Monday, 22 April 2013

Blade Runner (The Final Cut)

A landmark film in the neo-noir genre, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner has developed an expanding cult following that has made it one of the highest grossing rental/tape/disc/download titles of all time. It is inspired by Philip K Dick's short story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In 1993, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". This is an important and significant piece of cinema - and an engaging and enjoyable one too!

The film is set in a dystopian Los Angeles which when released was 37 years in the future - now only six years away! The visual design and feel of the film have been echoed in so many films since - the rain in The Matrix, the dim grey industrial backlit look in the recent Batman trilogy, the look of Battlestar Gallactica perhaps serve as examples. Its futuristic retro-fitted costumes add to the film's distinctive visualisation. The film has always been shrouded in debate and a degree of controversy.

From it's inception there were disagreements between studio executives and producers, the script went through the hands of numerous writers with endless revisions and a host of top Hollywood actors were considered for the lead role until Harrison Ford ended up as Deckard. In all a total of seven different versions of the film have been released to date with various scenes being added or subtracted and voice-overs removed, all of which continued to fuel the debate over what this film is really all about.

The story centres on a group of the latest elite model of androids - or replicants as the film calls them. Deckard is a specialist who 'decomissions' replicants by the only possible way - killing them. Deckard is a Blade Runner. The central question of the film is 'what constitutes life'. Are the replicants 'alive' in the same way that humans are alive? A central point of debate that has been engineered by script and production ambiguities is whether or not Deckard is a replicant himself. The replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) aware of a pre-programmed limited lifespan of only four years tells Deckard that he "wants more life". The femme fatale Rachel is desperate to be human and accept her memories as her own and not simply implants.

The film maintains a constant state of paranoia - everyone is always looking over their shoulder. From multi-national corporations to omniscient law enforcement officers, to replicants to Blade Runners - everyone is seemingly threatening whilst being threatened. All is concrete, steel and artificial light - there is no daylight, greenery - nothing natural, the only organic stuff on show is what is dispensed by the fast-food outlets and bars.

This film is clearly a cut above the average sci-fi film exploring interesting questions. It's leap from Dick's story to the screen, its acting, design, music and invitation to metaphysical enquiry all combine to produce something which is much bigger than the sum of its parts. Ridley Scott is currently working on a sequel which will surely be released amid huge media speculation and advertising hype somewhat akin to that which accompanied the release of Prometheus in 2012. I've seen this film several times (in various versions) and it still delights, entrances and engages. I am sure it will only grow in stature as new generations are introduced to all that it has to offer. I am going to give this the coveted mark of 9/10.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Dark Star

I imagine this 1974 film from John Carpenter will polarise reaction - viewers will either love it or hate it. Carpenter is better known for horror movies than Sci-Fi, but this film started off as a college project and was expanded by inserting extra scenes to stretch it to 83 minutes. It's seemingly minimal budget certainly makes it feel more like Red Dwarf than Avatar but therein lies its charm. Although released as a serious film, it has developed a significant cult following and is probably more widely seen as a dark comedy.

On a mission in deep space, four astronauts together with their frozen dead but communicative commander, are tasked with blowing up unstable planets in distant solar systems. Their space craft's interior resembles an anonymous industrial facility and the control panels look and sound like junk cobbled together from an electronics store stock disposal sale. The computer voice is both futuristic and attractive but dumbs herself down to match the crew's demeanour.

Entertainment is provided by a captured alien (the added scenes) that is a giant beach ball with gloves for feet. The crew chill out by head-banging to 70's surfing music and by playing childish games. The climax of the film involves a malfunctioning Thermostellar bomb having an argument about phenomenology with one of the astronauts who is desperate to stop the bomb from detonating whilst still attached to the ship. It all gets tricky when the bomb tries to be God.

Considering this came out six years after 2001: A Space Odyssey and five years before Alien, it is leagues apart in terms of special effects and expansive sets. As I said, that is what makes it endearing - if you allow yourself to be taken in by its naive charm. This is a quirky but nevertheless important film in both the career of Carpenter and the visual development of Sci-Fi cinema. It probably deserves more than the 6/10 I'm giving it but I shan't to rushing to see it again.

Au Revoir Les Enfants

This autobiographical film from Louis Malle is set in occupied France in 1944. The premise is quite simple: A boarding school run by Carmelite Brothers hosts not only the children of France's wealthy and privileged elite, the brothers also take in some Jewish boys, change their identity and hide them within the school community.

Malle's character is the bright Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse) who is drawn to new boy Jean Bonnet/Jean Kippelstein (Raphael Fejtö) who seems to be different. Their friendship goes through the usual evolution for boys of that age: indifference/admiration/conflict/friendship.

On one level this is a gentle tale. The community of brothers and the Catholic hierarchy are portrayed with sympathy and even the German military are depicted as being more kindly than is usually the case in cinema. Only the Gestapo officer is shown to be ruthless, but even here it is tempered ruthlessness. The community of the boys in the school and those who look after them is shown as being an harmonious one which is capable of displaying acts of deep humanity from time-to-time.

The Brothers ensure that the boys are kept up to date with developments of Allied progress on the Italian and Eastern fronts. A thriving black market is run by the kitchen helper which ensures that the usual extra-curricular activities are supported. The school pigs are fattened for slaughter to be ready for the annual visit of the sponsoring parents. The headmaster, Père Jean preaches a sermon that reminds those who have much, that much will be required of them - this is uncomfortable for some to hear.

The film manages to sustain a tension as it explores the trauma of living with military occupation. It gently shows the emotions of both war time and school days, it is a film about friendship, risk-taking, betrayal, sacrifice and loss. It is an engaging and delightful film - although I felt that it could have engaged with themes a little more directly and depicted them more brutally (realistically).

Made in 1987 this film was nominated for two oscars and won a Bafta the following year. It is a film that opens a window onto a carefully selected and I feel santised, depiction of the world of war-time France. It raises plenty of moral questions and invites viewers to ask themselves "what would I do in that situation?". I like films that do that. If you've not seen this, please do. I'll give it 7/10.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Winter's Bone

This is a raw, visceral, guttural, uncompromising film which the screen spits at the viewer through gritted teeth. Set in the bleak backwoods of the Ozark Mountains in Missouri the film is shot with a bleached palette of greys which reinforces the depressing feel this sad tale evokes. I imagine this will not feature on the list of films promoted by the Missouri State Tourism Office! At times I was left wondering where the narrative arc was going - but it does find resolution (albeit a little too sweetly for me).


The central character is Ree played an even younger Jennifer Lawrence than appeared in Silver Linings Playbook reviewed earlier this week. Again, it is her performance that carries the story as she shows an ability to embody, evoke and enact emotions far beyond that of most 18 year-olds. 

This film is about loyalty and family. Loyalty to criminal gangs who having moved on from moonshine and who now produce Crystal Methamphetamine in an environment where the boundary lines are clear and the policing of them brutal. Family loyalties are harder to police as it seems that almost everyone is related in some way to each other. If men hurt someone - even a woman, the men folk of the  family of the wounded seek revenge. If women carry out a beating, the men cannot respond. There is a peculiar honour code that is woven into the culture of the community that establishes and preserves familial hierarchies. The one thing that no-one can tolerate is 'snitching' - telling the authorities about illicit activities and it is an act of snitching that is the pivot around which this story turns. 

In the midst of a moral morass it is Ree who shows that her moral compass is true and she steers a course that is as right as it likely to take her into troubled waters. It is Ree who provides this fractured community with a vision of what family should and could be like.

Ree ekes out an existence for her younger brother and sister who live with their catatonic mother in a cabin in the woods. The mother is catatonic as she can no longer cope with the Meth or the lifestyle of her Meth producing husband Jessup who is now missing. Having been arrested and facing a long jail term, he snitches in the hope of bargaining a reduced sentence. The police bail him to await his court appearance and he disappears. Jessup offers his home and woodland as surety against his bail bond. If he fails to show up in court the family will be evicted. Jessup fails to show. 

Ree embarks on a search for her father within a community which refuses to discuss him or his possible fate. The harder Ree pushes the stronger the warnings for her to stop until she crosses a line which places her in a dangerous place which exposes her vulnerability. It also reveals her courage and determination as she is driven on by the realisation  "But I can't forever carry them kids and my mom, not without that house."  

The brutality of the people in this story - even to their own kith and kin, is frightening. The fact that an encounter can turn from conversation to violence in the blink of an eye is a world I wish to stay clear of. It seems that women are 'owned' by their men as Ree's best friends tells her "you can't say no when you're married".

In the midst of all this gloom and oppression there are odd glimmers of humanity. The neighbours delivering some of their butchered deer carcass and offering use of the log splitter. The eventual way the central problem is resolved and the arrival of new life signified by the gift of two golden chicks for Ree's younger siblings add a splash of both brightness and hope to this otherwise dull and hopeless landscape. I wonder what happens to Ree in the aftermath of all of this.

I have told some elements of the story but hopefully not too many to spoil it for you if you decide to watch it. If you do watch it, it will reward you but at some cost as your emotions are put through the wringer. The acting so good and the camera work at times so close and integral to the action, that you may, like me, feel battered and abused at the end of your viewing! I was glad I watched in the afternoon and not last thing at night. There are no car chases, shoot outs or romantic liaisons. The story is driven by the script and the characters - just what a good film should be. As demanding as this film was to watch, I cannot but give it a coveted 9/10!

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys

This Michael Haneke film from 2000 bears the hallmarks of its maker and as usual requires the viewer to invest a significant amount of energy and thought when watching. The first clue to beginning to unravel the story comes in the second part of the title: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys. The film is brutally edited into segments which interweave a number of stories which on the face of it have no connection. However, as the film is largely set in Paris, it gives Haneke the opportunity to subtly allow characters from one story to appear as passers-by in another or in the case of the opening scene to directly collide. For me one of the unnerving things about the film was that it stars Juliette Binoche in a role that does not endear her to the audience!

The stories explore themes of the codes required for societies, families, ethnic and also social groups to function. It explores the values and drivers for these groups and documents what may happen when they unwittingly collide in opposition to each other. Each of the stories picks up some of these themes and invites the viewer to reflect on the kind of society that is emerging - particularly in the light of patterns of immigration, economic aspiration, generational divergence and disability.

Binoche's Anne lives with  Georges (Thierry Neuvic) who is a photographer. He returns from the Balkan war zone and is interrogated over dinner by a friend who questions the moral and philosophical worth of what she sees as voyeurism. Playing alongside this are two stories about aspirational economic migration - one illegal from Romania and one legal featuring a family from Mali. Haneke captures the institutional racial/ethnic prejudice of the Gendarmerie which detains and deports the victims whilst allowing the one who abuses their position to get off free. The film strongly features the 'haves' and the 'have nots' and explores how the 'have nots' cannot become the 'haves' unless they discover the code that will allow them to make the transition. There is no exploration of whether or not the transition is right and proper - it is seen simply as a stepping stone to greater prosperity and material wealth. Even when the Romanian family appear to be making the upward path back home, the lure of begging on the streets of Paris proves too strong for Maria (Luminita Gheorghiu).

Anne is an actress appearing in and auditioning for a number of roles which parallel her own confused journey. Binoche displays her trademark ability to wrap steely determination within a cloak of vulnerability but at times it is hard to tell what is fiction and what is reality - another major theme of Haneke's work in general and this story in particular. Georges' (Josef Bierbichler) father still runs the family farm but times are hard as he tries to hand it on to his youngest son Jean (Alexandre Hamidi) who is not interested. Add in a group of deaf children who encode ideas through sign language and who also form a drumming band which provides a pounding rhythmic accompaniment to the final few scenes and you have a complex web of narratives bouncing off and intertwining with one another.

Perhaps this film, as a minimum encourages viewers to think about their own situation and web of relationships and the codes that are used to make them function. It should also encourage us to think beyond these and perhaps identify how our codes exclude certain individuals and groups - maybe by accident or not. Many of he codes we use and develop are unconscious, but they have a tremendous power to exclude or include. Sometimes they have to be rewritten in the face of new understanding. Sometimes rewriting is resisted in the face of seemingly irresistible pressure to maintain the status quo and all of its vested interests - most of which protect those already on the inside.

As I said this film requires input for the viewer if they are to get anything out of it - but that's no bad thing. I am warming to Haneke and some of his other films - most notably Caché and Amour, I rate very highly indeed. If you want to exercise the grey cells do watch this. I'll give it 7/10.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

True Grit

I grew up on a diet of Westerns as America tried to both absolve and anaesthetise itself from effects of WWII, Korea and Vietnam. It was in 1969 that my father took me to the cinema to see John Wayne's latest movie True Grit. From it, Wayne created one of Hollywood's most iconic and referenced screen characters Rooster Cogburn. I didn't manage to catch the Coen brothers remake when it hit the silver screen but I knew that no matter how good the rest of the cast were, the film would rise or fall on the performance of Jeff Bridges in the lead role. I needn't have worried - it went through the roof!

I will come clean and admit I am fan of the Coen brothers (except Burn Before Reading) so I was hopeful when I finally had the chance to watch this. To see 'the Dude' (The Big Lebowski) reunited with the directorial siblings promised to deliver something good. Instead it delivered something extra-ordinary. This film carries all the subtleties of the Coen brothers' considerable talent and for me evoked a feeling that it was paying homage to No Country for Old Men on more than one occasion - or perhaps that's just how they approach Westerns. The lighting, camera angles and locations all combined to produce a feast for the eyes which is reinforced by Carter Burwell's score. As with all Coen brothers films, the use of language plays an important part as the story is enhanced by different character's accents, linguistic style and vocabularies. This all combines to deliver a cinematic tour-de-force. When last was a film nominated for 10 Oscars and ended up without one?

Alongside Bridges we have Matt Damon playing a very un-Matt Damon like role and doing so very well as Texas Ranger Labeouf. Josh Brolin plays the baddie but has relatively little time on screen. Apart from Bridges' barnstorming performance, the film is noteworthy for the breakout performance from Hailee Steinfeld playing the 14 year-old Mattie Ross. At the time of writing this, according to iMDb she has eight films in post or pre production and I'm sure she will have a very full acting career ahead of her.

The film itself explores themes of justice, revenge, honour, trust  and coming-of-age. Mattie Ross experiences more than a 14 year-old girl should: the murder of her father and theft of the family's livelihood, hangings, people being shot and mutilated, physical and emotional abuse, and even a snake bite! Throughout it all she remains resolute and I would suggest that it is her who displays 'True Grit' far more demonstrably than Rooster Cogburn whom she hires to track down her father's killer. The brutality of frontier USA in 1880 is graphically portrayed. Lawlessness is a huge problem but towns are becoming organised and social structures are beginning to appear. The way these things are presented in the film offer insightful social commentary.

It would be wrong to say that you must choose between the two films. They were made 40 years apart and the world has moved on a lot in the intervening decades - as has how we tell stories and how America presents it's pioneering past. Trying to set this offering against the backdrop of Iraq and Afghanistan doesn't work. Both The Duke and The Dude turn in stunning performances of their time and both are worthy of their place in the Hollywood Hall of Fame! If you've not seen this yet - do. I'm giving it 8/10.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Silver Linings Playbook

Most films manage to pace the peaks and troughs of emotional engagement throughout the story. This film maintains an almost constantly high level of emotional engagement throughout. It is a film about truth, fidelity, love, loss, denial, regret, forgiveness, self-discovery and above all grace. It cannot fail to evoke an affective response. It is a numinous film as above all it is about our God-given humanity and recognising that, at least for the time being things are screwed up and we have to do our best to get by. This we do by recognising that despite all our "screwed-upness" we still need to live with one another and most importantly, with ourselves.

On the face of it this is a Rom-com about two psychologically damaged people who help heal each other through the medium of dance. But it is so much more than that. If you know anyone who has been afflicted by bi-polar mental illness and the stigma that it brings, your heart will go out to the two main characters Pat (Bradley Cooper) and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). Both deliver excellent performances and are ably supported by Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver and Chris Tucker - although it is Lawrence who turns in the most gripping performance. A fact acknowledged by her Oscar for the role of Tiffany.

Pat's family is dysfunctional and it is little wonder that he developed the behavioural patterns that led him into being detained in a secure psychiatric institution. His friends and acquaintances are seemingly similar - perhaps the film is trying to show us that everyone is dysfunctional and the line between 'normal' and 'abnormal' is an extremely fine and porous one. The dialogue gives us some interesting therapy scenes and discussions on the effects of the various drugs given to psychiatric patients. But it is the  crystal clarity with which Tiffany sees what she has done and what she needs to do that offers hope to Pat who in turn begins to see her as a 'bird with a broken wing'. This is not so much a film about human beings as human becomings.

The dialogue is sharp and unrestrained - guttural and visceral. The characters connect with the viewer as they trade in a currency of emotional honesty that promotes a believable relationship between the two of them that is fragile, yet with every stumbling step builds itself to become stronger. The soundtrack of the film is cleverly chosen and comprises an eclectic range of songs which help the viewer to make sense of the transactions taking place just in case they were struggling to work it out.

I missed this in the cinema and was happy yo catch on disc. I shall be adding it to my collection and encouraging you to watch it if you've not already done so. It was good seeing Robert De Niro being the freedom to play a real character rather than the characters he is usually given. Cooper will give us more in the future I am sure, but the applause goes to the 22 year-old Lawrence who certainly will go on to collect many more Oscars and accolades - and probably very deservedly so. I'll give this 8/10.

Monday, 1 April 2013

In the House (Dans la Maison)

This film from French Director Francois Ozon is true to form as it explores themes of sexual expression and identity - but it's about a lot more than that. The story revolves around Claude - a 16 year-old making the painful transition from boy to young man. What complicates the story is Claude's domestic circumstances. Furthermore, Claude befriends classmate Rapha whom he sees as a member of a 'perfect family', a family he does not know - he helps him with his maths. Add to this the rather pathetic and struggling French Literature teacher Germain who seeks to live out his creative fantasy through Claude and this emotional roller coaster takes everyone for a wild ride.

The film employs layers of meaning and metaphor and whilst the film can be 'read' at face value, there is always more going on under the surface. The viewer is never quite sure what is reality and what is fantasy. Add to this double - or even reverse voyeurism and throw in an Freudian Oedipal triangle and the web becomes very entangled indeed. Rapha's parents Rapha Senior and Esther, and Germaine's wife Jeanne complete the cast and every single character is abused emotionally and some sexually and also professionally by one another.

Strength of character is what finally wins the day - but not before we see Germain trying to live out his dream of being a writer of note through the promising talent of Claude. How much of what gets written is Germain's and how much of it is Claude's we will never know. All of the main adult characters in the film portray the regret of unfulfilled potential. Claude knows how to use his beguiling smile and also how to manipulate people and engineer situations that fit with and develop the unfolding story as he seems to want to tell it. Sexual and familial fantasies drive his curiosity on as he writes, envying everyone and never accepting his gifts and situation as something to be celebrated.

Jeanne's art gallery is a commercial failure as she pursues a purist vision of modern art. The gallery is rumoured to be a porn shop! Germain published a novel some 20 years early but it wasn't a critical or commercial success. Rapha Senior's job turns sour when his boss fails to show respect - the same thing he accuses Germain of in a heated parent-teacher exchange. Jeanne finally understands Claude's fantastical obsession with Esther and this epiphany provides the key to unlock her own prison of boredom and give the impetus to allow her to escape. The film ends with the privileged elite and the middle-class bourgeois receiving respective outcomes that may not have been predicted from the early part of the story.

Story is the key word here. Ozon is always in control of a clever and multi-layered script which drives the narrative and continually unpacks insights and revelations that help to develop the story and characters. The actors all deliver strong performances. The final scene emphasises the voyeuristic nature of the film's story and underlines how we all have a tendency to watch other people and try to guess what they are up to - guess their story and how it might interact with ours. This is an engrossing and very clever film - if you can handle the subtitles, do go and see it. I'm giving it 8/10.