Arrival – A Review

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If one morning I were to step from my front door to go to work and a skyscraper-sized foreign object levitated with ease 30 feet above me personally I think I’d be really, really excited rather than scared crazy. Firstly, the fact I’m alive in that situation means the aliens (and yes, I’d immediately assume aliens) were friendly and not rampant extra-terrestrial terrorists pew-pewing laser beams and therefore likely less of a risk to my health than a McDonald’s breakfast. From there, then, I’d be even more joyous at the prospect of first contact, interspecies complex relations that are mutually beneficial, new technology..

Based on the 2000 Nebula Award winning Sci-Fi novella The Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, Arrival, Directed by Québecois wonderboy Denis Villeneuve, is a clever multi-faceted look at how we, the humans of Earth, react to 12 stoic UFOs filled with things we neither recognise nor understand.

Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, a professor of Linguistics in America who makes Robert Langdon’s understanding of semantics look elementary. Louise is quickly re-recruited by army man Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) and teamed with Dr Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) in order to eventually communicate the question “What is your purpose on Earth?” to their otherworldly guests and decipher the answer hidden in their deep, menacing rumblings and creepy clicking sound that constitute their “language”.

In a series of over 30 meetings Louise and Ian begin at the beginnings and treat the silent visitors, who’re behind a protective clear screen, like foreigners from planet Earth and attempt to learn to speak the lingo. Imagine trying to learn Dog. Someone must of tried it. If you’d only just met a dog for the first time it would be ignorant to assume dogs have no means of aural communication with one another but is it as silly to think the way they mark territory with their urine to be as complex a means of communication as our written word? I don’t know and when Louise has a squid-ink ring squirted onto the screen before her she  has to use all her talents to derive all the meaning she can from it; who knows, maybe it just sneezed.

Benefiting from clearly exceedingly imaginative source material Villeneuve and CGI crew were able to bring loads of awe-inspiring imagery and set-pieces to an already gripping storyline. The giant eggish spaceships over lush fields had me thinking of rugby matches for the Gods, the perspective shifts with artificial gravity were gorgeous, certain scenes running through military tent tunnels looked straight out of Sicario. In my opinion some brutish writing surrounding certain countries response to foreign bodies in their airspace was a little lazy and reinforces stereotypes. Also, the whole “if we work together we can do anything!” side to international co-operation is a little stale as a plot driver; thankfully however there are more than enough “whoaaah” and “aaaaah I get it” moments that I won’t delve into here that keep it all fresh.

I’m always glad to see a new Villeneuve pop-up and I’m incredibly excited to see he’s at the helm of Blade Runner 2049; hopefully Arrival was just a warm up.

8.7/10

I, Daniel Blake – A Review

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Remember when you wrote people letters?

British master director Ken Loach with I, Daniel Blake makes an incredibly timely realist film drawn from the same tried and true vein as Kes and Riff-Raff.

In a connected modern world too many people are forgotten. Screenwriter Paul Laverty’s heartfelt story of an independent and clever old Geordie caught in a bureaucratic nightmare is painful to watch in the best way possible. Photographed candidly on the streets of Newcastle and dramatically in its cheapest rented abodes an all too relatable picture of society’s rock bottom is brought to incredibly select cinemas across small parts of the country for our viewing displeasure.

Specifically, Dan’s troubles begin with a heart attack that puts him off work by his doctor’s request. Unfortunately, most people don’t have the luxury of being able to just stop working anymore. Anyway, that’s what Employment and Support Allowance is for; supporting those in need, right? A safety net for the tax-paying citizens of this fair nation until they can once again stand on their own two, over-worked and underpaid feet. The crux of the film, then, is the missing link between his GP, who orders him to not work until fit and the “Healthcare Professional” that after having filled out a points-based questionnaire over the phone with Dan, states the opposite. So he shouldn’t work, but he can, apparently, so he has to find a new job but he can’t take it. Throw in trying to apply for Job Seeker’s Allowance. Throw in how they do everything online. Throw in he’s an older fella who’s less familiar with the ins-and-outs of E-mail and the internet than Hilary Clinton and you’ve got yourself a movie.

A model of a man, the character of Daniel Blake is fleshed out in its entirety through many well written interactions with his neighbours and the stone-like, dead-eyed drones he meets while he’s out trying to get things done. He’s fatherly to his entrepreneurial young neighbour, he yells at the forking man and his dog turning the grass surrounding his run-down castle into a poop minefield. Overhearing a young single mother whose JSA appointment, barely missed, could ruin her life if not completed that day, Daniel is spurred into life against the establishment and asks no.1 in the queue if he’ll just let the young lady jump in real quick – a seemingly simple solution right? Wrong. They’re both thrown out because common decency doesn’t comply with procedure.

The film successfully generates hatred in the viewer towards paperwork, towards the rich and greedy and conversely warms us with tender moments of human interaction and acts of bureaucratic kindness common amongst our realest people. An intense irony runs throughout the film that verges on comical but excellent emotive performance from Dave Johns and Hayley Squires mask the cynical undertones. One such moment for me was when Daniel and around 30 others are being taught how to write a CV and how to make it stand out; surely they’d all end up writing it the same way if they work according to the class’s plan? Forced to run a rat-race he no longer understands, in a world he no longer recognises, it’s impossible not to feel for the man. Provocative questions are raised. Do we place too much of our identity in what we do for work? Is the act of kindness dying? To what extent should we help our fellow man? The media, refugee crises, the NHS, Brexit. We’re just people trying to stay alive, see this film and self-medicate a reality check.

British filmmaking at its best.

8.7/10

Captain Fantastic – A Review

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Writer-Director Matt Ross brings us Captain Fantastic; the story of a family that isn’t satisfied with “civilised” live in the modern age. There’s a lot of dissatisfaction in people in general these days and people deal with this looming feeling differently. Some people travel and wander in search of fulfilment, some hone a craft and reduce the world’s complications to stitches in a homemade knitted sweater or joints in a carpentry project. Others delve into the world of readily available media in all its forms and seek the truth from the words and expressions of others and I think right now I am one of these people tumbling down the cinematic and literary rabbit hole. People say the education system is flawed, kids shouldn’t be schooled only to pass exams, this film embodies that point of view.

Dripping in references to acclaimed high-brow literature, music and personas you’d think Woody Allen had a hand in writing Captain Fantastic. The film is light-hearted enough that many viewers won’t feel inadequate but it does come close to the border of being a little elitist and difficult to relate to (the book Ready Player One, soon to be film, may one day be similarly accused) which in my opinion may detract from the moral of the story.

Ben (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife had several uniquely named children and, being much smarter than everyone else, decided to rescue them from monotony and tedious lifestyles by moving into the forest and teaching them a hunter-gatherer, nomadic way of life infused with poetry, music and philosophical writings to broaden their horizons. There are many hilarious moments built around this concept, and equally as many touching ones. Learning all you know about anything through a book rings of Good Will Hunting and there are several similar scenes hinging in a similar fashion on awkward recital of textbook phrases and lack of pop culture knowledge. They sing and dance, hunt, and read together as a family except one member becomes unreachable early on in the film and paradise becomes paradise lost as they family dynamic is upset dramatically.

The ideas tackled in the film surrounding proper parenting in the modern age are done so without shyness or tact for younger audiences much like the manner in which Ben communicates with his kids; free from civilised social grace the often taboo topics of politics and sex are spoken about openly which gives the film a very liberating feel. That being said there are also moments that, due to the nature of a sole teacher teaching many, the elf-like kids with flowers in their hair appear indoctrinated and despite their indoctrination being with liberal, progressive and intelligent thinking I couldn’t keep certain enraging images from the film Jesus Camp popping into my brain. The film is generally gorgeous to watch as well with a charmingly low-budget aesthetic that sparingly uses drone shots and CGI but to great effect.

To wrap it up, then. Yeah, it was a bit preachy. Occasionally melodramatic. Harping on about the flaws in society like hundreds of other films have done before, more of the same etc. etc. I still liked it. What can I say, I’m a sucker for quirkiness, for references, for hunter-gatherer 8-year old american kids with combat knives – it’s hilarious.

Enjoyed it. 7.5/10

Late To The Party: Être et Avoir – A Review

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Être et avoir.

To be and to have.

These verbs and their auxiliary forms are the metaphorical spinal column of most of the world’s languages; the branches on which every adjective and noun feeds. Here in Nicolas Philibert’s profoundly simple documentary film we observe a man planting equally strong roots in the minds of cute little French children of varying ages as only a masterful school teacher can. Georges Lopez drives the school bus, teaches, watches out at break-time, plays games, provides a shoulder to cry on. He’s a superhero to these kids, Philibert captures their awe in their eyes and what’s more, each of them, Georges admits, are just as magic to him.

Filmed in St Etienne de somewhere-or-other, call it rural France, in a one-room, 3 class school of about 15 kids ages 4-11 – an almost inconceivable schooling concoction from even a rural British perspective – Georges, the ultimate father figure, looking like Jean Reno if he’d watched a few more Apple Keynotes when Jobs had the reigns, literally does it all. The film, released in 2002, poignantly snapshots country life and how that affects education for young people. For example, Julien, a plump young farmer’s boy at age 10 or 11 is driving small tractors at home, cleaning cowsheds, doing dishes and so on, all relatively adult chores, but him and his family can barely complete his 3 times table homework; which is more urgent, teaching the boy to work or teaching him to multiply?

Georges obviously encourages the latter. Throughout the film Monsieur uses every trick in the book, every mental manipulation his 25 years teaching experience has garnered him to draw the best human being from his kids. Note, human being, not student, a distinction understood but ignored by the majority of educational systems worldwide in this technological age. Unsurprisingly excellent teaching makes for excellent documentary film with several incredibly relatable, touching scenes making huge waves in my soul throughout. In the extra interview DVD feature, Philibert states how he makes films “with” and not films “about”; this observative, distant style coupled with the gripping formative childhood moments are an ingenious match. Close-ups of confused faces who’ve forgotten which number comes after 6, joyous young faces elated after simply washing paint from their hands, the ol’ classic enraged yet tearful grimacing mug of an innocent 4 year old who’s been pushed over in a puddle and now he “can’t go skating”???. The crushing feelings of powerlessness and fear when a parent is sick. This closeness between the pupils with one another and with Mr Lopez is almost non-existent nowadays with population increases and social pressures for “success” – not to mention flagging numbers of men in primary educative roles – so watching in 2016 I felt like I was being taken back in time rather than drowning in nostalgia for the days when napping at school was encouraged.

The aforementioned magic moments may not seem like much as they really have to be seen to be believed. I think we all still hold on tightly to certain early moments in our lives and fondly remember and appreciate the efforts of people whose love for what they were doing and whose understanding of such moments at the time diffuse into the way you or I perceive life. My French teacher, I remember taught me about art. My personal tutor and chemistry teacher, about hard work. My friends, friendship. We don’t tend to have time to reflect on specific moments, even the ones we do remember which makes capturing them tastefully so fantastic thereby giving us another tool in our arsenal as we build towards being aware of ourselves and our own flaws so that we can understand the hardships of others.

An incredible film that highlights the importance of good teachers.

And that concludes today’s lesson.

9/10

Late To The Party: All About My Mother – A Review

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What a wonderful film.

I definitely wasn’t ready for Pedro Almodóvar’s masterpiece All About My Mother on this, the morning Tuesday 16th August.

A clever young man watches Mankiewicz’ Magnum Opus All About Eve on his birthday with his mother. The lad’s irked by the film’s inaccurately translated Spanish title and he translates it himself, “all about my mother” he writes, instead. He’s old enough to want to know his father who’s been missing since before he was born and questions his mother but they agree to discuss after watching A Streetcar Named Desire in theatre for his little birthday treat.

After the show, the boy, Esteban, runs after the tired out thespian’s taxi and is killed by a car. The mother, Manuela (Cecilla Roth), who’s a hospital nurse specialising in posthumous organ donation, signs away his heart and other essentials and flees from their established home in Madrid to Barcelona to tell the father of the loss of their only son.

Already sounding particularly highly emotionally charged, isn’t it? The strong performances across the cast, the magnificent storyline and heart-breaking writing turn this tear-jerker up to 11 and it would be a sin to disclose any more of its secrets. Almodóvar’s oeuvre consists of many films predominantly around the lives of women. He focuses on their majesty, their foresight, the power of their emotion and the power they have in their own flawed, real, beautiful lives. Take this film, the story of a grieving mother being sucked into the already dramatic lives of others that nods back to great female performances from day’s gone by.. It’s refreshing and full of life. I couldn’t tear my eyes away, the character writing had me hooked through the heart with it’s inclusivity of all types of women and how they can all be special.

Absolutely a film that has to be seen to be believed; one woman’s unwilling journey into the depths of her human experience and the comparable horror felt by the strong, independent women around her.

9.2/10

 

 

Suicide Squad – A Review

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Is Suicide Squad more entertaining (therefore objectively better in the case of most comic book adaptations) than, say, fellow DCEU flick Batman Vs Superman? Of course.

Did I fall asleep during the film like I did during Ant-man, a second-rate Marvel, another textbook origin story with bland, boring characters that’s only held together by fairly cool puny punch-ups? Nope, wide awake.

Can this lovable bunch of rogues compete with the likes of Starlord and Groot? Guardians being the slightly more kid-friendly and most beloved recent MCU comparable ensemble pic that brandishes unlikely heroes, a killer soundtrack and a similarly flat, sequel-inducing plot? Not quite.

I don’t claim to know the source material of any of the aforementioned films so I can claim to be completely objective in my assessment of the writing, the visuals, the acting, the camerawork etc. I’m not biased one way or the other. I’m sure the scores will stabilise and of course I take film ratings (despite doing my own) with a pinch of salt but the “critical” response to Suicide Squad I think is uncalled for. It’s much better than people are saying and people are seeing it despite the negativity. It’s not staying with you and having you recall buttplug jokes like Deadpool but dear God is it streets ahead of Jurassic World or the Avengers 2.

So, David Ayer, a writer and director who’s been involved in several great films since the early 2000s heads up SS with a fairly ethnically diverse cast including 2 Aussies (Robbie and Courtney), Jared Leto, Will Smith, Cara Delevigne, rap star Common, Jay Hernandez and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. A suitably extensive introductory sequence is churned out for each character while they’re all locked up and we learn how this ragtag group of misfits must team up and (because of the nano-explosive chip in their necks) put aside their personal interests and heartlessly fight like mercenaries to save Midway City.

The plot is as linear as a plot could ever be; literally, fight your way to the top and beat the boss. The boss is the Enchantress (Delvevingne) and her brother. Enchantress wants to form an army to destroy the human race, the race that worshipped then abandoned her many thousands of years prior. The wild idea to form the squad is approved and, lead strictly by Rick Flag (Kinnaman), the group heads into the fray. Hitman Deadshot (Smith), motivated to see his daughter again, brings the relatable spin to the group right before headshotting hordes upon hordes of transformed blotchy-faced mutant soldiers. Sexy, crazy Harley Quinn joyfully bonks the brains of her enemies with her bat and hammer (which has the the best sound effect for any weapon ever) while she awaits rescue from her Puddin’. Diablo (Hernandez) holds fire until absolutely necessary and Killer Croc and Boomerang fight too but the emphasis is very much on Harley’s backside for most of the film. Killer Croc is to SS what Drax is to Guardians or Wun Wun the troll in Game of Thrones Ep9 The Battle of The Bastards. Another Hero. To quote myself in my Guardians review:

“Without the snappy lines of dialogue from Star-Lord, Rocket and well, excellent delivery of the one line from Groot, GotG would fall flat on Drax and Gamora’s poorly written, uninteresting faces. “

Does this mean all the characters are poorly written? Does this mean the film’s dialogue is boring and generates apathy towards the characters? Absolutely not. Some of the characters end up different to how they started and that’s all you need for an arc. I consider these films like comic books themselves, I would never expect a new, wiser Spiderman in every edition because he’s always going to be following his moral compass; never swapping it out for a new one. Not to mention people talk about character development like it’s a necessity..

I think the portrayals of all the characters were great too. Leto’s Joker is freakishly scary and unpredictable and his manic, hilariously erratic queen Harley is a joy to watch and brings a lot of the film’s jokes. The appearance of various other DCEU characters was interesting. The story of how they were all initially captured transitioned quickly into the squad getting out on the street, a no-BS approach I appreciated a lot. The lack of restraint in the CGI of our super-villains was probably a good thing for intensity purposes though how the hell they’ll top this villain in a sequel I just don’t know.

All in all, it didn’t feel like a cash-grab and it was thoroughly entertaining. It was occasionally stylish, it was often funny and one point I felt a bit of tension.

I can’t remember what I dreamt during Ant-Man.

7.5/10

The Neon Demon – A Review

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The Neon Demon (rated 18), directed by the opinionated, edgy and unshy Danish powerhouse Nicolas Winding Refn, hits on the fashion – more specifically modelling – industry for its vulgarity, emptiness and insatiable obligation for perfection like thousands of films before it have done. But Refn made it sexier with flashing lights and deep bass, he made this film moodier with acerbic writing and caricaturish characters. He recreates the insanity and the loneliness of being at the top, the fleeting feelings of acceptance and euphoria, and the crushing deprecation from those who are hot towards those who for some genetic aesthetic faux pas are not.

So small town girl Jesse (Elle Fanning), wide-eyed and innocent looking like a young Sissy Spacek has had a friend snap a few shots of her dolled up and dead-eyed (she’s posing dead on a chaise lounge) and she’s straight up got what everybody wants. She’s an angelic natural blonde, 16 years old and glowing radiantly from every angle like she’s eaten the Fountain of Youth. Christina Hendricks, like Matthew McConaughey in Wolf of Wall Street, appears briefly. Here, as a talent agent – an impressed, awe-struck agent – she compares Jesse to the other girls; how she sees little cutie-pie country bumpkins every week but none like Jesse, no, “You’re going to be great” she finishes with, encouragingly.

And henceforth down the rabbit-hole young Jesse tumbles. Holed up alone in a cheap motel Jesse combats loneliness by maintaining her “friendship” with her original photographer and diving into the “social” scene where America’s tallest, thinnest and emptiest elite look at one another piercingly, “who’re you f-ing?” she’s asked repeatedly by the other models who at first are clearly too self-absorbed to see what the agents, photographers and designers are inevitably going to be turned on by. I say turned on deliberately, one particular designer brutally ignores the “who’re you f-ing?” girl and, upon seeing Jesse, hilariously and orgasmically oozes wonderment and you can see the inspiration forming into design ideas in the light of his eyes.

Refn moves The Neon Demon along with quiet discussion and deliberately bland, robotic situations that paint a picture of what people in the industry can be like. Very pretentious characters pour over their own ego and brag of their work whilst still seeming hugely defensive and insecure, immediately attacking one another to protect their image when the need arises. These more refined scenes are merely intervals in the visual spectacle of several sensational scenes that portray the manic high-energy party lifestyle, the euphoria of being the undisputed best, the hysteria in finding sadness during moments of self-realisation. The combination of light and dark emotional times for Jesse and the visualisation of these abstract human urges like wanting to be a recognised individual but still part of a community with the gritty Refn twists make for a thoroughly entertaining film. The music is electrifying and contributed further to my feeling that Gaspar Noé was a major influence here (many moments derivative of Enter The Void and even the presence of Karl Glusman from Noé’s Love, another incredibly provocative film).

To summarise, this is a work that’s clearly a progression of Refn’s oeuvre, it takes from but is not particularly similar to all of the Director’s work, which is hugely commendable. The sets, costumes and general seething vibe throughout brought about a tone which I felt could exist in the cut-throat world of high-fashion.

A must-watch, stay for the music video/credits sequence thing, it’s sick.

8.1/10

Cemetery of Splendour – A Review

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Cemetery of Splendour, Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s newest film was exactly what my mind and body needed after a long-ish week to relieve a little tension. The film exists in the lives of the people supporting a small band of comatose soldiers recovering in a pop-up ward in a classroom in a small village. My only other experience with the director is with Boonmee, a gentle, spiritual film not unlike Cemetery of Splendour.

Jen, a volunteer in the ward with a wide-eyed American husband and legs of unequal length, devoutly worships her religious idols in the hopes of being rewarded with a youthful appearance. The tranquil village hums with the incessant chirps and skrees of invisible insects, chickens and smaller winged creatures walk where they please as the people of this settlement go about their business: attending doctor appointments, visiting the library etc. Jen and the nurses sit aside their wounded patients without much to offer aside from cleaning their bodies, delaying bed sores and talking to ears like one might talk to their growing plants. The doctor, rarely present, oversees installation of coloured light therapy equipment said to fight off bad dreams in the patients; the 6ft hook/candy cane shaped glowing poles bathe the still space in soft hues like those found lighting a quiet 70s drug fuelled chill-out rather than a nightclub.

A young medium, Keng, who can communicate with the men builds bridges between Jen and one particular soldier who Jen, after reading the man’s cryptic notebook, begins to see like the son she never had. Around the same time, Jen learns a potential reason for why the men won’t wake that’s based just as deeply in the realm of the intangible; slowly, Jen, taking what she knows and doesn’t know about life, deliberates her awareness of herself and those around her.

With almost no CGI and no fancy camera work (~3 instances of pan/zoom in the whole film and the rest being still camera shots) Cemetery of Splendour still proves to be a beautiful film. Most shots are composed and contained within the frame, the story is told without something new entering our field of view or leaving it. It’s beauty for me however was not visual but instead truly spiritual, myths and lore exist on the fringes of being real in this film which in somewhere like this small Thai village is fitting whereas in the modern Western world I live in I couldn’t feel less innately connected to what I can’t see.

A truly meditative experience if given the time and energy.

7.5/10.

The Nice Guys – A Review

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Slick and silly.

Shane Black’s The Nice Guys’ logline could be something along the lines of:

Sentimental strongarm and lovably mopey PI delve into missing girl case and are eventually lead into LA’s Adult Section where if you have the sway anything’s barely legal.

That’s great, watchable, probably, but The Nice Guys is a comedy throughout. It has this storyline that’s ever-present and complicated that subverts your expectations (take the opening of Gosling in the bath wherein first you see just his head, then his dry top half of his clothes so you think the tub is empty, then you see it’s full of water). There’s quiet, tender moments and grand nail-biting action set-pieces, a concluding few scenes with tension comparable to The Chaser for me. It has these highs and lows and still hits the mark with so much of the comedy riddled throughout that left me breathless every few minutes. Slick goodies, slick baddies, slick sets and costumes and silly jokes that undermine it all perfectly; I’m glad I didn’t see X-men instead.

Kind of like in Altman’s Short Cuts the air in town is the invisible driving force behind the film’s plot. Bear-like Crowe and Robert Downey Gosling bring tonnes of energy in their big shades and bright shirts, enamouring us with witty quips and funny petty arguments, slapstick and Jackie Chan-like fancy fight scenes. It felt original, not encroaching on the trodden Hollywood porn house/studio feel of Boogie Nights but instead mixing it with the urgency of Chinatown or LA Confidential and then watering it down with the physicality and silliness of Rush Hour’s frenetic duo.

At 116 minutes it could be a little long for some viewers though I respect that it tended to the relationship-building  scenes between the characters properly, showing restraint in the comedy at the right moments when needed which ultimately pulls us into the conflict when that restraint has its arse slapped and sent packing.

Definitely watch this film.

8/10