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A Man Called Ove

October 15, 2017

A Man Called Ove (2015)
Director: Hannes Holm
Actors: Rolf Lassgård, Bahar Pars, Filip Berg

Synopsis: Crotchety and suicidal 59-year-old widower, Ove (Rolf Lassgård), has his life turned upside down by an eccentric Swedish-Persian family who move in across the street from him.

Review: Save the atypical Swedish canvas, this thick slice of soft Gothic whimsy hearkens uncannily to the sort of film Alexander Payne or perhaps even Tim Burton (think Big Fish) have made a career out of manufacturing across the pond. Of course, it’s not a crime to make a sentimental film – it’s a viable genre and sensibility – so there is much to commend A Man Called Ove for amid its calculating machinations.

Even if you can spot the character arc a mile off, Rolf Lassgård’s portrayal of the cantankerous Ove is a tour de force, and engenders the necessary pathos one needs to feel for his character as he goes on his Scroogeian journey of humanisation. Also, where much of Hannes Holm’s direction feels too conceited, literal and symmetrical (the neat framing mirroring the manic desire for order in Ove’s own psyche), he does conjure one or two witty skits. The best of which is a gallows image of Ove recalling his mother’s funeral. As his younger self looks back painfully at the church, he observes the microcosm that is life’s journey through a blissful married couple entering on one side of the church, while at the far end, the coffin of Ove’s mother is lugged solemnly away.

A Man Called Ove does have charm amid its syrupy confections, but any resonance or profundity is hampered by the glibness of many of those manipulations. The perpetually twee soundtrack is gratingly patronising, and the flashbacks designed to inform Ove’s present day crisis are far too schematic. Ove’s deceased wife is a cipher of saintliness who inexplicably falls in love with his naive, uninteresting younger self because the story needs that to happen for his epiphany in later life, but her devotion to him makes no sense other than as a sentimental excuse for his unattractive personality.

The flashbacks in general feel like a storytelling cop out, and, although admirable in sketching in a modern day, ethnographic context to its Swedish microcosm, Ove’s thawing at the hands of his new Persian neighbour transmits as too schematic. There’s even a highly unlikely subplot about Ove taking in a gay Muslim man called Mirsad which really is laying on the film’s message of liberal tolerance a little too thick. (October 2017)

The Meyerowitz Stories

October 13, 2017

The Meyerowitz Stories (2017)
Director: Noah Baumbach
Actors: Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman

Synopsis: The sons and daughter of ailing New York patriarch, Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman), converge around their father as his increasing cantankerousness and (later) ill health require their closer attention.

Review: Crafting the sort of film that Woody Allen could only dream about making now, Noah Baumbach has come up trumps once again with his The Meyerowitz Stories: another zeitgeisty New York family dramedy to rival anything from the increasingly prodigious (and prestigious) body of work he’s proliferated over the last decade or so.

It features the dramatic ingredients now instantly familar to Baumbach or even Wes Anderson completists with its dry and ironic take on familial dysfunctionality. Baumbach makes his almost literary interest in the scenario manifest from the beginning with its full and unwieldy novelistic title, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Completed), followed by intertitled “chapters”, centred around one of the family members, driving the main body of the narrative.

Arguably the film is stronger in its opening sections: where Baumbach is content to let his scenario waft indeterminately around its gaggle of colourful Meyerowitz family members and associates. A gem of a sequence is the opening dinner scene at patriarch Harold’s Manhattan apartment where his crazy fourth wife, Maureen, cooks up a truly disastrous seafood meal for Harold’s son, Danny, and granddaughter, Eliza. Dustin Hoffman’s Harold even utters the immortal line “have more shark” as Danny (an impressive Adam Sandler) and his daughter look on in pained disbelief at the sheer paucity of food on show. Harold and Danny proceeding to go in overly formal tuxedos to the opening night of a sculpture exposition by one of Harold’s more successful contemporaries is also a marvellously sly way to out the subtle neuroses afflicting both of these key characters in the film.

If, ultimately, Baumbach’s decision to employ a third act health scare ‘twist’ to manufacture the strained reunification of the Meyerowitz children feels a little hackneyed (as well as essentially robbing the film of its most interesting character), it shouldn’t detract from the otherwise overriding pleasure and emotive quality of Baumbach’s storytelling. It’s another of his outstanding odes to family being both the catalyst for, and saviour from, the “slings” and “arrows” of life’s “outrageous fortune”. (October 2017)

On the Waterfront

October 6, 2017

On the Waterfront (1954)
Director: Elia Kazan
Actors: Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden

Synopsis: Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), a washed-up ex-prize fighter, finds himself at the centre of a moral quandary when he’s asked to testify against the mob boss who’s been taking to increasingly repugnant ways to keep his stranglehold on the union activities down at the docks.

Review: Indisputably one of Hollywood’s most iconic films, On the Waterfront also stands the test of time as one of its greatest films too: a parable of the conscience to rival any moral drama across the history of American cinema (only Michael Mann’s The Insider stands comparison, in my opinion).

There are so many factors that have contributed to the enduring popularity of On the Waterfront through the changing fads of cultural aestheticism down the years. It’s a film which is both a nod back to the inherent theatricality of cinema in its first half-century, while also auguring the greater interest in naturalism and the attempt to score the medium in the language and cadences of the everyday world. So while, on the one hand, there is a balletic feel to the action scenes and Leonard Bernstein’s musical score is suitably demonstrative, some of the Strasbergian acting and Elia Kazan’s decision to shroud the film in the glummer environs of Brooklyn and New Jersey gives the film an authentic, quotidian feel.

Marlon Brando’s majestic performance perhaps stands as ultimate emblem though for the skill of On the Waterfront‘s compelling stylistic balancing act. While it’s a largely naturalistic performance, there is something about Brando’s instinctive feel and singularity that makes every second of his presence in the film gripping. There’s a lovely scene where he and Eva Marie Saint (playing the developing love interest of Brando’s character, Terry Malloy) wander around Hudson Park as Malloy tries to insinuate himself in her affections. At one point, Saint’s character drops her gloves, and Malloy picks them up and idly puts one of them on. What’s ingenious is that this action goes without comment by either character; it’s one of those little gestures that happen all the time in meandering, real-life conversations, and Brando totally owns it in further outing his character’s awkward cocktail of flirtatiousness with an overarching vulnerability.

The film is also a reminder – if it were needed – that Brando really was such a mesmeric actor: at once masculine yet somehow sensitive, equal parts confident and bashful. His mesmeric tête-à-têtes with Saint showcase a grace and chemistry that very few big name male-female co-stars have been able to match since, and the remaining cast of Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb and Rod Steiger all do brilliant jobs with their crucial support roles. Even the slyly panoptic gaze Kazan casts over New York paints his otherwise rustic blue collar drama in a more grandiose, universal hue. The film’s message of finding one’s moral conscience amid a culture of philistinism and bullying seems increasingly prescient in today’s age, and, in short, On the Waterfront is well worth another visit, if only to reconfirm its position as one of American cinema’s finest achievements. (October 2017)

Whitney: Can I Be Me

September 24, 2017

Whitney: Can I Be Me (2017)
Director: Nick Broomfield

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Synopsis: The life and death of US pop artist, Whitney Houston.

Review: The growing fad for feature length documentaries based on recently deceased celebrities (think Asif Kapadia’s Senna and Amy, and Nick Broomfield’s very own Kurt and Courtney and Biggie and Tupac) are the cinematic version of an open goal in football. The tragic refuse, the rise and fall structure, the mass of archive footage, the in-built audience investment in the story – these factors are all proving increasingly irresistible in our celebrity-doused society, but beyond the sensational raw materials, are the films themselves actually any good?

In the case of Broomfield’s crack at the Whitney Houston story, Whitney: Can I Be Me, I’d say – not especially. Surprisingly, with Broomfield at the helm, the pitch of the piece is low key and restrained. Broomfield keeps his authorial mitts well out of the diegesis, and it’s actually a fairly regulatory sweep through the particulars of the Houston story. Beyond the opening coda of a panoramic helicopter shot of the LA hotel on the night Houston died played alongside the emergency call her panicked assistant made on finding her body (it conjures an almost noirish sense of the nocturnal vices of LA as the perspective really widens over the city), the rest of the film is exceedingly conventional.

We get the obligatory opening act exploring Houston’s childhood in Newark, New Jersey, and the first seeds of the successful singer she was to become. Although some of the biographical detail is noteworthy (how drugs were part of her life from a very young age – she was even supplied by her brothers), there’s very little probing of how Houston really emerged as a singer. There’s certainly almost nothing on the actual technicalities of Houston’s voice and talent, bar the aside of her gospel lineage and distant relation to Dionne Warwick.

Thereafter, Broomfield devolves into a snug structure whereby he charts the Houston story through an overly determined insistence on her primal dilemma between old friend and would-be lover Robyn Crawford, and her soon-to-be husband, bad boy Bobby Brown. Juxtaposed to this is in-depth footage of Houston’s 1999 World Tour which functions as the turning point in her journey from bona fide world superstar to washed up drug addict.

The documentary will invariably be of interest to those with a passing interest in Houston’s music and sad life story, but the film itself won’t endure as any shimmering example of superior musical documentary. Even its attempts at reflexivity with the movie title being an echo from Houston’s own documented opining on her career and personal dilemmas fall flat. By the film’s end, truthfully, no greater insight has been extracted as to who this strangely anomalous superstar really was. It’s all surface – much like the singer’s carefully calibrated career itself. (September 2017)

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)