Thursday, 30 January 2014

150W: Inside Llewyn Davis

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

Inside Llewyn Davis (Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen/2014)

Considering Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) lost his band-mate to suicide, you assume this heart-wrenching drama has happened before the start of Inside of Llewyn Davis. We witness the aftermath as, to put it bluntly, he tries to get his shit together. Bathed in the dim-glow of a small gig in Greenwich Village or on the cold, icy streets of Chicago, the Coen brothers have captured the spirit of 1961. A cute cat may feature more than Justin Timberlake and John Goodman, but it’s Llewyn’s story – and Isaac’s defiant and yet forlorn portrayal of this corduroy-clad guitarist eases you into a cinematic, dusty vinyl sleeve. Through his couch-hopping and hitch-hiking, it’s clear that he exists on the grace of others. He’s not Bob Dylan and the Coen’s hint at why. Though conflicted, our folk-singer is a victim of his own lack of self-preservation – and never has it been so warmly embraced.

Rating: 9/10

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

150W: Shadows and Fog

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Shadows and Fog (Dir. Woody Allen/1991)

Lurking in the shadows is the killer. You don’t want to discuss it and you don’t want to put yourself in the fog and make yourself a target. It is inevitable. Death, in and of itself, is inevitable. Shadows and Fog, a dark and dusty drama from Woody Allen asks these profound questions. Under the guise of an ambiguous type of dwelling, town folk are awkward and join different groups (see. Religions) in the hope of capturing the killer (see. Death). Mr Kleinman (Allen), alternatively, is not sure of the rules (not sure of God) and not sure what is expected of him to capture the killer (scared of death, but not convinced of religion). Though aspiring to be cerebral and high-brow, Shadows and Fog attempts to metaphorically deconstruct the meaning of life. Maybe further watching improve it, but the happy-go-lucky prostitutes and uninteresting investigation don’t engage – and it should.

Rating: 4/10

Monday, 27 January 2014

The General (Buster Keaton, 1927)

Though The General is the highest ranked comedy in Sight and Sound’s recent poll of ‘The Greatest Films of All-Time’, it is interesting to note how it failed to recoup the costly production in 1927. An expensive bridge-destruction rivalling The Bridge on the River Kwai and casting armies of Union troops and Confederate’s fighting in a raging war clearly took its toll. With the financial success of Battling Butler, Buster Keaton confidently took on a larger budget and made a comedy that, in scale, only Charlie Chaplin could rival. It was only in the 1950’s and beyond that audiences realised how perfectly placed and beautifully balanced The General is. The acclaim it has accumulated and achieved in the last sixty years is not without merit – and now is the time to see Keaton’s masterpiece.

Keaton’s plays Johnny Gray, an engineer on the Western and Atlantic Railroad. His two loves are his engine and fiancée Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack). When war breaks out, Johnny tries to enlist but is rejected as he is needed on the rail road. Unfortunately, Annabelle’s brother and father assume he has refused to enlist, prompting Annabelle to refuse his love too - until she sees him in uniform. Feeling down, Johnny returns to his train – “The General” but becomes caught up in the war effort as armies from the North plan to destroy the railroad to stop the transportation of the Southerners artillery and food. They take hold of “The General”, with Annabelle on board, and so Johnny sets off to save his locomotive (and his love) from the clutches of the enemy soldiers.

As the train route sets-up jokes travelling in one direction, we remain on board for the laughs as it returns, repeating many jokes in reverse. Tomfoolery with the use of cannons, wood and fire is regular and commonplace. Though we are watching professionals, behind the scenes directors were shot in the face (with a blank) and crew had feet trampled by the train wheel. Even Keaton was hurt by standing too close to a cannon. A vaudeville performer, Keaton knows dangerous and death-defying stunts – and his effort to capture authenticity in the civil war setting and his hilarious exploits is where The General, rightly, receives praise.

The box-office failure of The General could be due to a number of reasons. United Artists had failed to market the film effectively while in 1927 the civil war was still in the collective consciousness of Americans. For some, it was too soon for comedy based on such a tragic time. Re-released at the BFI and screened digitally in glorious 4k, you can see the precise detail Keaton went to, to ensure The General stood the test of time. Cannons were based on actual civil war weaponry and he included what is rumoured to be the most expensive single shot of the silent era (rumoured to have cost $42,000). This shot, filmed on 26th July 1926, is an actual locomotive, on an actual bridge in Oregon, and Keaton destroys both.

Written, directed and starring Buster Keaton, The General is outstanding filmmaking. The story suits the full-feature context and there is no sense that this is four 20-minute shorts squeezed together. The comedy supports the story and slapstick and poker-faced dry-wit is complemented by well-placed sarcasm and shots that, in their pace and framing, are laugh-out-loud moments. Paul Merton writes how The General proved “screen immortality” after hearing the loud laughs at a screening in 1971. 40 years later, the loud laughs continue to fill the theatre, proving how this epic silent comedy remains timeless and immortal.

This post is originally written for Flickering Myth, published on 27th January 2014

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

150W: Vicky Cristina Barcelona

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

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Dir. Woody Allen/2009)

The rogue artist has never been sexier than in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. While we join Vicky (Hall) and Cristina (Johansson) as they visit Barcelona, their differing attitudes to romance and relationships is tested when they meet Juan Antonio (Bardem) – and his crazy ex (Cruz). Woody Allen captures a passionate and fiery summer, whereby we can escape to a dream of the bohemian lifestyle with flowing red wine and expressive, impasto art. Sun shines on the Gaudi gardens and as tensions heat up, we are left to define what creates an artist. Are all artists required to be a tad unstable to confidently create? Is romance better left unsaid and unspoken – or should it be fully embraced? A criticism of marriage and deconstruction of love is Woody Allen at his best. Vicky Cristina Barcelona additionally utilises the European destination to flavour the film with beauty, grace and a deeply seductive charm.

Monday, 20 January 2014

150W: Nebraska

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Nebraska (Dir. Alexander Payne/2013)

Sideways Director Alexander Payne has shown his share of conflicted men. In Nebraska, Payne’s most confident film to date, we travel across the states as frail seventy-year-old Woody (Bruce Dern) is taken to Lincoln by his considerate and compassionate son David (Will Forte). On the promise of $1,000,000, Woody is convinced that spam in his letterbox is real, spurring the road-trip - but as they take a detour to visit relatives, the pair realise that blood lines does not guarantee kindness. Shot in stark black and white, Payne directs Nebraska with a clear focus on generational differences and modern expectations. While Woody reveals how his Uncles help build his family home, his own brothers resent and argue that they are due a “token” from his assumed jackpot. An alcoholic and distant father, Woody is a broken man with his own cross to bear proving how an aging father deserves dignity.

Rating: 9/10

Sunday, 19 January 2014

150W: The Wolf of Wall Street

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The Wolf of Wall Street (Dir. Martin Scorsese/2014)

In 1987, Gordon Gekko prided himself on the term “Greed is Good”. In Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, greed is a state of mind. A smooth talker and shrewd salesman, Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio) has a way with words. He learns fast, expertly teaching home-grown friends to con the top 1% of earners to invest in dodgy shares. Meanwhile, his company – part-owned by Donnie (Hill) – snags the majority of financial reward. Written by Sopranos-alumni Terence Winter, he uses Goodfellas-style narration to simplify the stock-market as DiCaprio cuts to the chase – is it legal? No. How much money were they making? $22m. We get it – through illegal means, Belfort lives a life of excess and orgies; hookers and drugs. Snorting, smoking and pill-taking his way through seven years, it’s shocking to see how the law treats the rogue trader - and the beauty in how pertinent it is in 2013.

Rating: 8/10

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

150W: American Hustle

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American Hustle (Dir. David O. Russell/2014)

American Hustle will be Oscar nominated. David O. Russell only rears his head to an awards-soaked guarantee. Casting alone pulls actors from Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter, making American Hustle a powerful punch for 2014 Awards Season. But a nominee, it shall remain. Con-artists Irv (Bale) and Sydney (Adams) are caught by ambitious agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper). All is not what it seems as the three are forced to work together to take on the politicians (including Carmine, played by Jeremy Renner) and “gangshters”. While Richie is keen to up the stakes at every chance he gets, Irv has his own troubles with wife Rosalyn (Lawrence). “People believe whatever they want to believe” we are told, the interesting parallels between characters and their motivations is lost under the gloss and Hollywood-sheen. Goodfellas zoom-ins, Bowie montages and exquisite hair cannot hide how, though a good heist, it holds no longevity.

Rating: 5/10

150W: Radio Days

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

Radio Days (Dir. Woody Allen/1987)

Though Woody narrates Radio Days, unconventionally, he doesn’t appear. The charm in Joe’s (Seth Green) family – comfortably married family members – defies Allen’s usual unfaithful couples who cannot help but stray and play-away. Flitting from this childhood, we see the rise in stardom of Sally White (Mia Farrow) - a waitress who, undergoing elocution lessons becomes a radio celebrity. Steeped in nostalgia, amid mahogany furniture and detailed, delicate lamps, is a thinly-disguised reflection on Allen’s childhood in the early 1940’s. Ending in 1944, the characters hope the war comes to an end. A family gathering around a radio to hear news of trapped child breaks your heart, while a sequence describing specific songs that are inextricably linked to his memory is relatable and personal. Rather than a clear, concise story, Radio Days is a warm series of romanticised vignettes harking back to an innocent time in America when ignorance was bliss.

Rating: 7/10

Monday, 13 January 2014

Twelve Years A Slave (Steve McQueen, 2014)

Why is Twelve Years a Slave relevant now? It may follow on the heels of slavery-themed Django Unchained and Lincoln but there is much more to Steve McQueen’s epic and accomplished film. This tale of slavery is bookended as Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free man before and after, his twelve years in captivity.

Lingering, prolonged shots force you to acknowledge the true horror of the period. This is how animalistic and selfish humans can be. Tip-toes in mud squeeze and squelch as they keep a hanging man alive. Sadistic plantation owners and carpenters abuse and show their true intentions as they fear the African-American who has risen above them in dignity and strength. Solomon refuses to be broken. He demands a woman cease her crying as she mourns the loss of her children. This strength is a lack of humility and as an audience we remain conflicted. “I survive!” he tells her when justified his lack of emotion towards his own loss of family.
Twelve Years a Slave is one of the most important films of the 21st Century, not least as it horrifically highlights the history of a society that too often prides itself on Christian values. Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) uses these values to control his slaves, reading scripture to support his exploitation. Epps himself, akin to Ralph Fiennes ‘Goeth’ in Schindler’s List, is a torn man. He lusts after, and is conflicted, about his feelings towards the innocent Patsey (a radiant Lupita Nyong'o). Using Christian values to control, dominate and hurt others is not unlike the use of Islamic text to terrorise others. In both cases, it is an abuse of doctrine to achieve a selfish, personal goal. McQueen demands your attention with poetic and poignant themes.

Why is Twelve Years a Slave relevant? Solomon struggles to write down his experience. He crudely cuts into a violin the names of his family – could he forget their names after years in captivity as “Platt”? One of the few sequences repeated is a moment, midway through his twelve years, whereby he tries to write down his experiences – and initially fails. Solomon, without realising, is one of the very few who can actually articulate his plight. The vast majority of slaves were illiterate – and, we are told, if they were literate they would be foolish to tell others. A fair comparison to slavery in the US is the holocaust - an atrocity that happened less than a century after the abolition of slavery. Records are unclear as to how many died in slavery. Seven million Jews died in concentration camps while the Atlantic slave trade is responsible for at least nine million deaths – but sources claim it could be as high as fifty-five million. At one point, as a free man, Solomon sees a slave who follows him in awe, but Solomon doesn’t act, content in his own safety. Told in flashback, Solomon doesn’t understand his inactivity. As Solomon needed to document his twelve years – McQueen needed to make this film. We need to watch it and we need to talk about it.
A review is an analysis of the film at hand, but this is the legacy of Twelve Years a Slave. This is a document to support and remind us of what humans are capable of – and what they can be content with. Why is Twelve Years a Slave relevant? Because it could happen again. Art can be reflection; art can be informative; art can be a reminder – or warning – to what is possible. Chitewol Ejiofor, in his final moments on screen, at one point looks out to camera. His gaze meanders, considerate and thoughtful; the camera doesn’t move. After viewing over two hours of cruelty, this moment is calming and his look travels through the lens. Channelled through Ejiofor’s defiant performance, Solomon looks at us. This is one written testament that could be adapted. How many stories exist that are not written? Voiceless victims that cannot be heard? Solomon is a voice that we can hear but too many silent stories exist.
Published and written originally for TQS Magazine on 13th January 2014

Sunday, 12 January 2014

250W: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

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

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Dir. Ben Stiller/2013)

Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) could be considered two types of character. Many compare Mitty to Forrest Gump. I believe this is unfair and inaccurate, and rather than a man with a low IQ, I’d compare him to Joel in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Creative, shy and socially awkward – but hardly Gump-like. Mitty aspires to be more than the office drone for LIFE magazine. He day-dreams of exploding buildings so that he can save the dog to woo his colleague Cheryl (Wiig). He looks up to photographer extraordinaire Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn). Mitty’s decision to board a plane to Greenland and find O’Connell himself is shot in the same manner as the explosive dream; therefore it’s unclear from this point what is and is not a dream. The wide-landscapes and stunning vistas are offset by bolshy in-product-advertising by E-Harmony and Papa Johns. Ben Stiller seems to have snagged himself an all-expense paid trip to the Himalayas and the crew to document it in the production crew. Does he want us all to pack in our jobs and become photographers? Or shall we pity his pessimistic attitude towards his own social standing? A job at LIFE magazine is brilliant. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is weak and unconvincing. Rather than Into the Wild, it’s ‘Into the Bland’ as Stiller manages to bore us with music-video montages and pseudo-inspirational points. Stiller wants us to punch the air but this all a dream and we are merely watching a filmmaker’s bucket-list. 

Rating: 3/10

Sherlock Jr. (Buster Keaton, 1924)

"Say Mr. Detective, before you clean up any mysteries, clean up this theater!"

At only forty-four minutes long, there is absolutely no reason to not watch this incredible, cinema-obsessed venture into film-making by Buster Keaton. Considering that Keaton is thought of amongst icons of silent-cinema such as Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, it is surprising to note that Keaton's later life was plagued by financial-problems, alcoholism and - at one point - was even placed in an asylum (marrying a nurse in a drunken 'black-out'). Sherlock Jr, alongside The General, remains an established staple of silent-comedy - especially as it focuses so much on the practice, production and obsession with cinema many people hold.

Sherlock Jr, akin to many silent feature films, is split into multiple sections. The first section begins with a semi-detective story as Keaton attempts to woo a girl (Kathryn McGuire) and fails to win her love as another admirer (Ward Crane) manages to frame him for a theft - a theft which he failed to solve using his by-the-book detective skills. This then leads into an extended sequence as Keaton, in his job as a projectionist, dreams of becoming the lead in a film - as 'Sherlock Jr' - managing to defeat the villain and win the woman.

What is key in the story is how, as a projectionist, there is an underlying context obsessed with the nature of cinema. The 'dream-sequence' unto itself is playful but incredibly cine-literate as Buster manages to appear in different genres and locations. The entire parallel between a film and reality is something that I am sure many cinema-goers appreciate - visually replacing the characters on-screen with the 'reality' in Keaton's scenario isn't too far from an audience watching Bridesmaids or The Hangover and relating their own friends to the characters on screen. In the final moments, Keaton directly looks to the cinema to inspire and inform him of what to do to win the heart of the lady - directly imitating the actions of the romantic-lead on the screen to win her love in reality. The fantasy of film and influence of cinema summarised through comedy - I tip my [pork pie] hat to you Mr. Keaton.

Though the themes remain innovative, it is the execution of the dream sequence that must be praised. Mounting a list of "Top Dream Sequences", this end act would be up there with the ballet-dance in The Red Shoes and the fascinating Dali-surrealist sequence in Spellbound. Technically, the beginning of the dream shows Keaton walk from the audience and directly into the film interacting with the characters on screen. But then Keaton truly becomes cheeky as the scene on screen cuts to another, as Keaton remains on screen. He sits on a mound of sand in a desert; *snap*; he is suddenly sat on small island in the sea. This continues between different locations, as Keaton moves within the frame, and then manages to re-emerge as the character Sherlock Jr. This means that he can now continue to use the editing techniques but within the story-within-the-story - and the moment "Sherlock" walks through a half-safe, half-door, for a moment it feels like he has stepped into a third alternate world righting the wrongs of the character who set Keaton up in the first act (indeed, there is no resolution to Ward Crane's characters theft except in the dream). This type of intelligent narrative constructed using techniques that were incredibly new for the time period simply says how ahead of his time Keaton was. Story-within-stories became the central point-of-interest for Christopher Nolan's Inception and reflecting on reality through fantasy is not too far from the surrealism of Charlie Kaufman - and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind equally managed to use a wide variety of editing and production techniques to fool the audience. Not far from how Keaton manages to fool us as he leaps through a window and manages to completely change outfit as he passes through.

Buster Keaton remains an legend within the history of cinema - and this film clearly shows how great a director and actor he was. Roumiana Deltcheva manages to combine many of the elements discussed in one swift sentence stating how from a social perspective it fantasises "about upward mobility in American society " whilst, on a "psychological plane it introduces the motif of the double striving for fulfilment in imaginary spaces, as the protagonist is unable to achieve it in ordinary, tangible reality". A topic Keaton further explores in The Cameraman, it is Sherlock Jr that sets the standard and, if you haven't seen a silent film before, then this wouldn't be bad place to start! Keaton certainly cleaned up the cinema with a truly ground-breaking - and literal scene-stealing - comedy.