Tuesday, 3 March 2015

REVIEW - WILD TALES (DAMIAN SZIFRON)


Tongue is situated firmly, immovably in cheek for Wild Tales, a delectable collection of short films that relies on no crutch, no arbitrary connecting tissue, no outrageous escalation of violence, no running gag to engage. It relies on good storytelling, on techniques that are simple to utilise and also to identify, but that are rare, and difficult to hone. Damian Szifron's film (or films) is funny and shocking in equal measure, often simultaneously, but never due to any ostensibly grand effort; viewer investment in the premises of his stories is required in order to respond to any of them. Szifron devises clear, solid scenarios, twisting the course of everyday situations just slightly, preying on our everyday fears and worries - much of Wild Tales' pleasure comes from imagining how one would react in place of the characters herein. The style of Szifron's mise-en-scene is deceptively plain, and for good purpose - you never notice how he directs not only his actors but his audience too, aligning our attention and our sympathy for maximum emotional impact; his stylistic indulgences are likewise economical both in character and in frequency, and only ever compliment the core concerns of the stories. Each short tale increases in length as the film progresses, which ensures that our attention spans are primed and prepared for the next story every time; perhaps accordingly, the quality of the tales also increases, by and large, though there's a delightfully resonant kick to the first, manic short in the selection.

Monday, 2 March 2015

REVIEW - FOCUS (GLENN FICARRA AND JOHN REQUA)


Focus is a simple affair, and a fair indication of the current state of the film industry. Its weaknesses raise concerns within said industry that will be new to few; the ease with which it earns our interest and affection raises concerns within ourselves. Nevertheless, there's a place for simple affairs like this, with simplistic, slick styling that both placates and enervates those with genuine concerns about the state of the film industry. Focus feels like a conscious attempt at creating a 'contemporary update' on a classic theme, that of the glamorous criminal enterprise and the sexy, smart thieves who may be playing each other, and us, as much as their unwitting victims. That's always going to be an engaging premise - it deals in deception yet also in clear, detailed plotting, and there's little more innately compelling to an audience than a meticulously conceived plot. Where writer-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa go wrong, considering the natural strength of their scenario, is in their direction. That they ply scene after scene with invisible style, that is to say style that barely registers as style, is inevitable and acceptable; that they fail to show any sign of invention, or even aptitude at times, in the basic elements of their mise-en-scene is worrying. Somehow, they bungle a number of key sequences with leisurely cutting and tight, drab framing. Lead actors Margot Robbie (sadly saddled with a role that only becomes more deficient as the film progresses) and Will Smith mitigate their directors' shortcomings  with their undeniable charisma, but neither do they provide anything so bold to this film as to raise it from its own main, nagging concern: mediocrity.

Friday, 27 February 2015

REVIEW - THE SECOND BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL (JOHN MADDEN)


If as much time was spent in the making of The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel as any other film, as much money invested into its production, as many frames of film as any of its length, as many soundwaves as depart the cinema speakers and land upon our eardrums, why is it that there seems to be so much less to say about it? What is it that makes this kind of art so seemingly unartistic? The images upon those frames communicate only what they appear to communicate, the words that are spoken by its inhabiting figures the same, the musical score acts as an intensifier or a signifier but never a source of meaningful enrichment. It's inoffensive, and fairly loathsome for being so inoffensive. The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel very nearly topples its predecessor from its lowly perch of ignominy as it appears to rest upon a running theme of wealthy white English people emigrating to India to rob locals of their livelihoods, and of celebrating this as an excellent way to find employment for the elderly. The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel doesn't even acknowledge that it's communicating that. It's much too concerned with much too many plot pieces for its own good - John Madden is a director with a lively style about his work, but he's much too literal-minded to be able to mould this screenplay's unwittingly unconventional structure into anything shapely. It's a rather frenetic example of what not to do when developing a franchise - for everything you add, you must take away, even when there's so little to say about a film in the first place. Where this film finally elevates itself, defying expectations set up by Best Exotic #1, is in its sobering acceptance of the solemnity of old age. The casual asides about mortality eventually come to ring truer than they initially did, and the tone of the film's final act is one of modest yet immovable melancholy. There's still nothing particularly artful about that, but I'll admit to not caring - it's this film's sole display of creative credibility, and it's a significant one too.

THE LADY IN THE VAN TRAILER


I mean it when I claim that Gosford Park was both the best and the worst thing that's ever happened to Maggie Smith's career. She's spent the years since playing grouches, and while she's very good at it and has experienced a genuine professional renaissance in later life as a result, I'd rather like to see her show audiences what she's capable of. It looks to me that The Lady in the Van may provide her with an opportunity to expand at least a little on her current go-to part. Personally, I'll watch her in anything, I think she looks particularly good in this, and the trailer made me laugh several times. No matter what the critics make of it, I'll be there for Maggie. Veteran British character actor (aren't they all?) Alex Jennings pulls off a terrific Alan Bennett impression (wouldn't Alan Bennett, of all people, have an eccentric old lady living in a van in his driveway for 15 years?) too. Out in the UK on the 15th of November, and I'm at least smelling Golden Globe nominations from here.

NEW TRAILER FOR THE DEAD LANDS


So... basically... what you're saying is... this is Apocalypto 2? That's what the above trailer seems to say for Toa Fraser's The Dead Lands, which appears to be a comparison both simplistic in its appreciation of international historical cultures and also fairly appropriate in its appreciation of tone and content. Who am I to judge, though? Read up on what critics had to say about the film when it premiered last year at TIFF - they were pretty complementary, overall. Out in the US on the 17th of April and in the UK on the 29th of May.

BRIAN WILSON BIOPIC LOVE & MERCY - FIRST TRAILER


No-one expected Love & Mercy to be much good. Producer Bill Pohlad has a strong track record in that profession, but how many established producers ever turned out to be capable directors too? And not to hate on either Paul Dano or John Cusack, but neither rank among the most acclaimed or most bankable actors of their respective generations. And the world wasn't exactly calling out for a biopic of The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson. Yet, the reviews out of Venice last year were very strong. The promising film makes its international theatrical debut in the US with a release on the 5th of June. You can now expect it to be good.

GOING CLEAR - TRAILER FOR SCIENTOLOGY DOC


Convinced, as one may be inclined to be these days, of the increase in potential visibility and appreciation for documentary filmmaking on TV as opposed to that in cinemas, Alex Gibney's new film is getting a TV premiere next month, on the 29th of March, in the US. The film was met by much acclaim, a little disappointment and an enormity of media attention when it showed earlier this year at Sundance. To all my non North American readers, I'm afraid you'll not be able to view this trailer for Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, as HBO has not made it available for our viewing, so you'll have to search for it on another platform. A US theatrical release is currently slated for the 16th of May.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

REVIEW - LA MAISON DE LA RADIO (NICOLAS PHILIBERT)


A precise, precious film. There's little grand societal or philosophical worth to an examination of the workings of Radio France over 24 hours, and Nicolas Philibert knows that. His film, La Maison de la Radio, is economical and unpretentious, at least as unpretentious as its subjects. Philibert, perhaps in an attempt to provide variety for his edit, drops his camera in on a few musical recordings and rehearsals, an adjunct to all the backstage discussions and on-air debates - the musical segments at times only illuminate the oddity of French cultural tastes. Elsewhere, La Maison de la Radio indeed illuminates, though its significance as a portrait piece is dwarfed by its sheer enjoyability. Philibert deploys naturally-occurring humour and levity to wonderful effect, and responds to it by structuring his edit with an appropriate cheek, as well as a deft feel for rhythm and overall pacing. He's at a loss when it comes to winding his little concerto down - he appreciates the power of silence as well as any filmmaker, but not how to accent it - nevertheless, this is a finely-tuned work of technical skill and perceptiveness. One suspects that this enterprise was immaculately planned, but not practised, as the general spontaneity and unassumingness of his human subjects suggests. Rather, La Maison de la Radio feels like the product of sensitivity and care, and a deal of circumstantial luck. Either way, it's immensely engaging, and pretty thorough for its runtime, which is shy of two hours total. It doesn't amount to much, but Philibert's acceptance of that fact enables him to make precisely the kind of precious little film this ought to be.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

REVIEW - ESCOBAR: PARADISE LOST (ANDREA DI STEFANO)


The white man travels south to discover that the dreams he sought are not so simply obtained as he thought in Andrea di Stefano's unwittingly offensive Escobar: Paradise Lost. It functions as a fairly rancid warning to Westerners not to venture outside our beloved homelands without considerable caution, whilst venerating our supposed right to colonise at will. Not as big of a stretch as that might seem, regarding this film's narrative blueprint, since it's that narrative's principal propulsion. Escobar: Paradise Lost flirts with the politics that should have taken up such a position, that of providing momentum for the film's plot alongside moral ambiguity; di Stefano gladly employs such mild political uncertainty to lure us in and to shake us up, forcing it to dictate the directions of our sympathy. It's not difficult to see how much more complex matters must have been in reality, nor how much more complex it would have been to write this screenplay taking that into proper account. As a crass, simplistic thriller, though, Escobar: Paradise Lost has some wholly effective sequences, including an exciting final act that justifies the film's length - up to this point, its formulaic nature has caused serious dragging issues. Virtually the only aspect that keeps the film afloat at all is Benicio del Toro as Pablo Escobar - watch how del Toro does ostensibly so little, yet so thoroughly convinces you of his character. His power is palpable in even the slightest, subtlest of gestures, a subtlety that this film is so below, so unworthy of. Its only subtext is its soft-peddled xenophobia.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

THE WORST FILMS OF 2014


1. sxtape (Bernard Rose)
2. The Judge (David Dobkin)
3. The Equaliser (Antoine Fuqua)
4. Exodus: Gods and Kings (Ridley Scott)
5. Horns (Alexandre Aja)
6. Human Capital (Paolo Virzi)
7. The Sacrament (Ti West)
8. Very Good Girls (Naomi Foner)
9. The Humbling (Barry Levinson)
10. The Zero Theorem (Terry Gilliam)