Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Best and Worst of May 2016

So we have made it through the first month of summer movie season and it’s been pretty good, not great though. That’s not to say that there were nothing worth seeing or nothing that could not be called great but in terms of kicking off the summer than there’s rally only one typical blockbuster that lives up to expectations but that has already been out for over a month. The rest were either crushing disappointments or ones that simply didn’t catch my attentions I didn’t see them, and while it may be unfair to disregard a movie without seeing it I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that ‘The Angry Birds Movie’ is not the next cinematic masterpiece. Other blockbusters were either crushing disappointments or as terrible as I expected so trust me when I say that when it comes to picking a worst film of the month I was spoiled for choice. But first we have the best.

3: Everybody Wants Some

Richard Linklater’s spiritual sequel to his 1993 classic ‘Dazed and Confused’ may not quite reach the levels of greatness that his original tale of teenagers and their night out following the last day of school, but it is undeniably fun and riotous enough to recapture the spirit of what made it so great.  While its premise may seem playful and shallow it manages to have a distinct and profound nature to it and Linklater’s talents as a writer never mark out when you’re supposed to be moved and when you’re supposed to be laughing, he lets you watch the events and decide for yourself how they impact you. This is a writer who so clearly loves his own characters to treat them with respect yet not too proud of them to never have fun, he just takes it in his stride and sometimes plays it for laughs and at other times he brings forward the drama.

2: Green Room

I maintain that this film would have had a much higher box office gross if they went with the title I suggested ‘Punk Rock vs Nazis and Patrick Stewart’ but then again it doesn’t matter, the film itself is still just as amazing. With ‘Green Room’ director Jeremy Saulnier has created a film of claustrophobia and isolation that makes you feel trapped from the outset. But despite this confinement ‘Green Room’ manages to run at a breakneck pace, all the while alternating between tight and edgy conversations and astonishing bursts of violence that really are brutal in a fashion that I haven’t witnessed in a while. Then you have Patrick Stewart to give a threatening and commanding performance that almost steals the entire show. It’s part thriller, part horror and part grind house, and I love it.

1: Captain America: Civil War

After having a month to deliberate and consider, I am now certain that I can call ‘Captain America: Civil War’ the best film by Marvel Studios to date. Whether it’s the best superhero film of all time is a whole other argument, but I will instantly say that it’s good enough to make me think about it. The Russo brothers were able to take a story that could so easily have been a sprawling mess (like no other superhero film, especially not one released this year, under the direction of a certain Zack Snyder) and keep it tight and focussed. The action scenes are brilliantly directed, with particular praise going to the astonishing airport fight that is essentially anything anyone could want from a comic book movie. But at the same time each character is given the right amount of time to grow and develop, none of them exist just for the sake of it they all have some kind of purpose within the film. Then there’s the final emotional gut punch that elevates the movie to a whole new level of brilliance. You’ve probably already seen it by now but frankly if you are looking for something to watch then just go and see it again, it’s still the best thing I’ve seen this summer.

And the worst……Is a tie!

Mother’s Day OR Alice Through the Looking Glass

I honestly couldn’t decide which one of these was worse because to be honest they are both terrible but for very different reasons. On the one hand you have a director who is frankly stealing a living by just making the same formulaic schmaltz time and time again (this the third film in a row with the holiday centric ensemble premise from Gary Marshall) filled with bland performances, cliché riddled plot devices and characters so bland and unlikable that I was actually hoping there would be some kind of twist in that the world was ending, but it didn’t. But on the other hand you have a sequel that no one asked for, to a film I already hated more than words can describe that ended up making way too much money anyway, that ended up being just as if not even worse with every shot looking manufactured and fake, actors that so clearly didn’t want to be a part of this franchise anymore and some weird Werner Herzog impression. The only solace I can take is that on a budget of $170 million this film has taken just $103 million, (I like Disney but I have to laugh at that), let’s just hope that it doesn’t break even because then we’ll have to endure another one.

Monday, 30 May 2016

Alice Through the Looking Glass

"Underland, your time is up."

In a year where we are getting sequels to ‘Snow White and the Huntsman’, ‘Now You See Me’ and even ‘God’s Not Dead’ to me the most pointless inept one out of them all is ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’. From a financial standpoint the film it admittedly does seem logical, the first one made over a billion dollars on the worldwide box office (just saying that makes me depressed, especially as it out grossed ‘Inception’ which came out the same year) but it wasn’t exactly met with critical praise, and the fact that it has taken Disney six years to get around to making a sequel doesn’t suggest it was at the top of their criteria.

Facing financial ruin, Alice (Mia Wasikowska) returns to Underland (because remember, that’s what it’s called in this universe) through a magical mirror only to find that the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) is acting madder than usual and wants to discover the truth about his family, forcing Alice to travel through time, embarking on a race to save the Hatter before time runs out.

So just to get it out there, I hate Tim Burton’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’, hate it more than words can thoroughly express. It turns Lewis Caroll’s book of nonsense into a terrible ‘Lord of the Rings’ rip off with a plot that hasn’t even heard of the word cohesive, bland characters, ugly CGI and a complete lack of any imagination whatsoever. The sequel……is very much the same. There is no originality, no imagination, no sense of artistry to it, just rehashed garbage that we have already seen hundreds of times before, not just within the previous film but in a dozen other films before it.

Admittedly this instalment is brighter and more vibrant than its predecessor and for a brief period looks as if it more willing to embrace the surreal nonsense of Caroll’s original novel. But as the thin plot continues to stretch itself out it becomes more and more apparent that this adaptation only has one thing in common with the novel, its title. Now this is not a huge crime, many films have differed drastically from their source material, both thematically and narratively (if you don’t believe me then ask Stephen King what he thinks of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’). But this could have been any terrible fantasy film, why did they have to drag the name of a classic novel down with it. It’s not as if they would have been accused of plagiarism either because Miyazaki’s ‘Spirited Away’ has more in common with Caroll’s work than this.

What’s even the point of complaining? I had this issue with the first film so obviously it’s not going to change with the second. Instead let’s talk about what else is wrong. The character designs are about as weak as one could imagine, with everyone being reduced to a cheap caricature with no more depth than the obviously artificial CGI that constitutes them. This would be fine if it was just a story of episodic randomness (like the book) but if you’re trying to tell some weird story about the importance of family values involving wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey stuff then how are we, as an audience, supposed to become invested in the story when we don’t give a damn about a single character.

Alice’s character remains as flat as ever, the script tries to make us root for her with three techniques. First is focussing on what Alice isn’t, she’s a non-conformist who won’t let others tell her what to do. The only problem with this is that the script never really tells us what Alice is, we only know what she isn’t. Secondly it tries to portray her as an empowering icon but this is only really projected by having her do physically brave things, but once again we never get an isnight into her actual character so it means nothing. Thirdly it tries to make the villains of the film slightly less sympathetic than Alice, so she’s basically the hero by default.

The other characters are just as flat though, and none of the actors really bring anything to their roles. Johnny Depp is still stuck doing that thing where everyone is a variation of Jack Sparrow, Helena Bonham Carter is just shouting and Anne Hathaway’s job is to stand around and look like a princess. Meanwhile Sacha Baron Cohen is just doing a weird impression of Werner Herzog so it’s hard to take any of those scenes funnier, which means this is by a long way his best comedy of 2016.

Story wise it’s just as bad as the first one, doing an incredible thing of taking an illogical, absurd and nonsensical story, trying to put sense into it and ultimately making it even more nonsensical.

Vibrant to look at occasionally, but from its story to its design as well as its characters, ‘Alice Through the looking Glass falls very flat.

Result: 3/10

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Talkin' Scorsese: Taxi Driver

"Are you talkin' to me? Well, I'm the only one here."

Here we are, Scorsese’s fifth feature film, 1976’s ‘Taxi Driver’ and I’m not going to beat around the bush, it’s just perfect. In fact it’s better than perfect, you see to me perfect sounds as if the best filmmakers and actors have done the best job they can using the best source material, but ‘Taxi Driver’ just feels better than that. I regard it as the best character study in the history of cinema, the ultimate amalgamation of writer, director and actor, truly one of the greatest films ever made.

Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), an honourably discharged U.S. Marine, is a lonely and depressed man living in New York City. He becomes a taxi driver to cope with his chronic insomnia, driving passengers every night around the boroughs of New York City. He also spends time in seedy porn theatres, keeps a diary, becomes infatuated with a woman working for a presidential election campaign and begins a crusade to rescue and underage prostitute (Jodie Foster).

It is difficult to give a plot synopsis of ‘Taxi Driver’ because on paper it comes across as just a series of unrelated events occurring around Travis Bickle. At its heart the film is about Travis’ failed attempts to connect with the world around him, it follows his complete and utter isolation from the rest of society, a culture that he both loathes for not understanding and yet yearns to be a part of. The sense of aloneness that permeates every frame, ever line of dialogue, every subtle movement makes it one of the most powerful films I have ever seen.

This success can be attributed to three men and their individual work on the film. Their names are Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. I know of no other example where a film’s writing, directing and acting complement and advance one another so well. I’ll try to break them down individually and then explain precisely why, together, they form a masterpiece.

It’s widely known that Schrader’s script was inspired by John Ford’s ‘The Searchers’ and it’s not hard to find the parallels. An alienated man is unable to establish normal relations within the world around him and as a result becomes a lone wanderer, only to take up the task of rescuing a young girl without her consent, because her life defies his own principles. There are many small stories within the script and none of them are there to fill time or show of a certain technique, they are all placed within the film to convey the same theme and allude to the inevitable conclusion. As well as that they all seem logical, each event is just a new obsession for Travis, he attaches himself to love interests, political causes and moral crusades and each one is a new effort to make some, any, kind of connection.

But as well as being so tightly crafted the screenplay is one that allows multiple interpretations. It creates undercurrents that make Travis’ ultimate motive impossible to definitively pin down. In many ways he is an enigma, he hates the violence of society despite having been directly involved with it, he loathes the sexual activity of the city but routinely visits porn theatres, he hates the scum that “comes at out night” and yet he chooses to work during nights. It seems that though Travis claims to hate this society around him he regularly goes out of his way to involve himself in it. So is this hatred directed more at himself? I couldn’t tell you for sure.

De Niro’s performance stands as one of the best ever put to film (and the only reason I say one of the best is because the actor has to compete with his own filmography). It’s hard to name another actor who you could say for certain would be willing to do what he did in this role to be as prejudiced and as flawed as Travis is and to present it in such a pure and unforgiving way, running the risk of alienating your audience by asking them to become attached to this violent sociopath.

De Niro is even exceptional in how he tries to hide emotions from the audience. The feelings and actions that Travis tries to suppress through subtle movements, glances, tone of voice and sentence structure says more about is true identity than the one he tries to project. But once again he is there to provide such an ambiguity to the character that his true motives are never fully known. As an audience we can only attempt to decipher him and it’s down to De Niro that was are both disgusted and sympathetic towards him, but never completely understanding.

It’s under Scorsese’s direction that the film balances that most brilliant of atmospheres, one that Marty himself has perfected time and time again, the balance of grit and style. While the techniques themselves are not revolutionary what makes them so effective, both then and now is how they are used used to suggest a subjective and POV mind set.  Having previously applied varying levels of speed to great effect, Scorsese does the same here but to an even more acute style. Notice how the shots of Travis’ cab moving through the city are in ordinary time but his view of the outside world is slowed down to reflect his more observant nature. Scorsese also employs close-ups to let you see what Travis sees, what catches his attention catches the viewer’s attention because Scorsese forces it to.

Through this film Scorsese achieved what may be the single hardest thing to do in film as a medium, to provide an insight into a characters perspective and psyche. Through his direction we take a journey into Travis Bickle’s mind, and reflects how the world around him has been warped by his own outlook of it. His lone taxi cab patrolling the streets is suddenly a chariot wading through the scum of the earth, the people around him are unsympathetic to his plight and society has mutated into something ugly. Whether it actually has or not that is how Travis views the New York City and so that is how we view New York City.

But at the same time Scorsese allows the viewer to see the big picture, he allows you to see the utter isolation of the main character. He often cited the most important shot of the film as the one in which Travis attempts to call a woman after a failed date. He desperately tries to call her, hanging onto the last scrap of hope that this could be his connection but his attempt is to no avail and so the camera swings around to see a long and deserted corridor, there is no one else there. At the end is a door leading back out into the darkened streets that Travis uses to exit the building. It is symbolic of his entire journey, the failed attempt at interaction, the isolated path in front of him, and the darkness that lies ahead. All in one shot.

As I was saying, each aspect is impressive enough on their own but together they form a stunning work of art that can be likened to a great novel. Schrader’s script provides Scorsese with an outlet to employ directorial devices that give you a further insight into the characters mind while also giving De Niro enough material from which to build that character in a physical level. Then Scorsese’s direction highlights the subtle nuances of De Niro’s performance as well as the overall themes of Schrader’s script. De Niro’s performance gives Scorsese’s direction a point of focus and brings forth the emotion within Schrader’s script. Never have a writer, director and actor been in such perfect unison.

There are other additions that only serve to elevate the film even further. The supporting cast such as Jodie Foster who brings a haunting sense of vulnerability to the film and Harvey Keitel carries a sense of grit and toughness to his own role to reflect what Travis hates about society. Michael Chapman’s cinematography makes the city both vibrant and grim, and Bernard Hermann’s score evokes such a sense of dread and impending doom.

‘Taxi Driver’ has a special impact on all who view it, it had a profound impact on me the first time I saw it and my appreciation of it has only grown since. As Roger Ebert put it rather eloquently in his own review “We have all felt as lonely as Travis Bickle. Most of us are better at dealing with it”. In fact just to stick with the Ebert quotes (because as much as I would love to say I came up with this point myself, I can’t) he raised a good point about the film’s most iconic scene and line in which Travis looks at himself in the mirror starts talking to himself. “Are you talkin' to me? Well, I'm the only one here” he says. The first sentence gets quoted all the time, but it’s the second line that never gets quoted which is ironic because it’s the truest line in the film.

Result: 10/10

Star Trek Beyond - Trailer Review

‘Star Trek’ is 50 years old this year. Think about that for a second and what it means for this latest instalment. This not only has to move the franchise forward but it also has to be a celebration of the series’ long and tumultuous history. While I will agree wholeheartedly that ‘The Original Series’ and ‘The Next Generation’ are classics of television (I never really got into ‘Deep Space Nine’, ‘Voyager’ or ‘Enterprise’ and to be honest nothing I’ve heard so far has convinced me that I’m missing out) as for the films themselves I think out of the ten there are only really four that I would call great films (in case you were wondering then it’s ‘Wrath of Kahn’, ‘The Voyage Home’, ‘First Contact’ and the 2009 ‘Star Trek’). The others range from being fine, to drearily awful to absolutely, unbelievably, insanely terrible (who the hell thought William Shatner was a good choice of director?).

To put it in the best terms I can, ‘Star Trek Beyond’ needs to be to ‘Star Trek’ what ‘Skyfall’ was to James Bond. Is this reflected within the new trailer? Well for me the cornerstone of ‘Star Trek’ and what distinguishes it from other science fiction franchisees is the exploration aspect, whereas ‘Star Wars’ chronicles the battle between good and evil, ‘Star Trek’ attempts to analyse humanity’s place within the universe.

This is something that the trailer alludes to, with some fairly stunning shots of outer space and its vastness. But it also uses that as a way to reflect the personal discovery within its main character, Captain Kirk. Chris Pine still looks to be very competent within the role, he still appears to be very different from Shatner’s incarnation but there is also a strong link between each portrayal.

But as I said, lots of deep questions, sweeping shots of the cosmos and it all feels very Trekkie, all that’s really missing is the classic voiceover “Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise, her five year mission, to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilisations, to boldly go where no one has gone before”. Okay I might have got carried away there.

But then all hell breaks loose. It’s not necessarily a bad thing though because ‘Star Trek’ has always been a little insane when it wants to be, the only query is whether that insanity is keeping in tone with what the movie itself has already established. The idea of the crew stranded on an alien world is a nice call back to other entries in the franchise and based on the trailer it looks like it is supplying all of the classic tropes of the series. We have the encounter with a new alien race, exploration of an unknown landscape, deep thinking conversations between Spock and Bones relating to what is and isn’t “logical”. Simon Pegg was one of the most critical of that first trailer, reassuring fans that it was a very poor representation of the film he had written. He explained that ‘Star Trek Beyond’ should harken back to the roots of the franchise and I can say that the trailer reflects that, I do get the sense that if nothing else this will be a nice call back and homage to the ‘Star Trek’ franchise as a whole.

We also get some nice additions like Idris Elba plastered in makeup, as the main villain of the film (I think by this point that man’s voice can make anything sound bad-ass) who definitely looks intimidating, I’d say it’s up to his motives and complexity that will decide as to whether he will be memorable. There is a distinct lack of humour, with the exception of that last scene, but I’d say that there is probably a lot that we’ve yet to see.

My only major concern is that that trailer never really establishes whether this film is necessary. Does this chapter really advance the story or characters in any way or is it just another adventure that ultimately has no impact. The worry of sticking too closely to the ideologies of the TV series is that each episode was simply new adventure, nothing really carried over from week to week or in the long run. In ten years’ time, will ‘Star Trek Beyond’ be remembered as the film that took the franchise to new heights or just another sequel?  

Saturday, 21 May 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse

"Everything they built will fall and from the ashes of their world we'll build a better one."

2016 is getting a lot of comic book movies, so far this year we have seen the mega-budget versus movies and how to do them perfectly (‘Captain America: Civil War’) and how to do them horribly (Batman v Superman’). We’ve also had stuff that goes completely beyond the spectrum of what we thought constituted the genre (‘Deadpool’). AS well as that of course we still have ‘Doctor Strange’, ‘TMNT 2’ and ‘Suicide Squad’ to come. But right in the middle of all of them lies ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’, so the big question is, can it possibly stand out?

An ancient mutant (Oscar Isaac) awakens from a two thousand year slumber to annihilate humanity in order to form his new world order. He gathers four horseman to aide him on his quest including the immensely powerful Magneto (Michael Fassbender). With nothing else to defend earth it lies with Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) and his X-Men to stop the Apocalypse.

There are a number of specific things that I admire very much about the X-Men films, the first being their exploration of themes such as prejudice and segregation as well as their heavy ensemble nature and how they rarely resort to a simple ‘us vs them’ attitude. As well as this I’ve enjoyed the way that, unlike many other superhero films, their third act finale often centres on an emotional payoff rather than a simple, weightless fight sequence. I often find that the lesser entries in the franchise are ones that disregard these aspects, and ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’ disregards those aspects.

It is disappointing to say the least, and while ‘Apocalypse’ is certainly not the worst X-Men film (by a long way in fact) it’s far from one of the best (possibly by a wider margin). For starters it never really addresses any of the aspects that once made this franchise unique. The first hour is devoted specifically to setting up each new character and finding out where the returning characters are. It darts from one to the next at a terrific pace and inevitably not everyone gets their chance to shine. Which is frustrating as some of the characterisations of the beloved characters are at their best, Nightcrawler, Cyclops, Storm and Angel all look as if they are lifted straight from a comic book, but like the drawings of a comic book they ultimately end up being flat and one dimensional.

But it turns out that being one dimensional is the least of a character’s worries as many other fall victim of tragic inconsistencies. As Jean Grey, Sophie Turner comes across as mind numbingly uninteresting, Jennifer Lawrence’s mystique lacks charisma of any kind and is horrifically sombre. Worst of all though is the titular Apocalypse who not only has a design that I can only describe as a baffling oddity, but his plan is so one note and his motivation is so unclear (he essentially hates humanity because he’s the bad guy). So not only does this create your basic egomaniac villain but also brings us right into the ‘us vs them’ scenario that I mentioned before. Bad guy wants to end humanity, good guys have to stop him, the end. The disadvantage of such a basic moral compass is that any sub-plots or character development is crushed by the massive ensemble on top of it. It sacrifices evolution and emotion for exposition.

But despite this each actor is competent in their role, if anything it only makes it more frustrating that they have so little to do. On top of that ‘Apocalypse’ fails to really advance any aspects of this universe that hasn’t been explored before. Surely there’s only so many times someone can say “You’re not students now, you’re X-Men”, for Xavier to defend Magneto only to fall out with him and part their separate ways before concluding with someone resolving to form the titular team of mutants.

But going back to those factors I was talking about earlier, can we at least expect a unique finale that relies on emotion over meaningless destruction? Not really. In fact the collateral damage in this film is beyond anything we’ve seen from the DCEU and somehow seems to carries even less weight. We don’t just see a single fictional city levelled we witness the likes of Sydney, New York and Cairo literally wiped off the face of the earth, and none of it really has an impact.

There are a number of deeply impressive scenes such as the return of Quicksilver and another involving Magneto in a forest but for the most part the action sequences themselves are drowned within CGI. Though that’s not necessarily a bad thing (almost every blockbuster is now) the effects have so little weight to them and are so abundantly in your face that at no point was there a scene that I genuinely believed was real, it always felt like what it was, an effect.

A mixed bag for a mixed franchise.

Result: 5/10

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Talkin' Scorsese: Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore

"I'm not a waitress, I'm a singer."

By this point in his career Scorsese had probably established himself as a director firmly planted within the crim genre, with ‘Who’s That Knocking on My Door’, ‘Boxcar Bertha’ and ‘Mean Streets’ all being based around criminal activity. So for his next project to be a comedic drama with nothing to do with gangsters of street thugs, it must have been quite a surprise at the time and critics were presumably eager to see what he could do with this different genre.
A widow (Ellen Burstyn) travels with her pre-teen sun across the southwestern Unites States in search of a better life where she hopes to pursue the singing career she'd abandoned when she married.
So long story short I wasn’t really sure of what to expect from this, I had a mild assumption that given that Scorsese would return to the crime genre very soon maybe his foray into romantic-comedy-drama didn’t go too well. But I was actually pleasantly surprised, not only that but I was more impressed that even at this relatively early stage in his career, his directorial style is still planted all over this. The film is full of numerous euphoric and uplifting moments but under Scorsese’s direction it is also permeated with gritty realism.
Another surprising element is just how well the film has aged. While it is aesthetically planted within the heartland of 1970s America it carries universal themes that almost anyone can relate to. Not only that but the film provides a unique take on the American dream, told from the perspective of a single mother as she tries to navigate the harsh world around her. For mainstream 1970s American cinema this is an unusual find, to gain such a unique perspective of the very heartland of America is undoubtedly commendable.
Ellen Burstyn (probably best known for playing Linda Blair’s mother in the iconic horror masterpiece ‘The Exorcist’) went on to win the Academy Award for best Actress for this role and I would say it was well deserved. She is the heart and soul of this film with a performance that is brimming with humour and joy but also bear enough dramatic depth and substance to make you really care for her plight and her character. There’s also such an honesty to it, a performance that you ease into and gradually accept as it moves along, like a real person you slowly grow more attached to her with the more time you spend with her. You become invested within her journey and though it is occasionally painful to experience there are enough joyous and perceptive moments to make give you hope that none of this is actually in vain, there really is hope for a better life elsewhere.
The contrast between the harrowing and the hilarious is a testament to Scorsese’s ability as a filmmaker, the way in which he accomplishes both comedy and tragedy so effectively and efficiently are deeply impressive. The almost painful moments of realism are handled with as much seriousness as one could hope for, with the entire atmosphere shifting to accommodate an emotional reaction. But then just when you think the scene is done Scorsese flips the scenario and takes things to comedic exaggeration not to the point where they feel out of place or inconsistent, but just so that the audience can revel in the good times.
Another aspect that helps make this feel very much like a true Scorsese movie is the inclusion of Harvey Keitel, in his third collaboration with the director, who appears as a suave suiter that brings a sense of smoothness to the role but also some trademark grit and violence. Once again it acts as a unique take on an archetypal role.
It’s not quite a perfect film though, as I said earlier the performance of Burstyn gradually improves in appreciation as the film progresses, but the film as a whole is much the same. It gets off to a rocky start with a somewhat unnecessary and clichéd scene depicting a younger Alice and establishing her goals and ambitions, for a film that did everything else in such a unique way that opening in particular feels very uninspired. As well as that there are a few moments in which the film feels uneven, I was talking earlier about the contrast of comedy and tragedy that is peppered throughout, and while it works most of the time occasionally the switch can be somewhat jarring.
Tender and heartfelt but also realistic and harsh when it needs to be, ‘Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore’ is a unique and underrated addition in Scorsese’s filmography.
Result: 7/10

Monday, 16 May 2016

Green Room

"Gentlemen, you're trapped. Things have gone south. It won't end well."

Sometimes you see a film that really gives you joy in how good it is, how excellently constructed it is, how well it accomplishes its goals and how well it revitalises a genre that one feared was a forgotten art form. ‘Green Room’ is not one of those films, don’t get me wrong, it is excellently constructed, accomplishes its goals and revitalises a genre that I feared was a lot art form. But joy is not exactly the word I would use to describe this film, or any word relating to it really.

A Punk Rock band This Ain’t Right has fallen on hard times and to make ends meet they agree to take a last minute gig in a secluded bar in the Pacific Northwest, only to find it run and populated by neo-Nazi skinheads. When they stumble upon a crime scene backstage, the night quickly descends into violence.

Now you can say all you want but I think this film is really missing something with its title as nothing would draw me to a cinema faster than the film ‘Punk Rock vs Nazis and Patrick Stewart’. But then again that might not be the most marketable of titles (it’s kind of hard to fit it on a poster) and we already have enough ‘vs’ movies this year, although this one would be at the top of my list for sure. Especially with the knowledge that it’s being directed by Jeremy Saulnier as he is one of the most inventive and interesting people working within the indie scene today. His previous film, ‘Blue Ruin’, was a beautiful film full of massive and sweeping set pieces that used its expansion to create a sense of isolation. With ‘Green Room’ he confines the space and maintains that sense of isolation and the effect is even better, with a claustrophobic and creeping atmosphere to play into the strengths of a tight and confined story.

The confines of the plot allow the events of ‘Green Room’ to play out in a fast and brutal fashion. It alternates between tight and edgy conversations and astonishing bursts of violence that really are brutal in a fashion that I haven’t witnessed in a while. It’s partially due to the gory nature of them as ‘Green Room’ does not shy away from its violence at all, it’s graphic and in your face. But it’s also the result of some great tension building and (something that a lot of modern storytellers seem to forget) the art of the surprise.

When I say surprise I don’t mean in the style of a jump-scare, a brief and ultimately meaningless burst of suspense, no. Here I mean plot twists, character deaths, circumstantial revelations that either transpire through the action or the conversation and are so shocking and difficult to guess in the build up to the events that when anything does actually transpire, you end up catching your heart in your mouth, and all the while Saulnier is still raising that tension and maintaining that break neck pace, this is a rush that doesn’t stop until the film ends.

There is even a certain amount of surprise in the way each character is portrayed. As opposed to the shallow hard case outcast he claims to be, Anton Yelcher’s character is given a subtle amount of depth which later adds to the suspense as he and the rest of the band have their limits tested and are forced to reveal unknown capabilities. Patrick Stewart meanwhile, as the leader of the Nazi cult is not a maniacal psychopath you may have been expecting, he is much more grounded and logical, which makes the whole situation even more unnerving, he is a commanding presence who litsens to the situation and establishes a course of action based on cold, hard facts. It is chilling to behold. There’s also no mercy to be found in the cold and stark cinematography that creates an atmosphere of utter rejection and difficulty.

There’s this underlying grind house sensibility to the film as well, a gritty realism that is also stylised in such a way that it reminded me of the violent siege films of the 1970s, like Sam Peckinpah’s ‘Straw Dogs’ or even more strongly, John Carpenter’s earlier work like ‘Assault on Precinct 13’ (which happens to be a favourite of mine so that is a indeed compliment). In fact ‘Green Room’ reminded me how much I miss those kinds of films, contained thrillers that are not afraid to surprise and shock you, something that a studio would rarely release as it actually challenges and unnerves their audience.

Not for the faint hearted, but for everyone else ‘Green Room’ is a violent and visceral siege movie that packs an intelligent side to it as well.

Result: 8/10

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Everybody Wants Some

"You've got to embrace your inner strange, man. Just be weird."

Richard Linklater has described this latest directorial outing as the “spiritual sequel” to ‘Dazed and Confused’, a title that carries some weight to it. ‘Dazed and Confused’ is a indisputably great movie, one that you can revisit time and time again the same way that you would revisit old friends, hang out with them, reminisce with them and consider what lies in store. ‘Everybody Wants Some’ has to reflect that ideology but also represent a shift of perspective, after all it’s been over two decades since we left  Pink, Wooderson, Slater and Simone travelling down that highway (I wonder if they ever got those Aerosmith tickets) and we’ve grown up a lot since then.

August, 1980. As baseball player Jake (Blake Jenner) arrives at his Texan college he has a few days before classes begin to bond with his new teammates and settle into this new phase of his life.

You may notice that the plot summary I gave there was somewhat vague and the reason is because you have to think of this film in the same vein that you would ‘Dazed and Confused’ (incidentally my recommended synopsis of that film is as follows; 1973, the last day of school. End of synopsis) a film that plays fast and loose, it doesn’t stop to admire it’s more profound moments, is simply lets the audience find them for themselves, much the same way that life itself works. Where Linklater succeeded is by taking a story of dumb teenagers and making it a profound reflection of life without anyone really knowing why. To this day I can never exactly pin down why ‘Dazed and Confused’ stands as one of my all-time favourite movies, I just know that I love it.

‘Everybody Wants Some’ has a similar feel to it, from one viewing it can be seen as a film that simply follows a few ordinary days of life, but somehow saying so much more. Over the course of three days we see the characters attending four different parties and in between they just sit around and talk. Plotting is rarely at the forefront of Linklater’s writing, it’s the characters and camaraderie between them that make up this story and it’s one that risks being overindulgent or clichéd. But somehow it avoids that, either by emphasising certain events of leaving other unmentioned the film rarely feels like it’s trying to be something. For example no one ever seems to question how every character seems to have a complete wardrobe change between each party, but at the same time there is such a bravado to the characters competitive nature that it’s almost self-referentially hilarious. A friendly game of ping pong goes to a life or death situation and it’s all played completely straight faced, the flip from one extreme to another is what helps emphasise that none of this is really meant to be taken seriously.

But on the other hand, a lot of it is. One aspect of Linklater’s writing that I have always admired is how ne never shows an ounce of contempt for his characters, he never undermines their struggles and always shows compassion to them. He makes their problems our problems, whether it be about the ever changing hierarchy of the college house, pulling girls or baseball, we become invested in all of them.

The characters in question are very make oriented. 12 characters, all men. In that respect the film loses some of the scope that ‘Dazed and Confused’ had. The women in ‘Everybody Wants Some’ are supporting characters, the driving force of the guy’s desires to either be conquered or met with harsh rejection. Some have labelled this as misogyny but I feel as if there are enough examples of the men being put squarely in their place, being reminded of their own adolescent stupidity or just acting idiotically enough on their own to remind us that this isn’t a case of women being treated poorly, it’s just that the story is not from their perspective. The macho-jock image is ridiculed just as much as it is admired.

Those jocks in question are assembled from a relatively unknown cast. Together they create a group of shifting alliances, jostling positions, comradeship and it somehow works perfectly. There isn’t necessarily an individual that steals the show but the group work so well together, their chemistry and solidarity being equally impressive that as the film ploughs along, more and more they strat to resemble an old group of friend.

Linklater doesn’t seek to mock the past, nor does he seek to boast of it, he simply wants to say how fun it was.

Result: 8/10

Friday, 13 May 2016

My Ten Favourite Palm d'Or Winners

So the 2016 Cannes Film Festival is well under way and as George Miller and the rest of this year’s jury deliberate over what will take the top prize, the famed Palme d’Or. This prize goes back for nearly three quarters of a century and though it’s gone by many names and titles it remains of one of the most prestigious prizes in cinema, awarded to films of a ground breaking, boundary pushing and not at all sometimes pretentious nature. Over the course of their history they have given the award to some truly incredible films and today I’m going to pick my ten favourite Palm d’Or winners.

But here’s the problem, there are a lot of films to choose from here and there are so many that can easily be called great. So here are a few honourable mentions ‘The Tin Drum’, ‘if…’, ‘The Leopard’, ‘All that Jazz’, ‘The Wages of Fear’, ‘Brief Encounter’, ‘M*A*S*H’, ‘sex, lies and videotape’, and ‘The Conversation’. So with that out of the way here are my final ten favourites.

10: 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days

Few films have made trivial aspects of everyday life seem as claustrophobic and intense as Cristian Mungiu’s Romanian film that bagged the award in 2007. The plot follows two university students that try to arrange an illegal abortion (the procedure being banned in Romania) but ultimately the abortion aspect is only a McGuffin to move the plot along so the film can concern itself with life’s trivialities and the consequences of every little action. It’s a chance to flesh out unique characters and their struggles, actions and aspirations, something that Mungiu’s direction captures perfectly, limiting the audience’s perspective to that of the characters. The story itself just feels so honest and genuine, not providing any easy answers and emphasising that life goes on no matter what.

9: Kagemusha

The Oscars may never have given a real statuette to Akira Kurosawa (not counting honorary ones) but Cannes got around to it five years before the Japanese director was even nominated for ‘Ran’. One of Kurosawa’s last great epics was daring enough to eviscerate and question the themes that the director had spent his entire career upholding, identity, politics and honour are all put under the surgeon’s knife here and the result was one of Kurosawa’s most commercially successful films ever. Telling the story of a lower class criminal who impersonates a dying warlord to enter the world of politics it stands as another classic example of Kurosawa at his best. At a time when he was being rejected by his own country as “old fashioned” he threw almost everything he had at ‘Kagemusha’ and bringing forward a film of great design, cinematography and one breath taking image after another.

8: Paris, Texas

They don’t make movies like ‘Paris, Texas’ anymore and if they do they tend to slip under the mainstream radar. For a film to be so radically experimental yet tackle issues of such resonance and universal evocation, to treat it with such loving intimacy and soaring grandeur seems impossible yet ‘Paris Texas’ achieves all this and more. The plot focuses on an amnesiac who, after mysteriously wandering out of the desert, attempts to reconnect with his brother and son. They end up embarking on a voyage to track down his long-missing wife. The tale is funny at times and heart breaking at others, but always emotional and set to the backdrop of the beautifully shot American Southwest.

7: Barton Fink

While Joel and Ethan Coen made a name for themselves on the independent circuit in the early 1990s, it was this surreal tale of Hollywood writers, demented hotels and serial killers, that really carved their style into our minds. It almost defies convention and categorisation, is it a comedy, a horror, a noir? It’s all of them and none of them, perhaps the only real way to describe it is as a Coen Brother’s movie. It manages to make statements on every subject imaginable from the creative process, to Hollywood as well as fascism, slavery, intellectualism and the differences between high and low culture. With Roman Polanski as Jury president for that year the film won big, taking the Best Actor award for John Turturo, Best Director for Joel and Ethan as well as the Palm d’Or itself,in fact it was the last film to do so as immediately after ‘Barton Fink’s’ victory Cannes changed the rules to prevent another film winning Best Director and Best Picture.

6: Rome, Open City

Though ‘Bicycle Thieves’ is often credited with introducing the wave of Italian neorealism (yeah, we’re getting nerdy here) that swept across the world in the 1940s it’s true genesis can be found with Roberto Rossellini’s drama set within Rome during the Nazi occupation in 1944. Ironically it was met with harsh reviews in its native Italy, whose audiences wanted escapism after the war rather than a harsh reminder of their reality but internationally the film was met with critical acclaim. Through the writing and direction it sought to capture the real experience of the era’s poverty stricken masses. Its effect was unflinching and sometimes harrowing, but with such a sense of humanity and beneath it ‘Rome, Open City’ can still resonate with audiences to this day as it did for the Cannes jury in 1945.

5: The Third Man

One of the most influential films of all time, considered to stand as one of the best noir’s ever made as well as simply one of the all-time great films, full stop. ‘The Third Man’ is a masterful display of atmospheric filmmaking at its finest, as well as having some terrific plot twists and what I will call Orson Welles’ best performance, being so utterly devious and wonderfully magnetic. Set within the war torn ruins of Vienna an American writer searches for a missing friend only to become embroiled in a complex plot of assorted players and a new world order. ‘The Third Man’ was not just great on a technical level, it tapped into something about the culture of the time, contrasting its damaged characters with the damaged landscape around it, forcing audiences to confront the collateral damage and aftermath of a devastating war, but dressing it up in some spectacular noir stylistics.

4: Pulp Fiction

Tarantino has always sited French cinema as a major influence on his work, so it was only fitting that his sprawling masterpiece won the top prize at Cannes, and even more fittingly that the 1994 Jury president was Clint Eastwood, the star of the film that Tarantino has frequently named his favourite of all time ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’. Following the interconnected stories of criminals and low life’s on the streets of L.A it was stylish, exquisitely executed, metaphysical and almost transcendent in its themes. Then there is the glorious dialogue, sentences that weave plot details and character backstories with small talk about burgers and foot massages. ‘Pulp Fiction’ revitalised the career of John Travolta and threw Samuel L Jackson into the stratosphere, it was unconventional, frenetic and magnificent.  

3: Taxi Driver

‘Taxi Driver’ is the greatest character study ever put to film, it’s an introspective journey into the mind of a ticking time bomb as Travis Bickle, a damaged and isolated individual tries so desperately to conform with the society he both envies and despises. As a sociopathic, Vietnam veteran suffering from insomnia Bickle patrols the streets in his Taxi, searching for a purpose and meaning to his dilemma, trying to find some resolution to his suffering in whatever form he can. Martin Scorsese crafted a film of vibrant style and traumatic grittiness, adapting Paul Schrader’s intricate script to the big screen in a way that only he could. When it came out in 1976 it forced America to look at the collateral damage of a decade of war, the alienation and social decay felt by an entire nation. Robert De Niro turns in one of his best performances that resonates so deeply for so many reasons. We have all felt as lonely as Travis feels, was have all been angry with the world and searching for some kind of cathartic release.

2: La Dolce Vita

Translated to English as ‘The Sweet Life’, Federico Fellini’s 1960 masterpiece was an instant international success and forever cemented his position as one of the greatest auteurs in film history. The film follows Marcello Rubini, a journalist writing for gossip magazines, over seven days and nights on his journey through the "sweet life" of Rome in a fruitless search for love and happiness. Part fantasy, part expressionistic and part realistic ‘La Dolce Vita’ took that urge for escapism and used it as a mirror against its audience. Fellini played around on every level of filmmaking from structure, editing, scope and narrative to create a film that spoke of religion, love and society as a whole, making it a landmark of 20th Century cinema and the obvious choice for the 1960 Palm d’Or.

1: Apocalypse Now

Watching Francis Ford Coppola’s ultimate bad trip today, it only becomes more remarkable that from a production riddled with financial turmoil, freak weather conditions, underprepared actors and heart attacks, emerged this glorious masterpiece of insanity and darkness. In the midst of the Vietnam War a military captain is tasked with tracking down and assassinating a rogue colonel. It was a film that not only confronted the horror of war, it confronted the horror that lies within us all, the darkest parts of the human soul and our own fragile psyche. To this day no film scares or disturbs me to the core in the same way that ‘Apocalypse Now’ does, for its brutality and bleakness but also its beauty and what it all implies about the human condition. With the ensemble cast of Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Laurence Fishburne, Dennis Hopper and Harrison Ford it is epic in every sense of the word, winning the Palm d’Or in 1979 and remaining just as relevant and haunting since.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Mother's Day

"Hello Atlanta, and happy mother's day."

Holiday movies are becoming a pain aren’t they? Remember when being called a holiday movie meant that while your film was set at a specific time of the year that involves a celebration of some kind it wasn’t a necessity to it. ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ didn’t depend on being set at Thanksgiving (it’s not hard to think of an excuse for Steve Martin to need to get back to his family), ‘The Apartment’ is not purely concerned with New Year’s Eve and the only real benefit of ‘Die Hard’ being set at Christmas is to hear the late, great Alan Rickman’s monotone “Ho, ho, ho”. My point is this, the holidays are not an excuse to make terrible films.

As Mother's Day draws close, a group of seemingly unconnected people come to terms with the relationships they have with their mothers. These include Sandy (Jennifer Aniston), a divorced mother of two boys whose ex-husband has recently remarried a younger woman. Miranda (Julia Roberts) is an accomplished writer who gave up her only child for adoption at birth and is now persuaded by her friend Jesse (Kate Hudson), to go out and find her mother. Meanwhile, Jesse is surprised as her parents come to visit and must come to terms with their failing relationship.

This is the third film in a row from director Gary Marshall that has involved an ensemble cast of seemingly unconnected characters coming together against the backdrop of a holiday of some kind. First we had ‘Valentine’s Day’ which was a sprawling mess of thinly veiled characters and uninteresting stories that existed for the sole purpose of exploiting recognition with the holiday and seeing the cast in question on screen together. Then there was ‘New Year’s Eve’ which was a sprawling mess of thinly veiled characters and uninteresting stories that existed for the sole purpose of exploiting recognition with the holiday and seeing the cast in question on screen together. Now we have ‘Mother’s Day’, can you guess what it is?

A film like ‘Mother’s Day’ could be good if you had interesting, relatable and entertaining characters that you feel empathy for and can be invested within their stories as well as get a few laughs out of them. But every single character within this movie feels like they were lifted from the recycling bin of a terrible sitcom, one where the producers forgot to add a laughing track so after ever…. “joke”….there’s a long silence for where they were expecting you to laugh. Except no one ever laughs, ever.

In fact it’s not just that the characters are not interesting or relatable, they are not even likable. One of the running jokes is that Kate Hudson’s parents are of a different generation and are less than politically correct in some of their remarks. But I would say there is a difference between that kind of gag and just outright racism, I know it’s supposed to be for comedic effect but still some of the dialogue it so awkwardly offensive that you have to wonder if the writers were unloading some deep seated prejudices onto this movie.

For a film that is called ‘Mother’s Day’ there is a surprising lack of any genuine and insightful moments about motherhood. We see mothers helping kids with asthma attacks, unruly vending machines and karaoke related calamities. For the rest of the film they just sort of, do what they’re told, whine about the other people in their lives (specifically men) and mostly just…..I honestly can’t remember, and I don’t really want to.

There are other moments of such ridiculous and contrived schmaltz that it’s sweet enough to be sickening. There’s a scene in which a stand-up comedian is preparing for his routine but when his girlfriend doesn’t show up is forced to take his new born child on stage with him, only to win the contest despite not doing anything that could be described as funny (I’d hate to see the losing contestants). Then there is the obligatory scene in which a father is embarrassed to be buying a personal item for one of his female relatives, in this case it’s a pack for tampons and oh no, he needs a price check. Are you lagging yet? No one else is.

If you love seeing your favourite actors give phoned in performances for sappy storylines that you don’t care about then ‘Mother’s Day’ is the movie for you.

Result: 3/10


Image result for keanu movie poster

"Keanu needs you. I need you."

So sketch comedy has rarely translated brilliantly to the big screen, it’s a simple fact. As a sketch artist the main problem you are likely to face is that of timing, more so than any other comedian. You have to select premises that will be humorous for about five minutes and only five minutes, any shorter and the audience will lose interest in the sketch, if the joke appears to be something that would still be funny five minutes and ten seconds later an audience may feel unsatisfied with the sketch, wanting more. To create an entire film when your forte is making people laugh for five minutes at a time is an arduous task.

Recently dumped by his girlfriend, slacker Rell (Jordan Peele) finds some happiness when a cute kitten winds up on his doorstep. After a heartless thief steals the cat, Rell recruits his cousin Clarence (Keegan-Michael Key) to help him retrieve it.

As I said before, sketch comedy rarely translates well as a feature film, but ‘Keanu’ is one of those rare exceptions. It is somewhat uneven and not entirely cohesive, jumping from one location to another to accommodate more jokes than efficient storytelling. But here is why it works, the jokes are genuinely funny. There is nothing more painful than a comedy film like this where every joke falls flat, where you have to sit through the awkward pauses where the filmmakers assumed people would be laughing but are instead filled with silence. Instead ‘Keanu’ is a wonderfully entertaining treat.

If you are fans of Key and Peele’s other work outside of the big screen then this film will deliver exactly what you would want it to. It lives and dies with their performances and comedic talent. It highlights many of the duo’s strengths, their chemistry, versatility and the ability to be both uptight and loose at the same time. There is also a hint of that glorious, subversive nature that they adopted within so many of their sketches. In the space of 96 minutes it becomes hard to sustain that subversive nature but it crops up from time to time, playing with stereotypes and social boundaries, being smart at times but also crude.

A good comedian plays to their strengths and Key and Peele seem to have recognised, very early on, that as far as movies are concerned, their chemistry is their strength. They are rarely not on screen together and that proves to be a good decision as they are absolutely fantastic together, bouncing off the walls and each other consistently and continuously. The premise itself gives them plenty of opportunities to do that and is absurd enough for their own ridiculousness to fit perfectly within this world. But again they are smart enough to throw in a few nods towards the more uncomfortable topics of our culture, it’s nothing ground breaking but it is refreshing to see a satirical edge to these kind of comedies.

However that does not necessarily mean this is a thinking man’s comedy, in fact many of the jokes are so light they risk floating away, something that I would laugh at while watching but not necessarily remember or quote weeks later. None of the characters really have that much depth so when the film attempts to evoke some kind of emotional impact it doesn’t feel earned. Instead of emotion we get numerous slow motion action scenes that are played for comedic effect, but ultimately feel overused. Although I must admit seeing the titular cat Keanu (who is actually voiced by Keanu Reeves during a hallucinogenic drug trip) running through these scenes of violence, his cuteness contrasting to the brutality around him.

In fact where the film puts aside its other elements in favour of action is where it begins to crumble somewhat. The moments in which it favours action over comedy are where ‘Keanu’ seems to forget where its strengths are. It also doesn’t really work on a serious level as there are too many plot holes and unresolved stories to hope that an audience that’s actually invested in the story could ever take this seriously. But then again it is a comedy so is that even a relevant criticism?

It may not be deep or exquisitely crafted, but ‘Keanu’ is fairly certain to make you laugh, and at the end of the day isn’t that all you really want from a comedy?

Result: 7/10