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The Squid and the Whale

September 16, 2017

The Squid and the Whale (2005)
Director: Noah Baumbach
Actors: Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg

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Synopsis: A number of months in the lives of Brooklyn couple, Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and Joan (Laura Linney), and their two teenage sons, as they go through a messy separation.

Review: Less a fully realised dissection of the intricate fault lines of a family coming apart at the seams after parental separation, and more an elegiac – almost whimsical – snapshot of those events, The Squid and the Whale was the film where writer-director Noah Baumbach really hit the big time and established his own signature away from the brand of his frequent collaborator, Wes Anderson.

This foggy, refracted scenario reaps rewards in the way that it subtly honours the child’s eye view by being sensual and timeless; much how we might remember our own teenage years – as one long inscrutable haze of pleasure and pain. There are lots of continuity shifts and jump cuts (months pass between certain scenes in the film), and as opposed to Wes Anderson’s exquisitely calibrated sensibility mining the themes of nostalgia and sentimentality, Baumbach goes marginally more toward the conventionally dramatic and less affected for a similar end goal. He’s helped by a series of staggeringly assured performances. Jeff Daniels, in particular, nails his portrayal of the ramshackle, conceitedly deadpan father. It’s deceptively clever in that the trap with the role would have been to play into the idea of his character’s grotesque self-absorption, but Daniels keeps it a remove from that, enabling his character to have a pathos-infused dose of partial catharsis by the close.

The film generally feels better when it’s more impressionistic and there’s less exposition. Towards the end, Baumbach gets a little bogged down in the dramaturgy of the divorce politics of the piece, and some of the eldest son’s travails (well essayed by Jesse Eisenberg) feel a little prescribed to reveal some pat moral about the psychological effect of parental discord. That aside, this is a warm, measured little ballad about the exquisitely sad whimsy of seeing the sanctity of your parent’s union fall catastrophically down. (September 2017)

Okja

September 3, 2017

Okja (2017)
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Actors: Ahn Seo-hyun, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano

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Synopsis: The Mirando Corporation manufactures genetically-enhanced ‘Super Pigs’ for mass consumption, so when they decide to bring back one of the best of those beasts, Okja, from its Korean idyll, little do they count on Okja’s carer, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), and a group of animal activists, setting out to save her.

Review: Okja is a film that belies easy categorisation, and it’s an equally difficult film to appraise, as it veers so wildly between registers both ingenious and leaden.

It’s a real hotch-potch of zeitgeisty corporate satire, buddy movie, and militaristic action flick, all merged into an indigestible whole. Probably the film’s weakest element is the satire and general strived-for wackiness. It’s all far too heavy-handed, especially in the montage to the opening credits where Tilda Swinton’s despotic corporate honcho operatically sketches in the whole story behind the super pigs. In fact, Swinton’s performance as a whole doesn’t really work. She’s one of those actresses à la Cate Blanchett and Meryl Streep who it almost seems heretical to criticise, but the grotesque pitch that Bong is aiming for with her character proves beyond Swinton’s forced and pointedly uneasy gesticulations. Equally clumsy, and even a bit passé, is the obvious irony that Bong uses in juxtaposing the brutal fight between the activists and soldiers in Seoul, in slow motion, with the lyrical John Denver number “You Fill Up My Senses”. This “cool”, millennial-friendly trope feels far too familiar now from the likes of Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy movies and James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy diptych.

The film works better in its quieter, more surreal moments, away from forced farce: the early, near silent, stretch showing Okja’s edenic existence in the mountains of Korea with Mija is a lovely sequence. And you can be in no doubt that by the close, Bong has crafted – if nothing else – a pretty coruscating satire of modern society, and the unholy distance mankind and technology are forging from the primal, natural and holistic properties of our planet. (September 2017)

Aquarius

August 31, 2017

Aquarius (2016)
Director: Kleber Mendonça Filho
Actors: Sônia Braga, Humberto Carrão, Irandhir Santos

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Synopsis: Widow, Clara (Sônia Braga), is the last remaining resident in a quaint old apartment building in the Brazilian coastal town of Recife. While dealing with the increasingly nefarious tactics of property developers trying to get her to move on, Clara also has to deal with the politics of her children, extended family and wide array of friends.

Review: This ingenious piece of sly social commentary by Kleber Mendonça Filho is at once a work that’s extremely literary with its depth of characterisation and fondness for allusion and metaphor, while also being such a rich cinematic spectacle too. Charting the defiant stand the matriarchal Clara (Sônia Braga – in a staggering performance), takes against vile property developers looking to remove her from the apartment where she’s spent the majority of her life, Aquarius transcends its convincing character study and immediate political context, to become something almost universal and profound about the nature of landscape, artefact and memory.

Mendonça Filho brings a lot of unique, idiosyncratic tactics to his storytelling mix. One appealing touch is his use of sharp focuses and an overall interest in playing with the depth of focus – a cinematographic trope that’s generally been refined down, if not become totally extinct, in cinema since the early seventies. It helps the literary feel of the piece – a great example being when Clara is accosted by the smarmy property developer, Diego, during an initial house call, although Mendonça Filho’s zooming in on the thuggish lackey scraping a set of keys behind Diego acts as a harbinger for the increasingly threatening behaviour the developers will take when they realise Clara isn’t going to play ball.

Mendonça Filho also isn’t afraid of allowing time to amble along in his diegesis. He lingers in scenes a lot longer than most directors, and it gives his story a felt, sensory quality – akin to the feel of Michael Cimino’s extended wedding sequence at the beginning of The Deer Hunter. In Aquarius, the opening 1980 party seemingly gets an inordinate amount of screen time and has no huge dramaturgical import on the main body of the narrative, but its languorous feel, its celebration of the Aunt Lucia (a forerunner of how Clara would turn out), and its soaking up of the spirit of family camaraderie becomes an important informant on the present-day story. Other impressive scenes include Clara’s cab ride with her nephew which then morphs into an epic panorama of Recife, the long scene where Clara and her aged pals go clubbing, and the extremely moving sequence where Clara’s sons and daughter debate the property quandary with their mother.

The deftness of Mendonça Filho’s focus on themes and allusions reminded me of John Sayles’ stellar Sunshine State, and, like that film, Aquarius is a lovely testament to the importance of not allowing capital values to encroach upon your history, your past, your heritage and your memories. (August 2017)

Shaun of the Dead

August 30, 2017

Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Director: Edgar Wright
Actors: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Kate Ashfield

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Synopsis: Slackers, Shaun (Simon Pegg) and Ed (Nick Frost), are forced to confront an unlikely zombie apocalypse on their home turf in North London.

Review: Shaun of the Dead, the film that catapulted Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright to international stardom, still stands the test of time some dozen years after its initial release. Like with my recent thoughts on fellow Cornetto Trilogy number Hot Fuzz, what resonates most in Shaun of the Dead, with the benefit of perspective, is just how key the contribution of Simon Pegg is – both as writer and main actor. He’s the glue that holds the whole unlikely shabang together: he totally owns the comedy and sarcasm quotient of the piece, but he’s also an underrated dramatic actor and a naturally charismatic presence around which the characters convincingly gravitate in the story itself.

Edgar Wright’s direction is, of course, exemplary. His craft has slightly refined over time, but here it is at its most heightened. It could be best described as a pure, cartoon aesthetic: all quick cuts, juxtaposed points of focus, the precise timing of sound to merge with a cut or pan, and the highly crowd-pleasing use of choice pop tunes.

The whole ‘zombie apocalypse’ homage is competently done. If anything, the film’s only marginal weakness is the relatively unsophisticated thematising of its genre riff. It essentially co-opts the zombie paraphernalia for laughs and a few moments of gallows horror, but the ironic mirroring of the zombies with some numbing facets of modern living is lightly droll but lacks specificity or depth. For example, is Shaun and Ed’s slacker lifestyle ultimately valorised, or is the whole point to suggest that they only triumphed because they were able to turn themselves into heroes through agency? This is where Pegg and Wright’s maturer work – and the best entry of the trilogy, The World’s End – advances the sophomoric feel of Shaun of the Dead. In fact, I actually preferred the subtler film references in Shaun of the Dead away from the more obvious zombie pastiche. The witty echoes of Face/Off and The Deer Hunter in the pub siege scene were superb, and perhaps the finest touches in this most pleasing of literate fanboy exercises. (August 2017)

Soderbergh’s Solaris: A Superior Hollywood Remake

August 23, 2017

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On the eve of the release of Logan Lucky, I recall the ambition of Steven Soderbergh in attempting to take on Andrei Tarkovsky’s colossal, Solaris.

Follow below link for article:

Soderbergh’s Solaris: A Superior Hollywood Remake – One Room With a View

 

After Life

August 22, 2017

After Life (1998)
Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Actors: Arata Iura, Erika Oda, Takashi Naito

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Synopsis: Recently deceased people are dispatched to a halfway house where – with the prompt of interviewers – they are asked to come up with a single memory from their lives that they will live in for eternity.

Review: It took only two films for Japanese master, Hirokazu Koreeda, to craft perhaps his most defining work amid a filmography still brimming to this day with its richness and dexterity. In fact, After Life is a film that deserves consideration as one of the key achievements in the history of cinema. It is, quite simply, a stunning and meta-cinematically deft ode to the enduring properties of memories and sensations.

Those familiar with Koreeda’s more recent output will immediately recognise the refulgent humanity, the sensitivity, the absolute steadfastness of sincerity that radiates from each sinew of the film’s core. Although Koreeda is dealing with a potentially maudlin concept (the recently deceased having to decide upon their one everlasting memory), the film transcends cheap sentimentality in favour of a gentle, humane streak merged with a slow burn philosophical resonance.

Koreeda actually treats the conceit extremely wryly on occasions, with the opening shot of the deceased entering the “halfway house” through a wispy, ethereal door as a portentous bell tolls, being bathetically juxtaposed to them having to sign in at a reception desk and take a ticket until they’re called for their interview. During that interview, although they know they’ve died, the deceased are then ironically commiserated through the classic line, “we’re sorry for your loss”! In terms of concept and wit, at times, it almost feels like a superior, Japanese version of ‘Talking Heads‘ as Koreeda episodically introduces the dozen or so deceased people – of different ages, genders and dispositions – all working through the quandary of which memory to take forward with them. One of the most beautiful subplots concerns an aged lady who seems utterly untouched by the situation she’s in, until the workers realise she has no need to agonise over her favourite memory, as she’s evidently a person who had found peace in her lifetime and was living in her own form of ‘heaven’ already (this is rounded off by a simply beautiful closing image of her passing to her assigned worker a bag of the translucent cherry blossom leaves he made for her to help conjure her Eden).

Once all the personnel are introduced, the film becomes progressively richer and more philosophically expansive in its second half. Also, although limited to dialogue and a few fixed locations, Koreeda succeeds in making the work increasingly cinematic. One way is through the perspective of the interviews being continually toyed with, so – at times – we unwittingly move from Koreeda’s non-diegetic direction to actual footage of the interviews themselves (a very Kiarostami-esque conceit). Then, as the memories are physically reconstructed by the workers, the concept almost becomes a metaphor for cinema itself. What may seem fey, or even calculated, about this meta-cinematic concept actually becomes hugely profound. By witnessing the reconstruction of their memory, irrespective of whether it’s realistically brought to life or not, it enables the deceased to connect with the ephemeral, sensory spirit of their special moment. This, in essence, prepares them for their submission to their eternal reverie.

Dramatically, in the closing act, the film also hones it focus to the young male and female workers in the halfway house, enabling Koreeda to find a suitable conclusion to his masterly thesis on cinema and memory. When everyone’s been dispatched to their eternal memory, a disused room becomes stacked with all the ephemera of these people’s most treasured moments. It’s an image to match the pang of ‘Rosebud’ amid Kane’s burning Xanadu in Citizen Kane. And then, finally, when Takashi (the male worker and key protagonist), finally feels ready to ascend to his eternal memory, he sits in the screening room with his co-workers, before vanishing literally as the reel flickers its final image. A fitting epitaph to not only this film, but to the immemorial qualities of of cinema. (August 2017)

The Science of Ghosts: Cinematic Tales of Grief

August 15, 2017

 

A piece I wrote about depictions of grief and loss in cinema.

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