Tuesday, 31 March 2015

REVIEW - PHOENIX (CHRISTIAN PETZOLD)


A classical historical drama that serves not to remind us of our place in the history it documents, but to remind us of its place in the cinematic history it references. Christian Petzold finds an ideal conduit for his lean, measured, expressive style in the classics of old, and conjures up some of their movie magic with a modern classic of his own. The screen virtually simmers with tension and with emotion equally deep and deeply buried. Phoenix is, alas, one of those films where you wonder if your lasting impression is of the film as a whole or of just one scene - never mind, that impression is what it is either way, and if Petzold wishes to draw focus in on one particular moment over the others, then why shouldn't he? Otherwise, Phoenix is subdued, and quite appropriately so: Petzold thus turns our thoughts outward from the film, onto ourselves, the frequent stillness and contemplation, the rumination over a devastating past and a bewildering present. We are posed a variety of questions, each as impossible to answer succinctly as the last, and thus a long-lasting impression is definitively formed. Yet more questions reside within the film, which keeps you guessing with use of subtle, human red herrings, and a tentative, cloistered atmosphere that provides no certainty to even the smallest of occurrences. Petzold's simple mise-en-scene may not cover for occasional lack of intensity, but it's that intensity that Phoenix thrives off in its most unshakeable sequences. Nina Hoss is an equal creative collaborator with Petzold, undoubtedly, the restrained power of her immensely expressive performance ultimately proving shattering - no question, this is a feat of incredible skill from the great actor; opposite her, Ronald Zehrfeld at least makes you half realise why this desperate woman does what she does. And there's that one particular moment, the one I mentioned before. You'll know it when you see it.

Monday, 30 March 2015

REVIEW - CINDERELLA (KENNETH BRANAGH)


You could hardly ask for more from your princess story. Actually, maybe you could, like last year's transcendent Grace of Monaco, but Disney's live-action Cinderella is a fine facsimile of the archetypal tale, and as gently heart-stirring and eye-wetting as you could ask for indeed. It's largely intended to induce swoons and sighs, and to make young girls and old gays wet themselves in wonder. Wouldn't you know that cinephiles of all ages might be inclined to join them - well, what better reaction to the sheer glory of Dante Ferretti's most opulent production design or to Sandy Powell's most decorative costumes? Kenneth Branagh directs with a customary exuberance that recent developments in his career have encouraged us to forget - it's actually more the exuberance of his mise-en-scene; his style is rigidly controlled, but you understand that he couldn't leave any of this to chance, lest it be spoilt by any errant waywardness. None such in Cate Blanchett, whose enviable wardrobe utterly bellows out money, honey, more money than you've ever seen! Cate's in high drag here, with millinery that could cause an eclipse, and might well be angling for a spin-off. But it's the delicate romance of the central story, with Lily James a touching, sympathetic lead, that wins over one's heart, and you'll surely cheer as she earns the love, respect and wedding dress that she deserves, thereby trouncing her wicked stepmother. You could hardly ask for anything more from your princess story, could you?

Saturday, 28 March 2015

REVIEW - RESPIRE (MELANIE LAURENT)


Pause for a moment, as Melanie Laurent does not appear inclined to do, and observe where this filmmaker places her camera. It's simple innovation like this that makes Respire such a rewarding watch, even for all of its faults. The artistry in communicating so much, so subtly, purely by the choice of camera position - we thus become attuned to Charlie's world, observant of the influences present in her life. Would that we only knew how they influenced her, and this becomes one situation wherein we actually are appreciative of such a straightforward narrative. Alas, for all that Laurent brings to Respire, and she likely makes of Anne-Sophie Brasme's novel as strong a film as anyone could have, she never lingers long enough to provide real insight, nor even seems to attempt to. We remain attuned to the bigger picture, to physical surroundings and to emotional context, but at a detachment from what's driving these people to actually do what they do. Nevertheless, Laurent makes her thematic intentions both plain and clear to see and somewhat obscured, depending on the intention - its richness is apparent on immediate consumption, but may not be able to develop over time. The film is over sooner than you'd expect, though maintains a lively pace as a result of its brevity; what occurs is both wholly prosaic and, eventually, melodramatic in a genuinely shocking, almost preposterous manner over the final half hour. The performances, deftly done, will keep a firm hold on your sympathies, and the immense promise that Laurent shows in certain aspects of her mise-en-scene will keep a firm hold on your interest.

TEASER TRAILER FOR BOND #24 - SPECTRE


You better work that English spelling! I'd been expecting less from the teaser trailer for the new James Bond movie, Spectre, but it reveals just the right amount to pique my interest. Director Sam Mendes departs from DP Roger Deakins for only the second time since 2002's Road to Perdition, with the talented Hoyte van Hoytema stepping in on cinematography duties, with sumptuous results, as evidenced above. The editor is Lee Smith, best known for his work on Christopher Nolan films, which ought to be another good sign for Bond #24. Unusually, the UK and Ireland gets this exclusively before everyone else, on the 23rd of October. A US and Canada release then arrives on the 6th of November.

REVIEW - HAEMOO (SHIM SUNG BO)


The confines of a small fishing boat translate into the confines of a filmmaker's imagination in Haemoo, a tense drama whose disappointment is so acutely felt because its promise exists alongside it, entirely evident in the film itself. That filmmaker is Shim Sung Bo, though co-writer Bong Joon Ho could, perhaps, share credit for Haemoo's unremarkable simplicity. One wonders what the intentions ever were, to construct a scenario so formally familiar and to treat it as an opportunity to showcase Shim's abilities as a capable hack? Twists on this theme do occur, albeit in short supply, but Shim and Bong only use them to pursue an equally pedestrian route as before toward mediocrity, just from a different perspective. Those twists, some of them effectively the sole moments in Haemoo where emotion is employed to drive the plot, are starkly, austerely presented for the better part, and the finest elements of the film. And it is tense, which human thrillers like this must, by necessity, be. Yet all the promise it shows and promptly wastes: principally, the fishing boat on which most of the film is situated, pokey and cramped, dirty and damp - Shim skimps on atmospherics, preferring bland compositions dominated by flat, saturated jewel tones, and fails to even acknowledge the characteristics of the space he's working with, as a multitude of characters seem to disappear for huge amounts of time on such a small vessel. It's that setting and that premise which are so appealing about Haemoo, and eventually what are also so disappointing. A confined film, in almost every sense of the word.

Friday, 27 March 2015

TRAILER FOR AMY SCHUMER'S TRAINWRECK


...because we all know it's Amy Schumer's Trainwreck, and not Judd Apatow's. Despite finding features to like in all of his other films, This Is 40 rly did Apatow in for me, and none of the others have lingered particularly well anyway. Even though this trailer feels almost as long as that last film, critics report that it's actually pretty decent, and represents exactly the comeback that Apatow was in such desperate need of. Out in the US on the 17th of July - a bullish summer spot from Universal - and in the UK on the 28th of August.

REVIEW - X+Y (MORGAN MATTHEWS)


The better your intentions, the further they're likely to get you. Utterly average filmmaking often engenders below-average films, though, so mediocre filmmakers beware: buck up your intentions! X+Y has a nice, cute, well-intentioned premise, but its short-sightedness and its attraction toward cliche cut its potential power in half. The engendered result is, indeed, below-average. There's such empathy at the heart of this film that it's almost guaranteed to connect with even the most heartless of viewers, and the validity of this empathy is proven as X+Y tests all viewers' patience as real life does too. The difficulties of living with autism-spectrum disorders are delineated not only for the sufferers but for those in their company. That empathy is deeply well-intentioned, and the intentions are pure as far as they reach - what of the equally compelling struggles of those in the company of our withdrawn protagonist? Asa Butterfield is an ideal lead, and he gets the characterisation spot on, but it was the beaten-down sensitivity of Sally Hawkins' character, a loving mother who feels unloved in return, that most drew my empathy out (and I'm an AS sufferer myself). Either character's story might have been more compelling still had it not been for the aforementioned average filmmaking; flattering lighting, quotable scripting, pedestrian editing, unambitious framing, predictable plotting - all present and incorrect, ensuring that no amount of good intentions can get X+Y very far at all. Another one for the coffee table.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

REVIEW - WILD CARD (SIMON WEST)


Now, this is a curious one. One that makes you wonder what exactly those involved thought they were getting into. Hey, a job's a job! I'm not always one to require clarity from a film, but a sense of what that film intends to achieve can't hurt. Wild Card no doubt was once a rather different proposition than it ended up, with its conflicting artistic impulses and stuttering storyline; what remains is rarely less than satisfactory, but truly never more. And, while I may have responded favourably toward many aspects of this film, they lack cumulative impact. Simon West, directing, displays no clear idea of what binds Wild Card's multitudinous narrative and stylistic strands together - indeed, he displays no care to even develop such an idea, and he coaxes only a serviceable performance from Jason Statham, the one common feature throughout. As the eccentricities of this character fail to align with Statham's indifferent turn, we amble through a procession of subplots that are diverting in themselves, but whose power dissipates as soon as the scene changes, and attention is diverted elsewhere. Yet talent abounds in Wild Card, albeit in concentrated doses - an eclectic combination including Oscar-winning composer Dario Marianelli, Corey Yuen on choreography in sparingly-used action sequences, and actors who come close to making Wild Card as riveting as it ought to be, actors like Hope Davis and Stanley Tucci. And with West, Statham and writer William Goldman on board, that sounds like a curious mix, doesn't it?

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

SLOW WEST - TRAILER FOR SUNDANCE JURY PRIZE WINNER


This trailer for World Cinema Dramatic Jury Prize winner Slow West betrays either the inadequacy of the competition at Sundance this year or the laziness of the jury. Meh, John MacLean's western is out on the 15th of May in the US and on the 26th of June in the UK, and is destined to be fairly swiftly forgotten about by most of us genuine tastemakers thereafter. Oh, alright, it looks good... like, it looks good, what with Robbie Ryan's cinematography, and, um... this.

REVIEW - MOMMY (XAVIER DOLAN)


To be fair to Xavier Dolan's Mommy, it lets you know early on exactly what type of film it intends to be. Perhaps, then, don't allow yourself to be fooled by its bracing, brazen intensity, though do allow yourself to be seduced by it, by all means. This garish portrait of life in all its glorious gaucheries is a genuine piece of pop culture and as charmingly contemporary as any film you'll see - who'd have thought it from a filmmaker seemingly too concerned with his own position in the history of film to pause and observe that history as it occurs? For Dolan, whatever broader context this might imply is shunted out by a restrictive aspect ratio, one of many gimmicks that reveal themselves to be valid storytelling tools in such expressive, perceptive usage. Just about everything that Dolan throws at Mommy is bold and potentially crass, yet employed so ideally herein that one's critical eyes are softened, these tools obviously no less eligible manipulations of the cinematic form than any more 'prestigious' ones. Dolan makes you respond positively - he shows you what you thought couldn't be done, not what you always knew could be. When his artistic ambition extends to his plotting, though, you'll see what shouldn't have been done. Granted, you knew it was coming, but Dolan can't find any tools in his arsenal to make these narrative contrivances palatable; if, at least, they provide his actors with scope to pour their hearts out in impressive, varied fashion, they're hardly unique in even that, not in this film. The sour inevitability of Mommy's missteps and their growing frequency erodes the forgiveness developed earlier in the film, when minor stylistic indulgences appeared more like canny artistic reflection of the emotional instability of the characters. Beloved by some, reviled by others, Xavier Dolan still has much maturing to do as a filmmaker, but he's already done far more than I imagined he ever would.