Thursday, 28 August 2014

Review of What If, Hector and the Search For Happiness, Lucy (2014)

Trying something new here for a change; I've noticed my reviews have tended to be on the longer side, so here I'm going to do three concise reviews of the three films I watched yesterday. There is often the trouble with shorter reviews that you simply can't say all you ever want to say; but then I always think of things I've missed in my long ones anyway. If you can get the general gist with main points, then I'll be happy.

Also, I loathe loathe loathe LOATHE that flashy, gimmicky style of reviewing found in short reviews by people such as Peter Travers, so I will be trying my utmost to not do that.

What If

Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan charm the socks off of each other, and us, during this unexpected gem. He is smitten with her, and she's in a five-year relationship; the chemistry is undeniable between them, and... Yeah, you can kinda guess where it's going, but in this case the formula works and doesn't feel formulaic because it is emboldened by characters who come across as entirely real and make us care for them. It is lent an extra twist by Michael Dowse's snappy and twee direction, and the cute animated drawings which come alive at opportune moments. This is one of the best films of the year, and I cannot wait to see it again.

Hector and The Search For Happiness

The distinct impression given by Peter Chelsom's Hector and The Search For Happiness is that of a film evaporating before your very eyes. Nothing about it sticks, from the distant cinematography down to the lazy script, and most crucially Simon Pegg's wasted phoned-in performance as a psychiatrist trying to find the root of happiness (clue: it was there all along). Even Stellan Skarsgard pops up for a bit and looks uncomfortable. How deliciously ironic that a film about a man trying to find happiness ends up being so relentlessly miserable.

Lucy

Luc Besson returns after last year's hideous "The Family" with this phenomenal science-fiction/action film about a woman (Scarlett Johansonn) who, after ingesting an experimental drug, unlocks more and more of her brain capacity. Don't stick around to dissect the (bizarre) script, but do stay for one of the first big-budget studio films of the year that is truly alive; visually fascinating and cinematically beautiful, it has the feel of a personal pet project that's been percolating for years. It all goes off the rails, as per, but I haven't been more transfixed by the proverbial train crash in a long time. Cult material.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Review of Lilting (2014)

Few films have made me really consider the nature of communication the way Hong Khaou's masterpiece "Lilting" has, a film in which a fair half of the conversations are ones in which a translator repeats what we just heard in a different language, and then waits until the other person has said what they have to say, and translates it back into English for us. About a quarter of the Chinese dialogue in the film is subtitled, as a result of this. The approach is fascinating because it induces a sense of tranquility in which we study the faces and the intonations of in the languages we understand, and don't, for clues. This is also the only film I think I've ever seen where a character forgets what he's about to say, pauses, forgets, searches for it and then when he realises says it that little bit triumphantly. Think about how often that happens in real life; think about how you never see that in movies; you now have some kind of indication of the level of nuance this film is working at.

The plot is simple, reveals itself slowly, and I won't ruin any of it here because the nature of past and present, memory and events which happened some time ago yet impact the now are integral to the structural precision of the film. All I will say is this- there is an older Chinese woman living in a care home called Junn, played by Cheng Pei-Pei, a man called Richard, played by Ben Whishaw, who is the lover of Junn's son Kai (Andrew Leung), a translator called Vann (Naomi Christie), and Alan (Peter Bowles) who is Junn's potential suitor in the care home. 

All five performances are perfect for the film, but the two stand outs are Whishaw and Pei-Pei- they are the bedrock of this film and the film knows it. Shots are very content just to regard their faces for a little while, and the film does prove the old assertion that the human face is the most interesting thing you can have in a film. Both performances have their modes- Whishaw has a deep rooted sadness forever on his face, which is a marked contrast with Pei-Peis twinkly eyes which occasionally becomes sternness. 

There are so many little things about this film I adored. It is tackling big themes such as the grieving process, love, and the nature of relationships between mother and son, yet it is unafraid of going for big laughs (and getting them). It also manages to be compelling not because of the plot, but because it allows us to be invested heavily in the characters and makes us wish them well. Conversations go on and on and we listen intently, because the characters are actually talking about things that matter, and listening to what the other person has to say. Note how characters will say something to the translator, think about it and rescind it, rephrase it- the film explores how we tailor our words to those we are saying them to. 

Maybe I've made this all seem terribly dull and heavy- it's not. This film has a light, almost jolly tone considering, which is in part down to the rhapsodic cinematography from Urszula Pontikos, and predominantly due to the fierce wit which is a strong undercurrent (there are even penis jokes). 

A special mention must also go to the sound department, Anna Bertmark, Matt Johns and Joakim S√ľndstrom, whose work allows the film that final element which brings it to life. In various places sound overlaps, along with the occasional time-hopping the film does, and there is always the feeling of a tight control over what we can and can't hear. We become inspired to think about this, and why we are hearing what and what that means, and as a result the film is that bit more immersive. 

It's an ultimately noble enterprise, concerned with fundamentals of human experience, a deeply touching film of sensitivity and depth that lingers long after the credits, for creating real people and allowing us to care about them. It's one of the very best films this year, I adored it and cannot wait to see it again. 

Review of God Help The Girl (2014)

Stuart Murdoch, the lead singer of Belle and Sebastian (incidentally, my favourite band) takes on a task in his new film, and if I'm being frank he succeeds in about two thirds of what he tries. The story of the film will strike aficionados as being similar to Murdoch's own life story. A young girl called Eve (Emily Browning) with anorexia living in a hospital ward finds strength through music and her new-found band to overcome her illness over one lazy summer. 

Murdoch himself was struck with chronic fatigue syndrome over a lengthy seven year period and it took becoming a musician and forming his band to make him better and allow him to be a functioning member of society again. One scene early on in the film, where Eve is shown a triangle which has food and shelter at the bottom, relationships in the middle and morality and art at the top, feels like something Murdoch was told during his illness, even if it wasn't. It rings true. 

Other elements ring true. One scene where Eve, having just escaped from hospital, goes swimming, is shot with a subdued ecstasy and, as well as being aesthetically beautiful, feels like the kind of symbolism (baptism perhaps?) that would belong in a Kieslowski movie. And anther scene where Eve and her band, Cassie (Hannah Murray) and James (Olly Alexander) take a day trip canoeing on a river nails the kind of relaxed charm perfected by the old French New Wave films such as Jules and Jim, which had a lively quality. 

It should go without saying at this point that the score from Murdoch himself is wonderful, and is at least as good as the other Belle and Sebastian albums. Personally I slot it between Arab Strap and Storytelling in their overall canon- a lovely effort. 

I also, I think, enjoyed the quiet and contemplative tone of the film most of all. With beautiful cinematography by Giles Nuttgens the film takes it's time and doesn't want to rush things. This is a 80/90 minute film spread out lovingly over 111 minutes, and it's that loving aspect which worked best for me. Murdoch cares about these characters and wants us to care about them too, and coincidentally this is an aspect the film shares with the very best of Belle and Sebastian's songs. Whether it's Lazy Jane painting her lines, Sukie and her slut-slave, or Hilary going to her death because she couldn't think to anything to say, what makes them my favourite band is their sense of empathy for the people they conjure up in their compositions. To see this carried over into the film was a treat. 

And yet... I'm not going to say that Murdoch should stick to music, but there is a sense that what came to him so easily in one medium didn't quite come with the same ability in another. Narratively, this film is troublesome and scenes have a habit of not leading on from one another in a way that the audience can follow. This isn't to say I was confused, but there are times when the film resembles a narrative and others when it feels like a series of loose vignettes, and this distracted me ever so slightly. That the film has one toe in the realm of fantasy (the baying crowds for the band, Eve being let into the club) contributes to this, because if the film is being slightly fantastical then it should have pursued that slightly more doggedly. 

And then there's the fact that if Murdoch does want us to care about his characters, a little more for us to play with would have helped. Eve is a good person, but I would have liked a little more evidence for me to feel it instead of knowing it. Hannah Murray is a luminous presence but her character was woefully underwritten; essentially not written at all. I came away liking James the most, and his thoughtful, morose musings both tickled me and reminded me of myself, if I'm perfectly frank. He's also the character who most resembles Murdoch's persona now- the religious, arty thinker with unprecedented levels of faith in the power of pop music, and I responded to that. 

What we're left with is a film that is at least partially a success- certain elements don't work and the film has considerable issues, but as a whole it just about pulls itself together. 

(I went to see the film at the marvellous Harbour Lights Picturehouse in Southampton, and part of the screening included a recording of a live concert, I assume truncated from the actual concert, by the band. It was excellent, as you could have expected, and I appreciated them playing their early songs. They also teased some new material without playing it, so fans- be excited. I am).

Monday, 11 August 2014

Review of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (2007)

That title refers to the amount of time Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) has had a foetus in her body, although the film never quite spells it out. We do not, in fact, find out that Gabita is pregnant until about half an hour into the film, after we have observed the actions of her friend Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) as she goes about, collecting money, booking hotels, buying cigarettes, promising her boyfriend Adi (Alexandru Potocean) that she will make it to his mother's birthday party at five, and meeting up with a softly spoken yet menacing abortionist (Vlad Ivanov) to finalise the details. It is 1987 in Romania; abortion is very illegal, and if the foetus is over four months old, then the abortionist will go to jail for murder, not simply abortion.

Cristian Mungiu, the director, keeps us on our toes for these early scenes, and I was reminded of a film called "Le Fils" by the Belgian Dardenne Brothers. That film, which is a masterpiece, has an opening half hour in which we see a portly, divorced man stalking a young child before... Well, I wouldn't dream of ruining it, but the Dardennes took us around the trees before arriving at the forest. The same is the case here. This film also shares a liberal use of a handheld camera, and a certain slice-of-life feeling which goes hand in hand with a realism which the film doggedly pursues.

This is an immersive film, then, which is trying to plant us firmly in the shoes of its characters. It does an interesting thing in not, actually, being about Gabita but Otilia instead. In doing so, it completely dodges any ethical consideration of the issues of abortion. This is firmly a document of what happens when someone decides to have an abortion. Any reaction, good or bad, lies firmly in the hands of the viewer, and for that matter my opinion remains unchanged (abortion is sometimes a necessary evil and each case must be taken on its own terms).

What this film most resembles is a thriller with roots firmly in the character study. We get to know Otilia, and we discover that she is a very good person who goes way, way, way above and beyond the call of duty in helping her friend. Gabita is a lot more selfish, and seems to be at least partially blind to the sacrifices Otilia is making of her. However, once more in the tradition of the Dardenne brothers, we do not feel pushed to judge one side or another. This is simply how it is; circumstances have simply fallen this way. This is how these people are. The excellent performances from all concerned inform this objectivity.

There is a certain political element to the film as well; abortion might not be discussed, bet we do know it is illegal, and the recurrent use of ID cards both as plot device and a dating/setting device recalls a police state.

The film also does an interesting thing in taking on the qualities of a thriller; for better or for worse, this is a truly nerve-wracking film. One 20 minute scene between the abortionist, Otilia and Gabita, had me genuinely tensed up, and there's a genius 10 minute still take at a dinner table which, when you take the characters frame of mind into account, becomes torturous. This is where the camerawork comes into its own; the raggedy, loose style informed by the handheld camera allows us to share the state of mind of the characters perfectly; I've long thought that the best thing a director can do is allow a camera to reflect the mental states of the characters, so we feel as opposed to simply know their plight, and this film has that in abundance.

Yet... I do not think this film is a masterpiece. I see it has 97 on Metacritic, and that's not a score to be sniffed at, yet looking over the reviews they seem to be mainly superficial; Joe Morgenstern claims it is an "elegantly crafted, brilliantly acted film". Rene Rodriguez claims it is "brilliant and suspenseful". Kenneth Turan claims it has "a commitment to reality unlike any we're used to seeing".

That's all well and good; really, it is. On a purely superficial level, this film is an astonishment. Yet there does seem to be something reductive about how it takes it's subject matter and makes a thriller out of it. I hate to sound greedy, but it could have gone deeper. I'm going to recall "Le Fils" again, because that film had scenes that were similarly armchair-gripping, and yet when I recall the final scene, I see it as a totem of the most absolute form of forgiveness, and a statement on our capabilities for empathy as a species.

Alas, no such luck. Normally I would not take such an abstruse form of criticism, but this has the form and feel of a masterpiece... What a shame, then, that it's a four star must-see as opposed to a five star enduring classic. Still, though, that does mark it as a must-see and that's more than enough for most people.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Review of God's Pocket (2014)

Actor John Slattery's directorial debut "God's Pocket" is a mess that never really organises itself according to one principle or another, and how much that bothers you rests solely on your tastes as a filmgoer. I found it visually interesting and well-acted enough that the 88 minute running time went by quite quickly, yet I am also aware that this is a heavily flawed film, in places lazy, and it never rings true enough for the audience to really get their teeth into it. It feels like a rough cut of another, longer, better, more interesting movie. A minor version of a minor classic, perhaps.

The plot takes place over three days in the eponymous Vermont neighbourhood, concerning Mickey Scarpato (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as he tries to sort out his affairs in the wake of his son Leon's (Caleb Landry Jones) death, which is reported to be an accident involving faulty equipment at the construction site he worked at, but was in fact a murder at the hands of a black worker he kept taunting. Leon, as far as we get to know him before he is murdered, is a thoroughly unpleasant young man who takes great relish in displaying his knife and telling graphic stories about cats he's murdered with it.

The fact that Leon is so despicable seems unnoticed by his mother Jeanie (Christina Hendricks), however there are hints that Mickey is aware of it, doesn't resent it, isn't mourning his son but isn't glad he's dead either, and is just trying to get the funeral to go ahead smoothly. Hoffman goes full DeNiro in this picture, utilising a Bronx accent and a moody stance. It's not his most striking or showy role, but it's still nice to see him onscreen since his tragic death. That his character feels unformed is the fault of the script as opposed to his acting; he brings his all here, as was his standard.

This leads into the biggest issue I had with the film; the script, written by Alex Metcalf and Slattery, adapted from a Peter Dexter novel, feels unfinished. Certain aspects, such as the fact that Jeanie intuitively knows that Leon's death was suspicious, reek of lazy unmotivated screenwriting. Richard Jenkins puts in a good performance as an alcoholic columnist who chronicles the lives of everyone in God's Pocket, reports Leon's death, and has time for two fleeting sexual encounters, yet we never feel like we know him. Why is he an alcoholic? Is he lonely? Shouldn't these things be clarified so we can form a connection with the character?

I am not asking to be spoonfed; I love figuring things out for myself, and I love it when filmmakers drop little clues into the film for the audience to chew upon. There are no clues here; much rather, there isn't much here at all. 

What saves the film from being terrible is Lance Acord's dirty, muddy cinematography, which is incredibly evocative of the dead-end lives that these characters are leading. I love a film that has a unique visual style, and a strong sense of place. Acord brings God's Pocket to life, even though he can't bring "God's Pocket" to life, and this plus the acting was enough for me, but I would gladly forgive anyone for whom this wasn't enough.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Review of Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy, the latest output from the Marvel studios factory of superhero movies, opens with an unusually harrowing scene that took me entirely by surprise and reduced me to tears almost immediately. Needless to say, it was unexpected. We join Peter Quill in a hospital, aged roughly ten years old. He's listening to his "Awesome Mix vol.1", a mixtape we later learn was composed for him by his mother. He's invited in to speak to his mother, who is reaching out for him in her final moments. She holds out her hand; he doesn't take it. She passes on, and he immediately runs outside and is taken into space by a giant ship of some description.

These scenes are arguably corny, yet something about their immediacy and feeling hooked me. I cannot hide my predilection for scenes involving mothers and sons in movies, which is rooted entirely in personal reasons that I will not disclose in this review. Nevertheless, even though this level of emotional intensity isn't maintained in any way (how could it be? The film would be ruinous, to me at least) these early scenes set the tone well for Guardians of the Galaxy, and reveal the cards its going to play; earnestness, wonder, confusion, and an endearing imperfection. It's clear from the outset that this is a film with a big, beating, gooey heart, right down to the soundtrack, which includes Blue Swede's "Hooked on a Feeling", "Ain't No Mountain High Enough", and The Jackson 5's "ABC". If you can embrace those songs, you'll also probably have a good time embracing this film. By the same token, cynics will probably have a hard time.

We cut forward some years to Quill all grown up, traversing planets in his custom spaceship and going by the moniker of "Star-Lord". He is now played by Chris Pratt, and he seems to embody that same kind of spirit the film shares. When he dances around an unknown planet, I found myself smiling; this is a film with a genuine sense of awe at the outer-space universe, aliens, creatures and planets it has created.

As an actor, Pratt has that same twinkly-eyed quality found in another actor I greatly admire, Ethan Hawke, and as a presence I warmed to him immediately. He carries the movie nearly effortlessly, hitting the various notes of  arrogance, resentment, sadness, and doe-eyed wonder with ease. He's the kind of not-quite antihero who has existed in the movies since they began. When we meet him, he is in the pursuit of an orb of unspecified origin and cause, and a number of contrivances surrounding him and this orb land him in prison with a green alien called "Gamora" (Zoe Saldana), a blue, superpowered, vengeful tank of rage called "Drax", and a raccoon called "Rocket" (Bradley Cooper) and his personal companion, a tree called "Groot" (Vin Diesel).

This ragtag group of individuals, each with their own interests and backstories, ultimately band together to stop a baddy called "Ronan" (Lee Pace) who broke into the orb, which contains an "infinity stone", which we gather can destroy worlds, and that's certainly Ronan's intention.

There's a lot of plot in this movie, and where the film stops short of being one of the landmark action/sci-fi films of the decade is that in the early scenes it gets terribly bogged down. Characters go to places and say things and do things, and I confess to being lost for the first half hour or so. There was a lot of talk of "treaties" and we were introduced to too many new planets and people too quickly that, simply, it took me a little while to catch up.

But I can't dwell on negatives too long; this is a film that relies on interplay, banter, and goodwill. It's exciting, accessible, and intriguing. It's beautiful in its own way and has the pre-requisite nods to Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Blade Runner, and it's nirvana for anyone familiar with the music and movies of the late 70's and early 80's. It feels fully conceived, like every alien and being has been planned out.

But, mainly, in rooting us in the core five characters we actually have something to care about. Drax is seeking revenge after his wife and child were killed, and we want him to find vengeance. Gamora is a baddy turned good, and her arc feels real. And then there's the duo of Rocket and Groot. Groot may be my favourite CGI incarnation, well, ever. He is quite literally a talking tree, and the only words he knows are "I Am Groot", yet his devotion to Rocket (left unexplained in origin) is simply adorable. His face is genuinely expressive, and I never noticed the fact that he was a special effect. Rocket, too, is a superb character, his voice-work by Bradley Cooper, conveying a character who is brash on the surface but has deep insecurities and a poignant backstory (he's the product of experimentation).

Gunn's direction is splendid, belying his indie roots and leaving an indelible personal mark on the whole thing. Tyler Bates' score is phenomenal. Ben Davis' cinematography is unique and out of the ordinary, a refreshing relief from the usual clean-cut composition we see. There were times when I felt the film could have done with a few minutes extra to clarify some bits and pieces, and as I've said the plot could do some work, but that doesn't so much feel like the fault of Gunn and Nicole Perlman's screenplay as how it came to be in the editing suite.

It's all in all a superb piece of entertainment. I am stopping short of calling it a masterpiece, but I have a feeling time will be kind to this one. After an opening of fits and spurts, it settles into an exciting, memorable and weird ride that is the perfect antithesis to the dark that has crept into modern superhero films. It's fun, by God, and sometimes that's all I want from a film, or at the very least a film like this.