Sunday, December 27, 2015

Cine-jambalaya's favourite films of 2015

20. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron, Roy Andersson)

If you combine existential philosophy with absurdist comedy, you get Roy Andersson's winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. The curious series of comedic sketches defies explanation or even description, but it will raise eyebrows, laughter and unexpected thoughts. I'm not sure what it is, but it sure is magnificent. 

19. Body (Cialo, Malgorzata Szumowska)

Malgorzata Szumowska tells a compelling story about loss in modern day Poland. Three characters (a tired widower, his anorexic daughter and an odd counsellor/medium) all cope with their situation differently, and Szumowska exposes the absurdity of how we deal with loss through dark sense of humour and a great deal of affection. At the end of the day, one thing is certain: you'll never walk alone.

18. Sunset Song (Terence Davies)

Terence Davies, one of the great poets of (British) cinema, finally turns his long-gestating passion project into reality. The Liverpudlian's adaptation of a classic Scottish novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon is gorgeous, epic, and yet intensely personal and passionate. The deliberately slow pace doesn't trouble a film filled with fantastic performances.

17. Jauja (Lisandro Alonso)

Viggo Mortensen sports 2015's best moustache and shows of his Danish language skills in Lisandro Alonso's period drama. The poetic Western opens with a remarkable tableau vivant before embarking on a long search for a missing daughter across a stunning Argentinian landscape. The film is shot in the rare 1.33:1 aspect ratio with rounded corners, which give it an unusual, unique look.

Read my full review of the film here

16. Son of Saul (Saul Fia, László Nemes)

The technical achievement of Son of Saul, 2015's most harrowing cinematic experience, is undeniable. First-time director (!) László Nemes throws his audience into a WWII concentration camp and doesn't hold back. We see and particularly hear (the sound design is incredible) the atrocities with an unprecedented immediacy. It may verge on arthouse-torture-porn, but Son of Saul is not easy to forget.

15. Crimson Peak (Guillermo del Toro)

Crimson Peak was billed as a horror movie but, the odd ghost aside, it really is a Gothic romance in the vein of Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre. Guillermo del Toro plays with his mastery of set design and visual effects to infuse detail and beauty into every frame as the haunted house appears to be an organic, living thing.

14. Going Clear (Alex Gibney)

Documentary-machine Alex Gibney tackles one of the most dubious and controversial organisations of the last century: Scientology. In an excellent piece of investigative journalism, he exposes the church as a terrifying mixture of religion, pseudo-science and capitalism. The film's portrait of L. Ron Hubbard, science fiction writer-turned-founder of Scientology, is particularly fascinating.  

13. Love & Mercy (Bill Pohlad)

With Love & Mercy, we get two excellent films for the price of one. The first is one of the best depictions of the creative process in recent times. It stars Paul Dano as Brian Wilson, the musical genius behind the Beach Boys, during the recording of Pet Sounds. The second stars John Cusack as Brian Wilson, the former musical genius behind the Beach Boys, and tells a sweet love story. Why is brilliance frequently accompanied by pain? God only knows.

12. The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos)

Somewhere between Bunuel's surrealism and modern satire, there is The Lobster. This is a film that refuses to rules about a world, in which people who don't stick to the rules, are transformed into the animal of their choice. Dating will never be the same again. 

11. The Club (El Club, Pablo Larraín)

The Club is an incredibly bleak film about the struggles of the Catholic church to keep up with modern times. Set entirely in a "retirement" home for delinquent priests on the Chilean coast, it delves into grey areas of morality. This is reflected in the visual style; Larraín used lenses that Andrei Tarkovsky favoured to dim the lights.

Read more about The Club here

10. Second Coming (Debbie Tucker Green)

This fascinating film unfairly slipped under the radar in 2015 despite the presence of Idris "Luther" Elba. The allegorical story about a potentially immaculate conception is shrouded in mystery and ambiguity, which allows for several interpretations. Questions linger in our minds long after viewing the film. What do you believe in?

9. The Assassin (Nie yin niang, Hou Hsiao-Hsien)

The Assassin, winner of Best Director at Cannes, feels like a major piece of cinema. A loose narrative about a female assassin who has to confront her past and ask herself fundamental moral questions is grounded in a tactile world of gorgeous aesthetics. Hou Hsiao-Hsien reworks the ethics of the wuxia tradition in stunning fashion.

8. Girlhood (Bande de filles, Céline Sciamma)

2015 gave us few more euphoric moments than the sight of four teenage girls from the Parisian suburbs dancing to Rihanna's Diamonds in a hotel room. Friendship, solidarity and, most importantly, identity are formed in two minutes and a few seconds - Girl power! The scene is representative of a film that refuses to look down on its characters and become downbeat, despite an abundance of problems. Growing up and finding your place in the world is never easy. 

7. The Pearl Button (El botón de náca, Patricio Guzmán)

History, memory, science and philosophy are all intrinsically tied to one another. Patricio Guzmán finds the connections and takes careful steps toward conclusion. The Pearl Button, which can be seen as a companion piece to 2010's Nostalgia for the Light, is the most fascinating documentary about water you will ever see (probably).

Read my full review of The Pearl Button here

6. Inside Out (Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen)

Pixar have done it again; the creators of Toy Story, Monsters Inc., WALL·E, and Up have created another masterpiece. All of their films have been about feelings, but this time the emotions of a little girl are the characters. In addition to being imaginative and moving, the film teaches a valuable lesson about the value of sadness and nostalgia. If Bing Bong did not make you cry, your feelings might have gone missing too.

5. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)

Tom Hardy is no Mel Gibson, but that might be the only downside to the fourth entry into the Mad Max-saga. George Miller returns to the apocalyptic wasteland three decades after Beyond Thunderdome and rewrites the rules of action cinema. Fury Road is essentially a single, relentless and bonkers chase sequences which features a guy with a flame-throwing guitar on a monster truck.

4. Magic Mike XXL (Gregory Jacobs)

"How much for the cheetos and water?" - MMXXL is one of the year's most important and entertaining films. Best seen in a room filled with merrily cheering feminists.

Read my full appraisal of the magic here

3. Tangerine (Sean Baker)

In Tangerine, we get to see a different side of Hollywood. Sean Baker's Christmas-tale about two transsexual prostitutes and an Armenian taxi driver is a hilarious screwball comedy in an unusual setting, while touching on serious themes such as loneliness, identity and family. It is good to see that this kind of film exists, but it's even better that it's brilliant and accessible.

Read my full review of Tangerine here.

2. Carol (Todd Haynes)

Todd Haynes takes a simple love story and tells it to perfection. The acting (Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara have caused a dearth of superlatives in film criticism), the cinematography, the costumes (where can I buy Terese's plaid hat?) and Carter Burwell's career-best score are all on point. One of the most moving romances of the decade. 

1. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Kaguyahime no monogatari, Isao Takahata)

Studio Ghibli's penultimate feature (for now) is stunning on every level. The story is simple, yet complex. Unlike most films aimed at children, it is not afraid of politics. Princess Kaguya is a feminist critique of monarchy and feudalism; it is a constructive appeal for change. The animation, expressionistic at times, proves meanwhile that the pencil can still be mightier than the computer.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

LFF review: The Pearl Button

In 82 minutes, The Pearl Button propels us to the world's largest archipelago, into the cosmos, onto the ocean and back in time. Patricio Guzmán delivers a documentary about water with a deep sense of anthropology, history, science, poetry and personal experience. The director shows no fear of politics either. It is easily one of the films of the year.

The Pearl Button has to be seen in conjunction with Nostalgia for the Light, Guzmán's previous film. They stand separately, yet belong together - Guzmán has described them as a diptych. The attention has shifted from the dry deserts in the North of Chile to the endless archipelago of Western Patagonia in the South, but the approach remains the same. The director presents a coherent thought process across a variety of subjects and draws connections between them. Like the water that serves as the recurrent theme, the structure is loose and fluid. In one section, he talks to the last survivors of an Indian tribe. The water has been a home to these people and their canoes for millennia. The sea is a source of life, but there are also darker sides to the depths of the oceans. After Pinochet's coup d'état in 1973, an event that haunts Chile until today, the water became a cemetery. Thousands of bodies were dumped in the aftermath.

Guzmán does much more to present us with information. His creative choices enter the domain of the metaphysical. The decision to interview the Chilean poet Raúl Zurita for instance is a fascinating one. There is no obvious reason to include him, but he brings up some unusual ideas. The director uses cinema to share a different conception of history. Time, is aside from water, the key to understanding the film. For Guzmán, time is not necessarily linear or even singular. An Indian travelling to England in the 19th century is not only a journey across space; it is also a form of time travel.

The obvious point of comparison are the documentaries of Werner Herzog, but The Pearl Button is altogether more positive and optimistic. Whereas the Bavarian would surely condemn the government's treatment of the native population as an incurable symptom of the human condition, Guzmán looks further and begins to imagines a different planet. Here, the Indians were allowed to live in peace. The Pearl Button is an extraordinary piece of work, which manages to reduce the distance between past and present as well as heaven and earth.   

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

LFF review: Grandma

2015 is shaping up to be one of the biggest years in Lily Tomlin's career.The 76-year-old earned an Emmy-nomination for her starring role alongside Jane Fonda in the Netflix series Grace and Frankie. She is also back on the big screen with Grandma, in which Paul Weitz (American Pie, About A Boy) gives her a role perfectly suited to her comedic talents. This is the crowdpleaser that last year's flop Tammy could have been. Tomlin plays Elle, a sassy feminist and poet. She is going through a breakup with her girlfriend Olivia (Judy Greer in yet another thankless "Judy Greer supporting role"), when her granddaughter Saige (Julia Garner) unexpectedly shows up on her doorstep. She needs 600 dollars for an abortion and his afraid to ask her mother.

This plot device has a double function. From a comedy standpoint, it allows the film to turn into a traditional road movie. Elle is broke and, in an attempt to free herself from capitalist pressure, has shredded her credit cards and turned them into a wind chime. So she and Saige drive around in a rusty Dodge Royal (Tomlin's actual car) in search of money. Along the way, they encounter a number of colourful characters and old friends. This is the kind of film the Americans are really good at sometimes: a semi-serious feel-good movie where the characters learn from each other. At 79 minutes, the film is also not a minute too long.

The two lead actors make for a great pairing. Garner does well at playing the straight woman, which allows Tomlin to cut loose at will. Like an older version of Susan Sarandon in Thelma & Louise, she refuses to take shit from anyone. Elle is the cool grandmother we all want - the kind that beats up your loser boyfriend with a hockey stick and steals his weed. Tomlin's comedic timing is impeccable and her performance is a joy to watch.

The supporting cast, most of whom only have one scene to leave their mark, is impressive too. Laverne Cox (from OITNB) and Marcia Gay Harden deliver memorable cameos, but one actor stands out: Sam Elliott and his lovely, lovely, lovely voice. He shows up for ten minutes and manages to be funny, creepy, warm and moving. In an odd awards race, his performance might even receive some attention this winter.

Grandma also delivers a sensitive take on the controversial subject matter of abortion. The film is firmly pro-choice (at one point, there is a clear dig at Juno), but doesn't preach or trivialise the issue (within the confines of mainstream cinema). Weitz makes sure that the audience understands the emotional and physical consequences of Saige's decision. Access and price may be problems, but it is still better than the alternative at the end of the day.

Grandma is a sweet, sensitive and short dramedy with a modern spirit, and Lily Tomlin is a true star. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

LFF diary day two: Cronies, Virgin Mountain and Madame Courage

Executive producer Spike Lee presents a Michael J. Larnell joint. Cronies (a slang term for a close friend or companion) plays like a bromance-version of Lee's 1986 debut She's Gotta Have It from the very first scene. The slick black & white cinematography, the talking to the camera, the nerdy protagonist are all there. Louis (George Sample III) and his white colleague Andrew (Brian Kowalski) want to hang out. They are joined by Louis' childhood friend Jack (Zurich Buchner) for an afternoon of chilling and casual drugs. The result feels like an old-fashioned graduate film (mainly because it is), but it has a lot of charm. Buchner owns the film with his complex portrayal of Jack as a poser with a soft interior. Larnell also manages to find his own voice in his hometown of St. Louis and provides an interesting take on contemporary race relations and integration.

Virgin Mountain is not an innovative or radical film, but it shows emotional complexity and a great deal of heart. It tells the coming-of-age story of a cripplingly shy middle-aged man named Fúsi. He lives with his mother, is bullied at work, plays with WWII-models and spends his Friday nights alone at the local Chinese restaurant. Gunnar Jónsson is the heart and soul of the film as the central character with a terrific non-performance. Acting is often about big speeches and emotional breakdowns, but sometimes it's simply the art of doing very little. Fúsi is never pathetic (although his life clearly is) thanks to Jónsson's warmth and humanity. He looks and moves like he was born to play this part. Even during the rare moments of activity, he appears vulnerable and passive. Inevitably, Fúsi meets a girl. Sjöfn (Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir) could have been developed a bit further, but at least she is not your typical Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She arrives with her own set of problems and anxieties, which don't discourage the admirable Fúsi. Virgin Mountain is a sweet character study that is worth a look if you are in need of a good cry.

Finally, Madame Courage was a film I didn't really warm to. The experienced Algerian director Merzak Allouache tells the story of an unstable teenager from the slums around the city of Mostaganem. One day, pickpocket Omar (Adlane Djemil) becomes infatuated with one of his victims. He follows her home, returns the necklace he stole and starts to linger outside her apartment building for no apparent reasons. Madame Courage is a film that is fine on many levels (well made, social commentary, performances), but fails to excel in any category. The frequently irritating protagonist is not very relatable, which inhibits an emotional connection from the audience. Ideas, such as Omar's drug consumption, are introduced but never developed further. I found it difficult to care.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Other writings

Here is a list of articles and reviews I wrote for other publications:

- for

- for IGNiTE Film Fans: 

LFF diary day one: Bang Gang, The Club and The Forbidden Room

At the BFI London Film Festival, press and industry screenings traditionally begin very early. This gives delegates the chance to work their way through a portion of the mammoth-programme (238 films from 72 countries) before the official opening night on October 7. As a result, I get to spend the majority the next couple of weeks in one of my favourite cinemas watching movies. Yay! During this time, I will (attempt to) keep a daily diary and write a few words about every film I see. It appears that this plan has at least worked for the first day, so here we go.

Everyone was still cheerfully discussing David Cameron's porcine adventures, when the screenings kicked off with a bang - a Bang Gang to be precise. Eva Husson's debut feature about a group of high-school students who start organizing orgies shows that the French remain very good at making (and modernising) French movies. The film is much sweeter and conservative than the subject matter suggests. At its best, it captures and understands a generation of young people who stalk each other's facebook profiles and send naked selfies. The teenagers in Bang Gang may take things a step further than most of their peers, but their behaviour, angst, and pleasure is always authentic. The performances and the electronic soundtrack also deserve a positive mention. At its worst, the film turns into a moralistic PSA for sex education with heavy-handed metaphors and unnecessary voice-over narration. The final twenty minutes are determined to wrap everything up nice and neatly, which robs an interesting film of its complexity. Bang Gang may not be the next The Graduate or Y Tu Mamá También, but it remains a solid debut. I'm interested to see what Husson does next.

After a hastily swallowed lunch, a cinematic treat awaited. Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín recently celebrated an international success with his political satire No, which went on to pick up an Oscar nomination. Now he is back with The Club, a bleak examination of the Catholic Church and its copious problems, which has already picked up the Grand Jury Prize at the Berlinale. Where do delinquent priests go after they have been disgraced and excommunicated? They don't go to jail, but they are sent to a seaside "retirement home," where they are to repent by living in isolation according to strict rules. The Club delves into the infinite grey areas of Catholic morality, sin, and the lack of forgiveness. The Church's attempts to modernise itself are embodied by a new arrival at the home: Father García (Marcelo Alonso). His efforts are however not free of moral corruption either. We also get the victim's perspective in the form of the unstable Sandokan (Roberto Farías). The film begins with a violent suicide and doesn't get much more cheerful thereafter. Larraín's softly-lit images are almost completely devoid of colour, but he manages to find beauty in the bleakness. The Club will not convince everyone, but it is a film that will make you think and want to discuss it with others. It is the work of the filmmaker who is not afraid of being openly political or tackling difficult subjects, which has to be applauded. If you enjoyed Calvary (with which the film shares a morbid sense of himour) or Far From Men, this is a blessing for your film taste.  

During the festival, The Forbidden Room will be shown on the giant IMAX screen as a special gala for the experimental strand. When it comes to avant-garde cinema (or indeed writing about it), I am admittedly not an expert and I often have my problems with feature-lenght experimental films. Jean-Luc Godard's celebrated Goodbye to Language for instance was an ordeal. The Forbidden Room on the other hand was an extraordinary pleasure. Unlike Godard, Guy Maddin and his co-director Evan Johnson demonstrate a sense of humour and playfulness. Maddin's work is a blind spot in my cinematic knowledge, so I came to The Forbidden Room without expectations. The film is a colourful feast for the eyes which makes just about enough sense to retain the audience's attention for 130 minutes. According to the festival programme, the directors assembled the film from footage shot at live happenings at Montreal's Phi Center. The goal was to channel the spirits of silent films lost to the archives. Don't worry, the result is not as pretentious as it sounds. Structured like a Babushka doll, one absurd storyline flows into a second, which randomly prompts a third and so forth. Strange does not begin to describe it: Louis Negin teaches us how to bathe, there is an awards-worthy, Python-esque song about bottoms, and one lengthy sequence shows us the dream of Udo Kier's moustache. Meanwhile Maddin constantly plays with the cinematic form, colour, sound, and intertitles. The Forbidden Room is an endlessly creative and fascinating journey of epic proportions - for those who have the patience to embark on it. If the quality of the films remains this high, I will have a great few weeks.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Review: Amy

Last Friday, the British Urban Film Festival kicked off its summer season with a double feature at London's Genesis cinema. First up was a preview screening of Asif Kapadia's highly anticipated documentary Amy. The film documents the life of  the extraordinary life of Amy Winehouse until her terrible death of alcohol poisoning on 23 July 2011.

On the one hand, the documentary paints an incredibly sad and moving picture. Winehouse's well-known story, where addiction and depression triumph over extraordinary talent, follows the blueprint of tragedy. As with his acclaimed documentary Senna (2010), Kapadia foregoes the use of talking heads and constructs the film from a wealth of archive material, home videos, photographs, television clips. Winehouse occupies nearly every frame of the film. As a result, the distance between spectator and subject is reduced significantly. Amy manages to humanise the singer in a way the tabloids and mass media never could (or wanted to).

Then there is the voice. That incredible voice. First heard from the mouth of a tiny British teenager at a birthday party, it was destined to conquer the world. "All I'm good for is making tunes," claims Winehouse in one interview and music, rather than fame, was always the ultimate goal. Huge crowds screaming her name were no improvement on small, intimate jazz clubs. Kapadia furthermore uses a simple but effective trick to convey the brilliance of Amy's extremely personal songwriting: as the music plays, the lyrics appear on the screen. We may have heard the songs hundreds of times, but now we are able to understand them even better.

Another of the film's main interests is the assignment of blame for the singer's downward spiral. Amy is never a completely victimised, but Kapadia identifies three main culprits. Father Mitch Winehouse has unsurprisingly complained about the film and he definitely doesn't come out of it well. When Amy escapes to St. Lucia to avoid the relentless media scrutiny, Mitch turns up with a reality TV-crew in his coat tails. Blake Fielder-Civil meanwhile is the Nancy Spungen to Amy Winehouse's Sid Vicious. Her on-off boyfriend/husband introduced her to crack cocaine before going to prison in 2009.

The third group of accused are the mass media, the unyielding paparazzi laying in siege in front of her house, the chat-show hosts making cheap jokes about her addiction and us, laughing at said quips. Here Kapadia, somewhat inevitably, has his cake and eats it. The mere existence of this all access, behind the scenes documentary undermines any argument that Winehouse's privacy needs to be respected. The film criticises the media circus surrounding the reluctant celebrity, but at the same time makes liberal use of the inquisitive paparazzi footage it is looking to condemn. Kapadia fails to address this contradiction, but fortunately his palpable affection for Winehouse rescues his film from becoming voyeuristic or gratuitous.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Review: Listen Up Philip

Philip (Jason Schwartzman) is one of those people who simply cannot, or refuses to, be happy. We meet the young novelist in the run-up to the publication of his second novel. Praise makes him nauseous, yet he has no qualms to express the sky-high opinion he holds of himself. A decision to be uniformly honest is brutally respected. Upon hearing about the suicide of a rival wordsmith, whom he was supposed to interview, he sighs: "Oh no! I'm glad he's dead and all, but final interviews are hard to get." 

His misery is contagious, as he offends and alienates everyone around him. The primary sufferer is his girlfriend Ashley (Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss). Philip shows little interest in her successful career as a fashion photographer and soon abandons her in order to retrieve his creative mojo. Ike Zimmerman (a gloriously bearded Jonathan Pryce), a legendary author, has adopted Philip as a mentee and invited him to his countryside retreat away from the distractions of the big city..    

Listen Up Philip's biggest strength is its depiction of the "writer's condition." Writer-director Alex Ross Perry does really well to capture how Philip simultaneously feels superior and inferior to everyone else. Relative success has given him cruelty and arrogance, but his insecurities and anxieties shine through as he is unable to access or express any form of emotion. His situation doesn't really improve either. In Ike, we see Philip's future: an older, equally bitter, version of the same character. Creative accomplishment has taken its toll on the two men. The film, unlike its protagonist, meanwhile has not forgotten about Ashley. In the most positive section of the story, she cleanses herself of the negativity left behind by the departing boyfriend.

Perry shot Philip on Super 16 film stock, which gives the movie a timeless, old-school look. The rough, grainy aesthetic really pays off. The cinematography does however scream indie-cinema a bit too loudly at times. He frequently uses handheld cameras and gets distractingly close to his actors' faces. The lack of character development furthermore tested my patience slightly, as Philip and Ike are not exactly pleasant company. This does not take away from the film's considerable successes. The script is witty and the performances are excellent. It is particularly pleasant to see Jonathan Pryce enjoy himself in a role that matches his talent once again. Listen Up Philip will not make you fall in love with its characters, but you will love to hate them.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Review: Honeytrap brings Brixton to the big screen

Writer-director Rebecca Johnson constructs a heavily fictionalised narrative around a real life event for her debut feature Honeytrap. I won't reveal the details of the case which briefly dominated the headlines in 2009, but the curious can find out more by clicking here. The cinematic version of the story focuses on 15-year-old Layla (Jessica Sula). After spending her formative years with her grandparents in Trinidad, she is thrown into the urban jungle of Brixton.

In the capital, we enter familiar coming-of-age territory. Layla is largely left to her own devices, as mother Shiree (Naomi Ryan) seems more interested in her boyfriend and reality television than her daughter. Desperate to find an identity and to fit in, Layla adapts her style and practices London-slang in front of the bedroom mirror ("allow it fam!"). Shoplifting in the hope of impressing a group of local girls becomes the first of many mistakes she makes over the course of the film. Soon, the attractive teenager is caught up in a love triangle. She attracts the attention of Shaun (Ntonga Mwanza), your typical nice guy, and gangster-rapper Troy (Lucien Laviscount). Unfortunately, Layla instantly falls for the latter.

There are several things to like about Honeytrap. Rebecca Johnson clearly knows what she is talking about; she has been running short film projects with young people in Brixton for more than a decade. Watching a character make one bad decision after another can become a frustrating experience for the audience, but we stay on Layla's side throughout. Johnson never patronises or pities her protagonist and tells the story through the melodramatic lens of a teenage girl. Jessica Sula turns out to be a remarkable screen-presence in the leading role.

We also understand what attracts Layla to Troy despite his reprehensible behaviour. As a budding rapper, he represents (the potential of) fame, money, glamour, and respect. In short, he has the status, the identity, she craves. Music and culture are identified as a potential escape very early on. A drawing of Beyoncé for instance becomes a replacement for maternal love. Fashion likewise becomes a form of communication. In one scene, Layla wears a glittery golden dress in an attempt to make Troy jealous. On the streets of Brixton, she looks ridiculous, but in her own fairytale-world, it makes sense. These little moments of subjective filmmaking show a deep understanding of the female teenage experience in a hostile urban context dominated by men.

The film is however not without flaws. The budget was extremely low ($2 million and change) and it shows. Johnson struggles to make Honeytrap look cinematic, but the visuals remain all too frequently rough and underdeveloped. The film also works much better as a character study than a piece of dramatic storytelling. Her decision to tease the climactic tragic event in the opening scene robs the final act of tension for the unknowing audience member. As a result, the ending is more of an afterthought than an exciting climax. Comparisons to Céline Sciamma's vastly superior (and, to be fair, more expensive) Girlhood don't do Honeytrap any favours either. Both films, released on the same day in the UK, examine the life of a black teenage girl in the modern urban context. If you only have time for one, pick Girlhood, but Honeytrap does make for an interesting companion piece.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Review: Noah Baumbach returns with While We're Young

When the stereotypical man reaches a certain age, he acquires an expensive motorbike or sportscar, has an affair and starts to wear a leather jacket. In While We're Young, 44-year-old documentarian Josh (Ben Stiller) goes for a hip hat and a friendship with a younger couple instead. Writer-director-auteur Noah Baumbach manages to sidestep most off the clichés about the midlife crisis and tell a poignant tale about growing old(er). It's Greenberg meets Frances Ha. 

Crucially, his film is not about a man, but about a couple. Josh and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are in their forties, childless and free. In theory at least. The reality is slightly different, as the couple spend their evenings watching netflix on their expensive flat-screen whilst fumbling with their smartphones. Josh has been working on the same project for ten years with no end in sight. Things begin to change when he meets Jamie (Adam Driver) and his wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried). They are the quintessential vinyl-collecting, hat-wearing, desk-making hipster couple; pet-chicken included. He has ambitions as a documentary-maker and she makes avocado-flavoured ice-cream. For Josh and Cornelia, it's love at first sight. The friendship reinvigorates them with unforeseen energy and joie de vivre, as they indulge street beaches and strange cleansing rituals involving hallucinogenics and vomiting. Soon, Josh and Jamie start collaborating on a new documentary. Everything seems perfect. Too perfect. Soon, the honeymoon phase begins to wear of and jealousy takes over.

While We're Young places itself comfortably between the neurotic/sarcastic social satire of Woody Allen and Wes Anderson's shameless quirkiness. Baumbach's greatest strength is his writing. He has an admirable ear for dialogue and is continuously able to come up with lines that are both funny and meaningful.The foursome of leading performers all manage to put their own stamp on the script and breathe life into the characters. Ben Stiller deserves a particular mention here as he holds everything together with his best work since Greenberg. 

The surprisingly conservative, but perhaps inevitable, conclusion  to the slightly haphazard third act provides some nutritious food for thought for middle-aged as well as young viewers. A crucial storyline about Jamie's first documentary project furthermore injects the film with a fascinating examination of the meaning of truth and the responsibility that comes with it. Baumbach is happy to let the audience find their own answers to the questions he asks himself, which means that While We're Young will stay in your mind for a while after leaving the cinema.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The alienating realism of Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin polarised critical and popular opinion from the moment it hit the festival circuit in the autumn of 2013. About twelve months later, the film was hailed by many critics as one of the best of the year and it made an appearance in numerous top 10-lists. The lose adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2000 novel stars Scarlett Johansson as an unnamed alien preying on humans of the male variety in Scotland. During its difficult, decade-long production history, the project went through numerous iterations and transformations. The final result was produced for a relatively modest £8 million and takes an almost experimental approach to narrative filmmaking. In the following paragraphs, I will show how Under the Skin is innovative on a technical as well as a textual level in a number of ways, particularly in regards to its attitude towards realism.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film is its much debated use of non-professional actors and of hidden cameras. During the shoot, an almost unrecognisable Johansson would drive around the streets of Glasgow and strike up conversations with unknowing passers-by. In order to capture these scenes, the filmmakers installed ten small digital cameras throughout the driver’s cabin. All ten angles were filmed at the same time. Jonathan Glazer would meanwhile give instructions to Scarlett Johansson via an earpiece. This required some inventive work from the technical department (the cameras had to be inconspicuous) and the editor (due to the enormous amount of footage shot simultaneously). The concept itself is obviously nothing new. In an article for The Dissolve, Matt Singer discusses the history of the hidden camera-technique from 1948’s Candid Camera to more recent examples such as Borat (Larry Charles, 2006) or Great World of Sound (Craig Zobel, 2007). The main differences between Under the Skin and its predecessors are genre and purpose. The vast majority of Singer’s examples are comedies, frequently made for television. Others include reality-TV and investigative documentaries. Glazer takes this gimmick and applies it to narrative, dramatic cinema. In the process, the director asks fundamental questions about the nature of the medium. The concept of realism and the desire to depict reality on screen have occupied cinema and the discipline of film studies since their inception. Many current directors use handheld cameras and/or long takes to convey an illusion of the real, but Glazer erases (or at least blurs) the line between truth and fiction. During her travels through Scotland, the alien encounters a series of characters that are played by a mixture of amateur and professional actors. Crucially, the objective gaze of the camera remains neutral and the audience often can’t distinguish between the two; between naturalism and performance. The only person who is clearly acting is Scarlett Johansson. The star plays on her image as a glamourous Hollywood celebrity. Like the extra-terrestrial protagonist, she looks completely out of place in the rough, gritty environment of Scotland. Performance style and stardom are thus used as a means to make Johansson’s character stand out even more from her surroundings.

Under the Skin establishes an original form of realism through the use of hidden cameras, which Glazer exploits in a truly innovative manner. The film is defined by the juxtaposition of two polar opposites; as Jonathan Romney put it in Sight & Sound: ‘the surreal and the very concretely real.’ Glazer combines the real life people, landscapes and locations with fantastical images and Mica Levi’s mesmerising soundtrack. During the eye-creation sequence in the beginning and the devouring-scene later on, the imagery even veers into the abstract. We see a viscous liquid flow towards a bright, red rectangle followed by several seconds of flashing lights and incomprehensible images. The realism of Under the Skin does not attempt to draw the audience into the narrative or to highlight a particular social issue. On the contrary, it arguably takes on Brechtian qualities and serves as an alienation device. Looking at humanity from an outside (an alien) perspective is one of the main themes of the film. The alien struggles to understand, and later emulate, human behaviour, and as spectators, we empathise with her confusion. The environment of the shopping centre Johansson visits in an early scene is extremely real and familiar to most audiences, yet the scene strikes us as artificial and strange. After seeing the alien hesitantly pick out an outfit, there are several brief, voyeuristic shots of women having make-up applied. This suggests that their behaviour is just as absurd and unnatural as the alien’s. Another sequence, in which Johansson follows a man into a nightclub, works in a similar fashion. She is ushered onto the dancefloor by a flock of excited young women who communicate through indistinguishable chatter. Partying seems like a strange, exotic ritual throughout the entire sequence. Both these scenes were shot with hidden cameras at real life locations. Glazer thus manages to subvert the traditional meaning of realism and uses it to provide us with an outside perspective. In Under the Skin, the screen is not like window, but like fairground mirror rendering a skewed image of ourselves.

Read my original review of Under the Skin here.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Review: Fifty Shades of Consumer Porn

Originally published in The Badger

Fifty Shades of Grey is absolutely ubiquitous at the moment. Wherever you turn or click, Mr. Grey seems to be ready to receive you now. The adaptation of E.L. James’ bestseller (which I haven’t read) has somehow managed to become the most talked about movie of 2015. Since its world-premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, Fifty Shades has been an unrestrained (no pun intended) success. In less than two weeks, the film has crossed the $400 million-mark worldwide and become the most successful 18-rated film of all time at the UK box-office. 

The film itself is a bit of a non-event really. It’s a solid, well-made piece of entertainment in which Dakota Johnson delivers a star-making performance as the initially wide-eyed Anastasia Steele. The notorious sex scenes meanwhile are surprisingly tame and conventional. The only reason they stand out is their frequency and duration. Mainstream cinema’s anxiety about full frontal nudity (particularly of the male variety) remains intact as Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) initiates Anastasia into the world of BDSM in his “playroom” for adults.

The sex may nevertheless be amusing and titillating, but one of the film’s more interesting aspects is its attitude towards consumerism. Christian, not the most complex character in the history of film and literature, can be summed up with three adjectives: handsome, confident and rich. His wealth is crucial to his seduction technique, as it allows him to impress Anastasia with a cornucopia of privilege. It begins with a new outfit and a new laptop, before quickly graduating to rare first-editions of her favourite novels and a brand new sports car. Her initial reservations about accepting these valuable presents (or bribes) are quickly overcome. Some of the most exhilarating moments are a lift in his private helicopter as well as a gliding-trip. 

These semi-successful attempts to buy her and her body are quite problematic, as they turn Anastasia into an object of consumption of sorts. Yet the film tends to romanticise them. The cinematic language displays a complete materialistic fetish for Christian’s possessions. Critic Mark Kermode fittingly labelled it “consumer porn.” As soon as we enter the billionaire’s luxurious penthouse, the camera is in complete awe of the gorgeous architecture and design. The modern furniture and the panoramic view of Seattle’s skyline become sexier than Jamie Dornan’s abs. In one of the film’s most beautiful and memorable shots, the couple consummate their relationship on a piano bench in front of a massive window, but all the action occurs in the corner of the frame. The lighting and the view dominate over the naughty activities at the edge of the screen. This emphasis on the inanimate object is even reflected in the “playroom.” The camera glides across the expensive-looking leather whips and handcuffs with relish and zooms in on the ornate bedposts she is tied to. Fifty Shades of Grey is a film about the appeal of the material. Would Anastasia engage with Christian’s unusual sexual preferences if he was merely a handsome accountant or artist? This film certainly doesn't seem to think so. 

Friday, March 6, 2015

Review: Appropriate Behaviour-preview with Q&A

Appropriate Behaviour begins and ends with a twenty-something woman on a subway train. The woman’s name is Shirin, a bisexual Brooklynite with Iranian origins. Throughout the comedy, we come to know how she arrived on these two completely contrasting journeys on New York’s most popular means of public transportation. The result is reminiscent of Frances Ha and the recent works of Ira Sachs (Keep the Lights On; Love is Strange). It is the kind of film in which the protagonist walks through the streets of New York holding a strap-on. 

The Duke of York’s recently hosted Desiree Akhavan, the writer, director and star of this debut feature, and I was fortunate enough to receive an invitation to the (almost) sold-out event. Akhavan, known for a webseries called The Slope and a guest appearance on the current season of Girls, was a funny and engaging presence for a lengthy Q&A session after the screening. The only let-down of the evening was that I didn't win one of the ten fashionable t-shirts promoting the film.

Let’s discuss the film first though. The story is told in a non-linear fashion on two parallel timelines. On the one hand, we see an unhappy, frustrated Shirin (Akhavan) drifting through life in search of a sense of direction. After a rough break-up, she is in desperate need of a new start. She begins to teach a film class to a group of fart-obsessed five year-olds and engages in a series of casual sexual encounters. These scenes are funny (in a typical, deadpan New York-way), sexy and usually painfully awkward. In the film’s most memorable sequence she hooks up with a random couple she meets at a bar. This will make you laugh and physically cringe at the same time. 

Shirin’s semi-successful attempts to deal with her break-up are interspersed with flashbacks of her once happy relationship with Maxine (Rebecca Henderson). This half of the story is clearly weaker and lacks emotional impact. There are occasional laughs, but an increasingly serious, nostalgic mood permeates these scenes as they play like a generic romance. These flaws fortunately don’t take away from the entertainment value of the film. 

Its biggest virtue is honesty. Appropriate Behaviour is clearly an extremely personal project for Akhvan, but the film never becomes self-indulgent. She draws upon her own experience and opens up. She invites the audience into this strange, hip world of present-day Brooklyn in order to tell a universal story. Even the most ridiculous situations hold a core of emotional truth. We may not know what it feels like to be a bisexual Iranian in New York, but we understand her existential anxieties about identity, love and loneliness. 

During the Q&A, Desiree Akhavan asked a very poignant question: “Why do films about bisexuals or Persians always have to be like taking medicine?” With Appropriate Behaviour, she has managed to add a spoon full of sugar to help the medicine go down in a most delightful way. It’s a flawed, consistently funny (self-)portrait of a fascinating young woman. 

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Review: Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter


The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987.

At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed.

Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.

These words preceded the Coen Brothers' 1996 snowy masterpiece Fargo. Famously, they were a lie. The directors added it to their original script in order to make audiences believe their crazy story about blackmail, murder and a professional bird-painter called Norm. In the case of Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, the first two lines of this disclaimer hold up. In Fargo, Steve Buscemi buries a suitcase filled with money and marks the spot with a red window scraper. In 2001, a Japanese woman unable to distinguish between fiction and reality travelled the United States in search of the treasure. This is her story.

Kumiko was executive-produced by Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants) and it's easy to see what attracted him to the project. In Payne's last directorial effort Nebraska, we know from the start that Bruce Dern's mission to claim a million dollars is doomed to fail. Kumiko is in the same situation. Writer-director David Zellner treats this delusional character nevertheless with the utmost respect. The film takes time to investigate Kumiko's life. She strolls through the streets of Tokyo with the demeanour of a sulking teenager and she is unable to cope in social situations. Meanwhile, everyone is making her feel inadequate. Her sole purpose lies in an old VHS copy of Fargo, which she studies over and over again. These early scenes give us a strong sense of the character and her loneliness. Zellner plays around with music and sound in a clever way in order to channel Kumiko's inner disposition.

The director also makes the smart decision to avoid Coen-esque elements until the second half of the film, when Kumiko meets a string of eccentric strangers on her travels across Minnesota. Unfortunately, the film mirrors its protagonist's trajectory and loses its way slightly. Zellner indirectly and directly invokes a Werner Herzog-classic called Stroszek, but he lacks the German's strength of conviction. Where Herzog kills the American dream with a dancing chicken, Zellner lets it get off with a slap on the wrist. His conclusion doesn't necessarily need to be as bleak and cynical as Herzog's, but the ending didn't manage to have an impact on me. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is nevertheless an interesting character study about loneliness and the power of dreams. And it's a true story.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Review: CGI-porn and fuming air-vents in Jupiter Ascending

I wanted to enjoy Jupiter Ascending. It had the potential to be a camp romp of a space opera. The actual film is however more frustrating than a Sam Allardyce-team, falling short on nearly every level. Not even my main man Channing Tatum was able to save it. The film was written and directed by the Wachowskis who are still clinging onto the enormous success of The Matrix. I have a lot of respect (but little love) for the siblings' audacious, semi-successful attempt to bring Cloud Atlas to the screen a couple of years ago and I was hoping they could carry over some of this momentum to a simpler project.

The only real ambition of Jupiter Ascending lies in the special effects. The release date had to be delayed by six months so that the movie’s complex visual effects could be polished to a shine, which is hardly surprising because the film seems to use all of them. The Wachowskis are great when it comes to building new worlds and Jupiter Ascending verges on CGI-porn. There are foreign planets, spaceships and giant talking lizard-creatures. Then there are more foreign planets, more spaceships and a pair of flying trainers. Everything looks so extra-ordinary and spectacular that we begin to lose interest and soon feel trapped in uncanny valley.

The plot and the characters don't do the film any particular favours. They are constantly undermined by elaborate and tedious action sequences during which a lot of stuff blows up. It's essentially a classical fairytale with added space-travel. Our "hero" Jupiter lives a normal life as a cleaner in Chicago until she discovers that she shares her DNA-sequence with a recently deceased royal which makes her the rightful owner of the Earth. I use the word "hero" in inverted commas because the term "damsel in distress" is unfortunately more accurate. Mila Kunis spends the entire film being repeatedly rescued at the last moment by Channing Tatum's mercenary Caine (Channing ex machina?) and awkwardly running away from fuming air-vents.

Jupiter's inheritance becomes the target of two brothers (who are, genetically speaking, her sons). They want to use our planet's population for the production of a remedy that indefinitely prolongs their lives. There are some interesting ideas about hierarchy and the value of human life in this idea, but it is quickly abandoned in favour of more explosions. The strongest moments come when the film is at its most bonkers. Sean Bean turns up a delivers a gloriously silly monologue about bees: "Bees are genetically programmed to recognise royalty." The romance between Kunis and Tatum is amusingly and probably unintentionally awkward. I did like the fact that for once, it is the girl who gets the guy/wolf.

Then there is Eddie Redmayne. Oscar-frontrunner Eddie Redmayne. His performance as one of the two villains transcends the simple notions of "good" and "bad." He has transformed himself into a soft-spoken, extra-terrestrial version of Blackadder sitting on a floating throne. His wheezy, raspy voice turns into a roaring scream at seemingly random moments. Redmayne fully commits to this ridiculous character and delivers his lines without a hint of irony. His performance will divide people, but at least its not yet another CGI-explosion. I can respect that and he almost manages to make the film worthwhile.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Review: Intelligent science-fiction with Ex Machina

Ex Machina is a three hander between man-of-the-moment Oscar Isaac (also in A Most Violent Year), woman-of-the-month Alicia Vikander (currently portraying Vera Brittain in Testament of  Youth, before completing her hattrick with next week's Son of a Gun) and ginger-of-the-year Domhnall Gleeson. As you can see in the picture above, at least one member of the trio is not of the human variety. Ava (Vikander) is a cyborg created by the eccentric genius and billionaire Nathan (Isaac) in his isolated mansion. We arrive at the ultra-modern residence in the company of Caleb (Gleeson), a young, wide-eyed computer nerd. He gets to spend a week in the company of his boss after winning a competition, during which he is to fulfill a very important task: perform the Turing-test on Ava in order to determine whether she truly possesses artificial intelligence.

One of Ex Machina's strong points is the air of uncertainty. The relationships between the three central characters keep shifting and there is constant doubt about their motives. Soon, we feel like we can't trust anybody. Nathan is a cross between Frankenstein, Colonel Kurtz and Mark Zuckerberg with lovely beard and a fondness for alcoholic beverages while Ava's mind is not as transparent as her body. Then there is the possibility that she has no control over her actions. Was she simply programmed that way? We never know who is manipulating whom in this unconventional triangle.

The true manipulator is Alex Garland. After making his name as a novelist (The Beach) and a screenwriter (28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go), the Brit took place in the director's chair for the first time. His work is, like all good science-fiction, full of fascinating ideas. Ex Machina feels in some ways like a continuation of two 2014 films starring Scarlett Johansson. On the one hand you have the idea of looking at human behaviour from an outside point of view like in Under the Skin. How does a form of artificial intelligence perceive humans? This ties in with the themes of Spike Jonze's Her, in which Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with the voice of an operating system. Garland takes this a step further by giving his machine a visibly mechanical body, combined with a human face and a gender. This is clearly enough for Caleb to feel some sort of attraction towards Ava. Garland plays around with these concepts, defies our expectations and asks intriguing questions.

Ex Machina primarily appeals to the brain. It is a simple affair playing out in a single location without elaborate action sequences. The film nevertheless doesn't become becomes static. The camera keeps moving through the windowless interrogation room on the prowl for new angles and Garland keeps our attention with regular visual treats (exhilarating landscapes, nudity, unique dance moves). Ex Machina delivers for all fans of intelligent sci-fi and the comparison with Moon are justified.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Review: Beyond Clueless goes into the teenage dream

For most people, the main appeal of Beyond Clueless will be nostalgia. The essay-film provides an exhaustive look at over 200 teen-movies made between the early nineties (the oldest title I managed to jot down was 1992’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me) and the mid-noughties. Anybody who went through and beyond puberty during this period will experience a trip down memory lane.

Director Charlie Lyne looks back at the films of his youth, but he also treats his subject with respect without losing his audience through unnecessary intellectualisation. His approach remains simple. The clips are only accompanied by a simple, original score and an ominous voice-over provided by cult actress Fairuza Balk (whose voice reminded me of Cate Blanchett’s introductory monologue in The Lord of the Rings). The absence of interviews and talking heads actually works in the film’s favour. Our stay in the crazy, fictional world that is the cinematic American high-school is never interrupted by disruptive bursts of reality. In this universe, people are divided into clear categories. Whether you are a jock, plastic, nerd or skater, it’s all about finding your place within or outside of the system. You try to fit in, make new experiences and let lose before departing onto the daunting, uncertain path of adulthood. The ultimate goal of the teenager (and of the teen movie) is the discovery of their individual identity, which is exactly where Beyond Clueless ends up. On the way there, we get montages of youngsters striding through busy school-hallways, experiencing their awkward and/or passionate first kisses and sexual encounters before finally graduating. We are also given glimpses of some Hollywood A-listers before their rise to fame (i.e. Jake Gyllenhaal in a plastic bubble, Jessica Alba as the girl-next-door and a baby-faced Joseph Gordon Levitt) and a surprisingly deep analysis of the “classic” EuroTrip.

On a personal note, I was surprised that I had not seen more of the featured films. Charlie Lyne is, according to Wikipedia, only one year older than myself, but I only recognized a fraction of the films.  Maybe its because I grew up in a different country or because I was a weird teenager, but I have never seen Final Destination and unfortunately only discovered Mean Girls and Clueless in my early twenties. The touchstones of my teenage years were the John Hughes classics from the 1980s and newer films such as Rocket Science, Juno or the underrated High School Musical-franchise. This lack of knowledge did not take away from my enjoyment of Beyond Clueless since I was able to understand the anxieties of the pubescent characters only too well. I also enjoyed the film on a completely different level and discovered films I had never heard of. If, like me, you are unaware of the 1999 film Idle Hands, you may struggle to believe that it actually exists. In this movie, Devon Sawa discovers that his right hand has a blood-thirsty mind of its own and is hell-bent on wreaking havoc whether he likes it or not. And there is way more where that came from in Beyond Clueless. A very fetch experience (yes I am still making "fetch" happen).

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Review: Whiplash lives up to the hype

When I first saw Whiplash back in Spetember at the Deauville American Film Festival, more than a thousand people leapt to their feet in rapturous applause as the end credits were rolling. As I was pushing through the rapturous crowd on the way to see writer-director Damien Chazelle and star Miles Teller talk about their work during a press conference, the adrenaline was still pumping through my veins. Whiplash is the kind of film that grabs the audience from the opening scene, builds up to a relentless crescendo and doesn't let go until the very end. I didn't even have the time to remember that I don't even really like jazz that much.

How do you get the best out of a young talent? For Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), an experienced instructor at the prestigious music school Shaffer, the answer is clear: you push their musical and mental abilities to the absolute limit. Failure is not an option and mercy a mere sign of weakness. He is constantly playing mind games and launches personal insults with the precision of a sniper at his terrified students. One of these pupils is an ambitious young drummer called Andrew (Teller) who is quickly rising through the ranks. The ascension to the top is anything but smooth though. His wild ambition and considerable ego lead to perpetual clashes between student and mentor. Fletcher and Andrew engage in a psychological battle of epic proportions while essentially pursuing the same goal: turning the latter into one of the best jazz drummers in the business. Andrew literally batters his drum-set until he bleeds; everything else falls by the wayside. Family, friends and girlfriend are mere distractions; speed-bumps on the road to greatness.

We ask ourselves two philosophical questions as we are watching those two strong personalities land one mental blow after another: 1. Are Fletcher's cruel methods the right (and/or the only) way to the top in a creative field like music? 2. Is it worth the sacrifice? - Whiplash doesn't really provide answers, but gives us the chance to make up our own minds. Some people are only able to perform and learn to the best of their abilities in situations of extreme pressure, but others crumble under the weight of emotional bullying. It's a situation that is familiar to most of us, be it from music, the classroom or a football pitch.

Darren Aronofsky's brilliant 2010 film Black Swan would meanwhile make for a fascinating companion piece to Whiplash. Both films are about complete dedication to creativity and art at any price, but there are fundamental differences in their philosophies. In Black Swan, Natalie Portman's ballerina struggles to let go. In order to master the dual role of the black and the white swan, she needs to completely surrender to the music. The art controls the artist. Whiplash inverses this relationship. It's all about being in command of the rhythm and the tempo. Technique is the crucial term: Are you rushing or are you dragging? As a consequence, Whiplash is a more disciplined, rigid piece of cinema. Aronofsky let his imagination run wild in fantastical dream sequences and moments of pure horror. Chazelle on the other hand is at his best when he keeps his feet on the ground. The tension comes out of the simplicity of the situation. Some scenes feel a bit artificial and contrived (particularly those involving Andrew's girlfriend), but the level-headedness of his direction is mostly maintained.

Everyone is rightly talking about the performances (Simmons and Teller are both at their very best), but it is the editing that truly makes Whiplash. At the press conference, Damien Chazelle, only 29 (!), talked in fluent French about his own background as a jazz drummer. He may not have been good enough to become a professional, but the experience clearly gave him a sense for this music and its rhythm, which he cleverly translates to cinema. After trimming the film from nearly three hours to 107 minutes, there is very little superfluous material. It is a bit rough around the edges at times, but Chazelle find his tempo and hits most of the right notes (the others are drowned out by sheer tension and intensity). Whiplash doesn't quite match the artful near-perfection of Black Swan, but it is a gripping cinematic experience. The standing ovation at Deauville wasn't the first or the last this film will deservedly receive and I wouldn't bet against J.K. Simmons winning a small, shiny bald man come March.   

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Review: American Sniper is more than patriotic flag-waving

It would be easy to dismiss American Sniper as a patriotic, flag-waving celebration of war based on its premise. It tells the story of Chris Kyle who, after four tours and over 160 confirmed kills in Iraq, became the deadliest sniper in US military history. A true American hero. Aside from the misjudged closing credits, this film looks beyond the star-spangled banner at a complex man and his motivations. 

After the frustratingly dull Jersey Boys, American Sniper marks a welcome return to form for director Clint Eastwood. Even at the age of 84, he is able to portray human drama on the screen like few others. After an incredibly tense opening scene (as seen in the trailer), he looks back and chart's Kyle's transformation from a wannabe Texas cowboy into a cold blooded killer. He is driven by an idealistic desire to protect his country to begin with, but this gradually dissolves into a bitter, relentless thirst for revenge and loyalty to his friends. You may not always agree with his ideas (and as a wannabe pacifist, I certainly didn't), but you can always comprehend the decisions he takes. Bradley Cooper (who originated and produced the project) deserves a lot of credit for his understated, complex central performance.

The war itself is incoherent, tense and brutal. There is no place for politics on the battlefields in Iraq. The frequent action scenes are solid, but the film truly shines in the quieter moments. Kyle's relationship with his wife (a terrific, unrecognizable Sienna Miller) is very well played. It doesn't reach the adrenaline rush of Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker and it could lose a few scenes and clichés, but American Sniper is Clint's best since Gran Torino. 

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Review: Keanu rampages through John Wick

In little Russia, a man walks into a church in broad daylight. As he approaches the altar, he pulls a gun, shoots the priest in the leg and kills everyone in the building with the exception of an elderly lady in the blink of an eye. "Do you even know what you're getting yourself into?" asks the pain-stricken priest. The man replies in fluent Russian: "Of course I do!" He is of course a bruised Keanu Reeves in the middle of his quest for vengeance. His latest film is John Wick, a surprisingly fun revenge thriller with an abundance of style. Who would have thought?

The film abandons a half-hearted attempt to tell a generic story after about ten minutes and turns into ninety minutes pure action with Keanu in rampage mode. The retired (and recently widowed) assassin John Wick is compelled to confront his violent past after some Russian mobsters do the worst thing you can conceivably do to a man: they steal his sports car and kill his puppy. So John returns to a world in which making "a dinner reservation for twelve" means that you have a dozen of corpses in your house. He lives up to his old nickname Baba Yaga (The Bogeyman) by single-handedly taking down the mob headed by Michael Nyqvist. No morals, no second thoughts, no forced romance, just shooting, stabbing and punching.

The film reminded me of Steven Soderbergh's excellent Haywire in its stripped down, unpretentious approach to violence and action. John Wick is a prettier, more polished movie. It was directed by Chad Stahelski, David Leitch - two former stuntmen (Stahelski was Keanu's double on The Matrix) who clearly know how to choreograph a fight sequence. The slick, clear cinematography and the stylish lightning are complemented by a brilliant, pacey soundtrack. Tyler Bates and Joel Richard create the best electronic music for an action film since the Chemical Brothers did Hanna. All these elements come together in the film's best sequence set in a busy nightclub which works like an elaborately choreographed dance number, with blood. The quieter scenes also ooze with style. Wick sets up base in hotel for assassins (and other suspect folk) where you pay with mysterious gold coins and Ian McShane sips a Martini in the secret basement-nightclub.

Keanu's acting meanwhile hasn't improved (he bottles both dramatic moments), but the part doesn't require much of it anyway. One person's wooden is another's ice-cold determination. John Wick isn't much more than an exercise in style, albeit a very successful one. It equalises Denzel's The Equaliser and then some.