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.