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.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Mad Max (1979) | Film Review

Mad Max, dir. George Miller, scr. James McCausland, George Miller, st. Mel Gibson, Joanne Samuel, Hugh Keayes-Byrne, Steve Bisley, Roger Ward

Following a fuel shortage, towns and cities have begun to tear themselves apart, preyed on by vicious gangs of disenfranchised, anarchistic bike gangs, while the scrappy remnants of a severely depleted police force attempt to hold the very fabric of society together; there's precious little culture left, many buildings lie in a state of severe disrepair, and any trauma patients visiting a hospital are met with empty corridors and a skeletal staffing operation. 

No, this isn't the UK after five more years of Tory rule, this is Mad Max, George Miller's nihilistic vision of a world on the apocalyptic precipice. Max turned thirty-six this year and after a long gestation period in development hell, the seventy year-old Miller is just about to release his fourth instalment - Mad Max: Fury Road - which, if the enthusiastic response to the chaotic beauty of the first trailer is anything to go by, looks set to kickstart a new triumvirate of movies.

In any case, it's interesting to re-visit the film that started it all. The enduring memory we are left with might be the sequels' expansive desert landscapes and the Wacky Races invention of all those chopshop vehicles, but Mad Max is notable for setting its dystopian science fiction actually before the dystopia proper sets in. Precious little media information or political discourse that signifies where things are heading makes for an palpably unsettling viewing experience. Similarly, Max Rockatansky's descent from wholesome, station wagon-driving family man to the kind of monosyllabic loner that was to set the benchmark for cinema's most iconic grizzled heroes in years to come is still shockingly brutal. Max also reminds us how cosy contemporary audiences have become with linear plotting, and editing and characterisation that safeguards us from much intellectual grunt work; Miller's film is laden with economic camera set-ups, expressionistic avian imagery, and baroque, Hermann-esque orchestrations. Released today, Max would be playing in arthouses not multiplexes. In many ways, it's a perfect companion film to that other cult classic released in 1979 - Ridley Scott's Alien - another film that pits blue-collar civil servants against an unstoppable leviathanic menace with an equally grim outcome. Given the current political climate, be it in the remotest vestiges of the Australian outback or in deepest space, the fact no one can hear you scream is more troubling than ever.