Late To The Party – Still Alice – A Review

still alice

Still Alice is the story of Alice Howland, a highly successful linguistics professor at Columbia University with a stable, loving personal life… and early onset familial Alzheimer’s disease. One of the cruellest afflictions Mother Nature can dole a person is powerfully portrayed by Julianne Moore’s stunning central performance that channels a brave, unflinching script – a script that ends up affecting just as painfully as Theroux’s Extreme Love Alzheimer’s episode or Don Hertzfeldt’s It’s Such A Beautiful Day.

Described as “Shockingly accurate” by sufferers, Still Alice adds to the reams of Alzheimer’s “awareness” material by focusing one of the movies’ strongest actresses on it, an actress who gives a chillingly realistic experience to the audience. Alzheimer’s is horrific because it embodies the rational fear of losing one’s mind that we all share (something I believe Terry Pratchett is almost a hero for explaining as he did). We are not our possessions, we are not our achievements, we are the mind we project on a daily basis – “I wish I had cancer so I wasn’t such a social… a social… I forgot the word” Alice says, struggling to vocalise that exact notion.

Though some might call the flm depressing, disheartening or distressing there is a bright underlying message here which in one of the film’s most emotional scenes, Alice reading her speech to a scientific audience, is made very clear. She explains the importance of living in the now for a person in her situation; how she can’t afford to dwell on the person she was or become anxious about who she’s becoming. The progression of Alice’s Alzheimer’s is the story of the film and at about halfway Alice begs her husband to take a year’s sabbatical so they can enjoy what she believes is her final year of being herself – a smart move in my opinion but the denial (premature grieving?) of her husband and family denies her this. Watching Alice’s beautiful mind deteriorate is embellished by smart filmmaking like shortening of the depth of field to create blurry, disorientating bokeh that reflects the fuzzying and erasing of Alice’s persona.

Here you’ll find a deserved Oscar win for Moore, a performance full of subtlety that’s backed by some solid supporting roles namely Alec Baldwin as her husband and Kristen Stewart as her free-spirited and open-minded daughter. Some of my favourite moments were simply looks from those two of this pained understanding and suppression of anger as acceptance as more and more odd reactions Alice makes are forced upon them. Understated moments like this kept Still Alice from over-stepping emotionally, something I thought could happen (and thankfully didn’t) after an incident with Kristen’s journal which felt a little too unreal and dramatized.

I think watching this film and any other Alzheimer’s related media is essential nowadays simply to help anyone recognise how someone suffering might feel and if more people knew how it felt, maybe more might contribute to helping to find a cure.

8/10

Companion Piece: The Big Short and Inside Job

Adam McKay’s latest film The Big Short is now released in UK cinemas backed by strong critical acclaim. In a time where even the least sceptical people are starting to question the legitimacy of the people holding all their invisible money in the safety of banks I suspected the film to be a bank-hating bandwagon of a film – and it was, but that’s not to say it wasn’t good.

What’s great about The Big Short is the way it turns the most (deliberately) complicated, jargon-infested industry in the world into something reasonably digestible and exciting which it achieves in a number of ways.

Number one is the characters; here’s an excerpt from Michael Burry’s Wikipedia page:

“While off duty at night, he worked on his lifelong hobby, financial investing. On one occasion, Burry had been working so hard studying both for medical school and his personal financial interests that he fell asleep standing up during a complicated surgery, and crashed into the oxygen tent that had been built around the patient and was thrown out of the operating room by the lead surgeon.”

Christian Bale’s blazé depiction of this financial savant embodies the kind of man who realistically would tack on to the signs of a financial collapse before anyone else and not be believed. He announces himself as a doctor, we trust him, he seems distant from the reality of the crisis and is only interested in the data before him and what it means. It’s hard to believe he was one of the only people to actually look into the contents of a CDO but if it were to be anyone it would be this guy whose blind interest in finance was not particularly about personal gain. Ryan Gosling’s wise-guy character is exactly the guy you’d expect to profit off the entire fiasco and Steve Carell’s conflicted and almost over-the-hill investor character brings the human element. There are more cliché and caricature characters like dumb mortgage brokers rolling in money or the ratings agency woman who wears glasses for the blind which was maybe a bit excessive, but they’re more a joke anyway.

Number two is the simplification of the jargon which is done by often breaking the fourth wall and having terms like CDO, sub-prime loans, derivatives and securities chain debunked comically through stupid situations like Margot Robbie in a bath tub or Selena Gomez at the blackjack table analogizing for us. To some this could be considered lazy filmmaking but given the importance of a basic understanding of the situation to the film’s storyline it was probably the correct method of exposition.

I walked away from the theatre then with a basic knowledge of what happened during the late 2000s and a revamped hatred for ignorant, incompetent banking executives – but also with a desire to find out more. One of Mark Kermode’s latest “Kermode Uncut” videos is good because it suggests several other films based on the crash including: Enron: The smartest guys in the room, Margin Call and 99 Homes. I’ve seen none of these yet, though they are all dramatized cinema like The Big Short so I decided instead to watch a documentary on the subject, narrated by Matt Damon, called Inside Job.

Described by Roger Ebert as an “an angry, well-argued documentary”, Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job contains all the infographics and analogies (separating the oil in a tanker so it doesn’t slosh around and capsize the ship etc.) of The Big Short, but with the body of the film being interviews full of Theroux-strength direct questions to people directly involved in the crisis’ development.

The film runs like an essay that’s split into appropriate chapters detailing each stage using phone recordings, journal and newspaper articles as references. Some of the best and most excruciating scenes are simply footage, some available on YouTube, of exchanges between the Courts and banking executives where you can see them squirming and deflecting efforts to expose the truth of the industry. Many issues are tackled like the potential conflict of interests when a university professor consults for banks and securities firms, morality of the banks betting against products they sell to reduce their own risk and the change in banking structure for example how local banks people trusted had been swallowed up by too big to fail megabanks from the 70s onwards. Using Iceland as an isolated, smaller scale example of the mechanics of collapse, moving into the American collapse, then into the rippling effects around the world is such a smart format for the documentary too. Furthermore, the culture of banking is discussed; people were working their hardest to be recognised and move up the food chain entirely for personal gain, bankers were enjoying $1000 per hour lap dances in boudoirs conveniently positioned near corporate buildings and these expenses given fake misleading names so invoices for these frivolities were inconspicuous. It made me realise again that the real cause of the collapse, and heck almost any world issue, is greed.

Despite all of this commotion there is still corruption in the financial industry because money is power and power is all that matters.

Knowledge is also power; watch and learn.

The Hateful Eight – 70mm screening – A Review

hateful

 

After the spiel about how our projectionist spent 6 hours preparing The Hateful Eight’s 6 kilometres of film at London’s Odeon Leicester Square cinema the lights remained on as Ennio Morricone’s glorious opening overture bellowed out with only a gently flickering blood red card on screen – like something out of a Leone western. Tarantino successfully captured what he felt like a trip to the movies should feel like – from the film’s format to the script I knew from the word go my experience was being handled by a master, it was excellent.

I was thinking about my favourite Tarantino flicks, for me it’s: Pulp Fiction, then Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill vol. 1, and now The Hateful Eight, tearing away the 4th spot from Inglorious Basterds. Listen to the man talk in any interview and it’s immediately obvious how intelligent Tarantino is; what’s more is how he wears his enjoyment of talking about his films and film as a whole on every square inch of his pointy face – he’s seen enough of them. It’s clear in this tactically paced ensemble piece that Tarantino has spent so much time refining and re-writing to make it water-tight, casting it perfectly, shooting it in the way only he can. Originally, he was writing The Hateful Eight as a story with Django at its core but took him out and developed the plot so that it might play well on the stage and boy, can you see it. Literally. It’s all there onscreen in vision-filling 70mm 2.76:1 aspect ratio.

Ensemble films are some of the hardest to make properly as the characters need screen-time to convey their role in the story, so Tarantino creates this time, giving the film a run-time of just over 3 hours which is nicely punctuated by a 12 minute intermission at roughly 1hr 40 min. Set just after the American Civil War in snow ridden Wyoming, the first interaction on screen is between John Ruth (Kurt Russel) – known as “The Hangman”, John is a feared bounty hunter, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) – John’s scruffy looking $10,000 captive and Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) – an AWOL Union Major turned bounty hunter. Major Warren needs a ride, his horse has keeled over and he’s got 3 wanted men’s corpses that need hauling to the nearby town of Red Rock which will net him a tidy $8,000 altogether. After some quarrelling and re-balancing of power (weapons), Ruth, cuffed to Domergue who he insists be brought to Red Rock on the livelier side of the Dead or Alive payment pre-requisite, allows Major Warren aboard his carriage. Along the way a blizzard/snow storm picks up and forces the group to wait it out in Minnie’s Haberdashery, a haven for travellers a few miles from Red Rock. Bursting through the door followed by a flurry of snow Ruth announces his intentions – bring this criminal to Red Rock alive – to the current occupants of the shack and from there the network of character relationships rolls the plot right along.

The majority of the film is set within the Haberdashery wherein the characters interact and that dialogue is the bulk of the film and it’s good dialogue for that matter, written by a human, not Aaron Sorkin. I’m a fan of the “show don’t tell” motto but here, showing the characters tell things to one another as the primary storytelling method is interesting and relates back to why the film would work on the stage. The cast is incredible and everyone plays their role like you’d expect, everyone’s typecasted, but it works. You’ve got cynical Sam Jackson, English guy Tim Roth, quietly dangerous Michael Madsen, “Just be an old guy” Confederate General Bruce Dern, accented Sheriff Walton Goggins, Demián Bichir as a Mexican and completely freaking crazy JJL.

Some of the one-liners and jokes didn’t really hit me, but most of them were hilarious. Even the gore was done with comedy, it’s a gut-wrenchingly funny flick that’s tonally similar to that disgusted feeling you ashamedly enjoyed from the car headshot scene in Pulp Fiction. People have pointed at the use of racial slurs, violence and violence towards women in Tarantino’s films before and they have here too. Sure JJL gets knocked about but people were laughing at it and it made sense to the story. I like how it’s not high art, it’s Tarantino. Furthermore, JJL’s Domegue is the most badass character in the whole film. I really liked her make-up throughout, her performance was electric, wild and scary. I know De Palma is one of Tarantino’s biggest inspirations and the way he dressed JJL up like Carrie was incredible, she took her lines and her look and ran so, so far with it. Bravo.

So, luckily having saw it in the format it was intended to be shown, I am unfortunately unable to recommend seeing the film any other way as I haven’t experienced it. The film does use the whole frame well, and cheekily goes against the idea that a wide frame is better for vistas (imagine The Revenant filmed in 70mm) by shooting inside a lot and often inside to outside through windows and doors like in The Searchers or Citizen Kane. This is a worthy Tarantino film, and any self-respecting Tarantino film should definitely see it as his cocky, bloody, edgy brains are blown all over it.

What did you think? For me it’s the second best film of the year after Carol.

8.8/10

Amy – A Review

amy

Asif Kapadia returns with Amy, a documentary comprised of childhood videos, family interviews and behind the scenes amateur footage that together tell the story of Amy Winehouse. I know now I never knew her when she was alive and after seeing Amy I know very little more. I sit here listening to the Frank album as I write hoping that’ll change.

Film that sheds light on the machine of celebrity is something I find particularly interesting. Imagine singing in the kitchen as you make your breakfast and your neighbour, a talent scout for that massive record company, recognises you as a talent. You’ve loved Electro music all your life for no real reason, it just spoke to you. Your family, friends and the real you drop back to the tail-end of your twisted list of unwanted priorities as your profitability in the Electro music industry becomes paramount. Fame is a beast that affects people whether they want it to or not and unfortunately Amy, even with tonnes of support, perished beneath it.

The film definitely demonizes Amy’s husband Blake, potentially rightly so, as his influence over her was manipulative in the least. I was reminded of those glorious husbands or wives of celebrities who step back on the red carpet and don’t inhabit limelight real-estate as Blake head-locked Amy continuously in every paparazzi opportunity or shoot – I can’t imagine the sweet-nothings he implanted in her mind in the crack-ridden pit of a London home they holed up in. Part of me thinks he killed the real Amy more than the media did but conversely I can’t alleviate the blame from her doctors who somehow let them attend rehab together…

My angry writing clearly shows the documentary riled me up enough to make me mourn the starlet and hate the fact she died all over again despite not knowing anywhere near the full story. Amy looked like a singer, she had that smile; her manager says words to the effect of “She could make you feel like the most important person in the world, and then turn around make you feel invisible” – not just anyone can do that or does do that.

Senna, Kapadia’s last documentary, is definitely worth a watch if you enjoy Amy. The film is definitely a celebration of her life (the footage of her recording her hits with the lyric overlay were marvellous and memorable) despite the drama surrounding her substance abuse – “Jules, this is so boring without drugs” she says to one of her best friends after winning a Grammy. Owch.

8.1/10

The Revenant – A Review

revenant

Why you should see the new film The Revenant from prestigious Mexican Director Alejandro González Iñárritu: non-stop, wide “Holy shit” snowy vistas, frenzied and desperate wilderness survival worthy of Bear Grylls, the performance that finally earns Leo his Best Actor Oscar. Why you should not see The Revenant: – …nope, I’ve got nothing.

Iñárritu’s Babel is one of my favourite films of all time as I really liked his interlinked but totally worldwide take on the parallel-storyline style of film which I believe was done best by Altman and is still hugely popular in mainstream media, see Game of Thrones. I’ve seen all his feature films and love each for their own reasons and after having seen many eclectic interviews with the man I can’t help admire his desire to push boundaries with films he wants to make.

Following this trend and backed by a staggering $140,000,000 budget Iñárritu was able to take a crew into chilling Canadian forest for almost a year; a crew including Hollywood’s most prestigious actor and push him to his absolute limits – with every grimace and groan being framed, blocked and breathtakingly back-dropped by his long-time partner in cinema magic Emmanuel Lubezki, cinematographer extraordinaire. What’s more, the film was in early development long before Birdman but due to Leo getting Wolf of Wall Street the shooting was delayed.

The film opens with a breath-taking opening 5-10 minute battle. A tribal group of “Pawnee” Natives attack a company of rugged scouts out hunting animals for their pelts for use domestically or for trading. Among the fur traders are Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his half-Native son Hawk; blows are exchanged between the groups with arrows and primitive guns firing everywhere and eventually after many die Hugh, Son and Friends escape by boat. Later while out hunting alone, Hugh stumbles across a bear and its cub and is subsequently mauled to shreds in a gruesome scene straight out of Herzog’s imagination when he listened to that tape in Grizzly Man. Once discovered barely alive, settlement leader Andrew Henry (Domnhall Gleeson), muscleman John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and co. attempt to rescue what seems like a lost cause of a man. With some doubting Hugh’s chances a suggestion is made to put an end to Hugh’s pain with hot lead to the obvious disapproval of Hawk; what happens next sparks a blind urge for achieving some of the deepest, most satisfying revenge ever put to film.

The standard plot a revenge movie is we learn the motivation early on, usually in our protagonist, who we’re supposed to side with even though they’ll likely commit a heinous act – an idea dissected wonderfully in Anatomy of a Murder. Then we usually watch the traps fall; the net tighten in various ways; the eyes of the enemy widen in panic, it’s often quite sadistic but weirdly enjoyable (See Dead Man’s Shoes or I Saw The Devil). Finally, the pay-off where we learn how revenge is the filmic equivalent of the dietary mantra “Moment on the lips, lifetime on the hips” cos’ boy is it sweet but damn will it cost you. Build-up and pay-off, it works so well with revenge films.

The Revenant follows suit as it should with its own quirks which is what makes it great. It’s not perfect, I think Tom Hardy putting a voice on made his strong performance frequently intelligible and though beautifully capturing Leo trudging through the barren landscape on camera harbours the theme that a man can go forever if necessary I think excessive use here led to too much meandering.

The majority of the film is one man’s survival against the elements and Leo clearly throws his heart and soul into his performance. It was awesome to hear during this year’s Director’s round table of the bi-directional learning and working actor and director with the latter describing the former as more of a filmmaker than an actor which with a man as experienced as Leo (23 years since Gilbert Grape!) is apt, he’s literally seen it all. He acts Hugh’s burning rage powerfully which lets the audience see and feel all the hits he takes on his journey toward absolution.

Some might call The Revenant grotesque and an indulgent, unnecessary foray into dangerous and reactionary emotions we humans shouldn’t be proud of. They’d be right, enjoy it.

8.6/10 with ice.

Anomalisa – A Review

anomalisa

Everyone’s favourite writer of wacky, tongue-in-cheek yet heart-on-sleeve dramedies Charlie Kaufman returns with more of that painfully irresistible quirky and awkward emotional turmoil by crafting little people out of clay and taking thousands of pictures of them.

Unlike Aaron Sorkin may as well have done with his ridiculous Steve Jobs, Kaufman steps up once again to direct his own script (the last instance of this in a cinema release being his universally acclaimed Synecdoche, New York) and creates a plasticine dream; a story of a man, voiced by English treasure David Thewlis (Naked, Harry Potter series) struggling with the monotonies of life.

Michael Stone (Thewlis) is flown to Cincinnati where he stays in a posh hotel for a night to do a job the following day. At the outset he’s a similar character to Bill Murray’s in the beloved Lost in Translation; wry, coy and other 3 letter words that suggest his bored, sarcastic acceptance of the ignorance of others. The majority of the story is set in this bog-standard up-market hotel between the bars, hallways and bedrooms many of us have seen many times in just as many different locations. In fact, Stone’s customer service background has probably propagated this desire everyone feels to maintain the hotel to this standard through personal service and provision of facilities – Stone can see it all around him in the hotel, but also at home in his own family and we rapidly see his lust for life gasping for air beneath his smoothly modelled edges.

The way in which the film visualises this is enchanting and scary simultaneously and though it’s probably deducible by the 3 actor cast and definitely not the first time loneliness like this has been portrayed in such a way it’s still incredibly striking. What’s just as striking is the meticulous realism of the stop-motion models, excellent work by Starburn Industries and Paramount Animation throughout that will likely earn the film an Oscar nod. I’ve never seen the male and female paunch and love handles; our involuntary twitches or drunken sex so charmingly constructed in such a way as in Anomalisa. Co-Director Duke Johnson’s expertise in the art-form married with Kaufman’s deep knowledge of storyboarding to achieve certain effects is truly a marvel to witness in a similar way to how Kaufman’s themes coupled wonderfully with Gondry’s headiness in Eternal Sunshine.

I really liked that Kaufman clearly restrained himself with how the story could play out within its universe though with many of the poster’s quoting “This film changed my life”, ”Most human film in decades” etc. maybe I’m missing something. My favourite film (as I’ve likely mentioned before) of the last few years is Spike Jonze’s Her because it did much the same – some might argue its ending is excessive but for me it didn’t break any rules and the same applies here. “Treat every customer as your friend”, Stone repeats the most overused mantra of the business world and I was left thinking, “if that’s the case, won’t I start to hate my friends if I hated my job?” among other wandering ideas about the fickleness of the society that Stone harbours, consequently, would I put my anomaly on a pedestal like he did?

Jeez… Call me Sum 41 “cos I’m in too deep”. That’s right, like this review, Anomalisa does fight to be entertaining and steers juuuuust on the right side of seriousness so that the film feels like a film and not a mental health PSA. That being said, Anomalisa is without doubt in last place in terms of innovative story-telling and generally how long it stayed in my mind behind the other big 4 Kaufman’s I’ve seen.

8 clay penises out of 10.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Raw thoughts.

Here are the notes I took when I stepped out of the cinema after seeing Star Wars TFA.

Star wars
People saying it’s more of the same: yes, it is. It’s plot is largely similar to Ep 4 but there’s plenty new too. The new star destroyer planet, a trooper with a heart, brilliant vfx and in camera effects, props, costumes, etc all with big budgets. Creates an exhilrating ride that feels believable. I’m a skeptic with franchise films, see my review for Guardians, but TFA had just enough throwback, great new characters. the 3 new cool characters poe fin and rey were all likeable and not too stupid: fin and rey running away etc; the oldboys coming back weren’t distracting: imagine if old Luke was trundling around with the gang too?

the tone was there, like how I think Ep iv captured the tone of The Hidden fortress, this captured the tone of Ep iv, it is a soft re-boot but that’s what the franchise needed after the massively negative overwhelming opinion of the prequels, which in themselves had SOME cool bits.

Yes, there is plenty of fan-service… planets looking similar Jakka Tatooine etc, parent-less jedi young’uns, part selling, rey can pilot a ship after being a scrapper, Troopers actually hit people, Chewie and Han, The opening rolling text, the circle in and out transitions, the establishing an enemy silent shot when being chased in the falcon by black trooper in tie fighter, the bridge scene, rey climbing around inside base, THE DOG FROM THE RAID IS A SPACE PIRATE GUY… a cantina scene. ]

People will argue the validity of the back story, how rey can kick kylo ren’s ass etc… but who cares? the film looked amazing, it was engrossing, it set’s up the next one well, it was a solid film.. Much better than say The Hobbit as a film that’s the first of a new-ish franchise. 35mm and 65mm film.