Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Set the Thames on Fire
Dir: Ben Charles Edwards
2015
****
Ben Charles Edwards's awesome debut could be one of the most overlooked British films of all time. With flashes of The Bed-sitting Room about it, an essence of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and a slab of Delicatessen (and pretty much every Terry Gilliam film you can think of), it follows a rich tradition of darkly-comic, dystopian, post-apocalyptic fantasy. It was marketed as a comedy on release, which it is and it isn't, while the script is wonderfully poetic and brutally eloquent, it isn't laugh a minute or anything close, but more of a tragicomedy with very dark overtones. I can imagine that the casting of Noel Fielding and Sally Phillips probably gave many the impression that this would be a quirky comedy, which it is, but it certainly isn't The Mighty Boosh or Smack the Pony. I believe this misjudge marketing and misunderstanding is what lead to negative audience reviews but the critics were unanimously full of praise. It's a wonderful film, beautifully written with a unique visual panache. It avoids many of the clichés associated with post-apocalyptic/dystopian movies and adds its own unique brushstrokes to the genre. The story is simple, while the premise is less so. London has become flooded and is essentially now an island with its inhabitants living mainly a squalled existence. The minority rich own the island and police it with steampunk-style coppers. This isn't about rich and poor, power or struggle though as such but the rich are seen as powerful due to wealth, rather than intelligence although there is the feeling that a brutal regime is fast approaching. Much of what happened, how people manage and the bigger details are never really addressed or even that important in the grand scheme of things as this film is really about friendship. Two young men, Art - a manic-depressive pianist and Sal, a full of beans escaped psychiatric patient, meet at a cocktail party for the rich and corrupt. The party has been organised in The Impresario's honour, The Impresario being the feared ruler as it were. When Art is kicked out and set upon by a guest in a pig mask, Sal steps in and knocks him out with a bottle of tequila while Art quips that "Some great friendships simply come about when there are just two people in a room that aren't C*nts". The story goes down a rabbit hole of surreal wonder from there on. Sadie Frost (who also produces) is good as Mrs Hortense, the boy's landlady, happy for rent to be paid by alternative methods and both Noel Fielding and Sally Phillips are great as cross-dressing assistant to The Impresario and tarot card soothsayer respectively. For me though, the best performance comes courtesy of David Hoyle (of The Divine David fame) whose breath-taking monologue as The Magician, is an unexpected delight that seems to come out of nowhere. It's beautifully written and delivered magnificently and worth watching the film for alone. It's an under the radar triumph, destined to become a cult classic although I believe it deserves more.
Geri's Game
Dir: Jan Pinkava
1997
***
Geri's Game was the first short film to be made by Pixar in eight years, the last being Knick Knack in 1989. They had obviously come a long way since then. The animation was brilliant for the time, the background/foreground perspectives being one of the better developments, as well as the overall detail. However, the biggest change was that Pixar were now animating human beings. Geri was Pixar's first proper real person seen in great detail, humans appeared in Toy Story but only fleetingly. This was Pixar's second big showcase, to show were they were and what they could now do in areas they hadn't covered before. It was also the beginning of the Pixar short accompanying their big feature. These days, the anticipation for the introductory short film before the main film is just as high as for the film itself and sometimes, on a few occasions, the short has surpassed the main feature. Geri's Game is a simple and sweet little story of an old man (voiced and made to look like Bob Peterson) playing chess with himself. He changes his attitude and depending on which side of the board he is sitting and before long it seems as if we're watching two characters, when it is in fact only one. There is a bit of a mistake here as in one seen we see two sets of hands but you have to be concentrating to catch it. It's nice but I didn't find it quite as charming as their earlier or later offerings. It didn't stop it from winning the Oscar for best animated short in 1998 though.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Kung Fury
Dir: David Sandberg
2015
*****
David Sandberg's dazzling homage to 1980s movie pop-culture is a masterpiece in independent film making. After leaving the world of advertising and music videos behind him, Sandberg asked an audience to crowdfund an idea he had had after making lots of joke films with his friends. The idea was to make an 80s action, b-movie spoof featuring lots of elements that were popular during the decade. He got his total, enough to make a short film but what he did with the relatively small amount he received is absolutely spectacular. Featuring a crazed arcade machine/robot, Lamborghini surfing, a police officer with the head of a Triceratop (called Triceracop), a time-travelling Hitler, the Norse God Thor (standing around 100 metres high), a giant golden Reichsadler, a Nazi-munching tyrannosaurus rex, a lot of martial arts fighting and a cop, the title character, Kung Fury who gains special powers after being struck by lightning and bitten by a Cobra simultaneously. It's epic and has pretty much every element you could ask of that we all loved about 80s action movies. It's ridiculously inventive, gets the satire down perfectly and is as hilarious as it is original. Sandberg is clearly a clever nerd, his film making skills are outstanding and he achieves so much with little tricks and knowhow. Some of the scenes must have been utterly painstaking to produce but nothing is ever cheap looking or looks rushed. The detail is exquisite but because this is a celebration of retrospective style and method, scratches and blips are added, so it looks as if the viewer is watching it on an old VHS. This was used rather cunningly when an actress in the original trailer wasn't available for the main short. Sandberg scratched her scenes off the tape, so when she appears it looks as if the VHS was over-paused during her scene and given that she was scantily clad, this adds extra weight and a suggestive nod to viewers in more than one way. It's hard to know whether that was an example of healthy serendipity or totally intentional, given how clever and knowing the rest of the film is. To make it even more authentic it features a David Hasselhoff cameo. I'm going to unfairly generalize now and say that the youth of today, the ones born well after the 1980s, have a very different idea of what the 80s was like. Many people of my generation seem to have forgotten too and mistakenly (and sometimes intentionally) refer to glossy half-truths and myths when relaying what it was really like. Kung Fury is of course an exaggeration but in terms of 80s ideas, it's actually very accurate. In a decade that gave us things like Rude Dog and the Dweebs, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and The Garbage Pail Kids it's actually pretty authentic, it's just highlighted by the fact that all these awesome ideas are concentrated into just half an hour. What a glorious half an hour it is too!

Friday, 27 January 2017

Nerve
Dir: Ariel Schulman, Henry Joost
2016
**
Jeanne Ryan wrote a fascinating book in 2012 (described as a young-adult techno-thriller - whatever the hell that is?) that explored a very feasible idea regarding the darker side of the internet. It's not incredibly original though, as My Little Eye pretty much had the same idea in 2002 and there are strong similarities to David Fincher's The Game. Nerve is a game, one where you can either be a player or a watcher. After a few scenes of poorly constructed character development and a convoluted story set-up, an unlikely girl called Vee decides to become a player, to prove herself to her friends. She is then given a string of dares by watchers for large sums of money, all of whom are anonymous. No one knows who has set up the website and it's almost impossible to be shut down because the people who created it are better at computers than you. The film relies heavily on people's misunderstandings of how computers work and what you can do with them. Vee is soon joined by another player and the two of them begin a night of highly dangerous tasks with huge consequences. The story becomes incredibly convoluted that the glimmer of intelligence the story once had is all but wiped out. The original novel was very different and Jessica Sharzer's re-writes pretty much destroy everything that was clever about it. Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost (of Catfish fame) were then hired, presumably because they are thought to be experts in the dark side of the web, although I would argue that they are actually part of that darkness. The directors stated that they wanted to make the film assessable to youngsters, because it would act as a valuable lesson to them, so they took out the most important part of the story so that it would obtain a PG-13 rating. The scene in question involves a sex act the two main character find themselves pressured into, surly a valuable lesson for all youngsters surfing the web these day, more so than doing pull-ups at the top of huge building cranes I would imagine. The film suggests that internet voyeurs are almost like a secret society that would gladly pay to see someone kill themselves live on YouTube. Now I'm not suggesting that there isn't a dark side to the web, there really is, so why not show it for what it is, rather than a ridiculous version of what it isn't? It could have been just as entertaining and it would have meant something. The film's big finale sees the film get even more ridiculous where a secret meeting takes place, in a huge arena, right next to the Hudson River, for the whole of New York to see, in the least secret way possible with loud music and flashing lights. The film has some nice graphics and I liked a lot of the filming techniques but the story is beyond dire. It's made worse by the fact that there is a really good idea in there somewhere, desperate to get out. The actions of the stereotype cardboard cut-out supporting characters and how they learn nothing from the story's lesson, just shows just how pointless the film is and how woefully wrong they got it. It contains all of the worst aspects of the internet without criticizing them, missing the point every step of the way. It's like a murderer explaining to a judge that he couldn't have been the killer because he was elsewhere at the time killing someone else. The whole thing gave me a headache and made me worry about the youth of today and the people my age poisoning their minds.
The Babadook
Dir: Jennifer Kent
2014
****
Jennifer Kent's original horror The Badabook is quite a triumph, even though it may not seem so initially. After a few acting stints, Kent realised her passion for film and interest in working within the industry, was probably best suited working behind the camera, rather than in front of it. After watching Dancer in the Dark, she actually contacted Lars von Trier and asked if she could shadow him, stating that she didn't really like the idea of going to film school. Amazingly, Trier agreed and she ended up assisting him during the filming of Dogville. While I can't see any of Trier's visual style as influence in The Babadook, it is clear that that Kent has developed a unique and independent approach to film making. It's rather good too. Haunted house horrors are ten a penny, you've got to be pretty original these days in order for people to take any notice and that is exactly what Kent has done. The film isn't just a ghost story/ slasher/haunted house/exorcist style romp, it's far more a psychological thriller but without any of the sudo-science, pop-psychology nonsense.  It's a classic formula, executed in a mature, thought-provoking manner with plenty of surprises as well as a satisfying conclusion. It really isn't about what you may think and I think it's a bold and brilliant idea, the sort of thing I’m sure Trier approved of. Unlike many a ghostly villain, The Badabook itself is one of the more terrifying characters of recent years, for more than one reason. Kent studied acting alongside leading lady Essie Davis and I think the fact that they were both close is one of the reasons the film works so well. Davis is captivating and utterly believable as a young single Mum, haunted by The Badabook and struggling to bring up her erratic son Sam. Sam is played by young Noah Wiseman who is sensational in his rather complicated role. I'm not sure the film would have worked so well had it not been for the brilliant chemistry between Davis and Wiseman. The idea is original and gives the viewer a lot to think about, mix this with the beautiful visuals with a strong German expressionist style, you've got a modern day horror/thriller that feels like one of the great horror films of the 1970s. The 70s had the best of everything in my opinion but directors like Roman Polanski, John Carpenter, Stanley Kubrick, Nicolas Roeg and Dario Argento (to mention just a few) were really pushing the boundaries in the genre and making some stunning and terrifying films. Kent's The Badabook really does fit in with these film. The Exorcist director William Friedkin stated on twitter that the film was as good as Psycho, Alien and Diabolique and that he hadn't ever seen a more terrifying film. High praise indeed and Kent deserved it.
The Company of Wolves
Dir: Neil Jordan
1984
*****
Neil Jordan's epic Werewolf fantasy is often overlooked as another Cannon Group failure and a cheap horror film. Neither could be further than the truth. Firstly, it is a Palace Production film and secondly, it's not really a horror. Influenced largely by Wojciech Has's The Saragossa Manuscript, Neil Jordan adopts a 'Chinese box' approach in the film's structure, by having a narrative, within a narrative, within a narrative and so on, which successfully demonstrates situations of conceptually nested and recursive arrangement within a fairy tale setting. With Werewolves. It's very effective and it enriches Angela Carter's short story (from her collection The Bloody Chamber) that is a fairy tale fable in the classical sense but with a strong critical analysis of what a fairy tale is and an exploration of what many of the classics represent. Carter added script from her later radio piece, also about werewolves (as well as a sort of critique of Little Red Riding Hood), which gave the film its final title. You can attach all sorts of symbolic metaphor to the overall film and the different parts that make it a whole and I think that is key to its notoriety. I see something new every time I watch it and it remains fascinatingly objective, as well as intrinsically disturbing. It's brilliant at conveying an otherworldly nightmarish fantasy world, which is both epic in scope and at times uncomfortably claustrophobic. I believe it is a case of Jordan working harder and therefore more creatively, under the limitations of a small budget. The film is full of scenes so lavish you'd think it was a huge production, which is to his credit and the special effects are tremendous and have aged remarkably well. Production designer Anton Furst, responsible for transforming London's Docklands into war-torn Vietnam (Full Metal Jacket) and turning Batman into a Gothic art nouveau, received high praise for his striking visuals. The wolves themselves looked pretty good and the now infamous banquet scene looks as amazing now as it did back in 84. I love everything about, especially the darkly wicked twist at the ending. I love Neil Jordan and Sarah Patterson, Angela Lansbury, Stephen Rea and David Warner made for an eclectic and exciting cast who all give fantastic performances. An unsung classic.
Reasonable Doubt
Dir: Peter Howitt
2014
**
Within ten minutes I thought I had predicted the ending to Peter Howitt's 2014 thriller Reasonable Doubt but I was wrong. My predicted ending happened just five minutes later, after that the film lost its intrigue and turned into a contrived and complicated colour-by-numbers thriller without thrill. I'm not sure why I gave the film so much credit to begin with, it never earned it, I think I just thought a film made in 2014 couldn't possibly make all the same mistakes that every other bad thriller from the 80s and 90s had made. It seems the film was a made with a 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it' attitude based on a formula that was broke but didn't need fixing because people had grown tired of it and didn't want it anymore. There are essentially two ideas at work in the film's plot, both have been done before, both have been done better and the combination of the two just doesn't work in the slightest. Dominic Cooper tries his best to keep the film going and he does the very best with what he's given but there really wasn't anything he could do to improve the abysmal story-line. Samuel L. Jackson got paid for being him. He did nothing but be himself, with the film makers relying on the scary characters he's played before to enter the viewer’s minds. You can't fault him, it's an easy day in the office and again, he doesn't do anything wrong, everything wrong with the film lies in the plot. It also turns into something of a mindless action film towards the end and also tries to incorporate elements of Se7en and much better serial-killer thrillers. There is a good idea there somewhere, two good ideas in fact, it's just that neither of them surface into a credible thriller or indeed a film you can take seriously.
    Knick Knack
    Dir: John Lasseter
    1989
    ****

    Knick Knack is a lovely little Pixar short, very much a tribute to animators such as Chuck Jones and Tex Avery of Looney Toons fame, who were an inspiration to director John Lasseter. It's the story of a Snowman trapped in a Snow-globe on a shelf of travel souvenirs. When he sees a Miami souvenir (or Knick Knack) of a girl in a blue bikini, the Snowman does everything he can to exit his globe so he can go and join her, with various comedic consequences. The short film premiered once again at the 1989 SIGGRAPH convention in Boston and was presented in 3D but its success reached a lot further than that. The film won the Oscar for best short animation and was the first computer-animated film to ever do so. Disney, for whom Lasseter once worked for and was sacked by (for stepping on his superior's toes) realized they needed him back and set about acquiring the then struggling hardware company. Steve Jobs, the owner of Pixar at the time, knew this was the future and so invested far more time and money into the animation department. The rest is history, although I'm not sure anyone really knew quite how huge the importance of Knick Knack really was at the time. The animation is dated now but the idea is still sound. At the time it was heralded as a masterpiece and the animation at the time was more amazing than anyone had ever seen. Personally I don't think it is as good as Juxo Jr. but between them, both films set the foundations of future computer-animation forever.

    Thursday, 26 January 2017

    The Dance of Reality
    Dir: Alejandro Jodorowsky
    2013
    *****
    2013's The Dance of Reality represents the momentous return of the legendary director Alejandro Jodorowsky, 23 years after his last film The Rainbow Thief. It's both reminiscent but also unlike anything that the director has made before but it is every bit as wonderful as his most popular works; El Topo and The Holy Mountain. It's an autobiographical fantasy, mixing factual events of Jodorowsky's childhood with elements of metaphor, mythology and poetry, reflecting his view that reality is not objective but rather a dance created by our imaginations. In his own words; "The story of my life is a constant effort to expand the imagination and its limitations, to capture its therapeutic and transformative potential. An active imagination is the key to such a wide vision: it looks at life from angles that are not our own, imagining other levels of consciousness superior to our own". Taking place in the actual town where he grew up, Jodorowsky sought permission from the local government as well as the locals, who he involved as much they wanted. A lot of what you see is true and these are more obvious, fans can take educated guesses as to what certain aspects may mean and many scenes are open to interpretation, that is, they are probably known only to Jodorowsky himself. That said, most of the metaphor and mythology can be attached to various historical folk-law and other writings. It is a very personal film and clearly a form of therapy for the elderly director, the fact he has included so many of his family members suggests this. His wife was the costume designer and his eldest son, Brontis Jodorowsky, plays his father (Jamie Jodorowsk), while his Grandson (Jeremias Herskovits) plays his younger self. Two of Jodorowsky's other sons, Adan Jodorowsky and Cristobal Jodorowsky, play an Anarchist and a Theosophist, respectively while he himself plays the current version of himself, credited as Old Alejandro. There are some incredibly moving scenes where Jodorowsky and his Grandson stand together, facing many of the challenges ahead, sometimes with young Alejandro cradled and other times with old Alejandro standing behind him supportively. It's rare (possibly the first time?) that so many family members are together on film, exploring their own histories, in such a powerful and emotional way. While The Dance of Reality has a crisper look to it and the background includes ignored modern day life as it happens (not in keeping with the 1930s setting) it's just as fantastical and surreal as you'd expect and hope from a Jodorowsky production. The legendary director turned his back on cinema a long time ago, citing the hatred of film being all about money, so with The Dance of Reality he said he wanted to lose money rather than make any and decided to fund the film entirely from donations. It's something the likes I've never seen before and I believe something that's never been made before. It's a fascinating idea, a rich fantasy that entwines real people, places and history in this surreal but beautiful dance of memory - whether it be accurate or not is never the point. Definitely something to immerse yourself in that will require repeat viewing but only because there is something new to discover with every watch. I cannot think of another director who would film an opera singer urinate on his own son, I so glad he's making films again.
    The Walk
    Dir: Robert Zemeckis
    2015
    **
    Philippe Petit's breath taking high-wire walk between New York's World Trade Centre Twin Towers was something almost forgotten until it became somewhat poignant, when the two large buildings where felled during the 9/11 terror attacks. Petit decided to perform the walk when he first learned about the tower's construction from a magazine he was reading in a dentist's waiting room in Paris. Determined and trained by one of the best circus performers in the world, Petit set about forming a group that would help him accomplish this impossible feat. He practiced first by walking across the two towers of Notre Dame. He also did an impressive crossing of the two towers at the end of the Sydney Harbour Bridge to a bemused but impressed crowd of onlookers. The Sydney Harbour Bridge crossing isn't in Robert Zemeckis though, I know about it because I watched James Marsh's brilliant feature documentary Man on Wire. It covers the ideas's inception all the way to its completion through interviews, film and photos. More importantly, was the input from Petit himself. Now Petit was an adviser on The Walk but it wasn't quite the same. Joseph Gordon-Levitt's performance is faultless, he even learned how to rope walk and spent a lot of time with the man himself but Petit is so full of energy and vitality, it just doesn't compare. Man on Wire covers everything, including the emotions now that the towers are no more. The Wire is a glossy half-truth with impressive special effects but not much else. I can understand why Zemeckis would want to make it, it's a great story but sometimes when you want to tell a real life story to its fullest, a documentary is the only way to go and that had already been done. If I'm being honest, I don't think the special effects were all that good either. I'm not sure what has happened to Zemeckis but his films were always great stories first and then special effect after. This just seemed like an excuse to show the twin towers again, knowing full well people would turn and look. The documentary wipes the floor with this 'based on a true story' dramatization of Petit's book and leaves it looking a little soulless in comparison. When a story is worth telling (and this one was) then it is worth telling properly. There was enough time to cover everything, Zemeckis just wasted it on attempts of emotional blackmail when he should have looked at the details. Hats off to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, he is worth watching the film for and the supporting cast are also strong, it's just there is a lot of thumbing about before the film gets to the crux of the idea, when in truth, there was so much more to tell.
    Space Jam
    Dir: Joe Pytka, Tony Cervone, Bruce W. Smith
    1996
    *
    1996's Space Jam made a lot of money and that's probably because that is what it was all about, money. Based on an idea from a Nike TV commercial, Space Jam was simply an attempt at cashing in on the popularity of Micheal Jordan (who was huge at the time) and the Warner Bros. cartoon characters The Looney Toons (who were experiencing something of a revival). Made eight years after Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Space Jam thought it could ride on its success without coming up with a particularly interesting or entertaining story/concept. The animation was ground-breaking I'm sure, but it didn't look that great and none of the characters seemed authentic. The worst animated character was probably Micheal Jordan himself but he would have been swimming in money Scrooge McDuck style after this so why on earth should he care. For some strange and baffling reason, Space Jam did really well and most critics gave it the big okay. Now, it hasn't dated well, but this was never a good film, not in 1996, not never. The Looney Toons were not themselves and even for a basketball film, there was way too much basketball. The product placements and tie-ins were obscene, the film was just one long advertisement which is no surprise, given that Joe Pytka was at the time, king of the TV advert. It's the third highest grossing sports film of all time. How does this happen? Chuck Jones, the veteran Looney Toons director absolutely hated it and was quite vocal about it. He said the film was terrible and was clearly quite upset about the representation of the beloved characters when he said "I can tell you, with the utmost confidence that Porky Pig would never say 'I think I just wet myself'". I remember thinking the exact same thing while watching. Just because something looks the same and sounds the same, doesn't mean it is the same and quite frankly, the character barely looked the same, they certainly didn't sound the same. People loved it but then if you put it in a pretty box, got a big star to sell it, attached a catchy slogan to it and told people it was the tastiest thing ever, they would eat faeces, I have no doubt about it. Space Jam is the embodiment of consumerism, advertising and celebrity, wrapping itself up in a package and waving familiarity in your face to convince you it’s what you want. It is utter faeces and it makes me sad for people like Chuck Jones, Tex Avery and Mel Blanc.

    Wednesday, 25 January 2017

    Jackie
    Dir: Pablo Larraín
    2016
    *****
    I don't much care for awards and their ceremonies. Many a great film has been celebrated and endured without a single mention by the Academy, Golden Globes or by BAFTA and don't get me started on the well-past-its-sell-by-date Razzie Awards. So many actors, directors, cinematographers, composers etc have been overlooked but loved and successful anyway, it has got to the point where Awards are simply about money, advertising, designer dresses and the mainstream believing they have choice and variety. Great films are made every year to small but grateful audiences, the balance is way off the mark. However, I am slightly baffled as to why Jackie hasn't received the recognition, in terms of nominations, that it so clearly deserves. I would have thought this would have Oscar written all over it but with only three nominations it's a bit of a mystery. I could be looking into it a little too harshly to suggest that the Academy wouldn't want a vocally left-wing Chilean winning best director but I feel his snub is questionable, as it is by far one of the best directed films of the last 10 years, let alone the last one. At the very least cinematographer Stephane Fontaine should have been nominated, so I'm left puzzled. It is quite right that it was nominated for best costume and certainly for best soundtrack. Throughout the film I wondered who did the music because it was absolutely stunning, little did I know it was my old rival Mica Levi. I DJed for bands in a past life and I had a couple of negative meetings with Mica but my goodness can she write beautiful music. Just when I thought her score for Under the Skin couldn't be topped, she goes and writes one of the most stunning scores ever. So the Academy isn't stupid, it recognizes talent, why didn't Pablo Larraín get nominated? I've never really warmed to Natalie Portman, I've never thought of her as a bad actress but until Black Swan I had wondered what all the fuss was about, after her memorable debut in Luc Besson's Leon: The Professional. She was amazing in Black Swan but there were lots of tricks going on there. In Jackie it is all her, no tricks, just raw emotion and I thought it was an awesome performance to behold. When you play a fictional character there is always room to move, develop and make the person your own but in a biography, particularly one that deals with some of the most famous people in modern history, you have to get it right. Getting it right would have been enough in some respects, Portman gets it right and sores. Between Larraín and Fontaine, the film is made to look just like the 60s in the same way you would experience it looking at an old photograph or old television footage. Larraín used the same sort of method in his 2012 film No, while Jackie is a toned-down version visually, it really does make you feel like you are looking back at the past through a time window. It's staggeringly authentic and Caspar Philipson's incredible likeness to President John F. Kennedy adds to it greatly in the few scenes he is in. It's amazing to think that the film took nearly seven years to get to the screen. The script remained pretty much unchanged all that time with Rachel Weisz set to star and then husband Darren Aronofsky set to direct. Both dropped out after their divorce and at one stage Steven Spielberg was set to direct, thank goodness he didn't. Thankfully Aronofsky stayed on as producer and convinced Larraín to direct, although he took some persuading as he had never directed an English-language film, didn't do biographies and knew very little about the subject matter. He soon agreed though after learning more about Jackie Kennedy and learning that the script was purely about the way she dealt with the aftermath of her husband's death, rather than her whole life. It's a tricky subject for sure, but the structure of seeing the events and aftermath of JFK's assassination through the interview she gave to Life magazine weeks after the funeral was very clever, making for an unexpected experienced of a well-known turn of events. It's absolutely faultless and it shows Jackie's great strengths as well as her weaknesses in the best possible taste and with great respect to the Kennedy family. I was stunned by the film's epic beauty, by the amazing main performance and the fresh approach at telling a historical story. Awards or not, it's a modern classic.
    Funny Man
    Dir: Simon Sprackling
    1994
    *****
    Simon Sprackling's quirky Funny Man is a misunderstood masterpiece and one of many overlooked great British films of the last few decades. In 1994 most people were celebrating Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Madness of King George and Shallow Grave, and while I like all three of those films, something else was happening that very few people were taking notice of. Even today, Funny Man is virtually forgotten, the occasional late night screening on certain horror channels being the only thing keeping it alive. I think one of the reasons it didn't do as well upon release was because it was largely misunderstood. I think people thought it was going to be the British answer to A Nightmare on Elm Street, which it really isn't. The other factor is the humour, you either love it or you just don't get it. It's based on the legend of Thomas Skelton, also known as Tom Fool. Fool is remembered as a court jester but the truth is he was more likely a teacher first with a penchant for practical jokes. He became the chief performer at Castle Muncaster but would become better known for his deadly practical jokes. According to legend, Skelton had a habit of sitting beneath a chestnut tree on the castle grounds, where he would chat with and offer directions to travellers and passers-by on the road that ran past the castle. If he took a dislike to anyone, he would intentionally direct them toward a perilous and all but undetectable patch of quicksand by the nearby cliffs, from which there was little chance of escape. He is also said to have cut the head of the castle's carpenter for not paying back a small debt. This serial-killer jester has had much written about him but the legend is largely based on hearsay, rather than any written fact, and it grows and becomes more gruesome depending on who tells it. He's ghost is said to still walk the castle grounds to this day, causing mischief and scaring passers-by. While it's not Muncaster Castle in the film, it's still the same idea, albeit a 1994 version of the story. When Max Taylor, a London yuppie with a cocaine and gambling habit, wins the ancestral home of Callum Chance (played by the legendary Christopher Lee) he can't quite believe his luck. He moves his family in explores his new property and discovers a 'wheel of chance' which he can't resist spinning. He lands on lose and an ancient demonic creature awakens from the soil surrounding the mansion. Known as The Funny Man, this demonic being is part Court Jester, part Punch and Judy puppet with a highly irreverent sense of humour. Incorporating a sort of dark pantomime style, Tim James's Funny Man talks directly to the audience, tells jokes and acts as a contemporary version of his legend, adding current events into his jokes and black-humoured monologues. He then kills each member of Max's family, each one more inventive than the next. When a coach-load of characters (all extreme stereotypes of members of 90s society) arrive looking for lodgings, the Funny Man is given even more opportunity to stretch his murderous tenancies once more. Tim James is brilliant in the title role, delivering each line in a hilarious but terrifying manner. The supporting cast of characters is also very good, with each representing a different element of society with loads of in-jokes, self-awareness and a huge slice of satire. It's wickedly funny and a very British horror. It was ahead of the game too, as the satirical horror/comedy genre really took off on British TV around this sort of time and for my money, Funny Man beats most of it hands down. A brilliant alternative masterpiece, almost completely forgotten.
    Night Moves
    Dir: Kelly Reichardt
    2013
    ***
    I'm a huge fan of Kelly Reichardt's films but Night Moves, her fifth feature, is her weakest to date in my opinion. However, visually, it is probably one of her strongest. Without wanting to sound to nerdy or technical, Night Moves has some of the best night time footage I've seen in many years. The film follows the lives of three radical environmentalist who conspire to blow up a damn that they believe is causing damage to the surrounding environment. One is an ex-Marine (Peter Sarsgaard), one is a organic farm worker (Jesse Eisenberg) and one is a young environmentalist who works at a local sauna (Dakota Fanning). The film is totally character driven and follows the three closely but it is a rather quiet film, and Reichardt relies heavily on gesture and mood to tell the story. Here lies the problem in my opinion. Sarsgaard is okay but he's a talky actor and Jesse Eisenberg can only play it one way. Jesse Eisenberg is Jesse Eisenberg, you could say he was well cast but personally I think it's a little bit lazy but then I don't like him very much. You say 'intense' I say 'Dead eyes'. Dakota Fanning on the other hand, puts them both to shame. She gets it and can utter a thousand lines without saying a word and I'm not sure the film would have worked without her. The film is of two halves, what happens before the explosion and what happens afterwards. You'd think that the explosion would be the film's big scene and its most important but that isn't the case and this is what I liked best about the film's structure, although I feel that the ending had very little impact considering the build-up, and it really should have been a devastating conclusion, so striking even that it could have been an iconic moment in modern cinema. I just didn't like the performances or the script and felt they were a long departure from Reichardt previous films. Wendy & Lucy has everything you could ask of a film, is perfectly balanced with just one immaculate performance, I'm just not sure how she couldn't come close to that with three talented actors and an exciting story. It's beautifully directed but it's just so slow and stunted, the long silences didn't created the desired mood at all but I did love the story and structure. Swap actors, add a few extra lines and it could have been a real masterpiece.
    Luxo Jr.
    Dir: John Lasseter
    1986
    *****
    John Lasseter's Luxo Jr. was the short film that really started it all for Pixar, so much so that the characters remain their company logo to this day. Luxo Jr. is actually the second Pixar short to be made in order to show just what the young company were capable of, following The Adventures of Andre and Wally B, directed by Alvy Ray Smith (whose many achievements also include the creation of the Genius effect demo in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan).  It's such a simple two minute film, where a large desk lamp and a small desk lamp (based on Lasseter's own Norwegian manufactured Luxo lamp) play with a ball that eventually deflates. It may seem strange now, but this little film was ground-breaking on many different levels. From a technical angle, the play with light and shadow was astonishing (it still is) and something no one had ever seen before from computer animation. Made for the 1986 SIGGRAPH conference (an annual computer graphics conference attended by thousands of industry professionals) Lasseter wanted to show off what they could do with 'shadow maps' within the rendering software. I don't really know what that means but apart from the technical achievements, he also proved that you could portray real detailed emotion through simple computer-aided animation. He brought life to two inanimate objects brilliantly, without the need to dress them in clothes or stick eyeballs on them. Luxo Jr. was deemed 'culturally, historically and aesthetically significant' by the Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry (so aliens can watch it in millions of years’ time when the human race has been wiped out). When you consider how many classic films aren't preserved by the National Film Registry, it's a pretty big deal and totally deserving. A game-changer, and a wonderful little short film.

    Tuesday, 24 January 2017

    My Scientology Movie
    Dir: John Dower
    2016
    ***
    Louis Theroux has quite a unique interview style but many of his documentaries are similar in tone and structure. He's never made a documentary about The Church Of Scientology, which I really thought he had, given that he's usually ahead of the pack in that regard. It's not for want of trying though but now he is famous for his unique documentaries, where the subject doesn't always come of well, attaining a access, a meeting or even a statement from the Church is absolutely impossible. They wouldn't touch him with a barge pole, and for good reason to be fair. Louis has the ability to hand the rope that people decide to hang themselves with, purely by standing there staring at them. The long awkward silences can be excruciating at times but it always gets a rise out of the interviewee. So given the fact that The Church Of Scientology weren't going to give interviews, what on earth would Louis's My Scientology Movie be about? He managed to obtain interviews with former members of the Church who had fled, they were more than happy to be involved but there was no coup as it were. Mark Rathbun, former Inspector General at the Church, met with Louis and explained how they recruit and how they treated many of its members. He confesses to beatings himself and tells how they get away with it. This still isn't really anything new as he has written books and has been interviewed many times since he left the Church in 2004. So, rather than chase members and leaders of the church, Louis asks Rathbun to assist him in recreating dramatic reconstructions of incidents within the church witnessed by him and other ex-members, using auditioning actors. At times this works brilliantly but it does get a bit tired relatively quickly. Louis does end up going old-school and just hangs around outside the church's 'Hole' - a camp were members are kept against their will, hoping to antagonize those inside. It works of course and arguments of whether they are on private land or not arise quite quickly, but it's nothing we haven't seen a million times before. For someone who has managed to penetrate some of the world most secret and hostile organisations in the world, this isn't ground-breaking stuff. However, if you like your Louis on the more mischievous side, then you'll probably really like it. It's also him at his most inventive, although he really didn't have much choice. It is clear that The Church of Scientology use antagonistic methods in order to intimidate and silence their critics, with the documentary crew being filmed by the Church most of the time. It's gets a bit surreal at times when you are essentially watching two people filming each other, being filmed, while being filmed. It's funny because it's absurd but again, this is all well documented. When the actress Paz de la Huerta wonders into the set wearing a bikini, half way through an initial interview with Rathbun, it all seems rather staged and a little distracting. Louis has stated since that it wasn't staged but I'm not sure I believe it and the look on Rathbun's face suggested he didn't either. While I enjoyed it, I don't think it really had the desired affect and in truth, it just didn't work. I learned nothing I didn't already know and I don't think it achieved anything other than getting the subject off of Louis's chest. Rathbun has since discredited it, like he has with most anti-Scientology documentaries released in the last few years, as he feels it isn’t tackling the very real and serious problem and I can't help but agree with where he's coming from.
    Dick Tracy
    Dir: Warren Beatty
    1990
    ***

    1990 was an exciting time for cinema as a child, special effects were getting bigger and better and loads of our favourite heroes from TV, cartoons and comics were finally getting big screen adaptations and many old favourites were getting their sequels. It really was a good time to be alive and just about old enough to go to the cinema unaccompanied by an adult. There was one film in particular that I couldn't wait to see, everyone was talking about it, it had an accompanying song in the charts and merchandise everywhere. It was the must see film that every kid in school had to see. It was called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and it was great. Of course there was another film that had almost as much hype, a song and tons of merchandise, Warren Beatty's big screen adaptation of the classic 1930s cartoon strip Dick Tracy. As well as Warren Beatty playing the title character, the film boasted a cast list that is to die for (and remains one of the best ever of all time) including the likes of Al Pacino, Charles Durning, Madonna, Dustin Hoffman, William Forsythe, James Caan, Seymour Cassel, Glenne Headly, Paul Sorvino and Dick Van Dyke, as well as many actors noted for their recognizable contributions to the gangster genre and some old school greats of film and TV. Quite a few directors were sought to direct the film including Steven Spielberg, John Landis and Walter Hill but Beatty eventually got the job after Spielberg passed, Landis left (after the tragic Twilight Zone incident) and Hill - who was responsible for casting Beatty in the lead role, left due to a difference of opinion when it came to the style and tone of the film. Landis wanted it to be in the style of the 30's comics while Hill wanted it to be more realistic and violent. I'm not sure it ended up being quite what either director had imagined. Beatty had wanted to make a Dick Tracy film back in the 70s but the rights were unattainable, so when the opportunity came up he threw himself into the project and was pretty much left to do what he wanted. I think it's clear that no one really understood his vision until it was too late to change it. Writers Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr were hired to write the screenplay and were told to keep it in the 30s comic style. They both read every Dick Tracy comic printed between 1930 and 1957 and later admitted that it was a painful process and that pretty much every story was terrible, with thin plots and rather camp humour, but they did what they were told to by the studio, so I'm not sure they can be held 100% responsible for the rather awful ending. Disney, who weren't that comfortable with Beatty as director, stated in his contract that he had to stick to the $25 million budget and any spending over that would come out of his fee. It ended up costing $47 million for the total shoot, but I fail to see where all the money went in the finished film. The $54 million spent on the marketing campaign however was hard to miss. It really was everywhere, although it's hardly ever discussed these days. 1989 was all about Batman, 1990 was 50% Turtles and 50% Dick. Cinema was a lot cheaper then but I still had financial limitations and I was allowed to see only one film that June and I chose Gremlins 2. I had a Dick Tracy lunchbox, note pad, school bag and pencil case but I didn't actually see the movie until years later. What an anti-climax. What on earth was Beatty thinking? The marketing was brilliant and the photos and poster were beautifully stylized but the film itself was this weirdly garish, neon noir, cartoonish headache. I'm a big fan of makeup artists such as Screaming Mad George but the effects in Dick Tracy are beyond awful. It's a fascinating film to look back at all these years later. As awful as it is though, and it really isn't great, I quite like it. It was the leader in what was a barrage of sickly colourful noir nightmares that followed, Batman can take some of the blame but Dick Tracy was the first. You can kind of see where they were coming from and what the intention was, it's just shocking that no one at any point said "This looks dreadful". You don't cross Warren Beatty though, I think everyone involved took the money and got on with it, although none of the performances are particularly bad, in fact some of them are quite good and rather fascinating. I'm giving it three stars because even though it's full of faults I have nostalgic feelings towards it.