Sunday, 22 February 2015

Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi/Vincent Paronnaud, 2007)

We want films that shake us up. That pulls us out of our slumber and knocks us into the modern era. Persepolis, an outstanding comic-book adaptation combining documentary and animation together, managed to achieve this. Causing demonstrations, banning and censorship in many places across the world, it is important to appreciate the criticism the film met with. From our perspective, the countless nods it achieved in end of year lists of 2007, awards nominations (including the Academy Awards) and festivals gives the impression that it bypassed such stern opposition. But it didn’t. Despite its personal depiction of a girl growing into a woman, Persepolis is a film that jumped from the screen and fought. It challenged views and caused disruption. Isn’t this what the best films do?
Marjane Satrapi is the woman waiting at the airport. In colour, she awaits a flight at Paris-Orly to go home to Iran. Her mind wanders back to monochrome-memories of Tehran and the family she misses so much. Her childhood is a mix of protests and inspirational talks with her uncle, Anoush (combined with a love of Bruce Lee and, in time, Iron Maiden). We see the changes in her world as Islamic Fundamentalists succeed in gaining 99% of the vote, and force strict expectations on the populace. This includes all women wearing headscarves and a no-tolerance attitude towards alcohol. Marj’s middle-class parents, Tadji and Ebi, seek a better life and send her to Austria for schooling. She meets punk-fan friends and falls in, and out, of love, before returning to Tehran and experiencing the regime as an adult, whereby Art classes are conducted with Botticelli’s Birth of Venus censored and a life-model covered from head-to-toe, leaving only the head poking out. We wonder whether Marj will stay. And how this all leads back to her colourful days in a Parisian airport.
Persepolis preceded the Oscar-nominated foreign-film Waltz with Bashir in 2008, and joins the ranks of international animated films that weave complex politics into digestible cartoon stories. There is always a worry that cinema can dilute, or take away from the seriousness and severity of situations abroad. Instead, Persepolis ensures that we access the story comfortably. The comedic flavour of the animation slips us into the era in a way that we can relate to. Her Guernica-chin jutting out as her body changes shape, or the change of animation as she recalls her relationship with a scumbag cheater, is something we understand. It isn’t too far to relate to the parties and risky games played, as Marj enjoys her younger years. Suddenly, a conflict that was almost exclusively on television screens, in unclear footage and news bulletins, becomes relatable and true to westerners.
Directed by Marjane Satrapi herself and Vincent Paronnaud (an artist who uses the pseudonym Winshluss), Persepolis is a triumph, succeeding in using the comic-book art-form to engage. At one moment, Marj tells a friend that she is from France – a momentary lapse in judgement that is regretted as soon as her Grandmother appears to chastise her. Satrapi has not only proudly stood by her roots, with a clear love for her homeland and its history, but she makes it a world that is full of beauty and character. Yes, Persepolis criticises the strict regime and expectations on women in Iran. But it is framed from the perspective of a woman who wants to desperately be part of a country that won’t accept her existence. More of love-letter to a time that won’t be forgotten, Persepolis is a story of brutal, heartfelt honesty and it’ll linger long after your first viewing.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Project Almanac (Dean Israelite, 2015)

The word ‘almanac’ isn’t in the vocabulary I use. Perhaps ‘annual’, but I’d assume a collection of lists isn’t what the director is alluding to. Instead, he’s referring to the infamous Grays Sports Almanac at the centre of Back to the Future Part II. Marty’s plan to outwit the doc and make money using the sports results backfires spectacularly as Old Biff gets his copy and changes the future forever. In fact, a future set in the year 2015. How perfect that, now we’re in 2015, a film using the term appears. What would happen if Marty, and his friends, got hold of the almanac today? Travelling through time to bunk school, win the lottery and get the girl? Director Dean Israelite aims to answer this question in Project Almanac.

Marketed as “Chronicle meets Primer”, Project Almanac is a found-footage teen flick, whereby our college-applying scientists find a clock-rewinding contraption in the basement. David (Jonny Weston) has been accepted into MIT but can’t afford the fees. His Mum (Amy Landecker), on the lookout for a job herself, decides to sell the house to pay for him. His father (Gary Weeks), a scientist, passed away a decade before. In his old lab beneath the house, David - alongside his sister (Virginia Gardner) and friends (Sofia Black-D'Elia, Allen Evangelista and Sam Lerner) - finds the ‘Project Almanac’ plan for a time-machine. Potentially the answer to all his problems, he and his friends embark on a committed effort to ensure the mechanics work and, to their shock (though not to ours), a broken X-Box, a few small-canisters of hydrogen and a car battery does indeed create a time-machine.

Older-folk will recall a similar movie from 2004 in the Ashton Kutcher-starring The Butterfly Effect. Considerably darker in comparison, The Butterfly Effect managed to ram home the “there are always consequences” dilemma as seen here in the mould of a teen-romance plot. Project Almanac is amusing in its carefree tone, as the core group are upbeat nerds who are likeable through their complete ignorance of the school clichés. They work hard and help each other; they enjoy creativity and construction; they know about parties but have their own interests to pursue. These might seem like minor plus-points, but their decisions to clock-hop to gain one-up on a bully and support their educational dreams are a long way from celebrity-status and winning The X-Factor.
Not that Project Almanac ignores these enviable pursuits completely. Within the group, one kid is proud of “being someone” in the school following their clock-reversing exploits, while their winning-the-lottery gag is a nice touch. But this isn’t central to the story. The love of another, and being with someone who cares for you, is front and centre. Huddled in a circle, the scientific-explosion throws the clan all over the shop, and we enjoy the ride. Teens will appreciate the Lollapallooza advertisement (something that staggered my own appreciation) that firmly locates the pop-picture in West-coast America - as kids must witness this context on MTV regularly. MTV Films partly financed the film too.

By referencing Time Cop and Terminator, they’re savvy in their pop-culture lexicon. All this recording, like all found-footage filmmaking, is justified by its handheld hand-holder, David’s sister Christine. It’s Christine who’s told off for her incessant documenting, and it’s Christine who’s glared at when reminded of ‘rules’ regarding Facebook and Twitter. In fact, the forced ‘setting the rules’ segment and ‘montage of time-travel’ escapades are tongue-in-cheek, poking fun at these drawn-out chunks of countless other films. Having said that, the expected “look-what-we’ve-found!” and “how-do-we-make-this-work?” intro outstays its welcome. We know the invention will work, so can’t we leap there?

Produced by Michael Bay’s production company, Platinum Dunes, it’s easy to dismiss this as flippant fodder for the young ‘uns to enjoy. But it’s not without its merits. There is fun to be had, and isn’t that the point? Take away the inevitable excuses for an extra buck in production (Product-placement, “inspired by the motion picture” soundtrack-selling) and you have a warm heart and cool extension to the time-travel genre. Could it be better? Of course. Would I go back in time and erase its existence? Absolutely not – it’s a keeper.

Friday, 13 February 2015

The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940)

Romance is in the air. The arrow of cupid has struck and, as Robson and Jerome covered, this Saturday night is at the movies. You may believe a Subway and Titanic is a romantic night in. I would argue it’s not*. In fact, an alternative is to head down to the BFI and watch a re-mastered copy of The Philadelphia Story. Not only will this extraordinary comedy give you a superior sense of cinematic taste, but it also features the genius pairing of Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart – and that’s in addition to the feisty Katharine Hepburn, who’s the subject of a retrospective throughout February. The Philadelphia Story is a fast-paced, playful romance that toys with ideas of wealth, duty and love. Jimmy Stewart the hardworking cynic. Cary Grant the smug, self-assured playboy. And, of course, Katharine Hepburn herself, who’s due to be married to a sensible fellow.

Laid back and nonchalant, Cary Grant is the ex-husband hiring the press to snoop on the rich Lord Family, as Tracy Lord (Hepburn) intends to remarry. The affluence of the Lord’s is not to be ignored. There are expectations and roles to represent – and Tracy has no interest in doggedly following Daddy’s orders. But this rebellious streak can be found in the two who eventually vie for her love. Dexter (Cary Grant) and Connor (James Stewart) are both rebellious creatures. Dexter plots to spoil Tracy’s wedding, while Connor simply despises the entire elite system. It’s only George Kittredge (John Howard) who gamely attempts to follow the rules. If you’re to strike a lover off Tracy’s list, her husband-to-be is surely at the top.

Rumour has it that J.J.Abrams, director of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, watches The Philadelphia Story before going into production on every film he creates. It may not be the sci-fi you’d assume or an action jaunt that would seem more in keeping with the genre filmmaking of Abrams, but it does prove how Donald Ogden Stewart’s script is something to behold. Winning an Oscar for the screenplay, it manages to weave in and out of different stories changing your attention between each character and reframing your initial judgements. Jimmy Stewart won an Oscar for Best Actor and, though nominated for Best Picture, it lost out to Hitchcock’s first American production, Rebecca. It seems Jimmy Stewart and Alfred Hitchcock were destined for each other –perhaps it was at that very ceremony whereby their partnership was formed.

The Philadelphia Story also holds a little history too, as this was Katherine Hepburn’s comeback film. After a run of failed films (including the magnificent Bringing Up Baby failing to pull in the crowds), she was deemed ‘box office poison’ by independent cinemas across America. Written by Philip Barry for the stage, Barry wrote the part with Hepburn in mind and it consequently led to a successful Broadway show co-starring Joseph Cotton. Interestingly, The Philadelphia Story was adapted further into a musical in High Society.

So, with your plans arranged for this weekend, there is no need to thank me. Instead, thank the impeccable comedic timing of Cary Grant and the cheeky face of Jimmy Stewart. In fact, thank Katherine Hepburn, who seems to be so exquisite that she turned the audience around and won their support. This was the beginning of her “comeback”, to lead to, among others, The African Queen. This is a romantic comedy of the highest order, and shouldn’t be missed.
*but we all make mistakes

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

250W: Boyhood

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

Boyhood (Dir. Richard Linklater/2014)

When production began on Boyhood, in 2002, Richard Linklater was known as an indie-director of cult-favourites Dazed and Confused and Before Sunrise. Today, one remains a staple of Sundance success stories and the other is the first part of a trilogy. Suffice to say, Boyhood is his most ambitious project to date. Documenting a boy, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), turning into a man could’ve been cliché and obvious. Instead, Linklater manages to capture the honest glances and gazes of characters. Sibling rivalry is flippant and fun. Friendships and romances are passing and innocent. This isn’t “12 Years a troubled-teen” – this is the conversations, and memory-keeper moments, that matter. Gazing out of the car window as your father (Ethan Hawke) amusingly explains how you should converse. The step-father who drank too much. The mother (Patricia Arquette) who never gave up. Like life, nothing stays the same. Mason can be sulky and this can irritate, but look past his story and consider his perspective. Young and impressionable. Artistic and expressive in his fashion and photography. Like Mason, who constantly soaks up the world, Boyhood wants you to take away more than entertainment. Richard Linklater knew he had gold as, little over three hours long, one could argue the length is a problem. But, in this binge-watching age, a 12-part series in three-hours is surely no chore. And it isn’t. It’s playful and joyful. Boyhood celebrates youth and comments on politics and parenthood, passing little judgment. Without saying much, Boyhood, moodily, says it all.

Rating: 9/10

Sunday, 8 February 2015

250W: Selma

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

Selma (Dir. Ava DuVernay, 2015)

David Oyelowo, as Martin Luther King Jr, rearranges his tie. Self-aware, he looks in the mirror and practices the speech he will give when accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. Director Ava DuVernay directs a significant film that focuses on the 50-mile voting-rights march from Selma to Montgomery. Resting on the shoulders of MLK himself, Oyelowo is magnificent. Every defiant speech and passionate plea holds the weight of history and boldness of truth. Who even comes close to this man in modern politics? A single punch as he arrives in Selma and the inevitable arrest during a peaceful protest realises the challenges faced. Voting was not a given, and men, women and children fought for their right. A screenplay written by Paul Webb (and an uncredited DuVernay) tackles King’s affairs without forcing the issue. Wisely, our attention is on the activity in Selma itself as the isolated White House conversations with Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) are distant and detached. The talks between the two men seem strangely informal and blunt, with King spitting out ‘Sir’ as he concludes his requests. But this minor qualm doesn’t detract from the emotive depiction of the march itself. I’d be remiss if I forgot to mention Keith Stanfield’s tender portrayal of Jimmie Lee Jackson. He’s unforgettable - proving how his impressive turn in Short Term 12 wasn’t luck. But it’s Oyelowo who convincingly turns an iconic hero to a man who fears the future, but will fight for it with his life.

Rating: 8/10

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

250W: Ex Machina

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

Ex Machina (Dir. Alex Garland/2015)

Technology can be scary. Google knows every search you type and Facebook knows who you’re looking at, how often and – with a little informed research - why. Ex_Machina, the feature-film debut of Alex Garland (Writer of The Beach and screenwriter of 28 Days Later…) explores these contemporary issues on a small-scale. Located within the isolated estate of a technological genius, Nathan (Oscar Isaac) invites employee Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to visit, and ‘test’ his A.I. creation, AVA (Alicia Vikander). Garland is not inexperienced when it comes to cerebral, philosophical explorations on what makes us human. Supported by a throbbing electronic score, Ex-Machina manages to combine the morality of Never Let Me Go with the futuristic-technology of Sunshine. Key-card doors and glassy surfaces create a mise-en-scène that is part-Silent Running and part-iPad – we could be on board a spaceship. The red-lighting and ominous electro-voice hints at HAL-like A.I. rebelliousness from the get-go, but it’s Caleb and Nathan’s relationship that frames the story. Ava, of course, is exceptional – and her motivations are purposefully unclear. But the vest-wearing, lonely-drinker Nathan is a unique creation unto himself. Caleb desperately trying to understand and interact with him is often met with an awkward riposte. Caleb is asking the wrong question or searching for the wrong answers. Alongside Chappie and the sentinel-stories of Marvel, it seems A.I. is a thematic focus-point in this cinematic-era. Ex_Machina though is the superior offering. Juxtaposing questionable ethics of corporate powers with thoughts about identity, it’s a dystopia that seems uncomfortably real.

Rating: 8/10

Monday, 2 February 2015

A Film a Day: Reflections on January

I can waste time. Scrolling through twitter. Checking Facebook. Framing an Instagram. Editing a Vine. In this app-savvy age, it is easy to get lost in every social-network fad. To make matters worse, I adore the arts in all its forms. A trip to the gallery, listening to a new album or reading an article or a book can erode away my film-watching time dramatically (though I think the former phone-based activities are, less-culturally, more dominant).  With this in mind, I have taken it upon myself to focus my attention directly on film and cinema in 2015. Crucially, I am arranging my time so that each day I view a single film.

There are rules. Each film had to be watched in its entirety. I couldn’t watch half a film one day and another half the next and count it as two. Secondly, because of inevitable clashes, it’s possible to ‘bank’ a film. Forward-planning means watching three films in one day, to ensure I can see Book of Mormon one evening instead of watching a film.

So far, this resolution has pulled back my computer-gameplay (Super Smash Bros and Mario Kart has unfortunately had to take a back seat) and it’s forced me to be more definitive as to what I will watch. Before now, I’ve spent many an evening flitting between choosing one film and another and, eventually, settling on Paul O’Grady’s For the Love of Dogs instead. This is no more. I need to decide, quickly.

Ninety-minutes isn't long...

It’s easy to assume that in these busy times, very few people can watch a film a day. Of course, if I was to watch Lord of the Rings or Boyhood, I’d be losing nearly 3-hours. But you choose carefully when to savour those treats. Many documentaries are roughly 90-minute films (this month it included Countdown to Zero, Oscar-nominated Virunga, Jesus Camp and Searching for Sugarman) and can be squeezed in easily. Primer, Frances Ha and Rachel Getting Married, indie-films with critical acclaim, are also easily accessible on downloadable service, and are as short. Two episodes of most TV shows will often add up to 90-minutes, but rarely would that seem like ‘too much’ in an evening. 

January, in the UK, is a good month at the Cinema...

Due to the short time-period between the end of year and the Oscars, many awards-hot films get their release during January in the UK. American Sniper, Whiplash, The Theory of Everything, Birdman and many more award-nominated films are often enjoyable watches and worth the time and money to see on the cinema screen. This’ll bleed into February a little, but I worry that March and April will be dry months before the blockbuster season.

Clint Eastwood and Steven Soderbergh...

Acclaimed directors, they hold a long list of films to their name. Without the one-a-day challenge, it is easy to ignore the less-appreciated films for the sake of an easy night on Mount Wario. A falsehood of “once you’ve seen Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby, you’ve seen them all”. It’s so easy to dismiss films when they didn’t generate as much buzz. I haven’t heard anyone shout about Hereafter and J.Edgar since their initial release. But, you drop this guard when it’s one-a-day. Now, Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima become required reading prior to watching American Sniper. Alternatively, The Informant! received mixed-reviews, but - to understand Soderbergh better – I watched the film anyway. Now I see the enormous correlations between Erin Brokovich and feel considerably better informed about his work.

But the challenges lay ahead…

So far, I’ve been lucky enough not to worry about television. February will see the release of the third season of House of Cards and Season 4 of Game of Thrones will arrive in the post, in preparation for Season 5. I’m assuming I won’t be able to binge-watch television anymore. Perhaps one episode per night? I could ensure two films are watched each weekend, giving me a night-off during the week to plough through a season? I’ll try to keep you updated in any case…

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