Sunday, December 28, 2014

Review: Amour Fou - A tale of wallpapers and awkwardness

It all comes back to the wallpaper, one of cinema's most memorable in this vein since Barton Fink. The chequered hangings with some sort of floral pattern attract the audience's gaze time and time again during Jessica Hausner's Amour Fou, which screened as part of the Cine-City film festival last week. In 1811 Berlin, towards the end of feudalism, they decorate the masonry of the living room in the aristocratic Vogel residence, where a large portion of the film takes place. The frames take on a painterly order facing the wall, meaning that it becomes a constant, looming backdrop to the drama that unfolds in front of it.

There we see Henriette (Birte Schnoeink), the lady of the house, happily married and mother of a daughter. She attracts the attention of a visiting poet named Heinrich (Christian Friedel, whom you might recognise as the school teacher from The White Ribbon). He is committed to a morbidly romantic outlook on the world and is desperate to find a woman to join him in the ultimate act of love: joint-suicide. Initially Henriette rejects his advances, but when she is diagnosed with a fatal illness, she begins to show interest in becoming the Juliet to Heinrich's Romeo.

The performances are intentionally awkward, which may be slightly irritating for some viewers. The actors' posture is formal and rigid, and they often look like they are as confused about what to do with their hands as Jack Donaghy does in the famous 30 Rock-episode. It's as if they are posing for a painting rather than camera, embodying the stiffness that entraps German aristocracy, trapped in conventions like puppets on a string. Heinrich's awkwardness meanwhile is merely a charade to fit into society until he can exit it with a bang.

In the end it all comes down to the infamous wallpaper. Hausner uses background to express the emotions bubbling under the surface of the foreground in a quite interesting way. The lighting gives the wallpaper different nuances in the various scenes. At times it shimmers in a cold, blue-ish tone, while emitting a hopeful green at others. Any escape from this claustrophobic setting has furthermore an exhilarating effect on the viewer. It takes almost half an hour until we first leave the domestic setting (we don't even see a window up to that point), so it feels like a breath of fresh air.

Not everybody will enjoy staring at a wall for an hour and a half while a relatively unengaging, sometimes alienating story is plaid out in front of it. Amour Fou is in many ways a dragging, tiresome experience, but the director's use of the mise-en-scène just about managed to keep me interested for 96 minutes. The Austro-Luxembourgish-German co-production explores a number of interesting ideas and concepts, but the audience has to work hard to find them in the wallpaper's hypnotic pattern.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Review: Scott and Bale go full Old Testament with Exodus: Gods and Kings

The biblical epic is officially back (for now). After Daren Aronofsky gave us his version of Noah featuring rock giants, berries and Ray Winstone wielding a magical rocket launcher, Ridley Scott takes on the Book of Exodus on an even bigger scale. Exodus: Gods and Kings is, in contrast to the delightfully unusual and frankly a bit bonkers Noah, for the most part a more classical, old school movie. The result is high on spectacle, but low on character, coherence and fun.

Most people in this part of the world should be more or less familiar with the story. Christian Bale steps into the sandals of Charlton Heston, who immortalised the role of Moses in the classic Cecil B. de Mille 1956-version of the story The Ten Commandments. He starts off as a member of the Egyptian royal family and a general of their overpowering military, before discovering that, not unlike the Blues Brothers, he is on a mission from God. He then adopts his true heritage and proceeds to lead the escape of the enslaved Hebrew people from Egypt. During this process, he constantly transforms his physicality and facial hair (I counted at least 10 different beards hiding Christian Bale's gorgeous features). 

The film occasionally engages with the source text in interesting ways, but largely sticks to the Old Testament and its values. God appears to Moses in the form of a young boy and there are hints of a logical explanations for the devastating plagues and the famous partition of the Red Sea (meteor!), but it really is a heroic tale about a man on a mission, about faith and about revenge.

The women are completely marginalised. Some heavy editing appears to have reduced the roles of Sigourney Weaver and the wonderful Hiam Abbass to a couple of scenes and as many lines. The vast amount of plot and action covered in two and a half hours leaves little time to develop many of the minor characters beyond their elaborate costumes. Even Moses himself isn't particularly interesting. There are brief moments of doubt, but he simply shrugs it off after seeing the next miracle. His  love-hate relationship with the Pharaoh Ramses (Joel Edgerton) also lacks chemistry and impact.

What we are left with is a sense of epicness. Very few directors can convey the grandeur and the scale of things like Sir Ridley. The camera constantly leaves the ground to show us big, sweeping shots of cities, deserts and monuments in construction. The landscape and the CGI-effects look equally spectacular on the big screen. On a technological level, the film is brilliant aside from the pointless 3D and a brief moment of embarrassingly bad ADR. The Egyptians are hit by the ten plagues in a montage of truly biblical proportions. Ben Mendelsohn furthermore steals all of his scenes as a slimy, deliciously camp slavedriver.

I wish the film had taken a bit more time to develop its characters and update the story for modern audiences. As it is, Exodus lacks emotional impact. If you think Christopher Nolan takes himself too seriously, you might want to skip this one. With the exception of some glorious Mendelsohn-innuendo, there are no laughs at all. That said, the shot of the horse running away from the ocean is almost worth the price of admission alone. It's not as forgettable as Kingdom of Heaven, but nowhere near as good as Gladiator. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Cine-jambalaya's favourite films of 2014 - part two

20-11. go back to part one

10. Paddington (Paul King)

Best... internet meme. Just google "creepy Paddington".

After Postman Pat and Pudsey the Dog: The Movie, almost no one expected Paddington's first big-screen outing to be any good, which makes the film's success as sweet as a delicious marmalade sandwich. It made me laugh, cry and reminded me why I fell in love with Great-Britain all those years ago. Family entertainment doesn't come much better than this. 

9. Pride (Matthew Warchus)

Best... scene of Imelda Staunton waving a dildo around.

Pride is part of the alternative heritage genre within British cinema alongside classics such as Brassed Off, The Full Monty, Billy Elliott or Made in Dagenham. Matthew Warchus' film doesn't have to hide from its predecessors. It has all it needs: an amazing true story, an important cause and a brilliant ensemble cast consisting of veterans (Nighy! Staunton! Considine!) and newcomers.

8. The Babadook (Jennifer Kent)

Best... title to say out loud.

At a time when most horror films rely on jump scares and splashes of bodily fluids, The Babadook provides a breath of fresh air from Down Under. First-time director Jennifer Kent sensitively explores grief and its consequences through the generic tropes of a ghost story. It is also creepy as hell (the first new film to genuinely scare me since The Impossible in 2012).

7. Stranger by the Lake/L'Inconnu du Lac (Alain Guiraudie)

Best... use of a single location.

As many critics pointed out when it was released, Stranger by the Lake puts the "cock" in "Hitchcockian". Set around a gay cruising spot in the south of France, this sexually explicit thriller lives off its brooding, menacing atmosphere and fantastic performances. The very best film of 2013 according to Cahiers du cinéma.

6. The LEGO Movie (Phil Lord and Chris Miller)

Best... and most annoying earworm.

With their one-two of The LEGO Movie and 22 Jump Street, Lord and Miller have had an amazing year. The pair are probably the funniest people working in movies today. They throw an almost overwhelming number of jokes, puns and references at the audience with an astonishing success rate. LEGO furthermore provides a surprisingly mature message: wild creativity is great, but sometimes you also need to follow the instructions. 

5. Calvary (John Michael McDonagh)

Best... beard. Just admire at its orange-white glory.

If Timothy Spall is my performance of the year, Brendan Gleeson is a close second. He brings such gravitas and serenity to his role as father James Lavelle. John Michael McDonagh's second feature is more thoughtful, but almost as funny as his debut The Guard (also starring Gleeson). The radical tonal shifts will sit uneasy with some people, but Calvary is a beast of a fillum. 

4. 20,000 Days on Earth (Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard)

Best... depiction of wonderful Brighton town.

On one level, 20,000 Days on Earth is a documentary about the sensational Australian musician Nick Cave and his hometown Brighton. You get a real sense of Cave, his a fascinating character and his many, many inspirational ideas. On another level, it's a film about its own artifice. The directors put their subject in a number of pre-planned situations without scripted dialogue in order to find some form of "truth". 

3. Winter Sleep/Kis uykusu (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

Best... drunken wittering.

This year's winner of the palme d'or at Cannes is a true behemoth of cinema. Ceylan evokes Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare and Voltaire in a film which mostly features people discussing a variety of big subjects in dark rooms (but also features a exhilarating Anatolian landscapes). At the end of the 196 minutes, we understand the absurdity of most of the discussions you've heard.  

2. Boyhood (Richard Linklater)


After last year's Before Midnight, the prolific director Richard Linklater once again finds himself at the runner-up position on cine-jambalaya's best-of list. After seeing Boyhood, which charts the life of a boy over a shooting period of twelve years, for the first time I was completely stunned. I can't think of a more truthful film about the experience of growing up in my generation (as long as you are a middle-class, white male at least).

1. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)

Best... hidden cameras.

Describing Under the Skin with words is not an easy task, but it definitely lives up to its title and gets beneath the audience's membrane. Scarlett Johansson drives around Glasgow in a white van and gives the performance of her career until now as an unnamed being from a foreign world. Her attempts to understand the strangeness of human behaviour give us a rare opportunity to look at ourselves with the eyes of an outsider.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Cine-jambalaya's favourite films of 2014 - part one

It's nearly Christmas, which means that it's the time of the year when everybody comes together to let the world know their favourite films of the year. Cine-jambalaya is obviously no different and has complied the (probably) best list of them all. In a very strong year for cinema, choosing twenty films wasn't an easy task. This means that some great films didn't make the cut. I admired the incredibly ambitious but flawed Interstellar, enjoyed Jeremy Saulnier's reinvention of the revenge flick Blue Ruin and was taken by the heartbreaking self-sacrifice in Stations of the Cross. 2014 also saw the return of the "bonkers blockbuster" with Aronofsky's Noah and Besson's Lucy,both of which nearly made the list. So did a number of other amazing films, such as 22 Jump Street (Something cooooooool!), The Way He Looks, Cold in July, Lilting, Days of Future Past, The Grand Budapest Hotel and many others.

Before we begin, a quick note about the rules. This year, I have chosen to go with the cinematic release date in the magical kingdom ruled by the people of Great-Britain. Snowpiercer, Song of the Sea, Whiplash, Still the Water or A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night are therefore not eligible. I am also ignoring last year's awards contenders (Inside Llewyn Davis, 12 Years A Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street), even if they were released in the UK after the turn of the year.

20. Gone Girl (David Fincher)

Best... intensity of the "violent bit" (censored for spoilers).

David Fincher has a lot of fun adapting Gillian Flynn's twisted best-seller. He nails the darkly comedic tone of the source novel to near perfection, thus creating a truly fucked-up satire about relationships and marriage. Casting Ben Affleck as the highly punchable Nick Dunne was a stroke of genius.

19. We Are the Best!/Vi är bäst! (Lukas Moodysson) 

Best... cute song (I hate, hate, HATE the sports).

Three young and bored girls decide form a punk band, cut their hair and wave their small fists at authority. Set in 1983 Stockholm (five years after the first wave of punk faded away), this film is full of affection for its young protagonists and captures the fresh, rebellious DIY-spirit of the punk movement better than most cinematic works. Charm alarm. 

18. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch)

Best... Tilda <3

A vampire movie made by American indie-darling Jim Jarmush starring Tilda Swinton, Mia Wasikowska and Tom Hiddleston? Sounds like a brilliant idea and it is. OLLA oozes style in its otherworldly soundtrack (composed by Jarmush's band SQÜRL) and the haunting beauty of its gritty Detroit locations. Possibly the director's best since Dead Man. 

17. Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski)

Best... use of the narrow 4:3 aspect ratio.

Pawel Pawlikowski returns to his native Poland for his latest feature Ida about a young woman confronted with her past. The film was the winner of the 2013 London Film Festival and could end up with a well-deserved Oscar nomination next year. The real star of Ida is the extraordinary cinematography implemented by DP Lukasz Zal.

16. Starred Up (David Mackenzie)

Best... Jack O'Connell breakout performance.

Within one year, Jack O'Connell has transformed from "that bloke from Skins" into one of cinema's most promising talents. His utterly convincing performance as a troubled, extremely violent prisoner in Starred Up justifies this status completely. The intensity and the brutality of this film gave me a slight feeling of discomfort in the stomach which is no mean feat.  

15. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves)

Best... apes on horses wielding machine guns!

I never understood the hype for 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but the Franco-less sequel won me over with Michael Giacchino's bombastic score and the surprisingly effective emotional beats. DOTPOTA is a rare blockbuster that is simultaneously intelligent, moving and a bit bonkers. Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell rise motion-capture performances to yet another level.

14. Leviathan/Leviafan (Andrey Zvyagintsev)

Best... Vodka, vodka and more vodka.

The hugely critical Leviathan tackles big political issues (corruption, Putin, the political influence of the church) through the simple story of an ordinary man in northern Russia crushed by the authority of the local mayor. There is little to no hope for genuine happiness, so they drown their sorrows in a flood of vodka.

13. Life Itself (Steve James)

Best... bickering between Siskel and Ebert while taping.

Until his tragic death in April 2014 (before filming on the documentary was completed), Roger Ebert was arguably the most influential English-language film critic of the last century. His memoirs and interviews with his family and friends provide the framework for this quite standard, but incredibly moving picture about an extraordinary man and writer. Two thumbs up. 

12. The Zero Theorem (Terry Gilliam)

Best... scene featuring Tilda Swinton (<3) rapping.

Terry Gilliam is one of my favourite filmmakers. Even when he is not as his best, his work is reliably fascinating and original. A bald Christoph Waltz leads us into the odd, dystopian vision of The Zero Theorem. Gilliam makes the most of a visibly low budget and creates an inventive sci-fi which doesn't lack ideas. This film did not get the attention or the critical praise it deserved. 
11. Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh)

Best... breathtaking opening shot.

Mike Leigh had been working on his biopic of the celebrated British painter for more than a decade when he finally got the green light. This film achieves a seemingly contradictory feat: it's boring in a good way. The amusing 19th-century language and the beautiful cinematography make up for the lack of action. Timothy Spall mumbles and grunts himself to the year's best performance in the title role. 

10-1.: go to part two

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Review: The curious case of Birdman

Originally published in The Badger

Alejandro G. (formerly González) Iñárritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful) had the honour of opening this year's edition of the Venice film festival with his highly anticipated fifth feature Birdman. Since I am what Michael Keaton's character would call a "lazy critic," I will start my review by putting a label on it: it's essentially (postmodern) Sirkian melodrama meets the meta-humour of 22 Jump Street meets the ambitious artist narrative from Black Swan. The film is a convoluted but enjoyable stew of ideas, subplots and one-liners. 

In the middle of all this is the former Batman Keaton as Riggan Thomson, essentially a fictionalized version of himself. Twenty years after making his name with a successful superhero franchise, Thomson's career on the way down. As he admits himself, he is not much more than "the answer to a fucking trivial pursuit question." When we meet him, he is about to direct and star in the Raymond Carver adaptation "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" on Broadway, but preparations are anything but smooth.

First of all, Birdman is very funny and all the performances are excellent. It's great to see Michael Keaton, one of Hollywood's most underused actors, back in the mainframe and able to make fun of his own image. Zach Galifianakis is also very good playing against type as Thomson's squeamish manager and Edward Norton is having a lot of fun antagonising everyone in the role of a pompous method actor looking for truth. The humour is quick, witty and often rings true, especially when targeting show business, celebrity and the modern media with satirical bite. Norton declares that "popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige" and Keaton complains about budding actors whose "only ambition is to go viral."

It's an enjoyable, weird romp, but I'm not sure it adds up to much more than that. The visual style is simultaneously incredibly ambitious, technically brilliant, fascinating and a bit tedious. Shot by Gravity-cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, there are no obvious cuts in the entire film. The individual scenes play out in a single take and are joined together seamlessly. Antonio Sanchez's drum-heavy score similarly walks a fine line between brilliance and obnoxiousness. 

The story meanwhile is overburdened with half-baked ideas and subplots that don't really go anywhere. Iñárritu can't really decide between a character study and an ensemble piece, so he tries to do both. The film is consequently nowhere near as deep or profound as it thinks it is, which leaves certain emptiness in the middle. Every character is given their own set of issues, but Iñárritu doesn't have the time to explore any of them thoroughly enough. Emma Stone for instance plays Keaton's damaged daughter (fresh out of rehab), who develops some sort of relationship with the Ed Norton character and that's pretty much all she gets to do. In the end, Birdman is an original, fun ride, but not the seminal masterpiece some people make it out to be. I am however looking forward to the inevitable Wingman starring Val Kilmer in a couple of years' time. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Review: The Tribe's sound of silence

Sometimes, taking big risks pays off. It takes some guts to make a 130 minute film told entirely in (Ukranian) sign language without translation, subtitles, captions or music. The challenge must be all the more daunting for a filmmaker tackling the first feature of his career. Yet that is precisely what the Ukranian director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky has chosen to do and now he is reaping the rewards for the extraordinary his debut The Tribe. Contrary to what you might expect, there are no signs of pretentiousness or boredom to be found. The plot and the emotions always reign supreme over the sign language (high-)concept.

The story takes place in a specialized boarding school ruled by a criminal organisation called "the tribe". Together, the members prowl the streets of Kiev, violently rob passers-by and "sell" two extremely young women to lonely truckers. Everybody knows their place in the strict hierarchy of the organisation. The audience discovers this grim world through the eyes of Sergey, a newcomer who quickly climbs up the ladder before breaking the tribe's unwritten rules.

The use of deaf mute actors (all of whom deliver extraordinary, physical performances despite, or because of, their lack of experience and training) and sign language makes the film interesting on several levels. First of all, it adds a big bowl of ambiguity to the plot. The entire film is like trying to eavesdrop on an animated conversation across a busy restaurant: you get the gist of it, you can understand their emotions, but the finer details of the conversations are drowned out by background noise and the waiter offering you dessert. Our brains are constantly trying to decipher what is happening, which means that we don't have time to shut them off. The audience has no choice but to keep thinking, which makes us ask questions beyond the plot in itself.

The lack of dialogue also gives us more time to take in the background. Slaboshpitsky keeps his visual style simple, using long takes and few close ups. The picture he paints of Ukraine's capital is dark and gritty. The landscape is lifeless and urban in an intimidating way. The view is always broken by some sort graffiti-covered wall made out of grey concrete, conveying a feeling of entrapment and claustrophobia. Resorting to violence seems like the only logical consequence of life in such a depressing environment (or is it the other way around?). The total isolation of the "thriving" tribe from the rest of society also implies a piercing social criticism about the situation in Ukraine.

Finally, The Tribe also made me think about the nature of communication. Human beings don't really need language to interact or even understand each other. The director made his film as a tribute to the silent cinema of the early twentieth century, but unlike The Artist or Blancanieves he doesn't simply copy the techniques. Instead of using silence in a playful, nostalgic way, he uses it to explore these interesting questions.

While the ending relies too heavily on (admittedly very effective) shock value, The Tribe is a remarkable debut from a brave filmmaker. Most of his gambles pay off brilliantly, which gives his film a rare originality. Several days after watching it, I was still dissecting the imagery and the meaning of it all in my mind.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Sitting on a three dimensional fence

Originally published in The Badger

Five years after Avatar brought stereoscopy back with a bang, it’s safe to say that that 3D is here to stay. With the notable exception of The Inbetweeners 2 (thank god), the seven highest grossing films at the UK box office all leapt off the screen.
Personally, I was never a fan. The tickets are more expensive, you need to buy a new pair of annoying glasses because you forgot to bring your own and the image is significantly darker. Even worse is, when they make you pay for bad/non-existent 3D. Back in March, I went to see Captain America 2. Five minutes into the film, one of the lenses fell out of my glasses. Since I didn’t want to miss, I stayed and watched the rest without glasses, occasionally holding up the defective lens to my eye. With the exception of a slightly blurry background, there was virtually no difference. If anything, the image was brighter and crisper without glasses.
These issues are merely distractions from what cinema is actually about: emotions and storytelling. I used to say that 3D is merely a gimmick that can be useful for fairground rides and trashy genre films like Drive Angry (an underrated, extremely silly Nic Cage-joint) or Piranha 3DD. Then Martin Scorsese made Hugo and proved me wrong. His film is all about storytelling and the magic of cinema. Using stereoscopy, the latest cinematic innovation, in a film about one of the art form’s pioneers makes perfect sense. Scorsese proved that the technology can have a purpose and enhance a film.
Hugo wasn’t simply the exception to the rule either. Life of Pi and, to a lesser extent, The Great Gatsby, Prometheus, The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet all used 3D in an interesting and innovative way. All of those films have one thing in common, and this is no coincidence: their directors are of demonstrable quality and known to be amongst the most visionary in their profession.
That leads us to the best 3D-movie to date: Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity. About twelve months ago, audiences were stunned by the incredible visuals, the stunning 13-minute opening shot and the whiteness Clooney’s teeth. It was as if we had stepped into space. Unsurprisingly, the film was a huge hit, grossing $700m and winning seven Oscars.
Next to the big Hollywood blockbusters, there are furthermore several arthouse directors experimenting with the technology. Werner Herzog took his 3D-camera underground for his documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, whereas his fellow German Wim Wenders made the world dance with Pina. On 3 December, Brightonians will furthermore have the chance to see the arguably most radical use of stereoscopy in the form of Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language, which screens as part of the Cine-city film festival. I am not a fan of the film, but I can’t deny its fascinatingly unusual filmmaking techniques.
That said, any claim that 3D is the exclusive future of cinema is erroneous. A look at the current box office charts is enough to prove the opposite. At the time of writing, this year’s big sci-fi epic, Interstellar, has already made £12.13m after 10 days. It was shot in glorious 2D and largely on IMAX, but it isn’t flat, or plain at all.  The director, Christopher Nolan of Batman/Inception-fame, is not a fan of the technology. Last year, he told the Telegraph: “Until we get rid of the glasses or until we really massively improve the process, I’m a little weary of it.” Many films simply don’t need stereoscopy to be spectacular, exciting and beautiful.
3D is neither the future nor the death of cinema. Like a camera, special effects or music, it is a tool that in the right set of (passionate) hands, for the right film, can generate great pieces of art and cinematic experiences.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Review: Fourteen heartbreaking Stations of the Cross

In most catholic churches, you will find the Stations of the Cross, a series of images depicting Christ carrying the crucifix to his execution. Traditionally, there are fourteen scenes beginning with the messiah's condemnation to death and ending with his burial. Dietrich Brüggemann's film, winner of the Silver Bear for best script at this year's Berlinale, transposes the biblical tale to contemporary times and tells a heartbreaking story about faith, sacrifice and religious fundamentalism. 

The structure of the inspirational source is maintained. There are exactly fourteen scenes and each station is introduced with its original title by the means of a white caption on a black screen. The individual chapters meanwhile all consist of a single shot maintained for several minutes. Each shot, with the exception of the minimal, but exhilarating camera movement in stages 9, 12 and 14, is filmed with a static set up. 

Our suffering protagonist is not a 30-year-old Jewish carpenter, but Maria, a strictly catholic teenager from Germany. The original German title Kreuzweg can also be translated to "crossroad," which is exactly where, metaphorically speaking, Maria finds herself at the beginning of her ordeal. In the last week before her confirmation ceremony, she is bombarded with fundamentalist opinions. The priest brands his students as the "soldiers of Jesus Crist" in the opening scene, while her mother, a strict matriarch, rants about the satanic influences of gospel and soul music. Desperate to come closer to God and help her ill brother, Maria does her best to resist temptation before finally turning to the ultimate sacrifice. 

Brüggemann makes no attempt to hide his film's allegorical nature and the symbolism is quite on the nose. The structure is more than a simple gimmick and makes the tale from being incredibly moving. We understand where the story is going at a very early stage and are then forced to watch the tragedy unfold. Newcomer Lea van Acken does a terrific job at portraying Maria's internal conflict through her body language. She is an impressive discovery who has all the tools to carve out a career in acting. Franziska Weisz is equally impressive as the determined, permanently outraged mother. 

As for all allegorical texts (particularly its biblical template), the meaning of Stations of the Cross is ambiguous and open to interpretation. The stillness of the camera and the lack of editing give the film a certain neutrality. The poster shows Maria wearing a crown of thorns, but she is definitely no messiah (she's by no means a very naughty girl either though). The film observes rather than judges; asks questions rather than provides answers. It can also be read as a film about a difficult mother-daughter relationship projected onto religion by both parties. Their anxieties are expressed through statements of faith, sacrifice and sin. Stations of the Cross continues the trend of strong, thought-provoking cinema about the difficult subject of Catholicism after the recent Philomena, Noah and Calvary.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Review: Inherent Vice - Welcome to a world of inconvenience

As the wonderful Prince Charles Cinema in the heart of London's Leicester Square was beginning to fill up, a sense of excitement and dread was creeping through the crowd. The audience's wittering was quieter than usual, for this was no ordinary screening. It was a special preview of the highly anticipated Inherent Vice on a glorious 35mm print. Just before the projection was due to start, a man with a gorgeous beard was ushered into the room and addressed the audience. The man's name was Paul Thomas Anderson. The director had dropped in for a brief introduction to his latest work: "We made this film for cinemas like the Prince Charles; kinda old, kinda broken, but still groovy!" These words are equally adequate to describe Inherent Vice. Roll a joint (actually don't do that; drugs are bad for you) and get really ridiculously excited, because this film is something special. 

If you are familiar with Anderson's nearly flawless filmography, you have come to expect the extraordinary from him and once again, he delivers. After There Will Be Blood, the director ventures down the path of adaptation for the second time and becomes the first filmmaker to bring a novel by the American writer Thomas Pynchon to the big screen. At this point I should probably admit to ignorance. I haven't read Inherent Vice (yet), nor do I know anything about the author's literary output. The following discussion therefore only concerns the film as a brilliant, hilarious piece of cinema. 

The year is 1970, the place is the fictional Gordita Beach, California and the genre is neo-noir. This is the home of Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a private investigator who goes about his business in a marijuana-filled haze. In a dreamlike opening scene, he receives an unexpected visit from his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston). She warns him of a possible plot against herself and her boyfriend, a shady businessman named Wolfmann. Shortly thereafter, they both disappear and Doc is accused of murder. 

The ensuing story is incredibly complex and we never quite know where we are at. As The Dude (Doc's cinematic brother from another mother) would put it: "This is a very complicated case. Lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what have yous and a lot of strands to keep in my head man." Characters drift in and out of the film without acknowledgement, die off screen or appear out of nowhere. There is little logic in Doc's investigation; he just has a tendency to turn up at the right spot at the right time. Making sense of it all is even more difficult due to the fact that we see this world through the protagonist's unreliable, pot-induced eyes. 

Who cares about the plot anyway. All you need to is sit back, go with the flow and immerse yourself into this mad world. In reality, the film is about Joaquin Phoenix's hair, his hat and his round sunglasses. After he is told to "change your hair, change your life" in an early scene, his shoulder-length mane and his impressive sideburns look slightly different in nearly every scene. In 1970, he is a man out of time. After the Manson murders (referenced several times throughout the film), his hippie lifestyle is beginning to grow out of fashion and everyone looks down on him. That doesn't seem to bother him too much though. He'll just roll up another joint.

The name of another famous detective who had a considerable impact on film history springs to mind: Philip Marlowe. Raymond Chandler's creation was famously played by Humphrey Bogart in 1946's The Big Sleep and Elliott Gould in 1973's The Long Goodbye. In fact, Inherent Vice shares a considerable amount of DNA with the latter. Robert Altman's masterpiece updated the forties-set source novel to the seventies and depicted Marlowe as wisecracking detective who stumbles from one inconvenience into the next. Phoenix doesn't utter the famous catchphrase "It's okay with me," but he is in many ways the groovy to Gould's cool.

The closest thing to a second lead is Josh Brolin as the butch policeman Christian F. 'Bigfoot' Bjornsen (the character names throughout the film are hilarious; personal favourite: a neo-nazi named Puck Beaverton). The wannabe actor reminded me of a cartoon dog that walked out of the TV set. He has more bark than bite, insulting everybody around him and boasting with the label "Renaissance detective" issued by the LA times. His interactions with Phoenix, who shows impeccable comedic timing, are the film's primary source of humour and there are plenty of laughs. Inherent Vice is Anderson's funniest since Punch-Drunk Love, pitching it somewhere between Coen-esque absurdity, slapstick and the variety of Doc's hairstyles. 

The moment I knew the film was special comes about halfway through the film, when Anderson shows us a flashback to a blissful moment Doc's relationship with Shasta (off-screen since the opening). Neil Young's Journey through the Past provides the soundtrack to this sequence, which stands out because of its unabashed sentimentality. The scene has no direct impact on the plot, but it has a huge impact on the rest of the film and our understanding of the characters. The entire film is put into perspective in this brief moment. Here PTA's skills as a director (and a as a screenwriter) come to full effect. Music, image and performances come together and turn a moment that could easily have been cheesy or corny into a one of the best scenes in recent memory. 

Inherent Vice has all the ingredients to become a future cult classic in the vein of The Long Goodbye and The Big Lebowski. It's a hilarious, affectionate pastiche of the neo-noir genre which keeps you on the edge of the seat for two and a half hours. You will never look at baby pictures, chocolate-covered bananas or swastika tattoos in the same way. And I haven't even mentioned the fantastic photography, the trademark long takes and Jonny Greenwood's inventive score. I could point out that Owen Wilson, whom I quite like in general, doesn't really fit in and that I'm not sure about the sex scene towards the end, but that would be nitpicking. Inherent Vice is a groovy film and you have to go see it as soon as possible. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

Cine-City preview and recommendations

From Thursday onward, the silver screen will dominate Brighton for a fortnight and a bit, as its time for the city's annual film festival. The Duke of York's, his little sister at Komedia in the town centre and a number of other venues will once again host to a variety of the best, most interesting and most unusual that the cinematic arts have to offer. The line-up for this year's edition looks fantastic once again and I can't wait to discover new cinematic gems from across the globe. Beginning with the extremely exciting Birdman, which sees Michael Keaton return to his superhero origins, on opening night, I will try to catch and review as many of the presented films as possible, so keep your eyes peeled for new content on cine-jambalaya. 

I am particularly looking forward to catching up with two films I unfortunately missed out on at the London Film Festival: The Tribe, a film told entirely in sign language, and the Almodóvar-produced comedy Wild Tales from Argentina. I won't be in town for the screening of Céline Sciamma's Girlhood, which was also very well received in the capital. Another highlight will surely be a screening of Sergei Parajanov's The Colour of the Pomegranates with a live musical accompaniment from Brighton-based group Juno Reactor. For now, I can suggest a handful of films I have been fortunate enough to see during my travels through cinema. There should be something for everybody among my five recommendations. See you at the cinema.  

Fahrenheit 451 - 28-30 Nov, 8 pm at Pop Up @ Brighton Museum & Art Gallery

Dystopian visions of the future are more fashionable than ever at the moment. By the time the screenings of Fahrenheit 451 come around, the latest installment of The Hunger Games-Franchise will have made approximately two gazillions in its opening week. Cine-City gives you the opportunity to discover a classic of the genre, which has lost none of its fascination. Directed by French New Wave-er Fraçois Truffaut (this is his only English-language feature), is set in an oppressive futuristic society. Fireman Guy Montag (Oskar Werner) is tasked with burning all the books, when he falls in love with an outlaw bookworm played by Julie Christie. If you like films like V for Vendetta or Equilibrium, you have to see this classic.

The Duke of Burgundy + Q&A with Peter Strickland- 29 November, 6:30 pm at DOY

The opening twenty minutes of Peter Strickland's new feature play like a voyeuristic, fetishised sexual fantasy with palpable erotic tension between a submissive maid (Chiara D'Anna) and her uppity mistress (Sidse Babett Knudsen) in a wonderful, isolated mansion in the English countryside. Then, before you even notice it, the director completely subverts the dynamics of the relationship and asks fascinating questions about power, sex and sacrifice within a relationship. It's an on screen relationship unlike any you will have seen before. After this and Berberian Sound Studio, Strickland is clearly one of the most interesting filmmakers working in British cinema today. He will come to Brighton for a Q&A after the screening which is bound to be brilliant.

Love is Strange - 30 November, 6:30 pm at DOY

The title of Ira Sachs' latest film must not be taken entirely at face value. Love isn't strange; love is completely natural. John Lithgow and Alfred Molina star as a devoted gay-couple in the latter stages of their lives. After finally getting married in the joyous opening sequence, Ben and George, a couple of over 40 years, find themselves priced out of their New York flat. The film is a incredibly sweet portrait of these two people, who cannot cope without each other. The tempo is quite slow and the story doesn't really go anywhere, but the company of these two charismatic actors is more than enough to keep our attention. Sachs' work feels honest and passionate, which fills the audience with a certain calmness and an affectionate, warm feeling in the stomach.

Timbuktu - 1 December, 6:30 pm at DOY

Director Abderrahmane Sissako paints a beautifully pessimistic picture of his titular hometown in Mali. The city is ruled in terror by religious fundamentalists whose beliefs are full of vileness and contradictions. Music, laughter, cigarettes, even football have been banned, while the Jihadists simply take whatever they want. When one of them fancies a local girl, she is forced to marry him, despite the objections of her mother and the local cleric. Timbuktu may be explicitly political, but it is also an extremely moving film. Sissako is clearly a master of his craft and there is purpose in every single image. His film will leave you truly depressed about the situation in Mali.

Wild - 6 December, 6:30 pm at DOY

Wild is a conventional, but smart and surprisingly deep character study about addiction (sex and heroin), grief and loneliness featuring Reese Witherspoon's best performance in years. The original use of (very good) music stands out in particular. Read my full review here

Have a look at the full Cine-City programme on their website

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Review: Imperfect spectacle with Interstellar

Note: I saw Interstellar on a DCP on a non-IMAX screen.

First of all, since many opinions seem to boil down to this basic question, let me say this: I really like Christopher Nolan. He makes hugely ambitious, expensive films, that don't assume that the audience is dumb. He delivers the proof that spectacle and brains can go together, shoots on film and doesn't like 3D. No other director could currently get a 200 million dollar film off the ground without significant creative interference from the studio. With his latest joint, Interstellar, he takes on the sci-fi genre. The director sends us through a wormhole into a foreign galaxy and the brain-frying realms of quantum physics, showing off his strengths and weaknesses in the process.

I won't elaborate much on the plot, aware of potential spoilers. The McConaissance reaches the next level as Matthew McConaughey stars as Cooper. The pilot-turned-farmer is recruited for an ambitious mission by Michael Caine and NASA. As human life on earth reaches his final stages, they look towards space and launch an exploration of planets suitable for colonisation. In order to reach for the sky, Cooper has to leave his beloved children in the care of their grandfather (John Lithgow).

These Spielbergian daddy-issues are the emotional core of a film that spans millions of miles and transcends time. A strong sense of sentimentality defines Interstellar, which is the films biggest shortcoming. In the past, Nolan's films have frequently been criticised for being cold and failing to engage on an emotional level. I never had a problem with this previously, but unlike his earlier work, Interstellar relies heavily on sentiment. Unable to make you feel his emotion, Nolan opts to tell us over and over how he feels. Simply having your characters burst into tears every ten minutes is not enough to move an audience. The ending in particular falls flat as a consequence.

That said, Interstellar is still a must see. On a technical level, the film is predictably superb. Both the cornfields on earth and the vastness of space look and sound absolutely incredible. The switch from Wally Pfister to Hoyte Van Hoytema (Let the Right One In; Her) in the position of cinematographer is hardly noticeable and the camerawork is slick, confident and smart. The film's strongest moments are full of excitment when Matthew McConaughey performs impossible aerobatic manoeuvres while Hans Zimmer's bombastic score is straining our eardrums.

I was also a fan of the film's treatment of science, which is smart, mostly accurate and appropriately complex. A basic knowledge of astrophysics and Einstein's theory of relativity should be enough to follow it however. After the film, you will want to know more about centrifuges, wormholes and space travel, which can only be a good thing. The importance of preserving childhood curiosity and the ability to dream big is essential to Interstellar. In an early scene, Cooper's daughter is suspended from school for getting in a fight over the authenticity of the moon landings.

Like in all good science-fiction movies, it's not all about excitement and spectacle. The film also raises interesting ideas and questions. Atypically, the machines are humanity's allies against the nature of earth in this vision. The frequent duststorms that afflict the cornfields surrounding Cooper-farm threaten the family's existence. Powerful and dirty, the can only be stopped by technology, space ships and sympathetic robots reminiscent of Bruce Dern's bionic friends in Silent Running. The central philosophy of the film meanwhile will cause problems for many. Despite the complexity of the storytelling, the ideas are quite simplistic, naive, romantic and have previously been done by the Harry Potter-franchise. You need to keep in mind that this is a mainstream Hollywood blockbuster, whose primary concern is entertainment. Interstellar aims to be Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey (which I am desperate to rewatch now) at the same time. Nolan doesn't quite succeed, but you have to admire his ambition and the sheer scale of his attempt. I can't wait to see what he does next.

Nolan ranked:

1. The Prestige 
2. The Dark Knight 
3. Inception 
4. Memento 
5. Insomnia 
6. Batman Begins 
7. Interstellar 
8. Following 
9. The Dark Knight Rises

Friday, November 7, 2014

Rewiew: Rom and com with Laggies aka Say When...

Sometimes you have to take a step backwards before you can move forwards. This is the situation Keira Knightley finds herself in at the beginning of Say When (or originally Laggies for our friends across the pond). She hasn't really moved on since high school. She works for her dad and hangs out with the same group of friends, who have transformed into pretentious middle-class caricatures. When her prom-night sweetheart (Mark Webber) finally takes a knee after over a decade, she has to get away and find herself.

In order to get rid of her teenage baggage, she paradoxically has to return to high school. The fugitive from matrimony finds asylum at the house of Chloë Grace Moretz, whom she befriends in the parking lot of a convenience store. In that same house lives Moretz's handsome, funny, extremely single father, who is also a successful lawyer and looks like Sam Rockwell. What could possibly happen next?

There are some really interesting ideas about growing up and the need to try new things, but after about 20 minutes, Say When finds a warm spot in the comfort of the rom-com formula and stays there. There even is a dramatic scene at an airport. If you are looking for new ideas or surprises, this is not the film for you. In lieu thereof, director Lynn Shelton goes for charm and laughter with mixed results. Knightley deserves some praise for her visible efforts to keep up an American accent. Rockwell, brilliant as usual, bursts into the film with a couple of hilarious, witty scenes before reverting into a "lonely single dad" stereotype. He doesn't even get to dance in this one.

Overall, there aren't quite enough laughs to compensate for the weak plot and one-dimensional characters. Some gags fall completely flat. I will never be a fan of Keira Knighltey, but her and her co-stars do a fine job with the material they are given. It's never boring and, despite their platitude, you enjoy the company of the characters. You will not regret watching Say When, but you won't regret missing it either.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Review: Jake Gyllenhall is a brilliantly slimy Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler, written and directed by Dan (brother of Tony) Gilroy, is a dark, moody film that tries to make you feel as uncomfortable as possible, trying to emulate American Psycho and David Cronenberg's masterpiece Crash. Jake Gyllenhaal continues his run of strong performances with this excellent turn as the sociopath Louis Bloom, easily one of the year's most despicable protagonists. He starts off as a small-time criminal, but quickly discovers his talent for nighttime "journalism." This business entails driving through the neon-lit suburbs of L.A. on the lookout for accidents, fire, break-ins and, most lucratively, murder. This borderline legal world functions, as Rene Russo's TV-news producer explains, according to two principles: 1. The wealthier the victim, the better. 2. Blood sells.

On one level, the film works as a bleak satire of the immoral, inherently capitalist sensationalism that is increasingly taking over television (actually it's about ethics in games journalism); the irony being that we "enjoy" the film's own somewhat sensationalist, but fictional, depiction of violence. The meat of the film is however a character study of this deranged man. He is the (extreme) embodiment of the internet generation: he spends most of his time alone on his computer, losing any social skills, compassion or sense of reality in the process. When talking about business, journalism or relationships, his words sound like quotes from a textbook or an online tutorial (which they probably are).

Liking this character is obviously impossible, so Gyllenhaal makes us love to hate him instead. His lean physicality (he lost 20 pounds for the role), his slick hair and his creepy, weirdly punchable grin give him an eerie aura of menace and send shivers down your spine. His performance is by some distance the film's greatest strength and he manages to turn Louis Bloom into a truly memorable, unique antihero.

That said, Nightcrawler doesn't quite reach the heights of its role models. The satire is at times too simplistic, while it feels too exaggerated to work as a human drama. I wasn't as shocked by the foulness of L.A. after sunset as the film wanted me to be either. Perhaps the fact that the copious blood on the streets left me slightly nonplussed, is actually the shocking thing about Nightcrawler. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Five furious flaws with Fury

There is a lot to admire about David Ayer's WW2-flick Fury. As with his best film End of Watch, the chemistry between his protagonists and the fast, informal dialogue work extremely well. Another big plus is the violence, which is realistic, brutal and unflinching. The film also boasts one of the most memorable opening scenes of the year during which Brad Pitt stabs a Nazi on a horse. Yet as the film goes on, it reveals some considerable flaws. I have listed the five biggest ones below.

1. War crimes as part of the learning process

The killing of a surrendering enemy is a war crime. Yet, in Fury, this is depicted as a necessary part of a soldier's initiation when Brad Pitt physically forces Logan Lerman to shoot a German soldier in the back. He was stretching his arms into the air while begging for mercy. Incidents like this were without a doubt a common occurrence towards the end of the war, but its cinematic portrayal in Fury is deeply problematic. While the cruelty isn't sugar-coated, the film is on Pitt's side in this scene. Maybe I'm just being too idealistic here, but I'm not sure about executing surrendering soldiers.

2. Depiction of female characters

About half an hour into the film, there is a prolonged sequence in which the crew share a meal with two women after liberating their city. This moment is completely misjudged on a number of levels. It is supposed to reflect on Brad Pitt's desperate wish for normality (all he wants is to sit around a table and eat off a plate), but the characterization of the women is laughably inconsistent. A teenage girl transforms from hiding under the bed in terror to practically jumping Logan Lerman for no other reason that he can play the piano within less than five minutes. The entire sequence just felt creepy and wrong to me.

3. Stupid Brad

I can't go into much detail on this point without revealing a major plot point, but Brad Pitt makes an atrociously dumb decision in the lead up to the film's (therefore unnecessary) climax after the tank breaks down. He even manages to convince his fellow soldiers to join him in his fallacious quest, presumably because they are blinded by his amazing hair. 

4. Stupid Nazis are even more stupid than Brad

Now I am not an expect on tactical warfare, but I'm pretty sure that attacking an immobile tank by running straight at it is not the best idea. Apparently it takes thousands of gunshots and dozens of dead Nazis until 'ze Germans grasp the flaws in this approach and finally decide to deploy their anti-tank weapons. The clue is in the name lads. No wonder they lost the war.   

5. Not enough Jason Isaacs

Because all films need more Jason Isaacs.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Love and disability at the BFI London Film Festival

Since the birth of cinema over a century ago, romance has been one of the medium's most universal themes. Naming ten movies with a love story is easier than naming a single one where it is absent. We see characters fall in love, make a connection, have sex or have their heart broken on the silver screen left, right and centre. When it comes to disabled characters, this subject matter remains a bit of a taboo to this day. The Sessions and Rust & Bone are notable, but rare exceptions.

It was therefore refreshing to discover this gap is filled by three films, from three different continents, in the programme of this year's edition of the London Film Festival. These films tell the tales of disabled teenagers and their discovery of love for the first time. Crucially, they are coming-of-age stories which simply happen to have a disabled protagonist instead of social dramas about the challenges they encounter. There is nothing "abnormal" in these characters; they feel the same emotions and desires as everyone else.

In Brazil's The Way He Looks, perhaps the strongest of the trio, the blind teenager Leonardo gradually discovers his (homo)sexuality. Simultaneously, he faces problems everyone can relate to: overbearing, protective parents, bullying at school, quarrels with his best friend Giovana, first experiences with alcohol, and so on. The only people who really seem to worry about his blindness are his parents.

Laila, the main character in Margarita, with a Straw from India, is an incredibly strong character who takes her love (and sexual) life in her own hands. She is bound to a wheelchair due cerebral palsy, but that doesn't stop her from leaving her home in order to study in New York, where she falls in love with a blind girl from Pakistan. Director Shonali Bose doesn't shy away from portraying her protagonist's sexuality. Her sister suffers from cerebral palsy and the input of this experience clearly shows on the screen. She very quickly gets beyond the superficiality of Laila's condition and understands her mindset.

Classifying the hero of my third example as disabled may be up for debate. The British feel-good film X+Y revolves around Nathan, a young maths-prodigy with considerable social deficiencies. There are hints, but the film never explicitly states the nature of the boy's condition as autism or Asperger's syndrome. Whether he can be categorized as mentally disabled or not is completely irrelevant anyway, as the film's main concern is to convey his painfully unexpressed emotions. He may show them in a different way, but he has the same feelings and anxieties as any teenager. (Read my full review of X+Y here

All three films suffer from a certain degree of sugar-coating (especially X+Y, which borrows the sports-movie formula), but the honesty and affection always shine through. There are very few laughs at the expense of the disabilities and the directors have no hesitation to portray the characters as flawed, egocentric or sultry on multiple occasions. Many of Laila's decisions are morally questionable and Leonardo's attitude towards his parents isn't the best. The audience is not asked to feel patronizing pity for them, but to genuinely understand and relate to them. It is encouraging to see this attitude in films from all over the world and I hope that The Way He Looks, X+Y and Margarita, with a Straw are the first of many.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Review: Northern Soul makes your feet move

A warm chuckle of nostalgic recognition was emanating from the primarily middle-aged crowd at the Friday night screening of Northern Soul through the auditorium of the Duke of York's on more than one occasion. First time director Elaine Constantine (who was 9 at the time the film is set) has created a nostalgic love letter to leather jackets, rare American records and unsuccessful attempts to grow a mustache.

In 1974 Lancashire, the writing is literally on the wall. A large graffiti on the side of a house announces proudly: "Brunswick is a shithole." This act of vandalism was committed by John (Elliot James Langridge), a disenfranchised teenager. Growing up in the North has left him utterly bored and frustrated. It's not until he hears a different kind of music that he finally becomes himself. Together with his new friend Matt (Josh Whitehouse), he hatches big plans: they want to open their own club before going to America. The music is of course Northern Soul.

If you are, like me, unfamiliar with the music, the style and the attitude of the movement, it takes the film a while to settle in this unfamiliar environment. The pop-culture references went over my head and I found it difficult to engage with the characters. After about half an hour, this began to change, as the film finds it groove and the soundtrack steps up a gear. Once the characters make it to a nightclub in Wigan, I found myself tapping my feet to the rhythm of the soul and the romance between John and his crush Angela (Antonia Thomas) is very well played.

Northern Soul doesn't share the unabashed optimism of films like Good Vibrations though. Constantine makes no secrets of the excessive drug consumption that accompanied their intense partying and the story takes some surprisingly dark turns. This doesn't always work, as there is no place for sadness in nostalgia. As I was walking out of the cinema, a woman said to me: "I liked it, but there should have been more happy times. It's fucking Northern Soul!" She has a point, but the film is nevertheless a fascinating portrait of a subculture which is worth discovering and will make it impossible to sit completely still in the cinema chair. You should also keep your eyes open for a very funny Steve Coogan cameo as a Partridge-esque teacher.