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April 24, 2016

Iverson (2014)
Director: Zatella Beatty

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Synopsis: The life of ace pro-basketball player, Allen Iverson.

Review: Years ago when I was studying as an undergraduate in Miami, I recall one of my housemates waxing lyrical about the talents of one of the basketball players representing his hometown team, the Philadelphia 76ers: Allen Iverson. Over the course of the year, as I began to follow the NBA a lot more, I became more interested in Iverson: he seemed relatively small – even for a Point Guard (6′ 0″); he pioneered the iconic headband and tattoo look before it became the norm; and just generally was a bit of a controversial, ‘badass’ character.

This documentary, if nothing else, provides more background detail on the genesis of Iverson – but aside from the interesting opening to the film that plays on Iverson’s challenging upbringing and seminal ‘brush’ with the law, it is almost completely unilluminating from a sports perspective, telling me nothing new about Iverson the player – other than the fact that he was grossly misrepresented when he mocked the notion of “practise” at a press conference (he was critiquing the journalist’s need to even discuss such a rudimentary facet of the sportsman’s daily life, not the importance of practise itself.)

The early narration of Iverson’s upbringing in a desperately poor and impoverished area of Virginia is compelling, although there’s a tension between the raw materials of that story and the filmmaker’s need to wrap it up in a more hackneyed ‘American Dream’ trajectory. There are some really interesting social politics in there: the absence of the father figure in many African-American communities; the sense that sport is often the only way out of the ghetto; and the implications of the huge miscarriage of justice regarding Iverson’s brief teenage incarceration that exposed a brutal prejudice on the side of some of Virginia’s white community. That this is all jettisoned for a more conventional sporting ‘rise and fall’ story is a shame – if unsurprising – although there’s perhaps enough in the Iverson story for a more exacting documentarian or screenwriter to flesh out next time. (April 2016)

Half Nelson

April 24, 2016

Half Nelson (2006)
Director: Ryan Fleck
Actors: Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, Anthony Mackie

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Synopsis: Drey (Shareeka Epps), a young teenager, finds herself in the middle of a subtle power struggle between her inspiring but drug-addled teacher, Dan (Ryan Gosling), and her upwardly mobile but drug-dealing ‘friend’, Frank (Anthony Mackie).

Review: This film is exemplar of the burgeoning Sundance/’indie’ genre: filmmakers increasingly well versed in almost a slightly twee naturalistic, ‘street level’ aesthetic that actually masquerades relatively conventional and prototypical dramas.

Here you have a classic ‘ironic’ hook: a young Black teen – suffering mild neglect due to an absent father and an overworked mother – having to choose between two polar role models (one is an inspirational teacher who happens to have a destructive drug habit; the other is a family friend involved in the drug trade but who otherwise is ‘clean’ and reasonably affluent. Incidentally, the teacher is white, the drug dealer is black, and the film seeks plenty of mileage out of this black/white, dialectical construct.) The film almost comes across as simply a device through which this dichotomy can be outed in two seminal, ‘clever’ set pieces: one, when the girl tends to her ‘tripping’ teacher in an early locker room scene; and two, when the girl starts running drugs for Frank near the end of the film, even dropping off some cocaine at a salubrious motel orgy, only to find her teacher is there – partaking in it.

That’s not to damn the film by pointing out its schematism, it just seems prevalent to recognise that the work is much more calibrated than its untainted veneer might initially suggest. The more interesting aspects of the film come in its less pre-determined margins. Maybe the drama is highly strategised but the acting is real and genuine; Fleck’s camera gaining a lot of from simply hugging the very watchful and expressive face of young Shareeka Epps as she gracefully demonstrates the slow maturation of her character as she begins to process the complexities of the adult world around her. The film also nicely taps into an old adage from teaching that there will always be one student who latches on to what you have to offer; and it is Drey’s slow immersion in the life of her teacher, Dan, that offers both of them the best chance of breaking free from the shackles of neglect and drug dependency respectively. (April 2016)


April 17, 2016

Youth (2015)
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Actors: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Paul Dano

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Synopsis: Old friends, Fred (Michael Caine) and Mick (Harvey Keitel), are holed up in a plush Swiss spa, and over the course of a number of days, they ruminate on their personal affairs, professional careers, and indeed their own mortality…

Review: Paolo Sorrentino’s latest wry ode to ageing and the vicissitudes of the flesh is far too textured to be straightforwardly conceited even though its scenario of two wealthy, ageing patriarchs musing on their mortality in a Swiss spa would seem to invite readings of cheap pathos and a certain remoteness considering the exclusiveness of the characters and setting. Sorrentino’s genius is that, as in most of his other works, he takes potentially unsympathetic characters and manages to mainline into their humanity. Take, for example, this film’s rogue’s gallery of players: a self-centred, wilfully ‘apathetic’, retired composer; a wired, egotistical, veteran film director; a sullen and pretentious young movie star; and the rather harsh and hysterical daughter of the composer. As individuals in their own right, they possess multiple flaws and could almost be considered ‘unlikeable’, but Sorrentino’s floating gaze transcends those petty politics for much deeper, almost epiphanic readings of the characters’ respective ‘journeys’. Harvey Keitel’s director, Mick, reaches a poignant admission of the essential futility of his endless professional strivings in a pained monologue to his young acolytes at a train station; Paul Dano’s dissolute actor has a lovely monologue about a revelation he’s had over his father and his career; Rachel Weisz’s traumatised daughter finds unlikely succour in the guise of an eccentric climber; and Michael Caine’s composer, the film’s key conduit, has two moments of epiphany – one, where he finally defends the honour of his absent wife, and two, in the closing scene when he re-immerses himself in his composing after spending most of the film avowedly on the sidelines.

It’s Sorrentino’s unique style and narration that truly elevates the material. He is always thinking his stories through visually, never using a conventional dramaturgical conceit where something cinematic (a cut, a fade, a piece of music) will do, and he never telegraphs his drama. A key character has died by the end of the film, and although we haven’t seen it nor has it been directly commented on, we just know through the imagery of that character’s last scene plus Sorrentino’s subtle crescendo of rhetoric that, just as Fred has had an unlikely bill of health after seemingly resigning himself to his mortality throughout the film, so his friend and counterpart who had spent most of the film railing against his infirmity has not been so lucky. (April 2016)


April 17, 2016

Vertigo (1958)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Actors: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes

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Synopsis: A retired and acrophobic detective, John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart), is tasked with tailing the wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), of an old friend of his, to see where her strange detours take her…

Review: One of the most interesting facets of Vertigo is how director Alfred Hitchcock shoehorned in one of the most ambitious, complex and dystopian of melodramas from right under the noses of the studios. As another writer put it, Hitchcock was a “grand experimental artist labouring in commercial genre cinema”, and while Vertigo honoured its ‘genre’ brief as a superficially recognisable psychological thriller with a veneer of romanticism, in truth that front masquerades a much more radical construct: a film totally in thrall to the lure/peril of looking, and filmed almost entirely from the perspective or ’emotion’ of the subconscious.

Vertigo is, in a sense, one big elegant metaphor. The immemorial opening credits sequence brilliantly symbolises what’s to come: the enigmatic close-up on a woman’s face acting as harbinger for Scottie’s story-long misappropriation of (projection onto) a female ‘cipher’, and the startling artwork of a thumbprint morphing into a vortex represents not only Scottie’s literal acrophobia but also anticipates his deeper immersion into a mise en abyme (incidentally, the film features numerous other spiral portents of Scottie’s increasing journey into ‘darkness’: Madeleine’s hair knot and flower bouquet, plus the end-game of the spiral staircase at the Mission San Juan Bautista.)

Vertigo is a film that succeeds in approximating the aesthetic of a dream, with the radical “awakening” – which even then, Scottie cannot conscience – occurring when he first spots Judy walking down a San Francisco boulevard. Judy’s (Madeleine’s) ‘reappearance’ is one of the most profoundly powerful sensations I have ever experienced as a watcher of films; the genius being that at this point in the narrative, this presence (apparition?) is devoid of all context. We are forced into the same position as Scottie: to ‘judge’ this woman’s sudden materialisation entirely from look and intuition. (Incidentally, to be hyper-critical, how much more radical would it have been if Hitchcock had withheld the conspiracy/whodunnit element of Judy’s identity until the very end, allowing us to bask in this uncanny, inexplicable, spectral balm a little while longer?)

When the revelation about Judy is offered though, the dream dichotomy is unmasked: the first half of the film once Scottie begins his mission is like a subconscious wandering – so many of the scenes are wordless as Scottie becomes subsumed in the blank canvas of the blonde spectre he is following and her seeming psychopathology. There’s the clearly dreamlike, subterranean construct of “Ernie’s Diner” where Scottie first glimpses the phantom-like Madeleine; then there are the hypnotic, unravelling drives around various locales in the Bay Area (some of the journeys are even mise en abymes, taking Scottie back to where his journey started – his home); and there’s the utterly mesmeric Sequoia woodland scene where Madeleine almost literally takes the form of an apparition amid the arboreal darkness. Scottie’s mistake is not to “wake up” when he first sees Judy – he makes the same fundamental error of logic as he had when investigating Madeleine. His fervour and zeal destroy his rational faculties (exactly the same mistake as Donald Sutherland’s grieving father in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now), leading himself and Judy down an almost Faustian path which winds up inevitably at another abyss, another ‘fall’ – the grotesqueness of Scottie’s acts signalled by the Nun’s closing words “God have Mercy!” (April 2016)

The Grand Budapest Hotel

April 16, 2016

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
Director: Wes Anderson
Actors: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F. Murray Abraham

Synopsis: Aged hotel owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), recounts the story of the Grand Budapest Hotel in its famed inter-war years. In particular, he references the bond between his younger self (Tony Revolori) and the hotel’s legendary concierge, Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes), and how their friendship was fostered when Gustave provoked the ire of the family of Madame D (Tilda Swinton) – who had bequeathed him a famous painting in her will.

Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel is certainly Wes Anderson’s most refined and distinctive work to date. Not only do his hugely iconic cinematographic and design predilections receive their most textured exhibition yet, but he twins a narrative sentiment so perfectly to that gentle delicacy of aesthetic: in fact, Zero’s final ode to Gustave H could almost stand as motto for Anderson’s own sensibility, “I think his world had vanished long before he entered it – but I will say: he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvellous grace!”

As seems to be a common facet with the appreciation of many of Anderson’s films, it almost takes three or four viewings to fully assimilate and luxuriate in the richness and dexterity of the world he has created: the sight gags, the gorgeous little design motifs, the wryer than wry snippets of narration. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, the writing in particular is absolutely exquisite, especially important to a story that is all about a sense of nostalgia for etiquette, eloquence and the value of the written word. Gustave H’s fondness for romantic or epic poetry is a running gag throughout the film, and there are other, innumerable lines that stand out – my personal favourite being when the ‘Author’ (as incarnated by Jude Law) describes his reasons for being holed up in the hotel as a result of a deliriously droll case of “Scribe’s Fever”!

As mentioned previously, Gustave H is the film’s central figure, the film’s “code hero”, and surely a proxy for Anderson’s own sensibilities. He’s a gorgeously written character and is supremely well brought to life by Ralph Fiennes. Fiennes gets the character’s vanity and pomposity spot on (but there’s also the humbleness and gallows self-deprecation too). Gustave’s reputation as the “most liberally perfumed man I have ever known” is a lovely recurring joke throughout the film, echoing minor peccadilloes of characters from other Anderson films such as the brothers’ comical reliance on DIY medication in The Darjeeling Limited.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is unquestionably a work of intense richness. Again, repeat viewings reward appreciation of Anderson’s epic level of detail: from the scar of Mexico on Agatha’s cheek, and numerous epically choreographed sequences (particularly effective is the one where Jopling stalks Kovacs through the streets of Lutz), to the whole piece being embalmed in a refulgent haze of pastel pink – mirroring the ‘red’ palette of The Royal Tenebaums and the ‘yellows’ of Bottle Rocket. It’s also a majestically filmed piece with Anderson exacting great mileage out of the Grand Budapest Hotel’s spatial properties through zany tracking shots which reveal the chaos of Gustave and Zero’s roles, to the colossal sense of loneliness that emits from when The Writer is holed up with an aged Zero in the dilapidated Sixties’ version of the hotel.

On first viewing, I must confess – although I basked in the film’s style – I struggled to warm to the story and saw the work as a little more than an extended caper movie, but on repeat viewing, it’s easier to distinguish the huge undertow of melancholy, ruin and elegy that courses through the film. The conceit of having the film refracted through four stories-within-stories – rather than distancing the emotion – actually beautifully thematises the idea of nostalgia and storytelling as part of our balm of remembrance. (April 2016)


April 15, 2016

Detachment (2011)
Director: Tony Kaye
Actors: Adrien Brody, Sami Gayle, Betty Kaye

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Synopsis: Substitute teacher, Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody), reaches the point of near implosion as he takes on a post at a particularly combustible inner-city school while also looking after a damaged young prostitute and dealing with his grandfather’s end-of-life care.

Review: Tony Kaye’s ragged, expressionistic aesthetic may have its detractors but it intuitively suits the wrought scenario of Detachment about a month in the life of a thirty-something supply teacher going through an emotional tempest in his professional and personal lives. After all, cinema isn’t just literature by visual proxy; so Kaye’s bold, visceral attempt to wring as much emotional juice from the material feels appropriate. The opening chalkboard animation sequence cut with (real life?) testimonies of why people get into teaching is an especially ingenious way of thematising the film’s main subject matter of state education and the lot of the teachers that prop it up.

For sure, once or twice Kaye’s inability to retain more measure in his editing and cinematography (it’s one of the most hyperactive films in recent memory) at times betrays a slight shallowness in the storytelling, but again, this isn’t an exercise in narrative sophistication – the piece’s sentiment is the main thing. And that sentiment comes across nicely in the array of lovely support turns from a seasoned range of character actors (particularly enjoyable is a sequence where James Caan, playing an eccentric older teacher, brilliantly defuses the hip-hop bravado of one his balshy young students.) Kaye’s aesthetic also outs the film’s underlying humane, lugubrious tone in a marvellous montage at the midpoint when he cuts between all the lonely evening routines of the school’s teachers: Tim Blake Nelson’s ‘put upon’, shambolic bod even gets a poignant sequence where he returns home to his soulless, catatonic wife and young son – speaking volumes for his own melancholic obsolescence.

Perhaps Detachment‘s strived-for angsty, existentialist edge (replete with Brody’s teacher being named Mr Barthes, and a lot of play on this notion of ‘detachment’) doesn’t always transmit smoothly, but the film has an impassioned ambience and does offer some wise truisms – both positive and negative – about the teaching profession, not the least of which is when one teacher says to another, “the worst bit about this job is nobody says ‘thank you'”. (April 2016)

45 Years

April 1, 2016

45 Years (2015)
Director: Andrew Haigh
Actors: Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay, Geraldine James

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Synopsis: In the week leading up to the 45th wedding anniversary of Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate (Charlotte Rampling), a piece of news relating to Geoff’s past causes pangs of discontent to emerge in the marriage.

Review: It’s almost as if Charlotte Rampling has become a genre in her own right: Andrew Haigh being just the latest in a long line of directors looking to exact great mileage out of the innate depth and sheer watchability that Rampling’s raw materials – her face, voice and overall ‘persona’ – transmit.

On the surface though, this is an equal two-hander – an elegiac study of the subtle fissure that develops in a seemingly content couple approaching their 45th wedding anniversary, apparently well set in the quiet, time-honoured routines of their retired lives. That reading plays out in the rich depiction of the male half of the married couple, Geoff. It’s a very warm, convincing portrayal by Tom Courtenay with the characterisation coming from within his natural register, and Haigh places Geoff recognisably within the spectrum of a nice ‘gallows’ idiom for a seventy year-old man (it’s all about “ballcocks” and fixing the plumbing, and futile railing against the materialist changes in today’s society.) When Geoff movingly pays tribute to his wife in the closing speech of the 45th anniversary party it seems to stamp this notion of the film being about an equilibrium or compromise between its two married parties until the camera moves to focus on Rampling’s immediate, complex reaction to the speech as Geoff’s ‘loyal’ wife, Kate. For it’s at this point we realise that what we’ve been watching is Kate’s story, Geoff is only a player in that, and this reaction is the symbolic climax to the murk of malcontent that has festered in Kate since Geoff made his revelation about his old love in the film’s opening stretch.

Thus, in a sense it becomes even more Rampling’s film than Haigh’s or Courtenay’s. It harks back to some of her work with François Ozon, particularly the similarly enigmatic Under the Sand where Rampling portrays a wife frozen in shock amid spousal trauma and bourgeois scrutiny. In 45 Years, Haigh conjures a magical moment through the sheer look on Rampling’s face when her Kate covertly steals a glance at the slides of Geoff’s old lover; her expression speaking amply for the sentiment that you can’t compete against the ‘perfection’ of a ghost. At times, Haigh almost overstates his reliance on the subtextual undertow of Rampling’s suspenseful, watchful assimilation of her husband’s sentimental wobble. There’s certainly a slight portentousness and feeling for profundity in Haigh’s continual framing of Rampling in isolation or the extended close-ups that betray that attempt to overdemonstrate the story’s slowburn emotion. Nitpicking aside though, this is a convincing, studied portrayal of the essential unknowingness of the affairs of the human heart which even forty-five years of companionship cannot obscure, and it’s a bravura exemplar of mature storytelling where the temptation to wrap things up in an epiphanic, cathartic ending is waived for a more truthful, continuous view of the flux of life’s “slings and arrows”. (April 2016)


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