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.