Friday, 24 April 2015

REVIEW - AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (JOSS WHEDON)


Now, in 2015, that we've reached peak saturation point in the ever-expanding subgenre of superhero movies, an acknowledgment must be made: this is no subgenre any more but a fully-fledged genre of cinema, with its own style, its own tropes, its own language. Funny that Avengers: Age of Ultron, a most archetypal example of the modern-day superhero movie, actually relates more in tone and in construction to the comic books that begat it and its multitudinous ilk; this is as close as any such film has come to emulating its comic book sources and inspirations since Ang Lee's Hulk 12 years ago. That's emphatically a good thing - though I've never read a comic book myself - since it represents an admission of what these movies ought to be: the purposes they ought to serve, and the guidelines under which they generally work best. Alongside Age of Ultron's dynamic visual scheme, Joss Whedon designs a film whereby the obligatory action sequences feel earned, a succession of narrative and emotional set-ups leading organically to violent clashes. That the action is both overblown and over-drawn out is not a necessary evil for films like this, but it's tolerable when one feels that bit more sated with the preceding plot and character development, in the understanding also that the action must conclude at some point, and it's these more persuasive details that Whedon must return to. Additionally, Whedon handles the action scenes fairly well, generally demonstrating a fine eye for spatial geography, coherent editing and the right kind of flair both in construct and in execution. This new genre of movies may have swollen so grossly that, within the confines of its particular style, tropes, language etc, there could never be a truly perfect product to emerge from it. For now, Avengers: Age of Ultron sets a benchmark. Future filmmakers could do worse than to follow it.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

REVIEW - LOST RIVER (RYAN GOSLING)


You may try to delve deeper into the meaning of Ryan Gosling's Lost River, in pursuit of the intensity of thought and feeling that I suppose the new writer / director aspires toward, but it's a shallow ditch of a waterway, rather than a grand cascade. Whether this is style over substance or not (and it is), the true test of films like these is whether or not they work on their own terms. What substance there ever may have been is not apparent here - it's not buried under thick layers of style, more like barely existing under a very thin layer. It's that style that Gosling instead tries to craft into a substance of his own, but therein lies the problem: it's not his own at all. He enlists Benoit Debie on cinematography because Enter the Void, Valdis Oskarsdottir on editing because Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Beth Mickle on production design because Drive... aha, there it is! A pastiche of finer works from finer filmmakers, the hollow employment of their legitimate techniques in service of artsy-fartsy wankery. Lost River thus functions entirely to appeal to the affected types, those of a similar constitution to Gosling, who might follow him down any little stream; there is no reasonable excuse for such silly concepts as these so indelicately treated. While Gosling may be well off the mark in thoroughly every respect, he at least provides Debie a rich canvas on which to work, which the talented DP does with customary invention and flair. The cast struggles with characters and dialogue deliberately under-developed; Ben Mendelson reaches breaking point at long last and collapses into self-parody. His egotistical dance routine is emblematic of Lost River's entire overblown enterprise, wholly misguided to the level of hilarity.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

REVIEW - TIMBUKTU (ABDERRAHMANE SISSAKO)


Whether it is in the art of constructing such rich, pointed scenarios, or in the art of recognising them in their natural state, there is undoubtedly true mastery at hand in Timbuktu. In naturally-lit compositions (electric or gas-powered lighting is sparingly used) of calm detachment and simple dignity, Abderrahmane Sissako devises a scene of silliness, a farce stripped to its barest in the pursuit of honesty, and thus a representation of the very opposite: reality revealing itself as folly. Sissako makes it easy to understand his situation, since it is so easily understood in its fundamental truths - power reconfigured as passion is fragile, and its fragmentation isolates its principles from its practices. In Timbuktu, order is applied through arbitrary enforcement of unjust rules and disproportionate punishment, one heavy layer of ignorance obfuscating the ideals to which these jihadists adhere so supposedly rigorously. Their very existence is nonsensical here, even more so as they attempt to revert society to a primitive state; this society that is depicted already as existing in a most elemental of states. Here, respect is earned, and itself respected; the filmmaking aspires to earn our respect too, both the nature of its conceit and in its treatment, visually, narratively, totally. Sissako's expressive restraint makes Timbuktu less a film that you feel, more an appropriately dispassionate facsimile of an impassioned mentality, that we might know more clearly his intents. No matter that it is a film that may not reside as vividly in one's memory as one feels it ought to - there is such mastery at hand in Timbuktu, and it's that mastery that will make this so powerful a film to revisit, as those memories wane.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

IAN MCKELLEN IN NEW TRAILER FOR MR. HOLMES


I felt more enamoured with Bill Condon's Mr. Holmes when it was called A Slight Trick of the Mind - no mind, though, as the critics seem fairly enamoured with the Sherlock Holmes drama nonetheless. This trailer, the second one for this film, omits Laura Linney's housekeeper character entirely; I can understand the need to excise material that may be extraneous to such a tight summation of the film, but I hope this is just a necessary misrepresentation of what it's actually like. Out in the UK on the 19th of June and in the US on the 17th of July - with the right kind of buzz sustained through the year, this could certainly spell Oscar hopes for Ian McKellen.

CANNES' DIRECTORS' FORTNIGHT LINEUP RIVALS MAIN COMP FOR QUALITY


Due to heavy-cast shade courtesy of Arnaud Desplechin and Miguel Gomes, the prestigious Directors' Fortnight programme at Cannes 2015 looks set to be one of the most formidable in the festival's history. Both saw their films shunned from competition for the Palme d'Or (no doubt in favour of lesser titles), and opted themselves to shun the Un Certain Regard sidebar and instead screen in Directors' Fortnight. Their films, respectively My Golden Years - the prequel to Desplechin's 1996 competition feature My Sex Life... or How I Got Into an Argument - and the six-hour-plus Arabian Nights, contribute to one of the finest slates for the sidebar in recent memory.

Gomes' latest entry into this selection is not the only one for a returning filmmaker here: Jeremy Saulnier made a big name for himself when he showed Blue Ruin in Directors' Fortnight two years ago, kicking off a promising career in feature films, while former Camera d'Or recipient Jaco van Dormael also has a film in play. Perhaps Thomas Bidegain, known for co-writing Cannes hits such as A Prophet and Rust and Bone could win that award this year; his film The Cowboys appears also.

The Societe des Realisateurs Francais, which organises this section of the festival, has also selected three films by women and a number more focusing on women, marking a clear improvement over the main competition - with fewer competition titles here too - and one of two Garrel family films to open - veteran Philippe Garrel's In the Shadow of Women, while closing up will be heavily-hyped Sundance comedy Dope. And Miike Takashi makes yet another return to the Croisette with a film only Miike could have gotten a screening at the world's premier film fest, gangland thriller Yakuza Apocalypse: The Great War of the Underworld. Cannes 2015 runs from the 15th to the 24th of May. Full details below:

  • Allende, Mi Abuelo Allende (Marcia Tambutti)
  • Arabian Nights (Miguel Gomes)
  • The Brand New Testament (Jaco van Dormael)
  • The Cowboys (Thomas Bidegain)
  • Dope (Rick Famuyiwa) - closing film
  • Embrace of the Serpent (Ciro Guerra)
  • Fatima (Philippe Faucon)
  • Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier)
  • The Here After (Magnus von Horn)
  • In the Shadow of Women (Philippe Garrel) - opening film
  • Much Loved (Nabil Ayouch)
  • Mustang (Deniz Gamze Erguven)
  • My Golden Years (Arnaud Desplechin)
  • Peace to Us in Our Dreams (Sharunas Bartas)
  • A Perfect Day (Fernando Leon de Aranoa)
  • Songs My Brothers Taught Me (Chloe Zhao)
  • Yakuza Apocalypse: The Great War of the Underworld (Miike Takashi) - special screening

REVIEW - 99 HOMES (RAMIN BAHRANI)


Besides openly berating us, the greatest insult a filmmaker can deliver an audience is condescension, treating us as fools unaware of their schemes, too blinded by their filmmaking mastery to take stock of their manipulative techniques. It's not an accusation, it's an assumption, and it's one that Ramin Bahrani can't help but make. To give him credit, there's a large portion of the American populace that does need told, just not like this - 99 Homes' rabid redress of the crushing impact of ruthless corporate culture and individualism on working class American homeowners is too brutish, too contrived and too one-sided to even begin to take cohesive effect. Bahrani is so incredibly unsubtle, so grandiose in his statements and so dismissive of the need for a remotely believable narrative that not only will he fail to convert those whom 99 Homes is targeted toward, he'll likely inspire ridicule and a dismissal of his own from those who don't need told to begin with. If Bahrani's villains are truly villainous, he makes a gross mistake in engendering our sympathy for them - entirely unintentionally, I expect - and in presenting his supposedly 'sympathetic' figures as laughing stocks. Even the notes of character ambiguity he attempts to introduce are basic, each insisting on a flat response from the audience. The film is enormously didactic, and the debate it engages in wholly self-contained, closed to interpretation. This level of browbeating is near interminable; that Bahrani hopes to hide it behind layers of earnestness and a genuinely impressive verite style of directing only enhances the insult. And none of it blinds us, an audience too keen to concede to condescension, no matter how valiantly the actors try. At the very least, Bahrani's consistent suppression of independent female voices in his films is so shameful as to render 99 Homes the latest dud from this would-be auteur.

Monday, 20 April 2015

CANNES 2015 CRITICS WEEK LINEUP IS REVEALED


Following Thursday's announcement of the two slates for the most high-profile strands at the Cannes Film Festival, the main competition and Un Certain Regard, fest organisers have now confirmed the lineup for the Critics' Week strand. A list of ten titles has been whittled down from over 1,000, and Israeli actor / director Ronit Elkabetz will be the worthy chair of the jury determining which of these films will receive official festival awards. The lineup is heavy on local talent, with two French films showing in competition and all three special screenings hailing from the festival's native land. All films selected are either first or second films, including the directorial debut of popular French actor Louis Garrel, and the sophomore offering from Elie Wajeman - The Anarchists, which follows his debut Aliyah, which played in Cannes' other parallel programme, Directors' Fortnight, three years ago.

Critics' Week Competition
  • Degrade (Arab Abunasser and Tarzan Abunasser)
  • Krisha (Trey Edward Shults)
  • Mediterranea (Jonas Carpignano)
  • Ni la Ciel, Ni la Terre (Clement Cogitore)
  • Paulina (Santiago Mitre)
  • Sleeping Giant (Andrew Cidivino)
  • La Tierra y la Sombra (Cesar Acevedo)

Critics' Week Special Screenings
  • The Anarchists (Elie Wajeman) - opening film
  • Les Deux Amis (Louis Garrel)
  • La Vie en Grand (Mathieu Vadepied)

REVIEW - A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON EXISTENCE (ROY ANDERSSON)


Roy Andersson does not need to make it as painfully obvious as he does in A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, though it's refreshing to see a filmmaker deploy such frank self-awareness. If the accessible artsiness he generously infuses his films with is at least tempered by the sensation that even Andersson himself is not taking any of this seriously, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch might mark breaking point for that sensation - imbued with so pointed an allegorical meaning, the film is less enjoyable, more didactic than he has devised before. And the joke's wearing thin - it gets by on the sheer heft of its humour, mitigating the transparency of Andersson's conceit, but by now it's old hat, and one may crave something new from this most specific, stylised of filmmakers. That style is employed here in full force, and it's almost as beguiling as ever, with the pallid palette of faded lime greens and chartreuse, the stark lighting, the angularity of all these straight lines and flat surfaces. It's an immensely expressive mise-en-scene, even if Andersson is a touch too enamoured with it himself. What will forever mark the most effective tools he has for manoeuvring within such strict compositions are the tilts into unexpected territory, and you'll be surprised by what memorable results are engendered through use of simple images and sounds that seem wholly organic to this film's style, yet are revealed to represent quaint, poignant little aberrations. In truth, it's the occasional surrender to convention, that which this film purports to reject, that cuts deepest; Andersson continues to find comfort in discomfort, and vice versa, and so do we - he needs to abandon his comfort zone and explore further possibilities. For such a master artist, this ought to be a fruitful exploration indeed. I have my fingers crossed for the next film.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

REVIEW - CHILD 44 (DANIEL ESPINOSA)


The signs are all there, that the intention was not to posit Child 44 as just another dark, gloomy Hollywood thriller (as it has been marketed), but instead as a perceptive, pertinent historical drama, commanding in its breadth and disarming in its depth. So why can't we see it? Why does one come to this realisation, to the truth of the matter, only after the film has finished? Dear, naive director Daniel Espinosa must be held accountable, ditto writer Richard Price, who has done better work for better films. Throw in cinematographer Oliver Wood on charge of banality and you've got a compelling body of evidence. They're only under the notion that what they're creating is a grand, epic work - their techniques suggest a collective ignorance in how actually to create such a film. Principally, their insistence on Tom Rob Smith's narrative blueprint as a classically cinematic one is wholly misplaced - Smith's narrative is highly involving, but too ambitiously structured to feel sufficiently coherent if its psychological and political complexities are not probed. Yet Espinosa leaves it all on the screen, neither trimming down the content that demands a more sophisticated approach nor indulging it with the intelligence it deserves. His means don't fit his end, in that treating a story this expansive, this deliciously convoluted as a run-of-the-mill thriller (as he appears able only to do) won't afford it the gravity he's aiming for. Amid this mess, poor Tom Hardy is stranded in a film that has little idea what to do with his talent. What a fearsome performance Hardy supplies, yet again, and what a lacklustre film he supplies it to. He's there for those signs that Child 44 ought to have been a more momentous affair, in the meandering storyline and the relaxed plotting. Would that anybody else was. Acquittals for editors Pietro Scalia and Dylan Tichenor, production designer Jan Roelfs and also for Noomi Rapace, but only just.

FIRST FULL TRAILER FOR DOPE


Earlier this week, the teaser trailer for Dope dropped online. Here's the follow-up, a fuller look at what the award-winning comedy / drama has to offer. Out in the US on the 19th of June.