Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis (ST)

Big Apple Blues 

As a lonesome musician strums his guitar in a smoky bar, hollering lyrics that speak of love and loss, the Coen brothers’ latest production strikes the perfect balance between art-house symbolism and popular entertainment.
Within this starkly melancholic meditation on the sorrow of broken ambition, one resounding feature inspires the viewer’s hope: folk, the music of the people, lives on. The timeless melodies of Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel et al speak eternal truths which do not diminish with age. Indeed, their message becomes more potent in the golden shroud of posterity. Joel and Ethan, I salute you; not least for offering this surfeit of sensual pleasures to humble cinema-goers like myself.

Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a no-good wastrel. His time in the fashionable haunts of Greenwich Village is spent hopping between the sofas of casual acquaintances whilst he hopelessly endeavours to make a living from his music. Poverty and tragedy haunt his everyday world as the harsh realities of modern living begin to bite. Along his parade of the beaten New York streets, this reluctant protagonist encounters a runaway cat, a heroine addicted big-shot and the hostility of his friend Jean (Carey Mulligan).

True to form, the makers of True Grit, Fargo and Raising Arizona have created a bittersweet elegy to one of life’s helpless losers. Their mischievously subtle script snakes from one personal disaster to the next, leaving little respite from the misery other than some beautiful acoustic tunes.

Without being stylized as an orthodox musical, the film positions its soundtrack at its core and uses the lyrics to contextualize various individual scenes. In effect, the two complimentary elements are inseparable components of the overall piece. Some of Inside Llewyn Davis’ best moments stem from sequences based entirely on the performance of a track, the highlight of which being the hero's impromptu audition in front of an inscrutable club owner.

Although littered with plenty of talented character actors, the camera is entirely centred on Oscar Isaac in his breakthrough role. Not only does he carry the story with a powerhouse performance but he also has the vocal skill to look – and more importantly sound- like a professional singer. If, like me, folk is a genre that tickles your fancy, then these phonic tones will leave you spellbound.

Although varying in some respects from their usual farcical style, the Coen brothers have still included many of their signature features. Inevitably it is John Goodman, playing a wily loud-mouth, which leaves the deepest impression of these artistic tropes. Whether it is in The Big Lebowski or Barton Fink, Goodman is an irrepressible force when given the right lines.

Depending on your sympathies for folk music or the esteemed Coen siblings, Inside Llewyn Davis is either an overly idiosyncratic homage to Dylan or a distinguished recreation of a cultural movement in its prime. I favour the latter.


Saturday, 25 January 2014

Wild Strawberries (1957)

Pick’em while they’re ripe

Professor Isak is the unlikely leading protagonist in this charming psychosomatic tale of regret and re-evaluation.

The film opens in Professor Isak’s study; a room that echoes the great achievements of a life fervently dedicated to the study of science. An old fragile man sits decrepitly bent over his desk, a loyal and devoted dog lies lazily by his feet and soon the narrator’s voice breaks the pregnant silence.

Played by the esteemed Swedish director Victor Sjostrom, Isak is soon to receive the greatly anticipated and esteemed accolade of an honorary award, marking the zenith of his life-long career. A career that has systematically triumphed over every ounce of his own self, ensuring the demise of Isak’s social life, family and humanity.

The professor’s pre-emptive thoughts of his immediate future are suspended by the tangible reality of a premonitory dream. In the dream Isak is confronted by his own mortality, this morbid apparition sparks the fuse for his self-remorse and nostalgic journey into the depths of his past.

The film unravels like a fragmented road trip with the protagonist passing through almost-forgotten towns, picking up a couple of quirky hitch-hikers and occasionally dipping into long-forgotten memories of yesteryear. Through each nuance that is interwoven into the narrative Isak is confronted in some form by his past, a past that obstinately pervades into his present.

The intermittent moments of self-reflection depicted in the dream-like sequences are ambivalently poised so as to be neither accurate memories of days gone by nor abstract lamentations of what could have been. In fact, the whole film seems to be situated in an unravelling reverie, partly due to its content but also due to the eerie cinematography.

Directed by Ingmar Bergman, a director notorious for his confident displays of philosophical morbidity, Wild Strawberries was the film that catapulted his career onto the global stage. And it’s not difficult to see why. As well as the intriguing and likeable character of Professor Isak, his depressing recounting of those most traumatic events that dictated his future is at times genuinely heart-breaking. Not only this, but the photography is such that suspense can be drawn in an instant and our attention held at the mercy of Bergman’s directing.

The script, also written by the Swedish auteur, should not be understated. Dwelling delicately on the vicissitudes of Isak’s character Bergman carefully constructs the narrative so as to include and re-include characters that occur both in Isak’s reality as well as in his reveries. The blurring of real and un-real certainly be-speaks of a Freudian interest but the success of its realisation on film should solely be credited to Bergman. 

Encapsulating the harsh realities of a life led by pious declaration rather than impetuous sentimentalism, Wild Strawberries confronts the bitter tragedy of regret at the final moments of life’s conclusion and does so with empathetic consideration and cinematic prowess.

Josh Pomorksi       

Friday, 24 January 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is essentially one huge, unrelenting sales pitch, delivered by stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) with the aim of selling us himself and his depraved, luxurious, unrestrained lifestyle on Wall Street. He speaks to us directly through voiceovers, at some points even talking directly to the camera, as he entices and implores us to dive in and join him is his intoxicating world of drugs, sex and obscene wealth. 

That debauched world is Stratton Oakmont, the company established by Jordan with his wingman Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill, making a seamless transition from his familiar frat boy comedies), that specialises in fraudulent ‘pump and dump’ schemes and vast exhibitions of decadence. They become enormously successful, with the film chronicling what they do with the apparently un-spendable quantities of money they earn. 

Whereas in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, the seminal film about those who play the stock market, we meet the ruthless Gordon Gekko through the fresh-faced and initially innocent of eyes of Charlie Sheen’s Bud Fox, Jordan’s voiceover makes us complicit with his disreputable activities and deprives us of any moral centre. It has never been Scorsese’s style to present such straightforward, preachy moral messages, and The Wolf of Wall Street shares the likes of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas’ refusal to judge their protagonists and willingness to indulge in glamour. Like Walter White eventual admission in Breaking Bad that he did all those bad things because he ‘liked it’, these films acknowledge the appeal of immorality. 

Some will no doubt reject the sale early on out of sheer repellence from Jordan’s overt obnoxiousness, but many more will be carried along in a whirl of delirious entertainment. It’s difficult to resist so many of cinema’s heavyweights on top form, with Scorsese’s flamboyant directing revisiting the rapid editing, pop music, lyrical swearing (its count of 506 uses of the f-word is the most in any feature film ever, a record Scorsese has also held in the past) and kinetic energy that marked Goodfellas as such a distinct film,  and with Leonardo DiCaprio offering one of his career best performances, with everything turned up to eleven from cocaine-fuelled parties, manically rousing speeches, and hilarious physical humour. 

Cocaine is the drug the film takes its aesthetic from, the basis for its frenetic editing and exhausting pace; even the soundtrack has been amplified with sped up heavier versions of the Beach Boys’ ‘Sloop John B’ and Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Mrs Robinson’. Such excessiveness makes the three hour running time fly by, with a relentless succession of entertaining set pieces making up for the lack of any kind of character development.

It is important when understanding the film to recognise that Jordan feels absolutely no remorse for his misdeeds, and his avoiding of any kind of consequence becomes a running joke in the film. Just as the gangsters in Goodfellas even turn prison into yet another realm of pleasure, Jordan lives a charmed life that sees him make the most of any potential comeuppances. This injustice is particularly fitting in the current context of bonus-earning, bailed-out unregulated bankers, and the film could have benefited from erring from the source material and allowed Jordan to get away completely scot-free, in order to really drill home the point.

To Scorsese’s credit, he clearly hasn’t mellowed with age, and it’s hard not to fall under the spell that he, DiCaprio, and the rest of the team weaves (special mentions for Matthew McConaughey and Jean Dujardin for amusing cameos, and Scorsese’s long term editor Thelma Schoonmaker). It’s true that the fates of the company’s victims, the decent FBI agent (Kyle Chandler) and Jordan’s love interests (including his trophy wife played by Margot Robbie) are all generally overlooked, but again this is partly the point of a film, as more concern for them would have broken the spell. As an audience we’re compelled to behave like those who hang on to every word of Jordan’s many captivating speeches, totally buying everything he sells us. It’s only after the credits have rolled and the adrenaline fades that the troubling reality of what we’ve bought comes into focus.


Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Giant (1956)

Texan Rock

With Oscar season filling most film blogs with contemporaneous chit chat about who will and who won’t, how about a return to a film that already grabbed one of those prized golden figurines – enter Giant.

Giant is a film of truly gigantic proportions, running in at just over 200 minutes. It’s fair to say you should probably mentally and physically limber up before nose-diving into this one. Set in the 40s Giant follows the life of wealthy ranch owner Jordan ‘Bick’ Benedict Jr. played by the broad shouldered Rock Hudson. After investigating into the prowess of a prize winning stallion, Hudson soon falls smitten to the lustful and boisterous charm of Leslie Lynnton (Elizabeth Taylor). Taylor’s frank objectivity and un-abashed directness equate with the un-tameable stallion that Hudson is so taken with. Their relationship, then, undoubtedly rests upon Hudson’s admiration for all things feisty.

But to call Taylor’s character feisty is somewhat facetious. Taylor soon reciprocates Hudson’s forward affections and after just twenty somewhat minutes has packed her bags and said sayonara to Maryland and moved on down to buck up with Hudson on his home turf at Reata Ranch, Texas. Taylor’s mollycoddled ways are soon put to the test by the intrusive figure of Hudson’s sister and co-ranch owner Luz Benedict. It is in Taylor’s aspirations and endeavours for equal status that she asserts her domineering and authoritative characteristics, first confronting the issue of stay-at-home house wife and then taking on some of the broader issues of sexual inequality that are endemic of the Texan tradition.

Along with Taylor and Hudson is the unforgettable appearance of James Dean in his last role, sadly dying before the film’s release. Dean inhabits the role of misunderstood isolation symptomatic of a society predicated on inclusion and exclusion, of roles and functions and archetypical expectations. Dean’s lonely existence descends into total remoteness after the passing of his only acquaintance Luz. Subsequently however, Luz’s’ will and testimony provides Dean with a small allotment on Reata Ranch. Hudson’s strategic negotiating to relieve him of this small area of land is refused by Dean claiming that, like Luz, he too “is a little sentimental”. Dean’s procurement of this area of land suitably titled “Little Reata” is later rewarded when his fracking efforts expose vast quantities of un-harvested oil and he is propelled into a lucrative reality as an oil tycoon.

The film details a myriad of intricate narrative sub-plots that each in turn look at confronting and exposing social stigmatisation, ultimately with Hudson’s character presented as the dominant force of obstinate tradition, blighted by the new generation sowing the seeds of universal equality. Hudson’s archaic ways are not only threatened by liberal optimism as the landscape, un-changed for generations, slowly becomes subjected to the inevitable alterations by Dean’s growing industry; modernisation dominates both the landscape of nature as well as society.

Causing much controversy with its leftist agenda, Giant has earned its place among film history as an investigative venture and exposition into the modes of segregation in the south that demarcate and define the roles of certain individuals. Like most George Stevens films there is an uncompromising nudge as to the social realities of the ‘American Dream’. Retrospectively, the film’s ambition is somewhat obscured by the sheer monumental length and its involvement with social taboos often appears contrived and unrealistic as characters neatly fit into broader stereotypes of misogynist; liberalist; outcast; etc. And though Dean’s presence is memorable, I certainly disagree with the seemingly universal concession that Giant is all about his charisma.

Giant’s epic epic-ness then, provides glimmers of momentary splendour. But ultimately if a deep-south-cattle-ranch-social-expose is on your agenda I would thoroughly recommend creeping past the Giant and settling on Martin Ritt’s Hud.    

Josh Pomorski                    

Friday, 17 January 2014

12 Years a Slave

Blood, sweat and tears

One of the first scenes in Twelve Years a Slave shows Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man who was kidnapped into slavery, attempting to write on a parchment, using juice squeezed from some blackberries as ink. He is, however, unable to form so much as a letter, and recoils in despair and frustration. Like his inability to record his circumstances in the written word , the stories of those who suffered through slavery have gone largely and conspicuously untold in Hollywood. Twelve Years a Slave finally addresses that shocking part of American history, adapting the memoirs of the real life Solomon who, after a dozen years forced to live as a slave, was finally able to tell his story.

That story involves being tricked into believing he has been offered a lucrative job only to be sold into slavery, where he endures the life working in a plantation first under the ownership of William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), then later at the mercy of the psychotic Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Each plantation owner represents the two types of evil exposed in the film; while Fassbender delivers a typically intense and exhilarating performance as overtly disturbed and cruel, it is the banality of evil represented by Cumberbatch’s character – whose ostensible kindness is neither sentimentalised nor allows us to lose sight of the system he exploits - that really disturbs.  
Perhaps the most haunting line in the whole film is spoken by his wife who, in a half-hearted attempt to comfort their newly purchased slave who has been separated from her family, tells her that ‘You’ll forget about your children soon enough’. Sadists like Epps may be the ones who unleash the violence that causes the horrific whip wounds McQueen’s camera confronts us with, but it’s the attitudes of the ordinary people expressed in these words that legitimise such brutality. 

Given his background of provocative art-house films Hunger and Shame, it’s no surprise to see director Steve McQueen treat slavery in a similarly uncompromising way. What is more surprising – and, for that matter, admirable – is the way he balances such a challenging style with a structure and aesthetic that makes Twelve Years a Slave accessible to an audience beyond art-house devotees. He uses many tropes of traditional Hollywood storytelling exemplified in films like Gone with the Wind, but never trivialises or compromises the authenticity of Solomon’s story. Evidently McQueen is committed to telling the story of Solomon to the widest possible audience, and draws upon his talent for viscerally and vividly depicting human suffering not to alienate, but to tell the story honestly, in unflinching detail.

Such candid handling of its material renders the film’s status as entertainment problematic, but McQueen addresses this through the pervading theme of music. Solomon, as a talented player of the violin, is himself something of an artist, and his instrument is his most prized possession. In a sense, it allows him to express his individuality, which makes it all the more soul-destroying when he is forced to play jolly, joyful tunes by his white masters as they abuse his fellow slaves, in scenes  which make the common, ironic use of music to juxtapose violence - such as Tarantino’s Django Unchained – seem perverse.

His violin comes to represent how he is different from the other, uneducated slaves, preferring it to the songs sung by the slaves as they work. The lack of collective resistance among the fear-ridden slaves is one the most alarming aspects of the film, and so a scene in which Solomon embraces his allegiance with the others by singing along with a song enacted in honour of a recently deceased friend is one of the film’s most moving. They sing not for entertainment but for something deeper, in much the same way the film itself works. 

Although primarily about the experiences of Solomon, the film never allows us to forget or ignore the other victims, particularly the endlessly-suffering Patsy (Lupita Nyong’o), inadvertently and tragically entangled in a marital dispute between Epps and his wife (Sarah Paulson). Its seriousness and dedication to honour the lives lost to slavery makes most other films seem frivolous by comparison, and McQueen’s will surely be remembered as one of the great films of this era. 


Thursday, 16 January 2014

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

The Long Boer

Can Idris Elba succeed where Morgan Freeman, Terrence Howard and many more have fallen? Despite a gusty and adventurously masculine performance from its star, the great man who inspired this biopic remains an elusive figure. Far from being someone to shirk a challenge, I daresay Elba accepted a Herculean, nay impossible, labour when he accepted the role of South Africa’s saviour. Based on his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom can be remembered as an effective, yet flawed and sentimental, tribute to the late Nelson Mandela.

Amidst the turmoil of a country ridden by the greatest institutional evil, an idealistic lawyer is drawn into the struggle against Apartheid. As political tension escalates, Nelson Mandela (Idris Elba) becomes a subversive revolutionary against the white supremacist regime. Condemned to life imprisonment on Robben Island, his family and political allies are robbed of his lov
e and leadership. But after 27 years behind bars Mandela walks free, leading his country on the road to liberty, reconciliation and free elections.

Hollywood biopics, no matter how virtuous their intentions, rarely emerge as worthwhile endeavours. Formulaic studio scripts have neither the time nor inclination to develop a complete character study of their inspirational figure. Lincoln worked because it condensed its narrative to a few pivotal months in Abe’s life. If only Long Walk to Freedom had followed the same structure.

After a relatively protracted length of sequences we are still no closer to understanding the real Mandela. The highlight-jumping script leaves little space to ask his character basic questions like ‘how?’ and ‘why?’. Even his tortured marriage to Winnie (Naomie Harris), which forms the main bulk of the total film, is absent of any contentiousness or emotional complexity.

Rather than forming deep personal ambiguities, William Nicholson has apparently written a screenplay for GCSE students. With the exception of a brief interlude depicting Sharpeville, little of the political and social evils of Apartheid are explored. International sanctions, the ANC’s military campaign and the white government are all given mere cameo appearances. In fact, the entire de Klerk regime is summed up by the president grimacing at a TV screen.

Considering the convenient timing of its release, the production process may well have been rushed or perhaps too distracted by the recent obituaries of Mandela to really study his personality against the consensus. Either way the end product represents a significant waste.

Nevertheless, the scattered moments which are deemed worthy of focus convey a powerful and emotive message. The best moments are those in which the film becomes justifiably angry. For instance, as Winnie emerges from the courthouse where her husband has been given a life sentence, her cry of “Amandla!” creates a stirring demonstration of defiance. Indeed, throughout the movie Harris defies her petite stature to burn with a furious inferno. Without her input of vengeful hatred, the Shawshank section on Robben Island would have dragged, despite Elba’s sombre performance.

If it were not for 12 Years a Slave my opinions may have been more favourable. In contrast to the naked viciousness of Steve McQueen’s Oscar contender, Long Walk to Freedom feels meeker than its subject matter deserves.  

Saturday, 11 January 2014

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Mitty, witty and pretty

Carpe diem. The famous motto of the Dead Poets Society is resurrected from James Thurber’s short story for another airing on the big screen.

On his fourth occasion in the director’s chair, Ben Stiller has created his most alternative work to date. No genre category describes it better than the simple adjective ‘uplifting’. With a storming soundtrack and astute observational comedy, this love letter to the armchair dreamer is the most likable film of the lately departed year.

Looking cynically into my crystal ball I see a gloomy future facing me. The dreary desk job, an empty apartment, my own personal account book; such is the not-so-secret life of the eponymous hero. To alleviate the drudgery of his isolated existence Walter (Ben Stiller) dreams of fantastical adventures and daring deeds. To woo his office fancy, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), the timid daydreamer must step out of his fantasies and experience any action the real world has to offer. Such an opportunity presents itself when a misplaced photograph puts his job on the line.

Like flicking through the pages of the latest National Geographic, Walter Mitty jumps between unexplored quarters, seeking the thrills of journeying with the wind and leaping across natural boundaries. Greenland, Iceland and the Himalayas all feature along Walter’s travels but even the shots of New York boast a quintessential exoticism. The city that got Sinatra singing has never looked better.

There is a likeness to John Constable in the way Stiller wields his brush about the landscape. Similar to the British Regency painter, he captures the homeliness in diverse settings with an unnatural simplicity. In one beautiful sequence, the characters break away from a deep conversation to join their Sherpa guides in a game of football on a mountain basin. Whether amidst the snowy tundra of Asian peaks or the muddy turf of your local park, it seems ‘jumpers for goalposts’ acts as a universal language.

At the other end of the camera, Stiller gives a greatly understated performance which perfectly mimics the classic everyman role which Martin Freeman has come to almost monopolise in recent times. Moreover, Kristen Wiig shows her dramatic variety with a relatively subdued turn as a middle aged single mother. How refreshing it is to have two Hollywood leads actually look their age. Although more handsome than most ordinary couples, comforting details like Stiller’s emerging bald patch help the characters retain their believable ordinariness.
Finally, Adam Scott deserves an honorary mention for once again proving that he can master the art of acting the ass.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a timely reminder that films should never be judged on the number of award nominations they gather. It proves that a surfeit of joys can be gathered from a humble story about a man and his travels, whether in the confines of his imagination or outside of it. 



Sunday, 5 January 2014

American Hustle

‘Some of this actually happened’ pronounces the title card at the beginning of American Hustle, a statement that sets the tone for the rest of the film. In stark contrast to the pompous declaration of ‘based on a true story’ that adorns the posters and trailers of many awards-baiting films American Hustle will soon be shortlisted alongside, this title card drolly undermines the authenticity of what we see on screen, whilst at the same time preparing us for the series of madcap events that make up the film. 

The farce the film is loosely based on is the ‘Abscam’ scheme from the late 1970s, in which the FBI enlisted the help of a convicted con artist (played in the film by Christian Bale) to carry out a sting operation in order to entrap political figures taking bribes. 

Unlike a lot of recent films which pertain to repeat faithfully the real life events it is based on, and unlike films like The Sting, Ocean’s Eleven and Rififi  that dedicate a lot of time to depicting the mechanics of the scheme, American Hustle is more interested in its characters and their neuroses than anything else. Director and co-writer David O Russell has displayed his talent for actor-friendly scripts in past films like Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter, and here he oversees some of the best contemporary actors in Hollywood at the top of their game.

The chemistry and dynamism between the leads is thrilling to watch, in the same way that the best screwball comedies of the classical era provided templates for Hollywood giants likes Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant to strut their stuff. Bradley Cooper draws upon the same mania of his character in Silver Linings Playbook to entertainingly play Riche Di Maso (the names used are not the same as those in the real life Abscam operation), the coked-up, restless FBI agent with mother issues,  who instigates the whole operation. Amy Adams is smart, seductive femme fatale Sydney, involved in an affair and business partnership with Christian Bale’s con-artist Irving, and who constantly blurs the lines between role-playing and genuine emotions.  

Jennifer Lawrence is on screen a lot less as Irving’s manipulative, high-maintenance wife Rosalyn, but is perfectly cast in a role that capitalises on her vigorous off screen persona (hidden in some of her recent roles such as Katniss Everdeen), and gets some of the film’s biggest laughs with her potentially fatal interferences with her husband’s affairs. And Jeremy Renner plays the targeted politician Mayor Carmine, who is, unexpectedly, the moral centre of the film.  Through Carmine, in relation to the film’s post-Watergate context, the film unfashionably offers sympathy to those set up, and a warning to the overly ambitious out to get them.  

Christian Bale is surprisingly understated as Irving, and his relatively restrained performance allows the others to play off him. But, although he, like all the characters, successfully avoids slipping into caricature, the moral compass he is presented as possessing is never quite reconciled with his cold-hearted line of business, rendering him more of an enigma than the others. 

But this is a minor gripe in what is otherwise a joyously entertaining picture. It borrows much from the Scorsese aesthetic of pop music, voiceovers, alluring criminals and improvised dialogue, but David O. Russell has still managed to develop his own distinct style, one characterised by a keen eye and fondness for human behaviour, and its potential to slip into mania. Most actors in Hollywood will undoubtedly be hoping to work with him.