Monday 13 April 2015






Thursday 9 April 2015

250W: While We're Young

Short reviews for clear and concise verdicts on a broad range of films...

While We're Young (Dir Noah Baumbach / 2015)

Who doesn’t look forward to the new Noah Baumbach? He’s Woody Allen via Jean Luc Godard, set amongst the cool-kids in New York. Director of the lovable Frances Ha and mentally-unhinged Greenberg, his latest film, While We’re Young, returns to similar themes of youth and age amongst urban city-slicker art-types. Cornelia (Naomi Watts) and Josh (Ben Stiller) are introduced as they hold a crying baby, and uncomfortably fawn over the child. It’s not their child, thank god. New Yorkers through-and-through, they are stuck between that early-forties phase whereby they’re not keen on the responsibility of parenthood. Then, they meet young and cool Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), and feel better about themselves. Josh is inspired to wear a hipster-hat and tries to ride a bike. Cornelia attends hip-hop work-out classes and they both enjoy hallucinogens while dreamily confessing their fears and desires. It’s the age-old fight against old-age – and, like the best films, it raises more questions than it answers. Nobody is perfect and this isn’t a world whereby life is fair. A personal highlight is when documentarian Josh requests to zoom-in on footage, only to be met with the stunted response that the program can’t zoom in. While We’re Young is the type of story that only reaffirms your own frustrations about the fragility of life, with acutely-observed comedy and self-effacing criticism. Youngsters will like the young. Oldies will relate to the older folks. But this careful balance is what makes While We’re Young so elegantly exquisite.

Rating: 4/5

Tuesday 7 April 2015

250W: Fast & Furious 7

Short reviews for clear and concise verdicts on a broad range of films...

Fast & Furious 7 (Dir. James Wan/2015)

Rarely does such a dark cloud hang over a film. Fast & Furious 7 tragically lost lead actor, Paul Walker, mid-filming in November 2013. Not only did this have an enormous practical impact on the production (pushing the release date an entire year ahead), but emotionally, a series that thematically reiterates the importance of family, had to contend with mourning the loss of a loved one. Director James Wan and writer Chris Morgan adapted the story and, in consultation with cast and crew, ensured that Walker had a positive send off. Thankfully, this unfortunate situation is handled sensitively and with respect. Separately, the seventh instalment doesn’t live up to its predecessors. Introducing new characters who fail to match the engaging bad-boys of the past, it’s a surprise that even Jason Statham (introduced in Fast & Furious 6) doesn’t strike fear as others before. He’s almost mute, and seeks only revenge. A strong opening perhaps, but compared to Owen Shaw, Reyes and Braga in previous films, he doesn’t stack up – though he carries more grenades. The crew – noticeably smaller now - are tasked with saving hacker Ramsey (perfectly cast…) and taking down Statham. Kurt Russell and Djimon Hounsou support, but again, they lack character and fail to ignite any urgency or passion to our favourite team. Fast & Furious 7 showcases incredible stunts (Impressively requiring little CGI), and bids goodbye to Paul in a heartfelt manner – it’s just a shame the new guys pull the breaks on such a strong franchise.

Rating: 4/5 

Saturday 21 March 2015

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? (Stanley Kramer, 1967)

At one point in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Sidney Poitier, the African-American husband-to-be, tells Spencer Tracy, the father-of-the-bride, how their potential children may become Presidents of the United States. Poitier, lightening the mood, acknowledges that he’ll accept Secretary of State – of course, his wife-to-be is possibly too ambitious. Made in 1967, it seems the filmmakers weren’t too ambitious, and only six years prior to the cinema release date, in Kapiʻolani Maternity & Gynecological Hospital in Honolulu, Hawaii, Barack Hussein Obama II was born. It is difficult to imagine the era in fact. We know the horror stories and the necessity of the civil rights movement, depicted recently in Ava DuVernay’s Selma. But, born into a racially intolerant world, it is difficult to comprehend the abuse that afflicted the black populace of America. Bear in mind that, while the film was in cinemas, Martin Luther King was assassinated. This was a different time.

A taboo topic, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? introduces Joanna Drayton (Katherine Houghton) hopping off a plane with her lover Dr. John Wayde Prentice Jr (Poitier). They talk casually about the inevitable shock her parents (Hepburn and Tracy, ending a nine-film run together) will receive. Mrs Drayton is shocked but accepting, while Mr Drayton is more concerned. Crucially for their safety – and the inevitable abuse their child would receive. The final act introduces John’s parents also, who are equally concerned about the future. The maid, Tilly (Isabel Sanford), is vocal about her frustrations, explaining how she dislikes anyone who is acting ‘above himself’. Director Stanley Kramer jumps from couples sparring and awkward group moments comfortably. Though clearly structured to emphasise the various opinions and positions taken, he resolves the film comfortably with a finale that accepts change, albeit without all parties agreeing on the issue – but a sense that, in time, they will.

Inevitably perhaps, watching within the 21st Century, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? seems awfully twee, and reeks of a sentimentality that is simply at odds with our current perspective. The reason the interracial marriage wins over the bride’s father is because they’re “in love” - something clear from the outset, but it takes him the duration to accept. Star performances from Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier and (the BFI season dedicated to) Katherine Hepburn are outstanding, and full of warmth. The film was Tracy’s last (dying only 17 days after production) and, in one scene, the final monologue took six days to shoot. It is clearly a small-scale film, and it could easily be a play off-Broadway rather than appearing on the silver screen. But its message is clear – change is coming and your masculinity, traditional expectations and fear won’t stop the glorious future that waits.

This is what makes cinema endlessly fascinating. For all its flaws, this is a moment in history. Spencer Tracy’s final film captures attitudes in an era that I, for one, wasn’t present for. Imagine if cinema was available as an art form during the French Revolution – what conversations and situations would be presented? The last 100 years of cinema has meant that every momentous, historical occasion has a library of films that run alongside the event. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? joins In the Heat of the Night and To Kill a Mockingbird as key films in an era that changed the future of the western world.

This post was originally written for Flickering Myth in March 2015

Wednesday 11 March 2015

The Tales of Hoffmann (Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger, 1951)

"I have to say”, says Director Michael Powell prior to working on The Tales of Hoffmann, “I didn’t know much about the opera”. That makes both of us Mr Powell. On Extended Run at the BFI this month is the Technicolor triptych-narrative, The Tales of Hoffmann. Released in 1951, this was made three years after Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s celebrated masterpiece The Red Shoes. Rather than incorporating dance into a story, Powell and Pressburger decided to adapt a full performance in its entirety, presenting an epic story of romance, lost-love and tragedy.

In the interval of a ballet, Hoffmann (Robert Rounseville) regales a crowd with talk of his previous exploits. Drunkenly holding court, he tells of his first romance with an automaton (Moira Shearer/Dorothy Bond), whereby he’s required to wear glasses to see her come to life. This seeps into the second Venetian story, a devilish tale whereby a dark-haired seductress (Ludmilla Tchérina/Margherita Grandi) manages to charm his attention and steal his reflection. After a fight with her true lover (Robert Helpmann/Bruce Dargavel always playing the villain), he regains his mirrored-self but escapes, only to meander into his third story in Greece. His final romance is with a dying singer (Ann Ayars). Her singing is what’s killing her, but her voice is what makes them happy. A corrupt doctor directs her voice and, inevitably, she dies. Returning to Hoffmann’s story-telling, we see his current love (also Moira Shearer) witness the drunken consequence, as he lays passed out on the table, so she leaves with his nemesis into the night.

This recent restoration was by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, with supervision by Martin Scorsese, the magnificent editor Thelma Schoonmaker Powell and Ned Price. Scorsese’s kudos will reach wide, and the influence of Powell and Pressburger’s grand filmmaking can be seen in many of his films, especially Shutter Island and Hugo. Glorious use of colour and dreamlike landscapes are simply mesmerising, carrying you away to a faraway land that we rarely see in cinema. The Red Shoes managed to capture that surrealist perspective that dominates the story in a single dance-sequence, while the magical opera-singing and out-of-this-world context in The Tales of Hoffmann only serves as a catalyst to exploit these dreamy notions further.

Each story is unique and linked to a specific colour palette. The yellowed ‘Olympia’ story establishes Hoffmann as gullible and the sequence toys with his desperation for love. Each arrangement reveals different vices – and virtues – of Hoffmann. Moira Shearer is outstanding in her mechanical form, shuddering to a stop, before being wound up again. Hoffmann’s clown-friend, Nicklaus (Pamela Brown/Monica Sinclair) balances the seriousness, as her glances to camera expose her frustration, presented as ‘I-give-up-with-this-guy’ shrugs. When the palette shifts to the lustful, passionate red in Venice, mass orgies and occult-magic shift the tone, but the message seems similar: Hoffmann gives his love freely to Giulietta, at a high cost. Nicklaus again, stands idly at the side, resigned to observe foolish decisions. The final story holds the biggest heart, and the clown rarely interrupts. Antonia is good, and loving. The calmness of the blue resonate a sense of peace and hope in the story. Though, as the music builds, and the crescendo is loud, we know all will end in tears.

This is not an easy watch, but it is unforgettable. Zombie-extraordinaire George A. Romero stated in 2002 that it was his favourite film of all-time – in fact, it is “the film that made him want to make movies”. Scorsese and Romero have seen something unique. Something so grand, and beautiful, that maybe only a directors-eye can truly appreciate. There is an argument that will defend the stage – why should we watch the film when the experience in the theatre will surely be superior. I’m not so sure. Powell’s ambitious direction, his vivid sets and extraordinary editing is innovative and breath-taking. One dance is shown from four different perspectives in the same shot. The dual characters are fun, but even more fascinating as one character takes off a mask to reveal himself again, and then another mask and a different character, played by the same actor. For 1951, this must’ve been terrific – and it remains terrific today.

This post was originally written for Flickering Myth