Sunday, 8 November 2015

Spectre (2015) | Film Review

Spectre, dir. Sam Mendes, scr. John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Jez Butterworth, st. Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ben Wishaw, Naomie Harris, Monica Bellucci, Ralph Fiennes

It's not unfair to say that Daniel Craig's four outings as the eponymous Double-O agent have been nothing if a little uneven. Martin Campbell's 2006 Casino Royale (for my money, still the best in the franchise) introduced a grittier, blonder Bond - a welcome relief after Pierce Brosnan's joyless sojourn, while in 2008, Marc Forster gave us a ropey sequel in the unwieldly-titled Quantum Of Solace, complete with the super-misjudged, migraine-of-a-theme-song Another Way To Die. Theatre director Sam Mendes took on Skyfall in 2010 with a superb little narrative that dove into Bond's backstory, but this year's Spectre, the film he instinctively balked at making, brings Craig's stint once more crashing to the ground with all the fiery ferocity of an obliterated Ken Adams set.

It's not that Spectre is boring per-se, although at two-and-a-half hours it certainly tests the franchise's formula for succinct storytelling, but it's just that there's an awful lot of waiting around for something to happen that isn't illogical, misogynistic, kinetically hollow, or just plain unexciting. An early opening tracking shot set amidst the throng of a busy Mexican street celebrating the Día de Muertos establishes cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (who lensed Christopher Nolan's Interstellar last year) and his skill with a tightly choreographed camera, but this gives way to a tedious and strangely unimmersive back-of-a-helicopter punch-up that feels like an unnecessary and unsubtle nod to the past. If this is to be Craig's last, it's a funny kind of send-off. Unfortunately, Spectre is hell-bent on these kinds of call-backs; there's a villain, a shadowy criminal organisation (based in a suitably unsuitable and remote location), evil staff that hunch over computer terminals doing... stuff, a fluffy white cat, expository dialogue for the benefit of no one but the audience... it goes on. In one scene, Bond forces himself on the grieving widow of an assassin whose funeral they both attended literally hours before. Like with Skyfall's Séverine, whom Bond identifies as a former victim of child sexual-trafficking before sleeping with her, it's near-unpalatable. Granted, Bond's capacity to exploit those around him in order to facilitate his endgame has always been something that's made the character unsettlingly compelling, but without the context and benefit of an intelligently-authored scene, it just feels grubby. 

As the plot lurches from locale to incoherent plot-point (Christoph Waltz's Oberhauser introduces himself as the author of all Bond's previous pain, but not how, or to what end) there's a rather painful realisation as to what Spectre actually is - a celebratory traipse down memory lane that does nothing to advance Bond's character and motivation that films like Casino Royale and Skyfall took such great pains to establish. Even his relationship with Seydoux's Madeleine Swann, ostensibly billed and forged as some great romance, has but a fraction of the chemistry of the kind between Bond and Vesper Lynd, and yet we are asked to place some kind of swooning faith in the couple come the film's end despite being granted nothing in the way of a plausible character arc between them.

At its best, Spectre is a stylish and handsome-looking film, at its worst, an ungainly, and embarrassingly reductive entry into the canon. What inherently makes Bond Bond is undoubtedly a fascinating question, and I refuse to believe that the character can't change with the times whilst retaining the essence of who he is. Hollywood is littered with fascinating anti-heroes after all. But on the evidence here, Bond deserves to take some much-earned extended leave and soul-searching, before inevitably returning in his new incarnation that evolves rather than devolves.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Sicario (15) | Film Review

Sicario, dir. Denis Villeneuve, wr. Taylor Sheridan, st. Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber

Sicario, we are told in the film's opening moments, and indeed at the start of every review of Denis Villeneuve's latest feature, means hitman, but who exactly is calling the shots? On the surface, the film concerns itself with the murky appropriation of authority and justice, and the agencies that sanction such operations from behind closed doors. But as is the case in Villeneuve's other ventures, that's only part of the story. For as in 2010's Incendies, 2013's Prisoners, and 2013's Enemy, Sicaro finds itself caught up in a singular character's struggle to unravel greater personal mysteries. This may be open for debate, as those who have seen the film may be inclined to believe the focus shifts away from Emily Blunt's protagonist in the last act, but this is most definitely a film driven and facilitated by her character, SWAT team agent Kate Macer, through whose eyes this tale of clandestine collusion takes place.

After a raid on a safe-house owned by drug-cartels on the border between Mexico and the U.S. reveals a rather gruesome discovery, and by extension, the monstrous levels of violent crime the FBI has to contend with, Macer is recruited by government officials into accompanying them, in a strictly advisory capacity of course, to the cartel heartland in the hope of apprehending the reigning drug lord. Like all good characters that are so well conceived, it's hard to imagine anyone in the role of Kate other than Blunt, an actor that can oscillate between lithe and capably tough and conflicted and exposed on a dime. Surrounded by an almost entirely male cast, Sicario notably and gloriously fails with bugle and fanfare the so-called Bechdel test, but in doing so, explicitly illustrates the link between the criminals and the law-enforcers, two sets of equally testosteroned factions. And if the narrative of a resourceful yet isolated woman plunged into the heart of darkness with a group of men who scorn her sex and strength of character seems familiar, that's because Sicario works fantastically well as an inspired re-tread of James Cameron's Aliens - from the ominous and atonal opening brass clusters of Jóhann Jóhannsson's menacing, tacycardic score, to the fetishistic military outfitting of the grunts that accompany her, to the mysterious "company men" in tow who may harbour questionable agendas. At one point, one of the team even advises his cohort to "Stay frosty."

But it's Villeneuve's ability as a consummate filmmaker that leaves the greatest impression. There are few contemporary directors who match his skill as a storyteller, character developer, and art director, and in acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins, he has found an artistic soulmate, a technician who shares his vision that movies - even drug-cartel thrillers - can have incredibly complex and beautiful painterly aesthetics, and Mexico's expansive skies and sands provide the canvas. But there might be a more meta reason why Sicario feels like such a raw and explosive statement. The film had been in limbo whilst the pre-Villeneuve producers were coercing screenwriter Taylor Sheridan to change his protagonist from a woman to a man. One financier is quoted by Blunt as having said to Sheridan, "If you make her a dude, we'll up your budget." Villeneuve then joined the project and a set of new producers - Black Label and Thunder Road - embraced the film as it was. With this in mind, it becomes clear why Sicario is as pertinent a film about the war on drugs as it is the war on a decades-old sexist Hollywood, an industry more and more frequently being called out on its antiquated practices. Its failure of the Bechtel test then, crude as such a test inherently is, comes to speak less about the flaw in the fiction, and more about the prevalence of prejudice against women, be they fighting for their voice to be heard as part of an all-male covert DOD operation, or actors seeking validation in an business purpose-built to mute them.

Sicario then succeeds in every possible way. As an immersive and intelligent thriller, it rivals this other year's best - Mad Max: Fury Road - as a film that can delight in an unexpected multitude of disciplines. On this basis, Blade Runner 2 - another Villeneuve and Deakins production - might contain all the artistry it needs for it to stand alone, apart from its iconic legacy. And wow, wouldn't that be a thing.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl | Film Review

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, dir. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, wr. Jesse Andrews, st. Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke, Ronald Cyler II, Jon Bernthal, Nick Offerman, Connie Britton

Whatever the problems with Me and Earl and the Dying Girl - and there are many and plentiful - it is almost single-handedly saved from the keen edge of a bottomless trench by the charms and graces of the 21-year-old Olivia Cooke who plays the girl of the title. Cooke is relatively new on the scene, but she has made her presence felt in A&E's Psycho prequel series Bates Motel, as well as in a handful of low-key movies. But it's her Rachel Kushner in this film, director Gomez-Rejon's sophomore feature, that tempers the quirk and mitigates the tiresome narcissism on offer.

The "Me" of the film is Greg Gaines (Mann), whose voice it is that narrates his redemptive story. Greg bemoans the fact that he doesn't feel that he fits in anywhere, a dab hand as he is at ingratiating himself with the various clashing cliques at his Pittsburgh high school in order to fend off isolation. He's "colleagues" (for calling him a "friend" stresses him out apparently) with Earl (Cyler), with whom he makes whimsical Andersonian lo-fi film pastiches on his MacBook. On strict instructions from his mother (Britton), Greg is coerced into making friends with recently leukaemia-stricken Rachel, a girl in whom Cooke manages to perfectly convey the weary sense of worn-down injustice. What starts out as a bout of contrived charity soon blossoms, or at least is supposed to, into a genuine friendship, and soon Greg is sharing his movies - and Earl - with the dying girl.

The problem with Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is in that first pronoun. Greg's mother might be a touch overbearing (although anyone with parents will recognise that actually, she really isn't), and his dad, played with reduced trademark facial hair by Nick Offerman, may be a little too Polyphonic Spree for his liking, but he's hardly afflicted. Yet the film isn't so much about the girl - by far the most interesting character in this narrative - as it is concerned with Greg's plight of adolescent ennui and self-loathing. He doesn't deserve the affections and attention of a bright and beautiful girl, he deserves a royal kick in the pants. Yet the film trundles on with the tortured teenager plot-line, culminating in a scene of the most extraordinary arrogance in which Greg screens his latest movie (supposedly for Rachel but you wouldn't know it) on her hospital bed just as she's knocking on death's door. 

While none of this is an issue with the performers per se, there's something unedifying about ill girls providing an emotional crutch for cocky boys. And while nothing here quite tops the surreal and suspiciously tasteless scene in The Fault In Our Stars that has a tourist-load of strangers applauding Hazel and Augustus' kiss at the Anne Frank House, the spectre of ego never seems far away. The film makes no concession to concealing the ultimate fate of its heroine, but you can't help but feel in spite of her illness, she still gets a pretty raw deal, and that's what turns this potentially compelling film about love and reliance and intimate camaraderie into an exercise in schoolboy vanity.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Trainwreck | Film Review

Trainwreck, dir. Judd Apatow, wr. Amy Schumer, st. Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Brie Larson, LeBron James, Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller

Judd Apatow may have made a name for himself producing such bromance ribaldry of the likes of Knocked Up and Superbad, but arguably his biggest hit came from curating the overflowing talent from the various female comics he assembled for 2011's Bridesmaids. The movie was a huge success, principally for just being as funny as heck, but also for subverting a genre usually reserved for the guys - a bunch of friends doing their thing unburdened by the weight of the patriarchy. It's no surprise then that he returns to this kind of platform-gifting - this time, to Amy Schumer. Trainwreck is ostensibly a feature-length amalgamation of Schumer's Comedy Central sketch-based TV show Inside Amy Schumer (of which several of her co-stars return here) and her 2012 stand-up special Mostly Sex Stuff. Fans of her work will be contented with more of what they love, but Trainwreck exposes her to a much wider audience.

The script - Schumer's own - finds her playing a version of her meticulously crafted persona, Amy Townsend, a girl who routinely gets drunk or stoned (or both) and falls into bed with the nearest available guy. Her one rule is that she never lets the guys stay over. It's her way of facilitating her detachment, but, as we see from a flashback that prefaces the film, it also stems from her father explaining to her and her sister about the collapse of his marriage to their mother. "Imagine only playing with one doll for the rest of your life!" he tells them. Amy's sister Kim (Larson) has managed to escape such indoctrination, finding happiness with nice, normal Tom (Mike Birbiglia) and his son, but the pair are torn over their father's assisted living bills. Perpetuating Amy's mindset is the fact she works at S'nuff magazine (imagine Nuts, Loaded and Zoo all joining forces to form one unholy publication) were she trots out "journalism" that caters to the public appetite for misogyny. At one staff meeting, editor Dianna, played with immense ferocity under near-unrecognisable tan and accent by Swinton, suggests someone interview Aaron Conners (Hader - another Comedy Central alumnus), sports doctor to the stars. Amy hates sports which Dianna of course finds irresistible and insists Amy do the piece. 

Naturally, you can see where this is heading. Aaron, with Hader dialling it down a few notches, is a winningly straightforward guy, constantly needled as he is by one of his star clients LeBron James, who with shades of Annie Wilkes, is obsessively concerned with his friend's welfare. As rom-coms go, Trainwreck satisfies, but its greatest failing is that it never truly demonstrates the courage of its convictions. After having set up Amy's insecurities and selfishness against her sister having found contentment and peace despite their shared upbringing, the slip of a third act rushes through a stock ending (with a big dance number no less) that dilutes all that's gone before. From a Studio perspective of course, Trainwreck isn't too subversive in its structure to unsettle its audience, but it might have been a greater film if it had. To its credit, Schumer's Amy is as easy to root for as Wiig's Annie in Bridesmaids and shares many of the latter actor's comedic smarts. But it's only Larson who lends the film any serious dramatic weight, such is her ability to command a scene, and there's a nagging feeling that her character feels excluded over the promotion of the film's star. Schumer's film then is quite watchable, not the disaster its title bestows upon its protagonist, but be prepared for the scenery to be more engaging than the destination.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

The Gift (2015) | Film Review

The Gift, wr/dir. Joel Edgerton, st. Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton

Like most home invaders, Edgerton's "Gordo the Weirdo" needs only exploit the fissures and instabilities that already lie dormant in his victims. And indeed there's much in his directorial debut's antagonist that evokes De Niro's Max Cady from Scorsese's 1991 remake of J. Lee Thompson's Cape Fear - if not in stature and sheer capacity for brutality, then certainly in an astute knowledge of how and where to apply the requisite pressure. The Gift also arrives on UK shores in an eerily timely manner as a recent newspaper article paints British children as among the unhappiest in the world due to bullying. This film is notable in that rather than depict real-time playground harassment, wherein culpability is tempered by watching inexperienced adolescents doing foolishly adolescent things, we see how the tendrils of bygone actions long forgotten - or not - reach well into adulthood, where grownups feel a genuine right to slate-wiping. History, as we learn, is not so easily re-written.

And so we open with what appears to be a picture-perfect representation of a couple brimming with ambition and purpose. Relocating from Chicago to an LA suburb, Simon (Bateman) and Robyn Callen (Hall) find a beautiful home for themselves, their dog, and possibly the hope of another child after their first was miscarried. Already movie lore tells us from the off that this is a fragility is at its most delicate stage. Out sourcing furnishings one day, they bump into Gordon Mosley, an old school-friend of Simon's. Gordon is shy, inelegant at social graces, possibly on the spectrum, while Simon is functionally courteous in the way we all might uncomfortably recognise in ourselves. But as Gordon insinuates himself into the couple's life over the proceeding days, it's hard to tell if Simon's displeasure at Gordo's continued presence is justified, or if maybe he's anxious at a past that may yet be revealed. 

Edgerton's Gordo is one of those rare and compelling characters of modern cinema, simultaneously victim and aggressor, and performed with tremendous, unfussy creepiness by the writer/director. We get drip-fed breadcrumbs of a past narrative for Gordon, but Edgerton is canny in what information he chooses to give out. Bateman similarly portrays a brilliantly and maddeningly incomplete character in Simon. Motivation in either case is rarely as clear-cut as it seems. The only one who's truly lost in this knot of slippery untruths is Simon's wife Robyn, fighting the urge to suspect her husband may not be the rock she's built her life around, and uncertain at the veracity of Gordo's intentions. The knowledge and acceptance of past misdemeanours can be a gift, Gordo tells the couple, but what's fascinating here is the difference between going down that path of self-discovery yourself, and having such a trial thrust upon you. It's also not entirely dissimilar from the bible-bashing Cady telling Sam Bowden that he's "going to learn about loss". Both Cady and Gordo see themselves as avenging angels, of sorts, meting out punishment to those unworthy of their present-day status and all the benefits such a position affords them. 

But besides divine retribution, The Gift is also about trust - nominally, the trust we place in those who we allow to share our lives with. The recent hack at the affair-promoting Ashley Madison servers is a punctual reminder that we live in times of great duplicity, and that mistrust can grow, cancer-like, threatening to destabilise the things we've spent our lives building. Aside from the occasional and rather redundant jump-scare, Edgerton has fashioned a truly contemporary horror film - one that needs no mythical or supernatural force to work its way under our skin, but merely the existence of a careless action that refuses to remain buried. 

Friday, 7 August 2015

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation | Film Review

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, dir/wr. Christopher McQuarrie, st. Tom Cruise, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, Sean Harris, Alec Baldwin, Rebecca Ferguson.

Another year, another impossible mission. Only, you know, it isn't. Impossible. Apparently. It does seem, on the basis of this - the franchise's fifth outing - that when you run out of ideas, just EL James that shit and start over. Thus Rogue Nation has abrasions with authority, megalomaniacal villains, duplicitous twists and turns of character, and of course, set-pieces that seek to up the ante of their predecessors. It's not stale per se - Cruise (ever the case of love the art, not the artist) - is far too magnetic a personality for that ever to transpire, but like Harrison Ford said to George Lucas on the set of Jedi, sometimes killing of a character is the only way to breathe fresh life into a dying beast, and in so doing, give it some much-needed narrative clout. Otherwise, what's at stake? Nothing that ever feels terrifyingly real.

Rogue Nation finds the IMF (not to be confused with the IMF) up in front of a senate tribunal that seeks to dissolve the outfit once and for all due to its recklessness and disdain for authority. Meanwhile, Ethan Hunt (Cruise) seeks the help of colleagues Benji (Pegg) and Luther (Rhames) to prove the existence of and bring down The Syndicate, a lazily-monikered criminal consortium led by the enigmatic Solomon Lane (Harris), an architect of chaos whose evil is immediately identified by how quietly he talks and dispassionately he kills.

No doubt the fifty-three year-old Cruise is on fine form as the be-ripped and fearless Hunt, whether doing that quivery serious-face thing he does when something important's happening, or, like, just running, or biking, or actually hanging on to the outside of planes. And while the much-advertised bomber-clinging opening is a grand testament to the palpitating immediacy of live-action stuntage over CGI, it doesn't really end up having much to do with anything, and this is where we have got to in the franchise; a series of sequences where Cruise continues to hone his USP for Doing Stuff.

To be fair, much of this lies at the feet of director McQuarrie who went from writing the screenplay for The Usual Suspects to The Tourist via Valkyrie in fifteen years. At least Brian De Palma's original MI movie way back in 1996 felt like it had some authorship. Similarly, the subsequent directors - John Woo, JJ Abrams, and Brad Bird - all managed to lend their distinct vision to the franchise. That is, however, I believe how franchises sustain themselves - by evolving and transmuting into something else. Why not have a black Bond? Why not have a female Doctor? Nothing is irreversible. But in truth, Rogue Nation feels like the first MI film that treads water, and while Cruise and Pegg's chemistry is winningly engaging, Rhames' addition seems like an afterthought, and although newcomer Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust (I wonder whose side she's on?) acquits herself with a seductive, whispery grace, there's little magic between her and Cruise. 

But whatever the content, the numbers say that there's still a healthy appetite for those who love to watch Hunt run, and while it's unlikely the tone of the franchise will change tack, it will be interesting to see whether audiences will be as keen to see the IMF team alive and kicking for another 19 years.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Fastidious And Furious: The Strange And Unwavering Lexicon Of A Franchise | Feature

Soon after Paul Walker's untimely death in 2013 I decided that I could no longer put off watching the Fast And Furious films. As a critic, there are just some films you file under "Will Watch Eventually", and to be honest, I never got tachycardia over the thought of drag races and drifting. But it's ok, I thought, this would give me a chance to watch all the films in succession - concluding with the then recently released sixth instalment. It would, in my mind, give me an experience akin to travelling across the US East-to-West coast, witnessing how the States have developed over time, revealing its own personal narrative. As it turned out, it wasn't until earlier this month when I finally sat down to watch them, and by this time, another episode - Furious 7, Walker's final film - had been added to the line-up. And on completing the marathon (7 films in 7 days), it occurred to me that the Fast And Furious franchise operates under a set of strictly delineated attributes, which bizarrely, while often being diametrically opposed, still tumble, roll, and spin into a coherent, watchable whole. It's not high art, and I'd be lying if I thought that the films appealed to anything other than a pretty slight demographic, but the films - particularly the later additions - pretty much succeed despite, or because of their conflicting ambitions.

On the one hand, we have F&F's unrelenting commitment to bonnets and booty. There's so much chrome, flesh, and hip-hop woven liberally throughout the seven films it's a bit like Xzibit doing Pimp My Ride on Pornhub. You're never sure where to look. But so charismatic are the films' two leads - Vin Diesel and Paul Walker - that you never quite buy their comfort in that kind of world. You get their appetite for the kinetic thrill and gang camaraderie, but it's all a like little sitting outside McDonalds when you were 15. But then on the other hand, for all F&F's superficial, slightly chauvinistic MTV lustre, there are the culturally diverse set of fairly robust female characters that put most films of its ilk to shame; the Spanish Elsa Pataky, the Israeli Gal Gadot, the Cuban Eva Mendes, the Italian Gina Carano, and the Latin American Michelle Rodriguez. And even though globe-spanning locales are now a staple of the kinds of films that feature these kind of impossible missions, the franchise has never been too obsessed in bedding down in US cities. And while I'm at it, given the average Hollywood demographic's disdain for subtitles, isn't it something of a marvel that Fast Five's Big Bad - drug lord Hernan Reyes - as well as two Puerto Rican members of the heist team - Leo and Santos - are subtitled?

But there's no denying what the franchise eventually became; nominally, just another super-hero movie. I'm not quite sure where along in the narrative our team added super-spy abilities to their engineering and driving skills (ok, so Brian O'Conner's always been FBI, and I guess, at a push, Toretto's no stranger to brawling), but suddenly we're once more in territory where the protagonists can experience the most bone-crunching damage and emerge unscathed. Yet for all its artifice and the characters' comic-book resilience to fear and pain, Toretto in particular keeps banging on about the importance and virtue of family and kinship. In Hollywood's messed up misogyny we've become used to seeing female characters espouse the necessity for the loyalty of home, but to see it coming from the oft-sleeveless Vin Diesel is jarring, and not a little bit affecting. All of which emotional familial foundation-laying pays off at Furious 7's ending, where the gang opt to leave Walker's O'Conner to live out his days with Toretto's sister Mia and their kid - an elegant solution to life's cruel inelegance. But Toretto and O'Conner still have one last mountainous road-race to complete, before the pair peel off in different directions. Sure, the weight of real-life tragedy gives the scene its poetry, but it's also entirely consistent with the Fast and Furious mantra. It's an epic, sweeping gesture, cinematic and elaborate, but beyond all that, deep down, harbouring real soul.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Inside Out (2015) | Film Review

Inside Out, dir. Pete Docter, wr. Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley, st. Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Richard Kind

So, wait, I'm confused: Are kids getting smarter or dumber? Are they getting fatter or leaner? Are touchscreens helping them sort, sift and locate information or turning them into mindless drones? While it's never been a good idea to look at the kind of stuff that's marketed to children in order to understand them, it is telling to look at Pixar's back catalogue and look at not only the range of themes their films have covered, but more importantly, the immense success they have reaped. Their 2007 film Ratatouille was about the delicate construction and artistic catharsis of food construction and enjoyment for God's sake. Most films for adults don't aspire to that level of complication. Yet time and time again Pixar have proved that talking up to kids seems to be the answer. Their film Up in 2009, for example, began with a ten-minute wordless montage that ran from childhood romance to widowhood with grace and inordinate poignancy. It is then of course no surprise that their latest offering, on paper conceptually wooly, emerges as a triumphant testament to their ongoing mission to engage and educate.

Inside Out largely takes place inside the head of Riley, an eleven-year-old Minnesotan and avid ice-hockey player whose life is defined by her passion for her sport and honest and loving relationship with her parents. When her father gets a new job in San Francisco, the family uproot and relocate - much to the disconcertion of the five manifestations of emotion that run things in Riley's mind - Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear, and Anger. Together, the team work around the clock to enable Riley's emotional wellbeing, cataloging and creating new memories (that Pixar simply depicts as coloured bowling-ball sized marbles), keeping her core-memories aired and exhibited, removing unnecessary data, and generally keeping her buoyant and, well, happy. At the end of each day, the memories created are sorted and shipped off to power one of Riley's five "personality islands" - areas that define  who she is. If it all sounds a bit BBC Horizon and not child-friendly subject matter at all, oh how wrong you would be. In fact, I would suggest that Inside Out is actually bona fide adult drama by stealth, a complex psychological narrative in the guise of a film for kids. Every aspect of the brain and its machinations are explored, and often, the various components translate so well into animated renderings, you're left wondering how no-one has ever done this before. The subconscious becomes a Burton-esque fantasy-land full of surreal imagery, long-term memory features endless high-stacked shelves of random memory-marbles (which amusingly are seen to be patrolled by curators who assess and vacuum away the useless ones), and Riley's "memory-dump" is a genuinely terrifying and desolately sad abyss in which defunct memories are abandoned and left to expire to dust in their own time.  In a way, it's certainly one of Pixar's more solemn offerings, but there are long sequences of joyous levity too. (You can imagine what happens once we get to The Train of Thought). The five emotions who spar and vie for control in Riley's conscious mind ("Headquarters" - get it?) squabble and bicker, but as usual with Pixar, nothing is ever too mean-spirited, and there's a genuine camaraderie between them, which actually, scientifically speaking, makes a lot of sense. But it's when Joy and Sadness are catapulted from Headquarters and into long-term memory where things really pick up, and Inside Out becomes the Hero's Journey staple that makes it so compelling.

All of which bodes well for the future of features for children. The technical animation is naturally flawlessly designed and presented, but Inside Out isn't just fodder engineered to occupy and distract; it's magically, intuitively absorbing and instructive, with nary an anthropomorphic animal in sight. Pixar have made an enterprising and elegantly coherent kids' movie about the strange and wondrous intricacies and vagaries of human consciousness. Just stop and think about that for a moment.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Amy (2015) | Film Review

Amy, dir. Asif Kapadia, st. Amy Winehouse, Mitch Winehouse, Blake Fielder-Civil

The biggest shock in Asif Kapadia's initially Winehouse family-blessed documentary is the guilt at the feeling of one's own complicity in the whole tragic affair. Before her untimely death in 2011 at the tender age of 27, I, along with 1.85m others, purchased Amy's sophomore album Back To Black. So ubiquitous was the cover art - on bus shelters, magazine adverts, and fly-posts - the image of a rather forlorn girl on a stool became as meaningless to me as a fast-food logo, a shorthand placeholder icon for the music I loved within the disc. After coming out of the Amy, I questioned what other art I consumed rather than took the time to get to know. Now I know that's not my fault per se, it is after all, how we are marketed to. But it does bring into focus the disturbing proposition that if it was in some small part the unrelenting and intrusive fame that undid Amy Winehouse, surely we have a part to play.

Like Senna in 2010, Kapadia utilises stock footage - some familiar, some unseen and private - and underpins it with audio cut together from a myriad of sources, both then and now. We have Amy's friends, colleagues, and family talking retrospectively about her, and in many cases, the archive footage's own soundtrack is used, sometimes with superimposed lyrics that are used to punctuate the narrative. It's a bold decision, and certainly from an artistic perspective, the way the words unfurl in different locations around the frame can often look inelegant, but investigating the backstory of some of Amy's most popular songs and then watching the culmination of events through her poetry is immensely personal. 

As for the allegations made against the filmmakers by Mitch, Amy's father and later, manager, who can say. Filmmakers, particularly documentarians, are in the tricksy position of needing to be trusted to be free of agenda in their subject material. Yet isn't that the essential role of a filmmaker? Not to skew or distort or fictionalise, but to tell the story. And at least here, there's more embedded drama than could ever have been written. Certainly, Kapadia doesn't illustrate Mitch as the egotist or glory-hunter as some have accused him of being, but hindsight not withstanding, there were undoubtedly some glaring, calamitous decisions being made on Amy's behalf. However, Kapadia's film doesn't seek to sermonise, but it does attempt to illustrate how causality works. Like diverting an asteroid millions of miles away from its path towards us, little nudges and impressions may produce a cumulative effect whereby disaster is averted. The problem comes in recognising an extinction-level event is on the horizon in time to act. Amy might just be the most heartbreaking time-travel movie ever. With pin-sharp clarity and distressing immediacy, Kapadia doesn't provide us with an opportunity to save her, but it might give us the tools with which to save many like her.  

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Terminator Genisys (2015) | Film Review

Terminator Genisys, dir. Alan Taylor, wr. Laeta Kalogridis, Patrick Lussier, st. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Emilia Clarke, Jason Clarke, Jai Courtney

After being passed up by Looper director Rian Johnson and Enemy director Denis Villeneuve (what great films they would have been), the oft-talked about Terminator re-sequel-boot ends up in the lap of Thor: The Dark World helmer Taylor, whose prime directive is to banish Rise and Salvation from our memories, and instead machine a sequel finally worthy of James Cameron's vision. To this end, Genisys begrudgingly succeeds - at least aesthetically - but any true sense of revolution in the franchise is ultimately passed over in a desperate attempt to adhere too close to the tone of the originals. Predictably then, and wearily so, Terminator Genisys rests as a particularly unnecessary upgrade.

The film begins in the moments before Cameron's 1984 film, in which John Connor (Jason Clarke) and his band of not-so-merry resistance fighters storm Skynet in order to utilise their time displacement facility and thus stop the rage against the machines before it happens. Arriving too late, they discover the 1984 T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) has already gone through, before Reese (Jai Courtney) volunteers to pursue. Upon arriving in the past however, Reese discovers Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) isn't the permed waitress we were expecting, but rather a be-leathered ass-kicker, tutored in the ways of Terminator-terminating by a T-800 (also Schwarzenegger) since 1973. Confused? Actually it's very simple: time travel movies create temporal paradoxes that endlessly perplex, Möbius strip-like. This is where artistic creativity as being complicatedly additive instead of economically reductive comes unstuck; weaving timeline through timeline does little to add depth to the already narratively-rich concept. All it does is create an unsightly mess. Watching Terminator Genisys I was reminded of Kirby Ferguson's superlative Everything Is A Remix series of video essays in which he postulates that original ideas are borne from copying, transforming, and combining pre-existing ones. Nominally, this is why George Miller's Mad Max sequel succeeds and many, many other reboots fail. Genisys copies and combines, but fails to transform, and as we've seen before fairly recently, more advanced cyborgs, like bigger dinosaurs, just don't cut it. There's a whisper that Miller's Fury Road Blu-ray will include a black and white version with isolated score that plays better than the theatrical version. What a testament to absolute cinema that is.

There are, however, touches - the lightest whisper of an idea - that still quicken the pulse; an early fight between an original T-800 and Reese breathlessly serves to remind us what a formidable and terrifyingly unstoppable force the Terminator can be, but even this at its heart is still filmmaking that stands on its predecessor's shoulders in the most uninspiring way. And if by the time we get to the T-3000, our reaction is a shrug and a dull blink, you know something important has failed to upload. But for what it's worth, Genisys goes through the motions with beat-perfect regularity, even if its mortally afflicted by a woefully under-powered screenplay and a cast that's forever swimming against the tide. The most lively participant in this four hander though turns out to be Clarke, E, with Courtney exhibiting fewer points of articulation than his inevitable action figure, Schwarzenegger seemingly unsure as to which of the four versions of his T-800 he's supposed to be aiming at, and Clarke, J - so commanding in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes - acting as if his memory's been wiped and all his cells have been replaced at a molecular level by nano-technology which is coincidentally exactly what happens to him in the film (a fact the trailer, with mind-boggling stupidity, reveals). To her credit, Emilia Clarke makes for a pretty decent Sarah Connor, neither harnessing Linda Hamilton's po-faced warrior-emotionally-twinned-with-Hull, nor Lena Heady's sinewy mother-figure, but instead forging her own (slightly bratty) version of the character with the same drive and direction she lends to her character of Daenerys for HBO - a kind of Game Of Chrome. Lorne Balfe's score interpolates the dustbin-down-a-lift-shaft percussion of Brad Fiedel's original themes, and Legacy Effects, the successors to Stan Winston Studio are back on-board providing the VFX, all cementing the film's authenticating credentials.

Which leaves us where? Well obviously Genisys doesn't touch Cameron's films. Their lean and muscular stylings are rarely seen in today's multiplexes. But for all its derision, I actually rather liked Terminator Salvation. Even with its scrappy second half, it tries to expand on the established mythology, and its key MacGuffin - a Terminator powered by a real human heart - is a thousand times more tactile an idea than nanotech's abstract and almost supernatural qualities. But there's no getting away from Hollywood's obsession with reiteration. Like the incomprehensible success of E. L. James, the fault lies squarely at our feet, and while the maths works, money is still king above all else. With every utterance, "I'll be back!" is sounding less like a catchphrase and more like an ominous threat.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

The Tribe (2014) | Film Review

The Tribe, dir/wr. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, st. Grygoriy Fesenko, Yana Novikova, Roza Babiy

Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy's acclaimed film may place, I suspect, many a cinema-goer firmly outside their comfort zone. It's not so much in the nature of the subject matter, although it's certainly unrelenting enough in its bleakness, but more in the film's presentation; a dialogue-free, Ukrainian sign-languaged 130-minute feature, caption-less, and wonderfully, maddeningly, voiceover and inter-title-free. Actually, that's not strictly true - there is a simple English-language textual caveat that pops up at the start of the film that explains this, although amusingly, I felt it playfully doubled as a warning; don't go rushing to the foyer in search of an usher, it seemed to intone. And although to many of us, sign language is an alien communication, I was reminded of last year's Under The Skin, in which Jonathan Glazer masterfully eschewed conventional narrational techniques whilst still maintaining a cogent level of comprehension and immersion. The Tribe is no different, and just like the increased sensitivity in the other four senses when the fifth is attenuated, Slaboshpytskiy has us scanning every inch of the frame searching for meaning. But it's not for everyone - not since Asami Yamasaki's needlework in Takashi Miike's Audition have I witnessed so many walkouts - and one scene in particular is as virtuosic as it is unflinchingly brutal in its one-take unfolding - but those receptive to a more enterprising approach to storytelling will find much here to muse upon.

The film opens with Slaboshpytskiy's most transparent (of many) nods to Michael Haneke - a locked-off static shot that utilises the expansive width of the 1:2.39 aspect ratio to capture public busses arriving and leaving a stop. With nary a note of incidental music either, it's a rather disconcerting experience, and an inherently menacing one. More astute movie-goers might have no problem with Doubt's irresolute ending, or Julie Taymor's Roman Empire/Mussolini's Italy-set Titus, but those films are still content to take us by the hand and lead us into their world; Slaboshpytskiy, like Haneke, and indeed Lars Von Trier and Gaspard Noé, demand that we come to the film. As an antidote to what Haneke calls "American Barrel Down cinema and its disempowerment of the spectator", The Tribe in this case, unquestionably succeeds.

But it's hardly enjoyable. Its rather nihilistic storyline concerns Serhiy (Fesenko) a teenager who arrives at an urban boarding school and is at once initiated by the incumbent gang - a troupe who ostensibly run the joint - into selling drugs, terrorising the locals, and, eventually, once an artic lorry runs him over, taking over from a colleague on pimping duties, and it's here where things start to get complicated. It's Interning For Mafiose 101 that you don't mess with the merch, but Serihy develops something of an obsession for Anya (Novikova), one of the two boarding girls employed to service truckers at the local lorry-park. How Anya and her friend (or at any rate - roommate) Svetka (Babiy) fell into this grimy servitude at the hands of their male peers remains largely unexplored, but their apparent delight at being relocated/trafficked to Italy suggests that they believe in a better life beyond Ukraine. Interestingly, it is outside the Italian embassy, where Anya and Svetka are filling in their passport papers at the behest of their handlers, that we hear our first voices, and even then, the queuing throng produces an indistinct conversational hum. As two state officers patrol the line, seemingly oblivious to the men berating the young women for filling in their forms incorrectly, Slaboshpytskiy's message seems to be that even those who can speak aren't necessarily worth listening to.

All of which builds to a shocking and merciless conclusion, which at first seems unbelievable... until you take in the characters' disability, the thing that's been yelled at you for the preceding two hours. Slaboshpytskiy goes for the gut, but ends up with a far more tragic aftertaste. Whatever his political motivations, The Tribe's central themes of an alienated youth with untrammelled appetite for violence and exploitation, paints a desolate picture of a generation that's often looked upon as being able to heal the wounds of their forefathers. The message is that in order to hear, we must first be prepared to listen.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Trash (2014) | Film Review

Trash, dir. Stephen Daldry, wr. Richard Curtis, based on "Trash" by Andy Mulligan, st. Rooney Mara, Martin Sheen, Wagner Moura, Selton Mello

It would be churlish indeed to denigrate Billy Elliot director Daldry and Notting Hill screenwriter Curtis for turning in such a family-friendly and pat-happy movie as Trash - especially in these troubled times of very public (and age-old) allegations of corruption and immorality. In fact if anything, if the lack of grit and narrational neatness that evades and pervades Trash brings a younger audience to the very adult notion of grown-up iniquity, then I'm all for it. For while amongst the picture-postcard trash-chic Rio landfill sites Trash may be set, the immense propulsion provided by the film's ternion of street-kid protagonists - Rickson Teves, Eduardo Luis, and Gabriel Weinstein - is undeniable. The MacGuffin here is a wallet belonging to a one José Angelo (Moura), right-hand man of the venal Santos (read... well, take your pick really). José has had a crisis of confidence and has constructed a plan to expose the mayor's nefarious double-dealings - its design concealed within the wallet he flings into a passing garbage truck upon the very moment of his capture by the authorities. The truck and its contents find its way to the mound of detritus where our young heroes work, and its discovery sets off a chain of events that has the boys piecing together and following clue after clue, hotly pursued by fuzz on the take. Socio-politics aside, there's something of that 80s-era kid-adventuring present here; parents are non-existent, the villains are of the indistinct, by-numbers variety, and the plucky boys make highly rootable-for champions. Thankfully, Martin Sheen's disillusioned Father Julliard and his Missionary assistant Olivia (Mara) are relegated to commanding yet supporting roles, sidestepping the dicey nature of white and Western heroism, for once enabled by rather than enabling their minority wards. Maybe there's not quite as much elaboration of character present that would have truly made Trash soar, but for a film so consumed by optimism and altruism, it's entirely forgivable.  

Friday, 12 June 2015

Jurassic World (2015) | Film Review

Jurassic World, dir. Colin Trevorrow, wr. Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow, st. Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D'Onofrio, Ty Simpkins, Nick Robinson, Omar Sy, B. D. Wong, Irrfan Khan

What a strange and overtly meta movie Jurassic World is - as much a satirical swipe at Hollywood excess and audience appetite as the bona fide Summer blockbuster we all thought it would be. Of course, films whose narrative is built upon the private chaos behind the curtain that threatens to spill out into public view are ripe for this kind of interpretation. But Jurassic World never seems to be sure which side of the forty-foot electrified fence it wants to be. It's like if Secret Cinema spent billions on a Jurassic Park event - lots of spectacle and opportunities to monetise, but precious little in the way of soul.

The film may be set twenty-two years after the events of Spielberg's initial ground-breaking movie, but the theme is very much one of cyclical failure and our breathtaking inability to learn from past transgressions. Thus, into this spanking new, glossy, and hugely expanded Jurassic Park, now re-branded with a new suffix, comes an influx of wearily familiar character archetypes, ostensibly to reinforce ties to the original film (an intention betrayed by Michael Giacchino's John Williams theme-lifting score), but that sadly possess none of the allure of their predecessors. Again we have two kids - Zach and Gray (Robinson and Simpkins) - who're shipped off to the park to meet their aunt Claire (Dallas Howard), the park's operations manager. Claire doesn't spend much time managing any operations despite her austere business suit, and would rather spend time wooing investors and sponsors than, ew, hanging with her nephews (although curiously, we never find out why she's so awkward around them). At least Jurassic World has a novel way of approaching brazen product-placement. "Imagine the Verizon Wireless Indominus Rex", she says of their newest attraction - a GM super-beast. Elsewhere, there's a Starbucks, and even a building on the park's main strip called the Samsung Innovation Center. Actually, it's quite clever - to begin with - with Goldblum's Ian Malcolm and his darkly prophetic "you've slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, now you're selling it" line now all but forgotten in the glow of handsome profiteering, but after Neo-T-Rex inevitably breaks free, Jurassic World briskly spirals into being just another monster flick. As someone keenly observes early on in the movie, "No one's impressed by dinosaurs any more."

Attempting to inject some roguish charm into proceedings is Chris Pratt's Owen Grady, an on-site dino-consultant who's heading-up a training program with the raptors - kind of like the BBC's One Man and His Dog, but, you know, more toothy. We discover, in one of Jurassic World's plentiful clunky scenes, that Owen and Claire never got past their first date, which actually makes sense given there's zero chemistry between them. But Trevorrow seems unable or at least unwilling to deviate from prescription and it's tiring watching this particular romantic formula play out. Additionally, I've never fully subscribed to Pratt's Han-lite re-invention. His Emmet Brickowski in 2014's The Lego Movie was a brilliant extension of his lovable Parks and Rec Andy Dwyer persona, but as Star-Lord in Guardians Of The Galaxy I found him rather charmless. There is an abstract, indefinable art to that kind of heroic, charismatic stoicism, and Pratt ain't got it.

So in a Summer of returns to franchise,  Jurassic World proves the third sequel on the trot to fail to capitalise on former success. This is all the more galling in the light of the near universal acclaim for George Miller's thirty-five-year-late Mad Max follow-up, Fury Road, that proves, if anything, it's never too late to reboot with imagination and innovation. Jurassic World promises all the thrill of reptilian assets out of containment, but proves as stimulating as a monorail ride through a paddock of ambivalent Brachiosaurus.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Spring (2014) | Film Review

Spring, dir. Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead, wr. Justin Benson, st. Lou Taylor Pucci, Nadia Hilker

Pretty much directly comparable to Tomas Alfredson's Låt den rätte komma in, Benson and Moorhead's mumblecore love-story treads a similar path of aesthetically innovative narrative genre-blending. The principle difference here however, is that contrary to Alfredson's pre-teen protagonists that lent Let The Right One In its coming-of-age credentials, Benson and Moorhead's stars are young adults, both old enough to carry the weary realisation of a childhood long departed. Pucci plays Evan, a Jesse Pinkman-type both in character and portrayal, who's effectively orphaned within the film's opening moments. Despondent and emotionally adrift, he hot-foots it to Italy and encounters the enigmatic Louise (an alluring Hilker) who may or may not be quite literally carrying demons of her own. The ultra-indie production design that makes the most of Italy's gothic architecture, winding streets, and culture steeped in mythical lore, coupled with Benson's deliberately economic screenplay may scream Festival Circuit fayre, but Spring is actually a deceptively precision-built piece of cinema, from the accomplished performances of its leads, to its sweeping drone-accomplished tracking shots, right down to its minimal but natty VFX. It's also Spring's refreshing lack of mandate that makes it so compelling even if you feel you've seen its Aschenputtel-ine storyline before, but it's a glorious reminder of cottage-industry filmmaking done remarkably right nonetheless.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

I Am Big Bird (2014) | Film Review

I Am Big Bird, dir. Dave LaMattina, Chad N. Walker, wr. Dave LaMattina, st. Caroll Spinney, Frank Oz, Jim Henson

You’ve probably seen Caroll Spinney’s body of work even if you aren’t too sure what he looks like, for Caroll Spinney is Big Bird, Sesame Street’s most lovable (pre-Elmo, that is) character, and indeed has been since 1969. That’s a long time to be encased in that yellow-feathered suit, but Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker’s film makes light, efficient work of his lengthy career. I Am Big Bird comprises the usual talking heads of those who new him best, family and friends, collaborators and acquaintances, providing us with a whistle-stop tour of the Sesame Street back-lot and emerging 70’s studio politics But this is strictly documenting-by-numbers, with the directors employing a super-saccharine score by Joshua Johnson that signposts every emotional beat with all the subtlety of a head-butt to the nuts. It’s a great shame too, as Spinney himself comes off as a man far more complex than the film gives him credit for. Low points in his career such as his acute depression, or a peculiarly crowbarred in episode that concerns a murder that took place on Spinney’s land, remain oddly unfinished and unexplored as if the producers can’t wait to bring in the strings and let things soar again towards another prefab emotional uplift. There’s heaps of nostalgia to be found though, and the archive footage is genuinely of interest. Like Big Bird himself though, this never quite manages to take flight.

Monday, 25 May 2015

Bande de filles (Girlhood) (15) | Film Review

Bande de filles, dir/wr. Céline Sciamma, st. Karidja Touré, Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh, Mariétou Touré

There are two gloriously realised things that help anchor Sciamma's free-verse exploration of adolescent longing, transforming what might have been meandering ennui into something potent and startlingly perceptive: The first is the film's chill-wave, M83-esque score by Jean-Baptiste de Laubier, or Para One as his nom de plume goes, which tremoloes and oscillates with shifting electro-patter like Brian Eno doing Steve Reich's Different Trains. It's a jarringly warm and beguiling construction that softens Sciamma's deliberately sparse signposting and lends Bande de filles its emotional focus. The second is the quite extraordinary performance from Karidja Touré who plays the film's protagonist Marieme. Touré, whose stellar trajectory has gone from from student to César Award nominee, was scouted by Sciamma's casting agent in an amusement park. "I think they did this because there aren't a lot of black actors in Paris and that's how you find them." she recalls. Even more incredibly, Touré is part of a whole ensemble of first time actors who make up Bande de fille's central cohort. "(The first day of filming) we felt very comfortable shooting because Assa, Lindsay, Mariétou and I were all in the same position as actors. It was new to all of us and it was scary for everyone. Nobody was above somebody else." Sciamma's film has been widely celebrated for depicting a) teenagers defiantly and painfully carving out their own place in their society in an empowering and respectful manner, b) in the tower blocks and estates of the Parisian banlieues, c) who are black, and d) female. In other words, a rarity, and one that not only surpasses Alison Bechdel's oft-impractical yet meaningful test by a country mile (it requires a film to satisfy gender equality by having at least two women in it who talk to each other about something besides a man), but does so without any hint of smug agenda-ising.

The film follows Marieme, a sixteen year old who lives with her two younger sisters, older brother, and mother in the Parisian suburbs, who falls in with an all-female gang led by the charismatic Lady (Sylla). The group drink, dance, fight, and shoplift their way to friendship, the existing three members having found in Marieme a replacement for their fourth, who it transpires fell pregnant and, in  more ways than one, moved on. In turn, Marieme, looking to assert herself in a fatherless world in which she plays mother to her two siblings and daughter to her strict and controlling brother, welcomes and endures a brief initiation period as the girls initially test her mettle, before taking her earned place by their sides, and winning the special favour of Lady. Sylla too is great here as their de facto leader, persuasively able as she is to wither and disarm with a mere glance one moment, and be awkwardly shy and embarrassed the next. One early scene has her barking questions at Marieme with that recognisably hateful and impressive swagger of a playground bully, while a later scene has her the bashfully smiling object of a gentle ribbing from her pals as they reveal Lady's real name as the more gentle, unassuming and feminine Sophia. 

But Bande de filles is most concerned about transformation, and the film is remarkably and refreshingly unconcerned with judging Marieme. When her hotel-maid mother's boss suggests Marieme take up some Summer work, we see the previously submissive teenager apply the aggression she's learned from Lady, using it as simply as a key to access what she wants, and full-on threaten her into withdrawing her offer. Kids' foolhardy decisions are one of life's inalienable certainties, but to see the fragility of a young girl maplessly navigating her way through life up close is indeed shocking and not a little sad. But the affecting complexity of enduring friendship and loyalty, as depicted in what is undoubtedly the film's centrepiece - all four girls dancing and lip-synching through the entirety of Rihanna's Diamonds, bathed in Besson neon-blue as the girls successively join one another in the middle of their hotel room - is movingly and sensitively retold by Sciamma, exquisitely shot by cinematographer Crystal Fournier, and delivered through convincing, note-perfect performances by its inexperienced yet exceedingly talented young cast.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Ex Machina (2015) | Film Review

Ex Machina, dir/wr. Alex Garland, st. Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander

Screenwriter Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go) makes his directorial debut here with this neat little treatise on Artificial Intelligence's capacity for morality, rationality, sexuality, and independent thought. The film's entire two hour running time devotes itself to what usually lies inside most A.I. movies' singular expository lines, title cards, or brief montages that depict the rise of the machines, which is fair enough, for that is where the Boom! happens. Ex Machina chooses instead to focus on the detailed interplay between creator and created, ostensibly the Turing Test - designed to see if mecha and orga can really be indistinguishable from one another - but as the film progresses, revealing itself to be a labyrinthine commentary on manipulation, players and played. Gleeson plays Caleb, a nobody of a coder at Bluebook, Machina's version of Google, who suddenly finds himself the recipient of a prize to fly out to Alaska and spend a week with the company's enigmatic and reclusive CEO Nathan Bateman (Isaac). Once at his arcadian, futurist eco house that doubles as a research laboratory, Caleb discovers the true purpose of his visit; he is to test Nathan's fembot Ava, cannily and purposefully played with a little too refined poise and control by Alicia Vikander, to see if she's quite the breakthrough humanity has been waiting for - or indeed dreading, depending on your point of view.

Isaac is quite brilliant here, an ever-soused, cabin-fevered genius, by turns seedy and lugubrious, who charms and frustrates Caleb with intoxicating egotism. It sets us up to second-guess everything we see from the off, and it's undoubtedly Garland's trump card, played judiciously early and upfront. Equally compelling is Vikander as Ava, cutting a lithe figure of grey carbon-fibre meshing and perspexed diodes - as much a triumph of her elaborately mannered performance as the VFX that complete her. The film isn't quite as original as its ambition - design elements from sci-fi of yore are heavily influencing, as are many of the characters' motivations and narrational beats, but the concept - in particular where self-preservation bleeds into our very human perspective of emotional desire - proves a winning and effectively uncomfortable hook.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) | Film Review

Mad Max: Fury Road, dir. George Miller, wr. George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, Nico Lathouris, st. Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Zoë Kravitz

A lot can happen in thirty-six years. Looking back, it's always interesting to see how much things have changed and perhaps more profoundly, how much has remained fundamentally unaltered. I was born a mere two weeks after Mad Max was released in its native Australia on April 12th 1979 - quite literally a lifetime ago. At age 70, director George Miller was around the age I am now. Comparing his taut and muscular original to 2015's stonking successor Fury Road, it is possible to glean the intricate ways the director has evolved over the intervening time period, for Mad Max 4 gives us many clues; his mind is sharper, his thematic vision has broadened, his loyalties to the established aesthetic from his debut all those years ago are undoubtedly, steadfastly resolute. Fury Road is a buttery-smooth gear transmission, a flawlessly executed upshift that utterly belies its thirty-six-year operation.

Miller's film picks up pretty much where 1985's Beyond Thunderdome left off, with dune-wanderer Max roaming Ronin-like in the apocalyptic sands, his trusty Pursuit Special still going strong after perhaps maybe one too many retrofits and regrades. Elsewhere in the wasteland, the ailing and deformed King Immortan Joe (Miller still has a wonderful way with nomenclature) played by The Toecutter himself Hugh Keays-Byrne, rules The Citadel with the help of his War-Boys, an irradiated army of be-powdered soldiers who identify through scarated flesh, tattoos, and brands. High above the plain Joe commands and rules over the masses, magnanimously doling out the "Aqua Cola" he pumps from deep within the ground, but harbouring several concubines in an inner vaulted, Edenic paradise, the purpose of whom is to bear him an uncontaminated heir. When he sends out his lieutenant Imperator Furiosa (Theron) to plunder a nearby gasoline works, she takes the opportunity to flee the terrible oppression, and abscond with the Five Wives in tow. Joe's hand-built 150-strong car-my inevitably gives chase, and with a captured Max skewered and tubed-up to the front of a sand-buggy as a kind of mobile blood-bank for its driver Nux (Hoult). And that's pretty much it. But then it wouldn't be a Mad Max movie if things weren't this ultra-lean.

The passage of time has gifted Miller with new technologies and methodologies with which to expand the realisation of his world; Mad Max's outback (actually the Nambian desert) now pops in saturated high-contrast with tealy sky-blues and ochre sands; the fleet of vehicles has increased exponentially and with further impossibly complex detailing; Brian May's wonderfully anachronistic and Noiry score has been replaced with Junkie XL's vein-bursting percussive portent; the camerawork (utilising the new Edge Arm - think a car-mounted, crane-mounted camera) now takes us inside the balletic chase as explosive spear-tips cause maximum vehicular carnage and Cirque du Soleil performers dance and sway among thirty-foot poles fixed to the onslaughting, weaponised cars. 

But the most startling of changes, as "Men's Rights" blog Return of Kings has petulantly pointed out, is that Fury Road, it turns out, isn't a film about Max at all, but rather its reluctant heroine Furiosa. The great thing about Max is that he's always been unburdened with that Marvel-ous obligation to save humanity. His heroism was always balanced on the keenest of knife-edges. At times throughout the previous films, you wouldn't have been surprised if he just upped and left the poor ragtags to sort things out for themselves. Such ambivalence at the call of heroism actually allows Furiosa's more motivated backstory to come to the fore; she liberates the film's subjugated sex-slaves from their rapists and makes a dash for freedom. Return of Kings' blogger Aaron Clarey almost gets it right - it is a feminist piece (though of propaganda, he falsely proclaims) posing as a guy flick, and that's its genius. Additionally, coming to the aid of Furiosa, Max, and the Five Wives, are the Vuvulini, the last remaining vestiges of a matriarchal society - quinqua-, sexa-, and septuagenarians who pilot a mean dirt-bike and know their way around the business ends of assorted weaponry. Max provides able, stoic assistance, but at times he seems like he's along for the ride. This never feels like relegation, however. It's entirely befitting of his character.

Mad Max: Fury Road succeeds then - tremendously - where other action films have spectacularly failed. In all its pared-down, roaring and tumultuous glory, it's storytelling at its most essential, fortifying the notion that cinema is at its purest when truly transcending language and differentiating culture. It's virtually impossible to conceive the scope and ambition of Miller's production - indeed, so wildly kinetic is the movie, you won't until consider it until well after it's ended. Miller has cast with scalpel-precision - Tom Hardy wears Max's near-silence well, occasionally giving subtle flashes of Gibson's Rockatansky. Similarly, Theron is a joyous mass of contradictions as Furiosa - at once graceful and brutish, vulnerable and relentless - ten times the frontman than most of her male counterparts. But perhaps most impressively, Mad Max: Fury Road genuinely feels like a new movement in film-making, a convergence of industries where Hollywood sheen and arthouse sensibility meet, ignite, and thunder off into the barrens together.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015) | Film Review

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, dir/wr. Alex Gibney, based on Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright, st. Lawrence Wright, Mark Rathbun, Monique Rathbun, Mike Rinder, Jason Beghe, Paul Haggis, Sylvia Taylor, Sara Goldberg

A concise and incisive deconstruction of the Church of Scientology, Going Clear made near-surfable waves when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. The film then went on to be  HBO's most successful documentary for almost a decade when the cable network screened it in March. Meanwhile, over in the UK, sole distributor of HBO content Sky Atlantic is unable to exhibit Gibney's film due to geographical legal discrepancies within Sky's transmission zone, and the Church has already made clear its litigious intentions should the broadcast to go ahead. Interestingly and alarmingly, it's already successfully blocked publication in the UK of the source material (although it is available through Amazon). The real terror in Gibney's film isn't in Scientology's established reputation as a criminal cult, the surreal lunacy and paranoid fanaticism of its leader, science-fiction writer Lafayette Ronald Hubbard, it's not even in the suspicious and rather embarrassing lengths the Church goes to to exercise total control over its reputation by ceaselessly going after its innumerable detractors, neither is it in the wide-eyed, thousand-yard-stares of its leader David Miscavige and the Church's A-list poster-boys John Travolta and Tom Cruise. No, the most terrifying thing about Going Clear is how Scientology ever made it as far as it has. Initially lured into the organisation with promises of enlightenment, adventure, or betterment,  the voices of Gibney's film - mostly people formerly in prominent positions within the Church - impart torrents of recollected abuse and suffering designed to ensure submission and control, and indeed, one might initially wonder at the genuine ability of the Church to psychologically imprison its members, but then there's nothing spurious about the organisation's bullying and intimidating tactics, nor is there any confusion over the nature of its rock-stadium rallies with their new-age, high-contrast set-designs that look like they're being hosted in fucking Isengard. Predictably then, Going Clear is essential viewing, a brave and defiant documentary about the very real and present dangers of unchecked indoctrination.