Friday, 21 November 2014

REVIEW - THE DROP (MICHAEL R ROSKAM)


A close-knit neighbourhood in New York substitutes for the innermost thoughts and feelings of the characters in The Drop. Secrets and lies abound, the criminality of the district keeping truth and honesty at bay; the sensation is one of palpable nervousness, of a wide-eyed terror brimming below bar-tops and beneath wary glares. Roskam's interpretation of Dennis Lehane's pompous mythology (Lehane wrote the short story on which this film is based) transmutes it into personal importance, rather than a broader societal one - with the aid of a talented cast of actors, he forms a small assemblage of passionate persons, their agendas hidden in plain sight. There's a peculiar, though winning, quality to Roskam's tone that enhances the gently frictional, tangibly tense feel to The Drop: verbal exchanges between characters illicit comical idiosyncrasies in their individual relationships, highlighting the little quirks in their behaviours that reside in our memory, fuelling the feeling that not all is exactly as it appears to be amongst them. Meanwhile, Marco Beltrami's string-dominated score undulates between insidiously chromatic chords, expressively signalling inwards, beneath those glares. What Lehane had to say initially may dull the impact, its triteness preventing The Drop from developing a mythology of its own that could have exalted the film to exceptional heights, but the fact that Roskam and this cast is evidently capable of achieving such a feat remains vividly obvious in their diligent and sensitive approach.

REVIEW - INTERSTELLAR (CHRISTOPHER NOLAN)


For all its supposed intellectual heft, Christopher Nolan's Interstellar functions as a film only when one abandons the head and follows the heart. Nolan himself takes a similar route through time and space to arrive at his cornball conclusion - it's gratifyingly earnest in its intentions, though off-putting in its methods. How far a film succeeds on its intentions generally boils down to the extent to which one's personal convictions align with the filmmaker's; thank goodness Nolan is so technically adept as a director, then. He produces consistently stunning images via a combination of canny production design and beautiful effects work, then arranges this alongside a bombastic soundscape to create a high-impact, maximalist style of filmmaking that's less original than it is effective. He puts it to its best use in conjunction with his human characters, enhancing the most potent elements of his story and thereby endowing otherwise wanting material with a tangible raison d'etre. He's more comfortable, and more successful overall, when he resigns the emotional components of Interstellar to baffling incompleteness, and devotes due attention to the film's creative content. Interstellar is actually less of a through-and-through stunner than the mind recalls - Nolan employs a resourceful approach toward his universe-spanning imagery, and the lasting impact is thus more vivid than the immediate one. It's this region of the brain, the one that responds to sensory stimuli, to which Interstellar makes the strongest connection, by a considerable distance. A troubling drama with a number of narrative missteps, and a questionable smart sci-fi, it makes up for its shortcomings by being an enthralling space epic on its own, curious terms.

TRAILER FOR JOHN WOO'S THE CROSSING, PART 1


The tragic sinking of the steamer Tai Ping in 1949 forms as the backdrop for John Woo's upcoming two-part epic historical drama, The Crossing. The film follows in the current wave of splitting movies in two, though while it may not ostensibly be in the vein of films such as those in the Harry Potter, The Hunger Games or Twilight franchises, it'll likely be a major blockbuster in its native China. It's often touch-and-go with Woo, but there simply looks to be so much going on in this trailer, and this is only the trailer for Part 1, that I'm already half-way sold. I'll say this much: they may not always be that good - this year's The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom sure ain't - but at least so many of China's most expensive studio products are able to boast beautiful production qualities, and take place not in some fantasised version of the present or the future, but in a history that's as rich as any screenwriter's imagination. The excellent Zhao Fei is the cinematographer. Released in China in December, with Part 2 arriving in domestic screens next May.

OBIT - MIKE NICHOLS


EGOT honoree, famed comedian and celebrated director Mike Nichols has died at age 83. Born Mikhail Peschkowsky in Berlin, he left Germany for the US upon the outbreak of war in 1939, and quickly forged a lucrative career in the entertainment industry as an adult. As a member of comedy duo Nichols and May, alongside frequent career collaborator Elaine May, he received a Grammy award, before receiving a number of Tonys through the 1960s, and thereafter, and an Oscar for The Graduate, only his second film, after the groundbreaking Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1966. An Emmy followed in the new millennium, or four Emmys did, to be precise. Among his most popular films are Silkwood, The Birdcage and Primary Colours. He is survived by his fourth wife, TV news anchor Diane Sawyer, and his three children, Daisy, Max and Jenny.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

REVIEW - HUMAN CAPITAL (PAOLO VIRZI)


Is this really what we've become? Paolo Virzi's Human Capital dictates the story of contemporary capitalism and its effects on society in a manner more insipid than incisive. On the topic of politics, his film is fairly sound, if far from revolutionary in the issues it raises and the means by which it delineates them; the film is primarily about those aforementioned effects, and on this topic it is an egregious misfire. Virzi explores various tiers within Italian culture in a wearisome narrative device that involves the plot basically starting three separate times, to form a tired ensemble piece about the cruelty of commerce in these trying times. Be it in the cliched characterisation, the humdrum direction or a script that seems thoroughly clueless to its own outrageously melodramatic tone, Human Capital is a laughable attempt to relate a tale that's been told dozens of times before in modern cinema - all that differentiates this film from its predecessors is its apparent dearth of artistry, and its surfeit of cringe-inducing moments, be they entire plot developments or mere snippets of dialogue. That Virzi has populated his cast with Italy's most popular bourgeois film stars doesn't contribute the beguiling layer of insidious irony it ought to, it simply smacks of a characteristic stab at projecting his film's monumental self-importance. Said irony finds occasional cracks in Virzi's concrete wall of pomposity to manifest itself as unintentional humour, but there's an unfortunately sweet-natured liberalness to Virzi's social commentary that nips any genuine snatches of humour in the bud most swiftly indeed.

Monday, 17 November 2014

REVIEW - NIGHTCRAWLER (DAN GILROY)


A city of cities, L.A. is America's ignorant ode to ambition, the little wishing to be large, towns and villages dwarfed by the monumental hills on one side, the vast desert beyond, the imposing ocean on the other and the gargantuan sky above. It is a place where the little people go to fashion themselves into larger ones, to see what bland, banal footage they film on their little cameras could potentially make it onto large screens. The illusion of success equates to ambition in Nightcrawler, a misanthropic thriller that trafficks in lurid detail but is driven mostly by its human elements, or at least its misanthropy is. Robert Elswit gives L.A. a strange sheen, neither romantic nor alluring, neither sickly nor disturbing - instead, soulless yet addictive, like the horrid, inhuman processes its characters endure for the measliest of returns. Personally, it's what repels one from them that also attracts one to them. Gilroy's film is full of folk who are full of themselves, and whose determination is what propels them ever further downwards, not upwards. Funny how they always seem to come out on top, then. Nightcrawler's nasty addictive nature extends to a slick score from James Newton Howard, and Jake Gyllenhaal's invaluable performance as an amateur cameraman manipulating his way into business with a faltering TV news network. Gyllenhaal is as aware of himself as his character is, but they share a common tenacity, and both reap considerable rewards. The film, too, is more rewarding than it should be - a pristine package, it's all in service of polishing up a concept and a story that are equally lacking in substance. But Nightcrawler functions excellently as a mildly-perverse quasi-B-movie.

REVIEW - THE BABADOOK (JENNIFER KENT)


Fear is quite literally in the mind in Jennifer Kent's The Babadook, an extraordinary debut feature from the Australian filmmaker. Appreciating that what scares us most is that which we know to be true but feel powerless to conquer, she realises the psychological as physical, confronting her characters with emotions they experience with frightening force yet are unable to quantify. It's thus that The Babadook may qualify as one of cinema's most terrifying films: Kent presents us not with the mythical boogeyman of our nightmares, fantastical and easy to wish away, but with a manifestation of pure pain and terror, and you can't get rid of the babadook. I can't quite get rid of it from my memory, so visceral is the horror that Kent has devised, with equal skill in her technical ability as in her conceptual, screenwriting ability. Her manipulation of space is masterful, emphasising areas we'd not yet identified as being there, or expanding the geography of her film through darkness, a thoroughly chilling device she makes extensive use of. Kent toys with concealed and unexplored physical space to evoke similar ones in one's psyche - you're left looking over your shoulder when leaving the cinema, checking under the bed at night, not for flesh and blood monsters who can be vanquished with a craftily-constructed slingshot, but for parts of ourselves we'd hoped never to re-encounter. Tech specs are perfectly calibrated to function as part of Kent's vision, integrated wholly into the film's key intent (plainly, to terrify); acting is as deeply disturbing as the film's other elements, and quite brilliant, from Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman.

REVIEW - MR. TURNER (MIKE LEIGH)


A stringent rebuttal of the conventions of biopic cinema; a vivid and tangible celebration of art in all its forms, with this form taking the depiction of a truly great artist, by another. As J. M. W. Turner's paintings were too, Mike Leigh's Mr. Turner is more landscape than portrait, encompassing all of that and those which characterised his existence, each momentary diversion cumulating into a picture as rich and clear as his own tableaus. It is a mere few scenes into Mr. Turner that the breadth of Leigh's scope is unveiled entirely, the passion and the precision with which he contemplates and examines art and artists both, whether they specialise in painting, music or his beloved process of acting, ringing out with his acute, sensitive touch. Mr. Turner possesses an immediacy missing from the majority of period pieces on film, Leigh's signature filmmaking techniques of improvisation and collaboration rarely so gratifyingly used than here, in 19th Century England. Yet it also possesses an ethereal quality, a sense of time passing languorously, a delicate watercolour piece on the constancy of a man's genius through time. What we observe is the extent of that genius, and its remarkable tenacity - as Turner ages, his mind and body slowly decaying toward death, his talent remains steadfast, seeming now to overwhelm him, rather than inspire him. Timothy Spall is appropriately physical as Turner, displaying a tactility that is most suited to this expressive figure, and that only enhances the film's vibrancy. No Mike Leigh film can go spoken of without extensive mention of its cast, and Spall is not the sole standout among it: Dorothy Atkinson and Marion Bailey are two particularly memorable presences as Turner's maid, Hannah Danby, and widow, Sophia Booth, respectively.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

CHRISTIAN BALE DROPS OUT OF STEVE JOBS BIOPIC


David Fincher was supposed to direct. They wouldn't pay him enough. They hired the man who beat him to an Oscar, Danny Boyle. Leonardo DiCaprio was supposed to star. He left to make The Revenant with Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. They hired Christian Bale. He's now exited Aaron Sorkin's take on the life of Apple founder Steve Jobs due to something akin to A-list cold feet, deciding that he wasn't right for the part. Not a typical move from an actor known for his fearlessness and for his dramatic transformations. Boyle + Sorkin + Bale = Jobs sounded an enormous amount more appealing than the Ashton Kutcher-starring biopic Jobs, so we await news of whom has been hired to replace the Oscar-winner in this lucrative role.

REVIEW - LISTEN UP PHILIP (ALEX ROSS PERRY)


Alex Ross Perry excoriates the thin-skinned, thick-headed culture of literary intellectualism in Listen Up Philip, a biting exercise in critiquing from the inside out. He crafts a novelistic insight into a series of characters of serious self-importance as they themselves might have done, only with the wisdom do acknowledge the depth of said self-importance. It's neither the comedy - which is sharp enough not only to draw wry humour from natural sources but to draw sly, stinging barbs from the most unlikely sources - nor the candid hopelessness - which is, in fact, possibly too coarse, too cruel, too neatly misanthropic. What gives Listen Up Philip is distinctively piquant flavour is Perry's ability to ingratiate broad elements and finer ones into the one unique style, one of an individual quality yet defined by the expansive mix that has informed its creation. Perry derives most deliberately, but is able to admit to this practice and thus offer a commentary on it, the film serving as both essay and evaluation. That's a convenient quirk, certainly, though Perry utilises that convenience for optimum effect, folding it into his perfectly-formed mixture of comedic influences and formal intellectualism. He takes aim at himself, at his American indie filmmaking contemporaries, at the New York literary crowd, even at Listen Up Philip's audience. That misanthropy may alienate some, though it's probably actually best suited to those whom it may bruise the hardest - they'll get it hardest too. The cast is exemplary, most if not all leads have never yet been stronger. The jazz soundtrack is a fantastic irritant, though it's Listen Up Philip's most ambiguous aspect: I'm unsure whether its inclusion was in genuine earnest or in mock earnest, but I assumed it to be the latter and chuckled away accordingly.