Sunday, 23 November 2014

Short Term 12 (15) | Film Review

Short Term 12, dir/wr. Destin Daniel Cretton, st. Brie Larson, John Gallagher, Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Rami Malek, Keith Stanfield

The delicate renovation and sustainability of trust is what lies at the heart of director Cretton's semi-autobiographical drama about the supervisors of Short Term 12, a way station for troubled teenagers. The film follows Grace (Larson) and her small team of staff that provide the young residents of Short Term 12 with routine, stability, and the foundation for rebooted respect - for others as well as themselves. Grace is also in a long-term relationship with co-worker Mason (The Newsroom's Gallagher Jr.) but has difficulty opening up to him emotionally. When Grace discovers she is pregnant, her anxieties flourish. She can't imagine bringing a life into the world, especially one that produces the shattered lives of those it's her job to curate. Destin's film is a wonder, an economic chamber-piece of resonance and warmth. Larson and the predominantly young cast dextrously explore the fragile bond that exists between guardian and ward, and Destin gently provokes the relief at seeing such selfless nurturing of the needful young by those whom we forget may be in great pain themselves. The unfolding narrative from the director's own hand is allowed the space and time to develop, and it's surprisingly funny too, given the weight of the subject matter. Brett Pawlak's near-sepia cinematography lends the movie an alluring timelessness, and his shots are measured and beautifully composed, as is the restrained score from Joel P West. But this is undeniably Larson's film, who imbues the movie with an honesty and compassion that oxygenates a potentially claustrophobic and restrictive storyline.

Deux Jours, Une Nuit (15) | Film Review

Deux Jours, Une Nuit, dir/wr. Luc Dardenne, Jean-Pierre Dardenne, st. Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione

After suffering from a debilitating bout of depression, solar-panel factory worker Sandra returns to work to find that her sixteen colleagues have been coerced by their team leader into the realisation that her workload may be efficiently managed between them, and senior management has offered them all a €1000 bonus if they vote to make Sandra redundant. On challenging the methodology of the process, her boss gives her the weekend - the titular time span - to convince her co-workers to change their vote; a majority win in her favour will allow her to stay, but the workers will forfeit their bonus. I suspect it's no accident that the Dardenne brothers have placed their heroine within a factory manufacturing products whose target consumers are those who can afford to lead ethically greener lives, and it's similarly interesting to note their primary function chimes with Sandra's 48-hour Herculean task - to harness the light and offer it to her teammates as an alternative way of living. There are no villains (or indeed a score) present here, only the spectre of economic decline and its effect on ordinary souls. Cotillard has always been an artist with consummate control over every aspect of her performance. The urgency with which Sandra hastily visits each of her coolio-workers in turn is tempered by a leaden spirit, the lethargy and disconsolate funk of abject despondency Cotillard wears like a millstone, and whose presence is felt even through fleeting smiles or the few transitory moments of hope in the film. There is a murkier theme present in Deux Jours, Une Nuit, one of unscrupulous and opportunistic management - as Margin Call's CEO John Tuld proclaims on the eve of the imminent financial collapse, "There's a lot of money to be made coming out of this mess", but the film compellingly gives us a singular protagonist to champion, and Cotillard's Sandra is a memorable cypher for the tenacity and unrelenting spirit of the disenfranchised.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 (12A) | Film Review

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1, dir. Francis Lawrence, scr. Danny Strong, Peter Craig, based on Mockingly by Suzanne Collins, st. Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutchinson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour-Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland

How fitting that Jennifer Lawrence, still very much in the eye of the storm concerning ever-fracturing privacy in the media, commands a film that primarily concerns itself with branding, propaganda, and the dissemination of (mis)information between warring factions. The Hunger Games: Mockingly - Part 1 thankfully diverges from the repeated structure of the first two films, and instead of the breathless, yet tiring spectacle of the Capitol finding ever ingenious ways to murder self-destructive battle-weary kids, we have here a volley of exchanges between the leaders of the rebellion based in District 13, and the Capitol dictator President Snow. Even though both sides can (and do) utilise their arsenal of bombs and bullets, the war is being fought primarily over the airwaves rather than battlefields. Electioneering has never been about policy or intention, but about public image; who's looking too smug or too weak, who accidentally said what and to whom. The public seize upon and judge every look, every word, every misguided tweet. And on the face of it, Mockingjay pits two sizeably matched opponents against each other. In one corner we have Hunger Games emcee Caesar Flickerman (Tucci) interviewing a violently deconstructed and reassembled Peeta Mellark who's been coerced into denouncing the uprising, and in the other, a fatigued and disillusioned Katniss Everdeen who's being groomed and re-marketed by Heavensbee and President Coin (Seymour-Hoffman and Moore) as an enduring symbol of defiance. Lawrence is much more restrained this time around, a picture of drained discontentment. Similarly, Moore is on uber-subtle mode as well, ostensibly fighting the good fight against oppression, but potentially proving as suspiciously manipulative as her aggressors. Of note too is the decidedly darker tone this third instalment takes on. Katniss' journey back to her District 12 home reveals the true extent of President Snow's capacity for the horrific violence inflicted upon his own citizens. It's a grizzly but potent reminder of just what's at stake in the fictional Panem, but there are undoubtedly silent allusions to war-torn lands that exist outside the cinema that reinforce the idea of humanity's necessary and fundamental non-negotiables.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Grand Piano (15) | Film Review

Grand Piano, dir. Eugenio Mira, wr. Damien Chazelle, st. Elijah Wood, John Cusack, Tamsin Egerton, Kerry Bishé, Alex Winter

Firmly rooted at the heart of Mira's opulent and dizzyingly bombastic hi-concept thriller is Spanish composer Victor Reyes' full-length concerto that swirls, spins, dives and swoons with every balletic move of cinematographer Unax Mendía's restless camera. I can't remember a time when a movie score was so integral to the very fabric of the narrative. Reyes' symphony has the film's protagonist Tom Selznick (Wood) literally playing for dear life, as an unseen assassin hiding somewhere in the concert hall has his laser sight trained on his him and his wife; one wrong note, he informs the young pianist via a concealed earpiece, and the evening's encore will basically involve a chaotic, stampeding audience and copious amounts of carpet shampoo. But why? It's a little excessive for a lowly Rachmaninoff fan surely. What commences as nonchalant curiosity at whether such histrionic theatrics may be sustained over ninety minutes soon gives way to an undeniably delicious and utterly absorbing fascination. It transpires Selznick froze some years previously, live on stage, attempting to play an "unplayable" piece - Le Cinquette. Additionally, the success and public adoration of his movie star wife Emma (Bishé) might very well be the source of dormant resentment Selznick harbours deep within. Director Mira might not be a recognisable name but there's some confirmation of pedigree at seeing Buried and Red Lights director Rodrigo Cortés' name as a producer credit. Mira's technique is certainly an audacious one, throwing in just about every visual trick in the book, his camera making full and immersive use of every conceivable plane. Where De Palma and Hitchcock's ingenuity ended and inelegance began is, of course, a matter of taste, and opponents of such stylised cinematic hyperbole surely won't be sated by the fevered urgency of Mira's methodology. But despite its shortcomings, Grand Piano is a hallucinatory marvel, albeit a derivative one. The film's payoff might be fundamentally unable to compete with the process, but a solidly panicked performance by Wood, whose fingers frenetically and convincingly skitter and glide over the keys, as well as the sheer ingenuity of the aforementioned score, credit the film much of its conceptual stability. 

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Interstellar (12A) | Film Review

Interstellar, dir. Christopher Nolan, wr. Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan, st. Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Casey Affleck, Matt Damon, John Lithgow

When I showed a non-movie-literate friend the cast of Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, they genuinely exclaimed, "My God! It's full of stars!", which as you can imagine practically made my brain go supernova.

McConaughey plays Cooper, an ex-NASA test pilot, who, like many professionals in this decaying Earth in the midst of a worsening global cataclysm, have turned to farming in order to feed seven billion people whose crops are ever-blighted by severe dust storms. Most of the planet's funding has been diverted away from warfare and science in order to concentrate on feeding humanity; even classroom textbooks are being rewritten to promote the moon landings as an exposed hoax in order to crush any enterprising spirit of adventure children may have. Things are bleak indeed. Cooper lives on the edge of one of his cornfields with his children Murph (a wonderful Mackenzie Foy), Tom (Timothée Chalamet), and his father-in-law Donald (Lithgow). The precocious Murph, a geek before her time, is convinced her room is plagued with poltergeist activity, a phenomenon tentatively borne out one day when an open window mid-duststorm reveals sheets of sand falling in binary patterns on her bedroom floor. The discovery, interpreted as co-ordinates, lead Father and Daughter to the rag-tag remains of NASA and scientist Brand (Michael Caine), whose dream it is to save mankind, and it's not long before Cooper accepts the offer to pilot a last-ditch attempt at finding humanity's new digs beyond the stars.

If all this plotting sounds rather clunky, or portentously hokey, or both, well, it kind of is. But Christopher Nolan has always committed so fully to the preposterous, one often cannot for one's life help but be swept along by the gravity of his protagonists and the paths they journey down. In the case of Interstellar, wormholes and singularities excite the inner space-nerd in all of us, possessing as they do the ability to whisk us off to strange new worlds, but also carry with them the accepted scientific theories of Einstein's general and special relativity - the idea that time runs at different speeds in different parts of space. This opens up whole new possibilities for emotional investment; when Cooper tells young Murph he'll be back but he knows not when, he's not talking figuratively.

But the incomprehensible fear of travelling into the unfathomable darkness of infinite space is truly heart-pumpingly palpable. Many won't be qualified to confirm the accuracy of the science, but the details such as the unglamorous and cramped quarters of the protagonists' shuttle and moreover, the human cost of the mission, are terrifyingly persuasive. One particularly powerful scene has Cooper watching messages from his children back on Earth, relayed to his craft through that awful unending darkness of space and time. The fragility of connection and how it can cruelly and perpetually stretch without being severed, is uncompromisingly heartbreaking. 

Of course, this being a Christopher Nolan production, everything is meticulously assembled. Hans Zimmer, these days worryingly close to pastiching his own oeuvre, accompanies Interstellar with a restrained lyrical classicism that occasionally out-Richters Max Richter, whose work was just recently lauded for HBO's The Leftovers; organs sequence, arpeggiate, and swirl around delicate strings and piano, electronics are pared back, and there seems to be less of a desire to recompose gen-epic trailer music. The VFX, by British computer animation company Double Negative, are predictably jaw-dropping; the animators actually worked extensively with theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, collaborator and friend of Hawking and Sagan among others, and upon whose work much of Interstellar is based, to translate his blackboard equations into three dimensional renderings. Again, such authenticity is, of course, hard to qualify, but the resulting CGI depictions of astronomical anomalies are certainly magnificently realised. As expected, such visual scope and grandeur results in human performance being inevitably edged out by the technical proficiency on display. It doesn't have to, but it often does. McConaughey, Hathaway, Damon, Caine, Affleck - they all have the chops to convince you of themselves and their relationships with each other, but it's not their characters you'll come away with. They're there to sell the grander ideas Interstellar posits, and they've all been more far more compelling in other projects.

With his warmth, compassion, and winning ways of imbuing the most rigerous astronomical academia with a rich, emotional resonance, Interstellar is the kind of film Professor Brian Cox might have made housesitting Hollywood for the weekend. Part Sagan seminar, part apocalyptical Americana drama, the film's ambitious storyline seeks to take us from dustbowl farmstead to infinity and beyond. Tired comparisons with Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey have been rife, but in the sense this is now the standardised shorthand for any existentialist science fiction, accurate. It also doesn't help that many cues from Zimmer's elegant score end in Zarathustra-aping major-chording organ that wilfully seems to actually encourage the connection. Interstellar is as novel or predictable as anything Christopher Nolan has ever created before. Detractors who can't get over Nolan's glossing over of inconvenient plot truths will find themselves suffering once more, and the film pays visual and textual homage to a whole slew of sci-fi gone before, from Robert Zemeckis' Contact, to Brad Anderson's Event Horizon, from which one scene that demonstrates how wormholes work with a pencil and paper is unashamedly lifted wholesale. But Nolan has already addressed wayward cinematic plot logic. He did it in 2006 via John Cutter's dissection of the Magic Trick in The Prestige. "Now you're looking for the secret," he says. "But you won't find it because of course, you're not really looking. You don't really want to work it out. You want to be fooled." And here's the thing: Interstellar is a reminder of the kind of successful film that belongs to a very small faction of cinematic experiences in which, indeed like an airlock in deepest space, is only concerned with what occurs in its own runtime. Even last year's Gravity, from which Interstellar rather mercilessly borrows - complete with a pixie-cropped Hathaway, and numerous scenes of chaotic nauseous centrifugal spinning - was guilty of this. Such films may not stand up to structural scrutiny away from the auditorium, but the idea of any cinema is surely to plant seeds. And in the days that followed my viewing of Interstellar, I can safely say, boy do some of these transcendental notions concerning our place in the universe take root.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Lake Mungo (15) | Film Review

Lake Mungo, dir/wr. Joel Anderson, st. Talia Zucker, Rosie Traynor, David Pledger, Martin Sharpe

It's been a good year for decent horror movies. First there was Leigh Janice's Honeymoon, then last week I reviewed Jennifer Kent's The Babadook - both doozies in the genre. Of course, this means that statistically, I've had my quota for the time being and can be expected to be disappointed at the next fifteen to twenty horrors I watch. I'm counting, in my successful run, somewhat cheekily, this mockumentary from 2008 which somehow passed me by. The Australian Lake Mungo isn't so much directly seated in the found footage camp (although that device does spookily play its part), but rather wouldn't be out of place as part of Channel 4's Dispatches series, looking at grief and the vulnerability that accompanies it. Lake Mungo succeeds primarily because despite Chris Morris' best intentions, most exposés, no matter how serious the subject, still insist on much the same format - one that seeks to ramp up the drama by using emotion-conjuring non-diagetic scoring and overly-narrational scene structuring and editing, telling rather than objective and less hysterical showing. One example of where the latter triumphantly succeeds over the former was in David Gelb's Jiro Dreams Of Sushi. There's a calming, mesmeric way that things unfold. The difference between letting the current carry you and powering downstream in a motorboat. However, nigglings aside, Lake Mungo's tale is an effective one; we get Mum and Dad June and Russell Palmer (Treynor and Pledger) and their son Mathew (Sharpe) recounting for the camera the day they all went swimming at a dam in Ararat when the family's daughter Alice (Zucker) tragically drowned. Soon after, the surviving three experience strange occurrences at their home. Is Alice trying to make contact with them from beyond the grave, or is there a more terrestrial explanation? Writer and director Anderson's blend of slow tracks and dollies provide elegant counterpoint to the film's wow and fluttery VHS archive recordings where faces and figures may lurk within the grain, but can't resist leaning on the ghost story when possibly a more foot-of-the-gas approach might have been more effective. Its bearing on contemporary documentary filmmaking technique ultimately proves its potency, and as I touched upon in reviewing Kent's film, we need more horror that gets under the skin rather than superficially scratches the surface.