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February 25, 2017

Jackie (2016)
Director: Pablo Larraín
Actors: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Billy Crudup

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Synopsis: Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) conducts an interview weeks after the assassination of her husband, John F. Kennedy, and reflects back on the recent whir of events.

Review: Too often the biopic genre devolves into an odious parlour game where the opportunity to capitalise on the public thirst for the sensational re-enactment of famous (usually tragic) stories and figures becomes the sole modus operandi. A biopic of Jackie Kennedy – certainly around the time of JFK’s assassination – could easily have slipped into this category, especially as the two things she is most readily associated with are her iconicism and tragic stature. The beauty of this film and director Pablo Larraín’s intent are that he uses the hook of the JFK assassination/Jackie grieving ‘story’ to three-dimensionalise connotations of its “legendary” status.

Larraín’s first key decision he got correct was in recruiting Natalie Portman to play the central role. Affecting the persona of a well-known public figure can often be a trap for the disingenuous method actor – getting caught up in the inane, conceited endeavour of reconstructing tics (Cate Blanchett is a serial offender) that tend to obfuscate the truth. The beauty of Portman’s turn here is that her affectations are born out of understanding the sentiment of her persona, hence it’s a very truthful characterisation.

Equally brilliant is the construction of the story. The framing device which allows Jackie a voice to reflect back on the events of the previous weeks is less a convenient dramatic conceit and more an eloquent, meta-referential emblem for the film’s mandate: to try to refine and make sense of the cataclysmic position Jackie found herself in personally, publicly and existentially after her husband’s death. The film’s eloquence is in the way it probes at precisely what “Jackie” stood for in a series of scattered chronological threads (Jackie’s framing interview with the journalist, a 1961 featurette where Jackie took a TV crew on a tour of the White House, the death of JFK and its immediate aftermath, the build up to the funeral, Jackie’s ‘confessional’ conversations with a Catholic Father, the funeral) – all of which converge beautifully and sensually as we come to realise the film’s central purpose.

That central purpose is of course to understand and admire Jackie’s dignity and pathos, but more importantly – it’s to perceive the sheer brutality of a way of life being completely wrenched from someone in a matter of hours. Her husband was brutally murdered in her very arms, she was necessarily shoe-horned out of her house and public position within days, she was forced to manage her family’s intimate affairs amid frenzied global scrutiny, and then was left in an unenviable position of having essentially a bleak canvas of her remaining days left to exist in the melancholic afterglow of her lost “camelot” without even the driver/need of having to provide for her own family as other young widows in her situation would. That Larraín wraps all this cerebral posturing up in exquisite cinematography, production design and editing only adds to the richness of the film’s sophisticated command of its story. (February 2017)

Sing Street

February 25, 2017

Sing Street (2016)
Director: John Carney
Actors: Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Lucy Boynton, Jack Reynor

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Synopsis: A teenage boy, Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), growing up in ’80s Dublin, forms a group at his new school to woo an attractive, older teenage girl, Raphina (Lucy Boynton).

Review: John Carney’s familiar retro-feelgood mash-up, Sing Street, is elevated by its sheer charm and the way it taps into a fundamental truth about the sentiment of teenage yearning. The seemingly arbitrary way that the eponymous band comes about is actually quite plausible: a young boy – full of images and lyrics in his head from Top of the Pops – makes a sudden pronouncement about starting a group simply to impress an older girl.

Aiding the film’s charm is that it has the joyous sense of a really spirited, concentric production – sure sign of strong core direction and all the actors knowing what they’re doing. There’s deceptive skill in the way song, action and character development segue nicely together, and there isn’t any less than excellent turns from the wide cast of performers. Particular mention deserves to go to Lucy Boynton who transforms a marginally two-dimensional character into a convincingly entrancing and complex object of lead character Conor’s affection. Jack Reynor is also very good as Conor’s slacker, but progressively inspirational, older brother Brendan.

It feels churlish to be overly picky but just at times the parental divorce subplot feels a touch unearned and something that’s been tagged on to give Conor some cheap pathos, and one or two of the ironic nostalgia “winks” at the ’80s music (Brendan’s waxing lyrical over the video of Duran Duran’s “Rio”) are a bit obvious and passé. Better is the whole “boy meets girl” feel of the story, and Conor’s school dance “dream” is a brilliant visual and musical centerpiece for the film while also being a clever manifestation of how music represents a great outlet for Conor: a place where he can project optimistically onto the various players in his life (his parents, his girlfriend, his siblings, even his teachers). (February 2017)


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)


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 (280×157)

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 Wars 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.

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