Archive for April, 2014

Destin Cretton’s second feature length, Short Term 12, arrives on a wave of positive reviews and indie film award nods from last year, though it does not quite break into the mainstream. While still positive, reviews haven’t been quite as gushing this side of the Atlantic, however this is a film worth one’s time.

Short Term 12 follows a temporary “halfway house” for troubled teenagers who are fighting their personal daemons, just as much as the barely older staff who work there. Central to all this is Grace (Brie Larson) who is tough and steely with the varying issues the kids have, as much as she is compassionate and understanding when she needs to be. Underneath it all, she’s harbouring a dark past of her own which she suppresses through her work, but this equally gives her a crucial advantage in connecting with the home’s residents.

All of these complexities are made possible by a knock-out performance from Larson, who inhabits the fully realised skin of Grace; thanks in no small part to Cretton’s excellent, witty script and clever direction. There’s an authenticity not just to Cretton’s real life past experience working in one of these homes, but in understanding humans, whether they be labelled as “underprivileged” or “crazy” or even just “normal”. Importantly, Cretton never gives in to overt sentimentality, maintaining a compassionate and realistic tone keeping the potentially heavy subject matter light and natural. Whereas many films would attempt to beat the viewer over the head with the cruelty some humans display, here there remains humour and catharsis in amongst unflinchingly uncomfortable scenes.

Those scenes centre around the film’s excellent teenage cast, most notably newcomers Kaitlyn Dever as Jayden and Keith Stanfield as Marcus who manage to convey their deeply traumatic experiences in a truly mature, subtle manner, which keeps the film from overreaching. These are expertly performed, as Jayden and Marcus find their individual ways to communicate their trauma to Grace and her partner and co-worker Mason (John Gallagher Jr.)

Gallagher is also great as the sensitive and loving Mason, who is supportive and understandably increasingly frustrated at Grace’s inability to express herself due to her suppression. However it is Larson who truly shines here, finding the perfect balance between a headstrong young woman who has such a horrific past. The chemistry between both her and Gallagher and especially Dever is palpable as Grace finds her outlet as a mother figure to Jayden.

My only real criticism of Short Term 12 is that a couple characters remain slightly underdeveloped. Nate (Rami Malek) for instance is an excellent fall guy which provides much humour from his “outsider” perspective, as someone who merely is looking to boost his CV. Yet he is also initially our focaliser, joining him on his first day at Short Term 12, only for him to be left by the way side without much progression. While this doesn’t matter too much, the story really belongs to Grace and Mason practising as parents for Jayden and Marcus respectively; it is fairly distracting.

That aside, Short Term 12 is a thoroughly enjoyable view of a troubled Los Angeles, America that would allow these kids get into this position in the first place. Thankfully, due to Cretton’s kind hand, there is still a lot of sun-drenched light in amongst the darkness.

by Adam Turner-Heffer

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A Thousand Times Goodnight, a film whose narrative purports to chart the experiences of a female war photographer, can be stamped with the same indictment that the protagonist herself is accused of in her photography: glamorisation.

All visual representations of suffering border on the danger of aestheticizing it, almost by definition; but, glamorisation and, even worse, exploitation are far more problematic matters. While the film does not aim to represent war per se – it’s more about the photographer – it feels as though A Thousand Times Goodnight uses the whole Third World conflict scenario purely as a backdrop to a portrait of very First World family drama: jarring, to say the least.

When the war photographer Rebecca, played by Juliette Binoche, takes her daughter to a Kenyan refugee camp for a school photography project there’s trouble at the camp: we see shootings and rampages – the stuff of daily newsreels fictionalised for your HD viewing pleasure – solely through the lens of Rebecca’s bravery. The director emotionally foregrounds the photographer’s bravado before the suffering of the people she is shooting. Although emotional identification with the protagonist is part of the dramatic conventions of a certain type of narrative cinema, this supposed identification is scrammed by the overwrought performance.

Juliette Binoche, a usually very talented actress capable of registering distress with the barely detectable movement of an eyelash, has become the go-to actress for the image of the damsel in distress. In a Thousand Times Good Night she delivers a hand-wringing, chest-beating performance worthy of Ancient Greek mourning rituals. Potentially very interesting inklings of a complex relationship with her husband, played by Game of Thrones hunk Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, are not explored in any depth. In fact, the actor seems to serve no other purpose than being a bearded Abercrombie model.

Not every film has to deal with the intricacies of its subject matter: it can just set out to tell a simple narrative story of the cheap tear-jerker kind and everyone can go home happy. But with a subject matter as ethically problematic, thematically and emotionally rich as a war photographer’s trials and tribulations, it is problematic that no nuances are explored. This is particularly surprising given that the director himself, Erik Poppe, is an ex-war photographer.

What is the position of the war photographer ethically in relation to the subjects of their photography? How does the main character feel about the disparity between her model-home catalogue life in a cozy Irish town and the conflict-zones she works in? Is she a spectator or an active participant in a conflict? Sometimes the questions a film does not ask say more about it than the questions it does, which in this case are not very many, bar: Why did Juliet Binoche agree to do this film?

by Dasha Lisitsina

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Forget about Frank Sidebottom: the comic alter-ego of The Freshies frontman Chris Sievey has no place here. Those old enough or with an inquisitive enough mind (and an internet connection) will remember the fairly chaotic comedian who was intentionally bad as a musician and even, some would argue, as a comedian. This would either lead to being charmed or appalled by his “act” but in essence, it was a piece of performance art, akin to the greatest of punk rock musicians.

Jon Ronson is the co-writer of Frank and was a real-life member of Sidebottom’s touring band in the 80’s. He remembered this time fondly in the memoir which inspired this film. And yet it’s probably best to do as little research as possible going in because crucially, the Frank here (portrayed by Michael Fassbender), despite wearing (almost) the same giant paper-mache head with it’s cartoon baby-blue, Betty Boop eyes, is never referred to as “Sidebottom”.

Frank is an odd film not because it’s as particularly psychedelic or kooky as it pertains to be, but because it’s co-writer has written himself all over the film without much thought for anyone else. While this film is supposed to be a celebration of Frank Sidebottom’s anarchic spirit, it in fact, plays out like an apology from a man one suspects still has his reservations about the real-life story (particularly when within subjugation of a film narrative.) This makes the film feel awkward to watch as while Frank is clearly modelled on Sievey, Ronson’s attempt to re-insert him into the disposable 21st century hipsterdom (by turning him into a Captain Beefheart or Daniel Johnston figure) seems very confused.

For it is the subtlety named main character Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) who takes up most of our time with the film, and this is the biggest problem. While I appreciate the narrative idea of keeping Frank, a possibly non-existent Michael Fassbender, an enigma, because that is largely what he was, Ronson and co-writer Peter Straughan (The Men Who Stare At Goats) can’t seem to make up their own minds about him; this gives the film a mightily unbalanced tone. It’s central relationship is every bit as infuriating as it is supposed to be, except with zero charm, which makes it a tough watch.

Jon is an office drone and aspiring musician, but is dull, hasn’t a creative bone in his body and worst of all, a weird sense of entitlement. Meanwhile Frank and his merry band are the complete antithesis to Jon’s childish and ill-thought aspirations. Consisting of the ridiculous Karen O impersonating Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and an almost entirely absent French rhythm section (Carla Azar & Francois Civil), they make Pink Floyd style prog-rock which is no where near as interesting or as inspiring as the film wants it to be. Later alerting us to this, Jon compares Frank to Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett as a similarly deranged yet talented performer however this merely highlight’s the band’s music as derivative.

If it wanted to be, Frank could be an interesting satire of the colliding of the worst indulgences of the British middle-class humdrum and true artistic spirit. However it doesn’t really commit to either. Jon is perhaps one of the most charmless leading characters I’ve witnessed for some time, with Gleeson apparently taking being insufferable literally, using the annoying trope of visualised social-media to communicate his misguidedness. While this is largely the point, we are encouraged to laugh at him; the complete lack of empathy destroys any chance of connection.

On the other side, the band are strangely quite boring. This completely undermines the film’s attempt to show that “making music for music’s sake is perfectly OK” because while they seem perfectly committed to making their (not actually that weird) music, the rest of the time all they seem to do is sit around and look a bit mopey. This suggests that Ronson doesn’t really understand the concept of “artists” and mistakes it for being “a bit wacky” or as is revealed to us, “with emotional and mental problems” because, Frank especially, is so easily talked into wanting to find a larger audience. It seems fairly counter-intuitive to blame a musician’s desire to “just make music” on his anxiety issues, as this isn’t what came across from the act that it’s inspired by.

It’s unfortunate, because there is a good film rattling around inside desperate to get out; much like the person contained in that oversized mask. Director Lenny Abrahamson (What Richard Did, Adam & Paul) makes the best of a confused assignment with some nice stylistic choices; particularly in his Paris, Texas inspired cinematography and editing. At times the script isn’t completely without charm too, as the band manager (played by Scoot McNairy) provides some belly-laughs. However Frank’s bizarre tone leaves it feeling hollow; the broad humour, cartoony, one-dimensional characters, distractingly twee soundtrack and frenetic pace leaves no time to really connect with any of these characters. After a while one starts to build up a bit of a resistance to them. Finally it’s climax negates impact, and it’s shoe-horned emotional close feels cheesy.

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rsz_1rsz_fossil_image_5Making films is hard. Even the most talented, visionary film makers struggle to transfer their fears, desires, dreams and nightmares onto the silver screen, so imagine the torturous path for us mere mortals. We might have a distinct, vivid image of what we would want to see on screen, but there is a terrible void between our reality and our dreams. We might think we have truthful characters, profound, thoughtful dialogue and visual landscapes that sear the audience’s brains with their beauty. What we are often left with are wooden, faceless mannequins, stodgy non-language and banal mise en scene. Which leads us onto Fossil.

In the blurb for Fossil, it was described as a film harking back to the French thrillers of the 60’s and 70’s, by directors like Claude Chabrol. This suggests a subtle, sophisticated drama exploring domestic tensions and slow building suspense. Well, at least they tried. The set up is awfully familiar; Paul and Camilla are two Brits abroad in a remote villa in the Dordogne, trying to salvage their fragile marriage while Paul finishes his novel (yeah, I know). Their vacation is interrupted by (wait for it) a free spirited couple, Richard and Julie, who trespass into their unoccupied pool.

The uptight vacationers are shaken by the appearance of Richard, an ageing American lothario and Julie, a 20-something European flower child. While Camilla welcomes the interruption and encourages them to stay, Paul stubbornly resents their presence at his own holiday. As tensions begin to rise and secrets begin to…..oh, who fucking cares? Anyone with half a brain can guess which way this film is headed just by watching the opening 20 minutes. Whereas those hallowed French thrillers of the 60’s were filled with mystery and intrigue, Fossil is merely predictable.

Unfortunately the film is beset by a variety of problems. A drama lives and dies on the quality of its actors, and Fossil has four poor ones.  It would be unfair to pin the blame solely on the actors, as they are working with a flat, cliched script, but none of them cover themselves in any glory. Paul (John Sackville) is your stereotypically stoic British male, unwilling to bend to any changes in his lifestyle, while his unhappy wife Camilla (Edith Bukovics) is more open to opportunity. Richard (Grant Masters) is a predictable American caricature, brash and vulgar, while Julie (Carla Juri) is merely playing the seductress. The problem is that none of these characters feel like real people, merely impressions of real people.

The viewer is begging for some kind of inspiration or invention, yet even the direction and photography is lifeless. Director Alex Walker shoots as if making Doctors on holiday, while the banal, sun hued villa evokes as much dread as a Jamie Oliver advert for Sainsburys. In fact there is probably something more nightmarish about a grinning Jamie Oliver wielding tongs in front of a barbecue. Fossil acts as a warning for burgeoning film makers; you can have the most noble intentions in the world but that means little without some talent.

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The trailer for Richard Linklater’s Boyhood starring Ellar Coltrane, Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette has arrived.

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British filmmaker Joanna Hogg’s focus on listless bourgeois ennui is a surprisingly refreshing tack to her contemporaries; forgoing a literal, gritty depiction of working class woes, Hogg opts instead for an opaque reading of the middle-class that holds implicit trust in the audience’s discerning spectatorship and appreciation for a carefully considered mise-en-scène. In the same way that Antonioni would move Italian cinema away from its neorealist tendencies in the 1960s and infuse it with a slow-burn, modernist inspection of the bourgeoisie’s anxieties, Hogg similarly intends to gently prod at the psyche of the British middle class, an area that in the past decade has scarcely been examined by home-grown directors or afforded much critical attention. A great shame, as it can often be an ugly place to visit.

Hogg’s exceptional 2010 film Archipelago followed a middle-class family on their holiday to Tresco; its title is a telling prognosis of the family’s fragmented positioning, inhabiting a shared environment yet harbouring discrete motives and desires. Hogg’s framing amplified the discomfort through extended wide takes, allowing naturalistic dialogue to feel its way through awkward silences, interjecting, overlapping and conflicting. In Hogg’s world – as real as ours – silence and empty space are privileged as much as whatever comes to occupy that space, and we are invited to consider the relation of each person’s body within and beyond the frame, and just how these compositions complement their mind’s interior.

In follow-up Exhibition, Hogg shrinks the proverbial battlefield. We’re removed from the Isles of Scilly and placed into the indisputable symptom of West London, the expanse of a shoreline substituted for an oppressive apartment, a nuclear family shrunken down to a mere pair of co-inhabitants. Known simply as D (Viv Albertine) and H (Liam Gillick), this couple are on the cusp of selling their apartment and starting afresh. There’s a palpable air of malcontent swimming around these two, and their story’s placement in the UK’s congested capital – quite unlike the extrapolated family of Archipelago – allows for Hogg to further pepper their peace with the world outside their bubble, with diegetic city sounds seeping into each scene, and the windowed borders of the apartment displaying the vulnerable bodies either through the glass or by its reflections. D is steadily prying herself from the glue that has had her stuck to H for so long (her clothes continually change, he stays in the same black t-shirt), and as she begins exploring her body with the silent encouragement of her enormous office window, the film’s title becomes ever more appropriate.

An entire floor is often filmed with a pillar or staircase either centered or thereabouts, bending the shot so that we see around the corners of the apartment, somehow increasing both its depth and oppressiveness. Hogg’s attention to her characters is impressive; in one scene, D’s bed is pictured as having by its side both a telephone and a small statue of the Buddha, a symbol of tranquility and its opposite effectively cancelling each other out. Ostensibly irrelevant tangents, such as H’s confrontation with a man parking his car in the couple’s own private space, serve to illuminate the colour inside the characters. But even these dialogue exchanges are not wholly the key to understanding their motivations. Hogg trusts us to consider not solely what these two say to one another, but what they will not say; far more crucial is what each are thinking, through the small adjustments in their daily rituals, and how these transient motions are considered within the context of their rigid environment.

It could perhaps be argued that the film’s greatest weakness lies, paradoxically, in its repeated precedence on the glassy surfaces that enable the enactment of its title. Hogg isn’t complacent enough to simply rest on the same principle for too long, though. When D attends an imaginary critical debate and sees herself and H air their differences in front of a live audience – the most contentious ‘exhibition yet’ – the film’s themes further open up. Much like Archipelago, with its guest artist character deciphering the family’s doldrums, we are reminded once more of how works of art are truly analogous to life, crucial in navigating its many and varied pitfalls. Hogg’s latest is one such revelation.

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Much like the forlorn, tortured soul of Rambo and the brainwashed mind of Danny Stevenson in Split Image, Wake In Fright‘s disorientated lead character once again proves Ted Kotcheff’s ability to capture torment and dread with finesse. With the original negative thought to be lost, the classic, cult film, has now had its restoration, a re-run in cinemas, and is newly available on DVD and Bu-Ray. The stunning visuals and meticulous accent on atmosphere has now got glorious definition, making this a must-buy for film fans.

Marked by controversy and the story of its print’s loss, Wake In Fright has had a life of its own outside its plot. Within that plot, however, are a far more gripping and shocking set of events. It leaves the film both historically and artistically striking. With a pivotal scene including the cull of many real kangaroos, Wake In Fright acquired a notoriety. Thankfully, that notoriety also earned it a lot of followers. You watch the film now and you can see the influence it has had not only on Australian cinema but the entire sub-genre of hallucinatory horror.

We follow a polite, smart Brit (John Grant’s Gary Bond) planted in the Australian outback before his holiday. What begins as a simple pit-stop turns into an invitation into the very heart of Bundanyabba – a town where everything feels off yet the townspeople see no abnormality in their actions. Those actions include copious drinking, a habit that leads Gary to sweaty men’s clubs, kangaroo culls and witness to far-from lucid behaviour.

Gradually building on the tension, Kotcheff’s piercing eye on all this is wonderfully stylistic. Some may view it as over-the-top, prime for parody, yet it’s also contained in the 1970’s setting, where there still remained archaic, ignorant laws and bizarre characters. At one point we see Gary walk down the street, dishevelled, and with a rifle in his hand; passers-by just look on in bewilderment rather than fear – an odd image if you tried to think of it in contemporary terms.

Despite sensing some of the time lapse, Wake In Fright still resonates, overall. The notion of getting drawn into a culture or giving in to peer pressure is universal and timeless. Set in the Outback, it also allows for the extraordinary backdrop to be married with this common theme. If Gary is the everyman we are keen to follow and support, the Outback is something we’re intrigued about – especially given its effect on the protagonist. In sum, it keeps you thoroughly gripped; a series of unpredictable incidents collaged together with gorgeous cinematography and palpitating edits. There’s a life to the film – one than could have been forgotten and buried along with its nearly-destroyed print – that needs to be experienced.

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Locke, the new in-car thriller written and directed by Steven Knight, comes from a conversation he had with one of his producers about the difficulty of filming in moving cars. Weirdly, this film seems to confirm these limitations rather than challenge them, despite ensuing technological advancements.

Locke follows an ordinary and perceivably honourable man take a turn for the worst when he decides to drive to London, rather than home from his construction job, having received a call that his illegitimate child is to be born that night. Thus, the film is made up of an almost real-time drive where Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) attempts to salvage his job, wife and soon to be born child over hands-free conversations (with the spectre of his dead father in his back seat.)

While it can often be refreshing to see films take place in a single location (sometimes applying extra pressure on an airtight narrative), unfortunately Locke leaves a lot to be desired in the script department. The dialogue can be clunky and unsubtle metaphors hit the audience over the head repeatedly. Hardy makes the best of it however, performing a normally mild-mannered man, with a thick, booming Welsh accent, who sees his life unravel over the course of a car journey.

Equally though, not all of these segments are poorly written. Despite the heavy-handed metaphors, Ivan’s somewhat sociopathic attempts to soothe and control his increasingly estranged wife Katrina (Ruth Wilson) are engaging. Similarly, Ivan’s attempts to guide an increasingly inebriated Donal (Andrew Scott) to do the construction work he’s left behind are highly amusing and a nice respite from otherwise rather upsetting plot points.

However when it comes to the real crux of the matter, Locke falls short of really making any kind of emotional impact. While it’s certainly believable that he doesn’t love the impregnated Bethan (Olivia Coleman), given they only met for a short time, it is not enough to attribute his problems on a meekly written, traumatic relationship with his deceased father. These scenes are a clear weakness of the film, and troublingly, are actually supposed to explain the film’s narrative. While there are believable elements to Locke’s breakdown and this is due to Hardy’s excellent delivery, there is no authentic depth to why any of this is happening.

As a result, the film’s climax lacks punch and feels rushed. It’s a shame, as limiting the drama to behind the wheel is an intriguing concept. Equally, it seems a missed opportunity not to take more advantage of the film’s location outside of the car. A more adventurous exploration into the repetitive visual motifs of the motorway could have been intense and rewarding, but instead it merely dresses the stage.

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Since its release in early 1991, months before alternative rock would explode into wider public consciousness with Nirvana’s Nevermind, Spiderland has been a record shrouded in mystery. Little was known about this quiet, mysterious release that Touch and Go records put out to almost no reception and its creators, Slint had already broken up. The only proof that this record hadn’t landed from outer space was the four ghostly, subterranean, drenched humans, who represented, we assumed, the band themselves.

Over the years however, Spiderland has grown a reputation as an adored and canonised record, which has inspired many to pick up a guitar, bass or drum sticks and make their own introspective noise. The record is cited as being huge influences in both the post-rock and emo movements of the 90’s and this, coupled with the mystique, makes Slint its generation’s Velvet Underground.

Director Lance Bangs was active in the late 80’s/early 90’s alternative rock music scene in Athens, Georgia. However, even he had no clues as to who wrote the record he, like so many others, has held in such adulation. Thus Breadcrumb Trail is to some extent his personal exploration into the largely unknown people behind this unparalleled piece; a surrogate for the ever increasing amount of fans this band and record gain yearly.

What we find in Bangs’ search through the borderlands city of Louisville, Kentucky, are a group of inspired, if slightly mad, affable musicians who were still only teenagers when they created their masterpiece. Bangs does an excellent job of detailing their, then still short, upbringings; being nurtured by creative down-town free-schools, supportive parents and an insulated but vital music scene which all enabled the band to create their opus. Through present day interviews we see the band’s members looking back largely fondly at their formative years, exposing a real humility and humour one would expect from teenagers, but is perhaps often lost in a record regularly documented as sounding “dark” or “serious” or “brooding”.

Most striking of all is watching early footage of their rehearsal process in drummer and songwriter Britt Walford’s parent’s basement, complimented by grainy, Super 8 shot footage of Louisville, where this incredibly youthful band would practice these songs for hours on end until they were perfect. While interviews with local Louisvillians and studio engineers Steve Albini and Brian Paulson certainly colour the song writing and recording process, it is highly inspirational and enviable to see such young musicians push themselves, while maintaining a sense of humour about themselves.

Ultimately, Breadcrumb Trail excellently dispels of the idea that Spiderland was created in a vacuum, showing these individuals to be charming, self-effacing and hugely talented. Its legacy and mystique is maintained through the hugely respected musicians interviewed or at least mentioned or inspired by association with the record; without unnecessarily exploring the band’s own influences or showing reunion footage. While vocalist Brian McMahan confirms the band ended due to his having to be institutionalised briefly after recording, it is quite incredible how many people the record has touched and how the band continued to work together in other guises, since there was no real breakdown between its members. Finally, we have a documentary worthy of the record.

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