Monday, 10 February 2014

Filth Review

Director/Writer: Jon S. Baird

Starring: James McAvoy, Jamie Bell, Eddie Marsan, Imogen Poots, Joanne Froggatt, Shirley Henderson, Jim Broadbent

Synopsis: Desperate to get the Detective Inspector promotion at work, copper Bruce Robertson (McAvoy) will try every dirty trick in the book to get ahead. The only issue is his chronic alcoholism and drug-taking, getting in the way of lucid transition.

The work of Irvine Welsh is brash, boorish and brilliant. You needn’t have read his books to have seen the impact of his stories on popular culture. From humble beginnings in Scotland, his work has been heralded across the globe as caustic cult. Hear the title Trainspotting and you realise you know the man after all. Most of his work has been adapted over the years, but due to Danny Boyle’s pitch-perfect take on the heroin-fuelled odyssey of Renton and co. the bar was set very high for future adaptations (most of which didn’t live up to the power of the prose).

17 years after Trainspotting left its enduring mark, Jon S. Baird has helped breath fresh cinematic life into Welsh’s work. He’s chosen Filth, the story of a bipolar Detective Sergeant trying to win back his wife and daughter with a promotion at work. The title says it all; Filth is a no-holds barred tale of corruption and excess, all the while laugh-out-loud hilarious.

Removing the narrative exploits of Bruce’s tapeworm that takes over certain parts of the narrative in the book, the film still hones in on the hallucinatory aspects of the story. Cutting from a third-person point of view to a singular, fourth-wall-breaking address, the world we see is warped. You often feel very close to Bruce (both compelling and repellent) or extremely distant. It makes for a character you can’t quite put your finger on and wonderfully different from the exposition-laden personalities often seen in contemporary cinema.

James McAvoy as the protagonist is simply superb. No stranger to lead roles, McAvoy doesn’t, it seems, always make a grand impression on the films he’s in. Here, however, he excels like never before. Snubbed by too many award ceremonies, McAvoy has rightly picked up the Best Actor win for the few nominations he’s had. Shifting from drunkenly ecstatic, to hungover and forlorn – with all those off-kilter exploits that come in between – he expertly moves through the trials and tribulations of this character. Helped by his Scottish nationality, with a clear understanding on the Scottish and, more specifically, Irvine’s Welsh’s humour, McAvoy seems born to play this part. Until we see another game-changer from the 34 year-old actor, this now stands as his best performance.

With a sterling supporting cast (including a scene-stealing Eddie Marsan), Filth is a wonderful companion to Trainspotting, complete as it is with a host of great characters. As easy as it to compare it to Boyle’s 1996 film, there’s another similarity between the two – an eargasmic soundtrack. Paired with Matthew Jensen’s dense yet demonstrative cinematography, reflecting the tone perfectly, the formal quality of the film is seamless. Baird has brought the tale of a Machiavellian, repugnant sort to life in such an entertaining fashion you’re bound to be revisiting it soon after.

Extras: Some hilarious deleted scenes, including an interaction between Bruce and a naive American; extended scenes that don’t add a great deal to the final cut; some funny outtakes; interesting interviews with many of the cast and crew; best of all, a commentary for the film from Jon S. Baird and Irvine Welsh. ****

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Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Interview: Ian Nathan, author of Masters of Cinema: Ethan and Joel Coen

With Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest – Inside Llewyn Davis – due out today, I’ve returned to the filmography of the two enigmatic brothers, and a Masters of Cinema book dedicated to them. The author of said book is Ian Nathan, executive editor of Empire Magazine, author of Terminator Vault (2013) and Alien Vault (2011), and a contributor to numerous publications including The Times and The Independent. Sharing his thoughts on the process of writing the book, and his own exploration of the tricksy Coen brothers, here is what Mr. Nathan had to say:

How easy was it to balance the research and writing of this book with your work at Empire Magazine?

This is always tricky in terms of sheer workload. Books are just hard work, and soak up your time. I had many late nights and early mornings (which were the most productive, so it turns out I am a morning person) and the odd lunch hour. My bosses at Empire were kind enough to turn a blind eye to the occasional paragraph written on work time.

Actually, the harder element was clearing the headspace for each part of your life. I became consumed with the Coens, so much so that I could think or talk of nothing else. My mother would call, and I would test her on The Big Lebowski's bowling rules, I would do a tea round at work and tell the kitchen on my new ideas for the subtextual significance of Freddy Riedenschneider's fruit cocktails. Keeping my head in the Empire game took concentration.

How did this differ from your work on your Alien and Terminator books?

This was quite different, and a little closer to how I like to write about film. Both of the Vaults represented journeys into history, a kind of thrilling and perilous movie archaeology, where I lived in fear of not saying anything new. But they were very concentrated stories, and very structured — biographies almost. The Masters of Cinema guide to the Coens was more analytical, more a marriage of history with interpretation. And the tapestry of riddles presented by the Coen filmography was too tempting not to get analytical on their ass. So to speak. They, of course, would laugh at my foolishness.

Who is the Ron Neter in your life? Did someone suggest you write the book or was it something you had in mind for a while?

I wish I could tell you about the moment or the person who made it all happen, but the truth is rather more prosaic I'm afraid. I had a few contacts at Phaidon, which at the time owned the famous French critical journal Cahiers Du Cinema, and were publishing books under its name. I met with the commissioning editor, and as we talked through the things she wondered if I was into the Coens… I swiftly bored her with a brief sketch of Barton Fink as a study in psychotic delusion brought on by extreme stress. She claimed to be impressed.

Did you have a lot of discussions with fellow film-writers about the Coens for the book?

I did, both in terms of talking to Empire writers and other critics afresh (and its not hard to nudge a critic into giving their opinion on the Coens) and having a history of talking over this stuff since I first got into this game. The book is now long past its creation, but I still happily engage my fellow Empirite in waxing lyrical over former Coen glories, and the arrival of Inside Llewyn Davis has sparked yet more yapping…

“Question God, the universe or the Coens and your invite trouble?” Did this idea haunt you at all during the preparation and writing of the book?

It kind of did. The book was overshadowed by the fact the brothers flatly refuse to engage with their films on any kind of meaningful level. And yet there is no missing how the films contend with notions of fate, justice, religion and what we deserve (or not) from the universe. They so often treat their characters as lab rats in some vast philosophical experiment. We shouldn't dare to question seems to be an abiding message. But to quote poor Larry Gopnik, "Why does he make us feel the questions if he's not gonna give us any answers?" The need for answers is something fundamentally human, but a risky business all the same.

Did you ever think of trying to interview the pair of them for this book?

Well, I have interviewed them five times (and they never remember me!), so I was well aware how unwilling a participant they each are in their own mystique. So it would be relatively futile to seek confirmations to my theories in person. Also, the structure of the book was very much an outside-in format — my search for where these films might come from, to what that elusive elixir Coenesque might be made of…

How did you go about quantifying the analysis of each film? Did you end up expanding on some films more than others (there’s less said on The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty, understandably, for example) – was there much difficultly in editing it all?

There was obviously an overall structure and word count which dictated how much I could do on each film, and I weighted things to either the relative importance of the film in the Coen canon (Fargo being more important than The Ladykillers say) and how much I felt I had gleaned about the film in questions (The Big Lebowski kept revealing more and more things; Barton Fink seems to me almost the key film). I did end up overwriting horribly, there was just so much to say, and spent a painful last couple of months cutting away things I really liked. There is a director's cut version of the book no one will ever see!

Were there any elements of their films that involved heavier research (Jewish religion, Biblical references, their muses, etc)?

The childhood was important, tracing where the ideas might have been nurtured. But the interviews they do never reveal much. So it was a question of piecing things together, from all number of books, articles, interviews, and pre-existing analyses of their films. Patterns emerged that belied their flippancy toward their own style and content. But it is the films that are the true Rosetta Stone, and the more you look, the more you see.

Near the end of the book you discuss the “outward modulation” of the Coens’ sensibilities. Would you revisit that subject a few years and films down the line?

Christ did I? I must have had too much coffee that morning! But, yes, I would love to keep examining the growing arena of their world, which still remains unshakeably Coenesque. Llewyn Davis is both perfectly them, and a new flavour: melancholy, darkly romantic, and self-questioning (the futile quest of the artist). Ironically, you could say it has an inward modulation!

Have you got a favourite in the Cahiers du Cinema Masters series?

I did enjoy the Thierry Jousse book on David Lynch greatly.

[Can’t end the interview without asking] What’s your favourite Coen brothers film?

Ah, picking between the kids. If you put a gun to my head (and you must always "put one in the brain") I return to Miller's Crossing again and again to drink in its handsome style and listen to that pulsating script – not a second is misjudged. But Barton Fink is so important, and A Serious Man, and Fargo… God, what about The Big LebowskiHudsucker, I love Hudsucker! Don't make me do it.

Interview by Piers McCarthy

Huge thanks to Ian Nathan for taking the time to answer these questions. His Vault books are available on Amazon and his Coens book can be bought off Phaidon 

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Additional essays (O Brother Where Art Thou? and A Serious Man) on the Coen brothers can be found through this website, from author Ryan Hogan. 

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Top 10 Films of 2013

Clue's in the title.

10) The Wall (Julian Pölsler, Austria/Germany) - "the Austrian tact for philosophy and psychology helps create The Wall as a smart and memorable film"

9) The Lone Ranger (Gore Verbinski/USA) "there comes a point in the film where the William Tell score/Lone Ranger theme erupts, the Lone Ranger and Tonto pounce into action and excitement pulsates through you"

8) Metro Manila (Sean Ellis, UK/Philippines) - "Nearly every element seems honed to perfection, with a superb ending to leave a definite impression."

7) Nebraska (Alexander Payne, USA) - "Looking crisp with some gorgeous photography and a fantastic score, this is an unapologetic heart-warmer from a director who hasn’t a jaded bone in his body"

6) Enough Said (Nicole Holofcener, USA) - Honest and hilarious. Featuring the talents of the late James Gandolfini and the ever-wonderful Julia Louis-Dreyfus (who needs to be in more films)

5) All Is Lost (J.C. Chandor, USA) - A unique film, built on the skillset of one great actor, Robert Redford. A muted yet monumental performance from the film's only actor - with direction so refined from Chandor.

4) Blue is The Warmest Colour (Abdellatif Kechiche France/Belgium/Spain) - Completely absorbing with two sublime performances. Highlights the highs and lows of love with more tact than nearly anything that's come before it.

3) The Kings of Summer (Jordan Vogt-Roberts, USA) - "It should become the new favourite for a generation – a few decades after the 80′s had Rob Reiner’s classic – brimming as it is with hilarity and heartfelt moments."

2) Muscle Shoals (Greg "Freddy" Camalier, USA) - "an awe-inspiring account with a host of well renowned interviewees thrilled to talk about that special place where the music “comes up through the mud”"

1) Mud (Jeff Nichols, USA) - "Tied to the warming aspect of the story is a sunlight that basks the film in a luminosity, making Mud a quintessential summer movie, and a lasting one at that."

Honourable mentions:
Django Unchained, Lore, Lincoln, Robert & Frank, Ernest & Celestine, Before Midnight, This is the End, Wolverine, Blackfish, About Time, Like Father Like Son, Drinking Buddies

Only God Forgives Re-Review

Director/Writer: Nicolas Winding Refn

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Yayaying Rhatha Phongham, Vithaya Pansringarm, Bryon Gibson, Tom Burke

Synopsis: Julian (Gosling) and his brother (Burke) work in the criminal underground of Bangkok, with Julian dealing drugs to retain power. When his brother is killed he sets out to find the person responsible, pushed to such violent revenge mainly by his mother (Scott Thomas).

Author’s note: Back when Only God Forgives premiered at the Cannes Film Festival me and many others were sitting excited in the packed cinema. The film began, it looked beautiful and for 1 hour and 30 minutes, but it seemed like that was its only interesting facet. The Cannes press argued for the entirety of the festival over the flawless or flawed nature of the film (depending on their siding). I fell into the disagreeable category, disappointed beyond belief at Refn and Gosling’s follow-up to Drive. I spoke to a handful of people who were in two minds about it but one person seemed to indubitably “get it”. I didn’t want to lose face by going back on what I had wrote in my review but after hearing him wax lyrical about the symbolism, characterisation and construction of it I knew I had to give it a second-look. That time has now come with the home entertainment release. And the man who made me change my opinion of the film was Damon Wise who, incidentally, conducts the Q&A on the DVD/Blu-ray. He knows the film as good as its director, making the film a must-buy for film fans – not only to let people give the film another viewing, perhaps changing their opinion of it, but also to hear two men speak fascinatingly at length about the markings of this complex film.

Under plenty of consideration, there’s little to my first review that I now still stand by. Only God Forgives works on various levels, getting under your skin and burrowing into your subconscious.

Much like Fear X and Vahalla Rising, Only God Forgives plays off minimalism and style in order to portray narrative and tone. It may not be a conventional way to watch cinema, but it is an exciting one. At one point during the commentary (henceforth to be referenced to mark the DVD/Blu-ray’s worth) Damon Wise mentions music akin to Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo score. This comment extends to a conversation on atmosphere and how Refn first saw Vertigo, not completely understanding what was happening. The reference perfectly reflects the experience of watching OGF, a bizarre foray into the vengeance sub-genre. Still, much like Vertigo, there is a dedicated following and critical appeal to be gained from the off-key style.

Perhaps what will hold up most of all for OGF is the cinematography and music. Larry Smith has repeatedly been praised in both positive and negative reviews of the film. It is a truly beguiling series of images that make up the film, always full of depth. As Wise remarks, Smith’s cinematography has an “inky quality... [where] things come out of the shadows, out of the darkness”. It is observations such as these that make the special features on the disc so special. There’s interpretation and discussion to be heard and had from Wise and director Refn’s commentary. If you aren’t wholly caught under the film’s spell, perhaps you’ll grow to change your mind after hearing their thoughts. If, when listening to the supplementary audio track, you find it difficult hearing the dialogue there isn’t much to be missed. For one, the dialogue is sparse (or, subtitled and easily read) and two, you take more notice of Cliff Martinez’s score. With both diegetic sound occurring, and Refn and Wise chatting away, you take note of the score’s power – it radiates, piercing through the other sound, even. As Refn puts it, "Music was in the foreground".

Refn additionally mentions the command of Cliff’s score by noting how the film was “conceived as a silent film" – a nod to all those who complained of the film’s all-too-subtle script. Often classed as a visionary, watching OGF emphasises Refn’s control over visuals. It may not only be sound that penetrates you, but such vibrant colours. The director mentions how the film’s colour was inspired by old Disney movies, a better indicator than any on how important it is. If, by the end, the film has not satisfied you in terms of narrative, it should have via aesthetics.

As a story, it is a tough one to follow. You may be confused by the presence of Vithaya Pansringarm (dubbed “The Angel” by some) or put off by the muted appearance of Ryan Gosling. Gosling has his moments of impacting the odd scene, but he still appears worryingly wooden. Of course, it is part of the film’s set-up, but his performance still feels slightly too restrained. However, if Gosling takes a back seat, so to speak, co-star Kristen Scott Thomas ignites the screen with her fiery mother character. Swearing and swaggering through the Thai landscape, she is an assertive presence in the film. With this mix of actors their respective characters; there is an added anomalous feel to the whole thing – clearly off-putting for some as seen on its initial release.

Definitely a mixed bag for most film-fans yet it should eventually been seen as a sublime piece of art; it is, it seems, something that needs a second glance. It also benefits from the DVD/Blu-ray extras, including a sterling commentary from an absorbing filmmaker and a discerning Damon Wise. Extra pleasure for Gosling fans come in the form of the behind-the-scenes extra that includes one or two Gosling quips.

Film: **** Extras: ***

Also posted on LiveForFilms

Thursday, 24 October 2013

57th LFF Review: The Lunchbox

Director: Ritesh Batra

Writers: Ritesh Batra, Rutvik Oza

Starring: Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Denzil Smith

Synopsis: Thanks to an error with the delivery, Saajan (Khan) winds up with the wrong lunch. Inside his mistaken lunchbox he finds a delicious curry that continues to get wrongly delivered every day. As Ila (Kaur) – the woman cooking all this for her husband – soon discovers the mistake she leaves a note to the man eating her husband’s food. One note leads to another and eventually Saajan and Ila begin a relationship through the lunchbox deliveries.

When Western audiences think of Indian cinema we regularly associate it with Bollywood. For the hundreds of Bollywood productions that do get released there are, however, many simplistic films absent of spontaneous dancing and elaborate plotlines. You can consider The Lunchbox a Western film – with a universal story – despite being set in a bustling Mumbai with a MacGuffin that is inherently Indian (a matter Hollywood producers will surely work around when they inevitably remake this). It’s a definite crowd-pleaser, worthy of global fame and recognition.

The lead is a figure already familiar with global fame (especially from last year’s Life of Pi) - Irrfan Khan. A respected actor across the world, Khan is commanding presence, instantly keeping you transfixed on him. He often plays quiet, self-possessed characters and here is arguably no different. However, he transforms into a romantic for The Lunchbox – the older, wiser type notable in niche rom-coms. His co-star Nimrat Kaur is a lot younger and highlights the abnormal screen coupling, yet in a film where it feels natural and warranted.

Ritesh Batra and Rutvik Oza’s story is oddly identifiable whilst being clearly Indian. The lunchbox that connects the two is not something that could work for a film set in the UK or the US (without some pretty bizarre reworking). It also isn’t anchored by token characters or customary plot designs – things happen to characters that feel more natural than most Western films purely because it acts upon its own culture.

Humour and soul are just two of The Lunchbox’s charming qualities. It isn’t visually stunning, epically scored or over-acted; it is, like Khan’s persona, quiet and virtuous in its appearance. With snippets of its runtime needing trimming, it is only a few degrees away from all-round accomplishment. It’s a real shame that India did not nominate it for next year’s Oscars as it’s now only word of mouth that will hopefully get the film the audience it deserves.

Also posted on LiveForFilms

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 Review

Directors: Cody Cameron, Kris Pearn

Writers: John Francis Daley, Jonathan M. Goldstein, Erica Rivinoja

Starring: Bill Hader, Anna Faris, Will Forte, James Caan, Andy Samberg, Benjamin Bratt, Neil Patrick Harris, Terry Crews

Synopsis: Flint Lockwood (Hader) successfully got everyone off Swallow Falls after the disaster in the previous film. Now a celebrity, he’s finally getting the recognition he deserves, including a job at the prestigious Live Corp Company. Live Corp’s clear-up of Swallow Falls goes awry, eventually forcing Flint and his friends and family to head to the island on their full of “foodimals”!

When Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs came out 4 years ago it was one of the most refreshingly original animations to arrive on our screens in years. The dialogue, the characters, and the overall aesthetic were so pleasingly different that it has become a beloved contemporary classic. It was therefore expected that a sequel was on its way. Complain to your heart’s content about the “sequelisation” of most films, but Cloudy seemed like the perfect film for that. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 does satisfy many of the fans’ needs, though nowhere near as picture perfect as the first.

As The Avengers will continue with Joss Whedon’s script and directorial efforts, the notion that if you’ve created something special it works well to carry on with it. Cloudy’s first film, written and directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, was a creation seamlessly envisioned. The sequel’s Cody Cameron and Kris Pearn, following that act, have a lot on their plate (forgive the pun). They have expectations to meet and a style to stick by. In some regards they have been worthy successors to Lord and Miller, in keeping with the first two’s paradigms. Still, some of the dynamics have been pushed in the way of the “bigger, bolder, better” sequel scheme and often it feels too over the top. There’s more emphasis on the team – and unfortunately more from Andy Samberg’s annoying “Baby” Brent McHale – tiresome at points when you want to see more of the surrounding cast. There’s additionally a more formidable villain figure (Will Forte’s Chester V) who’s most interesting characteristic is the way he moves. They’ve tried to better the likes of Bruce Campbell’s Mayor Shelborne baddie, falling to the feet of Campbell’s scene-stealing abilities.

The most celebrated part of Cloudy 2 has been lauded over in every trailer and TV spot – the host of foodimals, all complete with glorious pun names. It might not be worth watching any promotional spots for film as too many jokes are lost the second time round after watching the trailer. Placing the majority of the laughs on these food-animal hybrids never seems to lose its zing, mind you. The quick-fire humour of the Cloudy series works well for the “oh look, it’s a [insert foodimal here]” barrage of skits. If the monkey Steve remains your favourite after the exploits of Berry – a giant strawberry – then the film really will be lost on you. Out of the many many new characters, Berry is deliciously delightful.

Slapstick aspects may not be something you can hold against Cloudy, but the sequel certainly feels more childish. Many of the jokes that could be enjoyed by older audiences in the first have been seemingly shelved in favour of action, colour and cuteness for number 2. Always able to crack a smile, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 won’t, however, have you in fits of laughter like the first; it has, sadly, started to cater (forgive another pun), only for the kids.


Also posted on LiveForFilms