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.