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The Melancholy of the Outsider: Tim Burton’s Fantastical Worlds

March 31, 2019

Courtesy of: Warner Bros.

Over at One Room With a View, I took a look at Tim Burton’s two Batman films: perhaps better exemplars of his powers of imagination than his more anodyne CGI fare of recent years. Full link:

High Flying Bird

March 10, 2019

High Flying Bird (2019)
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Actors: André Holland, Zazie Beetz, Melvin Gregg

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Synopsis: Sports agent, Ray (André Holland), threatens to monetise a feud between a star rookie on his books, Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), and another rookie, in order to force a breakthrough in the lockdown between NBA owners and the Players’ Union over the cut of television revenues.

Review: High Flying Bird is a work of real virtuosity, and is testament to the skill and ingenuity of its prolific chameleon of a director, Steven Soderbergh. In fact, it’s one of the most intelligent and dexterous of American films I’ve seen in recent years. It’s got the nuance and layering of a masterful stage play (hats off to Tarell Alvin McCraney for the screenplay), but the cleverness is that all this dramaturgical juice flows beautifully into the visual cogs of the piece too – and Soderbergh shooting this with an iPhone is a real cinematographic coup.

What the iPhone offers is both incredible flexibility and mobility, and this is most evident in an outstanding shot of Myra (head of players’ union) coming out of her building about to be ambushed by eager PA, Sam, only for the perspective to finally reveal itself as coming from the actual car Myra gets into. You couldn’t pull off this shot as smoothly with a larger camera, and it’s not just ‘show’, but has real dramatic purpose as it helps consolidate Sam’s outsider status and rogue attempts to insinuate herself with the important head of the players’ union.

There are other, innumerable cinematographic flourishes, one of which is the clever use of an anamorphic lens when Ray is outflanked by the savvy mother of the rival rookie in Philadelphia. Perhaps the best example though is the opening tracking shot that picks up Ray and his errant rookie, Erick, in a disembodied conversation about the strains of the NBA lockout, while the camera glides along the plush Manhattan skyscraper, only locating them later in that conversation. This eloquent flourish helps imprint, as much through form as content, that these are black men very much at the prey and whims of an exalted, capitalist elite.

There does almost seem to be this symbiosis between method and story throughout the film. Just as Ray conceives of empowering the (predominantly) black athletes to take back some of the power from the moneyed white owners of the NBA franchises, so Soderbergh’s DIY aesthetic seems to bring out the most of this dual battleground of Bronx community gyms versus gilded skyscrapers, private jets and modernist metropolitan apartments.

Credit as well to the actors of the piece. As mentioned earlier, it has a real classical, theatrical lure, and each of the performers creates rounded, recognisable players in what amounts to a contemporary morality tale. André Holland holds the ethical centre of the tale expertly; he’s at once quick-witted and sharp of tongue, while also bearing an undercurrent of sadness at the lost heart of basketball, beautifully conveyed in perhaps the film’s best scene when he improvises a speech about not losing “love of the game” at a community event. (March 2019)

The Hundred-Foot Journey

February 25, 2019

The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014)
Director: Lasse Hallström
Actors: Manish Dayal, Om Puri, Helen Mirren

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Synopsis: An Indian family flee political violence in Mumbai to start a new life in Europe. They pitch up in a small, provincial community in the French Pyrénées, and proceed to open up a traditional Indian restaurant, much to the chagrin of the posh French restaurant the eponymous ‘100 feet’ across the road from them.

Review: There’s an in-built contradiction between this film’s genuine attempt to position itself as an ode to cultural understanding, while also being a commercially twee depiction of that story. I’m inclined to cut the film some slack as it’s clearly a bit of feelgood fare, so its story of an ‘exotic’ Indian family spicing up (literally) the culinary world of an enclosed, provincial French community isn’t intended to patronise, but merely to offer some warm escapism. It’s almost like the culinary variant of Lasse Hallström’s uncannily similar, Chocolat (2000), which was equally difficult to begrudge.

There’s even some merit in this film’s microcosmic thesis that the best way for entrenched communities to combine is not just through mere tolerance, but in a mutually beneficial cross-pollination of cultures. This finds its strongest representation in Indian chef, Hassan, subtly reconfiguring the prestigious French restaurant he joins with a touch of the Indian, to elevate it to two Michelin star status.

More problematic is the bizarre decision to neuter the French subject matter by having characters – even unapologetic French ones – speak in ‘Allo ‘Allo English for the majority of the running time. Depicting the Indian characters having to really struggle with learning the French language of their new community might have imprinted the theme of cultural dislocation that much more. Also, the almost impossibly idealised south of France location and the gorgeous, model-like presence of Charlotte Le Bon ready to become the romantic foil of the Indian hero, does rupture the suspension of disbelief of even this most knowingly populist of fare. (February 2019)

Paddington 2

February 24, 2019

Paddington 2 (2017)
Director: Paul King
Actors: Ben Whishaw, Hugh Grant, Hugh Bonneville

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Synopsis: Paddington (Ben Whishaw) gets into trouble when he’s wrongly imprisoned for appearing to steal a pop-up book about London for his aunt. The Brown family set about proving Paddington’s innocence while also uncovering the true perpetrator of the crime.

Review: Watching Paddington 2 is such a boon. It’s an oasis of gentility and niceness amid a world (and cinematic landscape) of increasing cynicism and narcissism, and, in its simpler guise as a form of populist entertainment, it’s an absolute 104-minute smile generator.

My criticism of some of the Pixaresque, part-animated and part-live action fare from across the pond, is that it’s almost always too clever and industrial. Paddington 2, however, has all that skill and proficiency, but its rhetoric is kind of perfect. Not a minute goes by without some intelligent flourish of animated craft, though it’s never technique for technique’s sake, but always serves to out the story’s general air of bonhomie – a word which is wittily spoofed in the film.

Two of the loveliest montages that are testament to all that is laudable about Paddington 2 are the sequence in prison where the hardened inmates have been inspired to turn the canteen into a fancy restaurant of gastronomic concoctions by Paddington, and a later scene where Paddington lets out a tear in his solitary cell, only for that tear to transport Paddington into a dream-world where he’s back in the Peruvian jungle and able to embrace his longed-for aunt. (February 2019)

In the White City: Remembering Bruno Ganz

February 19, 2019

Courtesy of: MK2 Diffusion

To mark Bruno Ganz’s death, I took a look back at his multi-faceted career, homing in on his 1983 masterpiece, In the White City. Please follow the below link for more details:

Bird Box

February 17, 2019

Bird Box (2018)
Director: Susanne Bier
Actors: Sandra Bullock, Trevante Rhodes, John Malkovich

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Synopsis: In the near future, a strange plague is infecting humans whereby if they see something evil (the film never makes entirely clear what it is they are seeing) they will immediately commit suicide. Heavily pregnant Mallory (Sandra Bullock) is one of the few survivors, and, over the following days, and in a flash-forward some years later, we witness her attempts to find a safe haven.

Review: We’ve almost reached the territory of pastiche now in the form of the latest sensorial, post-apocalyptic horror movie to hit our screens: Netflix’s Bird Box. I find it impossible to overstate just how phenomenally hackneyed the film is, and if it wasn’t for the inadvertent, wry chuckles that can be gleaned from the same old hokum tosh the film repackages, it would be an irretrievable turkey.

To list all the film’s risible elements is an arduous task, but to give a brief flavour of some of the ‘best’: we have the laziest, archetypal gathering of post-apocalyptic survivors early in the piece (the doughty female lead, the stoic male hero, the sceptic, the soothsayer, the early, sacrificial lamb); the horror sound effect of ethereal whispers and wind rushes is rote to the core; and the whole thing pinches/echoes all the best bits from a catalogue of ancestors – most obviously Ringu and A Quiet Place, though I accept this was probably in pre-production before A Quiet Place got released. The pressing question is surely which sense can be utilised next in the Hollywood horror factory. Touch? Where everyone has to go round wrapped in teflon or as massive, human-sized condoms?

Anyway, a momentary pleasure amid the prototypicality is John Malkovich’s wonderfully insolent performance as the weary cynic of the survivors. He is playing the role perfectly, though I imagine his character’s barbed quips weren’t too difficult to get into character for given the hyper-familiarity of the scenario. It reminded me of Alan Rickman’s Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and how that character functioned as an anachronistic, jaded chorus on the tired conventions of his villain role.

Call me a pedant, but even the narrative’s interior logic doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. Why do criminally-insane people not want to kill themselves when they look at the horrific ‘thing’? Can’t resilient, hardened, non-criminal members of the public stomach the siting too? And how silly and risibly uncathartic when the film ends in a home for the blind (nudge nudge, wink wink). Bullock’s robust heroine now perceives hope in the world, so decides to confer names on the two children who had previously, didactically, been known as “Boy” and “Girl”. But the two characters whose names they’re christened with – especially the anomalous pregnant woman – hardly seemed worthy of this reverent, godlike status. (February 2019)

Short of the Week: Bogeyman

February 4, 2019

Image result for bogeyman bianca lucas

Over at One Room With a View, I take a look at up-and-coming Polish-Australian director Bianca Lucas’s latest short film, Bogeyman.

Full review: