Film Review: Leviathan (2014) Russian Corruption Captured Magnificently in this classical Tragedy

Leviathan (2014)

Nb: This review contains some spoilers

My familiarity with Russian cinema has now doubled  up to two films  – firstly the outstanding, yet haunting 2nd World War film Come and See – and now this dramatic tragedy from director Andrey Zvagintsev. The film is a bleak satire on the endemic nature of corruption in Russian politics / society and from my tiny sample size, the Russians seem a dour lot. Though evidentally there is much reason for them to be so.  As the title suggests, the target of the film-makers eye is vast, yet it is shot intimately through the fate of Kolya (Alexeï Serebriakov), an ordinary Russian man who exemplifies Everyman traits in his proud masculinity – physically capable and productive – he lives in a remote coastal fishing village in his self-built house, with his own garage, wife and son.  Naturally, he also drinks an awful lot of vodka – never has a stereotype appeared quite so accurate – barely a scene passes without at least one person, across the status-spectrum imbibing the national drink with whole-hearted spirit.

The plot that serves as the allegory for broader institutional corruption centres around a dispute over the ownership of Kolya’s land. The local mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov), insists he has the right to buy the land at a set price, which is clearly dramatically undervalued according to Kolya who has asked an old friend, now a Moscow lawyer, Dimitri, to assist him fight his case. The film then divides its focus on Kolyas life, with friends and family and the battle to defeat the mayor. The latter plot initially seems promising thanks to the acquisition of material information that would easily threaten the position of the Mayor were it to be made public.  Inevitably events do not unfurl as Kolya would wish, as his life and relationships threaten to collapse amid violence, threats and betrayal. It is a bleak but exquisitely sharp depiction of the ominous degree of power held over the citizens by the state.

Whilst the narrative arc of man facing impossible battle versus state and widespread corruption is not new, it’s depiction here is still thoroughly well executed.  The film opens with beautiful photography that captures the vast essence of Russia itself, with wide shots of the grand expanse of mountain ranges and rural isolation.  At the beginning and close of the film it lingers over the long since dead fossil of a leviathan like creature on the beach.  The geography constantly places the characters as vulnerable contrasts with the might of the reach of the mountains, extending the metaphor of gargantuan power to the essence of the country itself.

From the opening scenes the spectre of corruption is made clear,  with a conversation with local policemen regarding Kolya fixing a car for his friend. Soon after, Kolya makes a remark to his friend that presumes corruption within the police force is normalised in this world – a minor mark but one that presages the greater fight to come. Politically the target is quite obvious.

Firstly on a shooting trip with Dimitri, family and friends, two of the characters draw out portraits of Russian leaders past – ready to be shot at, they discuss if they have Yeltzin and then ask if they have one more recent… although the allusion becomes more concrete in a later scene where we see Vadim in his office – hanging up on wall behind him is a portrait of a younger, but still undeniably balding Vladimir Putin. There can be no mistaking the association.

Vadim deploys violence and pulls strings to ensure his desires are achieved, with and his position is given a form of ‘validation’ through his discussions with the priest – representing the influence and status that the Russian Orthodox Church has over the population, it further strengthen’s Vadim’s stranglehold on the community. The priest advises him to fight back to assert his power in the community, and not to confess – because this would be weak – an attitude that many viewers might be inclined to impose upon their current commander-in-chief.

As Kolya seeks to overturn and appeal the court’s verdict, he inevitably meets with a bureacracy that is hostile and not without Orwellian oppression and Kafka-esque absurdity. The absence of anyone to speak to, and arbitrary arrests attest to this. I’m aware those references are becoming something of a cliche, yet having read both the echoes undoubtedly resonate in many a narrative that tackles related themes, as this film does too. The manner in which Kolya’s life begins to spiral out of control is not limited to direct political suppression from above, however,  but even from sources closer to home thanks to his old friend Dimitri, the Moscow professional who arrives and screws over an old friend in the provinces which sparks a further series of events that get a helpless Kolya into deeper trouble.

The mood is downcast, and the tone excoriating, yet it is never less than compulsive viewing, from the capturing of the isolation of the community to the menacing reality of political authority, all actors play their part superbly well.  To come back to the photography again, the director provides striking imagery of desolation, including the aforementioned coastal skeleton of the deceased giant to the fire-lit shots of the abandoned building Kolya’s son frequents with his friends; the perspective is all encompassing and all consuming and ought to be on anyone’s to watch list if they’ve not see it already. 9/10

8 Assorted Micro Reviews of Films Worth Watching

Further to a previous post featuring some reviews in miniature of some enjoyable possibly non-mainstream films, I thought I’d offer up another arbitrarily chosen number of films to promote in this blog. Mainstreamy or not, I simply liked them for their various appeals and wish to advocate their worth here – from classic film noir via experimental german madness to bizarrely bonkers french stop motion animation – a little bit of everything. From the forties to the naughties, I think these films are emblematic of the perpetual diversity of the film-making genre, and are a representation of sorts of the breadth of the spectrum of possibilities.

Charting in chronological order then:

 

The Maltese Falcon

(1941) classic film noir, adapting Daschiel Hammett’s memorable tale, it couldn’t be anyone other than Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade. Faithful to the text, it brings alive the classic tropes of the gumshoe life that here centres around the eponymous object of desire. Sam initially receives the demands of the noirishly named Miss Wonderly ( Mary Astor ) on a case that transpires to be more complicated that first imagined, taking a dark turn following his partner’s murder. Spade is thrown into the mystery as he seeks to establish the truth behind The Maltese Falcon.  One of those rare cases where one can genuinely wonder whether the film is actually more enjoyable than the book, though both are great fun. 8.5/10

 

Laura – (1944) – a celebrated noir, and for good reason as this 1940’s classic spins a complex – narratively speaking – whodunnit where the satisfaction lies in its execution in its entirety, rather than the revelation of who the culprit is. In the  tradition of noir,  the suspects who avoid arrest remain silently condemned for posession of their own guilty secrets or foibles that get revealed as the chase unfurls and ‘Laura’ is no different. Waldo Lydecker,(the magnificent Clifton Webb) an effete middle-aged bachelor and scribe opens the narrative, affecting an elaborate voice-over as he introduces his relationship with the apparently dead Laura to the the gumshoe in question. The detective is really not the focal point of the film, unlike those featuring a Sam Spade or Phil Marlowe; Macpherson is here instead a pulse that keeps the story circulating among the more interesting supporting characters. There is a campness to the mood of the film, inevitably from the off given Lydecker’s personality, which adds a lighter touch, though it is its extraction of delusion and the darker side from all involved that leads to its success.  7/10

 

Cool Hand Luke – (1967): Paul Newman is as magnetic as always in this film of existential rebellion, the fine portrayal of Luke Jackson, a man who refuses to conform to the whims of the prison guard system. The narrative set up plays as an allegory for continually refusing to be broken by authoritarian rule, and Jackson’s continual efforts to escape expectation, quite literally in the final act of the film, provides an attractive draw. 7/10

 

 

Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970): Werner Herzog in his early days produces a baffling piece that requires either close attention or utterly detached viewing.  Reading around other opinions after the event can proffer up academic deconstructions of a commentary on the madness of human nature; as seen through a quite literal microcosm of an isolated dwarf community, presumed to be held prisoners by an off-screen foe. Perhaps this is true,  the film at least merits a repeat viewing.

There is an undeniable absurdity to some of the scenes which would chime true with a narration that condemns appeals to innate meaning in our actions, where the line between sanity and reason, and cruelty and madness becomes very blurred during some particularly disturbing, and also occasionally  amusing scenes. It is a fascinating film, and watching with company will certainly provoke discussion afterwards, but I must admit at this point I cannot offer up a clear cut analysis or description of this film.  But that won’t stop me recommending people check it out all the same. Appears to have elements of a Lord of the Flies-esque reductionism about it. Also contains a mock crucifixion of a monkey. Have I sold it yet? Look it’s Werner Herzog. You won’t forget the film, I’ll say that, and frankly that’s what a film generally asks for. ?/10

From the esoteric – to the more straightforwardly accessible:

My Neighbour Taturo (1988) From the popular Studio Ghibli comes one of Hayao Miyazaki’s earlier works, but also one of his most popular. It’s an animated tale surrounding two girls’ – Saskia and May –  interactions with forest spirits, including the enchanting eponymous creature, who appears to be drawn up as part teddy-part-bear-part-bunny. The connection with nature and forest spirits is a familiar theme for Miyazaki and the tale here is a joyful concoction of adventure, family bonds and innocence. Very family friendly, it is as enjoyable for adults as it is for the little ones however, as the magical animation is accompanied by an intelligent script brought to life by fine voice acting. One of many great Miyazaki features, and if it’s your first hopefully, it will spark interest in discover many more. 8/10

 

Dazed and Confused (1993): Another Richard Linklater film here, and another one that condenses its’ focus to a short timeframe – here it is 24 hours of teenagers celebrating the last day of high school. Not that you notice the timeframe at all, as you are always immediately drawn into the characters – a Linklater trademark. I do really enjoy how successful he is at developing an engrossing narrative strand that succeeds regardless of how contained the situation is – a skill he develops brilliantly in the Before Trilogy that spanned the following decade and a half.  As a microcosm of growing up within the school complex, and all the attendant male ‘codes’ it is entertaining observation. Also noticeable for a very young Ben Affleck as one of the high school bullies, intent on ‘hazing’ the new intake. Film is rougher round the edges than his later work but solid nonetheless. 7/10

 

Rushmore -(1998) early Wes Anderson but still replete with the would-be signature motifs and themes relating to growing up and family identities. Charming tale of Max (Schwarzmann), a sensitive ambitious schoolkid who has great designs for the school and an even greater one for an attractive teacher. Rivalry of sorts ensues with the typically hilarious Bill Murray as Herman, playing the avuncular-grouch he can do so well. Complete with a score that is enchantingly melodic and gentle, it is never less than amusing, and soaked in colourful spirit. 7/10

some classic thrills:

The Prestige -(2006) Chris Nolan directing, with Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman starring as competing magicians who spend their careers engaged in an increasingly violent game of one upmanship with each other. Jackman is the showman who lacks the intuitive genius, Bale the genius, who struggles to sell his trick. Wonderful suspense and thrilling in the idiosyncratic fashion of Nolan’s with an spectacular finish that left me appropriately satisfied. As usual, featuring Michael Caine in his usual excellent supporting role in a Nolan film. Arguably his best feature for me, certainly on a par with Batman Begins for it’s combination of plot, thrill and character arcs.  8.5/10

 

and finally – the bonkers:

A Town Called Panic – (2009) – French stop motion film that is as mad as its title suggests it is going to be. The animation has a retro 70’s theme utilising old farm animal toys as the chief protagonists in this charmingly chaotic film for everyone. Centre  The adventure and the humour is adrenaline fuelled, with its fair share of mad shrieks, but at about 80 minutes is judiciously kept short enough that the madness doesn’t flow over into irritation. The plot: ‘Cowboy’ and ‘Indian’ wish to surprise the old boy ‘Horse’ with a birthday present. They figure to order 50 bricks in to build a barbeque, but instead accidentally order 50 million, which end up destroying the house. Subsequent attempts to rebuild the house are stalled by the continual theft of the walls. Recovering the walls form part of the plot that also features demented evil scientists and Horse trying to impress a Piano teaching Mare. Completely bonkers, but very funny and full of gleeful absurdism. 8/10

 

 

 

 

Documentary Reviews: Blackfish / Grizzly Man / Searching For Sugarman

Last year I stumbled across some excellent documentary films through my generic film rental account and wanted to flag them up here. They encompass diverse subject matter and themes which are variously: fascinating, thought provoking, dramatic, entertaining and eminently watchable in their content.

Blackfish (2013) is a focus on the ethical issues involved in the capture of Orcas for performance show at parks such as SeaWorld. The film’s narrative chiefly follows the fate of one Orca in particular, Tilikum, but also situates the controversies and the concerns in its broader place within the entertainment industry. It is a very powerful documentary that involves interviews with several former SeaWorld employees, and one present. It shows how the animals were captured, separated from family members, trained and taught to perform for the entertainment of the audiences, and how the trainers bonded with the animals.  It also has footage of several trainers receiving serious injuries from the whales, in three cases leading to tragic deaths.  The trainers involved who were now testifying, clearly had great affection for the animals, and felt naively, in their own words, that they were forming positive relationships with the Orcas and weren’t subjecting them to any indecent cruelty.

The witnesses do come mostly from former industry insiders ( trainers ) and  long term critics; and  footage available from the 80s when the whales were captured and during the training certainly helps support and facilitate engagement with the arguments put forth by those most critical. Whilst there is a defending voice present in the documentary, a current employee who attempts to downplay the concerns, the general thrust is understandably polemic in it’s approach. That is not a criticism: from the  evidence and testimony put forth, it becomes a drama in which critics seek answers to the failings that led to multiple human deaths and also whale injury as a result of the practices. It tries to hold SeaWorld in particular to account for its actions, and for anyone watching it seems to hard to deny there is serious negligence and culpability involved to some degree. In doing so it also raises the ethical spectre of capturing wild animals for human amusement.

It is shocking, well narrated and very interesting, at the very least provoking further questions over the means by which animals in general  are utilised for human entertainment. Where is the ethical line which must not be breached? As a starting point, this film highlights at least one tragic case where this has already been crossed.  Ever powerful viewing, it leaves an indelible mark on the mind long after the film has ended.

Searching For Sugarman (2013) – is an altogether different film, removed from such controversial debates. Sixto Rodriguez was an early 70’s musician who after an initial fleeting success appeared to fade into obscurity, in western consciousness, but had become a huge success in South Africa during Apartheid amongst the liberal rock fan community.  After his success has ended there, the rock community has been awash with rumours that ‘the man-the myth’ had committed suicide in outlandish fashion, with the method of death varying from rumour to rumour.

The documentary is made by Malik Benjelloul, who came across Sixto’s story whilst travelling through Africa, and struck by the tales attached to this musician, he charts two particular fans efforts to discover the truth behind the rumours, with plenty of material and interview footage developed in the process. It is a film about music, obsession and questing, as much a reflection of the makers mindset as it is of the subject matter itself, if not moreso.

It is  clearly a very personal project, which is the film’s greatest strength charting the search by a pair of South African music fanatics, with their enthusiasm self evident as they discuss the impact of Rodriguez on their youth in the political climate of Apartheid, and the soundtrack is obviously full of the artists recordings which provide a wonderful rhythm to proceedings. It is worth noting that  the less you know about how the documentary unfurls the better, as it accentuates the enjoyment that little bit further, so I won’t reveal any more details, suffice to say it is a very heartfelt story that is knitted together so well by Benjelloul who ran his funds to the limit, requiring the use of his mobile phone camera for a spell to help complete the project.

Grizzly Man ( 2005 ): It’s a return to human-animal relationships here, with Werner Herzog’s documentary on the life of Timothy Treadwell – a man who has a clear love / obsession with Grizzly bears. The film meshes interviews with those who knew Treadwell with footage that Treadwell himself had taken whilst out filming the bears in the wild. What starts out as an innocent profile of a man with a very keen interest becomes a complex study of his personality entirely. It is clear that Treadwell fancies himself as an educator for children, of promoting an affection for animals in nature, he even believes strongly in the ability to form close bonds with the animals themselves – and these claims and the man himself are examined chiefly through his own words and images themselves. The footage he takes of the animals is clearly very impressive, he gets remarkably close up to the bears – and other animals whose paths he crosses – and is suggestive of a man who has found his calling, yet the portrait develops into an altogether more complicated image.

It is an extraordinary watch, and Herzog has had to go through many hours worth of reel to weave together a profile of the man, of what he – Herzog – believes he can conclude from this tale of obsession. It is an identity that is inevitably partially rooted in how Treadwell’s youth shaped him – interviews with family members suggest he had his struggles – whilst Werner as narrator vocally provides his own impressions too – but it is possibly the confessional nature of Treadwell’s own lens that often prove most revealing of a personality that becomes ever more disturbing and odd the more we see.  The nature of attention and a certain sort of fame he begins to attract, evidently takes hold in his psyche, and affects his own perception of his relationship with the animals.

That there is a tragic conclusion to the tale becomes inevitable after his repeat journeys year on year; he invites a friend up to join him one particularly fateful summer when food shortages have left the bears hungrier and bolder, leading to an unsurprising fatal attack.  We have the coroner marking the final moments of Treadwell in bizarrely detached fashion, whilst the sight of Herzog himself listening to the final moments of Treadwell – the recording equipment was on – heightens the impact further especially when Herzog then immediately warns anyone not to listen to the tape for their own good.

As is the norm with anything Herzog does, there is no set polemical judgement available but rather a profoundly complex distillation of a certain kind of life that reflects the many lights of a human spirit across its broad spectrum, and it leaves you fundamentally engaged and entranced in its encapsulation ( in my view ) of the limits of man’s relationship with nature.

13 Random Must See Films in Micro-Review

Realising that my earlier attempt to type up reviews of films I’d seen in the past 12 months or so would lead to a rather unwieldy list, I’ve broken it down to more arbitrarily manageable chunks. Here, I’ve chosen 13 films that – film-buffs aside – may not have received the audience their films necessarily deserved, whether it’s due to low budget, limited screenings, a blast from the ancient past (in film years) or owing to it’s foreign language, I’d like to promote some excellent options for your viewing pleasure. I’ve chosen a cross-section of genres from the madcap to the slow burner to mix it up:

 

1. Only Lovers Left Alive (2013): Jim Jarmusch gives us this gorgeous meditative piece centring on two vampire lovers who have been attached to one another across the centuries, though not always at the same moment. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is holed up in a flat in Detroit, with a great passion in evidence for the musician’s art, composing many works with his accumulated array of guitars, whilst Eve (Hilda Swinton) his enigmatic lover is currently residing in Tangier. They are clearly very much in sync and there is a beautiful shot of both leads in their separate residences spinning in circles, brought together in harmony by the camera work. What plot there is, is minimal, as this film instead explores this couple’s expression of love for each other, with reflections on existentialist absurdity within an immortal frame; though there are some terrifically funny lines, (one referencing a friend Ian in particular to look out for) and featuring a great cameo from John Hurt – whose character is called Marlowe, and it plays with the Shakespearean reference charmingly.  Adam’s sister Ava, (Mia Wasikowska), enters their idyll with her evident characteristic chaos to add some flow to proceedings, but mostly, this is a very slick, flowing film rich with charm that simply demands you be taken in by the two main leads til the end of proceedings – and you are. 8/10

 

2. Chico and Rita (2011): A Cuban love story that literally spans the ages. This delightfully animated film centres around the turbulent love story of the eponymous leads – Chico the lothario pianist, and Rita the sultry singer.  It is bristling with energy, passion and colour, with a musical flavour high on 40’s-50’s Jazz, set in exotic locations covering Havana, Paris, New York and even Las Vegas as the lovers lives continually intertwine. The pace rolls along with the rhythm of the music, whilst the warm aesthetic of the visuals keep you hooked. Beyond love and lust it is also a narrative that explores, memory, love, loss and all sentiments human. A joyful experience and suitable for everyone! 8/10

 

3. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974): Werner Herzog at his more accessible best, with this humane study of alienation, innocence and corruption and the gratuitious objectification of the outsider. Set in a late 18th/early 19th century time period, the titular lead, Kasper,  has been raised from birth in complete isolation from human influence, and treated as an animal. He cannot talk, and he doesn’t know how to walk. One day he is released – with no explanation and abandoned in a village, with a letter prepared for him in hand directing him to a loca officer. He is taken in, by a well meaning local who is intrigued by him, but soon he becomes scrutinised and the subject of attention from across the village. In return, the increasingly communicative Kasper is studying these people in return. A satire that is at times funny, charming sad and biting, it is well worth a watch, not least for the central performance by Bruno S in the titular role – who captures the character to perfection. 9/10

 

4. Persepolis (2011): Animated film adapted from the french graphic novel of the same title, but featuring the resplendent voice-acting of Sean Penn, Catherine Deneuve and even Iggy Pop amongst others. They fully support the engaging  Chiara Mastroianni and Gena Rowlands who both narrate the life of ‘Marjane’ who grows up in Iran before the Revolution, moves to Vienna and France before returning to Iran after the revolution. It is part biography of a young girl growing up joined cleverly to satire and comment on the changing political climates and challenges that also arise with the broader generational shift. The animation is striking, with the black and white artwork proving very effective in contrasting or lighting the films’ emotional or darker thrusts forward, also aided by a score that underscores the shifting tone very well. The use of colour – or it’s lack of it – also acts to universalise the difficulties of living under oppressive regimes, without departing from the specifics either. It is a heartening and immersive experience in the presence of a woman growing up in such different climes, and all the more welcoming for that most intimate perspective. 8/10

5. and 6. The Raid and The Raid 2 (2012 and 2014): Indonesian martial art action thrillers from Gareth Evans which are high octane and ultra violent, but glorious entertainment. In the first film, Rama is an Indonesian cop in a region of Jakarta that evidently struggles with extreme corruption. The premise – to assault the gang’s power base – the top of a tower block of flats full of residents loyal to their upstairs enforcer – and capture / kill the Big Boss. It is simple, but very taut, and the choreography for the fight scenes is magnificent. I can’t claim to be familiar with the canon / genre particularly, but this is a superbly executed film directed by Gareth Evans. 9/10

Part 2 sees Rama return, with a plot that follows on tangentially to the ending of the first film, for more action. This film is longer than the first, and the plot more complex, yet it doesn’t fall foul of sequels that over-do the wrong elements at the expense of what works. The fight scenes are just as exhilirating, with an extended sequence that evokes the bloody spectacles of Tarantino’s Kill Bill films. Enjoyable in a more adventurous fashion than the first, but together they make a fantastic double bill.  A third film is rumoured to be out in the next couple of years and I am definitely looking forward to that one. 9/10

 

7. Nebraska (2013): An  endearing film that follows Bruce Dern’s Woody – a grumpy old man – as he makes a 750 mile trip to collect a prize he believes he’s won from a junk mail prizedraw. His son David (Will Forte) joins him, having failed to persuade him not to go – and so the journey begins. Along the way other characters from get wind of Woody’s alleged windfall, and develop their own designs on a share of the spoils, concocting back-dated favours owed as David and brother Ross ( Bob Odendirk) look to help their father avoid the lurking avarice. We meet characters past and present from Woody’s life – family or not, in a tale that is largely a story of the peculiarities of the travails of a father-son relationship, but is infused with many subtle reflections on family life. It also features a particularly funny scene involving Woody’s wife at a graveyard, which was emblematic of the films skill in marking a path between reflective sentimentality and outbursts of laughter. A wonderful film, whose inherent warmth sustains it’s quieter moments. 9/10

 

8, 9, and 10 all share a similar ‘ coming of age’ theme whilst developing distinct identities:

Mud (2012): Jeff Nichols, who specialises in films set in the American South with family/absent family related themes, matures with his finest oeuvre to date. It stars Matthew McConnaughey during his “McConnaissance” as a fugitive who’s remote hiding spot – a boat up a tree – is stumbled upon by two kids Ellis and Neckbone who are seeking their own adventure. Their lives intertwine, as both kids seek to assist Mud (McConnaughey) both hide from capture and pursue Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). A very male-centric focus as is typical with Nichols,  but superbly executed nonetheless and one of the best films of this genre around. Buoyed by a typical Southern score which is particularly suggestive of mood, the narrative is thoroughly heartwarming. 9/10

 

Kings of Summer (2013): Entering into this mood of revival is this charming indie-piece from Jordan Vogt-Roberts. It’s mood is certainly lighter than Mud and doesn’t have as much dramatic thrust, but it is still emotively charming, plotting the lives of three boys, Joe, Patrick and Biaggio, who one summer after school ends, desperately seeking independence, build their own fort-home in a secluded woodland spot. There are the youthful tensions involving rivalries of the heart amidst the exuberance of their adventure, whilst supporting roles provide entertaining cameos from Alison Brie and Nick Offerman, more well known roles in sitcoms Community and Parks and Rec. Whilst light and sweet it is rarely saccharine, and filled with some delicious dialogue it’s well worth watching. 7.5/10

 

The Way Way Back (2013): completing this thematic segment, and from the directorial hands of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (another Community association) comes another equally light attempt at portraying the travails of finding ones place as an adolescent, with Liam James as Duncan the teen, unhappily forced to decamp to a beach house with his mother and step father (an interestingly straight portrayal from Steve Carrell). The inevitable frustration leads Duncan to seek refuge in a nearby water park, where he’s drawn to a relaxed carefree ‘father figure’ character Owen ( the excellent Sam Rockwell) who bonds with him return. Themes of responsibility and growing up affect both characters within the drama, and with a supporting cast that  includes an amusingly drunk Alison Janney, Best bits involve Owen and Duncan more than other parts, and it’s coming of an age element is weaker than the others, but it’s entertaining and still worth a watch. 7/10

11. Her – (2013) Spike Jones’ directs a beautiful, yet haunting,  tale of love and loneliness, in a near-future science fiction plot whereby the development of computer operating systems and artificial intelligence has enabled a world where people can interact and – in Theodore’s ( Joaquin Phoenix ) case even fall in love with these animated computer spirits. Helped by a screenplay that also contains a lot of humour, Phoenix and Scarlett Johannson (the voice) provide a thoroughly ( and almost disturbingly ) engaging ‘relationship’ that serves as an acute comment on relationship forming in the digital age. 9/10, loved it.

 

12. Winter’s Bone (2010): Terrific low budget film from Debra Granik adapting a 2006 novel of the same name, featuring a younger Jennifer Lawrence just before she exploded into stardom, but putting up a just as fine a performance as her more well known roles. Set in the rural Ozark area of Arkansas, Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) is a teenager girl who is the de facto matriarch of the household, with her mother suffering a form of dementia,  who must locate her father in order to protect herself and her siblings from eviction. It is a slow burning thriller, where family estrangement and familial feuds provide the tension, as Ree incurs great personal risk along her journey. Despite the bleak background and situation, the narrative that unfurls is woven through with a tender threads, with a direction that has a sensitive eye for the complexity of human expression. 8/10

 

13. Stroszek (1977): Another feature involving Werner Herzog and Bruno S brings another memorably Herzogian exploration of the human condition, a satire on its foibles, economics and interactions between each other. At turns tragic, absurdist, bizarre and damning of humanity, the film chronicles the aspirational journey of a trio of assorted misfits, from small town Germany to the United States. Bruno S is a sensitive busker who has fallen for a prostitute called Eva who he defends from the clutches of some violent thugs. Together with their elderly neighbour Scheiz, they plot a new life in America through a relative of Scheiz’s in Wisconsin. Initially the new life begins well, free from the cycle of violence of before, content with their own space to explore. Yet, through Herzog’s direction, all does not continue to plan, and the chimera of the American Dream soon leads to a darker and despondent upheaval in their worlds once more.  As with Even Dwarves Started Small and The Enigma of Kasper Hauser there are reflections on the absurdity of existence and human foibles, again often demonstrated through a couple of bizarre scenes involving animals in an empty funfair and through the carcass of a frozen turkey. Despite its inherent downbeat mood it is still such a remarkably odd film that it demands repeat viewing in it’s provocative criticism of a world that hides behind a mask of dreams, and misleading sales pitches. Bruno S  is once more outstanding in the role given to him.  9/10

 

 

There are plenty of others I’ve enjoyed recently, but I think that is a good start. Feel free to agree or disagree, or add your own!

 

Film Review 2014 Part 4 – Summer Blockbusters

feat. X-Men: Days of Future Past, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Guardians of the Galaxy

A film review round up wouldn’t be complete without some of the spectacular action adventures of the past year, so here’s the three I saw. I know I also witnessed Spiderman 2, but that was pretty plain and unmemorable compared to these three. Kicking off with the latest in the X-Men franchise: X-Men: Days of Future Past we have an ambitious spectacle that seeks to maximise its star quality whilst weaving a dazzling and and pacy thriller.

The premise is established swiftly: after a special effect laden opening battle, a world on the verge of the apocalypse needs to be save through interfering with, and returning to, the past in order to prevent the assassination of Bolivar Tusk (Peter Dinklage) which has led the rise of an indestructible foe. Ellen Page as Kitty Pryde is the mutant with the particular power to enact this distortion of space and time assisted by Patrict Stewart as the original / old Professor Xavier. Logan / Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is the character charged with returning to the old timeline – conveniently at a point allowing the ‘new’ cast of McAvoy and Fassbender et al. to reprise their roles once again.  Logan, as the central character who overlaps both worlds is a focal point for some very entertaining dialogue set-pieces, and keeps the plot moving with a reasonable degree of coherence.

The narrative is both complex and satisfyingly engaging, as the movie seeks to make good use of it’s spectacular array of acting assets – a feat it acheives remarkably well – creating a network of personal agendas that help service the overall plot effectively. I’m not a fan of describing the plot scene-by-scene and for this film it would take more concentration than I have available right now, suffice to say, trusting in the hands of Bryan Singer and the cast-list that also features the reliably excellent Jennifer Lawrence, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry and Nicholas Hoult in addition to those mentioned does not leave you disappointed.

The action set pieces are blockbusting yet retain a welcome level of restraint, that ensures they do not become the predominant feature, which often ruins other action or comic-book based films for me. Their use is well judged here, and the screenplay and story from Simon Kinberg and the Vaughn / Goldman combination lends it the successful fusion of wit and drama necessary in any good yarn of this ilk. I am not familiar with all of the films (including the Wolverine ones) within the canon, so cannot speak to issues of placement within the previous installations in the series. I know it is said that has effectively excluded the less popular Last Stand, for example, but I am only judging this as a stand along film, although I did also particularly enjoy First Class too.

9/10 Strengths: Great cast, thrills and good humour, all the staples of a proper blockbuster were executed stylishly and entertainingly. Weakness’: towards the end and the wrapping up of the plot, I must admit to getting a little confused, and not having seen the film since, I’m still a little puzzled with the Magneto story arc, but it’s not important. For the length of the film’s duration I was suitably thrilled.

Next came another sequel in a re-booted series, no ubermensch here but instead genetically enhanced apes, and Matt Reeves’ direction of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Again, my familiarity with the canon is quite limited, so whilst I’ve seen the immediate pre-cursor to this with James Franco, I still look to judge the film on its’ standalone merits first and foremost.  Still, with Andy Serkis returning as Caesar, the newly established leader of the intelligent apes, and featuring Gary Oldman there was plenty to look forward to.

Set ten years after the pandemic that began to ravage human civilisation at the end of the previous film, we soon get a hint of things to come in an early encounter that sees Caesar’s son Blue Eyes wounded by a panicked shot from human called Carver. Carver is part of a small group exploring the forests, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) in turn part of a dramatically reduced population of survivors.  It leads to a confrontation during which Caesar orders the men to leave to avoid further conflict. Malcolm then seeks to later reconcile with Caesar in order to gain access to a power station that could be vital for the human’s survival hopes.

This agreement then reached promotes a proximity of human and ape which inevitability sparks the familiar tropes of mistrust, grievance and suspicion – the initial mis-treatment of apes in the first film acts as a traumatic memory for many of the older apes. The aim of maintaining harmony between these two species becomes doomed to fail, due in part to weakess’ of character on both sides of the divide. It provokes the usual questions of guilt and responsibility and the challenge of reconciliation between opposing forces, whilst engaging in a dramatically exciting face off action narrative before the somewhat predictable sequel-inviting end.

7/10 – Strengths: well paced, enjoyable action-drama. Serkis as Caesar is great. Weakness’: not enough Gary Oldman, Clarke as the lead man is fine, without being overly engaging. Plot finale was a little predictable.

Finally, and my most recent cinema trip for one reason or another, was Guardians of the Galaxy.  Timing it just right I secured a cinema seat in one of the few showings that survived until after the school term had returned, so featured a welcome reduction in youths he says trying not to be too prejudiced. But honestly, kids in cinemas can be complete gits. However the film was so deliciously  immersive and unashamedly good fun, I probably wouldn’t have even begrudged a few outlandish vocal interjections by would be co-attendees.

The plot centres around a much coveted orb that space adventurer Peter Quill picks up on one of his scavenges. The value of this orb is clearly well known and soon many nefarious hands try and appropriate it into their own grasping palms, and the result of early skirmishing forces Quill into a self-serving pact with assorted misfits in order to try and retrieve the orb, and  save the world while they’re at it. A classic plot device but terrifically executed and never less than thoroughly entertaining throughout.

Chris Pratt, who like most other fans of his, know him mostly as the adorable Andy Dwyer from Parks and Recreation, absolutely thrives in the leading role, his comic background in evidence as he subsumes the character of Quill with natural ease.  Bradley Cooper provides an excellently sly voice for Rocket the Raccoon, and sounds like he’s having tremendous fun in the process, whilst Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Zoe Saldana and James Gunn provide enthusiastic and engaging support. There are no weakness’ that spring to mind in the casting, nor are there many in either plot or direction.

As has been said frequently elsewhere by its many fans, there is a more innocent joy about this adventure which evokes a somewhat 1980s feel to the film, which is perhaps somewhat appropriate given that this is the decade from which Quill finds himself abducted from as a child. The soundtrack further adds a vibrancy to proceedings, which in itself has a particularly centrality to Quill’s character. The mix-tape he brings with him, provides a  talismanic quality to it, especially given the strong sentiments attached to it.

Additional to this 80’s feel of the film is the role of Quill, who as a scavenger looking out for himself, could be said to share similar qualities to another lead from a fantasy series – that of Han Solo. A nostalgia audience can see much to revel in, in this film whilst the plot and the action lends itself to swashbuckling fights witty retorts, spectacularly evil baddies who clearly LOOK evil, from their garish ware. It’s part star wars, part indiana jones, and also part lego movie, though perhaps that’s the Pratt effect.

The director Michael Gunn does not try and re-invent the wheel with the direction, simply ensuring that the simple things are done well: personable leads, a good dialogue, well paced action which weighs spectacle against plot needs (similar to X-Men: DOFP) and provides a satisfying development of character and plot in a narrative bursting with energy at the seams. Great entertainment and as a last film of the year to see on the big screen, it was one of the best.

9/10: Strengths: Tonally perfect, Pratt is wonderfully magnetic in the lead, and the cast. Weakness: a couple of the supporting roles weren’t as fab as the others, but I am being pernickety here. 

 

Film Review – American Interior

I was going to plump this review in with a list of other films, as per the last few updates but I wouldn’t wish it to become lost among blockbusters that are already well known. This is a wonderful indie film that deserves more recognition, and so here gets some special privilege.

This is American Interior, a film that I was fortunate enough to see in a tent at the Green Man Festival in August 2014. The film is the creation of Gruff Rhys the Welsh singer of the band Super Furry Animals. It is a documentary that charts Rhys’ efforts to follow in the footsteps of an ancestral relative John Evans, who in the 1770’s was obsessed by the  apocryphal tale of a 12th century Prince Madoc who supposedly discovers America before Columbus. The legend continues on to suggest there remained a welsh-speaking native american tribe still in existence somewhere in the margins of the american wilderness.  In a literal sense then the film is about Gruff Rhys going to America to retrace the footsteps of Evans to see how far he got in tracking down this elusive tribe. It inevitably has far more strings to its bow. 

From the moment we are introduced to John Evans’ old home in Wales, we are following Gruff via both cut-aways of him hosting small solo gigs across town halls in America as well as the direct documentary footage of his trek across the American plains. Accompanying Gruff is a very sweet puppet representation of the old relative (a pretty useful indicator of the film’s tone ) as off they go across the seas in search of connection.

It is artistically shot, and accompanying some of the more expansive depictions of the vast geography of the route undertaken is a pulsating sound track performed by Rhys himself,  providing an equally enjoyable accompanying album also entitled American Interior. It is the meeting with and discussions he has with characters over there that are most interesting, particularly one with an elder of the Mandan tribe – for whom linguistic extinction is a very real threat. As a proud Welshman, this clearly resonates with the myth and Gruff himself, and makes for an engaging reflection on the inseparable relationship that connects, language, culture and collective identity. We also learn of the value that John Evans’ expeditions then gave to the mapping of the lands in the northern areas of America, and thus the boundary of the very young American territory, among many other snippets of wisdom, folklore and historical discovery.

It is funny, eccentric, and constantly engaging: journeying through a film full of american cambrophiles, somewhat potty local historians, eloquent Native Americans, and the diversely challenging physical terrains of the North American landscape, not to mention  the winding narratives of history. It is an ode to mythology as much as it is a biopic of Gruffs ( very) great uncle. It’s heart is so warm, it can’t fail to charm the pants of anyone watching it, whilst the musical accompaniment that helps tell the tale, invigorates the travelling soul and fires the curious spirit within,  challenging you reflect on what your old ancestors got up to too!

8.5/10 Strengths: A rhythmic journey of exploration, that is made so charming and entertaining by a slightly mad, proud Welshman, full of historical intrigue. Weakness’: I wanted to know more

 

Film Review 2014 – Part 3 – featuring Locke, stock(plot), and avenging gun barrels

Part 3 of the my film review hits three further releases, two british and two american. Locke, Calvary, Blue Ruin and The Amazing Spiderman 2.

 

Moving on from the dystopian spiritual claustrophobia of The Double, came a drama altogether more literal in it’s expression of a tightly focused and contained human study, physically and mentally enclosed for the entirety of the narrative behind the wheel of a car. Locke , from director Stephen Knight, and starring Tom Hardy, provided an intelligently scripted and remarkably executed tale of a man whose life, professional and personal, is upturned during 90 minutes of phone calls with colleagues and families. It is far more compelling than that short synopsis implies, aided in no small part by a fantastic performance from Hardy, whose grasp of nuance and subtlety of expression is the chief hook that keeps you reeled in.

The film itself is replete with metaphors, some admittedly more clunkier than others: as a concrete supply Manager, there is a piece of dialogue that suggests that from just one error in the works, cracks will grow large enough to bring the building down – an unsubtle allusion to the plot that explains how Locke’s life unravels over the particular journey. Routine is central to Locke who has prided himself on a methodical and compartmentalizing approach to problem-solving, and creating a well organised life at work and domestically.  The family motif resonates powerfully at the heart of this piece, with the father-son dynamic taking centre stage in many respects – it appears crucial to Locke’s identity and how he has defined his decision making. Through this we see what drives him (both literally and metaphorically of course ) to take the decisions he does. Beyond the central plot there are fine supporting voice-roles: Olivia Coleman, Ruth Wilson, Andrew Scott, Bill Milner all provide the audio cues for Locke’s journey ( the metaphor is an obvious one, complete with arrival representing the cessation of the turbulence of one narrative).

I was surprised by how gripping it proved to be, and one can reflect on fine directorial subtleties, after the film has ended – including the opening scene which places Locke at traffic lights appearing to indicate he’s going left, at the last minute, he changes his mind and goes right, the final assertive act that propels him on a route that is destined to change his life quite radically. Whilst at the end, a final shot of all the cars circling on their journey home prompts the Everyman conceit, so many journeys, so many potentially life changing narratives lost in the crowds. For me the shot also briefly recalled the character Georges Gerfault from Patrick Manchette’s novel trois a battre who finds himself unable to escape a cyclical routine, and ends the novel driving aimlessly around a motorway, trapped in uncertainty. For Locke, he has escaped this cycle, but at what cost?

9/10 Strengths – simple conceit executed well, with a mesmerising lead performance from Hardy. Well paced, and full of enjoyable metaphor. Deserves more attention. Weakness’: a couple of over-wrought metaphors and a couple of weakish voice-overs, but not distracting.

From one of my films of the year to a more prosaic and formulaic affair: The Amazing Spiderman 2. Yes, rather different in character to previous films I’ve reviewed thus far, but I do enjoy comic book movie adaptations as much as the intrigue of Locke or Under the Skin. As they say, everything has its place.

It’s a genre that by now has become well worn, with no short supply of available superheroes to turn to if one’s in search of some enjoyable throw-away action. In the current climate then, there’s all the more reason to ensure new entries try and stand out: whether through tone, style, dialogue, plot – there are plenty of ways to create a memorable enough character. The genre, does of course allow for more extraordinary bending of conventions than regular human-filled films do, although with this character’s reboot still not long at all after the Toby Maguire series, impressing is always a challenge as it’s hard to avoid the question: is this really worth it?

Still, an open mind will always have more room to welcome familiar friends.  Spiderman 2 is the first time I’ve seen the radioactive man-spider represented by Andrew Garfield. I’ve not seen the first, but it is hardly a requirement to accessing the sequel. In short, I enjoyed the slighter darker tone to this film, not to reveal the plot, but unfamiliar with the comic canon, I did not expect the ending to be as it was, even if the film did foreshadow its possibility. So that is to the film’s credit as too is Garfield, who is infinitely more watchable, and more comfortable in the Spiderman costume than Maguire was. (Against Maguire of course, also lies the memory sadly burned onto the retinas for time immemorial of the catastrophe that was Spiderman 3: that Emo-moment  reducing the film to something of a joke. ) Emma Stone, is also fantastic as Peter Parker’s flame and those leads certainly carry the film to above average. The plot is  pretty standard fare, with a couple of particularly silly elements – a baddie called Dr. Kafka raised a guffaw – but it nevertheless holds the attention without irritating too much.

6/10 Strengths: Garfield captures Spiderman better than Maguire, and Emma Stone helps add some charm to a film which whilst watchable is swiftly forgettable. Weakness’: plot is somewhat limited, and there a couple of naff cliches in there too. 

Moving away from the comic-book world, I’m relocating focus to a world in need of an altogether different kind of superhero, and for whom the most likely candidate is struggling to to save his flock from altogether more grounded and serious concerns.

Calvary directed by John Michael McDonagh who in 2013 gave us the terrific The Guard returns to the silver screen mercifully bringing the magnetic personality of Brendon Gleeson with him for this much darker satire. Examining a post-recession, post priest paedophile scandal Ireland, McDonagh adds caustic observation to the dry wit of The Guard, as we follow Gleeson’s Priest tending to his flock, albeit one which ran out of faith long ago. He is an embattled tired man, not without his own past, as seen through his relationship with his daughter (Kelly Reilly) . The tension at the core of the drama is established immediately as we hear a conversation between the priest and a citizen in a confessional booth, which ends with the violent assertion that Father James will be shot the following Sunday, with the would-be-assassin giving his target time to put his affairs in order.

Subsequently we are presented with an assorted array of cynical characters, all inhabiting this small, bleak community as McDonagh challenges us to consider who the perpetrator could be, whilst also highlighting a broken social unit, in need of a saviour in a time when the institutions previously responsible for those cares ( welfare provision and spiritual comforts) have been undermined, leading to a self-serving survivalist mentality that has eschewn moral and communal codes. There are fine supporting roles too – Dylan Moran as the epitome of the crass banker class elite and Chris O’Dowd the wife-beating butcher amidst many more. Each inhabitant provides a story or window into a bleak outlook, and though the script is hewn through with some wonderfully witty dialogue, to mark the film down as a black-comedy would be to dramatically downplay the film’s savagery as a social critique.

Father James ambulates round the community, caught between despair at the vacuum facing the community and struggling to articulate an effective response, often settling to just simply providing some basic comfort; some words of general advice removed from any biblical references ( aware of the toxic reputation afflicting that association ), or a set of ears to listen to the difficulties besetting the people. He is a magnificently tragic character, an ironically decent priest in a world that is losing it’s sense of place.

Tackling social, political, religious concerns with black humour and an understated compassion, the film became one of my most memorable films the instant I had seen it, and revisiting it now for this review is reminding me how much I wish to see it again. It is intense, but captivating and the matured writing of McDonagh here is fantastic.

10/10 Strengths: flawless script rich with political and social drama, hewn with delicious dialogue is brought to a brooding light by a toweringly delicate performance from Brendon Gleeson, and supported by a brilliant cast, my runaway film of the year. Weakness’: none spring to mind.  

The spirit of vengeance becomes a more direct subject matter in the next film  – though altogether more directly violent and clear-cut. Blue Ruin brought to us by director Jeremy Saulnier and with the impressive Macon Blair in the lead role, is a taut suspense thriller that deploys an effective and mood driven realist approach to the genre. Blair plays a drifter who has clearly struggled and failed to overcome a traumatic past, one which leads him to seek out a physical confrontation with those whom he considers responsible, involving an act which sparks a bloody attack-counter-attack cycle of violence. It is a powerful a well executed tale of fated blood-shed, invoking the spirit of the classical Shakespearean style tragedy.

If by the end the climactic violence seems heavily foreshadowed and expected, it is to the film’s credit that this is no great weakness. It’s strength is in the performance and narrative of the build up. The film does not throw up needless exposition, nor seek to fill the silences with musical interludes, instead drawing the viewer in through a slow release of understanding, with an atmosphere heightened by that lack of music to provide some form of aesthetic release. From the opening scene, which subverts our immediate presumption about the victim/perpetrator status of the man taking a bath, the narrative plays out at a pace of it’s choosing, allowing the audience to speculate for quite some time as to what has driven our lead protagonist Dwight ( Blair). 

Dwight’s character is complex, and whilst clearly a victim of a troubling past, the presence of a sister who has managed to overcome the same trauma and make a normal life for herself, implicitly suggests that, merely having a difficult past does not mean one’s future has to be set upon a particular path. Indeed the ancillary characters provide hopeful outlets to offshoot the darkness at the films centre – Ben Gaffney as Dwight’s old school friend, the sister Sam, and most notably through William the young boy at the end who escapes the face off, and demonstrates a rejection of brutality indicating that not all cycles need go round and round forever.

The theme of family is also pervasive in many of these films, in tangentially similar fashion to both  Locke and Calvary, which extends beyond the typically nuclear boundaries. Dwight is driven partly be a sense of duty to protect his sister and her children, Locke, feels compelled to not repeat the mistakes he ascribed to his own father, and Father James acts in a patriarchal role to the community as best he can. Even in Spiderman we see this  as the comic book character whose identity is tied up as Arch Protector.

8/10 Strengths: As a murky revenge-noir it is suitably darkly shot, with great build of suspense, and narrative minimalism which allows events to be released through implication. Macon Blair is wonderful in the lead role as the troubled Dwight. Weakness:’ act 3 had some (minor) issues with execution.