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Friday, 30 September 2016

The Handmaiden


It says a lot about a director with the skill of Park Chan-wook when you acknowledge how he can take a story about imprisonment, disembowelling people with hammers and accidental incest, then take a story about high class society, love triangles and financial plots only to achieve the same viscerally thrilling and haunting results with both of them.

In a Japanese occupied Korea, 1930s, con man Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) hires a pickpocket named Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) to become the maid of the mysterious and fragile heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), in an attempt to seize her wealth. But the story takes a tawist when the lady falls in love with her maid.

What struck me most about Park Chan-wook’s ‘The Handmaiden’, rather surprisingly, is just what a clash of cultures it represents. While taking a Victorian crime novel, Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, and resetting it within a Japanese occupied Korea (a location that will undoubtedly hold deeper relevance for its native country though one can take a surface glance and deduce that the subject of oppression and subjugation probably plays a part) would undoubtedly result in various sensibilities in how the story itself unfolds, the way in which Chan-wook chooses to structure and frame his story feels reminiscent of many famous directors from Kubrick to Kurosawa, all wrapped up in his usual psychologically twisted nature.

Being told in three parts with a clear structure that establishes, subverts and often outright destroys any expectations you may have built up over the course of the film, ‘The Handmaiden’ speaks volumes about characters who want to escape the lives they are born into. Each new perspective of the story underlines a hidden motive or a new characteristic that can shed light on their innermost desires, be it freedom, acceptance or luxury. The result is that by the end of the film not only do we have a complete understanding of the meaning behind every characters actions (that are sometimes revealed in a non-linear fashion) but we feel a genuine sense of gratitude for the complex portrait that has slowly been crafted over the course of the movie.

Despite being set in the 1930s Chan-wook’s direction has an almost timeless sense to it. His impeccable compositions and synchronistic framing gives the isolated environments a sense of entrapment that can reflect his characters own personal issues. The design is so impeccable that it only highlights the amount of detail and patience taken in capturing them, it is not a thriller that feels concerned primarily with rushing through each plot point as it is one that allows you to soak in the environment and characters in order to understand why the eventual twists and turns in the plot are as significant as they are made to appear.

The characters in question find themselves at the centre of a narrative that is most definitely about power, perversion and sex. While I won’t delve into spoilers I can say that the film is both visually and thematically steeped in sexuality. I’m somewhat divided over whether or not it can be labelled as gratuitous to a certain extent. While at times it is made to feel exploitative in order to reflect the mood of the film itself when Chan-wook wants the love scenes to have more dramatic heft to them it still has an uneasy sense of longevity that risks coming across as unnecessary, especially one in the final few minutes of the film. That being said the way its presented ties in suitably with the thematic meaning behind the scene, as in a film where sex is so often used by characters a means to an end in order to gain power or money of some kind, it’s almost gratifying when the act is committed between two people who are genuinely emotionally connected to one another.

Clocking in at 145 minutes the film suffers slightly in its pacing, where not every section is quite as riveting as another and having established so many interconnected storylines the process of concluding them all at the end is a lengthy one as well. Just when you think the main story is over the minor details still have to be swept up. But by employing this hyper sense of reality Chan-woo brings forward a greater sense of tension and an almost operatic feel to the film as the varying events play out. It also helps that the performances are fantastic across the board with each unique perspective feeling fully realised due to the conviction with which each actor plays their role.   

Exquisitely detailed and emotionally involving as well as viscerally disturbing on some levels, ‘The Handmaiden’ stands as one of Park Chan-wook’s most elegantly crafted films yet.

Result: 9/10

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Talkin' Scorsese: The Age of Innocence


"You gave me my first glimpse of a real life and then ask me to carry on a false one. No one can endure that." 

Though an 18th century period piece would initially appear to be a deviation from Scorsese’s usual calibre of filmmaking. However as he has proven time and time again, he is a director that applies his own themes and sensibilities to the subject matter at hand. His crime movies are about codes, ways of life and honoured agreements that entrap and imprison those who occupy them, his film about high society follows a similar pattern.

Newland Archer (Daniel Day Lewis) is planning to marry the respectable May Welland (Winona Ryder). May's cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), has returned to New York, which causes a shock in society circles due to her unconventional views. As a result Newland becomes increasingly disillusioned with his new fiancée May and her innocence, lack of personal opinion, and sense of self.

So while on the surface this sounds like a standard love triangle that any filmmaker could knock out in their sleep, Martin Scorsese once again managed to look deeper into the themes and resonance of the script and bring forward his own central conceits and ideologies that would evoke more thought provoking ideas and messages from the film. Based off of the book of the same name by Edith Wharton the film is not about reliving the trivial dramas of socialites, it is about examining the way the characters’ lives are dictated by the society they inhabit. How social conventions result in each one of them having to uphold certain expectations and how that can conflict with their own personal desires.

Just because the film lacks gunfire and gangland violence does not make it any less brutal than Scorsese’s previous efforts. The emotional powerhouse on display from a man’s [passion being slowly crushed to the suppressive nature of the society he occupies. It is frequently tragic and poignant to an almost painful extent, not only because the script is able to craft such empathetic characters but it so fully fleshes out the world they inhabit that their inevitable heartbreak seems to crushingly unavoidable that we are almost disheartened that we even dared to hope that the outcome could be anything else.

But one of the elements that makes this environment feel so fleshed out is, as always, Scorsese’s direction. In the past he has employed his flashier and more flamboyant techniques to reflect a characters state of mind but here Scorsese’s camera simply observes. He takes note of the smallest and subtlest of moments and it is through these actions and observations that we not only perfectly understand each characters motivations without it ever being truly explained, but also the way society around them restricts their every inflection and gesture. Not only does that atmosphere create an impression that hangs over the rest of the movie and establishes a clear motivation for every decision on display, but when some passionate moments do seep through they seem all the more daring for it.

This technique requires immense patience and one would think that may be difficult for a director known for crafting films of such high energy like Scorsese. But once again he is able to defy convention and move his camera slowly through the high society. Normally he never relies on static shots and though the camera is never still within ‘The Age of Innocence’ it moves at such a slow pace that it gives the viewer time to soak in the rich details of the surroundings and when he wants it to the director can plant his camera directly into a conversation. It does not seek to alienate or separate the viewer from the characters, instead it serves to implant it directly within their establishment.

The performances in question are superb, as one would of course expect from the likes of Daniel Day Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer. Though it’s not as explosive as the roles that would earn him a place among legends, Day Lewis’ performance here is a restrained but effective one. He is extremely confident as the more conflicted figure, caught between his devotion to upholding society’s expectations and fulfilling his own desires. Pfeiffer’s performance is one that leaves much up to interpretation, the way she cuts through conventions and seems to take delight in seducing Newland with the power of her opinions. The biggest surprise though could be Winona Ryder, as the way her character’s arc is written and structured allows her to reveal hidden depth and complexity within her performance, but she is able to convey all of this with great conviction and is ultimately integral to the final emotional punch that underpins the movie.

Stunningly directed and beautifully constructed as well as emotionally riveting, ‘The Age of Innocence’ is an off kilter genre for Scorsese but one that he can pull off with equal brilliance.

Result: 8/10

Monday, 26 September 2016

The Magnificent Seven


"Every man's got the right to choose the way he dies."

It seems that with the slew of remakes we have experienced in recent years people have been relatively indifferent towards a remake of 'The Magnificent Seven’. Instead of the usual cries over how Hollywood could tarnish another classic or asking whether anything is sacred anymore people seem more curious and interested in this reimagining. Mainly because the original is itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s action masterpiece ‘Seven Samurai’ and despite its legacy ‘The Magnificent Seven’ leaves room for potential improvement, it just depends on whether they can find it.

Following a series of raids and murders committed by the a corrupt industrialist (Peter Skarsgard) upon the small mining community of Rose Creek, widow Emma Cullen (Haley Bennet) recruits a bounty hunter named Sam Chisholm (Denzel Washington) to help them. In turn Chisholm recruits six other gunslingers (Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia Rulfo and Martin Sensmeier) to aid the townsfolk.

Like the 1960 film of the same name, ‘The Magnificent Seven’ relies heavily on the charisma and chemistry of its cast to elevate a fairly standard plot. That is not necessarily a criticism as that simplistic plot is intrinsically linked with anything attempting to reimagine ‘Seven Samurai’ as Kurosawa practically invented a dozen action tropes that are still being used to this day. In fact that simplicity can act as more of a strength due to the breathing room it gives a filmmaker to deepen and expand the characters within that story. Sadly that isn’t quite the case here.

If there is one thing that is evident throughout ‘The Magnificent Seven’ it is that Antoine Fuqua has a deep passion and love for the western genre. You can tell this not only in the way his movie indulges in the usual trappings of a western (there is literally a scene in which a character walks through some swinging doors into a saloon only for everyone to star at him and the piano player to stop tapping out a tune), but also in the smaller details that firmly route this film within the genre. Credit where it’s due this is not, as I feared it would be, merely an action movie wrapped in the aesthetic of a western. It is a full blooded and lovingly crafted addition to the field.

Mind you, as someone who is a big fan of the classic western, I happened to enjoy these aspects quite a lot. There was a unique pleasure to see these tropes being executed without a hint of cynicism or parody and they rarely feel cheap or forced. Not only that but numerous other aspects suit the idea of a modern western very well, particularly the action which is accompanied by long awaited standoffs to make the heart pounding moments feel earned as well. I don’t simply want to say that a modern western equates to bigger and louder but in this case that is an accurate description. There is definitely a grandiose aspect to this remake that makes it feel all the more realised and Fuqua is able to direct is very well, with no cheap gimmicks like shaky cam or quick edits, instead we get real stunts and just good filmmaking.

But going back to my earlier point about characters, because that is really where the film falls flat. While they each have decent chemistry and the cast themselves all do a good job distinguishing themselves as unique presences within the story, the way they develop comes across as either rushed or lacklustre. For example, Ethan Hawke’s character has a backstory involving PTSD from the Civil War and while it’s addressed from time to time, it inevitably disappears with little reason behind it in order to get back to the action. While the cast as a whole are enjoyable to watch the likes of Washington and Pratt feel as if their charisma isn’t being fully utilised despite being on display to a certain degree. Not only that but with the group spending essentially no time with the villagers they are supposed to be protecting there is less of a connection between the two groups and inevitably we are not as invested in their sacrifice.

But maybe this approach to establishing the central seven as presences rather than characters relates to the overall message of the film. It never seeks to look under their skin and question the invulnerability of the cowboy icon. In fact I’m going to have to dip into minor spoilers to fully convey this point about how certain differences in ‘The Magnificent Seven’ highlight what could be a big change in modern moviegoers. In both ‘Seven Samurai’ and 1960’s ‘The Magnificent Seven’ the ending stands as a sombre reminder of the warriors sacrifice and explains the notion that once they have accomplished the peace they set out to achieve, the warriors have become obsolete. Despite their victory they face an uncertain future in comparison to the farmers return to normality and their sacrifice stands as a reminder of the price they paid. The final moments are not about glamourizing the western myth, but deconstructing it. However the 2016 remake is almost the complete reversal of that. Firstly because instead of noting the end of an era and closing with the words of “We lost. We always loose” as the original did, the remake concludes that the sacrifice and bravery of the cowboys will make them legends. That is a slight deviation from the theme the original was trying to convey and its made even worse when it is revealed that Washington’s character had personal reasons for being involved with the conflict that involve revenge. Not only does the movie refuse to acknowledge any notion that the cowboys are not the victors, they parade the myth of the west more so now than the 1960 version did. Despite the common impression that modern movies are more cynical than those of yesteryear, it is the movie made sixty years ago that takes a more pessimistic and ultimately more complex view of a cultural icon. What does that say about us as an audience?

More moderate than magnificent, but still enjoyable.

Result: 6/10

Sunday, 25 September 2016

The Light Between Oceans


"One day, this will all feel like a dream."

A lot of people had a good year in 2015, and two of those people were Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander. With Hollywood’s most recent power couple (insert some kind of reference to Brangelina here) each being part of a string of critical successes from ‘Ex Machina’ to ‘Slow West’ and each securing an Oscar nomination with ‘Steve Jobs’ and ‘The Danish Girl’ with the latter winning the award for Vikander. So their latest project together is something that should peak anyone’s curiosity.

A lighthouse keeper named Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender) and his wife Isabel (Vikander) live on an isolated island, cut off from the rest of society. One day they rescue an infant girl adrift at sea and adopt her as their own. Years later, the couple discovers the child's true parentage and are faced with the moral dilemma of their actions.

Given Derek Cianfrance’s track record (‘Blue Valentine’, ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’) of using the structure of his movies structure as an emotional sledge hammer as well as the terrific performances on display in all of them, how they convey and advance the central conceit of the film and further draw you deeper into the world being created on the screen, I was somewhat disappointed with just how predictable ‘The Light Between Oceans’ was. That is not to say the film is without redeeming qualities, but the structure and pace not only felt very conventional in their execution, but also drifted into a state of repetitiveness and simplicity.

The result of this is that not only does the movie inevitably feel tired and tedious to a certain extent, but it feels as if there is a lack of trust between the storyteller and his audience. It’s almost as if the movie is so worried audiences won’t be able to understand what is transgressing on the screen that they feel forced to repeat narrative beats and emotional pivots. Of course this repetitive feel could be an attempt to pan the running time but if that is the case then it comes as little consolation, as at 133 minutes the film’s pacing ultimately suffers and cutting it down by thirty minutes or so wouldn’t have hurt it at all. Instead of a tightly constructed, emotionally heavy drama the end result feels unfocussed and a little manipulative in how I tries to work in extra emotional beats where none exist.

However, the crux of the film has always been the performances of Vikander and Fassbender. Their roles are reminiscent of a far better movie that this could have been. Fassbender’s performance is a measured one, brimming with confidence and a need to protect his own domain and family. Given that Tom is a man battling PTSD from World War 1 and burdened by the randomness of life and death Fassbender uses subtle tactics to bring each conflicting aspect forward time and time again. He fully conveys the essence of a man separated from most, content with the company of just one other person. That aspect of Fassbender’s performance in particular seeks to make his on screen relationship seem that much more believable and truthful, you gain a sense of their bond as well as their emotional attachment to one another.

Vikander is equally fantastic in her role. In many ways eh is the polar opposite to the kind of performance Fassbender has to give. Whereas her male co-star portrayed a character who battled inner demons and contained his emotions, Vikander lets her own feelings run wild in the open air, meaning that more of the explosive dramatic scenes belong to her. Sadly the film itself doesn’t give her enough time to fully develop the character to the extent that would have made her a truly equal counterpart to Fassbender, but when she gets the room to breathe Vikander’s talent is easy to spot from a distance.

I am however, slightly frustrated with how Cianfrance chooses to shoot his actors and wish he could do so with the same skill with which he shoots the landscape, which is exceptionally photographed and composed. But when it comes to capturing the sentiments of his actors, he pushes the camera right up to them, as if forcing the audience to sink into the central emotions. While this technique can be effective at times, it is used so frequently and under such misguidance here that it becomes a distraction and while I would never call it detrimental to the film itself it does seek to continually take you out of the moment, and the film already has enough problems that any element that puts further distance between the audience and the filmmakers has a negative effect.

Despite being anchored by two impressive performances from Fassbender and Vikander, ‘The Light Between Oceans’ is too unfocussed and too simplistic in its execution to be the great film it should be.

Result: 5/10

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Blair Witch


"Do you believe in the stories about the Blair Witch?"

The world was a very different place way back in 1999, and some of that is epitomised by the fact that ‘The Blair Witch Project’ was as hugely successful as it was. The phenomenon arrives at a unique time for the horror genre, one where in a world at the forefront of the media saturation, reality TV and viral marketing were more than ready to get behind a somewhat staged performance that appeared real. One wonders if it is even possible for another instalment of the franchise, in this day and age to replicate that success.

James Donahue (James Allen McCune) and a group of fellow college students along with their local guides venture into the Black Hills Forrest in Maryland in order to try and solve the mystery surrounding the disappearance of James’ sister Hanah, but what they find is far from what they expected.

In all honesty the most enduring legacy of ‘The Blair Witch Project’ (aside from creating the found footage genre which has only spawned thousands of hours of lazy, uninventive and poorly realised “horror” films) may be its advertising campaign. It went to great lengths to propel the idea that the events of the film were factual. When it premiered at Sundance audiences were given flyers asking if they had seen any of the “missing” students. As it toured through college campus’ none of the cast members would ever be present, just a representative of the studio to say “Here’s this film we pieced together, what do you think?” The movie’s webpage contained fake police reports and witness interviews sparking heated debates on whether it was real across the internet, they studio even distributed a few bootleg copies of the film before it hit theatres to suggest that maybe these kids really were lost, and this underground documentary was now being paraded for the sake of profit.

But enough about that, what of this new version by Adam Wingard? In all honestly to call it “new” is doing it some favours. Part of me wonders if some studio head was upset that advances in amateur camera devices had made the original ‘Blair Witch Project’ seem dated and set out to revamp it with drones, camera phones and better quality cameras. All in all ‘Blair Witch’ is almost an exact rehash of the first instalment, cutting out certain elements like the interviews which lessen the sense of realism that made the original memorable, while adding a few GoPro shots to make it feel more modern.

It is legitimately surprising at the lack of innovation within ‘Blair Witch’, especially from a director like Wingard who has established himself as a genre twisting, inventive mind in the horror genre. His skills behind the camera are on display here, at least on a visual standpoint, but they are rarely used to convey or display anything original.

Of course this is hardly the first time a sequel has repeated similar beats of its predecessors, from ‘The Force Awakens’ to ‘Creed’, from ‘The Last Crusade’ to ‘Toy Story 3’. However what separates those movies from a sequel like ‘Blair Witch’ is how it refuses to expand upon any of the ideas brought up in the original, nor does it serve to bring any new concepts of characterisations to the table. While James is given a decent motivation the characters soon devolve into interchangeable blank slates whom I have little interest or investment in.

If anything ‘Blair Witch’ feels like a step backwards from a filmmaking perspective. The camerawork may be technically superior to the old movie but it reduces the authenticity of the film and lessens the fright factor. Not only that but with an abundance of jump scares and fake outs that only serve to further reduce the tension and atmospheric nature of the film. It becomes infuriatingly repetitive and with shot after shot of people just walking through the woods, almost following a formulaic sensibility of when to insert a character jumping in front of the camera, or a noise in the distance to create a false sense of tension to ensure the audience doesn’t fall asleep.

There are moments that work, scenes in which the dense woods is made to feel claustrophobic and the ambiguous nature of what these characters are looking for hangs over them with an unnatural feeling of dread. But while the found footage genre isn’t exactly renowned for its subtlety, the sound design for ‘Blair Witch’ is shockingly atrocious. It seeks to numb the audience into a state of fear by throwing one booming noise after another, almost trying to obliterate your senses with its loudness.

Not only does ‘Blair Witch’ become a rehash of the original, but it falls victims to the tropes and clichés of a dozen terrible horror films since 1999, from the jump scares to the all-consuming noise.

Result: 4/10 

Monday, 19 September 2016

Andrei Rublev: A Film of the Earth

One of the things that marks Andrei Tarkovsky as one of the greatest directors of all time is his completion separation from every filmmaker before or after him. Despite the fact that homage and imitation are regarded as part of the course in movie making Tarkovsky never expressed a desire to mimic any of his fellow filmmakers, he sought to be unique in order to make a genuine contribution to cinema as an art form he sought to capture film as a true personal expression, he would use his camera the way a painter would use his brush.
I use that particular metaphor in order to make a connection to what may be Tarkovsky’s defining masterpiece, ‘Andrei Rublev’ (though when you only make seven films and your worst performance is an 82% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s rather difficult to choose a definitive masterpiece, out of ‘Ivan’s Childhood’, ‘Andrei Rublev’, ‘Solaris’, ‘Stalker’, ‘The Mirror’, ‘Nostalgia’ and ‘The Sacrifice’, they are all worthy of immeasurable praise). Technically speaking 2016 marks its fiftieth anniversary, I say technically because it was only screened once in 1966 before being pulled by censors, only to be shown again at the 1969 Cannes Fil Festival before it was finally re-released in the Soviet Union in 1971, only to go through another treatment so it could be shown in the U.S in 1973.
Considered to be the most ambitious biographical film of its era, ‘Andrei Rublev’ is loosely based upon the life of the icon painter of the same name, set against the backdrop of an unstable and violent land that is medieval Russia. Tarkovsky often referred to his movie as “a film of the earth”, one that displayed as much complexity in its texture and elemental aspects as it did in portraying its main character. Every shot has such a beautifully tactile feel to it, drawing the viewer in with its composition and layers of staging. The film is about the history and culture of an entire country as much as it is about its title character. Rublev is not merely the focus of the film, he is the vessel from which Tarkovsky carries his audience through this bleak and violent world. From observing the suffering of peasants to the cruelty of warfare as well as the pressures of the aristocracy and what place art has in this frenzied environment.
Tarkovsky’s description is an accurate one most definitely. He projects the real world onto the screen through naturalistic components. Everything has a real and visceral feel to it, but they also serve to make each scene look more dynamic and complex. But these elemental aspects are not simply present to give a scene some visual flair, they are included to enhance the emotion of each scene. By placing his otherworldly hero in such a chaotic and alien environment Tarkovsky creates a heightened sense of awareness not only for the characters on state of mind but their struggle to find a place within the world. The movie opens with a seemingly unrelated prologue that portrays a man attempting to achieve flight via a hot air balloon, but on a closer inspection the scene is there to lay out the complex world our title character will have to navigate.
This is one of the reasons why many of the key scenes within ‘Andrei Rublev’ have such an elemental feel to them and rarely allow themselves to be contained to a single level of depth. Rain can become a cleanser and symbol of relief, irregularities within the land can reflect the emotional turmoil that the characters must overcome and a burning mass can be on hand to witness a moment of horrific realisation. Even the individual dust particles (somehow captured with such stunning accuracy in the 1960s) can represent an unsaid tension in the air of a scene.
It all sounds very methodical, but don’t think for a moment that Tarkovsky was above letting emotions rule his style of filmmaking. Above all else there is an almost unexplainable sense that everything in front of us was shot with an instinctive perception of how best to evoke the inner emotions from every audience member. Maybe it arises in ‘Andie Rublev’ out of a common connection between both Rublev and Tarkovsky, one that goes beyond than sharing a first name. An artist who almost feels inadequate to answer for the chaos of the world he inhabits, whose own principles hinder his career (from Rublev’s refusal to use his talents as a painter to exploit people’s fears of the eternal damnation by reputing the Church’s request to Tarkovsky risking his own credibility by not simply pandering to the Soviet regime, the only sure fire way to ensure your films were made in such an environment) or the fact that in a world of turmoil their work, for all its controversies, was embraced as a national symbol.
This could be why the main theme of ‘Andrei Rublev’, amid its comments on religion and politics, is that of artistic freedom and the pressures of working as an artist under an oppressive regime. It attaches such great significance to the role of the artist and paints him as such a conflicted and complex persona that by the time the film reaches its epilogue that displays Rublev’s surviving work in all its glory, it only seems more miraculous.
One role of an artist is of course to observe the world around them and Tarkovsky’s camera work allows viewers to do that tenfold. His signature use of long takes allows the viewer to adopt a meditative, almost existential state of mind. Tarkovsky’s shots are filled with metaphysical elements, abstract imagery and intellectual themes but ultimately what separated him as a master of his craft was his ability to evoke such deep and complex emotions from those shots. Inevitably there comes a time when you can stop analysing and interpreting and just feel the weight of the world around you and reach the emotional core of each scene.
In fact half of what many people interpret from ‘Andrei Rublev’ is likely to be more atmospheric than symbolic. The film does not tell a definitive beginning-middle-end story and instead divides itself up into eight chapters, each of which is only loosely related to the main film. In fact for a film about a painter there is in fact very little painting on display. We have segments depicting religious persecutions, massive construction projects, vows of silence, conflicts of conscience and destructive military invasions that burns an entire city down to the ground.
The way Tarkovsky commanded time and space within his movies was unparalleled, and he used this command to pull in varying elements that made his movies feel more like a form of visual poetry. Throughout ‘Andrei Rublev’ his compositions, landscapes, philosophical discussions and meditative techniques all serve to bring an extra dimension to his style of filmmaking. His films create this meditative state to reflect their characters inner struggles. ‘Andrei Rublev’ is littered with people trying to find their purpose in life, from rival painters who are jealous of Rublev’s own talents and as a result are unable to deal with their own inferiority, to the young bell maker for whom the burden of living up to his father’s reputation rests on him with crushing weight. It’s one of many reasons why throughout the film Tarkovsky never asks the viewer to understand the meaning behind the scene, he asks simply that we understand the emotion of the subject.
This relates back to how the film itself is a collection of moments rather than a definitive story. We are not experiencing the life of an artist simply by having the events of said life played back to us with no significance. What Tarkovsky accomplishes within ‘Andrei Rublev’ is actually an even greater achievement, he uses a select group of scenes to convey what shapes and influences a character, what drives them and why they react the way they do to later events. He displays what is significant to the central character and his camerawork end up replicating what both the viewer and the character take interest in, almost like a train of thought that tracks each event on a level we’re only subconsciously aware of.
What makes all of this even more remarkable is the way Tarkovsky separated himself from other auteurs of his and every other era. His techniques were completely his own and he reportedly went out of his way to ensure his style was not mimicking or impersonating that of another director. It’s for this reason that many regard Tarkovsky as not only a director who conveyed such astonishing emotion and deep symbolism but also one that invented an entirely new language, unique to the art of cinema.
“Tarkovsky is for me the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream." – Ingmar Bergman.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Hunt for the Wilderpeople


"When they ask who did this, tell them it was the Wilderpeople."

Despite the fact that his filmography only consisted of two movies prior to the release of his latest one, writer and director Taika Waititi has already homed and established his own offbeat comedic sensibilities. 'Boy' ‘and ‘What We Do in the Shadows’ were both inventive, excellently written and superbly directed movies that each had their own little affectionate and heartfelt moments to boot. ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ is no different.

Ricky Baker (Dennison), a defiant young city kid who is preoccupied with gangster lifestyle, is sent by child welfare services to live in the country with foster parents, Aunt Bella and cantankerous Uncle Hec (Neill). When Ricky and Hec end up getting lost in the woods together they spark a nationwide manhunt to find them.

It’s amazing how on paper ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ can appear so by the numbers and generic (a troubled teen bonding with a reluctant father figure due to a bond they forge during a journey through the wilderness that involves camping). But through his execution of this story Taika Waititi manages to craft yet another endearing, immensely watchable and wonderfully eccentric story that balances its comedy and its sentimentality almost pitch perfectly.

Waititi accomplishes this through a number of techniques that mark him out as a gifted new filmmaker (‘Thor: Ragnarok’ should be something special if the director’s previous films are anything to go by). He establishes grounded and sympathetic characters who are not judged or reduced to cheap caricatures, instead the movie fleshes them out as unique individuals and then finds joy through that individuality. Whether it be a scene in which Ricky dances to an imaginary set of headphones spouting music that only exists in his head or his enthusiasm for summarising his life experiences in the form of a Haiku, they are always able to evoke affection and humour.

It is also a good thing that the two central characters are as interesting as they are because it only allows the actors portraying them to further what are already excellent performances. Despite his relative lack of acting experience Julian Dennison is magnetic as Ricky, never reducing the character to a simple blundering idiot, instead conveying a great mix of cynicism that one would expect from a child passed from carer to carer all his life, but also displaying the appropriate amount of fun and innocence so that we never forget he’s still an adventurous kid at heart. Sam Neil on the other hand is equally brilliant, it becomes a joy to watch his tough exterior slowly melt away, not to a point where the character feels inconsistent, but enough to understand his development and progression due to spending more time with his companion. It gets even better when it becomes apparent that the two share such fantastic chemistry and we get to revel in it almost for the movie’s entire runtime.

The supporting cast are just as entertaining. Though the side characters aren’t quite as well developed their individualism is what makes them so memorable and hilarious. Rachel House plays the worlds most committed and overly enthusiastic social worker, whose obsession in finding Ricky and upholding her “No child left behind policy” is more befitting of someone who should be standing next to Liam Neeson in the next ‘Taken’ movie. Rhys Darby is another standout as Psycho Sam but sadly, to digress any more of what makes him brilliant would deprive you of experiencing those hysterical surprises for yourself.  Even Waititi has a wonderfully funny cameo that, despite being a small role, actually serves as proof that he could be just as talented a comedic actor as he is a comedic writer and director.

The New Zealand filmmaker has an impeccable understanding of both the funny and heartfelt sides of life. Waititi uses his skills behind the camera to convey each emotion with brilliant timing and rhythm. You get a sense that not only is he acutely aware of how best to evoke each conflicting emotion and rarely does he put a foot wrong. The tone, structure and pace he adopts is consistently perfect to match the themes he is dealing with, displaying a great sense of humanity and compassion to match. His framing is able to highlight the nuance of every joke and speak volumes about how a character feels, what drives them and how they choose to deal with it. Waititi can balance these conflicting tones and atmospheres so brilliantly and can turn from one to another on such a whim that he almost makes it look easy.

A pretty majestical movie (you’ll understand once you’ve seen it).

Result: 8/10

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Sully


"Dual engine loss at 2800 feet followed by water landing with 155 souls on board. No one has ever trained for an incident like that."

Credit where credit’s due, to be directing a potential Oscar contender at 86 years old is an impressive feat in itself, and not just any old film but one that is tasked with depicting a culturally defining event in recent American history. You have to hand it to Clint Eastwood, he’s had a long and celebrated career. In many ways that could explain how hesitant many critics are hesitant to tarnish his recent films as no one wants the last thing they write about Eastwood to be a negative review, that and the fact that his movies are still pretty decent.

On January 15, 2009, Captain Chelsea ‘Sully’ Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) made an emergency landing in the Hudson River after both engines of US Airline Flight 1549 became immobilised. In the process he saves 155 lives but in the aftermath he must navigate a media ready to hail him as a hero and a sceptical National Transportation and Safety Board who argue that Sully may have acted rashly.

When dealing with an incident like the Miracle on the Hudson it must be difficult for a filmmaker to not simply revert to hero worship mode. In some ways ‘Sully’ drifts dangerously close into that territory and instead of a complex or intriguing portrayal of a national hero we instead see him portrayed as your resident good guy and nothing more. But then again considering the reality of this situation it might be difficult to create a less than perfect portrayal of the character. After all, the real life Sully not only managed to pull off a feat of incredible heroism but was so humble about it that you’d be forgiven for thinking he was being praised for making a skilled parking manoeuvre at his local supermarket.

That being said, what ‘Sully’ lacks in the complexion of its protagonist it makes up for by supplying a good chunk of narrative ground to cover without deviating from the man at its centre. It is well and truly a film about one man’s act of heroism and the aftermath of it. It moves from scene to scene in a superb manner. The films structure and relatively short runtime of 96 minutes means there is little padding (as is so often to fatal flaw of cinematically thin true stories) and the end result is an efficient and excellently focussed biopic.

The fact that the film feels so fixated on a singular subject is one of the most admirable aspects of it. Rather than blow the story out of proportion, recount a clichéd version of Sully’s life story or beat us over the head with why the Miracle on the Hudson was embraced as such a cultural event, being that the prevention of an airline disaster over New York City was an overdue catharsis for the World Trade Centre attacks of 2001 (and if you think that sounds ludicrous then let me remind you that this film was released on Friday September 9, a date that just happened to coincide with the weekend of September 11. What a coincidence). Instead the end result is an uncluttered and more personal story.

Another advantage of ‘Sully’ being tightly constructed to centre on its protagonist is that it allows us to spend more time with Tom Hanks, whom it should go without saying is excellent in the role. His usual acting style manages to humanise the hero at the heart of the film but also conveys a sense of professionalism and assurance that never leaves us in doubt of his own abilities. Aaron Eckhart is able to hold his own alongside Hanks as Sully’s co-pilot and the two share a sense of camaraderie to make their working relationship feel believable.  

Due to its use of flashbacks, simulations and nightmares ‘Sully’ replays the same emergency landing from several different angles and perspectives that allow the viewer to become as intimately familiar with the incident as Sully is. Each replay of the landing is competently shot and excellently crafted, putting the audience in a state of tension that makes them appreciate just how skilled a landing it was and never resorts to cheap gimmicks like manipulative music or editing trickery. In other words it’s just good old fashioned filmmaking.

There is a problem however, when the film has to deal with the aftermath of the crash. It demotes the NTSB to villainous caricatures who have the audacity to question an all American hero. It’s understandable that the narrative would want to create some conflict and the film itself tries to morph into a parable of instinct vs technology, which makes sense given that the movie reinforces the notion that Sully trusted his instinctive judgement and skill. That’s all very admirable, but it risks ringing false when the film also tries to paint Sully’s actions not as a feat of heroism but simply as a man doing his job. A fine sentiment, but when you consider that the NTSB investigators are, at the end of the day, also just men doing their jobs yet being portrayed as evil meddlers it comes across as frustratingly hypocritical.

A competently made and tightly wound biopic that, despite its flaws, stands as another fine entry to Eastwood’s filmography.

Result: 7/10

Monday, 12 September 2016

Kubo and the Two Strings


"You must claim your birth right and give this story a happy ending."

Animation is going through a weird phase right now. Instead of trying to appeal less to their animated audiences it seems that the most successful animation films are making an increased effort to appeal to adult audiences, with Pixar using their deep emotional themes to reach a wider appeal, others like ‘Sausage Party’ aiming squarely at the adult market and studios such as Laika creating stories of such mythic power and outstanding techniques that I defy you to look at the animation on display in ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ and simply dismiss it as kids’ stuff.

A young boy named Kubo (Art Parkinson) sets out on an adventure to find a magical suit of armour, which he needs to defeat an evil spirit from the past. Along the way he is accompanied by two companions, Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) who aid him on his epic quest.

I’ll be honest, ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ left me more conflicted than I thought it would. I’m not conflicted over whether or not to call it a good film, that much I know. My only cause for concern is its story, which not only feels somewhat standard but certain plot elements felt annoyingly contrived. The last few scenes most of all felt very rushed and forced, being unable to sustain the basic pace and structure of the film, choosing instead to deviate radically from both of those established aspects in favour of racing towards the final hurdle and just barely clearing it. This doesn’t necessarily ruin the quality of the animation and whether it was detrimental to the film as a whole is what I’m conflicted over, but if the story was the primary element of the film then I would probably have to be much more critical of the film.

However the weakness of the story is minimised by moving around a few small elements to make the story feel a little fresher than it really is. Firstly, the simple narrative trick of having the main character discover things about themselves and the journey they are undertaking as they go along is more refreshing than just shoving all the exposition at the start as many adventure movies have grown accustomed to. As well as that the character dynamic includes some interesting additions and plot twists that make their adventure seem more personal than a conventional tale of point A to point B, there is a purpose to this that ties into our central character and as a result we get a greater sense of involvement within the story.

But putting all that aside (as this is the most critical I’m going to get with the film) ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ is a feat of animation brilliance. Laika’s usual attention to detail and stunning craftsmanship shines through on a whole new level here. Not only is it beautiful to behold but it carries over onto every aspect of the film, from the character design to the set pieces, from the landscapes to the movement of the camera itself the way they use their stop motion is worthy of praise but the fact that they employ such inventive and awe inspiring techniques to achieve the images that they want is even more impeccable.

But as well as their brilliant animation one of the most admirable things about Laika is the themes they choose to tackle in their “kids movies” (when “adult blockbusters” like the DCEU are done being stupidly pretentious they might want to have a look over here and see what that title really means). The film tackles issued pf parentage and legacy, where you begin and where you end, essentially asking their audiences to consider their own mortality and how it influences the decisions we make. On paper it seems like everyone’s worst nightmare in model form, and for some of the films scarier scenes it is, with each threat feeling genuinely real and omnipresent. But the studio carries an aura of hope and humour with it that manages to avoid falling into a pit of despair.

It also helps that the voice cast are all fantastic, with Theron and McConaughey fillinf their role perfectly, as do the supporting cast of Rooney Mara, Ralph Fiennes and George Takei. In the lead role Art Parkinson embodies a sense of drive and detrmiantion as well as that youthful sense of adventure that embodies this whole process. The characters all have great interaction with one another that not only goes beyond the usual cliché of simply demoting the supporting cast to comic relief, but they all work towards striking the same emotional core that ultimately elevates ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ from a simple heroes’ journey to a poignant and emotional masterclass.

Stunningly animated and emotionally involved, ‘Kubo and the Two String’ overcomes its basic narrative to become a unique and inspiring journey.

Result: 8/10

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Talkin' Scorsese: Cape Fear


"I am like God and God is like me."

Remakes have garnered such a bad reputation of late that it may be easy to look back on this 1991 remake of the 1962 psychological thriller, ‘Cape Fear’. But with a director of Scorsese’s calibre is it unfair to diminish this effort? After all it was another remake that would eventually earn the director his long overdue Academy Award for Best Picture/Best Director. But of course that can also be its downfall, because not only does this thriller have to compete with the original movie, it has to be released under the name of a man who just a year before this, released ‘GoodFellas’.

The story of a convicted rapist named Max Cady (Robert De Niro) who, using his knowledge of the law and its numerous loopholes, seeks vengeance against a former public defender Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) whom he blames for his 14-year imprisonment due to purposefully faulty defence tactics used during his trial.

The first major problem I encountered when re-watching ‘Cape Fear’ was being consistently reminded of that episode of ‘The Simpsons’ (titled ‘Cape Feare’) as it parodies the movie’s storyline. Every time I try to become immersed in De Niro’s threats I’m reminded of Sideshow Bob being hit by a rake. But putting that aside ‘Cape Fear’ is a competently made thriller that gives itself a reason to exist by expanding on various ideas juggled by the original, and by the fact that Scorsese is able to inject the story with his own directorial sensibilities that separate it from any average movie of this genre. It lacks the brutality of other Scorsese efforts but that is somewhat understandable as ‘cape Fear’ is clearly intentioned to be a more accessible thriller than other entries in the director’s filmography.

That sense of grit and brutality is actually one of the reasons why this remake distinguishes itself from the original. With the 1962 version hamstrung by the stricter censorship rules regarding the more explicit of the movie. Scorsese takes full advantage of the more lenient rating systems of 1991 and makes a grittier movie in its tone and content as well as creating edgier characterisations of the people within it.

However those edgier characterisations could also be one of the films pitfalls, particularly when you are trying to establish an emotional connection with Sam Bowden, who comes across as so unlikable that it felt extremely difficult to sympathise with him. That is not to say I sided with the former rapist, now stalker played by De Niro, but in a film whose moral sensibilities are drawn as black and white, with little ambiguity between them, the lack of an empathetic protagonist is sorely felt. It’s not as if Scorsese hasn’t made unlikable people sympathetic before, either through their complexity with Jake La Motta in ‘Raging Bull’, the subtlety of Travis Bickle from ‘Taxi Driver’ or the well-structured development of Henry Hill from ‘GoodFellas’. But here that emotional connection seems to be distinctly lacking.

The result is that the film as a whole feels impersonal, where despite his trademark style being on display Scorsese’s usual narrative themes of guilt and redemption feel underdeveloped. There’s plenty of symbolism on display to carry some of these deeper themes from Max Cady’s various biblical tattoos to the cathartic washing of blood from someone’s hands, but little of this seems to carry over to an emotional level.

However Scorsese is still able to take this premise and explore some interesting themes with it. He focusses more on the psychological torment one man inflicts upon another as Cady torments him and attempts to prove that they are both criminals. The two actors are able to carry this in their performances and like every other element of the film, distinguish themselves from the original. Whereas Robert Mitchum’s performance was eerily unnerving (and not nearly as terrifying as his performance in the undisputed masterpiece ‘The Night of the Hunter’) De Niro’s portrayal is outright evil and psychotically obsessive. He feels more temperamental and unstable, which in itself serves to make the character feel more unpredictable and as a result he becomes more frightening. Despite my reservations of his character, Nolte’s performance is a convincing one and for the sake of fairness one could label his more fractured portrayal as an attempt to separate his portrayal from Gregory Peck’s more humble and sympathetic incarnation in 1962.

Scorsese’s direction makes good use of these actors and the supporting cast around them. He draws tension from scenes in a deeply impressive way, keeping his camera focussed on the obsessions of his two main characters. There are some techniques that are more reminiscent of hardboiled noirs but others that remain distinctly within Scorsese’s style. He displays here that he is clearly a director at the top of his game and wasn’t showing any signs of slowing down soon.

A well-constructed yet somewhat impersonal thriller, that doesn’t feel like an advance from Scorsese but at the same time is not something I’d label as a misstep.

Result: 6/10

Monday, 5 September 2016

The Sea of Trees


"If God is not waiting for you on the other side, who is?"

Before its screening at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival many people hedged their bets that Gus Van Sant’s newest film, ‘The Sea of Trees’ would leave the festival with major awards buzz behind it. Boy were they wrong. Its infamous premier was greeted with boos (not Boo-urns) and the film itself was branded as one of the worst in the festivals history. But in all fairness this is not necessarily a bad thing, ‘Taxi Driver’ was famously booed upon its premier and it seems that unless your name is Lars Von Trier, it’s impossible to predict how that crowd will react. So is it worth the hate? Absolutely yes.

An American man, Arthur Brennan (Matthew McConaughey), travels to the Aokigahara forest to kill himself at the base of Mount Fuji in Japan, the site of numerous suicides. There he encounters a Japanese man, Takumi Nakamura (Ken Wantanabe), who wants to kill himself as well, and both men begin a journey of self-reflection and survival.

On paper ‘The Sea of Trees’ appears to be a film of such high stature as Van Sant’s other masterworks such as ‘Drugstore Cowboy’, ‘My Own Private Idaho’ and ‘Good Will Hunting’. Combined with a standout cast in the form of Matthew McConaughey and Ken Wantanabe as well as Naomi Watts. Sadly though what we get is a keen reminder that Van Sant is the same director who brought us pretentious dribble like ‘Gerry’ and the dreaded 1998 remake of ‘Psycho’ (just….why?) who hides under the protection of art house and uses it as an excuse for redundant, self-important, inflated monstrosities. ‘The Sea of Trees’ is one of them.

One can tell just how hostile the reaction was when the film’s original distributors (who had bought those distribution rights before the film even premiered) Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate dropped the film for “unknown reasons” shortly after the screenings. It was then picked up by A24 and 18 months after its infamous screening, it finally gets a wide release. As I said, on paper the it would seem impossible for ‘The Sea of Trees’ to be a complete disaster, but it’s attempts to explore themes of depression and suicide and marred with cheap gimmicks, tired clichés and thinly conceived plot devices that feel insulting to the audience’s intelligence.

Some of the twists and turns it takes feel tailor made to make the film as commercially accessible as possible. I know that sounds somewhat pretentious of me but by using such simple and manipulative tricks the movie undercuts any dramatic heft it was once attempting to establish. Instead of letting the backstory behind its central character develop naturally it’s explained in a series of clumsily placed flashbacks that remove any sense of interpretation or intelligence from the script. Not only that but the flashbacks are totally unnecessary and I don’t mean that in terms of quality I mean that on a literal narrative level in that there is no purpose for those scenes to exist. McConaughey, at one point in the movie, delivers a monologue chronicling the history of his life and what brought him to the forest which is not only far more interesting than the clichéd flashback technique but also leaves room for interpretation and discussion. But instead it is all made redundant.

The most annoying element of the whole equation is that McConaughey is actually rather good in the role. His part feels underwritten and poorly developed as well as lacking any depth or inner turmoil but for what he was given McConaughey performs with conviction and stature, to the point where even he seems to feel frustrated at how little characterisation he has to work with. This hurts the movie as a whole when it demands you care for the plight of its central character. I had so little investment in the story that the movie resorted to direct manipulation through an all-encompassing score that as well as sounding so painfully contrived to the scenario that I briefly wondered if there had been a malfunction during the sound mixing process, was a weak attempt to compensate for the lack of actual development.

In fact the same could be said for all the characters within the story, they are all cheap caricatures with whom I felt no empathy or emotional attachment to.  The film simply tells you what to care about in the same way an Adam Sandler “comedy” does so, rather than building genuinely interesting and worthwhile characters it orders you to feel empathy for certain characters through exposition and music cues. It is almost baffling how frequently the film falls into a cliché, manipulative ploy or cheap gimmick. Every line of dialogue, every visual cue, every note of music and every idiotic plot point reeks of it.

Insulting to the intelligence of anyone expecting a genuinely worthwhile experience.

Result: 2/10

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Talkin' Scorsese: GoodFellas


"As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster."

There are certain movies that you watch multiple times to gain a sense of their thematic weight and deeper themes. For me ‘GoodFellas’ was never one of those movies. I watch it time and time again not to revaluate its symbolism or obscure allusions. I watch it to be consistently amazed at how Scorsese uses his directorial skill to create this masterpiece. The way he etches such a vivid and real portrayal of the mafia world, the way he draws the audience in, places them within a specific time and location, how he conveys the characters sate of minds and emotions, their fears, desires and drives to the point where you have a complete understanding of the world this story occupies to where you are left with the exact same emotional reaction as the people at the centre of the movie. It is not about looking for details, it’s about feeling the emotions.

Chronicling the rise and fall of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) as he navigates his way through life in the mafia, working his way from parking the cars of mob bosses to organising heists, drug deals and executions.

The first scene of the film displays three solemn men, looking apprehensive as they drive down a lonely road. When they hear a knocking in their car trunk they pull over and kill the man inside the trunk. One of the men then closes the trunk, and then in the form of narration proudly announces “As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster”. As an audience there is a primal instinct that what we are witnessing and hearing in front of us is morally wrong, but Martin Scorsese has peaked our curiosity meaning that despite our own morality, we want to know who these people are, what they are doing and why they are doing it. Then the narrative flashes back to Henry Hill’s childhood of observing the mob bosses from across the street out of his bedroom window. Their actions goes against everything he has been raised to believe in, but he is curious and fascinated by their world, and he yearns to discover more. In less than five minutes Scorsese has made his audience identify with a character who “always wanted to be a gangster”. It takes a storyteller of true genius to pull that trick.

From that moment on, everything Scorsese does within ‘GoodFellas’ only draws you further into this world, only gives you a deeper understanding of its characters, their comradery and their twisted morals. At the risk of repeating an all too often used phrase, this film is not a story, it is an experience. You experience what it feels like to be in the mob, the narrative is not about events as much as it is about the characters emotions and how they relate to the world around them. When their business is successful the tone feels almost leisurely, but as Hill’s world crumbles around him, as his mind is fried by drugs and fears of the feds and rival gangsters set in, the levels of frantic tension and paranoia that Scorsese invokes are utterly palpable. It’s a scene that stands as one of the crowning achievements of Scorsese’s career, as the rollercoaster careens out of control we feel both powerless and involved within the scene at the same time, feeling each conflicting element of Hill’s rapidly disintegrating life, from the drug deals, to the pick ups, the family dilemmas and the constant fear of wacked or arrested.

Scorsese can accomplish this sense of atmosphere such apparent ease that you hardly even notice it happening. His use of music is so distinct and perfect to match the scene’s tone that it instantly allows the moment to absorb you and completely transport you. At times the music can make the moment feel nostalgic and at other it can seem horrifying. In many ways that is the easiest way to describe the structure of ‘GoodFellas’. The first half is about establishing the mafia myth, and the other proceeds to demolish it piece by piece.

One scene can establish an entire aspect of the characters’ lives so that when an event later in the movie is driven by that aspect, you feel as if you understand it perfectly. When Hill goes on a date with his eventual wife he takes her to a nightclub where instead of waiting in line they move around the side entrance, going through corridors, past the kitchens and by members of staff without anyone objecting, handing out giant wads of dollar bills to tip them as he goes, everyone greeting him enthusiastically, letting him bypass the ordinary customers. Tables are lifted and placed specifically for him, bottles of wine are bought by other tables as a sign of good faith all for the couple to enjoy the show in front of everyone else. We’ve just witnessed real power. We see the allure of the business, the appeal of their crime and why they do it. They very next scene however depicts an airport robbery and we are reminded of what it takes to gain this kind of power.

It is this portrayal of their unchallenged power that makes the gradual decline of Hill’s warpath even more riveting. The film tracks the mob for over 30 years, through three generations of mobsters but rather than feel repetitive the gradual shift of tone and style turns the film into an epic saga, one that feels fully cohesive despite its length due to how perfectly Scorsese introduces characters and plot elements that can be familiarised within one scene and wait hour before they begin to be developed. When certain characters meet their end they are not all necessarily given a massive amount of screen time, but their presence in the background as accessories makes them feel oddly familiar so that their absence if keenly felt when they meet their demise.

But the main characters are the heart of the story, and Scorsese knows that so he keeps the focus where it needs to be. Liotta’s performance is the one that the script requires to shift the most throughout the film, from a confident swagger to a paranoid wreck and eventually a guilt ridden survivor. He pulls them all off with equal conviction and brilliance, never faltering in his slow transgression. His wife Karen, played by Lorrain Bracco undergoes a similar sort of development. She too is entranced by the world of crime to the point where corruption and embezzlement become the norm for her lifestyle. Robert De Niro is on hand to serve as the epitome of the classic gangster as Jimmy Conway. He is there to remind us of the mafia world’s moral code and its sense of honour. But even that dream is shattered when his operation expands to such a point where he is distrustful of everyone around him and starts knocking them off one by one, so as to avoid the risk of being caught and have less to share the loot with.

But the standout might be Joe Pesci as Tommy DeVito. Here Pesci is not necessarily playing a complicated man but one that is prone to temperamental and explosive fits of rage. When combined with his absolute power this anger lashes out frequently and Scorsese uses it as a means to draw tension, remind the audience of how dangerous the mob world is and destroy the myth of glitz and glamour. Pesci's switches from humour to uncontrolled rage so quickly and easily that his outbursts never cease to surprise or shock the viewer.

What makes the character even more unsettling is when we get a chance to meet his mother, a kind natured elderly woman who is completely unaware of their business dealings. When Hill, Conway accompany Tommy to his mother’s house they gather round for a meal where they laugh, catch up and exchange pleasantries. What she doesn’t know is that the reason for their visit was to pick up a shovel so they can bury the body lying in the trunk of their car. Which brings us back to where we started with our questions resolved. But by now we have been drawn so deeply into this world that we could never turn away.

The finest film ever to be made about organised crime, summarising human lives, a country’s culture and the battle of morals.

Result: 10/10

Friday, 2 September 2016

2016 Fall Movie Preview


So it’s that time of year again and with the summer being as disappointing as it was the least we could hope for is a terrific fall movie season, and dare I say it’s actually shaping up to be just that? There is a great variety of movies awaiting us of differing shapes and sizes, with no clear favourites for any major awards (I mean let’s face it, as soon as we heard the words “Leo DiCaprio” and “Alejandro Inarritu” with “is making a movie with” in between, we all knew where it was heading).

So as I did last year I’m compiling a quick list of my most eagerly anticipated movies for the rest of the year. I’m only taking into account movies that have a confirmed release date so sadly features I’m still excited for but are so far unconfirmed for their release include Scorsese’s long awaited passion project ‘Silence’ and James Franco’s ‘The Masterpiece’.

First though I have a few honourable mentions to make. A team up of Clint Eastwood and Tom Hanks shows promise with ‘Sully’, Ben Affleck looks to challenge himself in ‘The Accountant’, Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut ‘American Pastoral’ has grabbed my attention, ‘Deep Water Horizon’ appears to be an action film of ambitious proportions, ‘The Founder’ gives Michael Keaton more time in the spotlight and anything that does that deserves praise, Mel Gibson makes another directorial outing with ‘Hacksaw Ridge’, Disney Animation looks set to continue their hot streak with ‘Moana’ and of course Jeff Nichols is making a new film and that’s all the reason I need to see ‘Loving’.

10: Rogue One

Let’s just get this one out of the way now as a nice way to bookend the rundown. Though ‘Doctor Strange’ and ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ are other heavy franchise hitters to look forward to, as 2015 proved it’s difficult to find anything better in this category than ‘Star Wars’. Gareth Edwards addition to the intergalactic saga promises to be a darker and grittier instalment than what we have become sued to and every trailer has pointed towards that so far. Despite some concerns over reshoots the future still looks bright, and either way considering ‘Rogue One’ is technically a prequel I think it will automatically be the best of that category regardless.

9: The Girl with All the Gifts

Admittedly I tried not to let any early reviews or positive buzz influence my decisions, but with the overwhelmingly positive reviews swarming in for the post-apocalyptic drama it is difficult not to be excited by it. Especially when you also take into account its interesting premise, fantastic trailers and the very notion that with ‘The Walking Dead’ and its five hundred spin offs reaching new levels of monotony that a zombie film can be fresh, inventive and interesting it seems to be a tantalizing offer.

8: Nocturnal Animals

A film that until a few days ago wasn’t on my radar at all but Tom Ford’s first feature film since his brilliant debut ‘A Single Man’ in 2009 could be a welcome return for the director. Little is known about the film right now (which in itself is an interesting feature in this day and age) but with an immensely talented cast in the form of Jake Gyllenhaal, Amy Adams and Michael Shannon this could be something special.

7: Manchester By the Sea

If you focussed only on the press going out of this years Sundance Film Festival you would be forgiven for thinking the only thing worth mentioning was Nate Parker’s ‘Birth of a Nation’ however many critics actually pointed to ‘Manchester By the Sea’ as the finest film to emerge from the festival. Those who have seen it have already placed their bets on Casey Affleck’s performance to secure an Oscar nomination and with a heartfelt trailer to accompany it, Kenneth Lonergan’s latest film is one to watch out for.

6: The Handmaiden

As the remaining entries of this year’s Cannes Film Festival slowly find their way into cinemas across the world the most interesting one that I’ve yet to see is ‘The Handmaiden’ by Park Chan Woo. The director of ‘Oldboy’ is known and admired for his dark sense of humour, meticulous framing and brutal subject matter so with this psychological thriller he offers yet another chance to be riveted, provoked and disturbed. Sounds fun.

5: Salt and Fire

When Werner Herzog decides to direct another film it’s not something I would need a lot of convincing to see. But with Michael Shannon (the more I think about it the more I realise just how busy a year this must have been for him) in a leading role hopefully we’ll be treated to a film that is guaranteed the usual stunning visuals that Herzog has come to perfect by this point in his career, and also a touch of humanity as well.

4: Billy Lyn’s Long Halftime Walk

By now I’m convinced Ang Lee is just ticking off a bucket list of film genres that was set long ago by some sadistic studio head. We’ve seen him do Austen adaptations (‘Sense and Sensibility’), martial arts masterpieces (‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’), cowboy romances (‘Brokeback Mountain’), survival stories (‘Life of Pi’) and now we see him tackle war with ‘Billy Lyn’s Long Halftime Walk’. The narrative is set to skip between a soldier’s return home with his life on the front line, promising to contrast the realities of war with the public’s perception of it. Given that Lee is twice the recipient of the Oscar for Best Director, combined here with the Oscar winning writer of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ we should have high hopes for this one.

3: Snowden

Oliver Stone is back doing what he does best, conspiracies. It’s been a while since we’ve seen a truly great film from Stone but this would appear to be a perfect match of director and subject matter, as well as Stone’s understanding of cinema’s unique power which will hopefully distinguish this dramatic portrayal of the story from the outstanding documentary on the same subject, ‘CITIZENFOUR’. J.G Levitt looks more than capable in the title role so from this point on all we can do is put some tape over our webcams and wait.

2: Arrival

Last year Denis Villeneuve topped this list with ‘Sicario’ and this year he’s a very close second. The main reason is the fact that ‘Arrival’ looks to be a little out of his usual comfort zone but my confidence in his directorial skills has reached a point where it hardly matters. Villeneuve’s directorial prowess never fails to elevate the source material he is working with, which on its own is a at high standard already and his meticulous command of his own style continues to amaze me, so any chance to see it again is one I am most definitely looking forward to.

1: La La Land

How do you follow a film like ‘Whiplash’? It’s a question I’ve been asking for nearly two years now since Damien Chazelle burst onto the scene with his mesmerizing drama and where many promising directors fall into the trap of repeating themselves for too long, Chazelle has gone back up fron with all guns blazing for the ambitious looking, yet intimately staged musical starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. Ever shot looks perfectly composed, every frame is stunningly lit and the atmosphere is bleeding through the details. Granted there is still little to go on but every solitary image of this film just makes me more intrigued and with this being Chazelle’s immediate choice as to what he next feature would be after ‘Whiplash’ clearly he himself has immense faith in it. Given that he directed a modern masterpiece for the time being I think it’s safe to trust his judgement. I can’t wait.