Tuesday, 30 October 2012

REVIEW - BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD


Isn't it a delight to see a film such as Beasts of the Southern Wild, in which every image, every line of dialogue, every sound, every idea has been so cherished by the filmmakers? Appropriately wild in spirit, but tame enough to ensure that a mainstream appreciation remains a viable possibility, Benh Zeitlin's debut feature length film is so full of exuberance that it leaves viewers without even the smallest opportunity to come up for air. It's akin to a cinematic assault, only closer in effect to a bear hug, a particularly colourful, zesty bear hug. No need to come up for air anyway, as this is a brilliant breeze of a film. Zeitlin steeps his film in its setting, flooded New Orleans on the wrong side of the levee, and also in the mind of his protagonist, Hushpuppy, a determined young girl, who sears herself onto her surroundings, and is so strong a force of natural authority that it seems like a terrible affront to nature when she is told what to do by her unstable father. The way in which life for Hushpuppy is so clearly presented from her perspective as a child is marvellous - a child's view of the world is one of both befuddlement (her father's ailment goes unexplained, we learn of it as she does, and thereby also learn of how the specifics of it are much less significant than we adults might insist) and a warped understanding - everything has a purpose, even if that purpose for Hushpuppy is not as it had been intended (her innovative cooking method is a very literal example, and very funny too). This joyous film is beautifully constructed, and complete in its vision. If it is a little stagey on occasions, there's a coarse naturalism that fights against this, and the tension created in the process feels unique and original. Performances are very good, cinematography is creative and satisfying, the score and sound design are lovely.

Monday, 29 October 2012

REVIEW - SISTER


Rare are films like this. It's ostensibly sparse, both narratively and aesthetically, but the narrow, steady focus allows for a depiction of a relationship and a lifestyle that is thrillingly vivid in its most intense moments, and also in its most informal. Ursula Meier's direction is intuitive to the specific requirements of each of these moments - she achieves maximum dramatic effect with minimum apparent effort; not that she's not trying, but that, in order to continue to perpetuate her film's naturalistic guise, she must ensure that only minimum effort is detectable, if any. Her success in this endeavour is that the story's twists (mostly minor, one in particular of more significance and inconspicuously unveiling surprising additional layers of depth) always relate back to the central characters, 12-year-old Simon and his older sister Louise. It is not what happens that matters, but the effects that what happens have on their bond. That Kacey Mottet Klein and Lea Seydoux are excellent in their roles is paramount to this same effect - the screenplay has entrusted them with rich characters, which they personify to a mark of quality that is bracing to behold. Agnes Godard's sensitive cinematography displays Godard's trademark respectfulness to the material, enhancing the experience rather than insisting on a different one, or contributing solely towards a disconnect of tone. It's typically outstanding work. Indeed, so too is most everything else in this film. And although the lasting impression is one of respect, and satisfaction at the artistry and deceptive complexity of this film, the immediate impression is one of emotional potency, accomplished in an extraordinarily acute and subtle manner.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

REVIEW - SKYFALL


Although the least ambitious Bond film since Daniel Craig assumed the role, Skyfall is accomplished work in many aspects, and Sam Mendes' straightforward approach has yielded a compelling result, and the best film of his career thus far. The film's chief attribute is its foundation of unpredictability - even as events unravel as expected, the screenplay makes some sudden, and most appreciated, deviations, all essential to sustaining our interest. There's nothing especially radical about what happens, but it's at least a change from the standard 007 formula, and Mendes and the writers do a fair job of ensuring that their film's segments all cohere. Perhaps even better is the film's lack of agenda - no need to reboot (Casino Royale), no particular topical push nor deepening of character (Quantum of Solace), just a slight refresh after the dour Quantum. There are many references to Bond's age, four years on, and Craig does look a little worn, although that might be the point. Judi Dench, upon whom almost the entire plot is focused, is very good, as is Javier Bardem - he hams it up like never before here, and he's not half bad at it. His villain is a throwback to the more cartoonish nemeses Bond once faced, but if there's one franchise which cannot be spoiled by such garish characterisation, it's this franchise, even now that an air of respectability has been cultivated about it. So quaint and corny were these films until late that nearly anything is an improvement, and one or two cheeky indulgences won't hurt. Anyway, whatever sins the filmmakers may have committed in maintaining credibility (which they never fail to instantly recover) are absolved purely on the strength of the cinematography. There are so many spectacular frames courtesy of cinematography maestro Roger Deakins, you'll wonder why they never invested in such a talent long ago for such a stylish series of films. One momentary shot of weapons laid on a table could be outright the prettiest thing I've seen in a film all year were it not for the competition it faces from the rest of this gorgeous film.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

REVIEW - FRANKENWEENIE


As a director with such distinctive filmmaking style, and a legion of devotees, Tim Burton's frequent forays into grander mainstream projects have baffled me, and their impact has rather tarnished his image. Yet the faith which major studios have invested in his vision, and the consistency with which he has upheld it have ensured that it has emerged unscathed from disappointments like Dark Shadows and catastrophes like Alice in Wonderland. This time out, the spin on a classic tale is manifested as more of an elaboration - the classic work is his own, and it's more of a cult classic. Nor is this elaboration especially elaborate. It's an animation, which, in contemporary culture, means that it's a kids' movie - 75% material aimed at children, 25% material aimed at their parents. But Burton's touch is more reverent here than lately, or perhaps it's just more at ease with this more personal source, and his jokes and references are handled with grace. They're also more niche - perhaps this is 100% material aimed at Burton's faithful. What this newfound (or rediscovered) subtlety results in is one of Tim Burton's most disposable films, actually - even the whimsy is applied lightly - thus, Frankenweenie is somewhat lacking in any identifiable tone. It's a bit damp and undercooked, as if it was never given quite enough time or effort in production. But it is charming, certainly, and sprightly - it's a brisk trot without even a slight pause for breath, although it never develops into a canter.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

REVIEW - ARGO


If a film can sustain one's attention for most of two hours, does it particularly matter what quality the film is? In that moment, there is only the degree of immediate satisfaction which those images in conjunction with those sounds are delivering, and Argo is a supremely satisfying film in that regard. It is as light on its feet as Ben Affleck's other two films as director were heavy. It is most suspenseful, and rather than manipulate this suspense entirely, Affleck and editor William Goldenberg plumb their material for those elements therein which might prove most conducive to this aim. Argo is a popcorn thriller, less old-fashioned than reminiscent of films made by people who trusted and respected their audiences - the common view of these films is that they don't exist anymore, but here is one. Affleck, Goldenberg and writer Chris Terrio's approach is economical - there's barely a single moment this film could have sacrificed - which was a risky approach to take, requiring the storytelling to be simple enough and strong enough to refuse any viewer's mind the chance to wander, and this film is pure efficient storytelling from top to bottom. It is much tighter than The Town, and funnier than one might expect - the scenes with Alan Arkin and John Goodman are so good that I resented the shift in tone as the film progressed, a shift that was, however, necessary, and successful too, and I gladly relinquished my resentment. Affleck may be overseeing too lean an operation overall, as he declines any opportunities to indulge his more adventurous directorial impulses, which renders Argo a little forgettable, less potentially iconic; then there's the cheesy patriotic climax, undercutting much of the hard graft that went into making the preceding 20 minutes so exciting. But these are just issues of quality, after all. My attention was still on the screen, so they don't particularly matter.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

REVIEW - SIDE BY SIDE


Aptly, this is a documentary that doesn't take sides. This isn't exactly a debate on an Israel-Palestine level, but it is a debate all the same, and there are strong voices on both sides of the divide - this divide being between using traditional photochemical film stock in the production of motion pictures and using digital. Director Christopher Kenneally and interviewer / co-producer Keanu Reeves (better here than in any of his films as an actor) seek less to contribute to any argument than to enlighten - those unfamiliar with the differences between film and digital (or even that there is a difference at all) should find themselves more knowledgeable, those familiar have the pleasant experience of hearing distinguished film professionals comment on the topic. It's one which is changing the shape of the industry and its output, and defining careers, yet its impact, which is more considerable than the average filmgoer might imagine, is largely undocumented and unknown within the general public. Not that such a non-controversial documentary is likely to stoke the fire. Predictably, James Cameron and George Lucas come across as arrogant supporters of digital; those in support of film come across much more humble and eloquent, even those with less direct experience on the subject, such as Greta Gerwig. Would it surprise you to learn, then, that Side by Side was shot on digital? Still not taking sides.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

REVIEW - BARBARA


A tense film that has the feel of a more developed subplot from a grander thriller, Barbara is compelling for reasons beyond the perfunctory machinations of a woman's plan to escape 1980s East Germany. This woman, the Barbara of the title, is a doctor, and we learn little of her outside of what actress Nina Hoss divulges, most effortlessly, in her nuanced performance. We come to understand her in considerable depth, despite her coldness and tacitness. Director / co-writer Christian Petzold introduces apparently extraneous stories of medical drama, occasionally recalling (a more frigid) Grey's Anatomy, only to interweave them with Barbara's personal story in unexpected ways. Petzold's patience with his storytelling enables both Hoss and himself to dwell upon moments for no perceptible purpose other than to subtly increase tension or to augment the film's emotional composition - but what worthwhile purposes! He is cognizent and meticulous of the effect strong and cohesive visual and sound designs can have too. I expected a more ambiguous conclusion, but was surprised and satisfied with the one with which we have been provided; it relies too heavily on contrivance, as many such satisfactory endings do, yet confirms the melodramatic bearing present in a number of scenes (and, indeed, fuelling the tension). Petzold is usually quicker to strike the melodrama down - though, in these final moments, it's essential to the success of the narrative - and tempers it with a restraint that, along with the German blood, suggests a contemporary Fassbinder. But Petzold is more involved than Fassbinder, less blunt, and better. The film, although deliberate, only rarely lags, and the quality of the whole production is superb, including some amply detailed performances.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

REVIEW - BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO


A lulling sophomore film from director Peter Strickland, Berberian Sound Studio is bold and features many starling moments. But Strickland's assured direction alleviates the more extreme aspects in the context of the whole, and counteracts moments of horror and humour without sacrificing focus. Each step is a component of the entire work, and contributes to a complete experience, in its own, unique sub-genre. His love of the process of filmmaking is evident - naturally, as it is a subject of this film - perhaps too evident, as the film lacks as strong a structure as it might have benefitted from. The enthusiasm with which the art of sound recording is depicted is most effective, but it is a little too prevalent too early. More gradation in this, and in tension, may have further enriched the atmospheric qualities which Berberian Sound Studio already has in abundance. But Strickland is as interested in film construction as in film deconstruction, and he knocks the perplexing final few scenes off-kilter enough that they linger in the mind, pieces of a puzzle which I don't think is intended to be solvable. He's also interested in his lead, whose development is more successfully gradated, and through whom all of this is rendered, with a knowingness and subtlety that attest to the confidence with which this film has been made. Toby Jones has much to accomplish here, and more still when one considers the introversion that dictates his character's every thought and action, and Jones' work is so neat that one might not even recognise its calabre. Such also applies to the film as a whole - it's so effective that its impressive depth and breadth of quality could pass unnoticed. There's not a weak link in either cast or crew. The soundtrack is sublimely satisfying, and not once more so than when it withdraws, in a scene significant in ways I'm not fully aware of. A mesmeric film that is both more and less complex than it might seem.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

REVIEW - RUBY SPARKS


A protracted lurch from light-hearted comedy to emotionally-fired drama destabilises Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' second feature, after the Oscar-winning Little Miss Sunshine, but individual moments and scenes are effective in their respective purposes, and Zoe Kazan has an evident intuition for dialogue and character, if not structure. It's perhaps not ever a comedy, although it has the texture of one, but there's a wryness and a gentleness to the storytelling and to the performances which have the same effect as more forthright humour. The only cast member to exploit their character's full comedic potential is Chris Messina, but Annette Bening effortlessly infuses her portrayal of Paul Dano's mother with a sweetness that's quite joyous, if only momentarily. The plot, in which a writer conjures himself up a girlfriend through writing her story, is amusing until it is, inevitably, thrust forward, or, rather, around in circles until Kazan has explored her thoughts long enough and wraps it up in a scene that is more uncomfortable than I had expected it might be. The discomfort started earlier, though, as I found Calvin's manipulation of Ruby only increasingly sad - there's a good, complex, drama here, but it's a film in itself, or it ought to be. Tacked on behind the more irreverent first half, it creates a rather disconcerting combination. Perhaps Kazan's biggest mistake was to centralise her (fictional) character. Ruby is a part of someone else's story - the terms of her existence necessitate this - and the pain that is unavoidably uncovered in examining their warped relationship was only ever going to sour the sauce.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

REVIEW - ON THE ROAD


Walter Salles' On the Road may, over time, become known as the definitive cinematic version of Jack Kerouac's novel - there have been none before it, and may be many after it, but it is a remarkably accurate distillation of its source. Salles and writer Jose Rivera concern themselves with the whats, whens and whys, and allow the spirit of the novel to seep into the texture of their film naturally. Their approach is plain, it is also brave and unusual, and it crafts an experience that is much more densely layered than this might suggest - an experience that is about its people, in both real and fictional incarnations, and its audience in equal proportion, about what Kerouac put on the page and about Kerouac himself, and his contemporaries, and all those who have subscribed to his legacy in the years since. The sense of devotion to his creation is palpable in every corner of this adaptation, so thorough and so respectful that it facilitates a tremendously easy and authentic evocation of the era and the culture. And this is reciprocated in how said culture infuses the work of those involved. Cast and crew alike contentedly fulfill their obligations to the project, no fuss, no unnecessary embellishments. When the film comes to life, it does so briefly and subtly yet thrillingly, in the blue light of a doorway, or the stony slap of shoes on hard ground, or Garrett Hedlund's compelling gaze - there are many who could have captured Dean Moriarty's potency and allure, but Hedlund seeks out his agonising lust to be loved, and the love he gives without care. He loves until there is no-one there to be loved any more, and Hedlund seems to shrink away within himself. That hope in his eyes is one of the most memorable images in any film I've seen all year.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

REVIEW - SINISTER


Although one of the greatest pleasures in film is discovering one to be more than you had expected it to be, it's nice too to leave a theatre satisfied that what you saw fulfilled your expectations, provided that they weren't low to begin with. Sinister achieves just that. I expected to be unmoved by the story, by the design and by the acting, and I expected to be terrified. This is a solidly-made horror film, bereft of the amateurish performances and corny dialogue of many more successful, similar films, but by no means on a par with those transcendent horror films, the likes of which are no longer being made. It follows formula - perhaps, even, it follows too many formulas, and winds up throwing a little bit of everything into the mixture to keep the scare quota high. There are spooky supernatural children, blood-stained corridors, mysterious noises in the attic, animals appearing from nowhere, an ancient Pagan boogieman, found footage of grisly murders and plenty of the requisite sequences of mounting tension eventually dissipated by the inevitable red herring. The more Sinister yields to the more conventional supernatural elements in its DNA, the more it dampens its potential to become one of the more successful horror films of recent years, at least in relation to its reputation. But the Super-8 scenes will desist all dissatisfaction you may have regarding found footage horror - these scenes are hideously disquieting not only in their imagery, but in the musical score by Christopher Young, an expert in horror film music, whose work here has charred itself onto my memory, and will accompany every nightmare I have henceforth. SCARY!

Saturday, 6 October 2012

REVIEW - MARINA ABRAMOVIC: THE ARTIST IS PRESENT


Matthew Akers' loving documentary benefits from discovering its content as it progresses, rather than having a story to tell from the outset. It is not just a slew of facts, elaborated upon by a series of talking heads, but an exceedingly thorough and slickly produced account of events in motion. The pacing is almost impeccable, only losing momentum occasionally and never irreparably. Akers' devotion to Abramovic may repel some viewers, but it produces a depth in the portrayal that is essential to the film's success. Akers enables the film to become an emotional chronicle, rather than solely event-driven, which is surely the only appropriate destination for any documentary on Abramovic. It's also the only way in which a film about a woman sitting in a chair for three months, largely mute and motionless can become even slightly interesting. Abramovic devotees will likely be pleased by the narrow yet deep focus on Marina, and there's sufficient detail of her life and previous work to satisfy the uninitiated too. Brief footage from Fox News provides humour, just shy of smugness (although it must be OK to be smug about Fox News), and, despite the supposed power of Abramovic's project, the lightness of tone keeps matters relatable and instills a sense of ease. Indeed, it perhaps tempers said power, which may or may not be a good thing. Cinematography and sound are very good for a live, location-filmed documentary. This film may lack the importance of Abramovic's own art, but this is just a documentary about art, not actual art itself, and Marina's evident self-effacing good nature persuades me that she might wholly approve of this approach.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

REVIEW - IN ANOTHER COUNTRY


A film that is no more nor less than it appears to be. Three tales, connected by a trivial frame, each using the same locations, cast and basic idea, and many recurring characters. Even the non-recurring characters are almost identical to those played by the same actors in other segments. Occasionally, writer-director Hong Sang Soo suggests a degree of inter-connection between segments, but they are manifested only as fleeting moments of recognition from the viewer's perspective, and have no impact upon the film's events. But what events? Little actually takes place in any of these tales and the mild whimsy offsets any potential formality or minimalism. A lot of words are exchanged, but not much is communicated - the characters are French or Korean and speak in English - no-one's first tongue, it seems. Activity increases with each tale, yet interest subsides, and the linguistic barrier grows tiresome. There's merely infrequent humour, or drama, and to define either as such is generous. Frustration and inconsequentiality fill the void instead, and a lack of effort from cast and crew alike - aptly, given the film's unwillingness to commit to any particular style, the film looks polished yet plain, exact camera set-ups and locations are used repeatedly, and the sound mix is amateurish. I suspect this is all intentional, but for what purpose? Not even Isabelle Huppert is trying - the suspicion that this film took as long to shoot as it did to watch perhaps implies that she didn't care either way.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

REVIEW - LOOPER


No film can thrive solely on its ideas, on their frequency or complexity, but any can fail solely on them. Looper doesn't quite fail, it just misses its marks, and in several exclusive ways. Rian Johnson doesn't seem to have either the patience or the imagination to establish a genuinely original, fully-formed vision of the future. His vision consists less of a completed concept than of notions and nods towards one - glimpses of a decrepit society, advanced (but familiar) technology, a half-baked dystopia which borrows material from similar films and strands them on the surface of a story in which they have no purpose. The more Johnson engages with his story, the stronger this film becomes, although he could have delved deeper. He's less concerned with the fascinating prospect of a character's conversation with their older self than with forwarding the plot - this such occurrence is, here, skimmed over, and in a pathetically shallow manner too. Oddly, the more conventional storyline which replaces that one is thoroughly rewarding. A subtle, gradual shift takes place, in which Emily Blunt's Sarah and her son Cid assume central roles in ways which I shall not reveal. The less you know about this film, the better, and its surprises are plentiful and most satisfying. As Johnson feels a requirement to temporarily abandon these characters and fulfill his action quota, interest is sacrificed, but there are some terrific scenes towards the film's end which impede the encroaching tedium. Performances range from the excellent (child actor Pierce Gagnon) to the hideous (Noah Segan as Kid Blue) - some cast members even touch both ends of the spectrum. Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Bruce-Willis-ifying make-up never ceases to distract, and his character is hindered thus, although Gordon-Levitt does a fine impersonation. Production values are disappointingly standard, but it's good to see that Ikea are still making bedclothes, or maybe ol' Blunty's just a retro kind of gal.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

REVIEW - HOLY MOTORS


The making of many movies. Any hack can fart out overcooked surrealist nonsense, but it takes talent and intelligence to make sense out of nonsense. This is what Leos Carax does with Holy Motors. It's frequently surprising just how rich this film is - Carax's mise-en-scene is so detailed, the content so deeply thought through. He makes an unusual but appropriate decision to cultivate an emotional narrative, in a wholly roundabout manner, which enriches the absurdity, rather than repelling it. Even early on, the conviction Carax has in his images makes them compelling, and he's aided by a remarkable performance by Denis Lavant, who is admirably thorough in his depiction of an impenetrable character. The biggest challenge, for Lavant, for Carax, for almost everyone involved, particularly those who have worked on more than one section of this episodic film, is the illogicality of it. Even as Carax appears to suggest that these peculiar appointments on which M. Oscar is embarking have a purpose, there remains so much of Holy Motors which cannot be explained away. Embracing the inherent artificiality of the concept of cinema, entire sequences, or perhaps just elements of sequences, would represent such utter improbabilities in a realistic scenario, thus making clear that this is not an experience in which we ought to invest deep consideration or emotional involvement. Yet, in creating a film purely for the pleasure - or otherwise - of the experience of watching it (and, in all film, the experience is king), Carax encourages the notion of audience participation in the inclusion of moments between his appointments, evidently only existing for our own eyes, and, moreso, in the sense that this film is only of any importance if we connect with it. I certainly did. I found it funny when it intended to be funny, ridiculous when it intended to be ridiculous, and moving when it intended to be moving (crucially, Carax makes a sincere effort in this department, something which is not undercut by the unrelenting ridiculousness).