Seven
Dir: Antoine Fuqua
2016
****
I'm not sure anyone would dare remake Akira Kurosawa's classic SevenSamurai as a Samurai film but I can see why a remake of the 1960 Cowboy remake would appeal and for once I actually welcomed the remake. The Magnificent Seven 1960 is also a classic in its own right and one of the few times that I would argue a remake was worthwhile. Kurosawa himself was influenced by old westerns, so it was a nice way of an original idea going full circle. Although not as popular, the 1980 sci-fi space opera Battle Beyond the Stars was also a great take on the idea, adapting aspects from both films. I love The Magnificent Seven 1960 but it is fair to say that it wasn't a perfect film. There was an arrogance about it, it was of its time and as much as I love Steve McQueen, Yul Brynner, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn and Eli Wallach, they relied on their statuses and it was a bit of an ego war between the lot of them. Robert Vaughn played one of my favourite characters but he only had about seventeen lines in the whole film. Seven Samurai (and even Battle Beyond the Stars) had way more character development and Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk's updated script clearly understands the importance of this. Antoine Fuqua's Magnificent Seven incorporates all the best bits of Samurai and Magnificent and builds on it. Each character is rich in personality and isn't just a big name actor with a supposed skill. It is difficult to compare the 2016 cast with the 1960 cast but I will go as far to say that 2016's is far more interesting. Denzel Washington is a much finer actor than Yul Brynner with far more range and appeal and Chris Pratt is not Steve McQueen by any stretch but his character is much more than just the cheeky one, not that either character is anything like the original. Ethan Hawke and Lee Byung-hun play partners with a real feeling of believability about them. Their characters are a sort of split version of James Coburn's character, which works really well. Maunuel Garcia-Rulfo plays a Mexican on the run who joins the seven in return for his freedom and Vincent D'Onofrio plays a skilled tracker, a religious man who would track and kill natives for a paying government in a former life. The last of the seven and easily the most interesting is Martin Sensmeier's Red Harvest, a Comanche warrior who tracks the six and tells them that his elders had told him his path was different and that he should leave his people in order to find it, choosing to join the men on their mission. Fuqua wanted to make a film that incorporated all aspects of western life as it really was, rather than as a conscious effort to make the film politically correct and I believe it is what makes the film. That and the fact that as well as there being silent hostility between the men due to their differences (reflecting the time) they soon bond (again, rather subtly) in the pursuit of universal good. Nothing about the story is really that unrealistic, it’s a great representation of the old west and the people who lived there. The seven are joined by a few townsfolk who hire them, Haley Bennett's widowed Emma Cullen being a predominant character who is, rather refreshingly, written without any of the stereotypes you'd expect from a woman in a male-led cowboy film. Peter Saragaard plays the film's villain, a slightly more complex character than previous seven films with far more venom and sinister intentions. Each character is brilliantly written and well performed with each actor giving it their all. It was quite a personal film for Fuqua as he credits his career to his grandmother with whom he spent many hours watching old westerns with. After every take he would ask himself if his grandmother would be entertained by it. I think it maybe his best film to date or at least on par with Training Day. It is everything you could want from a western, a remake and a amalgamation of the original ideas. Its pure popcorn but also intelligent and the sort of western for people who say they don't like westerns without giving the genre a chance. The Magnificent Seven 2016 also represents the last film scored by the great James Horner who died before the film's completion. Instead of simply reusing the much loved theme of the 1960 film (although the original theme plays out over the end credits), Horner wrote a much richer sounding, more subtle score that was completed by his friend and composer Simon Franglen after his untimely death. It exceeded all expectations, which is more than I can say for most films of 2016.
The Magnificent Seven
Dir: John Sturges
1960
*****

The Magnificent Seven isn't a perfect film. There are countless examples of over-acting, some scenes are long and unnecessarily drawn out and a few members of the seven don't really get their fair share of screen time. I also believe the seven are let down by their seventh member but despite all that, I still absolutely love John Sturges' classic western. I'm generally not a fan of remakes but there are rare occasions when they can be justified and I think a cowboy western version of Akira Kurosawa's classic Samurai masterpiece was pretty inspired, especially when you know that Kurosawa was heavily influenced by American westerns in the first place. I think it was slightly unfair of producer Lou Morheim not to give Kurosawa a credit in the film, like he would receive for the western remakes of the films of his that came after including TheOutrage (Rashomon) and Last Man Standing (Yojimbo), but he was certainly happy with the finished film, so much so that he gave a rare Samurai sword to John Sturges as a gift of thanks. The famously blacklisted scriptwriter Walter Bernstein was originally hired to produce the first draft (which featured the seven as older men, veterans of the Civil War with Spencer Tracy in mind to be the leader) before Walter Mirisch and Yul Brynner commissioned Walter Newman (you can never have too many Walters) to write the finished article. Newman also went on to write The Great Escape with Sturges but famously fell out with him over the way his script was changed during filming and he pulled his name from the credits of both films. Yul Brynner was part of the production and it was initially his idea to remake Seven Samurai, so he bagged himself the lead role comfortably. With an impending actor’s union strike, the rest of the cast had to be found in a hurry. It was Brynner who chose Steve McQueen to be Vin Tanner, a decision he later regretted on set. McQueen would try and upstage Brynner whenever he could and if you watch closely you'll see that he is always doing something in his scenes with him, like adjusting his hat or playing with his gun in order to distract him. Brynner became so wound up by this that he hired an assistant to count the times McQueen touched his Stetson. McQueen later contacted Brynner on his deathbed to thank him for hiring him and not kicking him off the shoot as he credited the film with being his big break and said that his career was all thanks to him. George Peppard was the first actor considered for the role and he would end up playing a version of Tanner, in full cowboy costume, in the sci-fi space remake Battle Beyond the Stars. Gene Wilder was also said to have auditioned. Brad Dexter, Charles Bronson and Horst Buchholz were then hired before Robert Vaughn made it six. Sturges found it hard in cast the seventh character stating that he needed a Gary Cooper type actor. Vaughn suggested his friend James Coburn and he was eventually cast. Coburn and Vaughn had been close friends for some time and remained so until Coburn's death. Between them they have said that half of each actor's roles came from the other actor suggesting them to a producer or director, although this is the only time the friends stared in a film together. Coburn later stated that any role would have done but he ended up getting the character he enjoyed best in the original. Eli Wallach was cast as the villainous Calvera and he enjoyed many great roles in the genre from then on. What is probably best remembered, apart from the overused story format, is the fantastic theme song from the great composer Elmer Bernstein. Seven Samurai is of course the better and more influential film but The Magnificent Seven is the film that created the remake and showed film makers how it should be done. The lesson has been lost but I do wonder if the classic is more influential in many respects. I love the progression of the story, from the Sengoku period of ancient Japan, to the gen-slinging wild west to outer space (and then ancient Rome in little known film called I sette magnifici gladiatori (The Seven Magnificent Gladiators) - an Italian film starring Lou Ferrigno ) and also the many great films that it has influenced, albeit in parody (Three Amigos easily being the best). It's rare that a remake can have more impact than the original film but The Magnificent Seven gave the genre a real kick and launched the careers of so many great actors and film makers, its reach is undeniable. 
Seven Samurai
Dir: Akira Kurosawa
1956
*****

Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai is regarded as one of the greatest films of all time and for good reason, as it represents a pivotal moment in the history of cinema. Seven Samurai set a new precedent in how all future films would be made, specifically altering narrative and directional techniques. The idea of gathering a group of heroes for one specific task is probably one of the most copied ideas in the history of film and it all started here. There is a school of thought that suggests that pretty much every plot in current film can be attributed to one of Kurosawa's original scripts and I think there is a lot of weight behind that idea. It has also been noted that this is the first time a main character has been introduced to an audience while undertaking something unrelated to the film's main plot. Kurosawa's pioneering camera work also led to the widespread use of telephoto lenses, Seven Samurai being the specific film in which he mastered the technique. It was also the first time that a film maker had used so many extra cameras at one time, adopted quickly by action film makers. Indeed, above all, Seven Samurai is an action film and the first of its kind in the genre that would influence every actioner made thereafter, in one way of another. The story's pyrrhic victory has its origins in history, as Kurosawa, who wanted to make a day in the life of a Samurai drama to begin with, discovered a similar story in history books and decided it would make a much more interesting film. Again, this idea has been copied many times over, particularly in melodrama. As much as I love it, it is something I feel is milked a little too much in the 1960 Cowboy remake TheMagnificent Seven. I also love the character development. The story has now been retold many times but still the development of the characters has never been as thorough as is seen in the original. Originally it was going to be Six Samurai but Kurosawa felt that one of the characters should be a different kind of warrior, someone a little off-the-wall but instead of changing one of the well written characters, he simply added a new one. The filming took over a year and cost nearly £500,000, quite a large amount of money in 1956, even for a big film production. The studio ran out of money and shut twice during this time, putting back the filming by some months. The final battle scene which was meant to be filmed in summer ended up being shot in the below freezing temperatures of early February. The actors later recounted what it was like, stating that it was almost impossible to move and hard to breath but they had invested so much in the film, they had to carry on. The performances are faultless, so you'd never guess of their hardship. The Seven are led by the great Toshiro Mifune. It's hard to say whether it is his career best because he is amazing in everything he was in, I don't think he was anything other than brilliant and his is one of many fantastic performances. Kurosawa created the seventh character for him and gave him a lot of creative control. He once said of the actor "The ordinary Japanese actor might need ten feet of film to get across an impression; Mifune needed only three. The speed of his movements was such that he said in a single action what took ordinary actors three separate movements to express. He put forth everything directly and boldly and his sense of timing was the keenest I had ever seen in a Japanese actor. And yet with all his quickness, he also had surprisingly fine sensibilities". Mifune was once again, and not for the last time, joined by the great Takashi Shimura. Nothing against Yul  Brynner and Steve McQueen but they don't even come close to the greatness of Mifune and Shimura. Daisuke Kato (who also worked with the great Yasujirô Ozu and Mikio Naruse during his career) and Kurosawa regulars; Isao Kimura and Minoru Chiaki and Seiji Miyaguchi and Yoshio Inaba make up the rest of the seven. It is sublime viewing from beginning to end. It is over three hours long but it doesn't feel like it, such is Kurosawa's ability to transfix an audience. It's a faultless masterpiece, it's no surprise that it forms part of the blueprints of nearly every film that came after.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Anomalisa
Dir: Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson
2015
*****
Charlie Kaufman is a bit of a creative genius in my opinion. Anomalisa is a beautifully introspective look at misanthropy through the fregoli delusions of a self-help author. It's also made using puppets instead of real actors. Now misanthropy is a tricky subject to make appealing, particularly to a wide audience. The puppetry element may seem like a gimmick at first but it really isn't, the story was a play featuring live actors first, the puppets only enhance our protagonist's perception of the world. Fregoli delusion is rare, it makes the sufferer believe that everyone around them are in fact the same person, who constantly changes appearance as a form of disguise. While there aren't many people who suffer this condition, there are many people who feel isolated and alone, even when constantly surrounded by friends and family. Anomalisa also looks at depression, paranoia and the idea that society can act as one and has been somewhat moulded by the media with a muted ideology. There is something rather dystopian about it, even though it is often very easy of relate to. The fact that our protagonist is a successful self-help author adds a much needed slice of satire to the mix, indeed no one is perfect, no one is immune to delusion, fear or disappointment, and perfection is an illusion anyway. Duke Johnson's stop motion puppetry is beautiful and really helps with the fregoli element. There is a very realistic sex scene in the film that is almost made more real because it is performed by puppets, that simply has to be seen to be understood. The main character Micheal is voiced by the brilliant David Thewlis who keeps his British accent which is addressed rather cleverly in the script. Lisa (Anomalisa) is voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh and every other character is voiced by, and looks like, Tom Noonan to emphasize Micheal's condition. When Micheal meets Lisa he is shocked by how different she is, indeed, he sees her as her and not as everybody else (or Tom Noonan) and she becomes Anomalisa, an anomaly, called Lisa. Interestingly though, Lisa really isn't a women out of the ordinary and it becomes clear that she may not be what Micheal wants, rather the product of him wanting her to be. The script is thought-provoking, very clever and very witty. It is subdued one minute and actually rather profound the next, as is now expected from the mind of Charlie Kaufman. It's perfectly thought-out by Kaufman and brilliantly realized through puppetry by Johnson, it's pretty much a faultless film. There are some viewers who this film will never appeal to, as I said, it's a hard subject to sell but I would argue that if you want escapism, realism and something to think about then you could do no better. I like a slow paced film when a slow pace is warranted and to have such long and simple scenes, knowing that each one would take months to film, tells me that the maker's integrity didn't buckle once during the two whole years it took to make. That is a rare and special thing and it was worth every frustrating second in my opinion.
Sonatine
Dir: Takeshi Kitano
1993
*****
Takeshi Kitano's approach to film making is always very simple but deeply effective. Actors generally get one take, if they mess up their lines he then films the bad of their head instead. It is a no nonsense approach and it has worked for him (and audiences) for a very long time. Kitano, or 'Beat' Takeshi as he is also known, has had a varied career but directing came as something of a mistake. He was set to star in 1989's Violent Cop only but after the original director stepped down due to other commitments, Kateshi relished the opportunity and has been making brilliant films ever since, 1993's Sonatine being a pivotal point in his career. His previous two films since Violent Cop (Boiling Point and A scene by the Sea) did okay at the Japanese box office but Sonatine failed. However, western audiences loved it and it's safe to say that Kitano's schizophrenic career became even more schizophrenic because of it. Kitano explores very similar themes in all of his films, although much like a painter, he has gone through very different phases through the years but there are certain elements that are constant. Firstly, there is the humour. His humour. Sometimes the humour is close to the mark and Japanese audiences much prefer his TV and stand-up comedy than that seen in his films but there are plenty of us around the world who love it. Second is the violence. Not many directors can depict such brutal and realistic violence in such a simple and beautiful way. The violence is represented most of the time through the Yakuza and gangsters in general. It's a role he's extremely convincing at portraying, a crime boss or one of his henchmen being quite an interesting vehicle or avatar to explore human emotion through. Then there are the games he plays which is very much linked to everything else in the film. The games can be part of a thrilling gangster plot or quite literally a group of people playing games. Takeshi Kitano clearly loves his funny games, the cult TV game show Takeshi's Castle being one of his babies. Lastly, there is the beach. Kitano identifies the beach as very important place for him as it represents where live begins and where life ends, so he feels it important to visit it regularly at various points in one life, and he does in every other of his films. In Sonatine we see Kitano visit all four of these key elements, understand (and love) Sonatine and you'll enjoy every single one of his subsequent films. Sonatine's popularity was a key moment for Kitano, he pretty much kills his alter-ego in his next film because of it and has stated that the near-fatal scooter accident he had in 1994 was a sub-conscious suicide attempt that effected his life and career dramatically. Kitano is two people who are constantly at war with each other, he found a way for them to co-exist in the brilliant Takeshis' but before then and before his reawakening (Hana-bi) Sonatine is him in his purest point and what made him what he is today. It's brutal, funny, violent and hauntingly beautiful. There is no film maker like Takeshi and there is no other masterpiece like Sonatine. It's the result of a spontaneous thinker and a master storyteller.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Heart of a Dog
Dir: Laurie Anderson
2015
**
Not to be mistaken for a satirical look at the communist revolution, Heart of a Dog deals with the heart that belonged to Laurie Anderson's pet pooch, who has since departed. In this part documentary, part essay on life, love and death, Anderson looks at the world using the relationship she had with her dog as a centre point. It sounds so much better than it is. I lost my first and only dog in 1990 and I was heartbroken, still am, so much so that I've never been able to replace him. He didn't play the piano or paint like Anderson's Lolabelle but he was my buddy and even though I've buried many a loved one, it was his death that I learned the most from. I don't get anything like that from this film, in fact, it left me feeling quite empty. Anderson didn't even train Lolabelle, she got someone in to do it for her. I have to be honest, and it will sound blunt, but I've always seen Laurie Anderson as someone without much talent who has surrounded herself with talented people. Everything she has done has been done before and done better. I didn't particularly enjoy (for want of a better word) Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking but it wipes the floor with Heart of a Dog. I can't criticize Anderson's thoughts and feelings, that would be ridiculous, but it soon becomes apparent that this film isn't the work of great idiosyncratic talent but just chosen segments from the Dhammapada. She chucks in a few minutes’ worth of how difficult it was to live in New York after the 9/11 attacks and muses on how this effects modern life but without any real conclusion to what she says, it just seems to be universal subject, something sensationalist almost, to throw in there to keep the audience awake. I hate the way the film is shot, it's fully of wobbly clips, poorly made home video and lots and lots of filler. Anderson seems almost proud of the fact it was all shot on her iPhone, hippies with iPhones, I don't understand that at all? I disliked the wishy-washy soundtrack also, although it fits the wishy-washy visuals. The movie is just 75 minutes long but around 40 minutes of that is pure filler. I love the concept but when you can't even convince an audience you genuinely loved your pooch then I'm afraid you have failed. I'm sure she did love her, it just didn't come through past all the sky, grass and blurry rainy windows.
The General
Dir: Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman
1926
*****
The General is one of cinema's greatest gifts. Based on the real life events (and the memoirs of William Pettenger), later known as The Great Locomotive Chase, where during the American Civil War (1862) a group of Union solders commandeered a steam locomotive and took it one hundred or so miles north, doing as much damage as possible to the Western and Atlantic Railroad line from Atlanta to Chattanooga along the way. They were soon chased by a succession of locomotives for eighty-seven miles and a legend was born. The story is similar but not quite the same. The General is the name of Johnie Gray's (Buster Keaton) Steam Train. When war breaks out, Johnie signs up for service in the confederate army but is rejected due to the importance, and shortage, or essential train drivers. He tries to sign up in disguise and is kicked out. His Girlfriend and would-be father in law are not impressed and mistakenly see him as a deserter and have nothing to do with him after that. After a year, his girlfriend Annabelle get in contact again and uses the General to travel to see her father who has reportedly been injured in combat. Union solders sneak into the train and steal it, kidnapping Annabelle in the process. What follows is Keaton's best film, the most expensive film of the silent era and slap-stick comedy at its most epic. Who would have thought a train chase could offer up so much rich material for the king of physical comedy. The stunts are insane. It's staggering that Keaton did all his own stunts and was allowed to by the studios. I think The General probably sees him taking the biggest risks of his career, it's even more staggering to know that most of the perfectly timed stunts were all shot in just one take. Watching poor heartbroken Johnnie sit on the train's wheel rods and be taken away without even noticing is still one of my very favourite scenes in cinema's history. The second to last scene whereby a whole bridge is felled with a train on top of it was the most extravagant (and expensive) stunt to have ever appeared in a silent movie. Looking at it today, nearly every scene is considered a classic. Unfortunately, the high cost came with a risk and when the film bombed at the box office Keaton was suddenly stripped of his independence and kept under the close reins of a studio contract for the rest of his career. History has quite sensibly declared The General for being one of the greatest films of all time. It's just a shame that Keaton's character was on the wrong side, but then this is far from a political film, it's far more universal than any politics could ever dream to be. The last scene is quite clear anyway, that love is far more important than war.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Our Brand Is Crisis
Dir: David Gordon Green
2015
**
There have been few really great political comedies over the years, the ones that make it and are successful are the ones that understand the fine art of satire. Our Brand Is Crisis doesn't understand satire. You could make a comedy with a political theme but you'd be missing a trick not going into political issues but you can't make a worthwhile political film and just inject comedy into it, not without at least some basic satire. Based on the true events captured in Rachel Boynton's 2005 documentary about the political marketing campaign tactics used by American company Greenberg Carville Shrum in representing Gonzalo de Lozada in 2002's Bolivian presidential elections - of which he eventually won, Our Brand Is Crisis is a fictional version, featuring fictional characters and some fictional methods. There is a little bit of stereotyping in the way characters are portrayed but not too much that it isn't acceptable. I'm not sure if the injection of a rival American firm really helped the story much as there were enough challenges already and it turned into a bit of a smarmy, smug-fest.  Making the heads of each company past lovers made it even worse. Producer George Clooney secured the film rights and was set to star and direct, but after five years of development he decided to do neither and the lead character was rewritten slightly and Sandra Bullock was offered the part. Sandra Bullock was the only thing they got right in the entire film. That's slightly unfair of me, Anthony Mackie and Joaquim de Almeida are particularly good in their supporting roles but everyone is let down by the structure and tone of this badly scripted film. When Bullock is on form, she's brilliant, why the makers made her do her physical comedy though I don't know. When the film has an opportunity to be clear, it simply goes down the slap-stick route and gives Bullock allergies. It's not clever or funny. The film has its moments but it is generally predictable, unbelievable (even though it's based on a true story) and disingenuous, which leads me to believe that it was a project that money was invested in that everyone had fallen out of love with. It had many chances to really make something of itself but just didn't. The conclusion should have been something quite profound but it wasn't, it was casuistic and rather forgettable.
Lilya 4-Ever
Dir: Lukas Moodysson
2002
*****
Lukas Moodysson's astonishing 2002 film Lilya 4-Ever is depressing, shocking, bleak, disturbing and utterly beautiful. The story follows young Lilya, a school girl living in Estonia with her mother in a rundown apartment block. Her mother meets a man and soon declares that they will all be moving to America together to start a new and better life but soon goes back on her word and abandons Lilya to the care of her aunt who has very little time for her. Her aunt takes the larger apartment she lived in with her mother and Lilya is essentially left to fend for herself. With very little money and a lot of peer pressure, Lilya succumbs to prostitution. She is reluctant at first but when a friend of hers incriminates her to the community, Lilya finds she has very little to lose and not much choice. Her only comfort comes from her friend Volodya, a boy who has also been abandoned and abused. Lilya soon finds life a little more comfortable with the money she makes and is filled with possibility, she meets a young man who suggest they get away and live in Sweden together. However, when she arrives it soon becomes apparent that she had been tricked and is now a prisoner and sex slave. Volodya commits suicide and Lilya's life becomes bleaker than she could possibly had imagined. Suffice to say, you have to be in the right frame of mind before watching this movie but please do. The film suddenly takes a wonderful route when Lilya is visited by Volodya as an angel and the big issues are tackled head on. Moodysson asks some big questions and isn't afraid of challenging taboo subjects. I can't deny that it isn't a difficult film to watch at times but it is such a rewarding film and incredibly important. This is what great cinema is about, it is about voicing oneself, tackling the big subjects and calling things out for what they are. There is just enough left open for interpretation too which I think is very important in a film like this as the audience suddenly has a responsibility to react to such a subject. It has all the social realism of a Ken Loach film with a little bit of the melancholic fantasy of a Lars Von Trier picture, indeed I'm sure both directors were an influence but the mix of angry poetry and harsh reality is all Moodysson's work. The fantasy element aside, it is a story that is impossible to forget and thus, impossible to ignore as Lilya 4-Ever is actually based on the true story of Danguole Rasalaite whose life was tragically similar to that of Lilya's in the film. When someone is clearly full of anger about a subject that is both horrifying and disgusting but can make a truly beautiful story from it, well, that's the definition of a masterpiece.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Sing Street
Dir: John Carney
2016
****
Sing Street is very much a John Carney production and I would argue that it is his best since 2007's Once. However, the music isn't quite as good, although Once's soundtrack is one of the greatest in modern cinema, so it's really not a dig. The only problem I had was that many of the later songs sounded a little too modern for the year the film is set (1985). John Carney sought the help of 80s singer/songwriter Gary Clark (of Danny Wilson fame) to develop most of the music. Now 'Mary's Prayer' is a tune but most of the songs, particularly towards the end of the film, sounded a little more 00s pop, like the songs he wrote for artists such as Mel C, Emma Bunton, Nick Carter and especially McFly. They're good songs, it just didn't fit into the 80s vibe that the film was otherwise quite good at portraying. There are also many mistakes when it comes to the year and the releases of many of the songs and films mentioned in the script but it really didn't take away much from the film. It's another wonderfully uplifting feel-good film from one of Dublin's best. I loved the story of Conor (played by the very convincing Ferdia Walsh-Peelo in his debut performance), a young lad from a family in trouble with only the guidance of his older brother to help him. Conor moves to a new school due to the the families financial problems and finds himself alone in a rough Christian Brothers state school where he is bullied by both the pupils and the teaching brothers. After a long first day of beatings, Conor sees the beautiful Raphina waiting on some steps opposite the school. Feeling he has nothing to lose after a particularly hard day, he asks her to star in a music video for his band that doesn't exist. When she agrees he suddenly realizes he has to round up a band and learn how to play. He soon meets a wonderfully written and brilliantly performed bunch of characters to form a band with (called Sing Street) and together, they explore and experiment with the many different genres and styles of the mid-eighties in order to discover their own sound. It's so great because it is totally believable, I was only disappointed that the film didn't begin with 'This is a true story' although I can imagine for many young musicians it was probably quite close to their beginnings. The amateur videos the group makes are actually very authentic of the videos of the time and the dialogue between Conor and his brother (Jack Reynor in his career best so far in my opinion) is absolutely spot on. The film is dedicated to brothers everywhere and that comes across very clear in the film. The message is far more universal than the songs are and that's what really counts and I loved every minute of it.
Gerry
Dir: Gus Van Sant
2002
*
In the credits of Gus Van Sant's 2002 film Gerry, it states that the story/script were co-written by the film's only actors Matt Damon and Casey Affleck. This isn't really the case, the truth is that the film was improvised and really written in the classic sense. I'm all for this type of film making, I believe non-narrative film making is the way forward but, it has to be done well. Gerry isn't a great film. Its only redeeming feature is the stunning backdrops and Gus Van Sant's long-shots (influenced heavily by his love of Béla Tarr films). The lack of script didn't bother me, the long takes didn't bother me and the lack of real story didn't bother me. What bothered me was the little improvised dialogue there was, the terrible acting, the frustrating lack of believability in what should have been (and tried to be) a neo-realistic drama, the lack of understanding that you can only shoot certain scenes once before they get tired and all meaning gets lost. Continuous repetition doesn't evoke thought or creativity, quite the opposite, it dulls the mind. I'm not going to go as far as to say that Gerry is the emperor's new clothes, I don't think anyone is trying to pull a fast one here, I just don't think there is anything here of any substance. Maybe, just maybe, with slightly shorter scenes and a much better quality of acting (I like both Damon and Affleck but this is far from their finest hour) it could have resulted in something worthwhile, but as it is it is as vacuous as the desert it is set in. The film is dedicated to Ken Kesey, one of the world’s most interesting creative thinkers, who died the year before the film was released. It's like dedicating the opening of a supermarket to Leonardo da Vinci, utterly ridiculous and rather embarrassing. Brought to you by the man who though remaking Psycho, frame for frame, with Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates was a good idea. Okay, that's a little unfair as he has made a couple of good films, but he's also made some terrible ones, Gerry quite possibly being the worst.