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Sunday, 13 December 2015

New Release Review: 'The Music Factor'

























Before I dive into this review about the documentary 'The Music Factor' I feel I ought to point out that I do know the director. That said, I've informed him that just because we're on nodding terms doesn't mean I'll be nice. But then I'm rarely nice, so I believe he already knows to be wary. So, now that that's out of the way, on to the review:

Achieving fame and fortune in 17 weeks is an insane idea, but thanks to the wonder that is reality TV, you can. In some instances, it happens even faster - like when people become famous for being themselves (isn't that what TV presenters do?) - but the music world has yet to work out how to reduce it further. On 'The X-Factor', from the moment you audition to the release of your Christmas single (if you're the winner) there's a mere 17 weeks. Which is demented. And insane. It's dementedly insane. But that's exactly why so many queue round the block to audition. Why put in hard graft when you can almost guarantee yourself a job just by nailing an audition on prime-time TV? In Chris Ridgway's fleet-footed 30-minute documentary he and his team (including filmmaker Mike Staniforth) set out to get a local indie band from the wilds of Manchester, England into the top 100 chart during the same week that the latest X-Factor finalist lays waste to all before them. That's how daunting a task it is to break into the very top: there's no point even considering the loftier positions.

Stepping up to the plate to achieve the impossible are The Mantells, an amiable trio made up of Tom Barrow, Dale Moran and Lewis Moran. The documentary breaks down exactly what it takes to make in the industry: thousands of hours of practicing together, hundreds of gigs (and you need to be sure to choose the right kind of gigs), umpteen sly attempts to sneak your EP into the right hands (note: don't send it to the BBC, they'll figure it's a suspicious package and will send it off to be destroyed), and plenty of sacrifices, not least of which include dropping out of university, quitting your job, and missing out on most key events in the lives of those you love.

Ridgway and Staniforth have put together a highly polished doc that lays out its intent early on and then goes about breaking down the process of its impossible task in minute detail. Something that would have helped its telling, especially in its closing stretch, would have been to adequately get across how it felt for the band to put in all that hard graft. We're told in no uncertain terms what they would need to do, but there's a fair time jump between the band recording their single and the moment they check their place in the charts. But then coming out of the documentary wanting more is no bad thing. It's likely one that The Mantells, with their toe-tappingly catchy single, would approve of; always keep your audience wanting more.

Overall: 7.5/10 

Should the above have piqued your interest, you can find the full doc here.



Top Ten of 2015 - A sketchy review of the year



A part of me loves lists. Ask me what my all-time top ten is and my mind immediately goes to John Cusack in 'High Fidelity', doing his best to round out yet another decidedly niche top five list. He slaves over each choice, making sure it doesn't let down the whole. A perfect (or seemingly perfect) list has a sense of completism about it - which is ironic since you have to rule so much out to create it. Creating something that has a definitive quality requires some graft, but, in the end, it looks all so satisfying.

There's another part of me that will have no truck with lists. How you feel about a film can change. And even the most devout cinephile can find a film has passed them by. So how could the list ever be definitive?

This is the first year in awhile that I've caught enough of the big hitters to be able to take a relatively decent punt at what I'd have in my list, and the 'High Fidelity' instinct is hard to subdue, so here goes; just bear in mind my umpteen reservations about the matter:

Top Ten (counting down, in time-honoured fashion):

10. It Follows
Death personified, relentlessly stalking teenagers (albeit at a nice and leisurely pace), and literally doing it because of the teens promiscuity, is both a new and a very smart spin on an old trope.

9. Wild Tales
Argentinian short film anthology. Not all of the shorts hit home, and some of them fit ill into the film's theme of violence and vengeance, but its opening and closing tales are worth the time spent all on their own.

8. Mistress America
Previously I've found Noah Baumbach a tad trying. His films have, on more than one occasion, projected a smugness that makes them hard to warm to. But with 'Mistress America' he balances it with strong (and even warm) characterisation, and by producing his funniest script so far; no doubt helped by his co-writer and star Greta Gerwig.

7. Song of the Sea
Much as liked 'Inside Out', it's Tomm Moore's 'Song of the Sea' that snuck into a nook in my head and refused to leave. The attention to detail in the drawings, the stunning soundtrack, and the perfectly cast voice actors makes the whole thing feel so lived and charming that it's heartbreaking that so few have seen it yet.

6. Amy
I don't tend to cry at films. I don't tend to cry full stop. But Asif Kapadia's documentary on Amy Winehouse had me in tears of indignant anger almost throughout. It's a fascinating documentary that shows how the media were almost as culpable for what happened to Winehouse as her nearest and dearest were. If you don't leave the film red-eyed and fuming then it's possible you're broken inside.

5. Steve Jobs
I was predestined to like this one. Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin: what's not to like? It's smart, witty and surprisingly thrilling for a film that's ostensibly about three product launches. Probably the most quotable film of the year.

4. A Most Violent Year
J.C. Chandor deconstructs the myth of the American dream. Admittedly if that were the logline then it'd explain why so few saw the film, so let me try again: the film is tense, gripping and immaculately acted - and contains one of my favourite soundtracks of 2015.

3. Mad Max: Fury Road
George Miller's return to the post-apocalyptic world of Mad Max is more of a rollercoaster ride (in similar fashion to 'Gravity') than it is a film, but it's a hell of a ride all the same.

2. Sicario
I can't fault 'Sicario'. The editing, cinematography and soundtrack come together to make one of the most relentlessly tense films I've ever seen.

1. Whiplash
I may be biased about this one, as it chimes so strongly with my view on the (necessary) relentless dedication needed to truly excel at something, but I found it so perfectly encapsulated the sacrifices you have to make, whilst also detailing the problems inherent in that mindset, that no other film was ever going to touch it.

Outliers that I couldn't quite crowbar in:
Of the indie movies: 'Coherence', 'The Signal', 'The Falling', 'Digging For Fire'; of the award-noteworthies: 'Ex Machina', 'American Sniper', 'Girlhood', 'Still Alice', 'Mommy', 'Going Clear'; of Hollywood's output: 'Inside Out', 'Danny Collins', 'Top Five' and 'Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation'.

Films that got an unfair drubbing:
'Focus' - fun and light, with an equal opportunities approach to sexual objectification. 'The Man From U.N.C.L.E.' - ditto.

Films everyone else seems to like, but, really, why??:
'Spotlight' - fails to pack a punch despite its subject matter. Mark Ruffalo's overacting doesn't help. 'Birdman' - Best film that seems like a play that didn't quite manage the transition to film - and probably ought to actually be a play.

Best non-2015 film I saw this year:
'The Broken Circle Breakdown'

Film that may have finally ended a career:
'Aloha'. Tellingly, Cameron Crowe's next film is a TV movie. (The sketch up top, which plays off of 'Say Anything', is my sort of In-Memoriam-of-the-Career-That-Was.)

And For Full Disclosure, here are the 2015 noteworthies that I have yet to catch:
'While We're Young', 'A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence', 'Hard to be a God', 'Eden', 'White God', 'The Lobster', 'Love is Strange', 'Macbeth', 'Bridge of Spies' (which I'm watching tonight), 'Carol', and 'The Look of Silence' (and I also need to track down the preceding documentary: 'The Act of Killing'). Maybe the list will change, maybe not. 

Let me know what you thought were the best of the year, and which should have made the cut, in the comments section below.

Monday, 19 October 2015

New Release Review: 'Beasts of No Nation'

Idris Elba Cary Fukunaga War Is Hell Child Soldiers

War is hell. No surprise there. Add children and matters just get worse. Three sentences in and already I worry that I'm sounding flippant... It's hard to write about something that's terrible and true and is somehow not in our distant past. Cary Fukanaga (the writer/director) faces the same trouble whilst putting it on screen.

Beasts of No Nation is set in an unnamed African country and follows a young boy, Agu (Abraham Attah), as he goes from a happy, if impoverished, life with his family, to a dead-eyed follower of Commandant (Idris Elba), the leader of a growing rebel group prone to guerilla warfare. The steps that take him from his family life to his rebel life are much as you'd expect: death, manipulation, death, a spot of black magic, drugs, and more death.

This isn't the first film to touch upon child soldiers, or soldiers so young that they might as well be children (the brutalising Come and See is particularly worthwhile, so long as you don't mind being flung into an emotional pit of despair for almost 3 hours), but Beasts of No Nation is the first to properly tackle the story of child soldiers in Africa - at least outside of documentaries. There's much to like, if 'like' is the right word when dealing with a film whose subject matter couldn't be bleaker: Fukunaga's cinematography is stunning; Dan Romer's score is highly evocative, and Attah's performance as Agu is preternaturally good. But, oddly, the film has little emotional impact. It'd make sense if the initial horrors hit home, whilst the subsequent ones became less brutalising due to the constant onslaught of death and depravity, making our journey through the film mirror that of Agu's. Unfortunately, that's not what happens. (At least not to me. Which suggests either a misstep on the filmmaker's part or means I'm dead inside... ) Instead, to appreciate the gravity of the situation, I found I had to step out of the film and tell myself 'This is something that happens', at which point the impact of what was happening finally landed - but not before.

Further compounding the problem is Elba's Commandant. As charismatic as Elba is - and he's very charismatic - he's simply too likeable. When he does terrible things it's hard to equate them with Elba, as he remains amiable, if occasionally irascible, throughout. At times, it felt like his TV character Luther had taken a wayward path in recent years (his wandering accent rather accentuated the impression). When things don't quite work out for him you don't think 'Aha! Karma has come for thee Commandant!' Instead you think 'Gee, that's a shame. I hope things start to look up for poor Elba'.

All told Fukunaga's film is still impressive, even if it's impact is more cerebral than emotional.

Visceral impact: 6/10
Impact-once-the-gravity-of-the-situation-hits-home-after-some-musing: 8/10
Overall: a conflicted 7/10

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

New Release Review: 'Sicario'

New Release Sicario Emily Blunt Denis Villeneuve

A truck (that looks rather like a tank) charges along baking tarmac towards its destination: the front wall of a nondescript house in a nondescript American neighbourhood. In less than a minute, and using only a handful of shots, director Denis Villeneuve builds an unrelenting tension that doesn't let up till the credits roll. Once the truck arrives, bursting through the wall of the house, the tension barely abates, but at least the situation is clarified: the truck contains an FBI strike team, and the house and its occupants are part of Mexico's drug cartel. Understanding who, what, why, where and when will turn out to be a rare thing in Sicario, where ambiguity and confusion reign supreme.

We experience most everything through the eyes of FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), who leads her strike team in the latest raid in a long line of raids, this time into a veritable house of horrors. Drugs are seized and bodies (presumably of rival cartel members) are found, and there seem to be an unlimited supply of both, as the feuding cartels continue to take pieces out of each other whilst also sending as much of their product across the US/Mexican border. Plan A in the 'war' against drugs clearly isn't working; enter Plan B in the shape of consultant Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). His task: "To dramatically overreact." He offers Kate the chance to join him and his team - which includes another outside consultant, the taciturn Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) - as they set out to bring order to chaos. And so begins Kate's journey down the rabbit hole.

It's apparent within the opening moments that Sicario is a Hamlet-drama, i.e. anyone and everyone could be dead by the end of the tale, and Villeneuve uses all the tools at his disposal to accentuate that sense of perpetual danger: Roger Deakins stunning cinematography, with its canny use of space, only ever revealing enough of our surroundings to make us wonder what's happening just out of sight; Jóhann Jóhannsson's score, which might be the most relentless thing about the film, as it builds quietly, but insistently; and Blunt's confused and horrified Kate, our audience surrogate, who can deal with a house full of decomposing bodies, but finds the ambiguity of Graver's actions and agenda much more unsettling.

There's much more I could write about Sicario - there's Del Toro's enigmatic turn as Alejandro, the cog around reach everything else is moving; there's the matter of do-the-ends-justify-the-means of what Graver and his team are doing; there's Villeneuve's expert direction, which isn't so surprising after Incendies and Prisoners - but, for the most part, that all needs to be seen to be appreciated. So go watch it already.

Rating: 10/10

Friday, 16 January 2015

New Release Review: 'Whiplash'

Very quick and very sketchy this one - time ran out on me.
I run. It’s a thing I do. I don’t jog, or go for weekend jaunts in the park. I run – and I run fast. Miles Teller’s character Andrew, the 19-year-old at the centre of Damien Chazelle’s film Whiplash, drums. He doesn’t kind of drum. He doesn’t drum in a band, or for fun, or for kicks. He drums because he wants to be great. And not just great, but one of The Greats. Why mention the running? Because, for better or for worse (likely the latter), I understand Andrew’s tunnel vision approach to life.

When Andrew is noticed by an infamous conductor at the Shaffer Conservatory – the best music school in the United States – there’s a part of him that knows he’s finally where he belongs. Terrence Fletcher, the conductor in question (played by J.K. Simmons, letting out his inner sadist), is no doubt used to such hubris. Hubris doesn’t get you anywhere; pain and dedication (and a bit more pain) are what get you where you want to go. Fletcher finds Andrew’s weaknesses and exploits them, beating him down till there’s little left of him besides ‘the drummer’. And it doesn't take much to begin stripping Andrew of his identity, because he’s ready to do that already. He’ll give anything in service of the dream, because the dream is all that matters.

Chazelle’s film is visceral, intense and relentless. I'd throw in a few more adjectives, but I think I'd be in danger of sounding hyperbolic... But then what follows is going to sound pretty hyperbolic anyway: the performances Chazelle gets out of Teller and Simmons are among their best! And may be among their very best! (It's amazing how exclamation marks make things sound trite or false.) Films that deal with genius, or virtuosic ability, or with a character’s desire to achieve perfection, almost universally stumble when trying to show those things. Art of any kind is subjective, so proving that an artist or a writer or a musician is more capable than their peers, is difficult. Usually the filmmaker resorts to beating the audience over the head with heavy handed exposition: we're told a writer or musician is great, therefore they are great. Not a terribly satisfying way to tell a tale. Chazelle takes a different tact; he shows us instead. Andrew bleeds for his art, literally, and he’s told again and again he isn’t good enough, and yet he sounds pretty darn good throughout. (Although I might not be the best gauge for this. I just thought drummers liked to casually hit stuff.) But that’s part of the point. There’s good, and then there’s great. Where is that line, and when do you know you’ve crossed it? Andrew is made to question himself and what he’s doing, and Chazelle is ever-cagey about telling us whether Fletcher is running Andrew through a very long trial by fire – how else are you supposed to become the best? – or is merely satisfying his ego.

I run. I race. I compete. And there’s an awful lot I’d sacrifice to push through to become The Best. It’s a strange mindset for some, and it’s perhaps even stranger to see it reflected back at you. It both makes complete sense and also seems a tad deranged, but my instincts tell me there’s a part of all of us that can relate to Andrew and his relentless dream.

Rating: 10/10

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

New Release Review: 'Calvary'

With John Michael McDonagh's latest, Calvary (which I have called 'Calgary', 'Cavalry' and 'What film are we going to see again?', and I apologise to Mr. McDonagh for my ineptitude in this matter), he proves he's just as capable a writer as his brother (Martin, In Bruges), but perhaps not quite as capable a director.

Getting its first act over and done with in a single scene, Calvary opens with Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) in the confession box, listening to a parishioner tell him that he's going to kill him because he's a good man. Why kill a good man? Because who would notice the death of a bad one? Odd as this sounds, in the end it turns out there's a strange sanity to the plan's seeming insanity. But that's for the end, which is a good seven days away: the amount of time given to Father James to 'put his house in order'. And it's a rather cluttered house: his daughter (Kelly Reilly) has returned home after an attempted suicide, an older member of the congregation has been ruminating on doing the same, another parishioner is thinking of doing it to others, whilst a previous member of the flock (Domhnall Gleeson) has done it already (several times in fact), and that's just the first few troubled souls. There's also a misanthropic millionaire (Dylan Moran), a cuckolded husband (Chris O'Dowd), a nihilistic doctor (Aidan Gillen), and a cretinous back-up priest. As Father James attempts to offer guidance to his wayward flock we're trying to guess which is his would-be murderer. Something the Father doesn't need to do. He already knows.

Calvary is so very close to being spectacular. Most will probably find it out and out spectacular, and with good reason; and truth be told the issues I have with it are minor, and mostly due to my being particular (see: awkward). So don't take the following to seriously. First minor irksomeness: it's shot on digital. The format has the capacity to look majestic, as it does here during the grand sweep of the exterior shots, but when McDonagh shifts inside the look suddenly becomes muted and oddly framed. At times the film looks like it's the best acted, best written episode that Coronation Street never saw. Second irksomeness: it feels like theatre. It's almost pure dialogue, the characters (as described above) wouldn't sound out of place in a farce or a comedy of errors, and the few times the film goes meta it's almost as if it thinks it's a play. Now I like theatre, I'm all for theatre, but a film that feels like it (yes, whilst also feeling like TV) can seem like it's at war with its medium. On the flip side, the dialogue is a thing of beauty. Which makes for a pretty good flip side.

Since I've started with the hyperbole I might as well continue. Brendan Gleeson does his best work since In Bruges, Reilly is quietly affecting, O'Dowd and Moran show they're capable of playing far darker shades then they'd previously hinted at, Domhnall Gleeson (Brendan's son) gets a single scene, but it's a killer one (pun possibly intended), and the rest of the cast all get their big moments too. So many of them initially seem like stereotypes, but the truth is they're wearing their extravagant roles as masks. Over the course of Calvary's running time those masks get gently pulled back, and it's hypnotic to watch.

Ignore my quibbles. All told, it's rather spectacular.

Overall: 8/10

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

New Release Review: 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier'

Chris Evans Target Practice

During the lead up to Captain America: The Winter Soldier's release everyone's being noticing that Robert Redford is in it, and that it has a conspiracy at its centre; from which they've concluded that the film must be a 70s style conspiracy thriller. Which makes the genre sound like a rather simple construct: Redford + conspiracies = 70s conspiracy thriller. Now everyone is seeing the connection. But like most conspiracy theorists they’re seeing something that isn’t really there. 

Picking up a little while after Avengers Assemble, Rogers (Chris Evans) is still adjusting to life in the modern day. He spends his nights handling missions for SHIELD, although any morally grey tasks get passed on to the less ethically stringent Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) since her boss, Nick Fury (played by the ever present Samuel Jackson), believes his all-American boy scout has a blinkered and idealised view of the world. Nick's boss, Alexander Pierce (Redford), is even more of a pragmatist, and is intent on shoring up the world’s defenses so that all the really bad world-ending stuff stops happening. The slight knock on effect of his plan is that the Free World’s idea of freedom might constrict a tad. Throwing a spanner in the works of all this is our other titular character: The Winter Soldier, a mysterious masked menace. 

Despite Rogers being one of Marvel’s least interesting characters the setup is interesting. Rogers is the embodiment of everything America can be but that image doesn’t fit well with SHIELD’s foreign (or domestic) policy. Seeing him deal with that would have been more than just engaging, it would have given Evans something to do for once; but there's little to the setup beyond the tagline. The Russos are more interested in slightly above average bombast. On the odd occasion when the film achieves comfortably above average bombast it’s hard to care. There's a certain irony that for Captain America to work, the henchmen of yore (particularly the early-Bond era iteration) have had to go from never hitting their target to always hitting their target. Every shot is either a headshot or body shot, and every one of them ricochets off the Cap's shield. Why no one aims for his legs is one of the Marvel Universe's greatest Mysteries. 

As for the other characters, Jackson is really just a glorified extra; The Winter Soldier feels like an afterthought who might have amounted to something if he weren't played by a charisma vacuum; and Johansson’s still-not-interesting-enough Natasha is used as a half-hearted love interest. A subplot that's scuppered by the fact that Evans has more chemistry with a bearded Apple Store Genius. (No, really). 

If Captain America: TWS really wanted to work as a 70s-inflected conspiracy thriller than it would need a conspiracy that couldn’t be unravelled at a glance. Instead, in a story where we're told to trust no one and that nothing is at it seems, you'll mistrust exactly the right people and know exactly what is and is not as it seems. The film has more in common with later decades: taking the 80s indifferent attitude to felled henchmen, some of the action set pieces from the 90s (the opening feels like Under Siege if it were condensed to just 6-minutes), and from the 00s and 10s the Russos borrow the big bombast (most notably the money shot of huge-ship-crashing-into-big-city, which is a particular favourite right now). 

Cap 2 briefly aspires to the touchstones of the 70s, but too quickly gives in to the often overblown stylings of the years that followed.


Overall: 5/10