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Whiplash

February 19, 2017

Whiplash (2014)
Director: Damien Chazelle
Actors: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist

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Synopsis: Jazz drummer Andrew (Miles Teller) studies at a prestigious music school in New York, and is recruited into the famous studio band under exacting conductor, Terence Fisher (J.K. Simmons).

Review: It’s easy to see how people were hoodwinked into proclaiming Damien Chazelle as the next cinematic wunderkind based on his debut film, Whiplash. As befitting its narrative, Whiplash is a highly visceral and sensory de facto chamber piece, and although it evidences Chazelle as a very skilled technical director, it’s disappointingly literal and conservative in execution.

It’s a story soaked in the ambition, bombast and obsessive zeal of its jazz musicians (especially the drummers), so Chazelle plays into his aural diegesis with edits and a cinematography to match: music and image become almost symmetrical. Sure, the story is compelling enough on a potboiler level – it’s the oft-fabled genre staple of the callow student under the tutelage of a highly demanding-cum-tortuous mentor. It’s mostly entertaining fare, although the (melo?)drama is all set out prescriptively for us by the ten-minute mark; in fact, the drama feels more like a device than a rounded snapshot of anything truly resembling life – a conceit around which its so-called truisms about the destructive quest for artistic perfection can play out (worst of which is a ‘made for the Oscars’ monologue by J.K. Simmons’ mentor late in the piece when he justifies his zeal when reconnecting with his errant pupil in a bluesy bar).

True, there are one or two minor subversions from the genre norm: Miles Teller’s drummer protagonist never becomes an especially likeable character despite being our nominal conduit through the story, and the closing concert denouement sees a thematically correct merging of these two combustible characters after they’d seemingly been set on a more lurid and prototypical third act ‘falling out’.

The work has a wannabe New Hollywood existentialist glean to it – like James Toback’s Fingers or something by Martin Scorsese – but if anything, Chazelle’s mainstream, literate sheen means he’s more likely the heir apparent to Steven Spielberg or Robert Zemeckis. (February 2017)

David Brent: Life on the Road

February 19, 2017

David Brent: Life on the Road (2016)
Director: Ricky Gervais
Actors: Ricky Gervais, Ben Bailey Smith, Tom Basden

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Synopsis: David Brent (Ricky Gervais) takes extended leave from his dowdy sales job so he can tour with his group “Foregone Conclusions”: a band made up of freelance musicians Brent is subsidising.

Review: Ricky Gervais’ cinematic trotting out of his seminal creation, David Brent, isn’t altogether a surprise given the sheer commercial potential of any ‘Brentian’ project. It was perhaps also inevitable that the law of diminishing returns regarding Gervais’ recent TV and cinematic fare would ultimately take him on an ever-decreasing circle that led back to Brent.

The predictable tactic when transplanting a sitcom to the big screen is to craft a “high concept” that usually revolves around sending the characters to some atypical location: think of the Inbetweener boys going to Malia and Australia respectively in their two cinematic efforts; Kevin and Perry, of course, went to Ibiza; and the Sex and the City ladies were whisked off in remarkably bogus fashion to Abu Dhabi for their second feature-length drama. Gervais, predictably given his biographical influence on Brent wanting to be an “entertainer” and a “singer-songwriter”, sends his alter-ego out on a treadmill of disappointing, underpromoted ‘gigs’ in palookaville locations around the M25. This naturally – Phoenix Nights-style – offers Gervais the opportunity to luxuriate in the deludedness and pathos of Brent, but it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what made his character great in the first place. Brent’s genius was as a ‘clown’ reflecting back the excruciating banality of our recognisable office and commercial culture – and though some social truisms do still transmit through Brent’s mishaps ‘on the road’, it feels like Gervais is trying to bend the material too much to his own whims.

Betraying the fact that Gervais misappropriated his character this time is his over-use of Brent’s signature, awkward, “high-pitched” squeal, which worked best as a delayed, exquisite moment of comic catharsis, but is flogged far too much in this film. Also, some of Gervais’ thematising of the Brent character becomes too obvious: especially supposedly witty flashback scenes with the psychiatrist that really play as didactic proselytising of the ‘meaning’ of Brent’s behaviour.

At its best, Gervais plays into the darker side of Brent – the scene where his bandmate, Dom, successfully wows the crowd in the background is a Gervais masterclass as Brent hyperactively seethes in the foreground: his sneer and sarcastic pointing like a demented and redundant Lear is pitch-perfect acting. Also, Brent nicely undercuts the expected pay-off when he invites two fat women back to his hotel room. They clear out his mini bar and one of them takes advantage of a free bed for a night, but instead of putting his foot in with an insensitive comment (which would be the expected Brent response), he accepts it all with a sang-froid and defeatism which feels much more truthful about where Brent might be as a man in his early fifties. It’s proof that there is still a bit of magic in the David Brent persona, but it really would be best now if Gervais left those moments to perpetuity and tried to mine the original inspiration of Brent for something genuinely new, cutting edge and challenging. (February 2017)

Solaris

February 13, 2017

Solaris (1972)
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Actors: Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk, Anatoly Solonitsyn

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Synopsis: Chris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is a psychologist sent to investigate strange happenings on a spacecraft orbiting the planet of Solaris…

Review: A companion piece to his other stellar science fiction work, Stalker (which was released two films subsequently), Solaris is, quite simply, a majestic treatise on what it means to be human – using the trappings of its nominal genre (and Stanislaw Lem’s source novel) to construct a sensory and metaphysical ode to love and memory.

Opening on a deceptively simple pastoral vision of Chris Kelvin’s family homestead (but there’s something unnerving in Tarkovsky’s insistent gaze over the lake, the vegetation and the house itself), Tarkovsky sets up a classic cyclical narrative structure which will wind up with Kelvin seemingly back on home turf at the end, having braved the colossal sentimental and ethical distress he will be subject to on the spacecraft orbiting the planet of Solaris.

The thematic purpose of Solaris is evidenced through the staggering cut on the 40-minute mark which takes Kelvin literally from terra firma to the space shuttle – the lack of exposition regarding Kelvin’s journey to outer space revealing it is the ethics of the sci-fi ‘macguffin’ Tarkovsky is interested in, not its minutiae. Tarkovsky then sets about crafting his thesis from every possible angle: language, soundscape, editing, palette, production design, changes in film stock, and even the space within his shots (his famous “sculpting in time” edict). Particularly striking and of profound rhetorical significance is the sensual contrast between the verdant, autumnal hues of Kelvin’s life on Earth versus the otherworldly metallic textures and clinical whites and silvers of the space station he lands on.

The arrival of Kelvin’s “visitor” – his dead wife, Hari – is one of the great cinematic entrances. Appearing almost literally from a dream, her silhouetted and partly obscured face hearkens uncannily to the reveal of Judy/Madeleine in Hitchock’s Vertigo – another film that uses the spectral female form to muse on the fated quest for perfection and the transience of mortal love. Natalya Bondarchuk’s incarnation of Hari is absolutely heartbreaking: her gazing into a mirror and asking “who is this?” is almost an anti-Lacanian moment, and her growing compassion and understanding of her husband’s grief is what underpins the sentimental crisis in the central act of the film.

Elsewhere in Tarkovsky’s rhetorical canvas, Bach’s mournful Chorale Prelude in F Minor battles with the staggering shards of synthesiser (a similar effect as in Stalker) to create an aural battleground for Kelvin’s soul. And the closing scene of Kelvin’s symbolic abyme as he is both back on home turf yet not exactly, puts the seal on Tarkovsky’s cerebral politicking: that we would wilfully enter the abyss to sanctify that which is most precious to us – our memories, our compassion, and our capacity for love. (February 2017)

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

February 12, 2017

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
Director: Gareth Edwards
Actors: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn

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Synopsis: Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) leads a band of rebel soldiers on a mission to retrieve the engineering plans for the Death Star.

Review: JJ Abrams’ Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens trod a very fine line between being a novel, viable Star Wars fiction in its own right versus playing too much into the fervent fan expectation and cultural legacy of the saga to date. Its nominal (if not chronological) follow up, Rogue One – an imagined sub-story picking up on a small, snatched detail about the Death Star’s vulnerability toward the end of Episode IV – has totally stampeded across that line – curating a sycophantic, terribly geeky and dramatically dead weight piece of pure fan service.

To put it in context, my cinephilia increasingly leans further and further away from theatrical and dramaturgical works – where the ‘story’ has been honed to within an inch of its life, and where its legion of script-doctors have invariably imbibed the sub-McKee nonsense about necessary character arcs and structures. Rogue One however – being a work of conventional storytelling – was positively crying out for some dramatic shaping. It’s probably got the dullest set of characters I’ve ever seen in a fantasy saga, and the drama is relentless, unimaginative, and (whisper it quietly) a touch boring. Director Gareth Edwards seems to love dipping into these great new planets – a Wikipedia-cum-Google Earth for Star War geeks – but he never stays in them long enough to give them any substance before the perfunctory shoot-out is over and we zip along to the next superficial universe.

Probably the most nauseating element is the sense that the whole narrative exists just to drag its audience from one simpering, “nudge nudge, wink wink” Star Wars universe moment of recognition to the next. As if the audience deserves a medal for being able to recognise the superficial link between one story and another! Reviving Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin and Carrie Fisher’s youthful Princess Leia in crap CGI was an awful idea too. Neither of them are at all life-like next to the real actors and it’s almost as if we’ve gone back in time fifteen years to the realm of Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express or George Lucas’s execrable techy stunts in his prequel trilogy.

The most laughable element though, and the nadir of this film’s cynical, marketed traipse through the iconography of its franchise, is in the preposterously pantomime mythologisation of Darth Vader. (In fact, wasn’t this how the project was pitched? As a recycled medley of “best bits” from the other films so far?) I almost thought I heard a chorus of fanboys squealing and jizzing in their pants a few rows back when Vader first appears to Orson Krennic. It was, to my mind, the final proof needed that the Star Wars series has unequivocally sold its soul. (February 2017)

Scene Stealers: Christopher Plummer in Beginners

February 8, 2017

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One of the most memorable support performances of recent years, I remember Christopher Plummer’s turn in the lovely, Beginners.

Please follow link for full article: https://oneroomwithaview.com/2017/02/07/scene-stealers-christopher-plummer-in-beginners/

Batman Begins

February 4, 2017

Batman Begins (2005)
Director: Christopher Nolan
Actors: Christian Bale, Liam Neeson, Michael Caine

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Synopsis: A dissolute Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has travelled to the Far East after graduating college, still ruminating over the murder of his parents in his youth. Co-opted by the League of Shadows, Wayne breaks free from their doctrine when he realises they are an avenging, terrorist organisation. Wayne returns to Gotham City, sets up his Batman persona, and seeks to free the city from its stranglehold of corruption until an even more ominous foe materialises…

Review: One can see what Christopher Nolan was trying to do with his rebooting of the Batman legend: translating its mythology and themes as didactically and realistically as possible into a comprehensible, contemporary landscape. This central earnestness of purpose is both Batman Begins‘ greatest strength but also its fundamental weakness.

The film certainly wrestles with its central theme of social responsibility and vigilantism (why Bruce Wayne does what he does), and – probably inspired by a post-9/11 world where aspects of fear and agency on both sides of the state/terrorist divide are malleable concepts – Nolan attempts to probe this ideology but in an exceptionally stodgy way. The elongated exposition at the film’s beginning where Wayne’s ‘radicalisation’ is charted on a trip to the Far East verges close to the self-parodic in its endless incantation of a semantic field of “fear” as Wayne fosters but ultimately rejects the League of Shadows’ extreme notions of intervention.

Another problem with Nolan’s line of attack is that he spends so long trying to flesh out and incarnate how Wayne could conceive of and establish the Batman ‘project’ in a realistic universe that he ends up caught between two stools. On the one hand, he’s got to tell what is essentially a fable and honour the conventions of the superhero genre, but in doing so, he winds up fetishising and padding out something inane to the rest of the film’s solemn theorising. The scenes with the Batmobile for example are a sheer techno gorging on Wayne’s artillery (which only a billionaire would have the privilege to access), and this militaristic detour for the film is a storytelling black hole through which Nolan too wilfully allows himself to fall into – a fault of his otherwise commendable Inception too?

Other aspects of Nolan’s interpretation fare better. He always conjures tonally appropriate musical scores (Hans Zimmer replacing David Julyan here), and Wally Pfister does his usual impressive job with the cinematography: conjuring canvases of scope and sheer awe, most notably of Wayne’s early odyssey into the Himalayas (although it is essentially a retread of the masterful imagery at the beginning of Nolan’s Insomnia).

If nothing else, Nolan’s Batman iteration is a movie for our times: at times intentionally, other times unintentionally, sourcing the ethics and stakes of contemporary society’s engagement with a post-industrial, post-nationalistic canvas of responsibility and terror. That the movie ends up thematising the murk of this world if not exactly piecing it together into a comprehensible whole is perhaps as much as we can expect. (February 2017)

The Double Life of Veronique

January 30, 2017

The Double Life of Veronique (1991)
Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Actors: Irène Jacob, Philippe Volter, Sandrine Dumas

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Synopsis: Weronika (Irène Jacob) and Véronique (Irène Jacob) are two female doppelgängers born on the same day but living completely separate lives in different countries, unaware of the other’s existence. Strange portents hint at their kindred state, and Weronika even catches a brief glimpse of Véronique as a tourist in Krakow. A cataclysmic event sees their sensibilities become even more entwined…

Review: Unquestionably one of the most immersive and sensory films ever made, Krzyzstof Kieslowski’s great success with The Double Life of Veronique is not merely that he crafted a work of transcendent beauty (which in itself would be enough), but that his complex, intuitive take on the ephemeral mysteries of existence was born out of that very beauty and craft of his medium rather than resorting to mere expository, literary methods.

Though there is a clear narrative construct – Weronika/Veronique are cosmically linked, perhaps each other’s doppelgänger – Kieslowski uses the ‘conceit’ to elevate and speculate rather than rationalise and explain. Thus the story is told as much through its cinematography, sound and mise en scène than the cine-dramaturgist’s tool of words and editing. It certainly possesses something of the dynamism and spirit of the nouvelle vague. Kieslowski as filmmaker is never content to simply point the camera; his perspective is always on the move – somehow approximating the sensory shift of his two protagonists (most literally in the staggering sweep from a concert hall, to a burial spot, and on to a woman making love).

The Double Life of Veronique is also one of the great cinematic exhibitions of expressionistic lighting. Coming directly before his Three Colours trilogy, Kieslowski compliments the red/white/blue theme of those films with a descent into a nocturnal, green hinterland here, suggesting a perpetual ethereal perspective. If anything, this sustained assault on the palette of the film echoes Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, and there’s something to be said in reading this film – like Tarkovsky’s – as the most cerebral of sci-fi fables.

The richness of the story shouldn’t be totally overlooked though amid all its stylistics. It’s a remarkable parable on the essential unknowability of human experience. How, outside of our homogenised worlds, the ephemera of images and sensations in front of our eyes we process as “life” is something almost phantasmic and transitory. It reminded me a touch of David Lynch, not only in style, but also in Lynch’s submission to the ‘uncanny’. Certainly, The Double Life of Veronique‘s suggestive shifting of one persona to another hints at Lynch’s own co-opting of this conceit in Lost Highway.

Finally, it would be remiss not to mention the luminous presence of Irène Jacob in the lead role. I’ve written elsewhere about how her fit with the aesthetic of Kieslowski was a match made in heaven, and there’s something about her innate saintliness and simple classicism that made her a better fit for this type of indeterminate material than Juliette Binoche whose imperiousness was better suited to the outright tragedy of Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Blue(January 2017)