Monday, 3 November 2014

Frank (2014)

In this weird, strange and charming dark comedy drama Michael Fassbender and Domhnall Gleeson take a journey through music mental illness and acceptance.

Inspired and drawing on the Frank Sidebottom character, Frank presents the story of of a group of avant-garde musicians and their newest, tagalong bandmate (Domhnall Gleeson) as they set out to produce a new album and eventually chase fame in their own messed up way. Lead by the enigmatic Frank who never appears, to anyone, without his giant full-face mask, the band are enraptured by his optimism and innate musical talent, but trying to create something beautiful out of something broken is never an easy ride.

Frank is a difficult film to write about in that it's such a mixture. There's comedy, a lot of it. It's very dark, while still being funny. And most importantly it deals with mental illness in a very real way. In the same way that films like 50/50 can still be funny when dealing with something as horrific as cancer, Frank acknowledges that, yes being broken in some way is terrible, but it doesn't mean that funny things can't happen along the way.

It's this issue with insanity and creativity being inherently linked to performance that hits home the most in Frank. Can great art be made without a hint of crazy? Of course it can. Does it help? Who knows. But it an issue that Frank explores with a touching underlying current of fragility and sincerity that tackles the matter with a refreshing sense of maturity.

Fassbender gives an unusually vulnerable performance, compared to all his bombastic success of recent years. Behind that giant fibreglass head is an actor who's able to deliver sheer brilliance with only body language to go on. A performance that can only hype me up more for his upcoming role as Macbeth.

Frank is a charming, strange and compelling film. The closing act takes a much darker turn after a lighter beginning, but gives the film an ultimately more compelling conclusion. Anyone even vaguely interested in the creative process of either music or film would do themselves a disservice by missing this film.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Troll Hunter (2010)

The found-footage gimmick is somewhat of a hurdle to overcome these days. It's cheap, easy and often nausea inducing. Its similarity to a one night hook-up from the bar down the street continues in that it's difficult to make something that lasts out of it and get something that's more than one night's worth of fun.

It's a shame really, that something that can lend authenticity and an immersive feel to a film has been so overused.

Troll Hunter, however, jumps the hurdle and runs with the concept. For once, there's a reason to be filming for one. Øvredal's film features a trio of plucky Norwegian students are trying to make their mark on journalism by tracking down an illegal bear hunter in Volda. They soon discover that bears aren't his real prey and that  far from the most fearsome creature lurking in the beautiful vistas of fjord country.

The bleak, mountainous and often dark surroundings that envelope the film are whole-heartedly reflected in the comedy of the writing. The typically dry humour of Scandinavia is weaved throughout the entire production. On one hand you have these terrifying, eldritch monsters towering up hundreds of feet up into the sky, ready to smash, tear and eat their way through anything that moves, and on the other you have incompetent civil servants, bureaucracy and a silly attitude to the dispensable cast. It's all delivered in a dry deadpan style and just works so smoothly that it works as a mockumentary on a level that many miss. It takes the "mock" bit as important for one. Poking fun at conspiracy theorists that believe that modern governments are capable of hiding a troll-sized elephant in the room, the film lambasts both the nutjobs and political landscapes with equal measure. One throwaway line about new Muslims immigration in particular is genius and biting.

Technically speaking, there are some weak points. With a CGI budget that is, understandably, much lower than those of Hollywood some of the effects can look a bit shonky. A very shaky and worrying start when the monsters are first encounter doesn't bode well, but it very quickly improves and some of the final scenes are genuinely impressive. The run time also feels a little padded out. As breathtaking as Norway's countryside is, you do see a lot of it shot from the inside of a moving Land Rover. But with a short runtime of around 100 minutes it's not something I think the editor's will be losing much sleep over.

Troll Hunter is a fresh take on the mockumentary genre and manages to spin the many plates of suspense, comedy, satire and horror with varying degrees of finesse, but all done to some level of high quality.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Enemy (2013)

I saw Enemy about a week ago, and ever since I've been mulling it over and replaying it in my head. I've been wondering around lost in thought just pondering exactly how to put down in words how I feel about it. I couldn't really put into words what I appreciated about it and why I enjoyed it because I couldn't land on a specific message or idea it was trying to tell me.

Then today I stumbled upon a quote from Stanley Kubrick that helped me out:

 Enemy's strange opening is matched only by its strange ending scene, with good competition coming from several seemingly irrelevant and isolated shots inserted throughout. Not a lot is explained, but the opening title card, reading "Chaos is order yet undeciphered", lays out why it's left unexplained. We are viewing a message that's encoded somehow without the cypher.

In essence, the film shows us the journey of university lecturer Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal) who lives an unfulfilling, repetitive life. He discovers through chance the existence of Anthony (Jake Gyllenhaal), a man who looks exactly like him. Exactly like him. In an effort to track him down and figure out what's going on things get weird and existential.

It's Gyllenhaal's second film with director Denis Villeneuve, hot on the heels of Prisoners. It has very little in common with their previous film except for the high quality and understated, fantastic acting of Gyllenhaal.

I'm struggling to put into words exactly why I enjoyed Enemy so much. I think it's quite uncharacteristic for me. I don't understand it but I love it. That Kubrick quote is something that will stick with me for a while.

If the test is to love something without needing to understand it, Enemy steals my heart and hits my brain with a truck. So it passes, I guess.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Under the Skin (2013)

So, apparently I blinked and now Scarlett Johansson is now the queen of sci-fi?

She's been in soft sci-fi with The Avengers and other assorted Marvel products, she's been the voice of a (for once, not evil) super intelligent AI in Her and  she's set to unlock 100% of her brain in Luc Besson's Lucy but that's all pretty standard stuff. Under the Skin is not standard. Not at all.

Touted largely as a "sci-fi art" film and given very limited releases, Under the Skin was never meant to appeal to the lowest common denominator. The freedom of not having to target the masses obviously gave film-maker Jonathon Glazer to create the trippy, Kubrickean art piece that he wanted.

I say this a lot, but this is really a film you're better off going into when you know nothing. I saw the first trailer for it and it didn't give away too much, but the description below the video contained one key word that pops up everywhere if you search for this film. Personally I think you're better not knowing from the start, but even then it works either way because you'll figure it out on your own thanks to the fantastic direction by Glazer.

In many ways, considering large amounts of it are so bizarre and surreal, much of the film feels incredibly grounded and real. Part of the film involves Johansson's character driving around Scotland picking up hitch-hikers in an old white van and flirting with them. And according to Glazer, the way you make that authentic is put some hidden cameras in a van and have Scarlett Johansson pick up hitch-hikers and flirt with them.

It's odd then that these scenes provide some of the most tense and horrifying parts of the film. The way Johansson switches back and forth between a cold, robotic manner into a charming and flirty personable woman is scary in and of itself. Throw into the mix that she's some form of sexual predator in a quite literal sense and you get a sense of unease not often seen in horror films: men being groomed and targeted as victims by a sexual villain. A man driving round in a van trying to lure women in, no matter how good looking, would set off the creep alarm for just about anyone, but a beautiful woman trying to lure men into a van is subtler and makes the victims even more vulnerable because of the lack of suspicion.

A pivotal encounter with one victim triggers an exploration into two areas: what it means to be seen as something that is "less than"- whether it's one sex being "less than" the other, or someone being "less than" human because of how they look and it takes a look at the idea of how different the dangers of sexual assault is for the genders. By pointing a lens at the idea that a lone man cannot be safe walking down the street at night without being put at a very real risk of being abducted and raped, it shines a light on just how bad, and actually real, the danger can be for women. It comes full circle final scenes of the film when Scarlett's character's fate is determined not because of what she really is, but because of how she looks to those in the world around her.

All in all, Under the Skin is a truly artistic and cinematic film in the truest senses of the words. A lack of true dialogue leaves you to figure out a lot of the film for yourself and take away what you want from it. With a really sharp eye for special effects and how to frame the distinctive landscapes of Scotland, Jonathon Glazer captures a sense of beautiful horror the likes of which haven't really been seen since Stanley Kubrick's reign.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Throne of Blood (Kumonosu-jō) (1957)

***A fair warning: This post will contain spoilers for both Throne of Blood and Macbeth. It's based on Macbeth. The story's been around for about 400 years. Spoilers aren't really an issue for something like that***

There's always been somewhat of a cultural gulf between the anglosphere and Japan. From language to social attitudes to food to media, everything is different whether it's by a little or by a lot. SOme of the best modern films trade on this fact to make an impact. Two of my favourite films of the last decade are set in Tokyo and use the almost alien locale to paint massively different pictures for a Western audience: Lost in Translation uses it simply as a slightly offbeat and eccentric backdrop while Enter the Void embraces the neon and sleaze of the Japanese underworld to create an outright trippy experience.

So in a way Throne of Blood comes as a bit of a surprise. This is a film created completely by a Japanese crew, actors and director. This is the country that gave us the crazy and fantasical Studio Ghibli films and Miyazaki's anime creations. Then, of course, there is Throne of Blood's director Akira Kurosawa who brings a grounded and powerful adaptation of one of the West's classics.

Set in feudal Japan, this version of the Scottish play follows Washizu, a general and leader of the First Fortress, who upon meeting with a spirit in the forest is told he will one day became the Great Lord of Spider's Web Castle. From this moment on a huge doom-laden shadow covers the events of Wushizu's life as, at the behest of his wife, he goes on to satisfy what may have always been a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Adaptations of Shakespeare are a dime a dozen.  As much as I scoff at Baz Luhrman's Romeo + Juliet, plonking the star-crossed lovers in 1990s LA complete with original script was a ballsy, brilliant, brilliant idea. Unique spins on the classic tales like that can either make or break an adaptation. But using feudal Japan as the tapestry hits the balance right and is makes Kurosawa's film still feel fresh while not straying too far from the source. "A land ruled by lords and violent power" could refer to both 1600s Scotland and Japan easily.

This film is a powerhouse of classic cinema. The theme of a never-ending circle of violence (one major difference to the source material being the King Duncan analogue seized the throne by killing his predecessor himself) along with Kurosawa's beautiful direction to create a landscape as haunting and desolate as the highlands brings this darkest of Shakespeare's plays to a beautifully tragic adaptation.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

300: Rise of an Empire (2014)

A largely unnecessary prequel/parallequel/sequel (which actually happens before, during and after the events of the first film) that departs in quite a few ways from the first.

300: Rise of an Empire follow the campaigns of Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton), an Athenian general as he wages war against the seemingly unstoppable might of the Persian war machine's navy as King Leonidas' Spartans hold the Hot Gates against the land forces. Themistocles finds his match in Xerxes' unhinged naval commander, a traitorous Greek named Artemisia (Eva Green), as he tries to unite Greece to fight as one force against the Persian empire.

All the hallmarks of what made the first film great are present, but are either somewhat lacking or undermined by some other aspect of the film.

To give Rise of an Empire its credit though, it does look good. The stylish and slick action sequences that comprise most of the film, ducking in and out of super-slo-mo as they go, do look excellent and the same crazy excess that made the first look so good carries over. The only issue I would take with the look and visual of this installment is the colour. Where the red and gold filters of the first sat well with the visuals of the blood and glory themes, Rise of an Empire is very cold and blue. In an attempt to match the seas on which they fight for most of the film and it loses something with that. CGI blood just doesn't look as engaging when it's closer to black that red.

The biggest problem is the spot on the testosterone-fuelled blood and guts meter that the first hit so sweetly. In 300, the central characters are the Spartans: a warrior people to whom death in battle is the ultimate goal and the glory of the fight is all that matters. Led by the charismatic and ultra-masculine leader Leonidas, the ultra violence and super-glamorisation of the combat and the money shots of heads taking leave of their necks, it all makes sense then because that's what the Spartans are all about. But with Themistocles and the Athenians, everything is a little bit more political. They fight for freedom and ideals rather than just for the glory of themselves and the fight, so the gratuitousness and pleasure taken by the film makers in the violence just feels a little out of place.

So it would be fair to say that the problem is the lack of a King Leonidas. The lack of someone charismatic and crazy enough to make sense and function in the world that Zack Snyder created is the downfall. Except it's not. Because 300: Rise of an Empire has this crazy bastard at its heart:

Eva Green nails the character of Artemisia so hard you could pin a Greek skull to a ship's mast with her performance. She has that crazy, obscene and just plain terrifying quality that's just brilliantly ridiculous and could only exist in such a comic-book influenced world. She has this swaggering walk and talk that had me convinced I wanted the Persians to just steamroll the Greeks and all their moping about freedom and democracy along with them. When you put  Artemisia's absurdity next to Themistocles' maudlin moaning, all of his scenes just feel like distractions from the scenes with the more fun character.

If you seek out Rise of an Empire, don't expect much. It's still stylish and fun, but not as much as the first. Eva Green stands out as a shining light of craziness in a cast that's taking itself a bit too seriously considering there's a perfectly waxed 8 foot tall guy wandering around in his pants declaring himself a god king.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Blue Ruin (2013)

A broken man, clumsy and visceral violence and a overall atmosphere of bleak tragedy are the main ingredients for Blue Ruin; a revenge film that takes the genre in a melancholic direction and paints revenge as the dishonourable act it can be.

The with a dialogue-free sequence following the life of a drifter on the Delaware coast. He eeks out an existence metres from the joy and happiness of the fun fair on the pier. Eating out of bins, scavenging bottles to recycle for cash on the beach and breaking into homes in order to feed and clean himself make up his day-to-day existence. This broken man without purpose, Dwight, was driven to this life after a tragedy tore his family and his life apart, and now he finally has an opportunity to exact his revenge on those who robbed him.

Macon Blair plays this listless, fragmented man. His Dwight isn't the typical revenge thriller hero or anti-hero. Dwight is a man doing the only thing he thinks will make him whole again and how he deals with the fallout. He's a pitiable shell of a man who doesn't talk much and can't handle a gun. He's not a badass and this isn't Taken.

It's his ineptness that really sells the bleakness of Blue Ruin. The clumsy, and realistic, take on the violence paints the walls of the rural homes a visceral and raw shade of red. There are no drawn out fight sequences, no massive gunfights. Just scared people struggling to find a way to make themselves feel better.

Blue Ruin, with its conservative use of dialogue and uncompromising look at violent revenge, makes a beautifully tragic watch. It presents a damning indictment of America's infatuation with the right to bear arms against one another. When the truth is being decided by the person standing at the right end of the barrel, nobody really goes home a winner.