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.