All Film Reviews


"Irma La Douce" - 60s Farce Carried By Lemmon & MacLaine


Playing the eponymous Irma, MacLaine dominates with an easy manner, razor sharp comic timing and disarming innocence. Lemmon is equally affable as the disgraced French policeman who falls for her abundant charms.


There is a gaudy appeal to this early sixties farce which is carried throughout by the chemistry of Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. Sharp dialogue exchanges and solid casting do much to elevate this romance comedy, whilst the obvious soundstage restrictions sketch a community of Parisian archetypes. 

 

At well over two hours the themes are stretched a bit thin, meaning that sequences feel overly long, situations protracted and jokes bled dry. There is a lack of conciseness both in terms of plotting and character development. Lemmon and MacLaine work hard whilst fine support is supplied by Lou Jacobi as Moustache who is joined by a sterling ensemble. However the jokes themselves lack a tangible foundation and their relationship although engaging still lacks depth.

 

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"Come Back To The 5 And Dime Jimmy Dean Jimmy Dean" Is A Victim Of Age


What becomes apparent all too quickly is how dated this film has become. Stilted, claustrophobic and wooden in parts, the stage play origins make any artifice all too obvious.


With a cast which includes Cher and Kathy Bates alongside director Robert Altman, Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dead Jimmy Dean should be impressive. Adapted from the stage okay by original author Ed Graczyk it tells the story of friends who work in a small town Woolworths. Returning for a twenty year reunion their shared memories, small town celebrity and bond over actor James Dean start revealing some stark home truths. 

 

What becomes apparent all too quickly is how dated this film has become. Stilted, claustrophobic and wooden in parts, the stage play origins make any artifice all too obvious. Across this ensemble of actors there are times when emotion, dialogue and narrative progression are nothing more than a wall of noise. Fifties small town mentalities, blinkered opinions and an unwavering need to cling onto past events bogs it down.

 

Altman employs clever set design to convey personal recollections but elsewhere that invention is limited by budget. Although the performances from Karen Black, Cher, Sandy Dennis and Kathy Bates feed off one another there are only so many recriminations you can stomach before indifference sets in. All the while James Dean casts a shadow over this select group as if his ghost were watching.

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"Scarborough" Examines Human Complexities Without Providing Neat Resolutions


Scarborough might be low budget indie territory but the issues being examined supersede outward appearances. Above all it examines human complexities without providing neat resolutions or narrative safety nets.


This small location based indie drama might deal with familiar relationship issues, moral quandaries and recognisable ethical dilemmas but Scarborough feels fresh. Carried by an established and experienced cast who can count Peaky Blinders, The Witcher, and Taboo amongst their resumes, the film offers up no easy resolutions. Essentially a two-handler featuring couples who check into an old seaside hotel, it asks questions over issues of infidelity, gender expectation as well as matters of propriety. 

 

There is an honest and stark isolation which comes through from the choice of location that adds rather than detracts from the central premise. Jessica Barden and Edward Hogg give their characters depth without drifting into cliche, while Barden especially shows a maturity which belies her years in the more emotional scenes. What directer and screenwriter Barnaby Southcombe does through his adaptation of the original play is mirror encounters through dialogue early on, before moving his actors outside. This takes away the stilted quality which stage plays sometimes suffer from whilst allowing the principals and audience a break from an inherent claustrophobia. 

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"The Scarlet Empress" Benefits From Dietrich's Star Power While Others Flounder


The Scarlet Empress's qualities are overshadowed by flamboyant production design and acting that would make an AmDram society blush.


Coming across like a slapstick farce with ostentatious production design The Scarlet Empress is two years on from Shanghai Express and displays limitless ambition. Supposedly shot in five weeks it combines drama, intrigue and Russian skulduggery. Telling the tale of a dim witted Tsar being manipulated by Dietrich in comedienne mode, this film has persistent tonal imbalance, lashings of overacting and stilted performance throughout. Only Dietrich seems to come out of this unscathed harnessing her star power and presence whilst others flounder.

 

Despite the lavish sets, period costumes and innovative camera techniques there is no escaping how dated everything seems. Historical dramas which veer between comedic asides and ritualistic floggings, whilst vast swathes of typed exposition stand in for drama make The Scarlet Empress tedious. Elsewhere dim witted mannerisms must go beyond bulging bug eyes and lascivious gurning even in the nineteen thirties if audiences are to invest. Likewise smouldering leading men giving elaborate speeches whilst women swoon becomes murderously mundane.

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Framing John DeLorean (2019)


John DeLorean had the smarts of a high functioning industrialist combined with the courageous bravado of a flagrant risk taker. Charming, charismatic and debonair with a millionaire lifestyle and innovative streak which rocked the establishment he created a legend. Part documentary and re-enactment drama Framing John DeLorean seeks to shed some light on this enigma of the motor industry. 


This is a history lesson dressed up as entertainment. John DeLorean will forever be linked with Back To The Future for obvious reasons, but his influence and legacy stretched far beyond any multiplex. A renegade maverick cloaking individualistic tendencies DeLorean charmed the world, his work force and numerous female admirers. A roguish risk taker who had business acumen by the bucket load his rise to prominence is something this documentary charts meticulously. 

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Unwritten (2018)


Albert (Gabriel Burrafato) is an agoraphobic bookstore owner and washed up novelist who shuts himself off from the world. An unfinished story haunts his dreams while an estranged daughter (Brittany Hoza) shows up after years of separation to honour her mother's dying wishes. Convinced that one character has burst forth from his subconscious to end the world Albert begins to spiral into insanity. 


Unwritten's intriguing premise and tight running time promise much but unfortunately fail to deliver. Gabriel Burrafacto's performance is committed enough but beyond that events create minimal tension or interest. Neven has given us a claustrophobic atmosphere of narrow bookshelves, shafts of defused sunlight and overwhelming squalor, yet wastes time on a narrative which perpetually treads water. Although that yey location is essential in creating audience involvement, his paper thin storyline and limited character development quash any impact this might have. Flashbacks disrupt rather than enrich the film and also obvious budgetary limitations undermine believability. Sound design also inhibits rather than underpinning key moments where the music verges on intrusive, doing nothing to aid Neven's cause. 

 

By playing out the story within Gabriel's subconscious and combing that with flashbacks to a childhood trauma Neven fills in essential character motivation, yet somehow distances his audience. This perpetual lack of drama means that Unwritten is bland and obviously contrived which becomes more as things progress. There is little emotional impact conveyed during the childhood sequences and they feel unconvincing and somehow wooden as does much of this film. Surprisingly performances across the board are perhaps the only saving grace in a movie with so little substance. 

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Eyes and Prize (2018)


Four people are invited to take part in a reality television show. Soon the gravity of their decision becomes apparent beginning a domino effect which does nothing but gather momentum. 


This premise is simple but fraught with danger. Cast the wrong actors and situations cease to be dynamic, give them nothing but cliched drivel to spout and interest wanes. Fail to have a tight rein on tone and there will be no sense of threat. What writer director Oliver Cane does with Eyes and Prize is both surprising, awkwardly riveting and yet measured and calculating without feeling stale. 

 

Split between three locations, incorporating hand held camerawork and instilling an instant sense of claustrophobia, Cane introduces his idea then establishes character before slowly applying pressure. Much of the reason this works so well is due to uniformly naturalistic performances from all concerned. His set might scream artifice but the people inside feel far from it. Marcus is petulant, stroppy yet resourceful while Abbi earns screen queen credentials and Ron is both parental and pedestrian. Through his dialogue Cane imbues them with flaws and foibles whilst stripping away their humanity layer by layer. 

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The Experience (2019)



"Police Story 1 & 2" Help Define Jackie Chan's Pre-Hollywood Genius


Eureka Entertainment presents Police Story 1 and 2 on Blu-ray for the first time in the UK. Each film sports a new 4K restoration meaning audiences can experience Jackie Chan's death-defying stunts like never before. Martin Carr takes a look at why these films maintain their entertainment value three decades after their original release. 


These two examples of Jackie Chan before he broke Hollywood with the risible but profitable Rush Hour franchise give us an indication of why he was such a success in West. Presented here on Blu-ray with newly translated subtitles, the Police Story films provide two standard plot lines which importantly provide the stage from which Chan's charisma can take full effect. Packed to the gunnels with death defying stunts all performed in the main by Chan himself, Police Story and its sequel feel blessedly free from corporate interference. Opposite his co-star Maggie Cheung who portrays the long suffering, perpetually in peril fiancee slash girlfriend May, Chan's Ka Kui is both pursuer and pursued. From the shanty town demolition derby opener to a shopping mall fireman's pole finale, Police Story and its follow up are fast paced, dynamic and explosively engaging. 

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"Journey's End" Is A Powerful & Effective World War 1 Film


Journey's End depicts the biggest casualties of war to still be those who practice it for bureaucrats with agendas; rather than leaders with dignity. 


Considered by many to be the quintessential depiction of wartime tragedy, R C Sheriff's play Journey's End, adapted here by screenwriter Simon Reade and director Saul Dibb for a new generation, comes packed with raw emotion. Brought to life by an excellent cast of character actors who include Sam Claflin, Paul Bettany, Stephen Graham and Toby Jones, it illustrates the best and worst of humanity in times of conflict.

 

Set over the six days prior to Russia's Summer Offensive which began in July 1918, it follows a platoon led by Claflin's Captain Stanhope as they await that first bombardment. Through a combination of claustrophobic cinematography and bone crunching sound design, there is an immediacy which complements the acting chops on display. There is an ominous feeling which hangs over the whole film which is onyl intensified when Stanhop makes his irregular trips to command headquarters for instruction. 

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Dead Envy (2018)


David Tangiers (Harley Di Nardo) is an icon of a bygone era. Lauded as a musical maestro and chart topping Billboard wunderkind he is now on the comeback trail. A comeback which has been twenty years in the making and forced Tangiers back into the hair styling business. Only a chance encounter with the mysterious Javy Bates (Adam Reeser) compels David back into action, as this fresh face brings an edge to the salon and puts music back on his agenda.


It would be unfair to judge Dead Envy in conventional terms as a director, writer and leading man Harley Di Nardo worked within the confines of a shoestring budget. This passion project which clocks in at just over an hour and change suffers under the strain of those limitations from the outset. Interior and exterior locations are the first things to impact on your viewing experience as Dead Envy feels like a made for television movie. In conventional terms it feels like an episode of Columbo without the bumbling detective on call. Characters are sketched quickly, scenes are truncated and the overall premise is concisely drawn. 

 

Di Nardo and Samantha Smart who play Cecily have a good chemistry and screen presence which carries things along until Adam Reeser arrives. His Javy Bates is the necessary shot in the arm needed to bring something of substance to this story. Bates might be the archetype villain with the aloof persona, severe comb over and glacial jawline, but he instils menace and gives his retro sociopath some teeth and backbone. In these sections Dead Envy benefits from those budgetary restrictions giving scenes a genuine Grindhouse feel, which is further compounded by Carla Wynn's psychic. 

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“Space Truckers” Is A Fun If Messy Ride


Fun cult favourite Space Truckers receives a welcome Blu-ray release in the UK with some excellent additional features including a revealing interview with director Stuart Gordon.


This film should be a whole lot worse. Sci-fi comedies featuring intergalactic big rigs and Charles Dance under a foot of latex sounds like no day at the beach. What we get with Space Truckers though is a fun ride which is more in the vein of Starship Troopers without the flagrant nudity and violence. Amongst the model work which has stood the test of time sits an oddity which feels more like Barbarella than Jurassic Park. A fact which is pertinent only if you know both Spielberg’s benchmark and Stuart Gordon’s sci-fi adventure were released in the mid-1990s.

Using the flimsiest excuse for a plot, Gordon sets off with his hotchpotch of narrative strands and audience in tow. Hopper and Stephen Dorff gamely follow the company line and add a slither of credibility to a film for which the word kitsch was invented. Whether conversing with George Wendt’s pork haulage CEO or trading suitably droll one liners with Dance’s one eyed cyborg, Hopper is nothing if not interesting.

 

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Aardman Animation Continues Its Enviable Track Record With “Early Man”


In Early Man, Aardman is still making people laugh whilst thumbing its nose at established Hollywood protocol, winning Oscars and broadening its ever increasing fan base.


There are few British institutions who have made it onto the international stage, remained unsullied by corporate movie bosses and retained their identity. Aardman Animation which is unique in being the only mainstream stop motion production company to have navigated these dangerous waters occupies a singular place in film.

 

It may be true the studio has moved on in scale since those British Gas adverts but the sensibility thankfully remains the same. From Wallace and Gromit through to Chicken Run and Pirates this company has won Oscars, challenged limitations whilst subtlety moving beyond them. What Nick Park and company bring to the table with Early Man is an extension of that ethos into a story which breaks new ground. Bringing the same sense of fun and slapstick comedy which has been a staple of every Aardman film since inception, broader themes are explored beneath the façade.

 

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DVD Review – I Kill Giants (2017)


Strange things lurk off shore in this small coastal town. Barbara (Madison Wolfe) is the self-appointed guardian keeping mile denizens at bay. Isolated, precocious and uniquely qualified, only the arrival of Sophia (Sydney Wade) and school psychologist Mrs Molle (Zoe Saldana) bring about change for this giant killer.


Films sold on their fantasy credentials are normally cut and dried. Mythical, magical and decidedly cheesy inhabit one camp, while grandiose, majestic and world building epics hide elsewhere. That this Anders Walter film sits uncomfortably in either group is testament to a movie which blindsides, confounds and surprises within its running time.

 

Madison Wolfe’s Barbara is a typical outsider peppered with character flaws reminiscent of The Goonies or ET with dashes of Gilliam’s Time Bandits in tone. Her pre-possession, naturalistic performance and magnetism on screen for one so young centres everything. Similar in feel to Catherine Hardwicke’s Twilight contribution, it all seems slightly off kilter and removed from reality yet consistently engaging.

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“The Mercy” Boasts Strong Performances If Little Else


Firth gives us another rendition of his ‘everyman’ who remains infinitely watchable while Weisz and Thewlis provide selfless support. If only their commitment had been repaid in kind by a workable film then that would have been a small mercy.


This is neither a nautically themed Into The Wild nor some wannabe challenger for J D Chandor’s All Is Lost. Instead what The Mercy brings with it can only be described politely as a strange brew. Based on the true events of Donald Crowhurst who attempted to circumnavigate the globe with minimal yachting experience, The Mercy falls short despite a stellar cast and strong central performance.

 

This film fails for none of the conventional reasons offering up intangibles which are difficult to pin down. Colin Firth, Rachel Weisz and David Thewlis provide solid character moments laced with humour, grounded in recognisable behaviour and brimming with life, yet something is missing. To begin with the set up itself although neat feels too convenient. Dramatic touchstones which would include the indecision of commitment, financial burden of his endeavour and any seafaring segments seem truncated. For a majority of the time Firth, Weisz and Thewlis seem rushed while actors such as Mark Gatiss barely even register.

 

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“Downsizing” Lacks Alexander Payne’s Usually Nuanced Humanity


Payne has always been a very subtle and emotive director who airs on the side of intellectualism. People in his films are real, fragile, honest and credible. Downsizing however seems to find him lacking a fundamental sense of humanity towards his subject matter.


From the head of Alexander Payne comes a satirical sideswipe at overpopulation. However what is immediately evident is how little happens beyond those ground breaking FX shots. Matt Damon and Kirsten Wiig are likeable enough as husband and wife trying to upsize, but their route to downsizing is so manipulated, plot driven and devoid of drama it’s ridiculous. Aside from anything else that is the chief problem with this big budget social comment piece.

 

It has a huge agenda to encapsulate and wastes no time in spoon feeding, bible bashing and full on pulpit preaching from the outset. Payne is so caught up in trying to get across his opinion on screen that story, motivation and drama are forced to take a back seat. These global concerns which clearly sparked the light which drives the writing are delivered like a big budget infomercial. Prejudice towards those downsizing, illegal smuggling of immigrants into the country, or the adverse affect of miniaturisation is never really addressed dramatically.

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“The Defiant Ones”: A Striking Social Drama


There is no denying Kramer’s film belongs to a bygone era, yet as an example of socially motivated filmmaking, delivered by its strongest advocate, there are few better.


Once upon a time the topic of segregation was both contentious, inflammatory and liable to start a riot in certain parts of this world. Those days may be gone but their spectre lingers in the darkness neither forgotten nor forgiven by many. What Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones does so eloquently is ask questions around prejudice and ignorance, making it both cinematically important and strangely contemporary.

 

Released in 1958 amid the volatile hotbed of a country in turmoil, The Defiant Ones challenged the preconceptions behind race. Marquee mainstay Tony Curtis was looking for something to diminish his pretty boy persona, while Sidney Poitier represented Hollywood’s first African-American through the racial wall. Pairing these two leading men on screen holds the key to making Kramer’s social commentary piece sing. Their chemistry is instant and enduring which does much to raise the game of Kramer’s supporting ensemble.

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There’s Still A Light On At “The Old Dark House”

The Old Dark House may feel like a stage play performed by actors long passed, but as both cinematic document and time capsule of populist sentiment it remains invaluable.

This one is for the film historians, academic lecturers and restoration specialists who believe in cinema as a means to educate and enlighten. Made in 1932 by James Whale and adapted from a J.B.Priestly novel it taps into the haunted mansion archetype whilst addressing class differences. Trapped by the Femm family these isolated travellers must hold out against a house filled with secrets, cursed by madness and defined by dysfunction.

At its best The Old Dark House feels like a theatrical production filmed from the auditorium. Whale uses the vast soundstages which make up this haunted mansion with expert precision, invoking atmosphere, creeping terror and an ancient sense of inevitable decay. Considering the era his choice of camera positioning, close up cuts and lingering long shots adds much to this piece of antiquated cinema. Famed character actor Charles Laughton makes the most impact in his role as Sir William Porterhouse, while Gloria Stuart is both scream queen, glamour puss and theatrical ingénue.

 

Boris Karloff who helped make James Whale famous as he transformed into the original Frankenstein plays a dumb butler here. Karloff and Whale work together to create an eerie introduction for Morgan who glares through a small opening, focusing one eye at full frame both menacing and unaware.

Much of what is to be gleaned from The Old Dark House comes from sub-text and asks its audience to look beneath the surface of these depictions of class division and industrialisation. Cut off from the outside world and trapped within a microcosm of English pre-occupations, this feels strangely at odds with cinema traditions. More mouthpiece for social concerns than cinematic gothic mansion archetype, Whale uses his platform as a jumping off point for broader discussions.

There is a wry undercurrent of sarcasm and knowing nods to artifice weaved in amongst the dialogue, while one key shot from behind their vast fireplace underlines that still further. Sitting squarely between the fallout of a first war and blithely unaware of an impending second, this film also weighs in on the plight of returning war veterans. These may only be alluded to in chuck-away lines of conversation, but nonetheless they add texture, coherence and reality to a film very much out of time.

 

As an example of a unique visionary forever immortalised by Sir Ian McKellen in Gods and Monsters, Whale illustrates here why film historians still discuss his work. Survivor of the first war, commercially viable only through his connection with Frankenstein and subsequent films of that era, Whale saw cinema for what it was. Socially powerful and politically influential this represented a silver screen soapbox to get opinions out into a wider world. For this reason The Old Dark House may feel like a stage play performed by actors long passed, but as both cinematic document and time capsule of populist sentiment it remains invaluable.

“American Made” Sees Doug Liman Deliver Another Sparkling Curveball

American Made sees Tom Cruise playing real life CIA operative, Cuban contraband smuggler and family man Barry Seal. An opportunist and everyman who took the chances thrown his way and made hay while that sun shone.

Doug Liman always pitches a curveball. Picks a subject matter, method of approach and interpretation which continues making him not only relevant but contemporary. From the underrated Go through Jumper onto Bourne Identity and beyond, Liman re-energises jaded genres, kick starts franchises then moves on. In his latest collaboration with Tom Cruise we get more of the same, except this time round Liman throws in a little bit of politics.

American Made sees Cruise playing real life CIA operative, Cuban contraband smuggler and family man Barry Seal. An opportunist and everyman who took the chances thrown his way and made hay while that sun shone. Featuring some razor sharp writing from Gary Spinelli it contains much of Liman’s trademark indie style, jumping between handheld, steady cam, VHS camcorder and stock footage seamlessly. Liman draws the most spontaneous performance from Cruise for some time, while our leading man is clearly having great fun adding another maverick to his back catalogue.

 

Whether working with Domhnall Gleeson’s CIA agent Schafer or buddying up with Cuban dictator Pablo Escobar, Seal is in his element. He has a risk taking swagger which exudes likeability while his circumstances would be pure fiction if not for the evidence. Liman employs news footage and moments of dramatic licence to illustrate how underhandedly crooked agendas became with Barry firmly figuring in the whole equation. Morality, ethics and a sense of justice are all secondary to vested interests south of the American border.

That Liman and Cruise are able to give this substance relies heavily on the counterpoint of Seal’s family versus an ever escalating percentage of risk to return ratio. These stakes are getting higher and an ability to balance tone without drifting into either darkness, caricature or disinterest is a trick cleverly accomplished. Their interpretation of the CIA is also quite fresh and freewheeling as levity and humour play as much of a role here as anything else. Reminiscent in part to the nineties buddy team up of Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr. in Air America, this time round Tom Cruise and Sarah Wright as husband and wife carry proceedings.

 

Played out over six years during the Reagan presidency, Iran Contra scandal and Oliver North debacle, American Made uses Lucy and Barry as barometers for cultural change. Clothing, technology, lifestyle and politics are constantly in flux and this family sit at the eye of that storm. Liman and Cruise have achieved much in giving us both something seamlessly mainstream yet dramatically meaty without preaching, spoon feeding or diluting down the point. An essential addition and gentle reminder that brand Tom Cruise isn’t just a Mission Impossible franchise.

“Rex” Suffers From Formula Overload

In a time when the #MeToo culture has really taken hold, it is shameful that strong female characters still feel so stereotypical like Kate Mara’s in Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Rex.

If people purchase this thinking they are getting a Hurt Locker/Green Zone female-led Middle Eastern drama, think again. Although the premise is intriguing, writing concise and set up neatly achieved, Rex suffers from formulaic overload. There are hat tips to An Officer and A Gentleman with obvious gender substitutes, yet the drama never really kicks in.

Kate Mara, who has long been the best thing in everything she appears, is poorly served by conventional storytelling. Dysfunctional family dynamics, thinly written love interests, injured-in-action inevitability and convenient reconciliation help things even less. In a time when the #MeToo culture has really taken hold, it is shameful that strong female characters still feel so stereotypical.

 

Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite gives us serviceable action sequences and concise boot camp montage, but something is lacking. Mara fails to illicit substance from average biopic material purely because she is given so little to do. Her fellow actors including an understated Tom Felton are reduced to mere archetypes but work hard nonetheless.

Production values bring a certain level of authenticity as desert road ambushes, ground level bomb disposal and road side cordons add an element of tension which aids Cowperthwaite in bringing an edge to these encounters mixing close up handheld framing with more conventional tracking shots. But aside from the sparse emotional moments between Leavey and her mother and these dramatic diversions, Rex (known as Megan Leavey in the USA) carries little weight in spite of the efforts elsewhere.

 

As for Rex himself this is no Turner and Hooch with trench warfare. All bark and plenty of bite, Rex is portrayed as an untameable animal, just as Leavey is given moments of disconnection socially. Unfortunately this sits as awkwardly as everything else while convention hamstrings drama in favour of narrative convenience. Although the bond between Mara and her canine co-star is done well it dilutes an already flimsy love interest sub-plot. As for any PTSD dramatics post tour of duty, this is glossed over with a few counselling sessions before our protagonist is magically cured. As with almost everything else in Rex, it all ties up too neatly which is simply not real life.

“The Post”: When Freedom Of Speech Meant Something Else

Considering the state of American politics and journalism as a whole, Steven Spielberg’s film could not be more pertinent. Perhaps for him The Post represents a nostalgic look back to when freedom of speech meant something else.

The Post falls somewhere between Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight and Alan J. Pakula’s All The President’s Men. Focusing on a time period prior to Nixon’s Watergate it zeroes in on The Pentagon Papers. These classified documents demonstrated collusion across numerous presidents into America’s Vietnam involvement. Divisive, relevant and anchored by solid performances from Oscar winners Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, Steven Spielberg makes no secret of his intentions from the outset.

Through the use of detailed production design, multiple film stocks and newsreel footage, he evokes time period and lays out his stall quickly. Employing broad strokes to establish the competitive edge between The New York Times and Washington Post, Spielberg harks back to a time when information was not so readily available. Surrounding Hanks and Streep with a solid supporting cast including Bruce Greenwood, Bob Odenkirk and Jesse Plemons also adds gravitas and a sense of realism. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski meanwhile pays homage in his use of classical framing and a seventies colour palette, recalling genre classics like Three Days of the Condor and Klute.

 

Where The Post falls down however is in its ability to fully exploit the potential of government threat. Telephone conversations glimpsed through White House windows may hark back to All The President’s Men but never feel truly ominous. Spielberg instead gets more mileage from the arc of Kay Graham sketched with supreme skill by Streep. Trapped within a male dominated industry, Streep communicates her unease, perceived gender weakness and cultural isolation with subtlety. It is her journey and the turning of a tide in both gender politics, newspaper journalism and governance practices which defines this film.

Hanks meanwhile gives us a hard boiled newspaper man driven by idealism, cynical of authority and ensconced within an outdated ethos. This performance is no homage, pastiche or vague impression of Jason Robards. This is Hanks bringing his inherent everyman quality imbuing Bradlee with softer edges despite the bluster. His scenes with Streep are masterclasses in overlapping dialogue, character chemistry and ensemble acting. A self-assurance which encompasses every cast member on screen.

 

Considering the state of American politics and journalism as a whole, Spielberg’s film could not be more pertinent. Fake news and its proliferation combined with a twenty-four-hour culture means goalposts have been moved. Disinformation is part of a wider world where president’s engage in social media rants, politicians are under public scrutiny every second, and nothing is sacred. Spielberg more than any other director has adapted to changing times. Perhaps for him The Post represents a nostalgic look back to when freedom of speech meant something else. Instead of our current culture where people brandishing cameraphones film with impunity, pass judgement without consequence and manipulate information.

Movie Review – Bad Samaritan (2018)

Two part-time valet attendants spend their time robbing unsuspecting customers whilst they are busy eating dinner. One night this slick operation comes unstuck when a local businessman pulls up in his Maserati.

Upon first inspection the subject matter and creative force behind this dark and edgy thriller raise questions. Director, writer and producer Dean Devlin established himself in the mid Nineties collaborating with director Roland Emmerich on tent pole movies including Independence Day, Stargate and Godzilla. From then on his projects either theatrically or otherwise have been both entertaining and primarily mainstream. His latest directorial effort however is the equivalent of casting against type, being both inherently dark, morally ambiguous and cinematically challenging.

This might seem like a by the numbers thriller but screenwriter Brandon Boyce is asking us some interesting questions beneath the surface. Issues of nature versus nurture, karmic backlash and moral choices are all addressed within this slick piece of cinema. Set up and concisely drawn within fifteen minutes Bad Samaritan provides backstory, establishes tone and then smartly deviates from expectations. In order for that to work effectively Dean Devlin needed a very specific type of actor.

 

Bringing in both David Tennant and Robert Sheehan is ultimately what makes Bad Samaritan work so well. They share minimal screen time but each one engages with the audience and brings something different to potentially two-dimensional roles. Of the two Tennant does much of the heavy lifting and seems to revel in breathing life into Cale Erendreich. Emotionally detached, independently wealthy, single-minded and meticulous Tennant manages to make this character human. Boyce’s set up is good and Erendreich carries shades of Patrick Bateman, while Bad Samaritan itself drifts towards American Psycho and into Eli Roth territory. However Devlin is sensible enough to remain on the right side of this line.

Themes of power either over others through circumstance, situation or information are central to Bad Samaritan, while any darker elements are purposely desexualised. If anything my only criticism is that the screenplay becomes formulaic and to tidy too quickly. Great character work is undermined by convenient tech knowledge, thinly drawn supporting roles beyond Sheehan and Tennant while any atmosphere is diminished by predictability. It would have been nice to explore and expand on invasion of privacy issues, those truncated police procedural elements and telegraphed third act.

 

Dean Devlin can clearly direct punchy character moments and is adept at building tension with the right material, but Bad Samaritan feels like a wasted opportunity. Tennant and Sheehan elevate this film above the conventional but remain hamstrung by stereotypes and formulaic demands.

Jim Henson’s “The Dark Crystal” Is A Last Hurrah For Practical Effects

In a last hurrah for practical special effects, Jim Henson, with co-director Frank Oz, give us 1982’s puppet-filled world of The Dark Crystal.

There are some films which transcend generations and stand alone as unique examples of cinematic endeavour. Over time such specimens have diminished with the onset of cost effective technologies, home office FX suites and sheer expense. Not so The Dark Crystal, exemplifying the perseverance and singular application of its talented creator Jim Henson.

A pioneer in puppetry Henson combined slapstick, vaudeville, unrequited love and terrible acting through his landmark property The Muppet Show. Throughout the Seventies and early Eighties he spearheaded puppet performance theatre through Kermit The Frog, Miss Piggy and Gonzo to name but a few. This spawned cinema releases, fully fledged franchises and big business opportunities. Where The Dark Crystal sits in there is where things really get interesting.

 

Henson had an idea inspired by artistry from illustrator Brian Froud which expanded into an entire fantasy realm peopled by puppets. When you watch The Dark Crystal remember that there are few effects shots, no reshoots and post production work was limited to editing. Not only did Jim Henson, Frank Oz and Brian Froud create animatronic technology from nothing, but their blueprints and innovations would go on to influence cinema for decades.

Before The Dark Crystal nobody had attempted a full scale production using puppets, lighting them like real actors, instilling personality, believability or emotion into inanimate creations. Teams of people worked for two years before a minute of film was shot in a joint effort of ingenuity, invention and sheer imagination all driven by Henson.

His basic story of good versus evil had more in common with philosophical trains of thought, senses of self and universal cause and effect than anything Muppet related. Production design, geometrical character development and an organic creation of ancient civilisations were key to making this world exist for audiences. Sets were designed around the limitations of what their puppets were able to do so that any wires, operators or machinery remained hidden. Beyond the high minded concept this is a film noteworthy for its execution rather than anything else.

 

Basic in concept but ground breaking elsewhere, The Dark Crystal stands alone as a cinematic singularity, inevitably dated but no less innovative as a result. This Blu-ray is one for anoraks of film ephemera with extensive background footage, archive interviews and ample time to see behind the curtain of Jim Henson’s creature shop. Inspiring, thought-provoking and ultimately family friendly, The Dark Crystal is a reminder of what practical effects really did.

Antonioni’s “The Passenger” Sets Jack Nicholson’s Star Alight

On the face of it Michelangelo Antonioni’s preoccupation with identity and human observation is very simple, yet through Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider he is able to craft a film of arresting impact.

Great actors develop bad habits when they become famous. It is a fact universally acknowledged by the actors themselves and those brave enough to point those things out. Calculated reactions, fall back expressions and go-to theatrics which are failsafe and remain unchallenged. Jack Nicholson, now in his eighties with a body of great work behind him, could be accused of just such a conceit.

From Terms of Endearment onward you might argue Nicholson has been doing “Jack” for quite some time, with exceptions which include but are not limited to About Schmidt and As Good As It Gets. What Michelangelo Antonioni’s film The Passenger does is catch Nicholson before his work drifted into that default phase. Falling around the same time as Five Easy Pieces and Carnal Knowledge, The Passenger shows us a Nicholson in full possession of that brass ring moment.

 

Working with an acknowledged maestro of Italian new wave cinema in an industry reinventing itself, Antonioni used environment, flashback, dead end dialogue exchange and silence to convey meaning. Music is employed sparingly and never to illicit an emotional response, emphasise dramatic elements or for background filler. Character motivations are virtually invisible as he asks his audience to find their own clarity. Time period, cinematic structure and geographical location are constantly changing, while only minor clues exist to help out the viewer.

On the face of it Antonioni’s preoccupation with identity and human observation is very simple, yet through Nicholson and Maria Schneider he is able to craft a film of arresting impact. His pacing maybe pedestrian and the scenes seemingly mundane, but this is a film which excels in non-verbal communication. Only that which must be said is spoken and often left incomplete much like life, which is ultimately the point. Both Nicholson and Schneider give nuanced performances against an aggressively invasive landscape, which encompasses Barcelona, London and Munich before finishing in Algiers. Not only does this contain one of the great performances from Jack Nicholson, but perhaps more importantly it comes with a commentary track from the man himself.

 

Notoriously wary of interviews and interviewers, Nicholson’s life is defined by the womaniser of old. However, what comes through more than anything here is his love of the work. Anecdotes, cinematic tangents and words of wisdom inform, enlighten and respect his audience. He never talks over things of importance and is careful to enrich rather than diminish key moments. Antonioni’s film may well be considered masterful, but played alongside the Nicholson commentary it becomes something else entirely. “Jack” the jumper is banished and in his place we have an erudite, accomplished and knowledgeable actor openly sharing his admiration for a friend and process he clearly misses dearly.

“The Ballad Of Lefty Brown” Hands Bill Pullman His Best Role In Years

Bill Pullman and company give us a frontier story heavy on atmosphere and rich in character definition, which promises an interesting pay off in a landscape of genuine authenticity.

Authentic westerns are a dying breed. Times change, people move on while certain examples only mature over time rather than diminishing with age. However for every Wild Bunch or Once Upon A Time In The West, there are long winded self-indulgent money pits like The Postman. Creating something of genuine interest without an overabundance of cliché, stereotype or ponderous running time is hard for people to do. Which is why The Ballad of Lefty Brown not only comes as quite the surprise but will make a welcome addition amongst select company.

What writer-director Jared Moshe has done here is not only hand Bill Pullman the best role he has had for some time, but also crafted a Western thoroughbred worthy of remembrance. Encompassing panoramic vistas, perpetually burnished with endless stretches of arid scrubland this is a film of resonance. Settlements days apart, vigilante justice metered out for bounty and a frontier providing more character than lesser films could manage in twice the time. However what many will remember most from The Ballad of Lefty Brown besides that scenery and sense of Western heritage is Pullman’s performance.

 

Cloaked beneath a nest of grey chin whiskers, hunkered down in an accent so deep it’s almost caricature, Pullman is given time to inhabit this man and make him live. Ably supported by Tommy Flanagan, Kathy Baker and a fleeting Peter Fonda this is more Outlaw Josey Wales and Two Mules for Sister Sara than Unforgiven or Open Range.

Forever on the fringes of history rather than making it, Lefty is replete with good manners but permanently dressed down. Never his own man but rather half of one whole, the loyalty, friendship and lifelong allegiance he gives is matched only by a similar stubbornness when backed into a corner. If anything this is an underdog story lifted straight from western territory, but there is such commitment from both Pullman and his supporting actors that it is raised up regardless. Gunshot wounds, hangings and political intrigue are all given equal screen time, while spit and sawdust saloons, acrid heat and monsoon weather play their part.

 

Slightly pedestrian in pace but a solid western worthy of note, The Ballad of Lefty Brown is neither cinematic padding nor reinvention. Pullman and company give us a frontier story heavy on atmosphere and rich in character definition, which promises an interesting pay off in a landscape of genuine authenticity.

“I Kill Giants”: A Modern Day Fable Built On Darkness, Dysfunction & Fragile Family Dynamics

Like much of Steven Spielberg’s back catalogue before he hit The Color Purple, Schindler’s List and Amistad, I Kill Giants explores family disintegration beneath the guise of mainstream entertainment.

There is a deep rooted emotional honesty to this film which belies the faery tale title or Harry Potter comparisons. Darkness, dysfunction and fragile family dynamics create a beating heart beneath this modern day fable of teenage rebellion. Adapted by Joe Kelly from his original graphic novel, this screenplay contains layered complexity, narrative twists and solid performances.

 

A keen eye for atmosphere and tone are necessary if this debut feature from Anders Walter is to be truly appreciated. Grounded by Imogen Poots and Madison Wolfe as sisters Karen and Barbara, Anders is careful to depict a relationship in freefall. Isolated, intelligent but disconnected this teenage anti-hero is more akin to Donnie Darko, while the film itself envelops you creating a sense of unease.

Reminiscent of early Spielberg, I Kill Giants explores family disintegration beneath the guise of mainstream entertainment. Wolfe and Sydney Wade as best friend Sophia are stand outs alongside Poots and a restrained Zoe Saldana. This narrative is more concerned with those things which go unsaid as Saldana and Wolfe bring an adolescent Good Will Hunting vibe to play in their scenes together. That the more fantastical elements are kept in check and a sense of redemption and catharsis is brought about through human breakthroughs is commendable.

This microcosm of Americana feels inherently nostalgic in setting, while the clash of modern day consoles, smartphones and adolescent imagination is subtle. Harry Potter comparisons are only vaguely apparent, as Kelly has managed to give these characters depth without reverting to stereotype, just as Anders has employed the Irish locations economically for maximum impact.

Effective in retaining its sense of mystery I Kill Giants reveals even more on second viewing, as visual cues and whispered supplications from disembodied voices gain resonance. Darker than early Potter incarnations and less glossy than Spielberg-directed comparison pieces, I Kill Giants employs subtlety and suggestion in place of pyrotechnics. Visually and thematically reminiscent of Twilight in its use of washed out colour and small town preoccupations, Walter’s film ranks as a commendable debut feature from a director of note.

“Score: A Film Music Documentary” Is A Fascinating & Insightful Journey

Score never attempts to answer every question choosing instead to pique your interest and promote curiosity. It highlights the isolation and teamwork required in equal measure as Oscar winning composers wax lyrical about panic attacks, musical inspiration and the fear of a blank page.

Matt Schrader has written and directed a documentary which is endlessly fascinating, highly informative but never dry. This is a must see for film score fans as every composer who has made an impact in the last seventy years makes an appearance. Some appear in archive footage others through stills photography or sown into movie montage, providing musical touchstone moments and a potted picture house history.

 

Name checked contributors are numerous but include John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman and Thomas Newman. People who have both enriched, shaped and helped define the films we have all experienced. Aside from these highly gifted impresarios there are soundbites from great directors, fly on the wall conversations and archive footage of orchestral recording sessions. For many Score will represent a creative peek behind the curtain into warehouses full of musical instruments, where composers create mood, illicit emotion and fashion indelible film scores.

Schrader has gained unrestricted access to an industry which prefers to keep its secrets hidden if only to retain ticket sales. Howard Shore, David Arnold and their contemporaries talk about the pressure of composing for modern cinema, important innovations, creative approaches and passions within their profession. Process both creative, collaborative and individual is explored incorporating interviews interspersed with specific film examples, which prove both enlightening and educational.

 

Score never attempts to answer every question choosing instead to pique your interest and promote curiosity. It highlights the isolation and teamwork required in equal measure as Oscar winning composers wax lyrical about panic attacks, musical inspiration and the fear of a blank page. Just as Anton Corbijn: Inside Out and Milius focused on creative anxiety versus artistic fulfilment, so Score pulls off the same balancing act with one fundamental difference. In this film Matt Schrader makes you realise how important film music is and why cinema would be sorely lacking without it.

Movie Review – Killing Gunther (2017)

SYNOPSIS:

 

A team of professional assassins plan to take down the greatest contract killer on record. Every moment is captured by a documentary crew as their world begins to unravel and Gunther proves why he is still the best.

Killing Gunther is what happens when you believe great characters can exist in a film without story. Marketed as a Schwarzenegger hitman comedy this mishmash of barely coherent vignettes are mainly the responsibility of writer, director and star Taran Killam. Killing Gunther is painful to sit through and spellbinding in its levels of ineptitude. Smulders and Schwarzenegger are wasted and thankfully only cameo, while Hannah Simone’s Sanaa barely comes out in one piece.

 

 

A meandering structure held together by painful dialogue and an earnest delivery, make this hour and thirty minutes seem interminable. Disjointed, underdeveloped and improvised without any sense of control Killing Gunther fails to engage at all. Schwarzenegger and Smulders may have felt this had merit but Killam’s direction, writing and central performance undermine any good work going on elsewhere. Obviously meant as a call back to his action hero roots Schwarzenegger is trying too hard with substandard material and it shows.

That Killam chose handheld and steady cam for the duration of Killing Gunther makes things feel more distracting, less engaging and creates further separation. This Saturday Night Live effort lacks the charm and self-effacing quality of Wayne’s World that knew its era, embraced the characters and kept the scope sensible. What Gunther does is play on a broader canvas when the characters are too thinly sketched and Killam’s central idea woefully transparent. Few films have the potential to leave you angry but Killing Gunther is one such example. Schwarzenegger and Smulders stick out like sore thumbs, primarily because their characters are the most developed. They do more in the minimal screen time they have than anyone else barring Hannah Simone.

 

 

Killam’s Blake is essentially unlikeable and devoid of redeeming features being both pompous, overbearing and vain. His cavorting characterisation makes him annoying and since Killam wrote the script you would think quotable lines would be peppered throughout but unfortunately not. Killing Gunther belongs in a bargain bin and is a stark reminder that money and a movie star are no guarantee of success.

Movie Review – Bieber Generation (2018)

SYNOPSIS:

 

Documentarian Jennifer Van Gessel examines what it means to be a Belieber. A word created to describe Justin Bieber’s diehard fans who follow his music, social work and media activites, often citing him as a personal influence.

Opinions on Justin Bieber are often unflattering, frequently divided and prone to communication breakdown. Now in his early twenties having risen up through the ranks of the YouTube generation Bieber has moved beyond those humble popstar beginnings. Lauded on Twitter, postulated about through posts on Facebook, he is now a brand name, trademark and figurehead. What Australian film maker Jennifer Van Gessel seeks to establish in her documentary Bieber Generation is how and why one becomes a Belieber.

 

Something that becomes immediately apparent is how potentially polarising this film could be not to mention biased. Dissension is thin on the ground in a documentary which uses cinema as a soapbox for single minded adulation rather than reasoned debate. Gessel interviews a wide cross section of fans who all claim a personal connection to their idol, from examples of genuine contact to other more tenuous modes of communication. Although the talking heads and interspersed stock footage bring up the occasional revelation, Bieber Generation remains interesting for other reasons.

 

What it illustrates more than anything beyond the music, charity work, sense of community and feel good fables is how powerful social media has become. Celebrity no longer means the same thing it used to primarily because of a never ending means of indirect influence. Perceived connections with the rich and famous is a single retweet away and people are convinced there exists a personal connection. Within the Bieber Generation there are numerous examples of their idol reaching out, sharing a tweet, responding directly and therefore confirming that recognition. Something which on the one hand might seem hugely selfless but also comes with the undercurrent of a professional agenda, which itself must be nurtured to remain relevant.

 

 

Jennifer Van Gessel fails to explore any of these more intriguing tangents which might have given Bieber Generation an edge, choosing instead to focus on fan testimonial and stock footage. There is unfortunately no first hand interview material with Bieber himself, which would have also provided a counter balance to all the backslapping on display. Without that the uninformed audience member only has the distinctly biased opinion of Beliebers who have taken hero worship global. Blinkered and suspiciously free of detractors Bieber Generation unfortunately celebrates a cultural phenomenon without really revealing anything new.

Movie Review – Opus of an Angel (2018)

SYNOPSIS:

 

Tragedy strips a successful man (William McNamara) of his family. Exactly one year later he sets off on a final trip around Los Angeles and encounters Maria (Kaylynn Kubeldis). Lost, blind and in need of salvation he takes her under his wing as they journey across town.

This film delicately explores chance encounters, serendipitous coincidence and divine intervention whilst instilling a preternatural calm. Character driven but emotionally detached Opus of an Angel employs hand held framing devices, close up moments of subtle symbolism and acts of stark violence for dramatic effect. Shot for the most part on location and employing a documentary approach it is consistently hypnotic and ultimately absorbing.

 

William McNamara and Kaylynn Kubeldis make for an odd couple on screen, but the combination of his sallow demeanor and her naturalistic optimism are crucial. Director and co-writer Ali Zamani plays with point of view, raises questions and challenges emotional reactions yet never deems to condescend. Morality sub-plots which would seem forced in another context slot into this real time docudrama effortlessly. Small pieces of plot, backstory and character are drip fed in between the more symbolic imagery making you work for a coherent structure. McNamara gives us a performance of measured intensity which feels deliberately one note, only growing in stature once Kubeldis draws more from him.

Her acting instincts bring a naturalism and innocence to Maria which goes hand in hand with the more theological themes Zamani touches on. Exposition is thin on the ground and dialogue is necessarily sparse as Opus of an Angel employs sound, images and concise editing to provide story. Being both a non-actor and blind Kubeldis brings a level of authenticity which Zamani requires and the film is richer for. Thematically he is able to go to places and ask questions which would be more difficult otherwise. Taking full advantage of those rough edges, lack of technique and childlike instincts in order to ground his film.

 

McNamara meanwhile provides the necessary dramatic counterbalance and guiding hand for the more difficult emotional scenes. In the main Zamani has created a thought provoking, non-linear film which challenges its audience immediately. Unfortunately fleeting moments of unnecessary spoon feeding towards the end distract, but on balance Opus of an Angel remains an important piece of work. Far from the mainstream but essential to catch on a limited release soon, it asks difficult questions and gives us life affirming conclusions without a hint of pretention.

Movie Review – The Scent of Rain and Lightning (2017)

SYNOPSIS:

 

When news reaches Jody Linder (Maika Monroe) that her parents’ killer is being released it causes a domino effect. Long buried secrets and family feuds are uncovered, proving fouler things than dead bodies lurk beneath the surface in every town.

This is a spider’s web for the unravelling. Part murder mystery, part small town melodrama and equal portions brooding psychological thriller. Director Blake Robbins does a great job in cahoots with his cast and crew of completely throwing the audience. Combining soft focus close up shots, sobering character moments with richly black scenes of shadowy passion.

In essence a whodunit with an emotional scarred heroine as sleuth, instigator and interrogator Maika Monroe’s Jody helps tie this film together. Robbins employs flashbacks judiciously and manipulates timeframe to cover ground, adequately inform yet never deem to spoon feed his audience. Even at its most simplistic The Scent of Rain and Lightning requires the audience to pay attention. Character introductions are never straightforward, motives frustratingly vague while performances are uniformly excellent.

 

Adapted by Jeff Robison, Casey Twenter and original author Nancy Pickard this verges on film noir, as narrative is manipulated, plot threads interweave and flashbacks challenge our perspective. From the opening frame this is an extremely claustrophobia movie, despite its focus on family values, personal unity and a tremendous ensemble cast. Will Patton’s patriarch Senior is one stand out amongst many, in a film which could easily have been movie of the week material. However the consistently switching tone and mood communicated through camerawork and musical score raise The Scent of Rain and Lightning to a rarefied position.

Both in terms of dramatic approach and overall feel Robbins has given us something which reminded me of Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone. Character driven, starkly unrelenting in its depiction of family dynamics and overbearing father figures. What starts as a simple case of individual safety for one person is calculatingly picked to pieces until an uncomfortable truth gets revealed. Revelling in ambiguity Robbins takes pleasure in showing the flaws that exist across the board within this small town clan. Infidelity, clandestine meetings and sordid liaisons separate these people from each other by a hair, yet they consider themselves above reproach.

 

What The Scent of Rain and Lightning proves to be is a modern-day thriller shrouded in shabby sheep’s clothing. Morally rigorous in its examination of the shades of grey which make up a person, yet reserved enough to leave room for conclusions. Perhaps the greatest compliment you could pay is that this film brings with it the humid, airless proximity of a summer storm. Cloying, sticky, humid and suffocating it promotes tension, permeates every pore and leaves you no closer to closure.

“Daphne” Is A Refreshing Rom-Com Without The Gloss

Emily Beecham stars as the eponymous Daphne in this refreshing snap shot of urban life in an ever changing social media driven society, addressing dating, sex, marriage and our seeming inability to properly connect.

What Peter Mackie Burns has created here with Daphne is a relationship drama light on comedy, heavy on cynicism and anchored by an understated performance. Grounded in London amongst the hustle and bustle of city life it explores loneliness, living and loving through relationships. Blinkered, oblivious, ignorance and agenda driven this vision is no day at the beach for anyone involved.

Naturalistic and honest in its depiction of metro coupling, Daphne is brought to life by Emily Beecham’s award winning performance, giving us a layered interpretation both isolating and pedantic with flashes of vulnerability, which earned her best actress at Edinburgh last year. Elsewhere Geraldine James and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as mother and boss respectively, give admirable support to her engaging portrayal without scene stealing or grandstanding.

 

This snap shot of urban life in an ever changing social media driven society addresses dating, sex, marriage and our inability to connect. Burns and writer Nico Mensinga have given us the antithesis of romantic life in London, by taking that shine off the turd and revelling in its darker elements. In their interpretation people have casually disinterested sexual encounters, indulge in thoughtless actions and make questionable choices. Disruptions are short, sharp, shocking and burden these people with emotional scars. Work is sweaty, dirty, unpredictable and intrinsically linked to social events, making Daphne feel closer to reality than most films get with relationships.

Dating exchanges are awkward uncomfortable affairs and happen unexpectedly causing embarrassment or momentarily silences. Love is neither a cure all nor theological lesson to be learnt, instead painted as just another part of life up for negotiation. Moments of tenderness are punctuated by disregard, miscommunication and fractured silences. Salvation for Daphne is all but ignored as we watch her downward spiral into isolation, using caustic humour and alcohol as defence mechanism and emotional crutch simultaneously.

Burns behind the camera proves himself an able helmsman while director of photography Adam Scath makes everything suitably dour. Where Daphne has issues however is primarily around the mid-way point where everything seems to slow down. What starts out as bleakly funny and original somehow loses its way as too many threads are either left dangling or under developed. For that reason attention spans tend to drift and interest wanes towards the finale. However these performances are more than enough to recommend a film with much to say on matters of the heart. Both refreshingly unrelenting on relationships and brazenly upfront in its depiction of urban living, Daphne is best suited to those who like their rom-coms with the gloss taken off.

Destined To Become One Of The Great American Romantic-Comedies, “The Big Sick” Dazzles

It becomes quickly evident while watching The Big Sick why it is now one of the highest grossing independent American films ever made. Martin Carr finds out what all the fuss is about…

There is a freshness, subversion and genuine warmth which The Big Sick brings in spades. Similar tonally if not structurally to When Harry Met Sally, what Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan have given us here are two landmark characters. Copybook tick lists are still present and correct but that awkward feels new, those arguments and reconciliations revitalised while humour is not always the point.

 

Based on a true story and portrayed in part by its real people The Big Sick smacks of authenticity. Cultural approaches to marriage and relationships are addressed in a realistic way, avoiding stereotypes and drawing on humour through circumstance whilst feeling grounded. Solid support comes from Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Adeel Akhtar and Anupam Kher who make a great deal of low key roles, scene stealing on a small level without distracting us.

Written by Nanjiani and Emily V Gordon it feels a lot like the perennial When Harry Met Sally perhaps because of this writing dynamic. Nora Ephron and Rob Reiner were married when the Billy Crystal/Meg Ryan classic was penned, making it collaborative in a way few rom-coms have been since. That intimate knowledge, shared experience and love of expected tropes makes The Big Sick at once unbelievable yet hugely endearing. Peppering the cast with real comedians, basing elements within the confines of a comedy club, but making it about them not their routines also puts another spin on things.

These characters are a fraternity of misfits held together by the same insecurities and thrust for approval which fuels us all. Undermining this conceit through Zoe Kazan’s idiosyncratic normality as Emily almost makes the rom-com element redundant, as her honesty grounds everything else. Nanjiana and Gordon’s shaping of his fictional family is approached similarly, as traditions are used to promote well intentioned humour borne of character not culture clash. Which makes them feel like rounded creations who serve a purpose rather than token gestures there to appease minorities.

 

That Kumail and Emily get together in the end should be of no surprise to anyone, because after all rom-coms are designed to do that. What sets this apart is their journey from ‘meet cute’ to resolution where curve ball after curve ball is thrown with care. Audience expectations are circumvented, resolutions never fully provide closure and life as in reality remains open ended. In my opinion a top five slot awaits The Big Sick in romantic comedy polls everywhere very soon.

“A Woman’s Life” Is Nothing Short Of Masterful

Like a dancer dodging raindrops Stephane Brize paints beauty between breaks in the cloud, shining light on feminine empowerment in the masterful A Woman’s Life.

Adapted from Guy de Maupassant’s novel A Woman’s Life is an exploration of feminine experience in nineteenth century France. Anchored by a mesmeric performance from Judith Chemla as Jeanne, this fragmented character study is given breadth and resonance through a variety of cinematic techniques. Director and co-writer Stephane Brize uses a varying palette and differing visual hues to communicate Jeanne’s fluctuating fortunes over decades of time.

 

Brize constructs narrative through flashbacks, flash forwards and silent images in conjunction with musical cues to imply an allegorical subtext. What this approach produces is an intensely isolating viewing experience which draws the audience in whilst adding an additional dream like quality. Chemla is at once innocent and dour in single moments, as Brize plays on memory, time and place to imply a tenuous connection for both character and audience with reality.

Her nemesis within this classical piece is Swann Arlaud as Jeanne’s lascivious suitor, husband and philander Viscount Julien de Lamare. A more underhanded study in womanising miserly repulsion you are unlikely to see this year. Lamare is both overbearing, wet, money grabbing and a bully whilst using his title and connections to hold Jeanne’s family to ransom. Her innocence as exemplified through Brize’s sun drappled courtship visuals early on, only makes the end result of their connection more disturbing. This faithful adaptation is also bolstered by Nina Meurisse as friend, house maid and confidante Rosalie. Pictured in flashback, missing for large chunks of the story only to return, her understated support of Chemla is equal to Arlaud in its impact. Coupled with the musical score from Olivier Baumont, A Woman’s Life quickly coalesces into an exquisite nineteenth century character study, at once alluring yet dangerously demeaning.

 

Some might claim Brize’s film is a contradiction being both uplifting yet bluntly realistic in its depiction of female life, but for me it moves beyond simple categorisation. Period dramas of the Merchant Ivory ilk are a million miles away from this caustically brutal interpretation, which balances tone yet still delivers a film of wistful elegance. Judith Chemla gives her Jeanne so many different layers, projecting them with such singularity that the film rises and sets on the subtlest of skills. Bring that together with cinematographer Antoine Heberle and A Woman’s Life becomes nothing short of masterful, both in its visually melancholy mood swings and focus on female perspective. Like a dancer dodging raindrops Stephane Brize paints beauty between breaks in the cloud, shining light on feminine empowerment. Which leaves us open for introspection, after thought and quiet contemplation in those final moments.

Second Opinion – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

SYNOPSIS:

 

Seven months after the disappearance, discovery and investigation of Angela Hayes nothing has been done. In a final effort to jump-start the local police her mother Mildred rents out Three Billboards and begins her campaign for justice.

John Milton once wrote long is the way and hard, that out of Hell leads up to light. What writer director Martin McDonagh has committed to film here is nothing short of that journey fuelled by fury, tempered by inaction and instigated through desperation. If Three Billboards has a message it’s neither straightforward, awards friendly or lacking in brass balls given the current climate in Hollywood. That however should never overshadow the content or intent which is to tell a story, promote debate and open our eyes to the wider world.

 

Beginning on an isolated road in the dew laden moments of dawn, McDonagh paints a picture of small town Americana idyllic in its serenity. He quickly turns this on a dime however through the pipe bomb presence of Mildred Hayes. A grief ravaged divorced mother of two holding on to fury like a life raft, following the rape and murder of her teenage daughter. Carved from granite, cloaked in jumpsuit battle fatigues and dropping ‘f’ bombs like confetti, she is a force of nature battling a disinterested justice system and small town mentality.

From the opening frames McDormand is terrifyingly effective playing Mildred with an unrelenting sarcasm, brazenly bad ass machismo and maternal isolation. This war will be waged, there will be casualties and her methods will be bloody, bold and unforgiving. Aside from the broad strokes however it remains those rare moments of heart breaking honesty when that guard drops which make her performance Oscar worthy. In the darkest moments of this film words are exchanged, actions taken and consequences witnessed which ask complex moral questions. Tackling ignorance, racism and sexual assault was never winning McDonagh any new friends, but his film harbours so much light beneath the darkness that audiences will be divided. Three Billboards revels in shades of grey and asks the audience to do likewise, nowhere more so than through Sam Rockwell’s Jason Dixon.

His ability to pull off an intricate character arc without falling back on cliché, caricature or technique is worth the ticket price alone. By turns shocking, childish, revelatory and redemptive Dixon will go down as the role which cements Sam Rockwell reputation for good. Alongside Woody Harrelson’s Chief Willoughby both stand accused of inaction in the face of immeasurable loss. Ambiguities are traded on throughout while supporting roles are pitched perfectly, unintentionally comedic yet compassionately understated.

 

Few film makers could have taken human violation as their central premise and instilled pathos, humour and realism into something so contentious. Martin McDonagh is worthy of both recognition and a wider audience which Three Billboards will hopefully promote over time. Playwright, film maker and master of the foulmouthed four letter put down, this film is not only essential viewing for new comers but a high water mark for indie filmmaking period.

“100 Streets” Is A Forgettable Soap Opera

Despite a strong cast, Jim O’Hanlon’s 100 Streets fails to step above soap opera styling and ultimately becomes a forgettable letdown. Martin Carr reviews…

Jim O’Hanlon’s London life melodrama is a notch up from television soap due to quality performances by Idris Elba, Gemma Arterton and Ken Stott. Dropped into a geographically condensed soap opera, we see these characters mildly effect each other and move on. Dialogue is passable but nothing out of the ordinary, as events unfold, relationships experience a bump in the road then return to normal.

Those who come out best are Elba who co-produced the project as well as Arterton who between them play husband and wife. Elsewhere within this eclectic cast resides Franz Drameh’s Kingsley, a council estate bully boy who dreams of bigger things. His is the performance which causes the most ripples, as he stands shoulder to shoulder with Stott in difficult scenes and proves worthy. Reminiscent of John Boyega in Attack The Block, Kingsley acknowledges his place in the pecking order but refuses to lay down and accept limitations.

 

Arterton and Elba play their infidelity cards as national sporting celebrity and burgeoning actress turned WAG respectively. This relationship is nothing new to film and there are no new twists in the mix which rise it above the competition. However O’Hanlon does well in portraying the character of this capital making it feel vibrant, urban and contemporary without resorting to caricature or cliché.

A rites of passage structure unfolds between Stott’s Terence and Drameh’s Kingsley that works, but again adds no new ingredients to a tested formula. Charlie Creed Miles and Kiersten Wareing fair slightly better in their storyline which again feels more soap opera than silver screen. However pathos is squeezed from this arc and their closure is perhaps O’Hanlon’s saving grace. In truth 100 Streets is a solidly constructed snapshot of London life, but these overlapping lives fail to engage because the circumstance, coincidence and serendipity lack reality.

 

What it does provide in terms of substance is undone towards the end, unravelling all that good work in favour of exaggeration which undermines a sense of closure. For that reason there is a dislocation which short changes any dramatic tension and hamstrings any build up. Performances may be solid and Elba, Arterton and Stott might bring everything to the table, but ultimately these characters are under developed and never move beyond stereotype. This accounts for the tonal imbalance veering between poignancy, teenage gangland stand offs and misjudged histrionic gun toting. Worth watching if only for Franz Drameh’s break out performance, 100 Streets is enjoyable without ever stepping up to the big leagues. A shameful admission when you consider those involved.

“David Lynch: The Art Life” Reveals Much Whilst Retaining Its Most Treasured Secret

Self-referential, infinitely intriguing and impossible to pin down David Lynch: The Art Life reveals much whilst still retaining its most treasured secret. Martin Carr takes a closer look…

There is a certain beauty to be attained from watching an artist at work. Moulding, mixing and sculpting inspiration through their manipulation of materials. Better yet when that work is in an unfamiliar medium changing perceptions and engaging simultaneously. Which is exactly what happens throughout David Lynch: The Art Life.

By following a young Lynch at pivotal moments in his artistic journey, we are able to link burgeoning artist with impresario director seamlessly. Directors Jon Nguyen and Rick Barnes have captured Lynch in his element crafting paintings and sculpture oblivious to the camera. That this might remain at odds with the public persona, due to his reputation for creating surreal and horrific masterpieces, need not colour the man personally.

 

This revelation is one of the more revealing things they capture here, as Lynch the director and Lynch the artist seem to be two different people. His use of abstract imagery and themes in film may share similarities, but there is a sense of separation. In documenting Lynch and his travels during those formative years you feel a sense of dislocation between himself and the world around him. Even at seventy years old there exists a restless, driven, vividly challenging individual who relishes carving his art into the rock face.

Watching him work you see how tactile and abrasive those visions are as he fights with materials. Bending wire, drilling holes, moulding putty and making those paintings breathe. Heedless of distractions, perpetually drawing on a never ending cigarette, he finds the essence then wrestles it from thin air. Nguyen and Barnes intercut conversational voice over with music by Jonathan Bengta that puts you on edge yet compliments the subject perfectly. Add to this his musical contributions laced in behind the scenes and suddenly Lynch’s Art Life becomes something else entirely.

From that point on it morphs into performance art which is at once mesmeric yet abstractly challenging, Lynch essentially becoming the centre piece of his own installation. Self-referential, infinitely intriguing and impossible to pin down David Lynch: The Art Life reveals much whilst still retaining its most treasured secret. At no point losing any of Lynch’s mystique or magnetism, leaving you wiser but not savvy, informed but not disillusioned. Similar to Anton Corbijn’s Inside Out, David Lynch: The Art Life allows the audience to retain a respect for its subject, without bursting their bubble of adulation or intellectual hero worship. A worthy accolade to have earned bearing in mind the subject matter.

 

“After The Storm” Lifts The Spirit Through A Fragile Heart

Mixing understated drama, circumstantial comedy and poignant segues into rarely touched areas, After The Storm is a triumph if a quiet one. Martin Carr takes a closer look at Hirokazu Koreeda’s family drama…

In After The Storm, writer-director Hirokazu Koreeda has given us a film which encapsulates the uplifting frailty of human relationships. Looking beyond the circumstance and situation which sets up this story of dislocation, disparate moments and heartfelt epiphanies, he produces something real.

Hiroshi Abe’s Ryota is the perpetual son with potential who finds reasons to avoid fulfilling that promise. Hang dog in demeanour, affably dishevelled but poignantly sketched his avoidance of achievement defines him. His failure to exploit a natural talent resonates across every interaction he has, allowing Koreeda to instil the dialogue with bitter sarcasm and stark moments of reality. We’re slowly embroiled in an on-off relationship between himself and an ex-wife where love has waned but something still draws them together.

 

As much a story about realisation and bonding than inherited behaviours, Koreeda takes a fractured relationship narrative and uses it as a jumping off point to somewhere else. Ryota’s mother played by Kirin Kiki puts in a virtuoso performance creating an easy and believable chemistry between them. They exchange cuttingly sarcastic off hand comments whilst lacing each moment with an underlying affection. Similarly Yoko Maki’s Kyota wards off an ex-husband more interested in her now than he ever was when they were together, tainting conversations with regret and maligning moments with the remembrance of missed opportunities.

Koreeda also employs subtle symbolism manifested through the approaching typhoon, taking time to develop depth, define character and promote attachment through the dialogue. Those pent up emotions, repressed recriminations and final exchanges are all metaphorically linked to a storm which feels earned rather than convenient. We see the relaxed company of a father, mother and grandmother glimpsed briefly in the slow burn finale as they should be. There is a softness here which momentarily transcends marital transgressions, allowing the family to act as a unit again. Kiki and Maki’s grandmother and ex-wife are pivotal in making these moments work, just as Abe lives and breathes Ryota from tentative first moments to an honest, emotionally charged conclusion.

 

Mixing understated drama, circumstantial comedy and poignant segues into rarely touched areas, After The Storm is a triumph if a quiet one. Beyond tackling themes of true fulfilment it also retains a feeling of innocence in the face of staunchly adult concerns. As the wind and rain whip the side of their small tenement flat, father, son, mother and grandmother exude a sense of safety, calm, tranquillity and domestic happiness. Within the eye of this typhoon for a brief moment they relive a memory, reminding us all that time has the capacity to heal allowing people to move on. A subtle sentiment rarely captured with such measured eloquence or emotional resonance, making this minor miracle worthy of attention.

“The Shepherd” Is A Compelling, Understated Fable

Carefully staged, glacial in its pacing but numbingly brutal in the denouement, The Shepherd is worthy of emotional investment and likely to stay with you.

This Spanish language film which won numerous awards at The Raindance Festival in 2016 is an exercise in intimacy. At once juxtaposed by a subtle, central, isolated and measured performance The Shepherd is punctuated by moments of emotion. Miguel Martin’s Anselmo lives alone, was born and raised in the house he now occupies and has only his dog for company. A desire to live alone, tend his flock and in possession of no ambition for material gain or betterment, he is the exception not a rule in his small village.

It is here in this void between modern world values and old fashioned attitudes that The Shepherd exists. A place in which director Jonathan Cenzual Burley has crafted a fable examining greed, needs, wants and desires through the simple premise of land development. Political concerns, an urge for progress and society’s self-interest are all explored and played out quietly without fanfare or unnecessary expense.

Shot using a combination of hand-held and close-up camerawork, as well as existing structures and sparse set dressing its economy and isolationist approach belie any lack of funding. Burley spends time building character observing rather than directing, as we are slowly made to understand Anselmo and his indifference to others as a conscious choice. Miguel Martin, who won Best Actor for his role, gives us glances and gestures using silence with the bravery of a stage veteran. His opposite numbers in this moral pantomime are instilled with enough venom and reptilian charm to gain our sympathy, but retain the necessary repulsive traits come the endgame.

Bribery, temptations of the flesh, violence and cold blooded threats are all metered out in equal measure by each party in turn. Never overt or gratuitous Burley uses moments of disruption to underline miscommunication, corruption of head or heart and how such things tear communities apart. Big business urban re-development, corporate takeovers and sharp suited sharks tailored in tainted money deals are nothing new. Irrespective of the film their intentions are never honourable, always leading to heartbreak which leaves emotional upheaval as a legacy.

What Burley says through this film has been done before but rarely with such understatement, beauty or restraint. The Shepherd invites you in with shots of open vistas, tranquil hillsides and evening sunsets, before turning to brooding clouds, purple skylines and property fire come the conclusion. There is an honesty in each performance which goes beyond the material breathing life into a topic both relevant and worthy of debate. Carefully staged, glacial in its pacing but numbingly brutal in the denouement, The Shepherd is worthy of emotional investment and likely to stay with you. Winner of The Grand Jury Prize for Best Film at the Latinita Festival de Cine Espanol earlier this year, it hits cinemas for a limited run in June and all arthouse aficionados should take note.

 

“Swiss Army Man” Is A Special Kind Of Extraordinary

This surrealist masterpiece comes to Blu-ray and DVD piled high with plaudits, packed to the rafters with invention and containing a performance from Daniel Radcliffe which defies description. Worthy of Oscars yet overlooked for being imaginatively unconventional and boldly original, Swiss Army Man is not easily pinned down and no easy watch.

Mixed in with the corpses, flatulence, random erections and bizarre cross dressing is a heartfelt buddy comedy you are going to remember. Swiss Army Man finds Paul Dano rediscovering his lust for life when an inanimate Radcliffe washes on the beach. It’s a masterly portrayal which educates, invigorates and emotionally reanimates Dano’s Hank. Not only because of the multipurpose acts Hank finds Manny capable of, but because Radcliffe is able to instil real emotion and pathos with barely a facial twitch. Both brave, bold and selfless in his depiction Radcliffe proves more than able to hold his own, whether bent double with his dignity on display or sporting erectile GPS.

Beyond the showstoppers which are genuinely funny, what makes Swiss Army Man unique is its take on social constraints. As scattered within the random dialogue scenes are moments of subtlety which examine everything from mortality to masturbation and beyond. However there is an innocence about the film which revels in that lack of genre confinement, meaning things can go south consistently without affecting tone. Role playing can be and proves to be cathartic, while make believe might be the hallucinations of a man with borderline malnutrition, but this you learn is the point. If anything Swiss Army Man is itself there to re-educate, surprise and entertain, focused on questioning our pre-occupations with conformity in the modern age. Where social profiling, internet oversaturation and lack of mystery threatens original thought.

Beyond the puerile focus on bodily functions and other undignified acts, co-writer-directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert have crafted something that demands your attention. Because the initial feeling that Swiss Army Man suffers from pacing issues and tonal imbalance soon disappears, as Scheinert and Kwan come at genre staples from another direction. This is a buddy movie, this is a coming of age tale and rites of passage flick all rolled into one. There is death and rebirth, innocence and adolescence, self-discovery and social commentary plus an ending worthy of academic study.

There will be those who try to put this in a box, slap a label on it and call it by another name, but the truth is Dano and Radcliffe have managed to get something unique up on screen. If this felt like a sharp slap to the face when it finished then they did their job right. If not well you can’t win them all. For everyone else I’ll just say that Swiss Army Man is important and one day you might find this on a film studies curriculum.

 

Michael O’Shea’s “The Transfiguration” Is Brave, Original & Thought Provoking

There is no doubt The Transfiguration is a powerful piece of filmmaking both in terms of approach and subject matter. Sparsely written, concisely directed and subtlety referenced, O’Shea has done something brave, original and thought provoking in his debut feature.

Nominated alongside David McKenzie’s Hell or High Water and Matt Ross’s Captain Fantastic at Cannes in 2016, Michael O’Shea’s debut The Transfiguration crosses into uncertain territory from the opening frame. Filmed in a detached and clinical style which feels almost intrusive, O’Shea relies on mood, minimal dialogue and extended observation of our central protagonist, while stripped down docudrama camerawork and the use of natural light make things feel more immediate.

Drawing on themes of adolescent isolation, sexual awakening and the grieving process, O’Shea crafts a unique take on the vampire myth using contemporary life as his benchmark. Pivotal in bringing this to the screen is Eric Ruffin’s Milo, who leads a solitary existence where school and home life barely register. In these moments The Transfiguration verges on the mundane and that sense of routine repeated over and over threatens to disengage the audience. However O’Shea punctuates this purposely pedestrian style with moments of glacial savagery, allowing his voyeuristic lens to linger as Milo emulates his role models and locks out reality. Neither showy nor needlessly graphic these scenes are emphasised simply through a low level hum, which replicates both his thirst and emotional detachment.

What turns The Transfiguration into something other is the arrival of Chloe Levine’s Sophie, who displays a tenderness and humility towards Milo which is key. Equally damaged and looking only for companionship, solace and a fresh start, she exudes an innocence at odds with her situation or surroundings. In an age defined by impatience and borne of information overload Milo inhabits the space between, indulging a fascination for on-line slaughterhouse videos and VHS versions of seminal vampire flicks. In so doing director O’Shea tips a hat to his influences and underlines that sense of generational lethargy.

Reminiscent of Travis Bickle in his awkwardness and minor sociopathic tendencies, O’Shea makes it difficult to draw any conclusions about Milo. Their relationship from curiosity through to coupling and separation is handled with sensitivity and compassion, while Sophie’s acceptance, dismissal or disregard for Milo’s persona is illustrated through distance not dialogue. Her influence on that grieving process and his reliance on vampirism as a coping mechanism ask some interesting thematic questions, while O’Shea’s ability to transform his film from a rites of passage flick through to uplifting tale of self-sacrifice is worthy of your attention.

There is no doubt The Transfiguration is a powerful piece of filmmaking both in terms of approach and subject matter. Sparsely written, concisely directed and subtlety referenced, O’Shea has done something brave, original and thought provoking in his debut feature. Resurrecting tried and tested genres is never easy but here he has not only done something worthy of note, but discovered formidable talent in both his young leads.

 

“Aftermath” Has Moments Of Genuine Honesty Amid Distracting Melodrama

Smart, honest performances from Arnold Schwarzenegger and Scoot McNairy ensure Aftermath has heart despite its journey towards melodrama.

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s journey back into mainstream cinema has taken a more measured approach since leaving political office, intermingling genre standards like Escape Plan and The Last Stand with character pieces showcasing untapped acting chops, more suited to a man of his years. Aftermath sits firmly in the latter category alongside Maggie, itself a twist on the zeitgeist topic of zombie infection which originally revealed these hidden depths last year.

Taking based-on-true-events as its tag line from the beginning, director Elliott Lester is efficient in setting up the premise before moving us towards Aftermath’s beating heart. Essentially a two-hander between Schwarzenegger and Scoot McNairy, most memorable from Gareth Edwards skeleton budget debut Monsters, it is a study in cause and effect.

The film shows how one event can impact two people both suffering as a consequence of human error. McNairy’s air traffic controller Jacob gets broad character strokes, showing us a happy family, settled marriage and young son before the fact. Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger’s Roman is the epitome of organisation as site manager for a construction firm, prior to his world unravelling. In these opening ten minutes Lester lays the groundwork before moving quickly onto the very human impact.

 

His use of sound as a means to dial back human interaction during those grief stricken initial moments with Roman draw you in and hold you close. As much as the words are muffled, Lester’s ability to convey emotion through silence makes Aftermath gruelling. Grief is a very personal thing but this is one of few occasions where film has come close to mirroring that feeling for me. Schwarzenegger underplays these scenes with soul-destroying sincerity bringing home the pain and suffering with no need of tricks.

Similarly McNairy’s manifestation of guilt and despair are more instant, more vocal but no less effective in conveying the message. It is here where the film and characters ultimately diverge and Jacob begins a slow downward spiral which is handled with care without caricature from McNairy. For me his is the stronger performance although Schwarzenegger will doubtless receive more plaudits as headliner. What remains commendable however is the internalisation depicted as Roman descends into a psychosis brought on by loss. On top of the heavyweight emotions we also get none too subtle digs at corporate America, as personified through the nest of vipers who represent this airline. Their portrayal although stereotypical plays well against the stoic demeanour of Roman and acts as a good counterpoint.

 

Unfortunately Aftermath comes unstuck is the final act undermined by a convoluted ending, which should have been allowed to play out honestly. Having invested emotional time and effort in crafting solid performances from movie of the week subject matter, it’s a shame Aftermath fails to have the courage of its convictions. In the final ten minutes, time is truncated, pay offs are lukewarm and studio compromise looms large over the finished product. In that moment it morphs from an effective examination of human grief and tragedy into another piece of melodramatic ephemera.

“Paterson” Is A Gentle Reminder Of The Beauty Of Everyday Life

Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson stars Adam Driver’s titular character whose hidden talent for poetry elevates the repetitiveness of his everyday working class life as a New Jersey bus driver.

Taking our every day and making it magical is what this film does best. Picking apart a daily routine and elevating that life to new heights through poetic nuance makes Paterson uniquely memorable. Calming without being ponderous, creative without seeming haphazard and centred by a performance of such Zen-like assurance, repeat viewing is not only recommended but essential. My only struggle in continuing is where to begin.

Taking one week in the life of Adam Driver’s title character we are privy to a singular viewpoint, defined by repetition but subtly different each time. A creative soul hiding in plain sight etching his art on the screen in well balanced script; simultaneously theological and profound yet never dry or stuffy. Jim Jarmusch has crafted a love letter to New York poets whilst musing on the beauty of words, their meaning and power which resonates in echoes across every frame.

Both Paterson and Golshifteh Faranhani’s Laura are that rare thing in film being both positively creative and supportive of each other. There are no domestic disputes, never a crossed word and Laura does nothing but push Paterson into making his poetry available to an outside world.

Jarmusch uses handwritten words on screen whilst simultaneously, through internal monologue, illustrating what inspiration truly means. Combining that with overheard conversations which filter through from passengers on the bus, he has crafted a truly immersive but never pretentious piece of filmmaking. Symbolism is littered in a seemingly random fashion throughout Paterson, mixed in with the everyday life of our central protagonist not only to raise questions and promote debate but also I suspect for the amusement of Jarmusch himself. Other actors including Barry Shabaka Henley’s Doc and William Jackson Harper’s Everett, give strong support in broadly sketched portrayals which turn this into a true ensemble piece.

That this is a film of observation and listening rather than heavy dialogue and action is another strength which some may construe otherwise. Paterson offers up possibilities, deeper meaning, time for contemplation and taps into a sense of calm rarely captured on film. Nominated for the Palme d’Or and Cannes Jury Prize last year it possesses an ethereal quality, which quietly seeps into your soul leaving behind an indelible mark.

Numerous moments worthy of recollection sneak under the radar through snatched dialogue, perfectly exploited silences and poetry read in conjunction with imagery. Only Dead Poet’s Society and Solaris from Peter Weir and Stephen Soderbergh respectively instil a similar level of calm amongst the exploration of creativity versus humanity, even if one is concerned with the consequences of creativity when confronted with conformity, while the latter is defined by the drawbacks of infinite possibilities and dominion over death.

Finally what Jarmusch has given us through Paterson is a gentle reminder of the beauty in our everyday lives. He suggests amongst many other things that opportunity, possibility and a need to create and share our creation may not be a human instinct; but remain very much a human necessity.

 

DVD Review – Carol (2015)

Directed by Todd Haynes.

Starring Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Jake Lacy, John Magaro and Kyle Chandler.

SYNOPSIS:

Carol and Therese meet over a department store counter. This chance encounter grows steadily into something neither of them were prepared to entertain. An encounter which leads to familial disruption, custody hearings and the breaking of social taboos. As someone once said none of us choose who we fall in love with.

Amongst its numerous Oscar nominations and LGBT credentials Carol is at heart a simple love story. Neither overtly flamboyant nor overly preachy, its depiction of same-sex relationships in the hands of Todd Haynes is voyeuristically non-judgemental. Playing with dialogue as well as the spaces between, his lead actresses engage in an often silent courtship. Necessitated as much by the period as anything else.

In their portrayals Blanchett and Mara skate the thin line between social expectations and gender limitations with skill. Neither wishing to upset the fifties applecart nor grandstand and thus eclipse their opposite number. Carol is clearly the more experienced in cloaking her desires and maintaining respectable relationships, just so her husband can save face. While Rooney’s Therese is enraptured by the older woman, learning moment to moment how dangerous it could be for her desire to outweigh propriety.

 

What Haynes does with his camera expands upon Phyllis Nagy’s dialogue, by isolating Therese and Carol behind car windows separating them from the outside world. Not only illustrating their burgeoning relationship but also their inherent isolation from those around them. You get the impression during the protracted dialogue sequences that everyone else is superfluous. In these more intimate moments Haynes concentrates on close-ups. Whether that is finger tips touching for a second, an eye line nervously crossed as pupils dilate, or the fact that other conversations cease to matter.

If anything Carol is just about two people falling in love and that they happen to be women is academic. Blanchett has never been one for engaging in Oscar baiting projects while Mara is equally picky about her projects. An accusation which could also be levelled at the director and some of Carol’s producers.

 

This film may start with some intentionally jettisoned gloves and a tentative phone call, but it ends with confidence, authority and a sense of self which few can lay claim to. Amongst its numerous plaudits Carol has recently been voted the top LGBT film of all time, which is ironic since the film deals in subterfuge and closeted necessity. Ultimately it should be celebrated for the simple depiction of love on-screen rather than anything else. Because conveying that sense of falling without fear for another person requires bravery whatever the medium. Once in a while however though such things do happen, for which we should all be grateful.

Movie Review – Road to the Well (2016)

Written and directed by Jon Cvack.

Starring Marshall R. Teague, Micah Parker, Rosalie McIntire, Barak Hardley, Michelle LaFrance, and Laurence Fuller.

Jack (Micah Parker), rolls into town to visit his old friend Frank (Laurence Fuller). Risk averse, free-spirited and bohemian as oppose to repressed, trapped and hemmed in. Jack’s arrival signifies an emotional, psychological and literal upheaval, ensuring things go rapidly south for Frank in a spectacular fashion. School yard memories, bodily dismemberment and fear of mediocrity all help shape this film into a uniquely bold and original thriller.

There are plenty of filmic comparisons worth making in John Cvack’s Road to the Well. Nods to Shallow Grave, tips of the hat for Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, as well as sly winks towards Soderbergh’s first feature Sex, Lies and Videotape. Atmospheric homage can be attributed to the former and latter, while that essence of cool so inherently associated with Fiction has much to do with Cvack’s structural precision.

 

Taking an idea and executing it without flourishes is something that requires restraint, planning and an eye for detail. A feat this writer director pulls off with an effortless simplicity. Cvack’s chief coup in achieving this is the casting. A little known troupe including Micah Parker, Laurence Fuller and Barak Hardley, build a believable brotherly bond filled with foibles, flaws and long-term friendship pressures all present. In the sparingly employed dialogue and unspoken gestures are echoes of lines crossed, trust tested and unresolved issues simmering beneath the civil exchanges.

Cvack’s use of music to evoke mood, manipulate scenes and promote tension is reminiscent of John Carpenter at his best. While awkward silences and the use of silence itself are expertly employed throughout, keeping you guessing but engaged. Nods to Sex,Lies comes through most strongly in those painfully awkward moments, where the camera does little more than watch. As things progress and slowly unravel Marshall R. Teague’s entrance as Dale takes a known quantity and ups the ante still further.

His is a scene stealing exercise worthy of study in which he dominates the film without grandstanding. With no more than ten minutes screen time Teague paints a vivid picture of isolation, loneliness, duty and discipline. Such is the intensity of these moments, both in terms of character and emotional revelation that Road to the Well becomes a different beast. There are more layers here than first meets the eye, as motivations morph, people change and Cvack subtlety moves his goalposts.

 

However what remains when the dust clears is a simple, precise and atmospheric piece of filmmaking with some supremely lo-fi acting. Worthy of not only repeat viewings but recommendation in line with its level of originality.

Movie Review – Fences (2016)

Directed by Denzel Washington.

Starring Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Jovan Adepo, and Russell Hornsby.

SYNOPSIS:

Set in 1950’s Pittsburgh ‘Fences’ follows Troy Maxson (Washington) and his wife Rose (Davis) over the course of a decade. Adapted from the August Wilson play it is one of ten which sought to verbalise and explore the African American experience specifically. A body of work which is now referred to as the ‘August Wilson Century Cycle’.

To fully appreciate this film ignorance of any back history is essential. However if that is unavoidable and you arrive knowing that Washington and Davis performed Fences on stage, with it will come a certain amount of expectation. And thankfully on this occasion the acclaim is not without merit, as both bring chemistry, knowledge and depth to their portrayals of Troy and Rose Maxson. Other players to make the leap include Stephen McKinley Henderson’s Jim Bono, Mykelti Williamson’s Gabriel and Russell Hornsby’s Lyons. Meaning that Fences delivers on characterisation as well as offering up moments where both leads can grandstand. And in the process make the transition from stage to screen seem effortless.

 

Williamson’s Gabriel is a performance grounded in subtlety and heartbreak, who is able to hold the attention without resorting to clichés or scenery chewing. While Hornsby’s Lyons gives dignity to the portrayal of a slighted and browbeaten eldest son, forever in his fathers’ shadow but asking only for acceptance. Just as Henderson’s Jim Bono plays the warm-hearted centre to Troy’s brash and overbearing patriarch, offering balance amongst the emotional isolation and crumbling family unit.

Held together by Rose and Cory, an understated Jovan Adepo, who bear the brunt of Troy’s frustrations, disappointments and all too human flaws. Stoically loyal, emotionally dependent and consumed by a man unable to stop himself from destroying the family he loves. Rose perseveres, manages and mollycoddles Troy’s man child mentality and macho posturing until he finally crosses the line. It is this performance which has rightfully drawn awards and Oscar buzz, as Davis delivers yet another peerless piece of work.

Washington as director is measured, selective and lets his actors control the pace without enforcing restrictions. His is a film of moments whether symbolic or emotionally honest, each one brings a quiet dignity to their portrayal without betraying any theatrical roots. A feat which was made slightly easier for Washington as the film already existed. To what extent Fences stands alongside Antwone Fisher, and The Great Debaters is open to question however, as each was picked with care and deliberation before any emotional connection to the material was considered. A theory which is backed up by the man himself who took seven years before he felt confident enough to direct the piece. A tactic which in today’s marketplace is not only sensible but essential, as investors expect profit irrespective of track record or star power.

And so we come to the role of colour and its’ impact on this adaptation. Which gets side lined early on in favour of themes of dysfunction, either familial, professional or personal. Wilson makes it clearer and clearer that this domestic drama and these problems play out differently only in terms of language and cultural expectations not skin colour. This epiphany is what makes Fences breathe, allowing Denzel Washington to craft a film of quiet beauty and elegant frustration with universal concerns. Drawing nuanced performances from an ensemble cast which not only validates emotional investment, but encourages a repeat viewing.

Shock-Doc “The Killing Of America” Is Potent, Intelligent Exploitation

A documentary that divides audiences, Sheldon Renan and Leonard Schrader’s uncompromising and shocking historical record of the USA’s violent past depicts exploitative qualities with a motivation and intelligence that marks the film as relevant today as it was when first released in 1982.

Gunshot wounds, gratuitous head shots and real time footage of police brutality are old hat. Assassination attempts, mass murderers and people slaughtering innocent bystanders can be watched on repeat through YouTube and other less than reputable websites. While as a society we have been numbed to acts of senseless violence as social media continues to make everything feel impersonal. So the question is, how much impact would a dated thirty-year-old documentary have on anyone?

What must be established from the off is that The Killing of America is about much more than just shocking images. Director Sheldon Renan and co-writer Leonard Schrader have a much more subtle agenda at work beyond the need to repulse. It’s true that they chart the rise in violent crime starting with the assassination of JFK through to John Lennon, incorporating mass murderers, serial killers and sniper rifle fanatics along the way. But Renan and Schrader imply that these people who come across as perfectly sane in interview footage, are in some way products of a society in decline.

Someone once said that violence breeds violence and there are those who may come away feeling emotionally manipulated, upset, or indifferent. But there is no denying that The Killing of America still has something to say. If nothing else it reminds us that humanity is cruel, capricious and capable of atrocities which have the little to do with government guidelines or any known belief system. There will be those who dismiss this documentary as ridiculously outdated propaganda and sensationalist fearmongering, but that would be missing the point.

This is not so much about America but rather the human condition as a whole. People have been killing each other over religion for centuries but at least they had a belief system which made some sense. What Renan depicts here is a snapshot in time with a modicum of social relevance attached. There would be no benefit in releasing a thirty-year-old documentary, ‘mondo’ or otherwise, because the intention here is not to make anyone rich. Much like Schindler’s List, itself a dramatisation of fictionalised real life events, America is designed to inform, remind and educate those who fail to believe anything existed before Facebook and finite battery life.

In filmic terms then The Killing of America still represents nothing less than a sharp slap to the face, cold cup of coffee to the nervous system, or if you will, a historical reality check for the comfortably numb.

 

“Elstree 1976” Celebrates The Legacy Of “Star Wars”

Filmmaker Jon Spira’s documentary Elstree 1976 looks back at George Lucas’ Star Wars, celebrating the creative process, Elstree Studios’ contribution to its production, and the legacy left behind.

Nostalgia is a dangerous thing. Hanging on to past glories however fleeting only blinds you to the opportunities ahead in my opinion. And if any documentary were ripe to explore this notion then Elstree 1976 heads the queue. This may sound like slanderous condemnation but these words take on another meaning altogether when you know the topic is Star Wars.

 

Documented in more remastered editions than anyone should sensibly purchase, Star Wars remains the mould breaker which coined and created the blockbuster. Researched and explored within the framework of a Seventies cinema culture in flux through Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders and Raging BullsStar Wars can be seen as both financial liberator and metaphorical millstone. It shaped a generation of filmmakers, separated a fledgling director from his arthouse aspirations and singlehandedly shackled him to a multinational in one stroke.

 

Created through the merchandising behind Star Wars and subsequently sold to DisneyLucasfilm stands as testament to what true autonomy costs. There is little doubt that much good has come from Star Wars, yet for all that there is a tinge of sadness which seeps between the cracks of Elstree and raises questions. There are those who have used the notoriety however substantiated as a springboard, allowing them financial gain through convention appearances and the like. While others have bitten the hand that feeds and been cut off by corporate which makes things much more interesting.

Told in a series of talking head interviews from players both major and minor, Elstree 1976 uses limited archive footage, freeze frame Star Wars stills and period pictures to expand on detail. Very little insight about the film itself is forthcoming as I imagine Lucasfilm kept a tight rein on content approval. But if there had been more peppered throughout then Elstree 1976 as a documentary would have been much more satisfying. That being said what we do see gives film anoraks like myself what we crave; namely anecdotal titbits for mental storage.

John Spira has done a great deal here to remind people what made Star Wars so special. While other have said much in the wake of The Force Awakens regarding plot, structure, narrative and character beat similarities between the two, still more have built critical cases putting nostalgia at the core of Awakens' popularity, but thankfully Elstree avoids this completely. Instead it stands alone as a visual document of a film fiercely lionised by millions, dubiously feted for condoning a fictitious religion and ensuring tent pole movies continue to define creativity. Even so Elstree 1976 remains an enjoyable piece of filmmaking which sheds light on Star Wars from a fresh angle adding much to the mythology without dampening enthusiasm or souring further experience.

“Lords Of Dogtown” Strikes An Appealing Anti-Establishment Chord

Heath Ledger and Emile Hirsch turn in strong performances amongst the crashing waves, drained swimming pools and sun-bleached colour palette of Catherine Hardwicke’s Lords of Dogtown.

Exec produced by David Fincher and directed by Catherine Hardwicke of Twilight fame, Lords of Dogtown charts the rise of skateboarding from counterculture pastime to a recognised global sport worth millions. It came in the wake of 2001 documentary Dogtown and Z Boys, itself written and directed by screenwriter and central character Stacy Peralta. What became painfully clear to me was that dramatic licence had stripped Hardwicke’s film of passion.

By which I mean these characters seem dispassionate and the tension which is depicted on screen although genuine seems less than engaging. Peralta’s documentary on the other hand is a metaphorical call to arms, involving all the major players who seem as driven and talk unguardedly about a time they still hold dear. Hardwicke’s selection of actors who in the main resemble their real life counterparts, added authenticity but somehow detaches you from the stylistic flourishes on display. Colours are oversaturated, camera moves are inventive but sometimes distracting, while performances are reminiscent of Cameron Crowe’s Almost FamousHeath Ledger and Emile Hirsch are stand outs amongst a troupe of actors which strangely include a very young Elden Henson, who has been doing a sterling job as Foggy Nelson in Daredevil lately.

Given the director and cast my hopes for this cult transfer to Blu-ray were very high. I knew nothing about skateboarding historically, culturally or otherwise. My interest was purely in Hardwicke, Ledger and Hirsch. Her opener for the Twilight franchise remains the only one I can watch and enjoy, with its washed colour palette, understated performances and mere hints of vampirism. Ledger is sorely missed perpetually in the ‘what if’ column of film history, an actor who was developing a solid portfolio of individual characters and destined for greatness. As for Hirsch it is his performance for Into The Wild which gave me that final reason to explore this film.

To be honest Lords of Dogtown is not a bad film at all and I understand how it gained a cult following. Thematically the anti-establishment stance will resonate with each new generation that discovers it, while teenagers and twenty-somethings can gain kudos through knowledge or ownership. For everyone else there is Ledger and Hirsch to enjoy, giving us solid turns amongst the crashing waves, drained swimming pools and sun-bleached colour palette. If I had any advice for newcomers it would be to watch the documentary before its dramatisation. It provides context, gives perspective and elevates an average film with a cult subject, into a good film with universally acknowledged social impact.

 

“Hunt For The Wilderpeople” Will Remind You What “Feel Good” Feels Like

Hunt For The Wilderpeople is a delightfully honest and funny film from rising star, writer-director Taika WaititiMartin Carr reviews one of the best films of 2016…

There is an honesty to the humour here which shines through immediately disarming all comers. Segmented using on-screen chapter headings, the comedy is character driven, observational and cuttingly dry. Sam Neill, Julian Dennsion and Rima Te Wiata as Hec, Ricky and Bella create an easy on-screen chemistry, giving the film warmth and accessibility despite curveball dialogue, genre defying structure and laid back pacing.

 

Veteran director and writer Taika Waititi has adapted Barry Crump’s Wild Pork and Watercress into something uniquely uplifting, defiantly derivative and at certain points laugh out loud funny. Dennison is a natural, bringing innocence, warmth and awareness to a character at odds with the world and those around him, while Sam Neill’s skill for comic timing and deadpan delivery is a revelation, working off and alongside both Dennison and Te Wiata’s Bella to forge an honest on screen relationship. Rachel House’s Paula is the perfect foil as a hard edged, intelligently incompetent child support worker, mixing pop culture references badly, delivering intentionally clichéd dialogue with savage self-awareness and stealing every scene she turns up in.

 

Similar in tone to What We Did In The ShadowsHunt For The Wilderpeople feels ever so slightly removed from reality both in characterisation and structure. Incorporating a world of social media obsessives which sensationalise human interest stories and misinterpret cross generational relationships for tabloid taglines. There is an understated dark edge to this humour drawn from the juxtaposition of dialogue, circumstance and situation, which scores points but never resorts to condescension.

By casting a relative unknown on the one hand and against type on the other, the film gives us something few others have managed to deliver: a painfully funny portrait of quirkiness laced with love, jokes which are really funny and characters which tap into something real. Skilfully skating a fine line between old fashioned opposites attract storytelling and up to date, cutting edge relevance in a world where little remains mysterious, it is little wonder that a combination of big box office and Sundance plaudits propelled Waititi onto the Marvel radar.

 

If he can translate even a small amount of that freshness into Ragnarok then it may give Marvel back what I feel it has been missing. Namely a fresh pair of eyes to breathe innocence and wonder back into the huge sandbox which this universe has become. With his short What Thor Was Doing During Captain America: Civic War, there is clear evidence that all concerned have warmed to his approach. Incorporating off-the-wall references, left of centre character beats and painfully awkward dialogue scenes, it represents a perfect entre proving Waititi has remained unchanged by the Marvel machine.

 

As for Hunt For The Wilderpeople, it remains unique. An example of originality a million miles away from Marvel in which the world of Ricky Baker reigns supreme. Take two hours to sit down and invest in Uncle Hec and Auntie Bella to be reminded what feel good feels like.

 

5 / 5 Stars.

John Carpenter’s “Assault On Precinct 13” Is A Masterclass In Economy

As Assault On Precinct 13 arrives on limited edition Blu-ray to celebrate its 40th anniversary, Martin Carr revisits John Carpenter’s classic siege thriller and finds that it remains a technical marvel…

This John Carpenter classic is a masterclass in economy. From the building of tension, bringing together of component parts to create conflict and finally resolution. There are few that come close to Carpenter in his heyday. Using players who defined the term ‘character’ actor we are quickly shown situation, reaction, culmination and motive for each character with concise camerawork, minimal dialogue and perfect pacing.

Carpenter understood the importance of showing rather than telling, which means the premise of an isolated police precinct, sick prisoners in transit and the imminent dread of an attack are all mapped out in fifteen minutes. By the time we hit the half hour mark everything is in place. A dynamic between characters has been well established and Carpenter can just focus on action beats and editing.

Austin Stoker’s Ethan Bishop is idealistic, morally sound and comes to the screen fully formed in ten minutes. Economy of character is also something Carpenter excels at here and Stoker has a few minor conversations, which establish his personal reasons, back history and journey to this point. They never feel contrived or slow things down, while his opposite number Napoleon Wilson played by Darwin Joston is sketched with similar restraint. Other minor players include Kim Richard’s Katy who is written and played with backbone, relying on steely stares and skill with a firearm.

Although Assault on Precinct 13 is definitely dated it remains a strong piece of work reminding us how much of a pioneer Carpenter was back in the Seventies. Whether it was the first film with a physical clock on screen, cross cutting between criminals and cops as time passed, or the use of the camera as crosshair, tension is built. More than anything he uses the camera to observe people rather than create set pieces. Everything is shown. When the gunman scans the people looking for a target, when the policeman is tripped up by Wilson, or the chuck away line said in the precinct to Bishop over black coffee; all reveal character.

Which is why by the time we get to the siege we are in that police station with those people. Classic tropes including cut telephone lines, power outages and no cavalry arriving until the final reel are all present and correct. Others have tried to replicate this type of film but few have done it with the skill and clarity of vision on display here. Which is why classics of the genre such as Assault on Precinct 13 and The Taking of Pelham 123 should be left well alone. They represent a time of economical filmmaking where the sole reason had little to do with big money.

With the news that Max Landis has signed on to remake his father’s crowning glory An American Werewolf in London, things unfortunately do not look hopeful. Having said that if anyone should do it perhaps Landis has the right. Much more so than anyone who attempts to fill William Friedkin’s boots when remakes of The French Connection start being bandied about. However such conversations can wait for the moment we are faced with such an appalling idea. Right now just be thankful that gems like Assault on Precinct 13 exist and revel in the genius which is John Carpenter circa 1976.

 

“The Neon Demon” Is Divisive, Dividing & Above All Original

Nicolas Winding Refn’s divisive film The Neon Demon could be an austere and clinical examination of beauty or a mesmeric trip into the realms of objectification backed up by an overbearing soundtrack or something else entirely. No matter, it’s a modern day marvel.

What Nicholas Winding Refn has committed to celluloid here is divisive, dividing and above all original. Viewed as either an austere and clinical examination of beauty and the beautiful, or a mesmeric trip into the realms of objectification backed up by an overbearing soundtrack and exacting performances, there is something almost brazenly repellent, like the bastard child of Altman’s Pret A Porter force fed mescaline and let loose into oncoming traffic.

Elle Fanning gives a performance of fragility which slowly morphs into something much more sinister and visceral. Her character Jesse represents everything real rather than shaped and sculpted for a paying clientele. In an industry defined by image and constantly in search of the new, Jesse becomes both threat and catalyst creating equal amounts of excitement and jealousy. Other directors have examined the ideas of consumerism, social expectation and fashionistas before but never like this.

Jena Malone’s Ruby, who acts as confidante in the beginning, obsesses over superficiality, earning money on the side as a mortician. Marvelling in the purity which Jesse radiates, she misreads their relationship dynamic and ultimately seeks solace on the mortuary slab. Some have condemned this scene as grotesque self-indulgence, shocked and repulsed the director would choose to go that far. But within the context of this film those actions although appalling are honest, savagely on point and brave in ways it remains hard to define.

Undeniably stylised and employing heavy synthesisers within the soundtrack The Neon Demon is lit according to mood, location, situation and narrative. Stark symbolism which relies heavily on mirrors backs up the focus on self-image, whilst scenes of literal consumption are reminiscent of both Peter Greenaway and Tony Scott. Consider for a moment the touchstone of Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, The Wife and Her Lover or Scott’s The Hunger. Both contain scenes and themes which exist within The Neon Demon yet these men are revered whilst Refn remains ostracised.

Indeed, Refn has been singled out for using violence and horror needlessly in the pursuit of art house kudos. Whilst Ben Wheatley’s High Rise, which was no less uncomfortable to watch at times, dealt only with social and political decline, rather than self-image and our desire to remain young and relevant, it is the media and society singling out one above the other for no other reason than personal taste in my opinion.

Ultimately these filmmakers make good films, but one has become accidentally mainstream whilst his counterpart remains uniquely counterculture by comparison. What people dislike perhaps is the fact that with The Neon Demon Refn has clearly cast a cold and calculated eye over the human condition and found it gloriously wanting; too bad originality is so frowned upon.

 

“10 Cloverfield Lane” Is A Thrilling Reminder What Cinema Is Capable Of

The spiritual companion piece to 2008’s overrated CloverfieldDan Trachtenberg’s intimate “end of the world” thriller is a huge step up in class and features one of John Goodman’s best performances.

Hailed as the spiritual companion piece to Matt Reeve’s real time monster mashCloverfield Lane is part B-movie throwback and contemporary case study in paranoia for the modern age. Director Dan Trachtenberg and writer Josh Campbell have crafted a pressure cooker proposition of insecurity and mistrust, which hinges on the word of one man.

 

John Goodman’s Howard is a socially awkward saviour with morally dubious agendas, anger management issues and keys to the bunker. Monosyllabic, prone to fits of rage and notions of persecution, Goodman anchors the film in a recognisable reality whilst staying the right side of caricature. His opposite number played with the savvy and smarts which Mary Elizabeth Winstead brings to every role, act as our eyes and ears in this moral vacuum.

 

Relying on reaction shots and minimal dialogue Winstead breathes life into the character and situation without the need for grandstanding. Playing off of John Gallagher’s Emmett, himself a refugee from an outside world he misunderstands, Winstead befriends, convinces and colludes as Trachtenberg’s film slowly unravels.

Those hoping for an action packed sequel to Cloverfield should prepare themselves for disappointment, as this second coming burns slow in the biblical sense. Conversations are stilted, sound effects everything and there is some real acting on display. Goodman has not been this good since his Barton Fink/Coen Brothers heyday getting a chance to really own the character. Whilst Winstead casts off the shackles of Die Hard 4 and Scott Pilgrim and shows her mettle, in a role which requires more than running around screaming.

 

In many senses 10 Cloverfield Lane comes off like a stage play with moments of balanced tension, momentary release and concise dialogue used only to move things along. Mixed in with the obvious comparisons are some murder mystery elements, flashes of homage and that nice left of centre plot twist. With the way economic, ethnic and political lines are currently being drawn, our exit from Europe or not and the travesty which is America’s current Presidential election campaign, distrust, distortion and isolationist ideologies seem pertinent to address in films once again. What Trachtenberg and Campbell have created here is allegorical entertainment for those with a brain and conscience. An admiration companion piece to its name sake and reminder of what cinema is capable of.

“Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown” Is High Farce In A World Of Make Believe

This film lover has had something uniquely spiky lavished on his retina never to be forgotten. Welcome then to Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown. Martin Carr reviews one of Pedro Almodovar’s much-loved early films.

Pedro Almodovar films are not well known to me. However the ones I have watched always made me feel better coming out the other side. You feel intellectually invigorated whatever the subject, because he applies himself, asks questions and seeks to promote discussion. Until today I had missed out on what some consider to be a seminal classic in the Almodovar cannon. That wrong has now been righted and this film lover has had something uniquely spiky lavished on his retina never to be forgotten. Welcome then to Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown.

 

Economical in production values but no worse for it, this is high farce coupled with domestic drama, emotional upheaval and characters defined by their avoidance or detachment from society. Ensconced within her world of make believe Pepa is savagely brought to life by Carmen Maura. A high strung, well known actress and mistress to a colleague and her co-worker Ivan. Almodovar’s blue touch paper premise takes one moment, then escalates it inevitably towards the heights of a Joe Orton play.

 

Characters are broadly drawn but realistic, situations exaggerated but somehow within the realms of the real. There is a sensual, sexual feeling to the film which comes I suspect from the origins of both writer/director and stars. Were this relocated to Esher for example, you get the impression that such circumstances would be deemed ridiculous and dismissed out of hand. But there in lies the beauty as these characters are observed rather than directed making things feel somehow more organic.

There is a certain sardonic, sarcastic and rapier type wit, coupled with a unique social commentary which is doubtless of its time. Yet the fact Banderas, Maura and Barranco let their dialogue do the work, makes for a good balance between comment and physical performance. Which alongside the twin themes of infidelity and personal trauma displays a lightness of touch and essential maturity. Couple that with moments of pitch black humour perfectly placed within the whole to wrong foot your audience and you have something special.

 

So then to recommend Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown as a comedic kitchen sink drama is accurate, but underselling something which had more to say in 1988 and probably has as much to contribute now. Almodovar not only garnered an Oscar nomination from this, but began his career long commitment to putting Spanish language film in the spotlight. Unfortunately people are never happy with merely appreciating and leaving well alone, but feel the need to remake, exploit and ultimately firebomb the memory of such seminal classics. Thankfully this film has avoided such a travesty although a musical version was trialled off Broadway to bad reviews, then transferred to London for better ones. People it would seem never learn.

 

5 / 5 Stars. 

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“Midnight Special” Is A Clear Step Forward For A Talented Auteur

Jeff Nichols takes us on another fascinating journey that twists its way to a surprising climax. Martin Carr takes a look at Midnight Special.

I watched Mud a while ago. Many people held it responsible in part for the resurgence of Matthew McConaughey. A man defined by mediocre choices forever destined to be that guy who took his shirt off in every movie. Jeff Nichols, writer and director of Midnight Special, saw something different, something others failed to see, or maybe chose to ignore. McConaughey could act if he allowed himself the room. From Magic Mike through Mud and then Dallas Buyers Club his resurrection continued until we hit Interstellar. That as much as anything is why Jeff Nichols was given eighteen million and change for Midnight Special. And more interestingly why it grossed less than half that figure domestically.

Now we all know that big box office is no guarantee of quality. There have been too many examples lately where slick marketing fooled a hopeful fan base into parting with their cash. But more often than not the films which deserve more marketing and studio support are nowhere near tent pole status; Midnight Special was one of those.

Brandishing an eclectic cast of respected character actors who include Michael Shannon, Joel Egerton and Adam Driver amongst its ranks, Midnight Special remains at heart a father-son movie. Strip away the kidnapping road movie element, look beyond the understated visual effects which augment rather than overwhelm and we are in familiar Nichols territory.

Jaeden Lieberher’s Alton Meyer and Matthew McConaughey’s Mud are defined by their isolation from others. One might be a prepubescent savant while his counterpart is wanted by the authorities, but comparisons can be drawn with minimal effort. Preoccupations concerning the outsider versus society, individual projections of need and judgement being laid upon both characters and society’s need to categorise remain prevalent. Nichols clearly has a bee in his bonnet about these issues and uses his chosen platform effectively.

That being said Midnight Special is not without flaws and an underuse of talent is amongst them. Kirsten Dunst and Adam Driver feel superfluous and peripheral, which to a certain extent they are, but at least give them something to do. Things also seem quite slow, even though there are ample action sequences and visual set pieces which serve the story. But those issues aside Midnight Special remains a clear step forward for an interesting director, which addresses theological and sociological questions that some might not consider entertaining. Maybe that’s the problem, people don’t like to come to the cinema and think for themselves. What a shame.

 

“Miles Ahead” Gives Us A Taste Of Genius

Don Cheadle stars as Miles Davis in this biopic of the acclaimed jazz musician’s life. Cheadle, who also directs and co-writes, is joined in the cast by Emayatzy Corinealdi and Ewan McGregor.

Consider my writing of this review as full immersion therapy. Take an uninitiated jazz rookie and flood his senses with a God given music and soul. Shutting out all extraneous distraction and allowing Miles Davis to drip feed his genius through composition and relentless invention until I am converted. Leaving behind a unique understanding of musical attitude, syncopation variation and studio recording, until finally these hallowed musicians and their importance make sense. Only then will I appreciate Don Cheadle, Miles Davis and Miles Ahead.

In trying to get people closer to an understanding of the impact he had on music something is lost. There is no easy way to cram that life experience into one film so Cheadle has gone the other way, by shaping his structure around a dynamic central performance. He simply becomes Miles Davis in ways that Jim Carrey became Andy Kaufman or Daniel Day Lewis Christie Brown. Cheadle disappears to be replaced with a coke addled, car crash of musical genius locked away from a world he considers superfluous.

By avoiding the traditional route of every bio-pic from Ray to Ali and onward past What’s Love Got To Do With It?, Cheadle has picked a braver yet more precarious route towards victory. Davis does genuinely seep between the cracks, but missing music sub-plots and Ewan McGregor divert our attention from the real subject matter. His reverence for Davis is undeniable and the level of dedication lavished upon that interpretation immeasurable. His use of sliding scenery and musical performance within dramatic moments draws comparisons with Confessions of A Dangerous Mind, itself an economical tale with more than one stand out performance. While Cheadle is ably supported by Emayatzy Corinealdi as Frances Taylor and Michael Stuhlberg’s Harper, what ultimately saves Miles Ahead is the music and commitment to it.

Cheadle has always been an actor with intellectual overtones in conversation, but here his passions are laid bare. A man of merit comparable in talent to any A-lister currently working and refreshing short on ego. As Sketches of Spain draws me deeper into its web of melodic improvisation and Miles Ahead plays out across my frontal cortex in wide screen, it occurs to me I may have missed a trick. Here is a film which bares repeat viewings if only for the sake of enjoying nuance, discipline and dedication to an art form.

According to journalists, legend and musicians of some standing Miles Davis innovated his whole life. If things failed to keep moving he moved on. Uncompromising, irascible and unique in every sense, his influence touched people decade after decade without feeling stale. What Cheadle gives us is a taste of that genius, moments of that madness and minutes in the aftermath to mourn.

 

“The Gingerbread Man” Is Only Noteworthy As An Example Of What Happens When You Jump On A Novelist’s Bandwagon

Robert Altman finds adapting John Grisham’s The Gingerbread Man a far tougher chore than some of his contemporaries but Martin Carr discovers some things to like…

John Grisham stories are law firm fodder filled with intrigue, attorneys and femme fatales perpetually corrupting our prototypically upstanding citizens. In an ideal world every author dreams of having an adaptation directed by Francis Ford Coppola, Sydney Pollack or Robert Altman because these men are world class auteurs. There is however one small problem with cinematic legends and Grisham adaptations that gets consistently overlooked. His books, although worldwide bestsellers, are tricky beasts to tame and can slip easily into mediocre B-movie pulp fiction territory. Leaving even legends looking less than legendary in the final analysis.

Pollack managed to pull off The Firm, Coppola sailed close to average with The Rainmaker, while Schumacher’Pelican Brief remains good box office mediocrity. Neither should blame be apportioned to the A-listers who lined up to star in what everyone considered sure things. Whether it was Gene Hackman, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts, Denzel Washington, or Downey Jr, Kenneth Branagh or Tommy Lee Jones. These flicks remain entertainingly formulaic law firm dramas, centred round topical hard hitting issues that just lose something in translation. Which unfortunately is where The Gingerbread Man falls down.

Branagh is good as Rick Magruder in a role he was capable of doing in his sleep I suspect. Altman on board as director is workman like in his direction, making dialogue scenes serviceable rather than dynamic. But the film itself feels like a slick production of Columbo minus Peter Falk. Downey Jr and Darryl Hannah both play solid second fiddle to our Brit doing American and instil The Gingerbread Man with a Deep Southern psychosis. Nights are hot, women sultry but it feels more studio backlot than location real.

Let's be clear this is no Time To Kill and lacks a big bad due to Robert Duvall being underused and monosyllabic throughout. Only John Hurt in Crystal Skull had less to do and much less mad to play with under similar circumstances. No one really has enough character to get their teeth into and revelations go off like damp squibs, making The Gingerbread Man nothing more than a low temperature thriller. Grisham and everyone involved has definitely done consistently better work and this is nothing but a missed opportunity. Exposition is rushed, threat minimal and payoff barely registers before credits roll.

If you want to see Altman at his best look to MASH, for Branagh revisit Henry VHamlet or Dead Again. While Downey Jr in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Wonder Boys and The Soloist stand out from his later work. The Gingerbread Man is only noteworthy as an example of what happens when everyone jumps on a novelist’s bandwagon. Not every written word will make a fortune Michael Crichton’s Disclosure taught us that.

 

Ken Loach’s “Poor Cow” Has Lost None Of Its Vibrancy 50 Years On

Described as Ken Loach’s first “proper film” after the groundbreaking Cathy Come HomePoor Cow has been fully restored by Studio Canal in collaboration with the BFI’s Unlocking Film Heritage programme.

Ken Loach films are not for those who like explosions, special effects or have an idea of mainstream cinema which involves anything concerning Bruce Willis. Now I have nothing against Mr. Willis or Loach but the two are diametrically opposed in approach, initial concept and execution more than any two people I can think of.

 

Ken Loach makes films of social relevance often based in a recognisable reality which is meant to instil a message. He does them addressing issues of importance using a very naturalistic approach, which are often critically acclaimed yet barely break even. So my interest in Poor Cow was noticeably more selfish than many films I agree to review.

 

This would be only my second Loach film, the first being Kes. My memory of the latter is foggy at best. Being young meant any underlying subtext would have been lost. With Poor Cow I went in with my eyes and ears open and came away pleasantly surprised. Classed as Loach’s first proper film after the standout success of Cathy Come HomePoor Cow follows Carol White’s Joy as she lives inside Sixties London.

What becomes immediately apparent is how natural a performer White turns out to be. There is no sense of superficially about her performance and Loach’s improvisational style lends itself well to the set up. As a film Poor Cow is dated but only in terms of language, social attitudes and architecture. Cynics out there may feel that elements of Austin Powers may leak out in the semantics of Loach’s dialogue, but at no point do you feel like laughing.

 

Loach's use of cue cards, voiceover and non-verbal internal monologue to bridge gaps in time, hark back to the French New Wave still flourishing during this period. It is not only a stylistic decision but also an economical one. It makes elements of the film slightly disjointed and unreal in spite of the improvised realism, yet this never detracts from the message being delivered or impact Poor Cow drives home.

 

In a sense I am glad that my encounters with Ken Loach have been limited, as it gives me perspective, a fresh pair of eyes and no preconceptions. That is how you should approach this time capsule of Sixties New Wave to fully benefit. It is interesting as a snapshot of time. place, approach and technique for someone who remains a very important British filmmaker. Loach's output may have slowed in recent years, but Poor Cow is a reminder of where it started and who continues to influence our industry almost fifty years later.

 

4 / 5 Stars.

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“600 Miles” Is A Study Of Culture As Much As Character

Tim Roth stars in this tale of an unlikely friendship between a gun runner (Kristyan Ferrer) and the ATF agent he holds hostage. Martin Carr takes a closer look…

 

 

Indifferently distant yet deeply personal, Gabriel Ripstein’s 600 Miles is a study of culture as much as character. And in Kristyan Ferrer he has found someone supremely natural, highly capable and in possession of a singular confidence. Between Ripstein and lead Tim Roth there is the moulding of a performance in action, which simultaneously taps into potential and grounds us to the point where film and documentary blur.

 

In truth without the time invested by Ripstein on character this quasi road movie would lack the necessary realism and solid foundation to make it function. Yet elements of the everyday meld together in a banal and mundane mix creating tension from thin air. As an observer you already know how things will play out, but it is the naturalism that Roth and Ferrer bring to proceedings which keep the interest. Violence is part of the lifestyle, guns a cultural necessity, while emotions are hidden beneath layers of needless posturing. This juxtaposition of emotional immaturity at odds with family responsibilities sits at the centre of 600 Miles providing that beating heart.

 

Ferrer's search for identity, both personal and sexual, add a fragility and depth to his character which lifts it out of stereotypical territory. And that need for acceptance so delicately played is a perfect counterpoint to Roth’s Hank Harris. Isolated, alone, grieving and defined by work, Ferrer comes onto his radar in an unspectacular fashion remaining there throughout. Any violence is economical, loud and adheres to the rule of cause and effect. And although the audience is clued in, 600 Miles still manages to deliver emotional heft, personal retribution and a sense of closure without feeling forced.

 

From the first frame Ripstein is loading his powder keg and setting a fuse. Simmering away beneath the surface is an untapped tension borne of circumstance and social necessity. Yet none of this is obvious until those closing minutes, played out over breakfast in kitchen sink soundbites. Such mundane domesticity drives home the point which radiates from every frame of 600 Miles. This is no more an early morning breakfast scene than the opening of Pulp Fiction. There is personal, social and cultural comment being passed here and the hammer blow comes not from the gunshots but lack of change.

Nothing To See Here: “Visions” Is Eerie But Staggeringly Simplistic

Isla Fisher has Visions in Kevin Greutert’s workmanlike thriller which never manages to extricate itself from conventional mundanity. Martin Carr takes a closer look…

Isla Fisher has bills to pay. Another Australian soap star who has broken into mainstream film, her marriage to Sacha Baron Cohen has seen those cinematic contributions dwindle of late. However turns in Confessions of a Shopaholic, Wedding Crashers and Now You See Me are gone but not forgotten. But if Visions was considered her way back onto an A-list, then she needs to start taking advice from someone sober.

Staggeringly simplistic yet eerie, this film lays out a copybook backstory encompassing run down properties, eccentric locals and idyllic isolation as its central calling cards. Fisher and Mount do a good job of laying the groundwork for something which is never likely to surprise, yet pulls off believable late night schlock horror with economy. This felt at times like Rosemary’s Baby but minus the backbone necessary to really put the wind up you. Performances were uniformly adequate and the presence of both Eva Longoria and Jim Parsons baffling.

That aside Visions offers jump scares, off kilter hallucinations and one killer twist, which makes that remaining running time worth wading through. Joanna Cassidy's Helena is the requisite creepy expert, while Fisher does distressed damsel with the skill of a seasonal professional. Elsewhere Parsons is silted and wooden in an under-developed role, alongside Longoria who appeared to be killing time between pedicures rather than attempting to act. Whatever the collective reasoning for taking part in this venture, you can only hope that director Kevin Greutert had loftier ideals. Unfortunately what we have here is the cinematic equivalent of Ronseal wood preserver. It does exactly what it says on the tin.

Equal Parts Wake-Up Call & Cautionary Tale: “High-Rise” Is This Generation’s “Fight Club”

Visually arresting, technically challenging and topically on point, Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise is a unique piece of cinema. Martin Carr takes a closer look at one of British cinema’s best films of 2015.

Welcome to the High-Rise. An absurdist fantasy mainlining KubrickFincher and the smallest dash of Peter Greenaway, into a concoction of such cinematic potency that repeat viewing should be mandatory. Ben Wheatley has created something alongside screenwriter Amy Jump, which defies narrative convention, structural constraints and the necessity for closure. To attempt a dissection of High-Rise is as foolish as climbing Everest without breathing apparatus. There is such a mix of techniques, pitch black humour, social satire and political irony at play that some may find it too much.

Adapted from J G Ballard’s novel of the same name, both director and writer have lifted generously from and adapted elements of their own into the mix. Tom Hiddleston commits fully to the premise of tower block living, where class division, social status and cultural expectations are all built into your tenancy agreement. Every time I watch Hiddleston it feels like he has been perfectly cast, whether in Marvel movies, fair to middling bio pics, or the occasional BBC drama, there is never a moment of doubt.

With Robert Laing he demonstrates his mastery of emotional detachment, whether engaged in coitus, attending parties or debating the need for social change opposite an excellent Jeremy Irons. There is so much of relevance going on around him that you almost miss how easy he makes things look. While Sienna Miller's Charlotte is the epitome of a social climber and Luke Evan's Wilder our literal and metaphorical loose cannon, it is Laing who acts as a physical conduit to all. Useful enough to be useful but not arrogant enough to create waves, he is the social chameleon, survivor and least likely to suffer when this microcosm finally implodes. While Iron's architect admits no culpability, extracts maximum advantage, yet possesses no desire to fix his mistake.

Hight-Rise is a unique piece of cinema – visually arresting, technically challenging and topically on point. Out of the trap and following his own agenda, Wheatley and Jump have given us a sledgehammer subtle deconstruction of social preoccupations all Seventies excess and psychedelic sling backs. Ballard’s barbed sentiments concerning the state of society never seeming more relevant than they do now. Having been voted out of the EU by a misinformed electorate this United Kingdom stands on the cusp of an economical abyss. Less than a week ago the second female Prime Minister in British history took office without public opinion or polling booth to back her up. While media information ran rift, governments resorted to name calling and Nintendo released a game which encouraged the populous to walk into the road after Pokemon. It would seem the devolution of our economy, weakened currency and lack of cohesive democratic rule are nothing compared to finding a Pikachu.

What High-Rise represents then is this generation’s Fight Club. A millennial reimaging of the Fincher classic, equal parts wake-up call and cautionary tale. A more lucid, lurid and lascivious version of a malfunctioning social strata is hard to conjure. Essential viewing for anyone old enough to vote this is less movie experience more social document. You may not agree but that was never the intention. This reviewer craves not acceptance but the promotion of debate to form individual opinions.

 

Poignant & Tragic, “Janis: Little Girl Blue” Is A Magnificent Portrait Of Innocence, Fame & Musical Genius

"Beyond all the plaudits, tearful recollections and concert footage Joplin’s innocence infiltrates every frame seamlessly”, says Martin Carr who reviews the poignant, moving documentary Janis: Little Girl Blue.

Whether you like Janis Joplin or not is irrelevant. Take her vocal status, early overdose and musical influence out of the equation for a moment. These elements have been dissected, dismantled and discussed at length by the morbidly curious for decades. What Janis: Little Girl Blue does, and does well, is give us a sense of the isolation, segregation and victimisation which came to define both Joplin and that voice.

I have only written one other review under the same conditions in which Little Girl Blue hits my keyboard; that was Alex Gibney’s Hunter S Thompson documentary Gonzo. Joplin’s debut album Pearl released three months after her death is playing in both ears, whilst I decide what Janis means to me.

Beyond all the plaudits, tearful recollections and concert footage Joplin’s innocence infiltrates every frame seamlessly. That thunderous gospel voice combining nuanced sweetness, high octane screeching and grizzled purity seems almost overwhelming. And at its best Little Girl Blue highlights her fear of fame, stark vulnerability and inability to deal with that God given gift.

Berg documents a time of experimentation both musically and psychotropically in which Joplin was front and centre. A singularly lonely figure embraced by the minority and segregated by everyone else. You sense that Berg is not going for an absolute truth with regards to Joplin, her legacy, or those she leaves behind. These people are never more than honest, heartfelt and strikingly candid in their reminiscences. While there is a refreshing lack of theatrics, hammy anecdotes or veiled axes to grind.

Everyone talks around Joplin, whether that be about the era, how they met or something equally ambiguous. Only Dick Cavett, a former US talk show host, lets his guard down enough to give you an insight into the person. For the young and uninitiated Janis Joplin is a relic. Part of a time before internets, iPhones and broadband which is slowly drifting into obscurity. What upsets me most about this, which may be a symptom of my age, is that everything seems so temporary today. Greatness is defined by page views not books sold, talent is overshadowed by demographic appeal and music in the main is anaemic and sterile as a result.

However none of that matters as Berg sensibly decides to reserve judgement and not preach to an audience unwilling to listen. Joplin is painted as neither a victim of circumstance, upbringing or malicious intent, who burned brightly and left an indelible mark. Her lifestyle is never questioned, her methods and input are as balanced as they can be, while Gibney and Berg avoid using Joplin’s life as cautionary tale, all too aware of the cliché it would become and disapproval it may incur. If anything Berg’s ethos is defined by a John Lennon soundbite during an interview shortly after Joplin’s death with Dick Cavett. Responding to a question on the pressures of living with fame Lennon said, “we can’t live in it without guarding ourselves against it”. Poignant and tragic in its predictive nature, this foresight from beyond the grave stands as testament to what happens when you let that guard down.

“Three Days Of The Condor” Is The Quintessential 70s Paranoid Conspiracy Thriller

Robert Redford has rarely been better in this stylish 1970s paranoia conspiracy thriller from director Sydney Pollack. Martin Carr checks out Eureka’s Masters of Cinema Blu-ray…

Thrillers are essentially about a breakdown in communication. There is usually a central protagonist blissfully unaware of their situation, or the mayhem which is going on around them. Either that or they are world weary, corporate go-to men plunged out of their depth and fighting to stay alive. For thrillers to work the central plot needs to be set up and characters established within the first ten minutes, so it can be systematically destroyed over the remaining eighty. Three Days Of The Condor represents to many, including myself, a gold standard for fulfilling the tenets of a modern day thriller.

Sadly deceased yet immortalised on celluloid as both director and consummate actor, Sydney Pollack carved the furrow for others to follow. In his set up, execution and handling of this story there are few if any moments where he drops the ball. It is film-making economy at its best, squeezing every ounce of tension and subtlety from a story which is all too familiar.

Key to his success beyond being an actor’s director is Robert Redford, who is intelligent without conceit and oblivious without appearing ignorant. As a character, Joseph Turner develops in moments of crisis, adapting without feeling forced, yet still maintaining an audience’s sympathy. Other stand outs include Max Von Sydow and Faye Dunaway, in roles which could have been painfully two dimensional in different hands.

If you look at Tony Gilroy’s Michael ClaytonBen Affleck’s Argo and even Pollack’s own John Grisham adaptation of The Firm you will see similarities. They all start with character and stay with character throughout. Tom Wilkinson in Clayton, Gene Hackman in The Firm and Affleck himself in Argo all reflect Redford’s Turner in one way or another. Sure the film looks dated but the story remains relevant, has teeth and is consistently entertaining.

For my money Redford was rarely better and holds the screen like few others of his generation. Just take some time out to watch All Is Lost to be reminded what a great actor can do with the camera from either side, should you have any doubts. There will be those who say Three Days Of The Condor is very much a product of its time and they would be right, but it’s a great moment for cinema. There was so much happening both creatively and through the American auteur movement that it would be foolish to belittle something so fundamental just for being old. For those who like to think, discuss, debate and engage in conversation Three Days Of The Condor remains THE action thriller. Measured, concise and eternally topical it remains a cornerstone of Seventies cinema. And a stark reminder of everything that was lost when Pollack let go his mortal coil.

“Room”: Contentious, Uncomfortable, Riveting And Unrivalled

A film that will be remembered long after the credits roll, Lenny Abrahamson’s Room is an experience worth having. Martin Carr tells you why this powerful drama must not be missed…

I have talked about Room already with a few people. It demands debate and requires a conversation because there will be tears. Room is unflinchingly honest and matter of fact in its depiction of kidnapping, incarceration and our ability to adapt. There will be moments that drag emotions from you kicking and screaming in the light, but they will come naturally. How you feel at the end will depend upon too many things, none of which I can explain or quantify; they are too personal.

For me it is not Brie Larson or her Oscar winning performance which floored me but that little boy. Jacob Tremlay gets you where you live by innocently tapping into everything repugnant which Room represents, but doing it with a level of honesty which is rare. There are examples of exceptional child actors going back to Tatum O’Neill in Paper MoonLinda Blair’s Regan in The Exorcist not to mention Jodie Foster (Taxi Driver), or Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense. But Tremlay adds another dimension to things here, which allows the audience to regress once more and experience events through his eyes to devastating effect.

Above all it is his innocence of the situation which slowly chews you up inside, as his mother bathes, feeds, washes and ultimately hides him away every day when her digital alarm beeps. It is our voyeuristic singular window which acts as the emotional hammer blow throughout. We are silent observers powerless to stop or aid in any way, while this warped domestic scene plays out day after day. To explain the power of Room is impossible as it will be singularly subjective and uniquely individual depending upon the viewer. Forget Irreversible or freak fests like The Human CentipedeRoom knows the buttons to push and Tremlay is key in activating them with subtlety.

Beyond that it contains numerous stand out moments, which are memorable for the truth they impart not necessarily for any feel good factor. From only one scene and ten minutes of screen time people will remember how good William H. Macy really is. He says and does virtually nothing but there will be tears, there will be consideration after the fact and people should debate.

This film is contentious, uncomfortable, riveting and unrivalled in its depiction of the subject matter. Neither gratuitous nor showy Room remains emotionally raw and painfully honest. And Director Lenny Abrahamson has created a film you might not necessarily want to own, but one it is imperative people watch. If only because conversation is a dying art and Room was made to be talked about. And one more thing; Brie Larson deserved that Oscar.

Kristen Stewart Excels In Powerful Drama “Camp X-Ray”

In our second review of Peter Sattler’s hard-hitting Guantanamo Bay-set drama Camp X-Ray starring Kirsten Stewart, Martin Carr explains why the film deserves to be seen by a wider audience.

Guantanamo Bay is synonymous with people being held against their will, in a place where their human rights are neatly sidestepped for the sake of a greater good. Our chest beating allies across the pond have gone to great lengths, under the joint auspices of truth and justice to guarantee the continued existence of this terrorist pig pen. Stuck in a jurisdictional black hole just beyond the boundaries of our so called civilised world, it remains a dangerous topic to tackle. That Camp X Ray manages to explore certain issues without feeling like a sabre rattling exercise, is the first of many things director Peter Sattler manages to get right.

Pulling few punches he focuses his attention on one central relationship, meaning that outside of these perimeters the film loses momentum. Kristen Stewart and Payman Maadi play the unlikely pairing at its centre, upon which our dramatic investment hinges. Sattler uses the austere imagery of floodlit wire cages and soul destroying routine as a counterpoint to this burgeoning friendship. In which Stewart hands us a solid performance, making sure we forget her Twilight back catalogue and Huntsman misdemeanour.

In pivotal dialogue scenes she more than holds her own against Camp X-Ray’s most riveting discovery who is locked in a cell for most of the running time and dominates often through silence. An intellectual firebrand that battles the futility of his situation, whether expounding the virtues of Sudoku or dissecting Severus Snape’s deeper intentions. It is Ali who uses his natural magnetism to voice opinion and address issues, which few others are developed enough to attempt.

 Beyond the verbal exchanges Camp X-Ray falls back on stereotype a touch and certain scenes feel convoluted and signposted. But these minor flaws are forgiven in light of the bravery elsewhere where Sattler chooses to avoid undue scenes of torture which would have detracted from the overall message. Instead he settles on implication rather than graphic depiction to hammer home the point which strips away impact to an extent whilst also robbing us of the guilt and remorse, which are inherent by products and minimise narrative closure.

Now I take nothing away from Stewart and Maadi who are outstanding in their scenes together, but lack of development outside of this ultimately undermines everything else. For me Camp X Ray is an important film worth watching similar in tone to Schindler’s List or 12 Years A Slave. But what separates McQueen and Spielberg from Sattler is well rounded peripheral characterisation. At the conclusion of Camp X-Ray you should be appalled not comfortably numb. And it should be the issues which cause debate, not the performances that brought them to your attention irrespective of calibre.

Racism Is Met Head On In Alan Parker’s Brilliant “Mississippi Burning”

Powerful, infuriating, heartbreaking; just a few words to describe Alan Parker’s brilliant Mississippi Burning starring Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe as FBI agents investigating the disappearance of civil rights activists in America’s deep south.

There are few starker images of segregation in the modern world than separate water fountains. From something so simple one can glean so much. It is a sad and sickening indictment of attitudes at any time in history, where someone can be treated with such scorn simply for being a different colour. I have no intention of grandstanding on the subject of racism, I am neither well informed nor able to give a reasoned argument. Besides which that is not what film reviews should be about. They should give a subjective opinion on the entertainment value of a movie. Whether that film concerns superheroes and big hammers, or blatant racism and murders in a wheat field. Our objective should remain the same. To be impartial.

If Mississippi Burning fails to make you angry then we won’t get along. Back in the late Eighties when Alan Parker made this, few had dared to investigate the topic. Richard Attenborough had made Cry Freedom, Spielberg had waded in with The Color Purple, but Amistad and 12 Years A Slave were decades away. Any examination of slavery and the misdemeanours which came along with it was deemed contentious. Not that people were unaware, they just didn’t want reminding. What Parker, Hackman, Dafoe and others did was put a bomb under people and stand back.

Set in the Sixties, Burning concerned itself with a missing person case. From the get go Parker loads the dice by playing his opening scene with slow, deliberate, decisive intent. There is a real life story edge to proceedings which is never lost sight of. Similar in feel to Angel Heart which he made with Mickey Rourke and De Niro, Burning has a cloying heat emanating from within.

This tightly woven character study contains so many great performances from confirmed masters, that you are spoilt for choice. It reminds you how good Gene Hackman really was, while Dafoe, Dourif and McDormand amongst others add a sense of reality. To be honest there is no need to sell any element of this film, because we know that these things and worse really happened. Burning crosses, ritual hangings and white supremacy still tarnish areas of America today. There is no justification for it beyond generational ignorance born of tradition, which is outmoded, outdated and embarrassing. If Mississippi Burning has a purpose today it remains a historical one. Certain films are difficult to watch for a reason. Their message leaves a bad taste which some might call guilt by association. It documents a misalignment in attitudes. Small towns policed by men with guns and an unshakeable belief in their right to rule. Ignorance as they say is bliss. But in this reviewer’s opinion there is nothing more dangerous.

That they shot on location in Mississippi surrounded by these attitudes, only serves to give the film more credence. Using old stock footage from Klan rallies as well as months of research, Parker helped shape a screenplay with few soft edges. Using the FBI as a counterpoint to this southern mentality, Parker carves a trench in the sand. Whether that is between the differing work ethics of Hackman and Dafoe, or political reasoning behind their involvement in the first place.

There are too many layers to cover in one review on this film. Mississippi Burning lacks a sheen which makes it better. There is no gloss or Hollywood hyperbole. Parker is gritty and it suits just fine. Sadly even in these enlightened times few films are brave enough to face racism full on. Actors like Hackman are in short supply, while entertainment and the application of cinema to issues of concern are less likely to be funded. Aside from the hours of discussion and pages to be written on the subject, one thing is blatantly obvious. If you are serious about your cinema owning this is mandatory.

 

“Comet” Will Reward Viewers Willing To Accept Its Intellectual Approach

Martin Carr takes a look at writer-director Sam Esmail’s “intellectual exercise in relationship deconstruction” starring Justin Long and Emily Rossum…

Some things are hard to categorise. These would include anything by Lars von Trier, a cross section of Wim Wenders work, or the Mack daddy of ambiguity Peter Greenaway. Indie rom-com Comet positions itself with poise in this rarefied company.

What director and writer Sam Esmail has created here, falls somewhere between seminal classic Annie Hall and the bleak beauty of Blue Valentine. Co-produced by its stars Justin Long and Esmail’s wife Emily Rossum, this fragmented film requires the audience to focus.

With overly elaborate dialogue scenes which ask a lot of the viewer, Comet plays like an intellectual exercise in relationship deconstruction. By bouncing between different periods of Del (Long) and Kimberley’s (Rossum) flirtation, courtship, happy medium and eventual separation, you get an almost clinical dissection of what relationships mean.

In visceral performances which redefine the phrase tour de force both actors give you everything. Long has proven himself a versatile actor on numerous occasions, whether in Going The Distance, Tusk, Dodgeball or other scene stealing cameos. But here he defines Del as a commitment phobic, risk averse, intellectual mess of male ego. He is either central protagonist or delusional participant, expounding on various topics, while Emily Rossum spits bile and venom whilst intermittently cooing between clenched teeth.

 

Familiar from supporting roles in Mystic River and The Day After Tomorrow, this is a part destined to be her calling card. There are discussions on the meaning of time interspersed with art as a medium in relation to each other. Which delves into philosophy and our place in the modern world that can become protracted. You will either find Comet extremely stimulating or mildly pretentious depending on your standpoint. But what Esmail, Long and Rossum have delivered here is nothing if not thought provoking. However its central issue remains one of pacing.

As can happen with drawn out dialogue scenes and fragmentary structure, things can become a touch slow. For the unprepared, Comet may be a little dense. It revels in ideas, words and film as a medium, yet frustrates in similar ways. Comparative to Jim Jaramusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive and Woody Allen marmite movie Interiors, Comet is at once impressionistic yet didactic in approach.

 

For this reviewer it was a case of intellectual overload, combining cinematic and literary references which ultimately felt rewarding. However if your idea of romantic comedy is more mainstream, Comet may feel more like bench pressing your own body weight. Way too much effort for something which is supposed to entertain, rather than induce brain freeze. When Harry Met Sally is a million miles away from this romantic equivalent of the Penrose steps. Feel free to dive in but do so with caution.

 

3/5 Stars.

'A Most Wanted Man' Review

   Sodden, dishevelled and alone a young man (Grigoriy Dobrygin) pulls himself from the River Elbe. In the grey dawn of a Hamburg morning Gunther Bachmann (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) sits across from his colleague Irna Frey (Nina Hoss). A cramped office divided neatly down the centre, piles of papers, reminders pinned across the walls and a comfortable silence between them. . . .

 Soon CCTV footage featuring this very same young man (Grugoriy Dobrygin) in conversation will cause a domino effect. Bachmann (Seymour Hoffman) and his team will become embroiled with CIA operative Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), banker Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe) and human rights lawyer Anna Richter (Rachel McAdams). For each of them he will become their most wanted man.

 

   Iconic stills photographer turned film maker Anton Corbijn, casts a coolly detached eye upon post 9/11 espionage fiction in this his third feature.  After low budget debut ‘Control’ and George Clooney collaboration ‘The American’, Corbijn gives us a Hamburg both perpetually bleak and desolate with an idiosyncratic anti-hero to match in Gunther Bachmann.

 

   A chain smoking, drink fuelled protagonist part counsellor, mentor and bully, much will be made of Seymour Hoffman’s performance in this film. Others may say that his accent slips on occasion, or that too much reverence will be afforded ‘A Most Wanted Man’, as it represents his last leading role in a career tragically cut short. Yes he will appear again in Mockingjay Parts I and II, but that role belongs deep in the appendixes of a biography somewhere using a minute font at best.  

 

   With that established, it is fair to say that ‘A Most Wanted Man’ offers up an admirable swansong for this most unique of character actors. His portrayal allows Bachmann to act as a linchpin for those around him. Moments of dry wit as scripted by Andrew Bovell from John Le Carre’s novel, punctuate the slow burn style of this character driven piece, allowing a subtle diffusing of tension. However this exploration of loneliness, with its brooding atmospherics, heavy accents and uncomfortable silences is best viewed as an ensemble piece.

 

   Nina Hoss (Irna Frey), both willing accomplice and implied love interest offers strength and a level headedness to Bachmann’s more erratic side. As much as his presence dominates virtually every scene, Hoffman enables her and others to add a sense of realism essential for it to work. Similarly Willem Dafoe (Tommy Brue) who is a truly underrated actor, tones down his usual histrionics giving a measured portrayal of isolation through wealth and privilege. However there are one or two areas where things fail to convince quite so readily. Rachel McAdams (Anna Richter) as a human rights lawyer is one, her relationship with Grigoriy Dobrygin (Issa Karpov) another.

 

   I have two concerns. One is the time that elapses between an initial meeting and their implied attraction. Another is how well this contrivance forced on by circumstance is sold to the audience. Grigoriy Dobrygin (Issa Karpov) has an innate presence similar to Hoffman, allowing him the freedom to convey thought and emotion through glances alone. Rachel McAdams is earnest in her characterisation of Anna Richter, but looks out of her depth more and more as things progress.  Both Hoffman and Dobrygin, a successful actor/director in his native Russia, are formidable performers so these failings are most apparent during her scenes with them. It is fortunate therefore that the film does not suffer as a result. In all fairness such is the force of Hoffman’s characterisation that Daniel Bruhl (Maximillian), who played Nikki Lauder opposite Chris Hemsworth in ‘Rush’ recently fails to even register. As for Robin Wright (Martha Sullivan) her character is a not so cunning clone of Claire Underwood from ‘House of Cards’, apart from Martha has black hair. This is no bad thing however as Wright draws on Underwood and delivers the same underhanded snake like qualities, which make ‘House of Cards’ so watchable and her character such a draw. However the question remains. Is this ‘the’ great film with a career defining final performance or merely a good one, to be placed on a pedestal by fans irrespective of quality? An answer is unfortunately less easy to come by.

 

   Phillip Seymour Hoffman does give a truly magnetic performance but as with all Corbijn films things move at a sedate pace. Reminiscent of Alfredson’s ‘Tinker Tailor’ and Soderbergh’s ‘Syriana’, one for look, pace and feel another shared character traits between Bachmann and Bob Barnes. ‘A Most Wanted Man’ has shown Anton Corbijn capable of making a classic cold war thriller for the 9/11 generation. On this evidence it also becomes tragically apparent how truly great a talent we have lost in Phillip Seymour Hoffman.